Blog post by Bram Wolters and Hugo Mohr

The Smart City Expo World Congress (SCEWC) is an international leading event for cities. Their mission is to empower cities and collectivize urban innovation across the globe. Through promoting social innovation and identifying opportunities for collaboration, the event is dedicated to creating a better and more sustainable future for cities and their citizens. As students of the master program Metropolitan Analysis, Design and Engineering (MADE) at AMS Institute we have taken the plunge to make it to this year’s edition in Barcelona and we like to share with you our experiences and lessons learned.

When we first noticed the existence of this event, we got pretty excited. It seemed like a perfect match with the MADE master, showing state-of-the-art knowledge of urban innovation. Unfortunately, the entrance prices were unaffordable for us, even against a 50% discount for students. When we found out about the opportunity to volunteer during the event, we applied immediately. Just slightly over a week before the start of the congress, we received an email that we were selected to participate. With great enthusiasm, we started looking into the options of traveling to Barcelona and finding options on where to stay. In the end, with financial support from AMS Institute, we were able to make it happen and a week full of pre-excitement started.

Traveling to Barcelona by Public Transport
On Saturday the 12th of November we headed off from Amsterdam towards Paris on a FlixBus. With very comfortable seats, a good Wi-Fi connection, a power supply and a nice salad meal, the trip flew by arriving safely in Paris in the evening. After a quick evening visit to the Eiffel tower, one selfie at the Louvre in the morning sun and, of course, a wonderful crispy croissant, we embarked on the high-speed TGV train directly to Barcelona. Even though we were looking forward to the train trip, it exceeded our expectations. Arriving 10 min pre-departure without any problems is great compared to chaotic airport check-ins. The train is a perfect working station with some breath-taking views on the way, thus being an amazing way of traveling while getting excited about our upcoming trip.

Within 7 hours we arrived in the sunny and warm city of Barcelona without any hassles, saving 379 kg of CO2 compared to air travel in total. Unfortunately, people were still surprised that we traveled ‘all the way’ to Barcelona by public transport for ‘just a week?!’. Nevertheless, we believe that this is definitely the future of European travel, with an even greater potential when more investments are being made to intensify the connections.

Our mission
During the SCEWC, we were part of the volunteering team to help achieve the Towards Zero Waste Initiative, by encouraging participants and exhibitors to throw away their waste in the correct recycling bins to optimize re-use and minimize the waste stream. Although clear instructions were provided at every bin, we were surprised about the limited awareness of participants on how to separate their waste and their minimal effort to do so.

What made it complicated was that the venue had asked us to throw the food packaging, which was all biodegradable, in the general waste bin to improve the quality of the organic waste and stated that it would be separated later at the waste plants in Barcelona. A confusing story that made us curious to get to see the process with our own eyes. There must be ways to improve this process. Maybe by starting to rethink the definition of waste, considering it as a valuable resource, and getting rid of the word ´trash’ in itself. Hopefully, though, we still made a positive impact during the event and helped achieve the goals of the mission.

Urban innovations and the smart city

Our focus as students during this week at the SCEWC was obviously not only on educating visitors but primarily on being educated and inspiring ourselves. By being granted full access to everything the Expo had to offer in return for our volunteering work, we had the chance to see, test, hear and explore all the different types of smart urban innovations that were present at the Expo. The venue was divided into business stands where you could interact with companies but also a part with 5 different types of auditoriums in which keynote speakers and industry experts shared their knowledge and discussed different themes. What seems to be getting ‘hot’ in coming years is shared & autonomous mobility and the digitization of the real world by means of the metaverse, digital twins, and smart sensors. Such digitization can bring about fascinating opportunities: from optimizing energy use and urban infrastructure flows to better greenery management. It however also raised the question of where the line should be drawn between the digital and real world and how technology can help to strike a balance. A new and fascinating concept we have learned about is Radical Atoms, a new vision for human-digital interaction which uses highly flexible materials to describe real-time digital models so that the dynamic changes in the digital information can be reflected by a dynamic change in the physical state and vice-versa.

The Smart City Expo is a definitely worth a visit for anyone interested in the future of urban development and technology. The expo brings together experts from around the world to share ideas and discuss the latest trends and developments. However, with thousands of attendees and hundreds of exhibitors, the event can be pretty overwhelming which makes it difficult to get a clear picture of the current innovations.

We believe that every country should not only talk about all the urban innovations that exist, but also focus on practical implementation and intensified cooperation. There is no time left anymore to invent the same wheel and combining great minds should lead to tangible action that foster better life in the city!

More than just the Expo
Next to all the informative stuff, a large part of the Expo was also happening outside of the venue area: having gotten the opportunity to join different types of social events with a variety of stakeholders and interesting people was a great way to explore all facets of Barcelona and have some fun. Besides, we visited some of the main sights and hiked in Montserrat. Typing this from our train ride home with the Pyrenees coming by, we can look back at an awesome experience and we would like to thank AMS Institute for giving us the opportunity to immerse ourselves in it. Thanks to all the great people we have met as well for making our journey so memorable and hasta luego!