The COVID-19 crisis in our cities is proving to us that a fair and rapid digital transition is not only possible, but also more necessary than ever before. Digital technologies have been key to ensuring the continuity of municipal services and to providing a humane and social response to the pandemic. But it has also exposed the stark inequalities that shape access to digital technologies and the protection of our data and digital rights.
Many of us have led large-scale transitions to remote work in just a few weeks since the start of the outbreak, which has ensured the continuity of our public services. Not only this: digital technologies have also allowed us to provide a more social and community-based response to the crisis – from 3D printing of Personal Protective Equipment in municipal fab labs, to providing adequate healthcare for confined people, or tackling loneliness among our senior citizens.
Cities across Europe have worked tirelessly to prevent physical distancing from turning into social distancing, and digital innovation has proven to be a key instrument. However, this is challenging to ensure, when the access of most vulnerable groups to the internet – and their ability to get the most out of digital services – is defined by their income level, age, gender or even neighbourhood.
Indeed, during these past few weeks we have also witnessed the fact that digital technologies are delineating social inequalities in a stronger way than ever before. Access to quality internet and digital literacy, or the lack thereof, are mitigating or catalysing existing inequalities. The role that digitalisation plays is clearer than ever in our right to education, access to social services, employment opportunities, training or even the possibility to be with, or keep in touch with, our loved ones when they are isolated at home or in hospitals, or even the moment they pass away.
As President Von Der Leyen said recently, “we will need to build a resilient, green and digital Europe”. She is right: the economic recovery after the pandemic will need to be digital to be green. But if the ‘new normal’ is to leave no one behind, then a fair digital transition – one that works for everyone, that places digital innovation at the service of social cohesion and human rights – is urgently needed. A first step in achieving this could be to start regarding access to internet as a right, rather than just an infrastructure.
We, the city governments, are certain we will get out of this crisis with a clearer roadmap for a human-centred digital transition that contributes to overcoming the socioeconomic crisis. Yet we also know that we will have to strive to meet social needs with decreasing municipal revenues. In this context, having direct access to both recovery funds and funding streams – as requested by over 140 of Europe’s largest cities gathered within EUROCITIES – will mark the difference between digital innovation projects in cities and a fully-fledged digital transition. It is fundamental that we are able to count on our national governments and the European Commission to support us in guaranteeing that the benefits of digitalisation reach everyone, providing economic opportunities, reducing inequalities and protecting rights.
This article is part of an initiative agreed and signed by the deputy mayors of the cities of Barcelona, Laia Bonet; Athens, Nikolaos Macropoulos; Antwerp, Claude Marinower; Bristol, Craig Cheney; Ghent, Sofie Bracke; Glasgow, the Councilor President of the Digital Commission, Angus Millar; Lisbon, Miguel Gaspar; London, Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell MBE; Malaga, Susana Carrillo; Milan, Roberta Cocco; Nantes, André Sobzack; Porto, Filipe Araújo; Rijeka, Marko Filipović; Rotterdam, Barbara Kathmann; and Seville, Clara Isabel Macías.