Beyond tech fetishism – with Marius Sylvestersen

Marius is Director of Smart Cities at Copenhagen Solutions Lab, overseeing the development of smart and sustainable city solutions to realize the goal of becoming the world’s first CO2 neutral capital city by 2025.

Copenhagen Solutions Lab is the City of Copenhagen’s incubator for smart city initiatives working cross-sector. Prior to joining Copenhagen Solutions Lab, Marius worked in multiple adjacent roles with Copenhagen Capacity, DAC, and State of Green Denmark.

Urbantech: Tell us about the objectives of your work.

Marius Sylvestersen

Marius Sylvestersen

Marius: If one were to ask what would the key drivers be of the smart city in Copenhagen, you would never say ‘we want to be the smartest city in the world’. You might say ‘we want to have the fastest internet connection’, or something similar — but here it is always about the urban development rather than the tech side of things. For us, the main vision *is* the green transition.

When we work with new types of technologies or data, it’s employed in service of this transformation and assessing what would be suitable ways of going about it. Some solutions will be analogue, others will be sitting on top of AI or blockchain. First and foremost, we have to assess what the core values of the city are – and then look at the tech solutions. In the past, the smart city movement has been a bit ‘tech fetishist’. Even the word ‘smart city’ brings with it this idea of a city full of circuits and sensors. But in reality, few people want to live in cities like that. The ordinary citizen is concerned with quality of life above anything. Five years ago, the discussion was who could be the smartest city in the world. But today we’re slowly moving towards this more nuanced understanding – that technology should be employed as a means to an end. It shouldn’t be the end itself.

Urbantech: What do you consider as the most pressing issues to address? And why?

Marius: Right now, carbon neutrality is our north star. But that’s not our end goal. The real challenges will start when we get to carbon neutrality. Moving towards net-zero will really up the stakes. Becoming carbon neutral in itself is very complex. Underneath this overall roadmap lies a number of different strategies – circularity, mobility, and climate resilience are just some.

Data therefore will be fundamental to ensuring we have a solid understanding of this complex field. For example, air quality is a hyperlocal phenomenon. We’ll have carbon neutrality by 2025, but we won’t have clean air in all neighborhoods by 2025. With the increased focus on air quality due to COVID-19, we can expect to see this informing how people live and travel.

Urbantech: How do we go about solving this?

Marius: It’s most fundamental to really understand the implications of the challenges cities are facing – from urbanisation to climate change, and to now COVID-19. We’ll only get to the crux of the problem by being concrete and scaling the right use-cases. Although we talk about the green transition, there’s still a need to drill down and figure out what this actually looks like. We need to commission different plans for areas such as circular economy, mobility, and waste and then stack these initiatives against each other. Then there’s a need to effectively help the private sector understand what we’re struggling with as a city through dialogue.

The private sector is revolutionalising technology and – we need to call on them to help us solve the big problems. My big ambition is to get the problem experts and the innovators to interact in a meaningful way.

Urbantech: How do we move the needle of multi-stakeholder collaboration?

Marius: The issues at the centre of these partnerships must be ‘need-to-have’ rather than ‘nice-to-have’. Otherwise, the solutions designed won’t solve real needs nor drive sales and revenue. Beyond this, it’s fundamental for all parties to understand the patience required to move the needle and change paradigms. For the private sector, it’s important for them to understand that projects in the public realm take more time and therefore require more patience.

Public-private partnerships need to be on a par with the political ambitions of the city – rather than being an appendix that nobody really cares about. Partnerships should be balanced and cost-neutral, whether the value added is money, manpower, or equipment. On a basic level, it’s also about having the right people in the room – perhaps people that have been working across sectors and understand how to create strong working collaborations. In these partnerships, it’s fundamental to take both problem and a solution approach. If you only have a public sector understanding of the problem, then you don’t know if it’s solvable.

On the other hand, if you only have a private sector focus on technological possibilities you don’t know if the solutions are doing any good for the world. Mediators and translators are therefore crucial to bridge this gap. And remember to include specialists and domain experts – you’ll never move the world without these people.

Urbantech: What would you like to hear more – or less of – in the discussion on cities of the future?

Marius: I’d really like to see a renewed and continued focus on the human perspective – that’s what we’re strong at in the Nordics and more widely in Northern Europe. We have a very refined sense of public participation and involving citizens in the heart of our decision processes. And we don’t have the big tech companies which are increasingly coming under fire for their problematic practices. In the development of our cities, we can employ all kinds of magic – whether it be AI or blockchain – but we need to know if people actually want this.

It’s fundamental to design cities with humans in mind and use that as the starting point for smart city development. Perhaps it’s a return to normal planning on some level, which in essence rests on democratic values. Technology is super fast, efficient, and changing the world, but it’s not necessarily democratic. Moving forward, we need to make sure we’re employing technology in the service of democracy.


Connect with Marius on LinkedIn
Interview by Freya Williams