Smart city: the Italian cities of the future

Milan, Florence and Bologna top the ranking of Italy’s smartest cities. Their experiences serve as points of reference for the smart cities of the future.

Published on 25 June 2019

Smart city: the Italian cities of the future

 “Under the weight of necessity,” wrote Yona Friedman in 1982, “utopias become feasible.” The Hungarian-French architect and urban planner’s ideas were formed during the 1970s following the first great energy crisis and the car-free Sundays that resulted. His reflections led him to perceive the need for new sustainable models of growth that could be developed bottom-up based on people’s real needs.

Nowadays, beneath the weight of the new necessity – the climate crisis, the hyperbolic growth of the global population and the gradual depletion of the planet’s resources – those reflections have become relevant once more. The feasible utopia of our times is the smart city, the goal of which is to become economically sustainable and energy self-sufficient, attentive to the quality of life and the needs of its citizens. It should also take advantage of the enormous quantities of information available through Big Data in order to meet these needs in a rational way that makes urban life more inclusive and liveable. Here lies the key to shifting from a linear economic model (produce, consume, discard) to a circular model based on reuse, sharing and product life extension, because it is in the cities that the majority of the world’s population is concentrated, thus consuming the greatest proportion of what is produced, and thereby generating the lion’s share of global pollution.

In light of all of these factors, in 2012 FPA, Digital360’s consultancy and services company, first published the annual report ICity Rate about Italy’s smartest cities. The latest edition ranked Milan in first place followed by Florence and Bologna. The ranking examined 15 different dimensions of urban life: from economic solidity to energy management, green spaces, water, air and waste, from the digital transformation to sustainable mobility, as well as education, tourism, culture, participation and social inclusion. It analysed them through 107 factors that, together with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) outlined in the UN’s 2030 Agenda, provide indices that sum up how smart a city really is.

Milan ahead of the pack

When it comes to Italy, Milan stands head and shoulders above the rest and is comparable with the very best performing European cities. Economic solidity, a capacity for identifying new development dynamics, success in attracting investment and skills, sustainable mobility, infrastructure, management of energy problems. These are just a few of the outstanding features of a project launched in 2013 involving business, the world of finance, research, associations, public administrations and civil society that have all worked together to define a development agenda for the city, an initiative in which the aspect of participation was fundamental. Five years ago this planning capability enabled Milan to become the first city in Italy to try out new forms of smart mobility such as bike sharing, car sharing, and the recent introduction of electric scooter sharing. e-mobility is in fact a priority: the plan is to install one thousand new charging columns by the end of next year and introduce 1,200 electric buses by 2030.

Sustainability plays a key role in some of the architecture that is reshaping the city’s skyline, such as the Nido Verticale (“vertical nest”), the new tower designed by architect Mario Cucinella. This buiding is innovative both in terms of materials used and from an energy efficiency perspective as it is fitted with a double covering that insulates it from cold in winter and protects it from heat in summer. Also focusing on energy efficiency is Eugugle, a pilot project financed by the EU for the smart refitting of entire buildings with the aim of reducing energy needs and integrating renewables.

Furthermore, Milan already has one eye on the smart cities of the future that will involve sharing data, the Internet of Things and the integration of networks as a key to ensuring efficient governance, with the reinforcement of the city’s own digital infrastructure through Wi-Fi, 5G and broadband. As part of this strategy, the Milan municipal administration launched Italy’s first commercial trial of 5G Fixed Wireless Access, which came into operation at the beginning of the year. Another feature is the experimentation by the city council with digital services: online payment of the waste tax (Tari), a new database with all of the information available to the municipal administration in order to guarantee the interoperability of data and the digital folder that enables citizens to access certificates, enrol children in schools, examine fines issued and tax memos. Among the latest initiatives is the municipal council’s involvement with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Circular Economy 100 (CE100) platform with Milan focusing on Food Policy, Fashion and Design and Resilience.

Florence: data-driven and resilient

On the subject of resilience, the capacity to adapt to change is at the heart of the smart city model adopted by Florence which, in addition to its consolidated credentials as an attractive tourist and cultural destination, boasts the Italian record when it comes to the digital transformation in the ICity Rate ranking concerning sustainable mobility, economic stability, education, civil participation and energy. This is an urban development strategy that looks towards 2030. It is centred on data and has three keystones: connection, innovation and e-mobility.

A good example comes in the form of the recent Smart City Control Room project, an integrated processing system using geo-referenced data from around the city to enable real-time mobility management capable of responding rapidly to deal with emergencies in the case of accidents, avoiding traffic congestion and providing improved management of planned events. The OpenRu system already allows citizens to receive traffic information in real time, as well as providing notification in advance of public works projects.

Also important is the city’s commitment to developing the electric mobility system. There are 179 public charging stations available for the four thousand plus electric vehicles in the metropolitan area, while the Electra project aims to replace 10% of the city’s mopeds with electric versions by next year; electric buses have also been trialled. Among the more pioneering initiatives is the Replicate project to improve energy efficiency in the outskirts of the city by using smart grids, smart lighting and district heating.

Bologna: inclusion and sustainability 

The smart city project that was launched in Bologna in 2012 is slightly different. The city decided to focus on a platform that integrates the various identifying features of the area, using innovation to improve the quality of life and ensure the fundamental rights of sociality, education, development and health. This resulted in investments to value cultural heritage, e-care, e-health, the refitting of public and private buildings in order to boost energy efficiency and the sustainable management of the waste cycle.

Other key initiatives include the redesigning of the Iperbole public internet network with a cloud-based system using integrated digital identities in order to group together the content and services of the public administration, businesses and citizens. Mention should also be made of the networks (smart grids, ultra-broadband and smart lighting, with the refitting of 8,200 public lighting units) and sustainable mobility, from bikes to e-car sharing and electric vehicles.

The future of the smart city

So far we have offered a snapshot of the current situation. In the future, however, smart cities promise to be even more hyper-connected, replete with sensors and objects (the Internet of Things) capable of gathering vast quantities of data that will be processed in order to provide increasingly evolved services, responding in real time to citizens’ needs, enabling the data-driven management of metropolitan areas. This means Wi-Fi services in the most disparate areas, smart traffic lights, self-driving cars travelling the roads, Augmented Reality services, remote management of cities, predictive security systems, energy systems that are increasingly digitalised and efficient, implementation of sustainable mobility, charging points for electric cars and bidirectional microgrids, smart waste management systems, environmental sensors and smart parking and street lighting. Many of these solutions already feature among the range of propositions that Enel X has developed for public administrations, businesses and private individuals to create increasingly smart, sustainable and inclusive cities.

The smart cities of the future will also have an urban planning fabric that differs notably from that of current cities, with more green spaces, areas in which citizens can congregate, cycle paths, lanes reserved for public transport, bicycles and pedestrians, far fewer vehicles in circulation due to the various forms of shared mobility, less pollution thanks to the use of renewables, resilient buildings constructed with protocells, organic and recuperated materials, and systems capable of interacting with the environment, modifying their energy consumption when necessary.

There is a note of caution, however, concerning the risks of overemphasising the technology component. Instead of talking about the smart city, architect and engineer Carlo Ratti, director of the MIT Senseable City Lab (in Cambridge, Massachusetts), prefers the term senseable city, a definition that combines the capacity of sensors to collect and transmit information with the tangible needs of citizens, the impact that technologies have on their lives and on their wellbeing. For urban strategies expert Giacomo Biraghi, this is a fundamental aspect. He proposes a dynamic definition of the smart city: “Any area that manages to transform individual interests into collective wellbeing.” For this reason, the smart cities of the future will have an even greater need for farsighted governance that is capable of planning urban interventions based on the needs of the city’s inhabitants and of stabilising imbalances, with the involvement of everyone in the area. In this way together we can begin to build cities on a human scale tailored to the needs of the people who live in them.


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