In today’s fast-paced digital age, local communities face unprecedented challenges and opportunities brought by the rapid advancement of technology. It is therefore no surprise that, according to the Eurocities’ Pulse, digital transformation is one of the top three areas where EU funding will make the biggest difference to the policy objectives of European mayors in the next five years.
With the Digital Decade targets setting the pathway for 2030, and the green transition pushing for the use of new technologies for climate action, cities and regions need to be at the forefront of innovation, while ensuring the digital divide does not deepen social or economic inequalities.
Cities leading the change
“Local and regional levels are more agile than their national counterparts when innovating with digital technologies,” acknowledged Renate Nikolay, Deputy Director-General for Communications Networks, Content and Technology (DG CNECT) at the European Commission, during the first EU Mayors’ Digital Assembly.
The Mayors’ Digital Assembly is the political advisory body which provides strategic orientation to the Living-in.EU movement. Eurocities, through its role in coordinating the community, is actively delivering the initiative.
More than 130 participants joined the first EU Mayors’ Digital Assembly, which took place on 15 June during the Brussels Urban Summit, to discuss the political decisions that need to be taken now, to ensure a just and sustainable digital tomorrow.
The future we want
“We want a digital transformation that is human centred, that leaves no one behind, that is interoperable, in which our data is safe. We want to ensure we are taking citizens with us in this digital journey, and that they can trust it,” added Nikolay.
But it is easier said than done. To ensure that just digital and green transformations go hand in hand and lead us towards the society we want to live in, we need to adopt policies that regulate the use of technologies and help us leverage the benefits they bring.
We are in this together
With this in mind, the first panel of the Mayors’ Digital Assembly focused on the leadership decisions needed to accompany a city or a region in its digital transformation.
“To understand how the digital transformation will benefit or affect citizens, we need to understand what use and results digital technologies will have, and which roles people will have around them,” stated Seppo Määttä , Mayor of Oulu and co-chair of the Mayors’ Digital Assembly.
During his intervention, Määttä stressed the importance of a continuous and open dialogue with stakeholders to ensure effective engagement. Collaboration between residents, citizens, researchers, the private sector, governments and NGOs is vital to create a thriving digital ecosystem.
Digital means political
“Digital technologies are an important open door for policy issues, for example, democratisation of digitalisation,” remarked Matteo Lepore, Mayor of Bologna. “From a municipal point of view, we need to create and co-create digital tools to adapt our policies, to make them the starting point for decision making.”
Drawing from the experience of Bologna, Mayor Lepore highlighted the importance of Local Digital Twins (LDT) as tools for policy adaptation and decision-making. LTDs play a pivotal role in advancing the green transition, aligning with the vision of achieving sustainable development.
“For us at the city of Munich, the Urban Digital Twin is at the heart of the Smart City concept.” said Felix Sproll, Munich City Councillor. The city of Munich is developing its LDT technology in collaboration with the German cities of Hamburg and Leipzig. “Cooperation is essential here, exchanging knowledge and sharing resources to get a better product for our citizens,” continued the councillor. “It is a great opportunity to jointly develop these tools that we could otherwise not develop alone.”
The case of Tallinn city is going one step further, as Estonia has been at the forefront of digital identity implementation for over two decades. That is why, when Estonians hear others referring to the ‘digital signature’ as a mere scanned copy of a handwritten scribble on paper, they find it amusing.
They recognise that the future lies in collaboration, which is why they advocate cross-border digital solutions. Getting there, though, comes with several challenges, not only in terms of infrastructure, but also in legal terms. “We have to solve these challenges at EU level,” explained Tiit Terik, Deputy Mayor of Tallinn.
Why do you want my data?
In any case, maximising the benefits of digital technologies requires huge amounts of the most precious commodity of today’s world: data. It is not possible to move towards a digital future without it. However, citizens are faced with the dilemma of seeing their data being requested and collected without understanding the use and consequences it may bring.
“Trust is the cornerstone of working with different stakeholders, and needs to be at the centre of digital societies,” Määttä acknowledged. “People think, ‘Is sharing my data worth it? Is my data safe?’ If they can trust the system, then the answer to these questions is yes.”
Empowering every voice
As we dive into the world of digital transformation, we must remember that digital inclusion is paramount. We cannot let technology run wild, widening socio-economic gaps between communities. We must make sure that everyone has a fair chance to access digital benefits. It’s about levelling the playing field and making sure that no one is left behind in this digital revolution.
For Lluisa Moret i Sabidó, Mayor of Sant Boi de Llobregat, “digitalisation has to be brought closer to where the people are.” And the digital transition has to be socialised. “It seems that the digital transition is discussed in an elite environment, we have to democratise digitalisation,” mayor and co-chair of the Mayors’ Digital Assembly said.
The digital divide “is not going to disappear; but it is deepening, present in all age groups, and it has costs that we have not yet measured,” according to Delphine Jamet, Deputy Mayor of Bordeaux Métropole. That is why the city has set up an observatory for digital divide, and chairs the Eurocities task force on digital inclusion, in which Amsterdam, Barcelona, Ghent and Rotterdam also participate.
“It is good to have digital technologies and digital tools, but we need to have a comprehensive approach that takes into account sustainability, social inclusion, and many other aspects that govern a community,” highlighted Constance Nebbula, Vice President of Pays de la Loire, and of Angers Loire Metropole.
Surfing the digital wave
It is clear that digital technologies are key in cities across Europe to improve decision making and solve interconnected challenges. To do so, it is important to create public value and contribute to democratic values. “We need technology as a tool to achieve our vision, to push democracy and twin transition forward,” remarked Mayor Lepore.
However, without interoperability we cannot make the most of our tools. “We tend to leave it to technical experts, but we need to bring these issues to the political table. Interoperability must become a priority at the same level as fighting poverty and climate change,” summarised Federica Bordelot, Head of Digital Transformation at Eurocities. “And we need to do it while ensuring basic knowledge and skills, as well as the trust of citizens.”
So, as we ride the wave of technological progress, let’s not lose sight of the prize: a digital world where everyone is invited to the party.
Cities are not alone
But cities are not alone in their digital transformation journey. During the Mayors’ Digital Assembly, two important EU-level tools were announced, designed to support cities along the way.
The first is the ‘Local Digital Twin & Citiverse EDIC‘, an instrument launched by the European Commission in collaboration with five member states. This funding instrument falls under the Commission’s Digital Decade Policy Programme 2030 and establishes the European Digital Infrastructure Consortium (EDIC) as a platform for shared investments and knowledge exchange on a European scale.
“We hope more countries will join this EDIC led by Estonia, with the support of Germany, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Spain”, stated Nikolay. “This EDIC is a new legal entity to support cross-border infrastructure, a multi-country project, to develop a European Local Digital Twin technology and enhance the journey towards the CitiVerse”.
The second tool is LORDIMAS, unveiled by President of Helsinki Region, Markku Markkula. “Data is the key, not only for predicting the future, but for builiding the future. And for that, we need access to the best available global knowledge,” presented the president of the Finnish region, and Ambassador of the Committee of Regions.
LORDIMAS is an assessment tool for local digital maturity, developed as part of the Living-in.EU initiative, in collaboration with the Committee of the Regions, the European Commission, and ESPON. This instrument, which will be launched on 2 October in all EU languages, will enable cities and communities to evaluate their digital progress in comparison to their peers, providing valuable insights and a comprehensive overview of the state of digital transformation at the local level. With access to a unique database, cities can report their advancements and benchmark their performance on various digital issues.
These two instruments demonstrate the commitment of the European Union and Member States to support cities in their digital transformation efforts.
An enlarging community
The momentum of the Living in EU movement has grown with the addition of new signatories to the ‘Join, Boost, Sustain’ declaration. The cities of Rzeszow and Tallinn, and the Centre-Val de Loire and Pays de la Loire regions added their names during the event at the Brussels Urban Summit.
In the days leading up to the Mayors’ Digital Assembly, the cities of Tarragona, Manresa, Sant Feliu de Llobregat, Lleida, Matosihnos and Esplugues de Llobregat, as well as the regions of Flanders and Frankfurt Rhein-Main, joined the movement. This brings to twelve the number of communities that have joined the movement since the beginning of the year.
These new signatories highlight the growing recognition and commitment of cities and regions in deciding how the future of digital transformation will look like. In words of Renate Nikolay, “the digital decade needs to be shaped by all of us: region, cities and villages need to work together to support a digital transition in Europe.”
If you missed the event, you can watch the recording here: