Fostering The Rise of Smart Cities Utilizing European Initiatives

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Smart cities are not merely a cutting-edge concept. Smart infrastructure is vital to the successful retrofitting of our growing cities for the long haul.

The University of Cambridge cites the world’s maturing urban centres at £40 trillion total cost, where digital innovation to transform aging buildings, roads and transits may amount to up to 12% of total cost. Digital and clean tech innovation for urban centres is not only needed, but the market potential for profitability is lucrative indeed! It is clear that urban development must be at the forefront of innovation.

Recently, StartUs Magazine author Michela De Biasio reported on the benefits of startups working with universities on innovation endeavours, and focused on the urban development of Venice’s Ca’Foscari University through its Urban Innovation Bootcamp. In this regard, European startups and academic institutions fostering sustainable urban development should be well aware of the European Commission’s Smart Cities & Communities European Innovation Partnership. The EC’s Partnership initiative takes an integrative approach when it comes to both digital and clean tech enhancements to both existing and new urban planning projects for ICT, energy and transport sectors across member countries. The Smart Cities & Communities initiative is specifically focused on tackling pollution, environment, mobility and energy efficiency. And, in terms of business capabilities, the EC Partnership needs expertise in:

  1. Urban Mobility
  2. Open Data
  3. Business Models
  4. Finance & Procurement
  5. Policy & Regulation
  6. Metrics & Performance Indicators Integrated Energy, Transport & Communication Networks
  7. Energy Efficiency & Low Carbon Solutions

The EC’s Partnership initiative is currently working with all types of European institutions. While approximately 36% of partnerships come from local and provisional governments, partnerships from universities and businesses comprise over 40% of the initiative, which is fabulous for urban projects under the academic-startup combination, such as the Urban Innovation Bootcamp we mentioned before! There is also specific funding under the EC Partnership for smart cities relevant to different stakeholders, pertinent to startups, SMEs, and academic institutions as well. The extensive list can be found on the EC’s website and contains quite a few grant possibilities for innovation. Highlights of these are as follows:


Horizon 2020 is the main European Commission funding program for the European Union’s 2020 Innovation Union economic development plan, of which smart infrastructure is an important subset. Registered users can submit proposals in a consortium of 3 organisations, which can include SMEs and academic institutions. It is also possible to submit a proposal as an individual innovator. A great example of one of the H2020 projects being funded is the € 1 million Polish renewable energy project involving Poland, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Austria, via innovation centres IMP-Pan and University of Aalborg, University of Twente, and the European Sustainable Energy Alliance. As we can see, the business-academic institution combination is win-win! A very detailed and updated contact list for H2020 is also available for each EU member state via departments and function.


The name sounds like a rock group, and these funding sources under the European Investment Bank may just be so! Many entrepreneurs may feel that the EIB is out of reach when it comes to funding, but the partnership programs listed above in conjunction with the European Commission give broader debt and equity access to small businesses and later stage startups involved in sustainable projects that complement the H2020 initiative! Startups, universities, and local governments can have a public-private partnership to procure funding for R&D via INNOVFIN, sustainable urban development projects under JESSICA, and SMEs or later stage startups with traction can seek debt, equity and guarantees via JEREMIE.


The EC’s LIFE program is my personal favourite, and it takes a fully green approach to all projects, considering the environment as natural capital. Projects falling under this program will tend to consider the sustainable, clean tech side to smart cities, rather than a purely digital, or data-driven project approach. Many participants are NGOs, so social enterprise startups are very welcome in this regard. However, all types of institutions registered in the EU may apply. The 2017 – 2018 call for action grants is currently more than €373 million. There is a strong need for climate action participants with new innovative solutions that are still closed-to-market.


The Cohesion Fund is specifically tailored to fund Eastern European projects focused on both traditional and smart infrastructure in the transport and energy sectors. Projects that focus on energy efficiency are given top priority, with €11.305 billion available to projects linked to the Connecting Europe Facility. The rules of the Cohesion Fund are particularly long, so it would be best for any academic-startup innovator combo to get in touch with the local representative for H2020 Eastern European smart infrastructure funding to learn more.

Urban planners know that it is easier to build upon or enhance existing assets than to tear it all apart and rebuild completely new buildings, roads, bridges, and transit systems. So, we definitely need more innovative digital and clean tech solutions added to our current cities, rather than a total immediate physical redoing of all urban centres. As the University of Cambridge’s report on smart infrastructure assesses, we need to enhance value by getting more from the existing “operational asset base” with digital-driven technology; digital technology and clean tech solutions are rapidly becoming much more cost effective per unit cost versus traditional infrastructure costs. There is no longer any excuse to exclude digital and clean tech solutions from urban and general infrastructure development. We encourage our academic and startup innovation hubs to take advantage and participate in Europe’s region-wide initiative to have smart infrastructure be the norm in urban development for the not-so-distant future!



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