Simpler smart solutions can create greener Hungarian cities
2021.05.03.
by Botond Miko

There are tons of examples in the world press for start-ups, developments and solutions such as Elon Musk's $100 million competition or the carbon-filtering skyscraper. However, beyond monumental solutions, cities can make significant ecological and financial progress just by streamlining some of their everyday practices. The production of excess paper waste is one these practices. It is hurting municipalities and public services, and strangely enough even waste collection companies. Exagent's smart solutions to such 'invisible' problems can lend municipalities and public service providers a financial and resource relief, so they can focus their attention towards tackling real issues. Such a solution could save tens of millions of euros even during the first year.

Despite Exagent's interest in software development, they monitor the more hardware-based technological innovations of startups that can make our cities greener. In such cases, we usually think of some complex or monumental solution like the air purifier skyscraper in China. Exagent believes that although this process requires scientists and world-changing ideas, still at least partially, we can solve this problem with simple, ordinary digital tools. Capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) that is already in the air is a vital issue. It is no coincidence that Elon Musk has launched a $100 million contest for startups in order to remove CO2 from the atmosphere or oceans. (However we would like to add a marginal note here: many have suggested that the billionaire should use this money to protect rain forests, rather than encouraging expensive technological development.) The other part of the solution to climate catastrophe, including global warming, is to reduce our carbon footprint, which can be achieved by cutting carbon emissions and protecting our forests.

What can a forward-thinking city do if it wants to reduce its carbon footprint but does not have the resources of Chinese megalopolises or Elon Musk? There are zillions of answers to this question, but for now let us focus on the simplest one: The city should reduce its paper consumption. Take a Hungarian city with a population of 100,000 inhabitants (about the same size as Szolnok, Szombathely, Székesfehérvár, Kecskemét, Nyíregyháza, Győr). Running a city is not an easy job, it involves a lot of (unnecessary?!) paperwork, and there are countless rules to comply with. The handling of correspondence alone eats up millions of forints, a sum which could be almost entirely saved.

One of these rules is that all public service companies must reply in writing to complaints submitted to them in a registered letter. Even if the complaint contains nothing more than a single dot. Public service providers like water, district heating, the municipal utility or the waste management company receive thousands of complaints every year. This means that the estimated annual postal costs in our fictional city are 14 million forints, not to mention the financial costs of paper, envelopes, printing, and their adverse impact on the environment.

Start-ups can also help in simplifying the administrative burden of public service providers The most important task of public service companies, alongside their core tasks, is to provide information, which is also a strictly regulated process. Chances are that everyone has come across a waste collection calendar either in the stairwell of their blocks of flat or in the mailbox are quite high. The distribution of this calendar to all properties is mandatory for the waste management company every single year. At present, this information is also provided on paper, which means that in total more than 150,000 calendars are produced annually in our imaginary city. The water company is also obliged to inform every concerned party when the water conduits are blocked for maintenance. The outcome is a smaller amount of paper, however many such cases occur during a year.

Even in 2021, piles of papers are lying stocked up in warehouses So far, we have only discussed the paperwork needed for customer communication, but internal processes are also largely done on papers, and the companies must store these for five or even ten years. Because of the long storage time, the accumulated volume of paper consumes up hundreds of square meters of space for every company. Just imagine that every property owner in our city has a contract with every public service provider; this means approximately 150,000 contracts per public service provider. However, in many cases, after a contract was signed, additional forms are used to request changes, such as a suspension of service for a certain period, which of course creates an extra load of paperwork.

The production of the paper for the receipt is much more harmful and often goes straight to waste The paper produced, used and handled by public service providers, i.e. the data on it, is particularly important. We rarely see and use this kind of paper but we are still dealing with a huge amount. However, there is another paper that we use every day: the receipt. Unlike the important official documents, these slips usually end up in the bin and are considered waste as soon as they are printed. It is particularly sad that a special thermal paper is used to print the receipt, so although no additional printing ink is needed, its production is more harmful. There is no estimate for Hungary, but in the US, according to Green America, 3 million trees and 9 billion liters of water are wasted every year(!) to produce the thermal paper for the receipts, resulting in the emission of 1.8 billion tons of CO2.

Paper cannot be completely replaced by digital devices as 14% of the Hungarian population does not have internet access at home and less than 75% has access to the internet from a portable device. So total replacement is not the goal yet, but if we can replace just 10-20 or 30% of the consumed paper listed above ? not to mention the ink and human labor required to process it with digital solutions, we will make significant steps towards a greener city.

Green software development for smart cities

Software solutions can be used to optimise both internal processes and customer communication, thereby reducing paper. Exagent's developments in this area are investments that pay off in a very short time, making them a highly advantageous economic choice for companies. Social responsibility and environmental protection also require us to develop and open up to new technologies like these.

Exagent is working on a number of similar smart city projects, some of which are more complex, while others are simpler. Such as a waste delivery calendar system and a related customer service site where you can request waste collection during certain periods. This way, waste management companies do not have to collect waste from the other side of town, thus reducing their costs and their impact on the environment. Moreover we can avoid the additional inconveniences of traditional waste collection, like having piles of waste on the street. The software that calculates the maintenance needs of urban green spaces also provides a direct benefit to our living conditions, resulting in substantial savings for the maintenance company.

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