Cities need more voice on digital transformation

6 October 2022

Cities must be part of the EU’s agenda for the digital transition not only as minor partners but as essential actors and drivers of change. Therefore, cities need funding and a seat at the table. And indeed cities’ position is stronger now than before the pandemic.

That’s what Laia Bonet, Chair of Eurocities Digital Forum and Deputy Mayor of Barcelona, believes: “The European Commission has launched several pieces of legislation on digital transition and the changes they are proposing are mostly for the better.”

Protecting digital rights, creating the conditions for European data spaces, and addressing the digital divide are some of these legislative developments. “So we are not far from these goals, quite the opposite,” she said during Eurocities Digital Forum, which takes place this week in Madrid.

Laia Bonet during Eurocities Digital Forum

She also noted during her opening speech, welcoming dozens of deputy mayors and policymakers from several cities across Europe, that “we must reinforce that cities must be part of the discussion. We have demanded that the European Commission hear us.”

Cities in the front seat

Cities have been sharing learning on the development of local digital twins, working with national governments and regions – with the support of EU institutions – to scale up cities’ initiatives through the Living in EU initiative and new members have joined the forum to strengthen cities’ position in front of the European Commission.

For André Sobczak, Secretary General at Eurocities, digital transformation is one of Eurocities’ main objectives.

“We cannot fight exclusion if we don’t include everybody in digital tools, we also need digital tools to make cities safe and foster economic growth.”

And a lot of things have been done so far, however, “there’s a lot still to be done.”

“We completely agree with all the targets within the Digital Decade – fully digitalised public services, digital skills for all, etc -, but you cannot do it alone at the level of the European Commission, you need member states and cities, and cities can’t also work alone, so it’s important for us to have this dialogue,” he noted.

Andre’s Sobczak during Eurocities Digital Forum

As a good example of how cities can work together with the help of the Commission, Sobzcak mentioned the European Commision’s mission for climate neutral cities, where most of the 120 cities participating are Eurocities members.

Digital transformation to improve cities’ capacities and citizens’ lives

The city of Madrid, host of this year’s Digital Forum, is investing in digital transformation to make its administration works better and more efficiently, and that’s the message of Santiago Saura, Councillor for Internationalisation and Cooperation of the City of Madrid.

“We want to offer better and more modern services to citizens,” he said, also noting that “we want to attract investments, start-ups and also deal with the digital divide through digital inclusion. This is transforming the city not only digitally but also in terms of environment and making sure citizens have a better life in the city.”

Faouzi Achbar, Deputy Mayor for Digital Inclusion and Digital Skills at the City of Rotterdam agreed with Saura, also noting that “digital development is happening fast, and cities must be part of the discussion and not let just the market deal with such issues otherwise we’ll have a gap and increase of inequalities.”

And he couldn’t stress more the need for public actors to lead the process. “If the democratic institutions do not actively interfere with the digital transformation, then the transformation will lead to further accumulation of inequalities,” he said, also demanding a better structure of dialogue with the Commission, as well as with partners in the Parliament.

And echoing both Bonet and Achbar, Saura said that Madrid wants “more voice and funding coming directly from the Commission to cities and not through national governments.”

Tackling digital divide

Faouzi Achbar during Eurocities Digital Forum

Madrid has been working on a plan for the deployment of 5G as a game changer for the city’s digital ambitions and they have also transformed digitally a lot of their services and are now looking at big data to improve even more the quality of the services.

However, Saura noted that “several citizens were not able to access and understand how these services work, so we created a digital skill centre to help citizens learn how to better use tech.”

Cities are at the frontline of digital challenges, from bridging the digital divide to transforming public services and, Bonet explains, “innovative policies to be able to deal with the many challenges we face as cities. We need structural funding for structural policies to tackle the dimension of the challenges we have in front of us.”

Inclusivity is particularly important for the city of Barcelona, the use of AI in city services, for example, has the potential to make life tougher, it can impact negatively on citizens, therefore any form of digital transformation must have citizens’ in mind.

“The digital transition must be just,” stressed Bonet.

She was clear on Barcelona’s stance by saying that “we don’t want technology for the sake of technology, but to make more impactful policies to decarbonise our cities, for example.”

And this is where, for instance, the digital twin comes into play: virtual replicas of real urban processes; and with the help of data, a digital twin allows us to simulate public interventions and specific scenarios (for instance traffic in certain neighbourhoods, pollution, etc).

Santiago Saura during Eurocities Digital Forum

“We can simulate without actually implementing initiatives and this gives the city the chance to better think through policies before implementation. It’s better to be sure of impacts before implementing it and it also gives a chance to change policies based on data analysis,” explained Bonet.

To boost cities’ initiatives, Bonet once again stressed the need for direct funding, as well as a less bureaucratic process both during the design and implementation of EU initiatives.

She said that “most times we are not benefiting from EU initiatives, we are just implementing them. We, cities, need to be more relevant.

Money is made available through a call, with very strict spending rules that many times don’t relate to the reality of the administration’s needs and needs on the ground. I’m not saying we don’t need rules, what I’m saying is that these initiatives and these rules are designed without taking into account who’s going to implement them. We, cities, want to be there during the design of the initiatives,” proclaimed Bonet.

You can check the full discussion on our YouTube channel:

Follow today’s action at the Eurocities Digital Forum on Twitter via #DigitalForumMadrid