European cities place people at the heart of digitalisation

19 April 2024

“The digital transformation we are witnessing is not a technical issue alone, but a social one. We need to have a human centred approach to digitalisation, thinking and acting inclusively.”

Digital inclusion took centre stage at the Eurocities Digital Forum 2024. Faouzi Achbar, Vice Mayor of Rotterdam, Chair of the Digital Forum and host of this year’s annual gathering, set the stage for three days of discussions focused on how to ensure that digital technology is at the service of people, not the other way around.

“We want to look at the future in a positive way, where everyone gets the same opportunities and takes part in the digital world,” said Achbar. However, achieving this bright digital future requires an understanding of the digital divide, who it impacts the most, and where it comes from.

Understanding the complexity of the digital divide

Digital inclusion, often overlooked, is a multifaceted challenge that permeates through various sectors. While technological advancements and innovation take the forefront in digital policies, digital matters sometimes take a backseat in social policies.

But the reality is that digital exclusion is a deep, complex challenge that affects a large part of the European population. A third of Europeans lack the basic skills to navigate the digital world, and up to 80% struggle using digital technologies to varying degrees.

“Unlike previous technological revolutions, this one is much more complex,” acknowledged Delphine Jamet, Digital Councillor in Bordeaux Metropole, and Vice-Chari of the Eurocities Digital Forum. “It comes with a cost, widens the gap, and weakens our social fabric.”

We need to have a human centred approach to digitalisation, thinking and acting inclusively
— Faouzi Achbar

Initiatives such as Bordeaux Metropole’s Observatory on Digital Inequalities – a survey filled in by over 5,000 residents- have proven very helpful for municipalities to design targeted solutions.

An intersectional challenge

Cities combatting the digital divide are confronted with three initial barriers: lack of devices, lack of connectivity and lack of skills. At the same time, digital exclusion is an intersectional problem, which becomes increasingly complex when interacting with other inequalities.

Given that 6% of London households lack an internet-enabled device and over 1.6 million Londoners lack basic digital skills, the city launched ‘Get Online London,’ their first digital inclusion service. It provides refurbished devices, free mobile connectivity, and digital skills training to try to bridge the three facets of the gap.

Since there is no one-size-fits-all solution, Rotterdam’s approach has been a comprehensive programme on digital inclusion, which combats the problem on several fronts. It brings together several city departments to avoid working in silos, and it supports different community-led or smaller projects working at neighbourhod level.

Gothenburg is aware that some groups are at higher risk. They have put in place several digital inclusion projects, aimed at providing digital skills targeted to the specific needs of different population groups, such as newcomers, older people or vulnerable neighbourhoods.

Helping the helpers

Digital helpers have all types of backgrounds: from frontline city staff assisting residents in accessing digital services, and volunteers in non-profit organisations, to grandchildren teaching their grandparents how to videocall.

Glasgow accidentally proved it. The city distributed tablets to school pupils, to ensure all children had access to a digital device regardless of their socio-economic conditions. “The students then took the tablets home, and are now teaching their parents and family members how to use them, so they can also access the digital world,” explained Paul Leinster, Glasgow City Councillor.

Another example is Rotterdam‘s grassroots initiative Tea-Time. Inspired by the concept of ‘tupperware parties,’ migrant women get together in someone’s house, drink tea, and help each other with their digital endeavours – for example, making a doctor’s appointment, or opening a bank account.

Cities are taking different approaches to support these digital helpers. Recognising who they are, and what questions they have (which are increasingly complex) can help municipalities empower digital helpers, equipping them with the tools and knowledge they need to help community members.

Smart cities with smart citizens

“If you want to build a smart city, you don’t only need infrastructure, but also smart citizens,” said Haydee Sheombar, lecturer at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam.

However, many gaps prevent cities from reaching this goal: an increasing equality gap in our society, a participation gap where more and more residents feeling disengaged from governments, and a digital literacy gap. “We all have a smartphone, but we don’t use it for the same purposes,” she added.

Digital transformation comes with a cost, widens the gap, and weakens our social fabric
— Delphine Jamet

Digital technologies such as Urban Data Platforms and Local Digital Twins could help local authorities with this challenge. However, “local digital twin are political tools, they will not automatically fix all of our issues,” acknowledged Stefania Paolazzi, Policy Officer in Bologna. “Public administrations have the responsibility to build it from an ethical perspective, putting in place a data governance model that makes the digital twin truly inclusive.”

Lights and shadows of digitalisation

We are aware of the dark side of the digital transformation. Privacy and data are often at risk – citizens frequently find themselves unaware of who controls the data they share online, which can lead to potential exploitation or misuse of personal information. Even if the harm is not intentional, technology developers do not always have an ethical approach to their creations.

Moreover, the lack of education on digital safety exacerbates these risks, especially among vulnerable groups such as children. Without proper guidance on how to navigate the online world safely, young people may unwittingly expose themselves to cyberbullying, identity theft or other harmful online activities. For instance, in many schools, children are not adequately taught how to protect their personal information or recognise online threats, leaving them susceptible to manipulation or exploitation by malicious actors.

If you want to build a smart city, you don’t only need infrastructure, but also smart citizens
— Haydee Sheombar

However, while it is clear that digital technologies create risks and inequalities, they also have significant potential to bridge societal gaps. Examples include assistive digital technologies for people with disabilities, or AI-based language translators that allow migrant communities that don’t speak the local language to access public services.

For example, Florence uses data to monitor the quality of trees, improving their green areas and providing a friendlier city for inhabitants. They also create 3-D models of historical buildings, such as churches, so city workers can carry out remote inspections and maintenance, leading to safer work environments.

Green and digital, hand in hand

​The same thing happens with the green transition. “Sustainability and digitalisation are two parallel megatrends,” explained Kevin Köhler, Consultant for digital strategies in the City of Hamburg. Data centres emit more CO2 emissions than air traffic.

However, when used for the common good, technological progress is a key enabler for climate protection and systemic change.  “Up to 41% of Germany’s climate target by 2030 could be achieved with the help of digital technologies, and the trend is rising,” said Köhler, provided that we aim for more sustainable technologies.

A mindset shift

To ensure everyone is joining us in the journey to a smart future, we need a mindset shift. “We need to ask ourselves a different question,” said Sherelle Fairweather, Digital Strategy Lead, and Megan Lawless, Senior Digital Strategy Officer, both in Manchester City Council“Instead of asking what technologies we want to have, we need to ask what society we would like to live in.”

Instead of asking what technologies do we want to have, we need to ask what society we would like to live in
— Sherelle Fairweather and Megan Lawless

Vienna is developing the concept of digital humanism. As Tanja Sinozic-Martinez​,  Officer for Digital Humanism in the City of Vienna, put it, this means “taking a conscious approach to our technological developments, as well as those technologies we procure.”

Stronger regulation

Cities call for stronger regulation at EU and national levels, as public authorities have the responsibility to protect their inhabitants. Specifically, they call for a comprehensive digital rights framework that safeguards people’s rights. They also ask for an EU regulation for larger platforms, to ensure consumers’ interests, rights and wellbeing are safeguarded.

“The social aspect of digital transformation tends to be forgotten,” said Chiara Venturini, Head of Digital Transformation at Eurocities. “In the European sphere, we talk about technological development and its role in the digital transformation. But we need to put the focus back on people.”

The social aspect of digital transformation tends to be forgotten
— Chiara Venturini

In this sense, Eurocities policy statement on ‘A people-centred digital transformation,’ part of the campaign ‘A better Europe starts in cities,’ advocates for a comprehensive approach to ensure sustainable, inclusive, and people-centred digitalisation ahead of the upcoming European elections.

A united front to combat digital inequalities

By working together, cities can expand the impact of their digital inclusion policies. First, by sharing knowledge and best practices, learning from what is working and what is not working in other cities so these practices can be scaled up and replicated.

“We’ve seen in these days in Rotterdam,” says Jochem Cooiman,  Digital Innovation Officer in Rotterdam, and Technical Chair of the Digital Forum, “as we have heard from cities on inclusive design of digital services, and the value of sharing and engaging, which requires sustainable, trustworthy and sincere mutual interest.”

“By joining networks such as living-in.EU, which promote a sustainable digital transformation of European communities, cities can learn and support each other,” said Gabriela Ruseva, Coordinator of Living-in.EU. “This can be very helpful, particularly for those that may be less prepared or have less resources, so they can advance their digital transformation and bring everyone on board with it.”

We must create a conducive environment to leverage digital solutions so that every city, not just a few privileged ones, can join this movement
— Sophie Woodville

Similarly, sharing infrastructure or reusing digital solutions can help municipalities in their quest for a promising digital future. This is the case with open-data solutions, which can then be shaped to the local context and needs of residents. Sofia, for example, has used CityGML, an open source 3D city modelling format that enables the representation, storage and exchange of virtual 3D city models, to build their Local Digital Twin.

“We must create a conducive environment to leverage these solutions and be more effective,” said Sophie Woodville, Digital Policy Officer at Bordeaux Metropolitan Area, and technical vice-chair of the Forum, “so that every city, not just a few privileged ones, can join this movement. This environment must be built at the European level, between cities and decision-makers on the continent.”

In this sense, the CitiVERSE EDIC, aimed at connecting existing local digital twins across Europe, has great potential. It will allow members to use digital infrastructure regardless of where in the EU it was created. This approach will help make sure that data and services can work together smoothly and follow common rules, which helps to prevent Europe from being digitally fragmented.



If you wish to know more about the political debates that took place on 17 April 2024, you can read “We need a human centred approach to digitalisation.