Interoperability and the need for EU cities to work together

11 October 2022

Interoperability and bringing cities into the digital world are major challenges today within the European Union. How can cities become more inclusive, without leaving anyone behind, and at the same time become more digital, offering online services for citizens, and space for dialogue with academia and the private sector?

These are not easy tasks. But the European Commission has been working on it and partnering with cities to make it a reality.

Last year, the Commission adopted a vision to have a European Digital Transformation by 2030 and, says Natalia Aristimuño, Digital Services Director, DIGIT.D, European Commission, “we adopted a compass highlighting the cardinal points of this digital transformation, which includes skills, infrastructure, businesses and public services.”

The goals for 2030 are quite ambitious

Natalia Aristimuño, Digital Services Director, DIGIT.D, European Commission

Last July, explains Aristimuño, “we had the political agreement by the Parliament and Council on how to get there, the path to the digital decade. We have a programme with monitoring and cooperation mechanism to achieve these common objectives and we focus on the digitalisation of public services where we have to have 100% of the key public services online. The target talks about 80% of cities using digital IDs and 100% of cities having access to online medical records – the pandemic forced us to accelerate digitalisation.”

Limited resources, change of technology, and difficulty in convincing different actors are some of the challenges faced by cities and citizens, therefore cooperation is key: share best practices, successes and also, remarks Aristimuño, where we have failed.

“Interoperability, even if it looks very technical, it is not. It’s about semantics, cooperation, and working together. We see the importance of governments having interoperability to allow seamless information and data exchanges bridging the gaps between policy and IT.”

The European digital compass and the goals set by the EU Digital decade are important not only “on the technical way, but also to our cities so we can provide better mobility, better urban design, waste management, better sport, culture,” explains Fernando de Pablo, General Director, Madrid Digital Office.

He also notes that “we need interoperability so we can, for instance, discuss digital identities for citizens,” and that “we must align policy with practice.”

Aristimuño agrees, noting that “we must change how the public administration interacts with the private sector, with academia, even with the citizens, involving them in the design and implementation of public services. This is why also we are looking at GovTech – a set of infrastructures, solutions and actors that use innovation and technology to improve public services and processes, solving complex problems and generating impact in society – to find ways to share risk, as we are usually risk averse.”

Also important is to discuss and seek solutions for the barriers to procurement and how to bring innovation to public administrations with citizens as the main focus.

Cities are leaders in the public sector and we need to cooperate

Bárbara Ubaldi, Head of Digital Government and Data Unit, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), explains that “we need to work differently to achieve a sustainable digital transition. We need a change in the mindset on how the public sector relates to the private sector, academia and even citizens. Public administrations are not always taking a lot of risks, they are risk averse, and we need to share the risk to go further. Also, bring the private sector to work closely with the public sector.”

Bárbara Ubaldi, Head of Digital Government and Data Unit, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and Fernando de Pablo, General Director, Madrid Digital Office

The OECD believes that reinforcing interoperability at the European level is an important and fundamental point for the digital transition, “we must facilitate the cooperation between all actors to work on digitalisation.” And if we want to provide user-centric services, explains de Pablo, “there must be cooperation, coordination and collaboration between the whole of the administration.”

And to achieve such objectives, Madrid and Spain work on three pillars: Common governance, full legal framework (regulation) and a common service/interoperable platform portfolio. “You need common or interoperable platforms to put together all solutions so cities can advance together,” explains de Pablo.

And, he adds, Madrid has a “set of strategies and what’s important is that all these strategies are centred in the service. Technology is the tool, not the target. We prefer a good service with legacy technology that a bad service with the latest technology.” Citizens are the focus, technology is a way of doing that and city administrations have to have in mind that risks must be shared, trust must be built and collaboration is key.

Bottom line, the main take away is that cities are closest to citizens, and “I think even in the design and engagement with the citizens there is something that can be done differently. Putting citizens in the front seat,” says Ubaldi.

You can check out the high-level discussion “Cities and Europe’s Digital Decade – a look at digital strategies” on our YouTube channel:

A complete interview with Barba Ubaldi will be published in the near future on Eurocities’ website with a longer and more detailed explanation on cooperation, interoperability and the role of cities and citizens.


Raphael Garcia Eurocities Writer