Digital innovation is at the forefront of cities’ development, and the recent Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of digital solutions, presenting both opportunities and challenges.
Acknowledging the pivotal role that cities play in driving digital transformation, Eurocities advocates for a comprehensive approach to ensure sustainable, inclusive, and people-centred digitalisation ahead of the upcoming EU elections.
Cities call on Europe
European cities are calling for greater action on the EU digital agenda. While current legislation on data, platform economy, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence lays the groundwork for digital transformation, progress remains sluggish.
The complexity of turning cities into smart and sustainable spaces demands coordinated efforts across all levels of governance, extending beyond local competencies. To effectively address the multifaceted challenges of this transformation, and create vibrant living and working environments, increased ambition and investment at the local level are imperative.
In the Eurocities manifesto ‘A better Europe starts in cities’, local governments outlined the need for an inclusive digital agenda that protects people’s rights and our climate.
An EU digital agenda to protect citizens and foster trust
Initiatives such as the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights support digital rights in the urban context through city action, resolving common digital challenges at local level and working towards legal, ethical, and operational frameworks to advance human rights in digital environments.
However, “we need an EU Digital Rights Governance Framework to ensure the preservation of fundamental human rights in the digital sphere,” says Chiara Venturini, Head of Digital Transformation at Eurocities.
Building on the governance framework proposed by the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, the EU framework should not only acknowledge rights such as privacy and access to information, but also propose concrete steps to implement and safeguard these rights within cities. This necessitates combatting online threats and ensuring safety online, aligning with the European Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade.
“Cities and their citizens are facing a growing challenge – a lot of information and often also very untrustworthy information, frequently biased and unreliable, posing threats to trust and democracy,” acknowledges Faouzi Achbar, Vice Mayor of Rotterdam and chair of the Digital Forum. “It is imperative for cities to collectively take responsibility and work collaboratively in developing strategies that mitigate such situations.”
Bridging the digital divide
“We are inevitably creating digital inequalities,” acknowledges Delphine Jamet, Councillor of Bordeaux Métropole, and Vice-chair of the Digital Forum. The gap between those with access to technology and those without keeps widening. “Whatever project we put in place today, it’s important to remember that it must be useful, usable and used,” she adds.
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) October 19, 2023
To tackle this, cities call for a common EU tool to monitor and measure the digital divide, building upon initiatives like the Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI), Digital Competence framework for citizens (DIGCOMP), and LORDIMAS – a digital maturity assessment tool for regions and cities co-developed by Living-in.EU.
Direct funding for digital literacy programmes, and for empowering underrepresented groups such as women and migrants, is also needed. Additionally, encouraging gender-sensitive education and career counselling is deemed crucial to bridging the gender gap in STEM, aligning with the EU’s gender equality strategy.
Building capacity in cities
Emphasising the need for capacity building in city administrations, local leaders note that while the vision for digital innovation is present, capacities still need development.
The last edition of Eurocities’ Pulse Survey highlights digital transformation as one of the top priorities for mayors, necessitating EU resources to achieve policy objectives. “A cultural shift towards innovation, embracing new technologies while promoting environmentally sustainable practices, forms the cornerstone of our digital future,” says Chiara Venturini.
What are the prerequisites for cities to make the most of the digital transformation?
☑️ A good data policy
🤝 Multi-stakeholder collaboration
💼 Public-private partnerships
🌱 Long-term sustainable financing
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) August 21, 2023
Capacity building should extend to include government innovation, digital and data skills for all citizens, and practices for citizen participation.
Investing in sustainable solutions
The urgency to scale up digital solutions resonates in Eurocities’ call for sustained investment and support at EU level. “Initiatives like Living-in.EU provide the space to share solutions and avoid reinventing the wheel, but also highlight the need for continual funding, technical support, and high-level political endorsement,” says Gabriela Ruseva, project coordinator of Go Li.EU – the governing structure behind the Living-in.EU movement.
The integration of complex and multilayer technology, such as local data platforms or digital twins, requires substantial investments and concerted efforts to address critical challenges like climate change, urban mobility and an ageing population.
Fostering data sharing
Increasing ambition and investments in data sharing is crucial for Europe’s cities. In recent years, there has been significant progress in this area with the introduction of key legislation such as the Data Governance Act and the Data Act, along with sector-specific laws like those on short-term rentals. These legal frameworks have laid the groundwork for facilitating and accelerating data sharing across Europe.
However, there is still much to be done, particularly concerning data sharing between businesses and governments. City governments require more comprehensive support beyond exceptional cases.
In the fight against climate change, cities are turning to cross-sectoral data sharing as a game-changing strategy📊 🌍
Many local data initiatives have recently emerged, spanning from urban planning to mobility, or energy management
— Eurocities (@EUROCITIES) October 23, 2023
Eurocities is urging the EU to increase ambition on data sharing, broaden the scope for business-to-government (B2G) data sharing, develop and implement the concept of data intermediaries to empower city governments, provide financial support for large-scale implementation of data spaces, and ensure stronger representation of cities in data spaces, especially concerning challenges like the Green Deal and mobility.
All these priorities are further explained in the Eurocities statement ‘People-centred digital transformation: Cities’ priorities for a digital transformation for all.’