A number of tech giants are now planning to build their own private cities. As these futuristic, digitally-equipped towns will showcase many innovations, the projects may well help to get Smart Cities up and running faster.
Whether we are talking about Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who recently announced plans to build a digital city in Arizona called Belmont, or Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google parent Alphabet, who recently unveiled the Sidewalk Toronto project, Web bosses seem to have been struck by a sudden passion for town planning.
Behind these projects, which are still very much in their infancy, there is however much at stake. The Smart City represents a huge future market which will soon gather pace all over the planet. Building their own cities, and injecting substantial funds, enables the major Internet players to experiment in real conditions, designing, testing, labelling and demonstrating to the wide world innovative technologies with the potential to help run the planet's megacities in the near future. However, it must be said that they are jumping on the bandwagon rather than leading the line, since a number of high-tech model cities constructed with private-sector money already exist in Asia and the American continent. So will all these projects really foster the speedy emergence of Smart Cities? From a purely technological point of view, this would appear a safe bet.
A full-on Smart City?
In South Korea, not far from Seoul, the futuristic city of Songdo has been built – at a cost of $35 billion – entirely with private funds. Covering 610 hectares and stuffed full of new fully-digitalized apartment buildings, Songdo boasts cutting-edge digital technology and an impressive set of environmentally-friendly systems. This fully operational Smart City, with 120,000 residents, is several steps ahead of its rivals. The local authority has implemented digital technology-based initiatives designed to optimise the way the city works and streamline the daily lives of its inhabitants. For example, auto traffic is managed using a state-of- the-art system. Every car licence plate is scanned as soon as it leaves its parking spot, and the data is then sent to a management platform that calculates the number of drivers on the road, or about to move out on to the road, in order to optimise traffic flows in real time. In the same vein, some 500 cameras are in place, backed up by an arsenal of sensors installed on street furniture, for the purpose of sending data on the number of buses in service and their precise location to the management platform.
The results are commensurate with the resources that have been deployed. There are no more traffic jams. Public transport is never late and always safe. Police can access the data gathered by the sensors and cameras so as to get to an incident as soon as it occurs. Songdo also stands out from its rivals when it comes to environmental responsibility: 99%of the city's parking is underground, and household waste is taken directly from homes and piped through to the recycling plant. The rainwater collection and filtration system is located beneath the golf course and all the buildings have solar panels. In addition, the city authority keeps a close eye on the energy consumption of each building with a view to limiting expenditure and pollution and redistributing any surplus.
In fact, Songdo can claim to top the list of Smart Cities, having amply demonstrated its ability to provide a connected response to urban problems. Nevertheless, the way it operates still raises some questions. As a privately-owned city in the hands of a consortium of investors, it fails to implement such democratic principles as data transparency and to foster civic dialogue. However, while some observers might be worried about the central surveillance aspects of Sondo's organisation, the town is exemplary from a technological point of view and its model may soon be exported throughout Asia. But it does highlight one rather disappointing aspect: it seems easier to build a Smart City from scratch than transform an existing town.
Building everything from the ground up
In the south of Florida, former American football player-turned multi-millionaire Syd Kitson is bringing to life Babcock Ranch, a futuristic fully-connected and entirely 'green' town. The electricity grid is 100% solar-powered, fed by a plant located on the edge of town, and the streets are lined throughout with photovoltaic panels, each feeding one house. As the owner of this miniature Smart City covering 370 square kilometres, Syd Kitson has decided to implement a number of measures designed to boost the environmental aspects of the venture. Petrol-driven cars are not allowed inside Babcock Ranch, electric vehicles are tolerated but quotas are imposed.
The idea is not only to avoid carbon dioxide emissions but also to keep the number of vehicles stable. The circular economy takes priority: fruit and vegetables are grown in nearby fields and orchards and are sold in local shops and used in the town's restaurants. If the whole approach feels rather authoritarian this is no doubt because Kitson is actually the sole owner of his town. But the results are undisputable: there is no pollution. By designing and building Babcock Ranch from A to Z and implementing strict rules of operation, Kitson has achieved much better than average outcomes and demonstrated that this method works.
In the same vein, but on a very different scale, Bill Gates' real estate investment group Belmont Partners is preparing to start building Belmont, a city that will have technology embedded in its DNA. Belmont Partners has just acquired a vast area of land in Arizona, around a hundred kilometres from Phoenix. Covering an area as large as Paris, the new town is intended to be a real laboratory for Smart City experimentation, testing out the latest technologies for self-driving cars and implementing a range of innovations involving incorporating green spaces into the cityscape, using renewable sources of energy for power and drawing on local food supply chains.
Bill Gates also intends to draw up a digitally innovative and environmentally-friendly roadmap for tomorrow's smart cities. And he reckons that it is easier to test and integrate the technologies which will be used in Smart Cities by building a new town rather than transforming an existing one. Existing cities usually have a long architectural legacy to cope with. In theory a blank canvas is easier to work with.
Google is dancing to the same tune. Sidewalk Labs, Alphabet's Smart City subsidiary, has announced a ground-breaking partnership with the city of Toronto to build a mini smart city focusing entirely on digital technologies. With this venture Google is clearly demonstrating its objectives in the smart city sphere. The Internet giant is planning to set up its own testing centre to hone technologies that work well in practice and can be marketed.
Clearly a Smart City is not the exclusive province of governmental authorities. If it is to work properly, the private sector will have to come in and supply the necessary technologies. Public-private collaboration therefore seems essential and the Internet giants have clearly grasped this fact. Making Smart Cities the norm for urban development in the 21st century will be a huge challenge.
Let us hope that such cities, constructed from scratch and based on digital innovation, will in turn foster the emergence of a truly civic Smart City. After all, smart technology cannot be the only criterion for a functioning town in the years to come.
(Source: BNP Paribas – L’Atelier)
How are we doing when it comes to sustainable mobility?
A recently commissioned survey by BNP Paribas Fortis on mobility found that this remains a major challenge for the coming years. The bank is determined to play its part.
A survey among 2,000 people, and representative of the Belgian population, on mobility shows that the switch to electric driving is slowing. Almost 80% of those surveyed still drive a diesel or petrol vehicle, and more than a third of them have no intention of trading in their cars for a more environmentally friendly model any time soon. And yet almost 50% want to be driving electric by 2029. But before that switch, some hurdles first need to be cleared. According to two-thirds of respondents, the bank needs to take a proactive role in the transition to sustainable mobility.
- Only 10% of cars on the streets today are electric, hybrid or run on hydrogen. Users of these vehicles confirm they are very satisfied. Though most have their own charging station, public charging stations are a bottleneck.
- While fighting climate change remains the main argument for switching, changing mobility habits isn’t so easy. The switch to electric is slow, and more incentives are needed, such as new tax measures, and above all, a commitment from the government. Prices also need to come down. It is clear that the practical issues of driving and charging times mean people hesitate to make the switch.
- As a result, enthusiasm about new mobility initiatives is rather muted. Although, especially in big cities, an app that combines mobility options has good chances of success.
- Mobility and work are strongly linked. One in three people spend at least an hour a day travelling to/from work. It turns out that teleworking is a solution for only 50% of the people, and that the other half of the population don’t have the opportunity to work from home.
- More awareness needs to be created around new mobility. Not everyone is familiar with shared cars, bikes and charging stations yet.
BNP Paribas Fortis is determined to contribute to more sustainable mobility and be a mobility partner for both professional and private customers. We are doing this by informing audiences of all the advantages of an environmentally friendly switch. And also by offering support through financing, insurance and leasing. Our goal is to provide a global response to tomorrow's mobility needs through innovative services.
Travelling to work: the rise of cycling!
More and more people are cycling to work. Mobility solutions expert Philippe Kahn explains how and why.
People are changing the way they travel to limit their environmental impact: behaviours are starting to shift, and the use of bicycles is rising, including and especially for travelling to and from work. We spoke to Philippe Kahn, Mobility Solutions Expert at Arval BNP Paribas Group, about these developments.
Two out of three Belgians use soft mobility, mainly bicycles
According to Profacts’ “Mobility Tomorrow & Beyond” survey, two out of three Belgians have adopted soft mobility. "But the biggest change is the increasing use of bicycles for business travel and commuting. People are also using bicycles more on the school or nursery run, facilitated by the arrival of electric cargo bikes on the market," says Kahn.
A favourable regulatory framework
But what are the reasons for the increased use of bicycles for business travel? “Let’s first take a look at how the regulatory framework has changed," says Kahn. "In Belgium, the creation of the federal mobility budget has made alternative ways of travelling attractive for all employees. The budget makes it possible to choose a comfortable company bicycle as part of a tax-friendly salary package. Moreover, this mobility budget can even be used to cover housing costs if you work from home more than half the time or if you live within 10 km of your place of work. So instead of having a company car, people can choose to have a combination of an electric bicycle and a contribution to their housing costs. Furthermore, two measures effective from 1 May 2023 should reinforce this trend: the bicycle allowance for commuting is increasing to €0.27 net per km travelled, and all Belgian employees will be entitled to this allowance. In practical terms, this means that those who choose to cycle for these journeys will be substantially rewarded.”
Investment in public infrastructure is paying off
Another important factor in the increased use of bicycles is the development of road infrastructure.
Philippe Kahn: "One factor that can convince people to cycle to work is the certainty of a safe journey. A few years ago, cycling to work in Brussels, for example, could be dangerous. But today, cycling infrastructure is making these journeys increasingly safe, in particular thanks to the cycle motorways on which only bicycles can travel. Infrastructure investments are now also happening in the rest of Belgium, not just Flanders and its major cities. In recent years, Brussels has undergone significant changes, and things are also starting to move in Wallonia.”
Half of all Belgians live within 15 km of their place of work
Distance from the workplace is also crucial in determining how attractive cycling is. "One in two Belgians lives within 15 km of their workplace, a distance that you can easily cycle," adds Kahn. "Along with the Improved infrastructure, this means that cycling to work is a realistic option for many Belgians. And the €0.27 per kilometre allowance will be an added incentive for them to make the change.”
What is the federal mobility budget?
This scheme allows the budget initially allocated to an employee’s company car to be divided into three pillars within a salary package. These three pillars are:
- a car with no or low CO2 emissions (less than 95 g/km), such as an electric vehicle;
- sustainable means of transport, including cycling, but also in some cases this pillar can also cover housing costs, such as rent or mortgage repayments;
- the balance of the mobility budget, which is paid in cash.
The mobility budget makes it possible, for example, to replace a combustion-powered company car with an electric car and a bicycle, with the same tax-friendly terms for both the employer and the employee.
78% of leased company bicycles are electric
To meet the needs of companies and their staff, Arval is now offering bicycle leasing. This full-service lease covers maintenance, breakdown assistance, insurance and repairs, as is traditionally the case for a car. Philippe Kahn points out some very significant trends in this area: "60% e-bikes and 18% speed pedelecs: in total, 78% of our leased company bikes are electric.
High-end bicycles costing several thousand euros, such as electric cargo bikes, are also highly successful, which is probably due to opportunity: the mobility budget or employer “cafeteria plan” benefits packages are making it possible for people to acquire these bikes. But it may also be a consequence of Belgium’s specific tax regulations: the more expensive the bicycle, the more significant the tax incentive. Another interesting observation is that when a bicycle replaces a car, it’s usually the family’s second car. So we’re not yet seeing any radical replacement of cars by bicycles, but the emergence of the company bicycle is definitely reducing the total number of kilometres travelled by car.”
Digital applications: shifting up a gear
Lastly, Kahn points to another factor that could encourage more people to take up cycling to work. "I think that technology, and in particular digital applications, can make a big difference. We can expect strong growth in the market for apps dedicated to commuting by bike. The business model for on-the-go electric bike rental is already based on a smartphone app. So imagine the success of an application that gives you a safe and bicycle-friendly route for travelling to and from work, and the boost that this could give to this type of travel," concludes Kahn.
Biomethane from Bois d'Arnelle: Walloon biogas, a link in the energy transition chain
Producing biogas through fermentation of agricultural waste? That is exactly what they do at Biomethane du Bois d'Arnelle, Belgium's largest production facility in Hainaut.
You can spot the three large grey domes and a cone-shaped roof from a distance in the countryside around Frasnes-lez-Gosselies. This is a biogas production unit. It took its creator and CEO, Jérôme Breton, 12 years to complete this project due to the lack of a legal and administrative framework. But today, the unit is operational, producing 70,000 MWh of energy.
Turning food waste into biomethane
"We recycle food waste and agricultural materials, livestock manure, straw, beet leaves, peelings, etc. from farmers in a 15-km radius around the site", says Jérôme Breton. "We work with 100 farmers for whom this represents additional income. In digesters, i.e., concrete tanks that are heated to 40°C, bacteria digest the material and produce biogas, consisting of 45% CO2 and 55% CH4 methane. We recover this biomethane through filtration, before injecting it into the natural gas distribution network. Fermented matter or digestate, a black liquid that is rich in organic matter, which is very nutritious for crops, is spread as a fertiliser in the surrounding region, where it is used to permanently store CO2 in the soil and completely replaces chemical fertilisers."
About 15% of the biogas is converted into electricity and heat, half of which is used for the unit’s own needs. The remaining 85% is purified and transformed into biomethane. Once it has been injected into the grid, this biomethane can be used as fuel or as a raw material for petrochemicals. It can also be used to power turbines, and the heat generated can be recovered, just like in a car engine. “While a cogeneration engine, which produces electricity and heat simultaneously, has a total efficiency of between 40 and 80%, our system allows 99.5% of the biogas produced to be injected into the grid”, the young entrepreneur explains. "The pressure varies in a distribution network. That way, the infrastructure can absorb injections without the need for additional investments to store them."
Growing to valorise
The company also grows maize, beets and cereals to valorise them as biogas: "We made a deliberate choice to grow 600 hectares of energy crops to offer farmers a complementary diversification pathway. This accounts for 30% of our raw materials. These crops are stored to allow us to 'smooth' the inflows into our digesters, which depend on agricultural and food activity, on a seasonal basis."
BNP Paribas Fortis, the only bank with such advanced skills
Jérôme Breton says the project would not have been possible without the support of BNP Paribas Fortis. "We would not have gotten funding if it wasn't for the work of their expert. It is the only bank to have such high-level skills in-house. All the other partners also benefited from the analyses and information that he provided to us! A strong, lasting relationship of trust has developed as a result. In my model, I didn't want to rely on public financing for what I do. At the same time, I wanted to produce at the right prices. We produce and sell our biomethane at 100 euros per megawatt hour, while market prices were close to 350 euros last August."
At BNP Paribas Fortis, we are particularly proud to be supporting passionate, inspiring entrepreneurs. Because building the entrepreneurship of the future together is also an example of Positive Banking!
Elessent EMEAI: solutions for cleaner production
Elessent EMEIA is on a mission to make the chemical industry more environmentally friendly and sustainable through innovative methods and cleaner production processes.
"We strive to create cleaner, carbon-free production processes for our customers. Innovation is at the heart of what we do", says Sara Alvarez, Finance Manager at Elessent EMEAI. "We suggest less polluting alternatives to traditional industrial methods, allowing our customers to continue to develop products that are essential to our daily lives while significantly minimising their impact on the environment, particularly in terms of pollutants and CO2 emissions."
4 key technologies
The metals, fertiliser, chemical and refinery industries make up the majority of the company’s customers, with Elessent EMEAI able to deliver complete turnkey production sites. Tjaart Van Der Walt, Director of Elessent EMEAI: "We have four flagship technologies. The first concerns the manufacture of a compound that is widely used in industry, from fertiliser manufacturers to pigment plants, namely sulphuric acid. This is obtained by burning sulphur. We have 90 years of expertise in site design – we have delivered more than a thousand sites – and process and energy recovery. These processes will be key to producing cleaner batteries."
Increased quality and yield
The company also has alkylation technologies (a reaction that is commonly used in organic chemistry) which is used to produce high octane fuels, for more efficient engines. These compounds are valuable for the petrochemical and refinery industries. "We operate at more than 100 alkylation sites around the world", continues Van Der Walt. "And 25 hydrocarbon hydrotreating sites. This is a crucial step in the refining process, during which some elements are removed from the oil. This includes reducing sulphur and nitrogen content to improve stability. Our proprietary soft hydrocracking technology allows us to recover more value from crude oil."
In addition to these processes, which optimise the quality and yield of hydrocarbons, the company also has “wet scrubbing” technologies, which are very effective in fume treatment.
Financial support and real industry expertise
"Our business is growing on a global scale. For our international expansion, we need the constant support of our bank, BNP Paribas Fortis, which, in addition to assisting us with the financial aspects, contributes its in-depth expertise in our industry", Sara Alvarez explains. "This cooperation is crucial in Morocco, Tunisia, India and South Africa, for example. For our long-term investments in these countries, we benefit from our bank’s advice, particularly in terms of resources and guarantees of payment: secured transactions, letters of credit, etc. The same goes for hedging currency risk, which is essential in the context of volatility. This partnership allows us to continue our international expansion."
At BNP Paribas Fortis, we are particularly proud to be supporting passionate, inspiring entrepreneurs. Because building the entrepreneurship of the future together is also an example of Positive Banking!