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Burgas: The Next European Smart City?

Burgas: The Next European Smart City?
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Burgas has the potential to become the first 5G city in Bulgaria. This could also accelerate the development of smart city applications. On 18th August 2020, the Mayor of Burgas and the President of the Bulgarian Industrial Association agreed to work together for the building of an IT hub which will develop the new 5G network in the city. Over the past couple of years, Burgas has implemented several smart management systems for the city’s assets thanks to the already established digital infrastructure of well-connected sensors and smart devices throughout the city. 

Because of that, Burgas has been recognized to be the perfect “pilot city” for the achievement of the goals of the Innovation Strategy of Bulgaria for Intelligent Specialization. The city is currently working on the development of an “urban dashboard”, which will monitor, assess, and optimize investment plans and the delivery of public services. Burgas has the ambition to become the next European smart city and has already implemented its flagship digital project smartburgas.eu – an integrated platform with a user-friendly interface, which offers real-time data about the city’s air quality, traffic, waste management as well as video surveillance of public spaces and key urban areas.  

What is already there: IoT solutions for water pollution and smart parking

Besides being an attractive place for living, the marine city of Burgas offers advantageous conditions for business and investments. Nevertheless, the progress that the city has achieved in developing its startup and IT ecosystem has not yet been able to compete with the technological and startup community advancements of Sofia. The annual Startup Ecosystem 2020 Report of the StartupBlink organization illustrates this by ranking Sofia on the 86th place out of 1000 cities around the world for its well-developing startup ecosystem, while Burgas takes the 984th place.

This doesn’t mean that the technology ecosystem in Burgas is stagnating since over the past couple of years promising events for the region have occurred: new IT companies entered the local market and boosted the business environment by opening new offices and stimulating the engagement in entrepreneurial initiatives. This stir in business activity which brought companies such as Sutherland, Scale Focus, BULPROS, GenSoft, ICB, and 2 Plus Bulgaria into the local market, is aided by the favorable regional economy and by the efforts of the Municipality, local NGOs, and business associations. “The development of the city as an IT destination appears to be a natural process but is, in fact, a result of the year-long cooperation between the Cluster, the Municipality, and the educational institutions in the city,” the Chairman of the ICT Cluster Burgas, Petko Georgiev, explains in front of Capital.

Burgas is also the home of two rising startups in the IoT and smart city field –  SensIT, which is the winner of the Innovation Capital 2020 demo days, and ENOVA h20 – the company that was chosen to present Bulgaria at the 2020 finals of the global impact competition Chivas Venture. SensIT develops a network of smart sensors and creates a map of free parking spots in order to allow drivers to decrease the time they spend searching for free parking, while ENOVA h20 is focused on fighting water pollution by using biosensors to identify and measure the sources of organic water pollution. 

Initiatives, partnerships, and support for the local startup community

In 2019, as part of the project “Providing Effective Support for Entrepreneurship in the Southeastern Region” the ICT Cluster Burgas conducted meetings with more than 300 future and current entrepreneurs from 10 cities in Southeastern Bulgaria in order to gather information about the state and the needs of the regional startup community. 

The results from the campaign shared by the Chairman of the Cluster, Petko Georgiev, are the following: 75% of the people who want to start their own business are up to 35 years old, 72% of these aspiring entrepreneurs are not confident in their knowledge and skills, while only 4% feel prepared to run their business. The majority of entrepreneurs aim to develop in the sector of information and communication technologies (45%) and online and offline trade (25%), but they seem to be challenged by the lack of access to funding from a state program, business angel, or financial institution. Moreover, besides the provision of funds, 90% of the interviewed future entrepreneurs shared that they also need support in business planning and client attraction. 

Recognizing the need to provide effective support for local entrepreneurs, the ICT Cluster Burgas, brings together more than 30 international and Bulgarian IT companies with the aim to improve the qualifications of employees and students in the city and enhance the interaction between the local and state administration. For example, The ICT Cluster Burgas is working closely with the Bulgarian Startup Association (BESCO) in a common effort to stimulate the business culture of the Southeast region and create new opportunities for the local aspiring entrepreneurs. 

The presence of other big names from the Sofia startup ecosystem brings a positive impact in the region – for example, ScaleFocus, which opened its office in Burgas back in 2018, opened a regional branch of its Programming Academy. The good intention to leave a positive mark in the local ecosystem is not the sole reason for the expansion of IT companies in the city: the low lT labor cost the talent pool of IT specialists who have specializations in tech, programming and innovations further incentivize companies to explore the city’s potential first hand. To a point, this is because all high schools in Burgas offer programming specialization and there is even a separate high school focused only on teaching tech and innovation. Moreover, since 2016, the city hosts regular hackathons twice per year intending to provide the many enthusiastic IT students with a place for experimentation. In March 2020, the ICT Cluster Burgas concluded its 18-month incubation program StartupHUB.Bg, which supported 200 entrepreneurs with 200 innovative ideas and has already led to the establishment of 42 new startups in the cities of Burgas, Stara Zagora, Yambol, and Sliven. 

Green Mobility and Blue economy

Petko Georgiev shares that in the short-term the ICT Cluster Burgas will focus on creating and incubating more startups founded by solely local entrepreneurs. The short-term goal is the development of the “South-Eastern Digital Innovation Hub”, or “DigiHub”, in close partnership with the Burgas Municipality. By driving the digital transformation of the regional manufacturing industry and offering local enterprises access to smart IT solutions, the Hub will mainly concentrate on three areas: Green mobility with support in logistics and services connected with the automobile transport, Blue economy – where the Hub will offer assistance in tourism management, and Intelligent carbon-neutral developments where it will help enterprises with data management and implementation of technologies for a safe, healthy and sustainable living. DigiHub will offer SMEs support in ecosystem building, concept validation and prototyping, testing and validation, database management, awareness creation, and collaborative research.

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