Warsaw’s Smart Approach To City Transformation

Smart cities are becoming increasingly important as populations continue to grow which requires better management of infrastructure and resources.

Cities around the world are creating smart city strategies to ensure sustainable population growth with more efficient use of resources and increased quality of life. However, a smart city strategy is not the silver bullet for city governments moving forward. There are a range of challenges for implementation including technology, funding, community awareness and scale potential. In order to have a flourishing city environment, there are a few key elements that can create ongoing success. My time in Finland and Sweden was a great opportunity to see some best practice models of coordinating and maximising the use of technology to benefit society and the environment.
More recently, wandering around the streets of Warsaw I noticed some interesting glimpses of smart city initiatives. When I read more about Warsaw City Council, I was impressed at their vision and approach to drive digital transformation across the whole city.

What is a Smart City?

There are a range of definitions out there, but at its core, smart cities use connected, data rich technology to ensure greater outcomes for citizens, the environment, the economy and society at large.
In order to be classified as a smart city, it must contain these key elements:

  • It has defined social, economic and environmental outcomes: There must be specific objectives focused on long term change that can be measured through the use of technology on an ongoing basis.
  • Technology is an enabler not the overall purpose: Often smart cities are focused on big technology companies as a way to prove the technology rather than to have positive social outcomes. Ultimately the technology needs to be operating at a standard that it has wide scale use, however the objective of a smart city should never be to prove technology.
  • It creates an ecosystem: A strong smart city is not just a collection of technology, it is an integrated ecosystem with partnerships spanning business, government, civil society, NGOs and universities. A great example of ecosystem development in smart cities is the Smart and Clean Foundation in Finland (read the article here).

Cities around the world are transforming their communities and infrastructure with the use of technology to ensure the environment is good for people and the planet. Warsaw in particular has made some exciting progress as a smart city, with their Mayor focused on creating positive outcomes for citizens and the local environment through a strong digital transformation strategy.

Warsaw’s Smart City Plan

Although Poland is run by a conservative political party, the Warsaw City Mayor is from the opposition party and has bold, sustainable plans. He recently offered free public transport during the global climate strike to incentivise people to attend the rally. He understands the link between a healthy environment and a healthy planet. Their focus is on increasing the quality of life of their citizens and they have a bold vision for 2030. According to the city’s strategy, Warsaw aims to become a city with a mature digital dimension and a place that generates innovation, attracts international talents and inspires the world. Smart cities are a core foundation to enable this.

1. Smart Community: Strong Civic Engagement Approach

A critical component of their approach to smart cities is community engagement. It is important that citizens have an opportunity to engage in the technology, understand why it is important and co-create some of the solutions.
The Deputy Mayor, Michal Olszewski said in an interview ‘We are using technology to cooperate with inhabitants who might have an influence on such important issues as public transport, air quality, green spaces or the city budget. The city develops in a smart way when its residents are well-informed and can contribute to the city’s management, where they can live and have the opportunity to explore their ideas.’

It is important that the technology and data behind smart cities are accessible to citizens so they can be involved in the implementation. For example, allowing citizens to have air quality sensors around their house that feed into an open data platform creating an air quality index for the broader city helps citizens, local government and business to make changes to their lifestyles and overall environment.

2. Smart Environment: Building on Existing Infrastructure

Warsaw has the 5th largest urban bike system in Europe which is over 600 km long. As it is a large, sprawling city, this infrastructure is important. To ensure mobility services, Warsaw has been proactive in ensuring bike rental services as well as the emergence of Lime and other electric scooters. In 2017 there were 5 million bike rentals with 600 000 users. For a population of almost 1.8 million people it shows that tourists are also using the bike system as a form of mobility. These electric scooters are also quite popular however locals are often concerned that they may cause issues with pedestrians.

Warsaw’s extensive bike and scooter network is effective because of the bike path infrastructure

Green areas also contribute to the uniqueness of the city which covers almost 40% of the city land mass. This is of great pride to the residents of the city and their Lazienski park is incredibly expansive and beautiful. Building on the green spaces, Warsaw City Council created a mobile app in 2017 called ‘One Million Trees’. The app allows citizens to find places around the city where a tree could be planted and nurtured. The citizens can then plant the tree and log it in the app to create a network of tree locations across the city. It is aimed to increase the awareness and importance of tree planting as well as help citizens play a role in climate based solutions.
When I was walking into town one day, I found a few trees that were planted as part of the initiative!

Some trees planted as part of the million trees initiative

3. Smart Economy: Attracting Global Investment

Warsaw’s smart city strategy also creates a foundation for international investment. Warsaw is being positioned as a hub for entrepreneurs as they continue to build a strong cafe, leisure and dining culture. Another key attraction for investors is that Warsaw is Poland’s University hub with 77 universities and 250,000 students. With young talent and lower labour costs than western Europe, they are attracting and retaining startups who can feed into the smart city ecosystem.
Although still a small market, in Q1 2019 there were 21 venture capital transactions which is a 50% increase on the previous quarter. The overall value of the investments were 103.3 PLN, a 37% increase to the previous quarter. Majority of these deals were Polish owned tech startups with a range of products including packaging design, shelving and eyewear.

4. Smart Business: Creating New Business Models

Google has their Google for Startups campus in the Praga region of the city. The campus is situated in the old Polish Vodka Factory where there are a range of offices, restaurants and a Polish Vodka museum if you need a break from the daily grind of work!
I spent a few days working in the hub (which is free!) and the space was constantly buzzing. They often have Meetups and events for their members.

Google’s coworking space in the old Vodka Factory

Further, hackathons and accelerators are popping up everywhere in Warsaw, connecting the dots between talent and startups. One in particular that was run earlier in the year was by Girl Geek Carrots. Geek Girls Carrots is a global grassroots organisation focused on women in tech and female entrepreneurs. They gather to inspire, learn from each other, share knowledge. Their hackathon earlier this year was focused on using coding to solve some of the Sustainable Development Goals, with smart cities one of the pillars. There were a range of smart city ideas developed which can be found here.

5. Smart Buildings: Buildings For the Future

As development continues around Warsaw, all new buildings need to adhere to WELL certification which is a standard to ensure the building is created in a way that minimises harm on the environment and increases the wellbeing of employees.
Further to this, the Warsaw City Council created a smart heating network, the largest in Europe with the intention of optimising the energy use in colder months. It is a joint investment with Veolia Energia Warszawa S.A. and was completed in autumn 2017. They modernised the existing network, installed appropriate equipment, and implemented apps to manage the system. This optimisation reduced Warsaw’s CO2 emissions by 14.5 tonnes which equates to the planting of 1 million trees.

The buildings are also being developed in a way that blends green spaces in indoor and outdoor settings. The main shopping mall in Warsaw Central has developed new indoor green spaces. It was one of the first shopping malls where I walked around for a few hours and didn’t get a headache!

Warsaw City Council’s plan is comprehensively putting in measures for new buildings as well as using sensors and technology to uplift environmental efficiency and living standards in existing buildings. This two fold approach is critical as cities continue to develop and expand.


The most impressive part of Warsaw City Council’s strategy is that smart cities are seen as an enabler to make their broader vision of the city a success. Walking around the streets there are glimpses everywhere of the digital transformation and local people seem excited by the changes. Everyone I spoke to had good things to say about the Mayor and in particular his future thinking leadership.

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