‘Small cities will be the innovation districts of the future’

future vision – February 5th, 2020

By Ren Yee & Tessa Steenkamp

For the Dutch municipality of Waalwijk, UNSense has developed a smart mobility strategy including four pilots projects. Being an international distribution center for goods throughout Europe, midsized city of Waalwijk faces the challenges of serving as the backend to the ever expanding service economy in bigger cities. UNSense believes that smaller cities – because of their less complex urban infrastructure – offer opportunities for testing and implementing new smart mobility and smart logistics solutions. To put themselves on the map as well as for bigger cities to learn from.



Globalisation vs. small cities

Amsterdam is booming. Its economy is set to grow by 2.8% this year and 2.3% the next, boosted by 57,000 new jobs. Meanwhile smaller Dutch cities, like Waalwijk in the south of the country, are seeing their population shrink as young people move away to start their careers elsewhere. Between 2013 and 2020, Amsterdam invested €10 billion into its public transport network, with the objective of eventually making the city car-free. By contrast Waalwijk’s only train station closed in 1957 and since then most trips, short and long distance, have been made by car.

The Netherlands is not alone in watching its capital accelerate, as global cities around the world continue to compound both economic and cultural opportunities. By now an Amsterdammer is likely to find more in common with a Parisien than a fellow Dutchman from Twente. Ever since the knowledge economy rushed in to replace industry with high-end service jobs, opportunities have tended to cluster in big cities. The tried and tested solution – a polycentric model whereby each city emphasizes a different industry – is being challenged by what Richard Florida terms ‘the rise of the creative class.’


Front end vs. back end

For if Amsterdam enjoys the front end of these service jobs, smaller cities like Waalwijk suffer the back-end. Where Amsterdam plays host to innovation, start-ups and flat whites, Waalwijk hosts the warehouses and fulfillment centres which meet their daily needs. Situated along an important waterway and the crossing of the two main highways connecting to the South and Eastern Europe, Waalwijk is a leading logistic gateway for Europe.  As the logistics hub of Europe (some 420 million parcels were sent in 2017) urban transformation at the hands of e-commerce has hit the Netherlands hard. With a population of 40,000 residents, Waalwijk has been transformed over the past decade by its very physical infrastructure, with a complex network of roads transporting cargo to and from the second inland port after Rotterdam.


Small city as innovation district

Whilst innovation districts usually take the form of zones within large cities, the sensor-based technologies emerging today demand conditions not easily supported by the complex infrastructure and high land value found in them. In small cities on the other hand, regulatory sandboxes for new technology can be established with fewer disruptions to daily life. Lines of communication between citizen and governance are shorter, making it easier to harvest feedback and iterate. The infrastructural DNA of the small city is less complex, especially if it developed around one main industry, so a local smart city strategy can therefore focus on nurturing the local expertise.


Logistics vs the planet

In Waalwijk, the local expertise is the transportation of people and goods. But transport produces almost a quarter of Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions and most of the air pollution in cities. Transitioning trains and trams in dense capitals to green energy is one thing, but smaller cities don’t usually have such developed public transport in place. In this context, Autonomous Vehicles can provide shared transport on-demand (read – bus) powered by green energy to lower density areas. But the algorithms upon which AVs operate need testing in real-life contexts where they encounter changeable weather conditions and more perhaps more importantly, people.

With the Netherlands targeting zero-emission driving by 2050 and establishing zero-emission logistics zones in 30-40 larger municipalities within the next six years, transitioning lower density urban areas to green transport networks will require significant innovation. Can Waalwijk show other cities how it’s done?


Check out the smart mobility strategy containing four pilot projects.