Changing from oil city to smart city

Norway presents model at Houston’s Ion virtual conference

Photo courtesy of City of Stavanger
A Tesla and EV charging post, though not connected, with a mural in the background by a Houston artist celebrating the sister cities of Stavanger and Houston.

Michael Kleiner
The Norwegian American

The oil capitals of their respective countries, Houston and Stavanger are sister cities. Both cities have endured the downturn in the oil industry midway through this decade, as well as the effects of weather changes. Both have turned their focus on becoming “smart cities.” 

Ion, the Greek word for “go,” is an innovation hub, scheduled to move into a 270,000-square-foot space in the South Main Innovation District of Houston in 2021. As its promotional video says, it is a place “where community and culture, entrepreneurs and corporations all come together to solve some of the world’s greatest problems.” 

The company organized an eight-hour virtual Smart and Resilient Cities Accelerator Demo Day Cohort 2 on July 1. Four speakers from Norway were invited to present how they are making the transformations, focusing on Stavanger, Ålesund, and Bodø. The executive director of Ion, Jan Odegard, is a Norwegian.

“We greatly appreciate this opportunity to expand the longstanding partnership between Norway and Houston, beyond the energy sector,” said Hilde Skorpen, Norway’s consul general to Houston. “Both cities have taken strong interest in developing smart city solutions, as an important element in transitioning away from oil dependence. We are, therefore, pleased that Stavanger is one of the cities featured in this session.”

Skorpen underlined how digitalization and innovation are at the core of Norway’s efforts to diversify its economy. The country has recently submitted ambitious climate goals to the United Nations. Green shipping, hydrogen, and offshore wind are critical elements of this energy transition.

Photo courtesy of City of Stavanger
Gunnar Crawford heads up Stavanger Smart City.

Gunnar Crawford heads Stavanger Smart City

In the face of the economic downturn in the oil and gas industry, Stavanger politicians asked for smarter solutions. There were several challenges: increased urbanization; the infrastructure and mobility wasn’t efficient; increased competition to attract the best people and businesses to the region; more demands from residents; changing environment; growing elderly population with fewer people to care for them. At the time, Crawford was working for a company that presented his vision of a smart city.

“The technology is changing at a rate we can’t really follow,” said Crawford, who was then hired by the city.

“The technology is changing at a rate we can’t really follow,” he said. Crawford worked with the City of Stavanger to develop their smart city roadmap, bringing together academe with the private and public sectors. From the outset, five priority areas were identified: 1) energy, climate, and environment; 2) education and knowledge; 3) health and welfare; 4) governance and democracy; and 5) smart art. They worked closely with the city’s residents and employees, focusing on prototyping and testing. 

“We are testing, but the whole goal is to reduce risk,” said Crawford. “Fail fast, then learn. We go out in the streets and help our colleagues to go out in the streets. They are not used to working this way. We have classes to teach them how to do co-creation together with our system. This is where we truly find the gold. We find what people are occupied with and what’s important to them. We even employ this into different programs in our schools, such as Smart City Talents.”

In this model, “borrowing” other ideas is encouraged: the goal is to not reinvent the wheel but to leverage what others already know. Therefore, to study how to develop beneficial green areas for people and businesses, Stavanger looked at Agile Piloting, which Forum Virium created in Helsinki.

“It’s all about experiments together with the businesses,” said Crawford. “This is how we really test together with the businesses, without doing big, large-scale procurements. The main goal was to create attractive meeting places and safe outdoor environments for our citizens all year around. We attracted a lot of businesses, coming with everything from apps to physical buildings, sheds to training equipment and other types of solutions.”

Other solutions have been found for “real problems.” For example, people were charging their electric cars by extending a cord outside the windows of their houses. A local company designed a new way of using light poles to charge electric cars. Then the city teamed up with one of the city’s car-sharing companies to make their cars into electric vehicles, creating a win-win situation.

Stavanger Smart City partners with businesses, governments, and academic institutions across the Nordic region. “We do this on local, regional and Norwegian levels,” said Crawford. “We call it the ‘Friendly Vikings,’ because we actually share projects between us (20 cities). We base it on the Nordic model, so it’s about collaboration, sharing trust, ethics, and open data.”

Joel Alexander Mills is CEO of Augment City in Ålesund

Joel Alexander Mills, CEO of Augment City in Ålesund, said he hates the term “big data” and the backward development of machinery.

“People are so used to dealing with visual solutions and I hear, nearly every day, people talking about big data,” said Mills. “Big data is one of those terms which irritates me more than anything else,” he said. According to Mills, few are using big data and that if just 10% of it could be tapped, many problems could be solved.

“Everything today is designed for machines, not for us,” Mills said, and this is what he wants to change with Augment City. Mills started his company 15 years ago to develop smart technology for the offshore oil industry, and in recent years, it is adapting the same smart technology to smart cities.

Mills used the example of response time in a case of fire and the effect of traffic. The goal was 10 minutes. This is critical, because Ålesund’s (and Norway’s) wooden houses could be destroyed by fire in 30 minutes.

“When you have traffic, things change quite dramatically,” said Mills. “We needed to find a way of solving that. Most towns around the world don’t have a problem with traffic 24 hours a day. They have a peak flow problem, a rush hour. It’s understanding how to deal with that peak flow problem. Most people looking at traffic issues start to look at what they can do with the roads or what they can do with the number of vehicles. We wanted to understand the whole picture.”

Photo courtesy of InfoTiles
InfoTiles analyzed data for an “Environmental Overview Dashboard” for drains and maintenance covers, error reports, and garbage and plastic recycling.

Augment City approached the Ålesund fire departments and found they had five years of response time data but weren’t using it. Augment City evaluated and analyzed the data combined with the rush-hour traffic and saw that response time was 30 minutes from one end of town to 17 minutes to a nursing home and 20 minutes to a school.

“The school wasn’t such a big problem because most of the kids aren’t in the school in rush hour,” said Mills. “The nursing home and the old people, that was a real issue. Even though it’s only 17 minutes away, it’s going to take a long time to get people out. We wanted to find a smart way to solve this. We started to look at what things could we change to change the flow of traffic? We knew the city had control over several buildings. They controlled a lot of the schools and a lot of the nurseries. What would happen if we just changed some opening times?”

Using complex simulations, they studied the possibility of changing school times, banning on-street parking during rush hour, and quadrupling the price of parking during that time period.

They also realized that at least three or four of the garbage trucks were driving directly through rush hour for no reason and changed that as well. By making a few modifications that did not require building any new infrastructure or reducing the number of cars, they were able to halve the response time. This meant that no new roads needed to be built, and it wasn’t necessary to put in another fire station.

Augment City is now working with 10 towns around the world, mostly in Norway, and will soon be able to move into larger cities.

“It’s a fun and really exciting time to see how we can change stuff,” said Mills, “to use the technology to actually change the lives of all the people, to save money, to make better quality solutions.”

Photo: Courtesy of Linn Terese Marken
Linn Terese Marken is CEO of Mobility Forus, which makes transportation more accessible and sustainable so that people will need to use their private cars less often. They connect people with autonomous (self-driving) solutions to take them from different areas to main public transportation hubs. By implementing electric solutions in public transport, they support the U.N. goals to reduce the carbon footprint.

Linn Terese Marken is CEO of Mobility Forus

Mobility Forus is a private Norwegian company that provides “solutions that will be a part of city transport and in industry areas,” said CEO Linn Terese Marken. Their solutions align closely with four of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: innovation and infrastructure; sustainable cities and communities; climate action; and partnerships to achieve these goals.

The company’s principle aim is to make transport more accessible and sustainable so that people will need to use their private cars less often. They connect people with autonomous (self-driving) solutions to take them from different kinds of areas to main public transportation hubs, including the first and last miles. By implementing electric solutions in public transport, they support the U.N. goals to reduce the carbon footprint.

Mobility Forus’ first project began in 2017, when they collaborated with the Stavanger public transport company and Forus Business Park to link office buildings in the largest industry area in Norway to the main bus road. Since legislation had not yet been approved, they had to test a self-driving bus on a track. Legislation was approved in January 2018.

“[Testing on a track] was a very good thing to do when you’re doing an introduction to this technology,” said Marken. “We had to get to know the technology and to introduce it to what we call an everyday user. Since this was the pre-study and a learning phase, we also contributed with experience and data to our main road authorities to provide them data to have our legislation in place. We were the very first project doing the application on this legislation.”

The phase included 600 hours in various traffic patterns and the transport of 8,000 people. A second project involved the office buildings of one of Mobility Forus’ owners, Seabrokers Group. About 5,000 people were employed in that area.

“It was extremely useful and important learning to take the technology a step ahead,” said Marken. “[In] our second project, we are connecting these buildings to our main bus road to provide solutions that will make it more suitable to come to this industry area by using public transport. The employees are using our buses every day. We also are collecting data and adding more technology into this transport and learning phase.”

Mobility Forus’ other owner, Boreal, is the country’s public transport provider, supplying buses, ferries, and trams. Consequently, Mobility Forus is either in a study mode or operational mode in various cities in Norway from south to north. The different cities and their environments mean one size doesn’t fit all.

“It is very important to know that it is during real life testing, we have the experience and the knowledge that we need to find out how this can be fit for purposes and which kind of technology and what kind of development we need to fulfill our needs and to operate in a harsh environment,” said Marken. “That’s why we are working with different kinds of technologies and vehicles to introduce this, [to] look into how we can test it, and what will be required when it comes to mitigation actions and smart signs and how these vehicles can be implemented in mixed traffic as part of the transport solution.”

Bodø is the second largest Norwegian city north of the Arctic Circle, a gateway to the Lofoten Islands and cities farther north. They are making a huge effort in Smart Transport with many sub-projects. Mobility Forus is helping to find ways to connect the airport to the harbor.

“We will use different kinds of technology to provide on-demand solutions and make it easier for the travelers to use these kinds of buses compared to ordinary taxis,” said Marken. “We are delivering self-driving buses and test them in a harsh environment to look into different kinds of solutions that will be more suitable in this particular area. This project with the self-driving buses is a very important part of smarter transport in Bodø.”

For small areas reliant on cars, the company is studying the feasibility of on-demand solutions that connect to a fleet of autonomous vehicles, along with a Tesla vehicle. The project is being carried out in the municipality of Gjesdal, near Stavanger. At Mobility Forus, they are working on a mobility hub to provide access to autonomous vehicles, and car- and bicycle-sharing linked to the bus route.

“We can provide different kinds of solutions for the employees that make it suitable for them to actually go back and forth to work without their private cars,” said Marken. “We can make them choose what they need on different days and different times.” She underlined that early user buy-in is important: “The everyday user needs to have an understanding of this technology, needs to feel safe, and needs to be a part of the introduction in the early phase, because this is something that will be seen in different kinds of cities. We need to bring them along and to make them understand how this technology can be beneficial for them.”

Photo: Hilde M. Dalman / Apriil AS
Magnus Eide is partner for customer success at InfoTiles, winner of Smart City Solution of the Year and Microsoft Integration Partner of the Year.

Magne Eide is partner for customer success at InfoTiles

Suppose you could get ahead of a natural disaster, improve emergency response time, and avoid destruction? That’s where the “new set of eyes” analysis of open data by the award-winning InfoTiles comes in. Magne Eide showed a picture of Preikestolen in Norway, near Stavanger. 

“This is beautiful, right?” he said. “For those not intimately familiar with Norwegian geography and climate, we have cold winters, pretty warm summers, and it’s also very mountainous. In more ways than one, we are ‘powered by nature.’ The potential challenge, however, is that we get heavy snowfall in the mountains in the winter, and when early summer comes and the snow starts melting rapidly, all the water tries to escape through the same rivers in the valleys. When this happens too suddenly, we get damaging floods. With recent climate change, we also see new threats in the shape of rising sea levels and extreme rain. The rain comes as heavier and more sudden downpours, which challenges the capacity of water evacuation systems in the cities.”

After initially rejecting InfoTiles overtures to Stavanger, Crawford contracted their company, which has since won Smart City Solution of the Year and Microsoft Integration Partner of the Year. 

“The collaboration with the municipality of Stavanger, starting with open data, has been an important steppingstone for us as a young startup company to get us where we are today,” said Eide. Their mission is to make sense of data. They want to make the data easily available, understandable, and actionable for users. 

Through their platform, they integrate various data sources, ranging from open data through to internal operating systems and databases, where they support direct use of a few hundred sensors out of the box. They stream the data and provide analytics to individual users. Their ultimate aim is to help cities become more efficient and safer for their resident. 

In Stavanger, InfoTiles provided a summary of the municipality’s notification system, air-quality monitoring interface, and studied flood emergency preparations to better predict coming floods. 

For this project, open data came from the Norwegian Water Resources and Energy Directorate (NVE) and Norwegian Meteorological Institute (MET Norway). Both are involved in emergency planning, MET Norway with governments. NVE also monitors ground conditions and rivers.

“Now, the challenge is to predict flooding on a local scale with sufficient prediction precision,” said Eide. “First, starting with the open data, we apply hydrological competency models to translate the regional effects of weather and water to a much more local scale. Then, the strength lies in connecting multiple sources in real time to enrich that data. We can do this by analyzing both historical and real-time events and place sensors in critical and focal points for waterfall, such as streams, bridges, and underpasses. This enables us to calibrate our models and verify our results and to learn from it.”

“We’re all in this together”

The Norway section of the virtual conference concluded with remarks from Christine Galib, senior director of the Accelerator Program at Ion Houston and director of the Smart and Resilient Accelerator Program. “We are just sitting here in awe of everything that you’ve been able to accomplish,” she said. “As Lara [Cottingham, chief sustainability officer, City of Houston] said earlier, that the entire team from Norway echoed, is that we’re all in this together. We’re all here to further our smart cities’ goals. Thank you to the entire team from Norway for the fabulous presentation. It’s absolutely amazing to see where you all are with respect to smart cities. We’re very lucky to have your support here in Houston.”

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit;