“A great city is like a good party — people stay longer than planned because they enjoy themselves.”

This proverb is attributed to the Danish architect, Jan Gehl, who has made a reputation improving the quality of urban life by focusing on pedestrians and cyclists. The proverb is now the motto — hung up in oversize letters at the entrance of the office — of the Alba Iulia City Manager.

On December 1st, 1918, Alba Iulia was the birthplace of modern Romania. In 2018, Alba Iulia aspires to lead Romania into its second century by piloting 100 “Smart City” applications that changes the paradigm of local government.

Smart City

To find the smart-city nerve center, you have to walk past the Mayor’s office, slide past the local police officer, and make your way through throngs of forlorn retirees, gripping their flat caps in their hands. At the end of a seemingly endless corridor, you’ll stumble into Alba Iulia 2.0.

Here, in several offices, are people busily writing European Union project proposals. Alba Iulia’s recent facelift is largely due to their efforts. The city is the beneficiary of extraordinary restoration projects. 

The hot topic in these crowded offices is the concept of “Smart City”. But not the same “Smart City” as conceived by Bucharest Mayor, Gabriela Firea, who attempted to flatter Bucharest’s citizens by stating they live in a “Smart City” because its citizens are smart.

Nor is it the “Smart City” concept used in the advertising campaigns of mayors who purchase a traffic management application or launch a mobile app that helps citizens find parking spaces. All the while, citizens are still stopping at every red light and driving an hour to get to work.

“We have no idea how to use the technology”, responds the city manager of Alba Iulia, Nicolaie Moldovan. “We don’t have people who are responsible for maintaining and managing these applications or people who know how to benefit from the strengths of high technology.”

To benefit from technology, there is a need for deep cultural change in local administration. Governments need to rethink their role and relationship with citizens. There is also a need for new national legislation.

“When there is political will, legislation can happen very quickly in Romania. Today, we see that if someone want to change the justice laws, they can do so in two weeks. It should be very easy to legislate a smart way of operating cities.”

One of the gates of the Alba Carolina Fortress. Photo: Romulus Oprișcan
The sledding hill in the interior of Alba Iulia’s Fortress.

100 Smart Solutions for 100 Years as a Nation

“In our city’s strategic plan, ‘smart’ development has first priority. Alba Iulia will be an exhibition center in 2018. A laboratory where many projects under the ‘Smart City’ umbrella will be tested. We are too poor of a city to purchase something of low quality. So we decided to run tests before purchasing and implementing something here,” says the City Manager.

Alba Iuliu chose to follow the e-government model applied in Estonia.

“We don’t have time to reinvent the wheel. We realize that we’re falling behind,” explains Nicolaie Moldovan.

Mayor Mircea Hava gave Moldovan free reign to assemble a top team of reform specialists. Moldovan’s team now includes several members of the Gov IT Hub project, launched by Prime Minister Cioloş in 2016 to find solutions to the problems facing the federal administration.

Just a few days after they resigned from the National Government, they received the offer to work for the Alba Iulia City Hall.

“A group of them have united under an NGO called Civic Tech. We signed a protocol for the completion of four different projects.

One of the projects they’re going to work on is the City of Alba Iulia website with the goal of making it the most user-friendly website in Romania. If it is successful for us, it might become of interest to 3,000 plus administrations. We’re like a flock of sheep, we follow one another.”

Alba Iulia also signed a protocol with the Ministry of Communications and Information Society. The document serves as a guideline for multinational companies, local firms, or start-ups to demo their smart city solutions at the Unirii Fortress. 

For tech companies, having this kind of base is extremely attractive because they can discover how to improve their own software. Once scaled, the software can be applied to much larger markets.

“For us, it’s important to understand which products and services work and which ones don’t. We need to know what the maintenance costs are like and what kind of security risks they entail. We will use this information to develop healthy public procurement contracts,” explains Nicolaie Moldovan.

The 365 day plan

By mid-December 2017, the City of Alba Iulia had signed 69 contracts for testing smart technologies.

For one year, starting on January 1, 2018, the software will be tested and will be modified according to citizens’ responses. The municipality’s partners include Microsoft, Orange, Philips, Telekom, as well as 10 companies from the Cluj IT Cluster.

Orange, for example, has proposed 14 different projects. One of these involves free Wi-Fi in the Alba Carolina Fortress as well as in the city’s best high schools, in the local university, train station and bus station.

Here are some other applications being tested in 2018

uRadMonitor is a air quality monitor mounted in public transport buses.

e-albaiulia is a virtual guide for sightseeing, events and restaurants. This application uses beacon technology — devices that transmit information on users’ phones when the user is within range. e-alabiulia is also used by the administration to ask citizens questions regarding public services or infrastructure.

LoraWan is an Internet of Things (IoT) app which collects real time performance data on public utilities. For example, the water flow rate is measured at the main points in the city.

Fully restored, the Alba Carolina Fortress is spectacular. Photo: Romulus Oprișcan

“It’s very complex because it’s a long range communication system that broadcasts information from underground. But it helps us measure real-time network parameters,” explains Valentin Volnica, manager of smart city projects in Alba Iulia.

The LoraWan sensor network is also coupled with three intelligent lighting systems provided by the Chinese company ZTE. These allow for the adjustment of energy input to public lighting based on sunlight, weather and time of day.

Valentin Volnica has worked in telecommunications for 20 years and has a limitless curiosity for new technologies. He shows us the beacons that illuminate Alba Carolina Fortress.

“You can’t see these beacons, once we tried looking for one and it took us a good amount of time to find it!”

The city’s administration has not limited the applications to be tested in 2018. There is no budget ceiling and no deadline for pilot projects.

“We have been inundated with commercial offers. Everyone tells us that they are the best. But we don’t have the technical capacity, nor the experience, to assess what really works. So we created a collaboration formula in which companies can show us how their product or their service works,” states Nicolae Moldovan.

The next 100 years

Alba Iulia is turning the paradigm of Romanian living upside. In the New Romania, citizens are no longer subjects, they are customers. In the borderless world of the European Union, cities need to compete to attract residents.

Local governments can no longer limit themselves to asphalt, but must move to the next level. In the new reality, votes will be earned by a more sensible indicator — the quality of life.

“Raising the quality of life in a city begins with lighting, canalization, asphalting, sidewalks, and bicycle lanes. But parallel to that, is investment in education, health and culture.

People have to fall in love with the city and be proud of where they live.” Nicolaie Moldovan, city manager of Alba Iulia.