#51 SMCNetZero Project: What Lessons Can Transfer from Larger Cities to SMCs?

Episode 57 November 15, 2023 00:28:49
#51 SMCNetZero Project: What Lessons Can Transfer from Larger Cities to SMCs?
Smart in the City – The BABLE Podcast
#51 SMCNetZero Project: What Lessons Can Transfer from Larger Cities to SMCs?

Nov 15 2023 | 00:28:49

/

Hosted By

Tamlyn Shimizu

Show Notes

In this second episode of our SMCNetZero series, we had the pleasure of talking with Maria Vassilakou, Urban Strategist and Founder at Vienna Solutions and member of the EU Horizon Mission experts board on Smart & Climate-Neutral Cities. She also served as Vienna’s Vice Mayor responsible for Urban Planning, Traffic & Transport, Climate Protection, Energy and Public Participation from November 2010 to July 2019. 

Our conversation with her focused on Vienna and the challenges and opportunities for Small and Medium-sized Cities in the context of decarbonisation.

 

To learn more or to join the SMCNetZero project, you can visit the SMCNetZero Website. Don't hesitate to reach out via our contact page if you have resources or information that can help cities in their decarbonisation journey.

 

Overview of the episode:

[00:02:06] Teaser: If Maria could go back to 2010, what advice would she give herself before becoming vice mayor?

[00:03:48] Maria's Professional Background

[00:06:08] Vienna's Decarbonization Challenges

[00:09:24] Lessons for Small Cities

[00:12:55] Small Cities Challenges and Their Mitigation

[00:16:00] The Role of Businesses and Local Ecosystems

[00:22:49] Inspire Us: our guest shares a story, a quote, or anything that has inspired her recently.

[00:26:26] Ending Question: To you, what is a Smart City?

 

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Want to join us for an episode? Contact our host Tamlyn Shimizu.

 

And for more insights, join our Smart City Community!

View Full Transcript

Episode Transcript

[00:00:06] Tamlyn Shimizu: Welcome to Smart in the City, the BABLE podcast, where we bring together top actors in the Smart city arena, sparking dialogues and interactions around the stakeholders and themes most prevalent for today's citizens and tomorrow's generations. I am your host, Tamlyn Shimizu, and I hope you will enjoy this episode and gain knowledge and connections to accelerate the change for a better urban life. [00:00:31] Tamlyn Shimizu: Smart in the City is brought to you by BABLE Smart Cities we enable processes from research and strategy development to co creation and implementation. To learn more about Us, please visit the BABLE Platform at bable-smartcities.eu. [00:00:45] Tamlyn Shimizu: So Today we're diving into another part of our distributed series about our EU funded project, SMC Net Zero. The project's vision is to create and strengthen local innovation ecosystems interrelations in SMC net zero regions through brokerage and knowledge building activities and through digital resources in order to increase capacity for planning, deploying and scaling up decarbonization solutions. That's a bit of a mouthful, but we'll give you a little bit more intel into that and also link more information, of course, in the show notes. So last episode you heard from some of our project partners about the project. So if you didn't get the chance to listen to that episode, I definitely recommend also listening to that one. Now for this episode, without further ado, I want to introduce you to our wonderful guest for today who has a lot of knowledge about working on knowledge transfer and information about cities. So with us today is Maria Vasilaku. She's the urban strategist and founder of Vienna Solutions, and she's also a member of the EU Horizon Missions Experts Board on Smart and Climate Neutral Cities. She also served as Vienna's Vice mayor, responsible for urban planning, traffic and transport, climate protection, energy and public participation from November 2010 to July 2019. So welcome, Maria. [00:02:06] Maria Vassilakou: Hello and thanks for inviting me. [00:02:09] Tamlyn Shimizu: Absolutely. Our pleasure. So we always like to get a little bit warmed up on the podcast before we dive into some of the deeper questions. And so my little teaser question for you today is, if you were to go back in time to 2010 and advise yourself on one thing before you became vice mayor, what would it be? [00:02:30] Maria Vassilakou: That's a good question. It would be that I would have put climate neutrality at the heart of all of my efforts already back then, which is not to be misunderstood. Climate neutrality was one of my, let's say, main goals. But I focused a lot back then on the details. I focused a lot on mobility. I focused a lot on the transformation of public space. I focused a lot on livability and if I were to go back, I would make it, of course, my effort. Number one. [00:03:15] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, that's a good point. I think back in 2010, it wasn't quite on so much talked about that it was at the number one priority of the EU and all of these initiatives. So there was a lot going on still. But yeah, that's a really good point. So with that, you have a really interesting background and I want to learn a little bit more about you as a person. I'm sure the listeners are interested to also know. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, your journey and what led you to where you are today? [00:03:48] Maria Vassilakou: Well, I was born and grew up in Greece and migrated to Austria after finishing school as a student in order to study. I think already as a child I felt that I have been privileged to have been born in Europe in times of peace and prosperity. And so I always felt I have to make a contribution. Well, also early enough in time, I think I realized that it is the same conditions and the same system that will actually deprive people and lead to lives without life quality that will also consume resources and will deprive the environment. And that we have to think these two things together. We have to think about social justice, we have to think about life quality for everybody, and we have to think about environmental protection as things that are interconnected and interrelated. And that actually took me all the way to politics. So I became first city councilor, later in Time vice mayor. And I think that the last, let's say, logical step was to try to make a contribution where it is needed most today. And I deeply believe that it is cities that hold the key to the future in their hands. And that if we make it right in cities and if we manage to have the first climate neutral cities within the next years, we will open the door to a new future for mankind. [00:05:35] Tamlyn Shimizu: Very powerful word. So, yeah, thank you for that. Really interesting background as well. Before we get into all the applications for small and medium sized cities, I want to get some intel also on Vienna. And I would like to know, from your perspective, what do you think is the main challenge that Vienna is facing in terms of decarbonization? What do you think Vienna really needs to accelerate the change? [00:06:08] Maria Vassilakou: I think Vienna has got many things right because it has started very early in time and very systematically. But sure enough, the biggest challenge the city is facing right now is that it still has quite a high gas dependency. And I think that in Vienna it is all about stepping out of natural gas, which by the way is also used to produce electricity, and is also used as one of the main sources for the district heating system. So getting out of gas means actually decarbonizing, more or less, our entire heating system. And I think that this is, of course, easier said than done. But it's good to know that the city has a strategy for decarbonization by 2040. And knowing how systematic this city has been always going about things, I'm 100% sure they're going to make it. [00:07:19] Tamlyn Shimizu: I like the vote of confidence. What do you think, really, though, that Vienna needs to decarbonize their heating system? What is the biggest accelerator to do that? [00:07:34] Maria Vassilakou: I think that in this case, it's not so much about accelerators, it is more about systemic changes. And in our case, we have introduced energy zoning, which means that area by area, it is clear what sources of energy you are allowed to use for new constructions and also for renovations. And then, of course, you need to think about subsidies and grants that may go with this. And last but not least, I think there is one small piece, let's say small. It's not really small. It's actually a huge step and a very brave step we all need to take. But that's not only the case in Vienna. I think it's the case all over Europe. And that is that we need to set a point in time after which all new constructions, literally all new buildings, will have to be carbon neutral straight from the beginning. Because while we're thinking hardly and discussing how we are to retrofit and do the energy uplift for all existing buildings, we keep building new buildings each and every day that still do not correspond to the standards we want to achieve within the next years. [00:09:05] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, absolutely. And so Vienna is not a small city. And right now for this project, we're talking mostly about small and medium sized cities. And so I was wondering if you had any examples on what you think small cities can take away with them from what Vienna is doing. [00:09:24] Maria Vassilakou: Well, I would say, for one thing, it's about long term plans and commitment to these plans. I said before that Vienna has started early, is an early adopter in this sense. So the city has climate transition plans at the level of local law, because Vienna is a city and a state at the same time. So it can produce its own law. So you can really imagine it as binding legal matter, and has been doing this for over 20 years now. Sure enough, long term plans and commitment is one thing, I would say the second thing is energy zoning, which I have explained just before, because it is much more efficient to look into systemic change and things that may not produce results overnight. We all tend to focus on quick wins, which is also a good thing to do. But in the end, it's all about looking into how to deeply change systems and provide the preconditions that will lead to the results that you need on the long term. So energy zoning is an excellent example. A third tHing, I think that Vienna can. A third lesson that Vienna can share with the world is the wonderful Community grant scheme that we introduced a couple of years ago, where literally anybody who has a good idea of how to transform a small space within their own street, most of the times it's a space occupied by two cars for parking, which they will then use to create example given parklets, has helped actually implement several hundreds of these wonderful small projects. And suddenly you realize that it's not only about quick wins and it's not about a small project here and a small project there, but connecting these projects to a network can transform an entire city within the process of a couple of years, and actually do this on a very, very small budget with very simple means. And it's, of course, a very good means of activating local communities. And last but not least, I would say what Vienna can also share with other cities is creating local plans and focusing on polycentric development, which, in simple words, means that it's not just about municipal centers and metropolitan and regional centers. I think that literally every neighborhood needs its own center, where you find things that you need for everyday life, where you find wonderful places that you can use to enjoy life outdoors or for recreation, and where people meet, and where communities emerge and ties and social ties can strengthen. [00:12:48] Tamlyn Shimizu: Would you differentiate this from the 15 minutes concept, or are those quite tied or one and the same? [00:12:55] Maria Vassilakou: Well, I would say that what I'm describing takes us all the way from the 15 minutes to the five minute city. So I say 15 minutes city is wonderful and is what we're all at, but actually it's about what you find in front of your door as soon as you turn around the corner. So let's say that my ultimate vision of a city for life is a city where you just turn around the corner and you find more or less the most basic things you need for everyday life within five minutes walk. [00:13:33] Tamlyn Shimizu: Very nice, and thank you so much for all the really practical examples there. I know also, as your role as member of the EU Horizon Missions Experts Board, you see a lot of different challenges coming in from cities, I'm sure. What do you see is the biggest challenge that's impacting small and medium sized cities in particular. And how does that differ from what big cities are experiencing? [00:13:58] Maria Vassilakou: Well, I would say as compared to big cities, small and medium sized cities often lack decision powers. They lack capacity in many cases, and they lack the ability to attract major investment. So they are dependent to a far greater extent on other tiers, like regional tier, the national tier, in order to implement and deliver projects. And I guess that's the big difference, as opposed to example, given capital cities that often dispose of far more resources to do so. [00:14:46] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, absolutely. Maybe to elaborate on that, what do you think small cities can do to kind of mitigate those challenges? For example, you could take one example like investment. [00:14:59] Maria Vassilakou: Well, for one thing, if we take investment as an example, they can work together. I mean, think about investment. They can create a network and attract investment because this way they build a larger market, but they can also create a network to share resources. And they can also work together to put pressure upon the regional or the national tier, who most of the times is supportive, but in terms of words, and not so much in terms of acting as quickly as the cities would need it. [00:15:41] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, good example. Great example. So the project SMC net zero is also focusing a lot on SMEs. So small and medium sized enterprises as catalysts for greener cities. From your perspective, what role do businesses play in all of this? [00:16:00] Maria Vassilakou: Well, SMEs and local businesses play a key role in several respects, I would say. For one thing, it is crucial that they are supporting change in their vicinity so they can actually act together. Think of a shopping street example given, and how much easier it is to work together with local trade and local businesses to decarbonize an entire urban center or a shopping street. They play a key role by driving change within their own companies. So looking at their products, at their services, the way their employees come to work, just to give you a few examples, then they play an even more crucial role, I would say, in terms of driving public opinion making, because they do exchange each and every day with their customers and their clients. And especially thinking of local trade. I know out of my own experience how important it is that they're supportive. If they're not supportive, then you actually face, let's say, issues, challenges that are getting bigger and bigger as time passes. And yes, then last but not least, they may even have a pivotal role in awareness raising, in activating local communities so they can become even active agents of change. But I think that the precondition to arrive there is to have involved them in efforts straight from the beginning. [00:17:59] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah. Very important point. Also with this project kind of going along with that, it focuses on building this satellite network, so a network of different stakeholders in the different regions, and it's focusing on empowering key innovation actors in SMEs to support their local ecosystems, which is kind of what you were just talking about also with the businesses. So what, in your opinion, do you think is missing, usually from collaboration in these local ecosystems? [00:18:32] Maria Vassilakou: Well, I guess that what's missing is a structure. And let me put it in very simple words, I think that if you want something to happen, to really happen, then you need people who are responsible for this. So you need to allocate a team for that. You need space for that. You need basic rules and processes. So you need to provide answers to how often and who will be meeting and what will they be discussing and where will this happen and what happens to the results. And that is actually a framework. And what I have found out in most cities that I have been working together with is that there is no specific framework for involving the local ecosystems. So there is no standard procedures, there are no basic rules, there are no basic standards, and in many cases, there is not even a dedicated team who is responsible for doing so. So my first piece of advice is always look into your city structures, and if you don't have a framework yet, then create one, because otherwise it will happen randomly, and random action never leads to the expected result. [00:20:03] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, very good point. Thank you so much. The last question I have is actually not a question, it's an open floor. I like to give this to our guests in case you have anything that you're really passionate about that you think we didn't touch on today, that you think that the listeners really need to know. Do you have anything in mind? [00:20:23] Maria Vassilakou: Well, I do indeed, but it's not the kind of thing where I would have the answer to it. It would be more sharing. The one thing that keeps me awake at night and that is thinking of decarbonizing cities means, of course, decarbonizing residential buildings. And I think that the toughest challenge that we're all facing across Europe is how do you decarbonize buildings with small owner occupied flats where people that own the flat live in the flat and are most probably facing challenges in accessing loans, to give you an example. And it gets very tough to get all small owners within a building to decide together that they want to retrofit the entire building. And if this sounds like something that. So what? Well, think of the European south in the European south like example given in Greece or in Italy, we have up to 80% owner occupied units in cities. So I think that if you ask me, solving this issue is actually the one big step to take forward. And I am right now looking into what may be ways to move forward and accelerate actually the change that we need here. [00:22:08] Tamlyn Shimizu: Yeah, and maybe this is also a call to action for the listeners. If you've heard of good examples from your cities or from anywhere that you're working on on different ways to do this, or you have different ideas on this, please feel free to leave us a comment. And we'll also, of course, love to crowdsource some solutions here. I don't think that there's a perfect solution to this yet, but maybe if we put our brains together a little bit, we get some good ideas. So you've already inspired us quite a lot, Maria. But our segment today is one that we've chosen for you called Inspire us. [00:22:49] Tamlyn Shimizu: Inspire us just a little bit with a story, a quote or anything that has inspired you recently. [00:22:59] Tamlyn Shimizu: Do you have something in mind? [00:23:01] Maria Vassilakou: Well, what inspired me recently was visiting an event that was actually a local ecosystem event at the city of Kalamata, which is actually a small or medium sized cities. It's a city of 150,000 people who have joined the Climate Neutral Cities Mission. And this event was at the evening where they presented their climate action plan. And I was deeply moved because it happened in a small theater at the heart of the city with over 400 people from local communities and stakeholders of all sorts who were so many that they were even standing, and they stood there for approximately altogether two and a half to 3 hours. That was a very long event. Nobody left from the beginning to the end. And you could actually feel the passion in the room and the hope and how this city has gotten it right straight from the beginning because they have involved the local ecosystem from day one. They have worked together at delivering this climate action plan from day one, and it is now a shared plan. And this is something that is really a while because it doesn't happen so often in many cities. You can see how climate action plans are still quite a technical issue and that they're produced more or less, not entirely bottom up, of course, not entirely bottom up, but seldom you will find a city that has actually gotten it bottom up that rate. And yes, for me, it's been moving, it's been inspiring. And I think that it provided the answer to a quote from Machiavelli that says that whoever wants to go for change will have to expect fierce opposition from all people, fearing disadvantages, but very weak, if any, support from all the people who will be benefiting from it. And once I came across it, something like 20 to 30 years ago, it impressed me a lot. And I think that Kalamata proved that there's a way to go about it and get it right and make sure that you can drive significant, actually radical change and have support from all parts of community if and only if they're part of it. Straight from the beginning, that was very. [00:26:09] Tamlyn Shimizu: Inspiring, I have to say. So you understood the assignment and you did it well. So thank you so much for that. Now I have my final question to you, and it's the question that I ask every single guest, and it's to you. What is a smart city? [00:26:26] Maria Vassilakou: Well, for me, a smart city is a city that provides life quality for all. So a good, free, fearless, healthy life for everybody, and not just for the few that can afford everything while consuming as little resources as possible by introducing and utilizing technologies and innovation. And that means, my notion of a smart city is that technologies serve a purpose, and that smart, as I understand it, means thinking about multiple impacts and externalities, and also about co benefits in advance and not afterwards, as we most of the times tend to do. [00:27:30] Tamlyn Shimizu: I really like your focus on the resource aspect of it. I ask that to every guest. So I hear a very broad spectrum of answers there, and I don't remember so many people focusing on this actually using less resources in their answer. So I like to highlight that. That's very nice. And with that, that's all we have for you today. Your insights and your really practical knowledge and your steps has been wonderful. So thank you so much for joining us today. [00:27:59] Maria Vassilakou: Thank you. Thanks for inviting me. I love talking to you too, and. [00:28:03] Tamlyn Shimizu: To all of our listeners. Don't forget, you can always create a free account on Babel Smart City. You can find out more about smart city projects, solutions implementations. In addition, we're providing you links so you can join the satellite network for Free for SMC Net Zero and join in on all the exciting activities and developments for the project. So thank you very much. Thank you all for listening. [00:28:26] Tamlyn Shimizu: I'll see you at the next stop. [00:28:28] Tamlyn Shimizu: On the journey to a better urban lifestyle.

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