Beyond Smart Cities

An e-Residency perspective on post-crisis regeneration

Tallinn, Estonia

In most areas where public policy and social trends intersect, for the most part change is gradual — evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. Urban development is a good example, where the drive to adopt technological innovations and create new efficiencies is constrained by politics, existing infrastructure, and a need for continuity — always at odds with the tech startup world’s instincts to ‘move fast’, because you cannot risk breaking the city.

From time to time though, a leap forward is catalysed by unforeseen external events, and as e-resident Damiano Cerrone, an Italian based in Finland — consultant at Demos Helsinki, Researcher at Tampere University, and Co-Founder at SPIN Unit — explained, the global health crisis of 2020 is part of an ongoing cycle of change.

Crisis catalyses innovation

From the 19th Century Garden Cities movement, to the ‘Futurama’ promised by electrification following the first world war (and, interestingly, the last global pandemic), often it’s disaster which triggers change. Also falling into this category were the Modern cities movement following the second world war, and subsequently the information revolution, the financial crisis, and finally the rise of modern ‘smart’ cities.

The Smart Cities movement reflects the integration of technology into the built environment, and is driven by big data, the emergence of IoT, and growing awareness of the psycho-social impact of where we live on peoples’ wellbeing. Today themes of environmental sustainability underpin the drive to create places to live and work which are intelligently ‘green’ in every sense.

Damiano Cerrone

Cerrone is Italian by birth, and studied urban development in Tallinn. He was one of the earliest adopters of e-Residency as soon as the programme became available, “At that time in Italy to start a company, you needed €15,000 in the bank, and the taxation was based on potential revenue” — making innovation ventures an expensive and risky business.

The Estonian approach meant that he and his partners could get started on their collaboration and take an entrepreneurial leap together low-cost and low-risk:

“It allowed us to do a lot of it one evening in a pub. There’s no other country you can do that! But it allowed us, even as students, to say OK yeah let’s try it, even if we fail.”

Since that time, Cerrone and his colleagues have collaborated on urban transformation projects around the world, including in Narva and Tallinn in Estonia — such as an analysis and visual representation of development potential across the capital city, responding to the rapidly changing demographic and economic trends of contemporary urban life.

Tallinn is globally renowned as a smart city, based on its approach of accessibility, interoperability, and user-friendliness. While leading the way in terms of public wifi, mobility, and sustainability, the essential commitment to legitimate stakeholder involvement is manifest too via the public planning register — creating demonstrable transparency and accountability.

Wisdom of crowds unlocks transformation

As Cerrone pointed out, consultation has theoretically been a part of the urban development process since the 70s – but all too often it has been carried out disingenuously too far down the line, “more like, ‘here’s the project, give us your feedback’”.

By involving the local population from the start, SPIN Unit’s “Reconfiguring Territories” project in the border city of Narva involved genuine public consultation, synergising the creativity of people who lived there to shape the changes they needed in their urban environment for the future.

Narva lies in the East of Estonia on the border with Russia

Estonia’s digital infrastructure has been key to its economic survival during the ongoing covid restrictions. As rolling lockdowns and travel bans continue across Europe and the rest of the world, the e-Residency programme is unlocking new potential for how we think about our space, our mobility, and our urban environments for the future.

As the Estonian digital nomad visa’s launch coincides with an unexpected global revolution in remote working, Cerrone reflects that transnational residency and identity “give us a new sense of belonging — now that you’re in this digital world — that residency generates in the physical world.”

“E-Residency gives you an opportunity to belong to something, which is kind of extraterrestrial, not in the sense of kind of aliens, but like in terms of territory, I think it truly creates a new space in the digital ecosystem.”

As well as being the key to the famous X-Road digital infrastructure, Estonian digital identity provides the ability to interact with all aspects of public and commercial activity remotely, and has given us a chance to think about the kind of cities and living environments we want to consciously create for the future — which involves courageous visions, which go beyond ‘pre-covid’ nostalgia.

Learn more about the Estonian Government’s pioneering e-Residency programme:

A global opportunity to build back better

Cerrone sees the 2020 reset as the trigger for a new leap forward: “We hear so much about resilience. But resilience actually means to go back to the previous condition, being capable of returning to the original state. But actually, we don’t want to be resilient in that sense, we really want to be regenerative. That’s why we’re now working on this idea of regenerative cities, which means balancing urban life with a sustainable urban environment. Instead of seeing these as two separate things, we need to try to rethink our urban spaces in the future. So that they’re not just sustainable, but they regenerate their base.”

So while we collectively mourn all that we have lost to the covid crisis, it’s important we see the potential for the technical innovations it has catalysed to further transform our lives in ways that we positively choose and embrace. Taking a pause from commuting and business travel gives us an opportunity to identify what aspects of life and work truly serve our needs, as participants in business and society, as communities living in close quarters in cities and towns, and as occupiers of a small shared planet with limited resources.

We can see the future from here… Tallinn

The resources are there to implement the vision.

Tallinn University of Technology (TalTech) has funding of up to €1.5m from the The FinEst Twins “Talsinki” Smart City Center of Excellence available through its Smart Cities Challenge, to implement large scale pilots in collaboration with TalTech and Aalto researchers, and local governments in Estonia. With the application round closing now for delivery early in 2021, the future for further exciting innovation in the region looks positive and strong.

Whichever of the chosen 10 projects makes the cut, it won’t be surprising to see e-residents carrying the flag for continued urban transformation. In Estonia, their own home towns or virtual spaces, they will continue to create new infrastructure and data-driven services to reflect a location-independent and trans-national future, for which the world’s most advanced borderless digital identity scheme is already well known.

It’s also a great time to get involved in regenerative change in your own local area, and join the conversation about what you want to see in your community.

Wherever you are living, or see your digital identity residing, we have never had greater opportunity to consciously and smartly shape the future of how we live and work, whether you are professionally involved in urban transformation or taking part in public consultation.

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