A call to action to bridge the digital divide

21 March 2024

“If 20% of our cities’ population were unable to turn on the lights in their homes, everyone would be really concerned. Why then, do we not accord the same level of urgency to addressing digital exclusion?”

These words formed part of the opening speech by Delphine Jamet, Digital Councillor in Bordeaux Metropole, and vice-chair of Eurocities Digital Forum, during an advocacy session organised by Bordeaux Metropole.

The session ‘Bridging the Digital Divide by 2030′ explored innovative solutions and strategies to narrow the digital divide and ensure inclusive digital transformation across Europe, starting in cities.

The digital divide, in the EU agenda

Speaking at the session, Eric Peters, Acting Head of Unit Responsible for the Digital Decade 2030 Strategy in the European Commission, stated: “Digitalisation is radically changing the way we live, and not just the way we interact with technologies. We cannot live, study and connect without digital technologies.”

As our reliance on digital technologies grows, the ability to access and utilise these technologies becomes increasingly essential for participation in society. “That is why digital is one of the key priorities of the Von Der Leyen Commission, together with green transformation,” Peters added.

Digitalisation is one of the key priorities of the Von Der Leyen Commission, together with green transformation
— Eric Peters, DG CNECT, European Commission

“We need to strive to be one of the places where skills and innovation are thriving, but this is also a choice of civilisation – divide makes a difference between those who can benefit from the digital revolution, and those who can’t.”

What is needed to access the digital world?

As digital tools continue to shape our interactions with the environment, access to infrastructure is crucial, as are the skills to optimise digitalisation. Today, half of Europeans still lack basic digital skills and 2.4% of homes cannot afford internet connectivity.

The digital gap is not limited to specific age groups or demographics; it affects individuals across all walks of life. “Everyone is affected by it,” stated Fabian Maingain, Alderman of Economic Affairs, Employment, Smart City and Administrative Simplification in the City of Brussels. “Look at young people, who we tend to think are fine. They know how to do amazing things on TikTok, but then struggle with administrative procedures online.”

Everyone is affected by the digital divide
— Fabian Maingain, City of Brussels

“We need to understand digital literacy is literacy,” acknowledged Kim van Sparrentak, Member of the European Parliament and Shadow Rapporteur for the Artificial Intelligence Act and the Short Term Rentals regulation. “It is a fundamental right to know how the digital world works, just as it is a fundamental right to learn how to read, because this is now basic knowledge.”

Understanding the divide

To tackle the digital divide effectively, it is crucial to understand its nuances and complexities. “What cannot be assessed, cannot be managed,” said Peters.

To better understand how to effectively tackle digital inequalities, Bordeaux Metropole last year launched an observatory on digital divide. “We wanted to know what our current needs were and to escape the curse of scattershot approaches,” said Antoine Bidegain, Deputy Director Digital and Data in Bordeaux Metropole. They surveyed about 5,000 people, asking about their use of digital equipment, connectivity, use, and ease.

It is a fundamental right to know how the digital world works, just as it is a fundamental right to learn how to read
— MEP Kim van Sparrentak

In the survey, almost 20% of respondents said that digitalisation makes their lives more complicated, with a quarter encountering challenges in accessing public services, and almost half of the population worried they could not recognise fake information.

However, on a more positive note, around 75% of the surveyed population said that they are digital helpers, which means they support their friends and family with digital questions and problems. “However, these people don’t have an official title, they don’t work within any structure. They are invisible to the city’s eye,” said Antoine Bidegain.

Similarly, Ghent tracked the digital questions that were asked to their front-line city officers. In 2023 alone, they received 16,575 queries, which were answered by volunteers as well as social workers.  When examining how and who are posing questions, Maria Euwema, Project Leader for Digital Inclusion in the City of Ghent, confirmed: “Digitalisation enforces existing exclusion for vulnerable people.”

“Complex situations create complex questions”, said Euwema, so Ghent has created a specific training with social workers and first-line civil servants as digital coaches.

Euwema added: “For a while, cities focused on fostering digital advancements. But we have the responsibility to look back and see if everyone is still coming with us – we need to ensure we are not leaving anyone behind in this journey.”

Digitalisation enforces existing exclusion for vulnerable people
— Maria Euwema, City of Ghent

When discussing public services, Vienna wants to put people in the centre of their offer to citizens. That’s why they have published a Manifesto on Digital Humanism. “We cannot forget digital technologies are made by people, and should be shaped by and for people,” said Klemens Himpele, Chief Information Officer in the City of Vienna.

Working together to close the gap

The digital divide affects residents within cities, but also municipalities when compared with each other. “There are municipalities that can provide help and develop projects against inequality, but smaller towns do not have the funds or the capabilities to obtain that funding,” stated Fabian Maingain.

This feeling was echoed by Sophie Woodville, Digital Programme Manager in Bordeaux Metropole. “We are fortunate enough to be able to discuss these issues, and put resources to tackle digital exclusion. However, other cities and particularly rural areas, do not have this opportunity.”

Sharing practices and frameworks at European level will help us save time and resources
— Antoine Bidegain, Bordeaux Metropole

Designing and running surveys to understand the digital divide takes time, and not all the municipalises have the resources needed to run these sort of projects. “Sharing practices and frameworks at European level will help us save time and resources,” added Bidegain.

Towards an EU framework

“Working on the Eurocities Digital Divide Taskforce we have realised the digital divide is a shared issue around Europe,” said Maria Euwema. “We should work towards a European framework for various types of digital helpers, including a curriculum for professionals doing this work. That is important because it will help put people back at the heart of the digital transformation.”

But in addition to a EU framework to support their actions, cities need funding, which is not always easy to get. “It should be easier for municipalities to get funding, especially for these kind of projects,” acknowledged MEP van Sparrentak.

Support already available from the EU

The European Commission has prioritised digital inclusion through initiatives such as the Digital Decade Strategy, which aims to empower European businesses and individuals in a sustainable digital future.

“The Digital Decade is the first policy initiative that links values with digital leadership,” acknowledged Peters. “Europe has a very unique approach to digital transformation: focused on values, rather than technological development or economic benefits.”

Europe has a very unique approach to digital transformation: focused on values
— Eric Peters, DG CNECT, European Commission

At the same time, the European Consortium of Digital Infrastructures (EDIC) facilitates multi-country projects, such as the Networked Local Digital Twins towards the CitiVERSE, accessible to cities and municipalities.

“The EDIC allows to share costs and investments, allowing smaller municipalities to access infrastructure that otherwise they could not afford,” explained Martin Bailey, Head of Unit Technologies for Smart Communities in the European Commission.

Let’s keep talking about this

It is important to keep the topic high on the European agenda. According to MEP van Sparrentak, “digital inclusion is not discussed often enough in the European Parliament.”

Although things have changed in the last few years  (“for a while, the focus was put on fostering innovation and digitalisation, trying to avoid hindering its development with little to no regulation,” she shared), there is still a long way to go.

Digital should not be a how, but a why - we need to use digitalisation as a tool to create a better world
— Fabian Maingain, City of Brussels

Cities, as frontrunners in work to tackle the digital divide, play a key role in acting on the ground, but also raising the issue to national and European spheres. “You, cities, are the ones who have the stories. You need to raise them to the national level, to the European level,” said van Sparrentak. Public procurement is another way cities can aim to ensure technology providers put people in the centre of the digitalisation process.

“Cities are the place where regulation is implemented – where the real impact happens,” acknowledged Peters.

Digital, why?

“Digital should not be a how, but a why – we need to use digitalisation as a tool to create a better world, to provide better services, to allow people to access their rights” said Fabian Maingain, to close the event.

We need to ensure that digitalisation does not prevent people from accessing their rights
— Delphine Jamet, Bordeaux Metropole

“But that’s not what is happening now,” added Delphine Jamet. “Currently, we have a digital divide impossible to solve. We need to ensure that digitalisation does not prevent people from accessing those rights.”


Cities will continue to discuss how to close the digital divide during the next Eurocities Digital Forum ‘Digital inclusion in European Cities’, which will take place in Rotterdam between 17-19 April 2024. Register to the event (Eurocities members only) here.


Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer