Lauri Sokk – Head of Smart City Tartu

Head of Smart City Tartu, partner at event-marketing agency Kolm Ouna, previous head organizer ay Baltic´s biggest business festival sTARTp Day. Graduated Master´s program of Economics and Business Administration cum laude with a specialization in Marketing.

Can you explain what the Smart City Tartu program is and why it’s important for making Tartu a more sustainable and livable city for now and the future?

Being a Smart City in Tartu is not an objective or program – Smart City is a way of thinking and we have embodied it since 1632. When we asked our citizens, what are the three things you would never want to lose from Tartu, they said greenery, short distances between people/places and diverse cultural scenes. And when we asked what are the three things you would fix immediately, they said international connections, better job opportunities and unbalanced city development. If you look at these two sides, they seem conflicting – On one side, citizens really like to keep their city’s identity, but on the other side they want to grow and be bigger and better.

Out of this, the Smart City Tartu vision was created: Tartu aims to stay true to itself, while also being a part of wider global economic and cultural space.

For us, smart city is the language of smartness we speak every day and is based on the values we have mutually agreed on and that we respect. It doesn’t matter if you are a lawyer, doctor or a construction worker – we understand that everything we do in Tartu can positively influence our city’s future. We do not build a smart city for someone else or to look good, we do it for ourselves.

That is why I always like to use Albert Einstein’s quote “If you have one hour to solve a problem, take 55 minutes understanding the problem and only five minutes finding the solution.” New technologies aren’t always the answer – we avoid adopting ‘innovative’ smart city technologies which just look cool. We only adopt things when we actually need them.

What are the types of solutions that the smart cities program is developing? What have been the most effective and delivered the greatest impact so far for making the city smarter and more sustainable?

I think smart cities in Estonia have a big advantage compared to other cities in the world. Whereas most cities are facing problems of how to connect with other cities in the same country. Estonia, thanks to the X-road, the centre of all our digital services, has created a platform where all data and services are based on the same standards. That’s why it really doesn’t matter if you move or live in different places in Estonia – all the data and information about your preferences is available 24/7.

Our smart city initiatives are divided into six groups – Governance, Mobility, Economy, Environment, Living and People.

One of the biggest projects right now in the city is called ‘SmartEnCity’. The goal is to renovate 19 old Soviet-style buildings. That is a total of just under 39,000 m2 and 740 apartments. Now 16 buildings are under construction and all will be completed between June 2019 – July 2020. The buildings will be near zero energy buildings (nzeb) by EU standards. All buildings have been connected to the city’s district heating system that is almost 100% powered by renewable energy. One of the most noticeable changes in the buildings is forced ventilation providing the apartments with fresh air and a good indoor climate. The buildings will receive Smart Home solutions to control the climate and for the residents to monitor their energy consumption.

What challenges have you and the team faced whilst working to make Tartu a Smarter City?

I think one of the biggest challenges for me is to explain that smart city is not some kind of futuristic concept of cities that requires a lot of resources and which is has to be connected with a term called “technology”. For the last year I’ve been spreading the message that building a smart city is like building a house for yourself – you call it home and you want it to be as “you” as it can be. The more I speak and present this idea, the more it spreads.

Adopting different technologies is just 5% of the effort. The hardest part is to understand which problems are we facing and which are the most important ones to solve in the first place. If we embed this mentality across our organization and city, then everything flows smoothly after. We need to put an equation mark between smart city and community. Smart city in my opinion is like a community, where every member shares the same values and goals with each other.

How do residents and visitors experience of Tartu differ and benefit from before the Smart Cities program?

Tartu was the first city in the world that started using mobile parking and one of the first cities in the world that adopted participative budgeting. Being a part of city’s development is important for our citizens as well as for the government. We communicate a lot with our citizens and allow them to speak with us during the process of planning. That is why most of the big decisions, which are made and which influence the citizen, are always taken to the public for discussion.

Although our new public transportation network and bike-sharing network was planned using a lot of big data, our citizens always had the opportunity to give their opinion. In the case of bike-sharing, big data was actually able to predict what people wanted! The citizen is the center and most important thing for our smart city. Visiting Tartu or living here daily, you can feel how you have so many opportunities to speak up.

As head of Smart City Tartu, could you describe two public policies that have been implemented by the government to make the city smarter, more efficient and livelier?

First, the ‘Digitalization Voucher’, that we developed provides support for industrial companies with financial resources to make their production processes more automated. In the last month we have supported five different companies.

Second, is the support for flight connections in Tartu. As our city population is only 100,000, therefore it is hard to get the attention from flight companies. Nevertheless, people living, conducting science and making business in Tartu need to be connected with the outside world. That is why our local government started discussions with one of the biggest flight companies in this region – Finnair. We support Tartu-Helsinki flight connections yearly with 200 000 EUR to keep this route in work. This guarantees flight companies economic stability and for us it means continuous connections with rest of the Europe. Thanks to that you can fly from Tartu to most of the cities in Europe in four hours and also get to New York, Tokyo or Beijing with one layover in Helsinki.

The conference ‘Smart City for the Citizens 2019: Data and AI as game changers for the cities’ took place in Tartu on 23rd May 2019. What have been the main outcomes of the conferences?

The Smart City conference has been running for a few years now and I am happy to see that more people outside of this specific sphere are connecting with the event. One of the main reasons why the Smart City Cluster in Estonia is organises the event is to share the knowledge of smart city industry and what the main trends and projects that are happening right now are. It is a really good way to connect with specialists and develop successful relationships.”

One of the main aims of Cities Forum is promoting and inspiring best practice in city sustainability, and it is great that Smart City has developed webinars and tools for other cities to use. How can these be used? And what advice would you give to other cities around the world in how to make their own smarter city transition?

Learning from different experiences is extremely important to constantly improving and knowledge sharing is of upmost importance if cities want to become better and understand their citizens better. On the other hand, I feel that cities should not just copy what others are doing because every city is different, with unique cultures and values. Every smart city in the world should focus on their own values are and understand what their citizens expect from them. Once you know your customer, it is easy to continue the development of the city.

What in your opinion is the most important challenge and solution facing cities in becoming more sustainable?

Estonian public services are 99% digitalized and this is great. Unfortunately, most of the cities in Estonia are lacking in fully predictive digitalized services. This is something cities really need to work on in the future – for example, how local services like registration to kindergarten can be as effective and predictive as state services are. Less bureaucracy means more time for better things – time for your family, caring for the environment and taking care of your health etc. Tartu should be really focused on making our citizens lives as hassle-free as we can. We are half-way there, but still there is a lot to improve!

What do you envision the smart city transition in Tartu progressing after the Smart City program ends in 2020?

In my opinion, in the future cities will be the center of people’s everyday lives and most of the services, either state-wide or local, will be used through smart cities. For example, if your driving license is expiring, you don’t have to order it anymore from or, you can just use your Smart City Tartu application to go through the same process (using X-road). It is the same application, where you report potholes, watch how much energy your house consumes at the moment or use your smart bike service. This is our vision for smarter city – a city that considers citizen needs.

I personally hope Tartu is the city that really takes care of its citizens in a way that no one wants to move away from here. Keeping our most precious resource – people – close to the city might be the biggest goal we have!

Jaime Ruiz Huescar

About Jaime Ruiz Huescar

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Co-founder of Cities Forum, a global organization focused on working with cities, companies and organisations to meet their sustainable development goals.