Maroš Šefčovič: European Commission supports Smart Cities

I believe that now is time to invest in new technologies in terms of renewable energy sources, energy efficiency of buildings or clean mobility infrastructure.

The participants of the 4th Conference “Slovakia on the Road to Smart Cities” were greeted by a video interview. You mentioned that the topic Smart cities was very important for you. Why is this topic so important?

As part of my tour on the Energy Union, I naturally come into contact with actors at regional and local level. I have seen a strong aptitude for putting a hand on a greenhouse gas reduction workout, which has grown into initiatives such as modernizing cities, healthier air, more energy efficient buildings, and innovative and cleaner transport solutions. We try to support two things from our level. First of all, to allow mayors to exchange experience, get inspired and motivate each other. And secondly, they have access to funding to enable them to implement innovative solutions. I, together with former Mayor of New York, M. Bloomberg, chair the so-called Global Covenant of Mayors, which now has over 7,500 cities. We have recently quantified and presented our own commitment to CO2 reduction – exceeding the total annual emissions of Japan or Brazil, and the impact is off set by the withdrawal of some 260 million cars with the combustion engine from our roads. It is therefore the enormous potential and enormous power of the local level. This trend is absolutely natural because cities are becoming more and more attractive to life. It is expected that every eight out of ten Europeans will live there in 2050.

The Smart Cities Club conference, together with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, had a very good reputation in the media and also the mayors of Slovak cities reflections were very good. In particular, Mayors appreciated the strong information and support of the Intelligent cities theme by the state administration. How can the EC help cities – on the way to Smart Cities?

Very specific. As I mentioned, mayors have a desire to take measures to make cities smarter, more modern, greener and more sustainable. However, they often struggle with a lack of finance or credit limits because their projects may be too risky or too small for the market. This is also why we launched the URBIS service in November to facilitate access to investment through tailor-made advice and the mobilization of the most appropriate funds. The European Commission is working closely with the European Investment Bank and is also involved in technical assistance under the JASPERS instrument. I can say that we are already registering interests.

The conference also discussed the topic of the ESIF – the European Structural and Investment Funds. It was clear from the Slovak Central coordination authority that it was also trying to “save” some of the resources from the current programming period to support the creation of intelligent cities – from existing operational programs or through mid-term reallocations. How do you see the possibility of linking these resources horizontally with other sources to create smart cities?

This is the very essence of URBIS that I have been talking about – trying to avoid fragmentation and getting the right means through one “gateway”. At national level, this calls for the creation of an investment platform that will allow the so-called blending of public resources (such as Horizon 2020, COSME, URBAN) with those private.

Just remind you that urban policy is at the center of cohesion policy under the current 2014-2020 Union budget. Approximately EUR 10 billion from the European Regional Development Fund is geared directly to strategies for sustainable urban development.

However, I would like to mention the recent guidance from Eurostat on the accounting rules relating to energy efficiency agreements. It opens the door for more ambitious investments in the energy efficiency of public buildings as it clarifies the conditions under which such investments will not affect the public administration budget. This is certainly good news for mayors because they can more easily mobilize funding for the renovation of schools or hospitals and other public infrastructure. The effect is multifaceted – higher energy savings, lower operating costs, or a positive impact on the health of citizens.

From the Smart Cities Club, the proposal to focus now on preparing the financing of the new programming period not only from a formal point of view, but focusing on the communal themes – what was not done in preparation for this programming period, but also on the topics of smart cities and regions. What do you think about the involvement of professionals – and finally the cities themselves – in the preparation of the new programming period?

I can say it’s already happening. The European Commission has launched a public consultation on the priorities of the future financial framework for 2021-2027, during which the Committee of the Regions has prepared its input on cities and regions. The European Commission will present the official draft of this multiannual EU budget at the beginning of May, which will start formal negotiations of the Member States. So another space is created during this period, when – I believe – the mayors communicate also at the national level. However, we underline that it would be good to agree on the financial framework for the seven-year period after 2020 until the next European Parliament elections. Otherwise, there is a risk that the old scenario will repeat when the agreement lasted for 29 months. This has subsequently delayed the real drawdown of European funds in the Member States, which is harmful to all.

In the previous question, I mentioned smart regions. In our country, we have seen them as far as a form of political marketing – many candidates in the recent elections to the presidents of the self-governing counties have “played” with it – which has somewhat harmed the subject. In our understanding of the Smart Region, it involves not only regional cities but also cities and municipalities within the region or the urban area. There are themes, transport, environment that will not solve the city itself without involving its surroundings… What experience is there within the EU, what would you recommend to our cities and regions?

We strongly support clustering, aggregation. Not only in terms of transferring experience, but also financially, as larger projects can more easily attract, for example, support from the European Investment Bank. I often mention the example of Holland, where the cities of Rotterdam, The Hague and 21 other municipalities joined together, created a common vision of modernization and transformed it into a creditable project. This means that the necessary investments can be made more quickly through the joint.

The Smart Cities Club has emerged as a platform for exchanging views and experience for those who want to gradually create a “Smart Community”. The interest of cities is becoming stronger. I feel that now is the time when it is necessary to define the role of the state, the role of the regions and the role of cities in this process. How do you think it is possible to get inspiration abroad or directly in the European Commission?

As I mentioned, the exchange of experience is something the European Commission is strongly encouraging. I will not only mention the Global Covenant of Mayors, but also the European Convention, which has recently recalled its decade in Brussels. I am delighted that Slovak cities are also part of it. And in this way, I will be sending an invitation to the next event, which will take place on 23rd May in Sweden under Mission Innovation and Clean Energy Ministerial. I personally get used to calling on mayors to continue to be courageous. I believe that now is time to invest in new technologies in terms of renewable energy sources, energy efficiency of buildings or clean mobility infrastructure.

Interview with European Commissioner Šefčovič was led by Vladimír Jurík, founder of Smart Cities klub

Article was published in City:One 1/2018