How the City of Amsterdam uses Innovation to create a better city

By 28 September 2020Uncategorized

How the City of Amsterdam uses Innovation to create a better city

Six years ago, Ger Baron started at Amsterdam Municipality as Chief Technology Officer. Today, he leads a team of 120 people, consisting of digital developers, designers, program managers and more. Together they work towards a better Amsterdam.

In our podcast Innovative Leaders by INFO CTO Ger Baron shares how his team uses innovation and technology to improve the life of Amsterdam’s citizens, the ‘Amsterdammers’. He talks about current issues like drones and digital human rights, transport sharing platforms and about ways to get six thousand people safely into the football stadium during Covid-19.

This podcast is also available on Google Podcast, Spotify, and Apple Podcast.


A government that fits the 21st Century

Baron’s main goal is “to ensure that we tackle everything, from traffic management to healthcare to sustainability, as a government that fits the 21st century.” As examples he mentions the move from paper to digital, crowd management, reduction of queues at service points and making improvements to the public space. According to Baron, it simply means “doing the right things, at the right time, in a way that’s easy for the people of Amsterdam.”

The country’s largest municipality wants to work smarter and be more proactive. Amsterdam would like to deploy cleaners, community officers and maintenance people before problems arise. And that’s why it introduced the CTO function. Baron breaks down his department’s responsibilities into three areas:

He explains you can break down the CTO Office responsibilities into three areas:

  1. They keep track of the latest technologies and how to apply those to their services.
  2. They prepare the city for the impact of new technologies (for example drones flying over the city, solar panels, taxi sharing, and self-driving cars).

They’re making the organization more digital and data-driven, because “you’ll need a different type of organization if you want to act faster and smarter”, explains Baron.


“Doing the right things, at the right time, in a way that’s easy for the people of Amsterdam.”


The challenge is key

Amsterdam has a different way of working than other municipalities. According to Baron, most others are working towards an economic goal or they’re busy with their external image.

“We really do things differently. We work together with all departments within the organization, looking at their biggest challenges and how we can solve them. Usually, this sits with the department, like Traffic or Healthcare. But here, we make the challenge the focal point and then we create a cross-functional team around it.”

For example, when working on traffic issues, Amsterdam Municipality involves people from departments like parking, public space, green, air quality, and electric transport.


Public versus private

In the podcast Innovative Leaders by INFO, we’ve spoken to a lot of people, all working in the corporate world. What does the government do differently when it comes to innovation?


“We don’t focus on money or revenue, but on how we can contribute the most to the city.”

Baron explains that innovation both for the public as for the private sector starts with a problem that needs to be solved. And when finding a solution, the private sector focuses on profit. Yet, for the government, the public interest is the most important. “We don’t focus on money or revenue, but on how we can contribute the most to the city. We also look at the side effects of a solution, the collateral damage.” Baron believes that due to this focus it’s slightly more difficult and complex to find a good solution.

When it comes to making decisions, many people perceive the municipality as slow and sluggish. Does Baron think that’s fair?

“Yes, I suppose that’s fair. The real question is, are we slower than an average corporate bank or telecom provider?” Baron justifies that the municipality needs to involve many more people in the decision-making process, providing transparency and democracy. “There are few people who can take a decision, while there are many who can block it.”, he says. “But yes, I agree it wouldn’t hurt to be a little faster.”

Playing with tax money

Innovation often goes hand-in-hand with new technologies that could present high risks, like spending money on things that don’t work. How does the municipality deal with this, are they even allowed to take risks with our tax money?

“Good question,” says Baron, “we take some risks.” Baron shares they don’t engage in long R&D projects, nor do they work with experimental technologies that aren’t proven yet. What they do, is research the effects of applying new technologies. For example, researching how to apply artificial intelligence to automate and improve their services.

And considering they’re Holland’s largest municipality, with revenue of six billion euros and eighteen thousand employees, Baron does feel Amsterdam should take the lead, it’s simply easier for them to invest than for smaller municipalities. So yes, it’s allowed to take some risks, with the goal to take learnings from it. Baron describes these experiments as an education for his people, “to understand which capabilities we need to be capable”.


Involving the ‘Amsterdammer’

When asked, Baron gives an example of such an experiment, the program Open City: various tools to involve the people of Amsterdam in the decision-making process. “We’re constantly trying out new ways with the ‘Amsterdammers’, to understand what’s the best way to involve them. We’re continuously adding new blocks of software and analyzing results. Sometimes we fail and of course, that isn’t fun, but we’d never learn otherwise. ”


Football during Covid-19

During Corona, Baron’s team has been busy managing the crowds in the city. For example at a football match: how do you get six thousand people in and out of the stadium while respecting social distancing? According to Baron, this continues to be a matter of trial and error.

We’re wondering if Amsterdam Municipality profits from their experience with innovation and experiments.

Baron: “That’s a great question, the answer is yes.” Thanks to the two focal points of the department, technology, and data, good prediction models to manage the public space were already in place. Another big advantage is the team’s flexible and solution-oriented mindset, they’re used to switching gears quickly and effectively. When a councilor calls with a request, you’ll hear “absolutely, we’ll make it happen!” instead of objections.


“Absolutely, we’ll make it happen!”


Plans for the future

Aside from crowd management, the city of Amsterdam faces further Corona-related challenges. Flourishing online retail has led to an explosive increase in delivery vans racing through the streets. This asks for changes in city planning. Baron mentions options like regulating drop-off and pick-up points, working with concessions like the French city Lyon is already doing, and the consolidation of deliveries.

When asked about long-term goals, Baron mentions Predictive Maintenance. Today, “when something is broken, we deploy”, Baron says while he’d prefer to deploy people proactively before something is broken. He also wants to move towards prediction models fed by data from CCTV. This would enable departments like Community Control and Maintenance to be sent out dynamically and get ahead of situations.

To reach such ambitious goals, you need great people. We wonder if they’re easy to find. “Yes, actually it hasn’t been too hard,” says Baron, “luckily there are enough people who feel connected to this city and are driven to make a real impact.”

Curious which global cities take the lead in digital human rights and energy management? Or would you like to know why Amsterdam was awarded the No. 2 position on the Global Cities AI Index? Listen to the complete Innovative Leaders by INFO podcast here.

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