top of page

Why aren’t our cities smarter yet? Different stages of smart city evolution in Europe & Japan

Most of the technology required for smart cities exists, yet reality lags behind innovation. We look at the reasons and forward-facing smart city projects in Europe & Japan

When we think of smart cities, services like a city-wide free wifi network, free public transportation, and a bike-sharing system often come to mind. But in 2021, smart cities technologies go way beyond that. Trusted helps Japanese and European corporations to find the tech partners they need to drive their smart city vision through open innovation. Our pool of more than 5000 EU start-ups covers all areas that are involved in the make-up of a smart city and through detailed analysis of available technologies we uncovered combinations that lead to potential innovations bridging the gap from conventional to smart cities.

Here are 3 innovation trends in the smart city realm that are already reality in European smart cities in 2021.

What is the definition of a smart city?

According to McKinsey, a city is generally categorized as “smart” for employing information and communication technology (ICT) to improve its operational efficiency, share information with the public, and provide a better quality of life through improved government services and citizen welfare.

The main goal of a smart city is to improve city functions and promote economic growth while also improving the quality of life for citizens and preserving the environment. This is achieved by using smart technologies, like the Internet of Things (IoT), to monitor and collect data for improved flow of daily functions.

What areas are involved in the make-up of a smart city?

  • Technology-based infrastructure & mobility that offers optimal connectedness, including monitoring of traffic flow through IoT

  • Environmental initiatives, including carbon neutrality and working towards the UN sustainable development goals

  • Effective and highly functional public transportation, e.g. self-driving vehicles

  • Security, especially cyber-security of all digitally managed processes of smart cities

  • Quality of Life; Citizens being able to easily commute between life and work in the city, and utilizing all its resources

But if all of the technology required for these concepts already exists, why are we stuck at the early stage of free wi-fi and public transport networks celebrated as the hallmarks of smart cities?

Smart cities & open innovation

The answer is lack of collaboration to turn ideas into reality. The success of a smart city is defined by the relationship between the public and private sectors and the most progressive smart cities heavily rely on open innovation to accelerate progress. For example, a smart surveillance camera that monitors traffic density and reports this directly to commuters and infrastructure managers likely relies on technology from several companies that need to come together. We can not achieve a fully smart city without involving open innovation that involves cross-border and cross-industry collaboration.

Below we introduce case studies from Europe that show how open innovation between corporations — and in many instances, the private and public sector — pushed smart city innovation forward in 2021.

Self-driving cars and buses are already part of European smart city mobility

A free public transport system is often viewed as one hallmark of a smart city that serves its citizens. But the future of autonomous driving is already here: Cambridge, UK and Malaga, Spain launched self-driving buses this year. The advantages of autonomous driving public transport are — besides alleviating staff from this responsibility — a smoother flow of traffic and fewer accidents as AI calculates the optimized speed and lane use and scans the environment for obstacles.

A future fueled by autonomously driving vehicles can alleviate a lot of the traffic congestion in big cities that is partly caused by human errors in driving. Germany is taking a big step towards that: besides public transport buses, they will legalize self-driving cars for the general public next year as German automakers are ready for the shift. You can take a peek at BMW & Mercedes’ latest models here.

European smart cities are achieving carbon neutrality ahead of time, here is how

This city in Northern Spain is one of the lighthouse cities that will lead Europe’s carbon neutrality. Source: Euronews

Sustainability and carbon neutrality are central topics of smart cities. As most of the world’s population dwells in cities, our carbon footprint and other impacts on the environment are of key importance. The European Commission launched an initiative to have 100 carbon-neutral European cities by 2030 — in less than 10 years. Cities across the continents are making giant strides towards the goal: Valladolid is one of the “lighthouse cities” chosen for the project and the largest city in the North West of Spain and already reduced its carbon emissions by 87% in 2020. Other pieces to the carbon-neutral puzzle include electric buses in public transport, an electric car-sharing system, charging points across the city, and retrofitting buildings in a whole district for energy savings, and utilizing renewable energy sources.

You might notice that most of these inventions aren’t brand new — Valladolid and other EU cities are relying on existing technology to achieve their goals. But it is the planning, cooperation between industries and companies and government support that makes it possible, together with IoT devices and data collection that monitors how they all interact and add up to the goal of 100% carbon neutrality.

The green roofs of smart cities: connecting to nature via the Internet of Things

A green roof might not sound very innovative at first. After all, plants have been around for 700 million years. But nature’s engineering is ingenious: apart from a nice look, the green roofs of many European cities have many other tangible effects. Copenhagen, Denmark — the world’s smartest city — made green roofs mandatory: They cool buildings, thereby reducing air conditioning costs and carbon footprints. They further filter CO2, contributing to carbon neutrality goals. And they offer citizens an opportunity to connect with nature, in the heart of the city. They further contribute to urban biodiversity and offer living space for animals, support the ecosystem and its important functions, e.g. pollination of plants.

And things have become even smarter than traditional gardens: IoT devices monitor and optimize all these functions, for example, RainBrain. This IoT device measures plant health on the roof, waters when appropriate, uses machine learning to study weather patterns and then e.g. collects and stores rainwater if an upcoming drought is expected.

This makes maintaining a green roof not only effortless, eliminating the need to water it, while also collecting valuable data in the process. RainBrain is one example of projects that have been funded by the EU’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme and is already utilized across multiple green cities in Europe. Where nature and technology meet, sustainability becomes not only a possibility but reality.

The difference between smart city projects in Europe & Japan

An artist rendering of Toyota’s smart city near Mt. Fuji. Source: Toyota

Japan is making strides towards a smart world as well, for example with the smart city project by Toyota near Mt Fuji. The so-called Woven City for 2,000 people will be designed by Danish Architect Bjarke Ingels but no completion date has been set yet. As less government funding initiatives are available in Japan compared to Europe, here it is the private sector and corporations leading the smart city movement with proactiveness and cooperation between visionary players like Toyota.

The way forward for smart city innovation

Current smart city projects have laid the foundation for much more than is already possible. The majority of the technology needed for smart city visions of the future are already developed. Smart cities far beyond a ride-share system and free wi-fi are not a futuristic dream but can be reality now.

We work with our clients on making the future smart city a reality now through finding the right open innovation partner for their aspirational projects. If you are looking for a specific technology for your company’s needs or smart city project, no matter how niche or highly specialized, Trusted can assist you in your search with our Startup Finder service, which finds the ideal partner in a detailed and tailored search through 10,000 of available technologies and services, both in Japan and Europe.

Contact us now for a free consultation at or learn more about our philosophy.


bottom of page