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Trondheim: Marrying Partnerships With Data to Advance Sustainability

ESI ThoughtLab

The development of a smart, sustainable city requires innovative approaches, which can often be hampered by the lack of budget, resources, or knowledge. Partnerships between the public sector and private actors, academia, and other non-governmental entities can help to overcome these hurdles. Trondheim, Norway, a city named a Center of Excellence for Sustainable Development by the UN in 2019, has taken a methodical approach in utilizing partnerships together with data and metrics to drive sustainability and innovation.

Taking advantage of its proximity to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the city of Trondheim has recruited volunteers and students interested in sustainability to conduct research and analysis and suggest smart solutions. In the city of 200,000 people, over 4,000 students work on these initiatives every year. The city also has created innovation boards that bring together university directors and deans to discuss the latest and most relevant sustainability strategies. A steering group has adopted the UN’s SDGs as the foundation for all collaboration with the university.  

NTNU’s artificial intelligence center, the Norwegian AI Lab, also works closely with the city. AI technology can provide essential data insights enabling cities to improve infrastructure, mobility, sanitation, public security, and the environment.  

“We are quite systematic in how we work across institutions. With the university-city agreement, we tried to align the governance system within the city and within the university. We can give the students and scientists easier access to the city, and the problems we are having, and we can also bring new knowledge faster into the way we run the city,” said Øyvind Tanum, Head of Smart City, Trondheim.

Partnering with other cities and citizens

Trondheim’s partnerships also extend to other cities within and outside of Norway, with the goal of creating a larger network of excellence. It was a leader in fostering a national network comprising 15 cities across the country, called the Sustainability Network in Norway, which has facilitated a sharing of best practices. Outside the country, the  +CityxChange project unites 32 partners in seven European cities to create a positive energy block, which generates more energy than what it uses that can then be tapped to efficiently allocate energy across the group. These cities’ long-term goal is to have zero emissions and establish a 100% renewable energy region by 2050.

“When you create a network and you have part of the solution, people are quite eager to contribute,” said Tanum. “When we start a small network with a focus on data, we see where different cities have their strengths. Some cities are really good at developing policies. Others have good connections with local businesses, while others are really good on technology.”

Smart and sustainable cities must be very attuned to citizens, and in Trondheim residents are another important partner. The city has organized citizen panels to discuss sustainable development with experts and to highlight what local communities could do to contribute. Other initiatives, like an app that allows citizens to track their carbon footprint and offers personalized suggestions on how to reduce their environmental impact, have improved citizen engagement.

Metrics to track performance

To supplement the qualitative information garnered from these partnerships, Trondheim heavily relies on data and metrics to track its SDG progress. The city uses United 4 Smart Sustainable Cities (U4SSC), an open standard developed by the UN’s Telecommunication Union (ITU) that includes 91 key performance indicators (KPIs) to help cities transition to smart sustainability. The latest report on Trondheim published by the UN’s International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in September 2020 included a verification framework for the KPIs and allowed the city to self-evaluate on 22 categories within three dimensions: the economy, the environment, and society and culture.

The KPIs cover everything from waste management, to air and water quality, urban planning, and many other categories. For instance, Trondheim excels in ICT infrastructure, with 98% of households having internet access and wireless broadband coverage of 99.8%. Trondheim also leads on the education metric, with 100% school enrollment and 100% student ICT access—particularly essential during the COVID-19 pandemic. The city has had mixed results when it comes to safety, recording a long emergency service response time (14 minutes), and limited police and fire service per capita. This performance indicator allows the city to recognize safety as a critical issue and develop plans for improvement in this area.  

“In order to work effectively on SDGs, you need to work on different levels. Data and KPIs make this possible. This is the axis that we work around,” said Tanum. “What we do in a small municipality in Norway connects directly to what others are doing on developing voluntary local reviews, which is a more qualitative approach.”

Trondheim is also working with Norway’s Statistics Bureau on a national project to create a uniform national taxonomy on SDGs, which will allow KPIs to be sorted and filtered to make them more relevant and accessible to local municipalities. This effort is especially important since, in May 2019, Norway’s national government decided that the SDGs should be the foundation for all city planning.  

“The SDGs are holistic on a global level, first and foremost. When you take them down to the local level, with how you measure things, how you create local ecosystems, or how you create partnerships, if you can keep the three dimensions—social, environmental, and economic—and the principles of the SDGs, then you can create useful policies, useful projects, and more useful discussions.”