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Column Let’s address Ireland’s problems this year, as well as our own

Our towns and cities are hamstrung by budget cuts – but a new initiative could help find solutions and save money, writes Barry Flinn.

THE NEW YEAR and its resolutions come with a refreshing sense that we can live better. Whether driven by the guilt and expense of Christmas or the simple turn of the calendar, we each resurface with an individual vision of a new way of life.

As a country, we have no shortage of guilty expense behind us, but our vision for a better Ireland has been drowned in crisis management, leaving little time to imagine a new national identity. Though we may be shackled by the budget deficit over the coming years, perhaps nothing could be bolder than trying to achieve necessary savings by improving, rather than curtailing public service delivery – by picturing the future and going after it as early adopters of the world’s most innovative technologies and solutions.

In Sweden, the city of Stockholm is set to save €16million annually by providing 100% mobility to the visually impaired. Collaborating with state agencies, financial institutions and a technology SME, Astando, they have developed ‘e-adept‘ – an innovation that allows citizens to move freely courtesy of a mobile device connected to a digitised pedestrian network.

Full deployment is expected to cost €365,000 per year, but also release €16m in economic benefits through cost savings and employment opportunities for both the visually impaired and their relatives. The quality of life benefit is impossible to determine, but may prove to be the most transformative component of all.

Vast pool

It’s no surprise that such innovations exist around the world – the problem is in mobilising local authorities to find and implement these solutions. Globally, less than 20 per cent of local authorities publish their needs, and know about less than 10 per cent of the solutions available to them. In such a vast marketplace, cities and companies can’t find one another. Typically, cities then re-invent existing services at a far greater cost than that of accessing those which are already proven elsewhere in the world.

Citymart is an online marketplace that helps governments avoid just that, by connecting cities with a global pool of smart technologies and solutions, and making it easier to be bold. By providing both the market intelligence and a structured process to inspire and guide cities towards the right solutions, Citymart aims to improve the impact of the €3.5 trillion that 557,000 local governments spend every year.

Similarly, just as cities struggle to innovate, companies struggle to find customers. Solution providers working with us report travelling to 100 cities to find one customer, a sales process that can cost in excess of 40% of an SME’s revenue.

On November 19th, Citymart launched our fourth annual Cities Pilot The Future programme. This process will take 23 diverse global cities through a ‘Call For Solutions’ – a 12-month cycle from stating a problem, to accessing and shortlisting a trove of global solutions, to handpicking a winner, to then evaluating a completed pilot. At a cost of €7,500, the city not only finds a tailored solution, but the winning company also finds a tailored city, in need of their innovation and rooting for the success of its pilot. This all happens about three times faster than the market usually allows.

Solving a problem

One of this year’s participants was the city of San Francisco. With a $17m budget, San Francisco had spent three years trying to procure an LED lighting upgrade to cut carbon emissions, but failed to find a solution with a wireless control system capable of integrating other urban systems such as parking, traffic lights and waste management. Through Cities Pilot The Future they found Paradox Engineering, a small Swiss company with 22 employees and the exact solution San Francisco required.

In six months, the city and company achieved progress normally seen in two to three years, with San Francisco projected to save $10m of taxpayer money from their allocated $17m budget. They also saved the company €350,000 in acquisition, and Paradox Engineering have since opened a branch in San Francisco to expand their US operations.

This opportunity, to compete internationally at no financial cost, exists for all Irish solution providers. Increasingly, these providers are coming from the non-profit sector, with Barcelona recently publishing an independent ‘Call For Solutions’ including ‘opportunities for single-parent families’ alongside ‘improving the impact of tourism’. The spread of innovation is proving to be in great ideas, rather than just great technologies.

Encouraging public cycling is one area that has gained traction in cities all over the world, with obvious health and environmental benefits. Initiatives such as the Dublin Bikes scheme prove that new ideas are both possible to implement and can have transformative effects. However, not every solution will work in every locality. It has been more than three years since Dublin Bikes launched, but a similar scheme is yet to appear anywhere else in Ireland. Introduced to Dublin through an outdoor advertising deal with French company JCDecaux, it appears that smaller Irish cities can’t match the advertising space to make a similar deal feasible.

Billy Bike

Though alternative sources of funding may be made available, there may also be a different and more appropriate way of encouraging bike transport in Limerick, Cork, and elsewhere. In 2009, Copenhagen launched a ‘Call For Solutions’ on the Future of Biking, and discovered 37 possible solutions, including the ultimate winner, Billy Bike, a mobile route planner incorporating cycle paths, service stations and other navigational information.

The answer to Irish towns and cities could be in Billy Bike, but it could also lie in crowdsourced bike sharing, smart parking to cut traffic congestion, wireless sensors to give real-time traffic information, or any number of other solutions from around the world. When such solutions exist, the goal must to be to find them, at low cost, and implement them for recurring benefits.

The 2013 Cities Pilot The Future programme will aim to impact 130 million citizens in its 23 participating cities. But with participants ranging from Boston to Rio de Janeiro to Fukuoka, this impact will be dispersed and difficult to see in its entirety. Imagine, instead, a local edition of the programme, with 23 Irish cities and towns, each stating a problem, finding a solution targeted at that exact need, and evaluating its success within 12 months of starting.

This is Citymart’s vision for Ireland. Using it as a test case for a similar approach to other, more concentrated markets around the world, as well as the global programme, it will also provide a transparent and cost-effective global export market for Irish providers.

At November’s launch of the 2013 Cities Pilot The Future programme, Bob Parker, mayor of Christchurch, placed his city’s participation in the context of recovery from the earthquake of 2011:

In Christchurch, we are not just responding to disaster but also seizing opportunity. Citymart will help us tap into some of the smartest minds and most innovative technology in the world as we seek to build smarter and more forward-looking than before.

A similar opportunity exists for Ireland; an opportunity to envision the future, and live better.

Barry Flinn is the Irish representative for the non-profit initiative Citymart. To find out more about Citymart and its ambition for Ireland, email or visit

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