“Social and digital transformation must go hand in hand”

14 March 2024

“Digital inclusion is not a yes or no situation,” said Joab de Lang, Expert Strategist Digital Inclusion and Cybersecurity in the City of Rotterdam, at the Eurocities’ Digital Divide session within the conference ‘Building inclusive pathways for better digital services’.

“For example, young people are comfortable using social media, but then struggle accessing some governmental services offered through a website.”

Almost half of Europeans lack basic digital skills – and this is not evenly distributed across member states. For example, in Romania, the population with basic skills is around 40%, while in Finland or the Netherlands it is over 80%. “But this does not mean that there is no more work to be done,” acknowledged de Lang. On the contrary, it is very difficult to include the remaining fifteen to twenty percent.

Who can afford to live in the digital world?

Lack of digital skills is not the only barrier preventing Europeans from accessing the digital world. Around 2.4% of the population cannot afford an internet connection, and there are also those who can afford a limited connection, but still miss out on services such as streaming, or those who cannot afford devices such as smartphones, computers, or tablets.

Access to software is another aspect that continues to widen the digital divide. “Even if you think some software is free, because you don’t pay money for it, you pay with your data and your privacy,” reminds de Lang. In particular, services that offer a premium version so that data is not collected are becoming more and more common. “It should not be the case that you only deserve privacy if you have the money to pay for it.”

Digital inclusion by design

“Private companies develop applications only for their target consumers, but public organisations and local governments have the responsibility to design for everybody,” said de Lang.

Local governments have the responsibility to design for everybody
— Joab de Lang

Digital inclusion by design means taking into account the needs of all individuals. It includes ensuring accessibility, by making digital platforms usable for people with disabilities, or creating interfaces and content that are understandable and accessible to people with varying levels of literacy and different linguistic backgrounds.

Even if someone can afford internet access, it may not be of sufficient quality. Digital inclusion by design also involves ensuring that everyone has equal access to high-quality internet services, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

Digital rights and values

“We need to make the online world safe,” acknowledged de Lang. People are afraid of getting hacked, which could lead to losing their money, or experiencing identity theft. And beyond these fears, we must also consider the vulnerability of children, who are potentially exposed to unwanted content – just one click away.

“So, how can we protect ourselves? Currently, we rely on company policies, which unfortunately are not always aligned with European values,” explained de Lang.

We aim to create an international framework to measure the digital divide at different levels
— Manon Reniers

That’s why the Eurocities Taskforce on Digital Divide advocates for an EU framework to address the digital divide and promote digital inclusion across European cities.

An EU framework to tackle the digital divide

“Digital technologies are creating opportunities but also posing new risks,” said Lea Lebon, Digital trainee at Eurocities. “That’s why our objectives focus on fostering a people-centred digital transformation in Europe. And of course, this means ensuring full access to technologies and the internet.”

A coordinated effort at the European level is necessary to effectively address the multifaceted nature of digital inclusion and bridge the gaps between cities.

“We aim to create an international framework to measure the digital divide at different levels,” explained Manon Reniers, Smart City Project Coordinator in the City of Brussels. The framework should include “a good methodology to close the digital divide, understanding its scope, challenges, and facets on the ground,” added Lebon.

Additionally, addressing the digital divide requires cooperation between stakeholders at local, national, and EU levels.

Local observatories on digital divide

“The issue of digital divide is multifaceted,” explained Reniers. “It is very hard for cities to know how to provide the best support to their residents. Who are the digitally disconnected? How can we help them?”

The issue of digital divide is multifaceted, it is very hard for cities to know how to provide the best support to their residents
— Manon Reniers

To answer these questions, cities need to know what’s happening within their territories, but such information is not always easily available. “Through local observatories, we can collect quantitative and qualitative data, so then we can take targeted action.”

This has proven really helpful for several European cities that have established these sorts of initiatives. For example, in the case of Brussels, Reniers shared: “We thought older people were the only ones being left behind, as it is often assumed. We tend to think the issue will fix itself over time. However, data showed us that is not the case.”

Who are the digital helpers?

The Observatory, created by Bordeaux Metropole, shared that over 75% of their residents help their relatives, either formally or informally, with digital matters.

“These results show that many people need some kind of help, and many people provide it,” said Maria Euwema, Digital Inclusion Project Manager in the City of Ghent. But how are they doing this? Which questions do they need to solve? Do they use any tools?

“Within the municipality, we’ve seen a lot of work is done by volunteers, by first-line city staff, such as social affairs officers or library workers.” In other cases, it is also workers from NGOs, and in some countries, there are digital coaches – specific workers dedicated to digital inclusion.

We assumed older people were the only ones being left behind. We tend to think the issue will fix itself overtime. However, data showed us that is not the case.
— Manon Reniers

“We see an increase in digital questions for frontline city staff. We need to focus on how we can support them so they can support the people that ask,” she added.

Help the helpers

Digital helpers have different profiles, backgrounds, and roles. At the same time, digital questions are becoming more complex, sensitive, and time-consuming. Support services need to evolve and adapt to meet the changing needs of residents. According to Reniers, “an EU training framework, or curriculum, for digital coaches working at the city level is also a priority.”

“New technologies are emerging, which pose challenges and opportunities. And, at the same time, everything else is changing around us,” said de Lang. “The social and digital transformation are interacting with each other, and this is happening very rapidly. We need to ensure they go and in hand.”

That’s why cities call for digital policies that are fuelled by first-hand experiences of the city and its residents, pulling the digital transformation into the social sector.



Digital inclusion will be further discussed during the advocacy session ‘Bridging the Digital Divide by 2030′, at the Press Club in Brussels, Wednesday 20 March from 8:30 to 11:00 AM. For more information, please reach out to Sophie Woodville (

It will also be one of the key topics of the next Eurocities Digital Forum ‘Digital inclusion in European Cities’, which will take place in Rotterdam between 17-19 April 2024. Register to the event (Eurocities members only) here.



Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer