“We have the philosophy that technology is not the purpose as its own -not technology for technology, but technology to make life easier for citizens,” says Mayor of Ghent, Matthias de Clercq.
As digital technologies profoundly transform the way we interact with each other and with the environment, they are also radically changing the way cities are organised and built.
City leaders are faced today with the daunting task of harnessing digital opportunities to solve everyday challenges – think, for example, of a greener and more sustainable future – while ensuring the security of citizens and their data, access to digital services, and that the digital divide does not exacerbate existing inequalities.
Every city is navigating digital transformation in its own way, and it is clear that there are no one-size-fits-all solutions.
The city of Oulu has defined the ‘City as a development platform’ as one of their targeted operational forms. “Our goal is two-folded: getting best out of digitalisation for the benefit of our citizens and urban community, and to boost the smart city business opportunities,” explains Seppo Maattaa, Mayor of Oulu.
The city relies on the Oulu Innovation Alliance, a well-known innovation ecosystem uniting universities, research institutions, leading companies, and the city itself to enable co-creation and experimentation. “It is all about collaboration and crossing the silos,” states the Finish mayor.
This collaborative effort extends to concrete projects in different sectors, such as health, circular economy and cleantech solutions, or continuous learning, entrepreneurship, and start-ups.
In Bologna, the Innovation and Urban Future Foundation, created by the university and the municipality, is dedicated to the collaboration and participation of citizens.” We invented a new model we call the Civic Imagination Office, using data to engage people”, explains Mayor of Bologna Matteo Lepore.
It all comes down to data
At the heart of this digital transformation is data, a resource that, while abundant, is often in private hands. In this sense, Lepore highlights the importance of having a clear data policy within the public administration.
According to Delphine Jamet, Deputy Mayor of Bordeaux and Councillor for Digital issues in Bordeaux Metropole, having good data governance within local authorities is crucial. “It’s important to understand the value of data, and to have interoperable information systems with data schemas that come from the State or the European Union”, she ackowledges, “and I think the European Union needs to work even harder on this.
EU fueling cities’ aspirations
Because cities cannot do it alone. According to the results of the Eurocities Pulse Mayors Survey, digital transformation is one of the top three areas where EU funding can make the biggest difference to mayors’ policy objectives over the next five years.
Oulu’s Mayor Maattaa advocates for the EU to support cities “by offering long-term financial instruments and technical support to implement co-creation projects and processes with other cities”, particularly focused on developing and testing scalable solutions for cities to use.
However, financial support for projects through calls for proposals alone is not enough. As Deputy Mayor Jamet says, “we are developing projects, but then we can’t necessarily sustain them, because we don’t have long-term funding for all these projects. So there’s a real need today for sustainable funding”.
Indeed, a good data policy, multi-stakeholder collaboration, public-private partnerships, or long-term sustainable financing are prerequisites for cities to make the most of the digital transformation.
Nonetheless, these efforts would be in vain if we fail to guarantee digitalisation brings everyone forward equally. We must ensure that digital technologies march hand in hand with progress across all segments of society, without deepening existing inequalities rooted in gender, age, social class, ethnicity, or migration status.
Between the “haves” and “have-nots”
“We are already aware that not everyone is benefitting from the advantages of the digital world”, recognises de Clercq. That’s why Ghent is establishing mechanisms to mitigate the effects of the digital divide.
For example, the city offers free access to computers, and has set up a programme to promote digital talent, offering training and support to users who need it. In addition, they have introduced the role of the “digital helper”, who is available to accompany residents who need it to access the digital world.
“Our philosophy is that we don’t want anyone to be left behind, we want everyone to harness the digital advantages,” explains the mayor.
“We are inevitably creating digital inequalities,” acknowledges Deputy Mayor Jamet. For the Councillor of Bordeaux Métropole, focusing on the user experience early on is key for minimising disparities. “Whatever project we put in place today, it’s important to remember that it must be useful, usable and used,” she adds.
Bordeaux Métropole is launching multiple actions to promote digital inclusion, and in particular to reduce the digital divide. Their flagship initiative is the Digital Divide Observatory, to identify who is struggling with accessing and benefitting from the digital world. Bordeaux’s engagement with local associations amplifies its commitment to digital inclusivity. For example, the city collaborates with senior citizens’ homes, offering tailored training to empower older generations. They also provide reconditioned computer equipment to bridge the accessibility gap.
The French city chairs Eurocitiest task force on digital inclusion, showcasing their commitment to effecting change not just locally, but at the European level.
As European cities ride the waves of digital transformation, the voices of these mayors resonate with collaboration, data-driven decision-making, EU support and a strong commitment to inclusion.
Let us not forget that, as cities adapt to the digital age, maintaining people’s well-being must be at the heart of their efforts.
These and other subjects that affect European cities in their digital transformation will be discussed at Eurocities Digital Forum 2023 meeting, which will take place in Riga on 26-29 September 2023. You can register for the event through this link.