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Breaking down regulatory barriers is key to achieve smarter cities

Governments need to prioritise dynamic regulation when it comes to policy-making, write experts supporting the European Union’s Smart City Marketplace.


The world‘s supply, transport and consumption is in the middle of a paradigm shift that has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Cities are transitioning towards an integrated, renewable and decentralized energy market structure. The rapid advancements in technology within energy, e-mobility and digitalization present financially attractive alternatives for an energy transition. However, existing regulatory and legal frameworks from the local level to the European are acting as obstacles, rather than enablers, in the transition towards positive energy districts and climate neutral cities of the future.

We - experts, city practitioners and businesses - must act to change those frameworks.


A new Initiative under the European Commission’s Smart City Marketplace proposes a path to a modern and fair regulatory and legal framework for positive energy districts and cities, supported by a renewable European energy market. As a starting point, the Initiative invites European experts to cooperate on 11 multi-sector actions and required changes in current regulatory frameworks. These proposed actions will provide powerful incentives to create and operate positive energy districts and cities within or including a local energy system, which would hence become a scalable reality.


The Initiative aims to propose changes in regulation focused on best practices in cities, industry, research and societal stakeholders that engage in transdisciplinary demonstration and innovation activities. It seeks cooperation and knowledge transfer with experts in local and European projects, networks and platforms, and is the first of its kind in the European Smart City context.


At present we are in the middle of an energy paradigm shift from a fossil fuel based, unidirectional and centralized supply model towards a renewable energy based, multidirectional and decentralized prosumer model. The change is so fundamental that no intermediate state in between the old and the new paradigm is comfortable: nor from the infrastructural point of view, neither from the societal or the regulatory point of view. In this dynamic context, regulatory frameworks and how these are being managed play a pivotal role.


At the same time energy consumers such as citizens and local businesses who want to contribute to sustainability are looking for opportunities to become more active prosumers. Focus on sustainability, technology shifts and digitalisation challenge current regulations for both urban development and energy. This is not only relevant for the traditional energy actors within electricity generation, transport and supply. Several additional parties have been observed to take an interest, like housing associations, new businesses and even start-ups. Investments in local renewable energy production, increased energy-efficiency, local batteries and flexibility, e-mobility, home automation, and smart meters are consequences of the ongoing transition. In parallel it is obvious that innovative business models and sustainable city development will evolve in similar directions. In order to safeguard optimal socio-economic outcomes, regulatory frameworks must in turn adapt to the new reality.

Focus on sustainability, technology shifts and digitalisation challenge current regulations for both urban development and energy

This development will further enhance and support the transition of cities towards becoming climate-neutral, smart and sustainable, and allow for these processes to be more widely scaled up and replicated. This will in turn further fuel the energy transition and increasingly challenge the existing regulatory frameworks. Improved environment, smarter solutions, digitalisation and better information will also give a positive impact on public health and economic recovery.


The new Initiative, to which we welcome smart city experts or others with input on the regulatory barriers currently acting as obstacles, aims to build knowledge-creating teams bringing together cities, industry, researchers and societal stakeholders that engage in transdisciplinary demonstration, innovation and supportive research in the initiative topics. Developing high-impact, cross-disciplinary, cross-sectoral and cross-cultural cooperation is necessary to obtain an overall understanding of regulation impacts and results, and to develop and demonstrate the innovation potential that lies within more dynamic regulatory frameworks.


Through peer-to-peer exchange the participants will develop a joint understanding of the cross-disciplinary and cross-sectoral approaches necessary to develop better-fit regulatory frameworks, and to test these in sandboxes where appropriate. The network created in these workshops will be significantly expanded during smart city events (hopefully soon in real-life!), as well as in cooperation with existing and future smart city projects, and the relevant Horizon Europe Partnerships and Missions.


Authors: Annemie Wyckmans, Professor, Head of NTNU Smart Sustainable Cities; Marit Myrstad, Project Manager, City of Trondheim; Klaus Livik, Chief Strategist at Powel

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