“This Digital Forum in Riga is about connecting – connecting with each other, but also climate change with digital transformation. It is about bridging the old and the new, coming together to overcome the challenges of the future.”
Jochem Cooiman, Digital Innovation Officer in Rotterdam, and Technical Chair of the Digital Forum, opened this year’s edition by emphasising the importance of collaboration.
For three days, 27-29 September 2023, city leaders and technology experts have met in Riga to discuss how to make the most of the digital transformation to tackle the challenges of today, and those of tomorrow.
Cities, in the front row
A number of European initiatives recognise the potential of digitalisation, offering frameworks for innovation, collaboration, coordination and implementation of digital solutions. This is the case of the Data Act, Europe’s Digital Decade or the proposal for an Interoperable Europe Act. The Artificial Intelligence (AI) Act is expected to facilitate safe experimentation and application of AI, while funding instruments such as Horizon Europe, the Digital Europe Programme and the Connecting Europe Facility reinforce these goals.
Many of the European digital and green policies and regulations see their execution at the local level. “You, cities, are at the forefront of digital and green transformation,” remarked Viestus Cielmins, Managing Director of Riga’s VEFRESH and master of ceremonies for the Forum. This is also recognised by the European Commission, which launched the Mission for climate-neutral and smart cities as a way to bring concrete solutions to the big challenges.
European cities face broadly the same challenges – climate change, soaring energy prices, improved mobility and transport. There is no doubt that digital technologies can be a great ally for cities in achieving a more sustainable future.
More and more cities have introduced low-emission zones and traffic sensors, while others have dedicated their efforts to establishing energy efficiency districts and executing air quality improvement plans.
“Cities need to be enablers, boosters and playgrounds for innovations,” says Inese Andersone, Chairwoman of the Riga City Council Development Committee. “However, in the real world of technology, cities still lag behind,” she added.
Try, test (and fail)
Cities, particularly capitals and those with more resources play an integral role in implementing new technologies, but also in co-developing solutions that can be replicated by other municipalities.
Acting as test beds or playgrounds for innovation, cities become frontrunners in the creation, prototyping and implementation of new technologies. Urban living labs, for example, offer inclusive ways to shape and test new technologies in a collaborative effort that brings developers and users together. Regulatory sandboxes and testing sites for digital solutions are crucial to validate innovations and involve locals at an early stage.
For innovation and digital transformation to be successful, a comprehensive approach involving the whole city ecosystem is needed, as well as adequate governance and regulatory policies. “We need to bridge the gap between innovation and governance,” stressed Linda Ozola, Vice Mayor of Riga.
“It is not always about developing or purchasing the best software or the newest technology,” said Viesturs Zeps, Chairman of the Environment and Housing Committee in the Riga City Council, “but about how we come together and agree on the best tool that works for everyone.”
Scale-up (with funding)
“It is great that we are running pilot projects in some areas, such as new bike lanes or Positive Energy District,” explained Felix Sproll, City Councillor in Munich, “but that alone is not going to make our cities climate neutral.”
Long-term funding is needed to sustain digital projects and scale up, and so is access to infrastructure. In this sense, the EDICs, a legal framework for multi-country projects, can support municipalities. “EDICS will allow them to purchase common infrastructure, so costs are shared,” explained Martin Bailey, Head of Unit Technologies for Smart Communities in DG CNECT, European Commission. “Then, each city can adapt solutions to their own needs and realities.”
People, at the heart of the transformation
People must be kept at the centre of the digital revolution. “Digital projects must be useful, usable and used,” declared Delphine Jamet, Councillor for digital affairs at Bordeaux Metropole, and Vice-Chair of the Eurocities Digital Forum. “We need to go digital for people, and choose what kind of digital projects we want to put our efforts in.”
With around 25% of the urban population still without access to basic infrastructure or lacking digital skills, there is a need for digital policies that tackle the digital divide and promote digital inclusion.
“We need to make sure digital rights are protected and integrated into the governance of the cities,” stated Federica Bordelot, Head of Digital Transformation at Eurocities, while presenting cities’ call on the EU to support the digital transformation’.
Data: a valuable asset
“Citizens don’t understand data is a common good,” acknowledged Jamet.
Data sharing emerged as a critical topic during the event. On the one hand, business-to-governance (B2G) data sharing is needed to allow cities to improve their decision-making. On the other hand, open data can support transparency and building trust in public policies. In this sense, the Data Spaces for Smart and Sustainable Communities will play a key role in achieving the EU Green Deal goals and Sustainable Development Goals.
Ethical use of data and guaranteeing protection and privacy in data collection are also crucial elements in building trust and ensuring responsible implementation of digital solutions.
Data for informed decision-making
Digital transformation has brought about a significant shift in decision-making processes, empowering policy-makers with actionable insights to support data-driven decision-making.
At the same time, it also allows locals to become a part of the decision-making process. “Now, they are no longer to be a mere voter, but they can be co-creators of the cities we live in,” shared Sproll.
Local Digital Twins
AI-based tools will make it easier to experiment with urban planning in a safe way. The development of Local Digital Twins (LDT) can support cities in developing a comprehensive view of the city understanding how different systems interact with each other. “We’re not talking about a digital twin, but a family of digital twins,” said Andersone, “and we need to ensure they talk to each other.”
These technologies not only aid in experimenting safely with urban planning but also enable cities to be more responsive to crises, optimising infrastructure based on real, evidence-supported needs.
The European Commission’s Local Digital Twins Toolbox will provide cities with support to advance in their smart transformation. Through a 25 million procurement, the Commission will be “building technology that can be shared with cities and citizens,” explained Bailey. “AI-based technologies will have multiple uses that will help us achieve Green Deal goals.”
“Digital transformation is a team sport”
These words of Viesturs Celmiņš, Managing Director of VEFRESH, innovation district in Riga, and moderator of the event, summarise one of the key messages emerging from the Forum.
In the end, it all comes down to collaboration – among city departments (innovation, urban planning, social affairs), with the city ecosystem (startups and technology developers, private sector and industry, civil society and residents), and with other European cities.
“We all have common challenges, and we are all developing solutions. Let’s work together and not duplicate work,” stated Wim De Kinderen, Programme Director European Affairs, Brainport Eindhoven, and Chair of Eurocities Digital Lab. “To get ahead of innovation, we have to help each other and support each other,” added Inese Andersone.
A better Europe
In the end, it all comes down to using digital tools and innovations to empower cities.
In the words of Linda Ozola, Vice Mayor of Riga: “Let’s use the digital transformation to make Europe brighter, smarter, safer, and overall, a better place.”
Recording and highlights of the high-level panel are available here: What does the green and digital transition mean for cities?
All the pictures of the event are available here: Eurocities Digital Forum 2023.