It goes without saying that the heart of a nation is, in almost all the cases, best represented by its capital. It does not come as a surprise, then, that the core of Estonia – the place par excellence where things happen first in the field of digital development – is a smart city like Tallinn.
The concept of intelligent city, though, can come off as a bit of a tricky one, and not at all because of its supposedly controversial nature: the number of approaches and actions aimed to make a city smarter is countless, and each and every urban area striving to make it has its peculiarities and particular ways to pursue this target.
Tallinn’s way to become a smart city revolves around three keywords: accessibility, interoperability, and user-friendliness. In this respect, our capital has managed to harmonize its urban and digital development with the evolution of Estonia as a digital society. A nation and its main city, hand in hand, providing efficient and convenient digital services for citizens, tourists and companies, particularly by employing common infrastructures to exchange data and avoid redundancies – as well as integrating the national e-ID system into its authentication mechanisms.
Toomas Sepp, city secretary and administrative leader of Tallinn City Office since 1992, unfolds the key concepts and components that make Tallinn a smart city.
What makes Tallinn a smart city?
For us, being a smart city or an intelligent city means that we are providing good digital services through effective IT solutions, but no less important is the fact that citizens are willing and able to use them. We aim to develop solutions that are useful for the public. So far, “smart” has meant using the latest technology, having Wi-Fi everywhere, providing seamless e-services, opening up data etc. We have this part well covered in Tallinn. Digitally speaking, we are definitely a smart city. Now the ambition is shifting towards involving people in the planning process and making planning smarter in general.
How does the city involve citizens in the decision-making and urban planning process?
We do make surveys and polls and even have a special investment programme that is set up as a result of citizen surveys. However, we have not yet embraced digital participation to the fullest, despite the fact that pretty much all the information we create is public. But things are changing. For almost three years already we have been using a planning register, where the whole process is carried out digitally and publicly. In the register, there is a citizen’s work desk for example, where everyone can preset notifications about preferred areas, as well as sending proposals about architectural drawings and block plans. Just recently, we launched our first digital participation tool AvaLinn (OpenCity). The mobile application AvaLinn is a co-creation tool for gathering feedback and ideas for spatial planning and new developments from the citizens. We want to build on that experience and make citizen engagement more active.
What are the most popular e-services and why?
The most popular e-services, some of which are also available on mobile devices, are:
- The mobile and web application of public transport (timetables, online tracking, journey planner, city map). Accurate and easy to use, the app is the only official and reliable source that provides up to date (with a maximum of 30 seconds of delay) information about public transportation lines in Tallinn. In addition, you can see the live progress of buses, trams and trolleys on the web map;
- The application for traffic cameras, as they cover all of the most important intersections in Tallinn, and the app provides the most relevant information about traffic jams;
- The official web map of Tallinn, providing the most detailed and up to date information about developments in the city space.
How many e-services does Tallinn have, and how many of them are fully or partially digital?
Tallinn has 86 fully digital, high-end e-services where it is possible to submit an application using HTML forms, give online feedback about the process, and benefit of many other efficient and effective digital services.
Some examples may regard:
Partially digital are all the services available in Tallinn, which are 570 in total. On the city administration’s webpage, there is a database of services where all of them are presented and described using the same template.
How do municipal smart services interact with X-Road?
Whenever the need for the involvement of state-provided databases and registers is relevant, a connection with X-Road is established. Let’s follow the example of the application for a childbirth allowance: after logging in, our register checks – via X-Road – if the applicant is registered as a citizen of Tallinn. Our services rely on both state and city databases that utilize inter-base cross-usage of data. Our laws forbid us to re-process any data that is already available through another database.
What are the future plans to make Tallinn even smarter, and what role the city can play – as a smart capital – in a wider regional and international context?
We wish that people could apply for, or consume, their desired services using only electronic channels. To achieve that, our first priority is to continue making our services fully digital. Along with that, our ambition is to make planning smarter and involve citizens in the planning process even more. Despite the fact that we have plenty of open data, we think we are not using it as much as we could. Technology is already providing opportunities to make citizen engagement more interesting and rewarding. For example, virtual reality and augmented reality in urban planning is something that we have not tapped into yet, but we look forward to; improving the portability of our services by making all of the easily accessible from smartphones and tablets; reaching out for our potential users and understand how to get them use our solutions even more. Being the capital, and by far the largest city in Estonia, means that we are a role model – we are followed not only by other municipalities but sometimes by the national government as well. Also, the competition in the Baltic region is very harsh. With neighbours like Helsinki, Stockholm, and Copenhagen, you have to be smart in order to keep up.