Cities embrace digital transformation for a sustainable future

27 September 2023

“The digital transformation ahead of us is a team sport.”

Viesturs Celmiņš, Managing Director of VEFRESH, kicked off the Eurocities annual Digital Forum in Riga, a three-day event focused on how cities across Europe are leveraging digitalisation to drive sustainability and usher in a green future.

In the words of Jochem Cooiman, Digital Innovation Officer in Rotterdam, and technical chair of the Digital Forum, “this year’s edition is about connecting—connecting with each other, but also connecting common endeavours we face, such as climate change and the digital transformation. It’s about bridging the old and the new, coming together to overcome the challenges of the future.”

Digitalisation: a path to sustainability

More and more cities are introducing low-emission zones, traffic sensors, energy efficiency districts, and air quality improvement plans. There are numerous examples that showcase how cities harness digital capabilities for a greener, more liveable environment. Riga, for instance, has revamped its digitalisation strategy to become an innovative city, focusing on green mobility and sustainability.

However, the transition is not without challenges. To effectively harness smart solutions, cities must develop and scale new technologies. Initiatives such as living labs, regulatory sandboxes, public-private partnerships, and public procurement are crucial, but they often require significant coordination and effort.

Unveiling digital solutions

“In the past two decades, cities have had a pivotal role in driving digital innovation,” says Federica Bordelot, Head of Digital Transformation at Eurocities. Challenges posed by the Covid-19 pandemic, economic crises, and resource pressures have propelled cities towards rapid technological advancement and the adoption of digital solutions.

“Local governments are harnessing IoT, big data analytics, edge and cloud computing, 5G networks, and artificial intelligence to create more developed, sustainable, and inclusive places,” explains Bordelot.

The digital transformation ahead of us is a team sport.
— Viesturs Celmiņš

Cities across Europe have been actively developing strategies and governance models rooted in collaboration with stakeholders and citizen participation. They are fostering co-creation, testing, and experimentation practices to build smarter and climate-neutral cities.

Powering up innovation

The Eurocities Digital Lab offers cities “the opportunities to leverage the potential of existing digital good practices at the local level,” explains Mieke van Schaik, Strategic CIO Advisor in Eindhoven, the city that chairs the Lab.

Its objective is to co-create common solutions from good practices by cities in Europe, providing a basis for implementation in other cities. 

We all have common challenges, and we are all developing solutions, which can lead to duplicating work,” adds Wim De Kinderen, Programme Director European Affairs at Brainport Eindhoven. “We want to inspire each other. We don’t aim to copy-paste digital solutions from one city to another, but to customise it to the local reality.”

Leaving no one behind

However, this rapid technological progress has also led to a widening digital divide, both within cities and society at large.

“We all know the digital divide is one of the main pressing challenges,” admits Eurocities’ head of Digital Transformation.

To address this, city governments are investing in technology experts and appointing chief digital and innovation officers. Several cities have also launched local observatories to measure the divide and become more aware of the magnitude of the problem. 

Safeguarding digital rights

Ethical concerns have arisen with the increased use of cameras, sensors, artificial intelligence, and AI-powered language models.

To address these concerns, nine cities within the Eurocities Digital Lab set a standard for the transparent and ethical use of algorithms, built on the existing example of Amsterdam and Helsinki.

We need to make sure digital rights are protected
— Federica Bordelot

The goal of the algorithm registries for cities is to support the implementation of interoperable ​algorithm registries in European cities, building trust and supporting transparency.

We need to make sure digital rights are protected,” declares Bordelot, “and integrated into the governance of local administrations.”

Cities call on the EU

In this sense, European cities request a common EU Digital Rights Governance Framework “to guide and support cities in concretely upholding human rights in the digital space,” presents Bordelot.

But that’s not all. For cities, the uptake and upscale of digital solutions and tools requires a high level of ambition, concerted efforts, and substantial investments. Therefore, they need “long-term funding to develop our digital projects,” as recognises Sophie Woodville, Digital Policy Officer at Bordeaux Metropolitan Area, and co-chair of the Forum.

“Ahead of next year’s European elections, we call on the EU for a common Digital Rights Governance Framework, support in tackling the digital divide, investments in capacity building and culture of innovation, a long-term vision and funding to upscale digital twins, and more effective data sharing,” summarises Bordelot.

As the event unfolds, we anticipate a wealth of innovative ideas and solutions that will help European cities drive their digital and green transformation agendas.

Day two features a high-level panel discussion on key technological enablers for achieving climate neutrality, followed by workshops and sessions focused on digital solutions in cities. Day three will delve into monitoring and measuring digital transformation and tools for local digital twins under the Digital Europe Programme.

Stay tuned for more updates on the Digital Forum 2023 and follow the hashtag #EurocitiesDigital on social media.


Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer