“We need a human-centred approach to technology”

18 April 2024

In today’s world, where technology permeates almost every aspect of our lives, the conversation around digitalisation has been usually centred on innovation and progress.

However, amidst the buzz of technological advancement, people’s rights, as well as the fundamental principles of equity and inclusion cannot be forgotten.

“We need to have a human-centred approach to digital technology,” says Faouzi Achbar, Vice Mayor of Rotterdam, to open the Eurocities Digital Forum, hosted in the Dutch city on 16-19 April 2024. “Digital transformation is not a technical issue alone, but a social one.”

“Inclusion cannot be forgotten when innovating. Innovation only brings progress if it includes everyone,” echoes Delphine Jamet, Digital Councillor in Bordeaux Metropole, and vice-chair of the Forum.

Why does this matter?

Statistics still paint a sobering picture on the matter. Nowadays, one third of Europeans lack digital skills. “Could we tolerate a situation where thirty percent of Europeans struggle to turn on the lights at home? What would we think if, within the European Union, eighteen percent of inhabitants faced difficulties withdrawing money from the bank?” wonders Delphine Jamet. “This is precisely what is happening in the digital world, every day”.

Faouzi Achbar, Vice Mayor of Rotterdam, and Delphine Jamet, Digital Councillor of Bordeaux Metropole, opened Eurocities Digital Forum 2024

The digital divide not only perpetuates inequality but also hinders societal progress as a whole. “In our city, many people have issues with reading and writing so, of course, they also struggle to find their way in the digital world”, acknowledges Achbar.

While it’s clear that a a substantial portion of the population finds themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide, the issue is much more complex than that, as it affects everyone to different extents. In Rotterdam, for example, around 220,000 people struggle with digital issues. And in Bordeaux, around 80% find themselves in complicated digital situations.

Social and digital, hand in hand

In the past years, and in the pursuit for digital innovation, inclusion has often been disregarded. The rapid pace of the technological race has, at times, overshadowed the importance of ensuring that everyone benefits from the opportunities brought by digital advancements.

Unlike previous technological revolutions, the one we are currently living is much more complex. “Digital inclusion unites the social world and the world of technology, two worlds with different culture, that speak different languages,” says Achbar.

And the heart of the digital revolution, lies the need for a human-centred approach to technology. “Digital transformation is a journey encompassing digital, social, and sustainable dimensions, and everyone should have the opportunity to be part of it.”

At the same time, technology should not only solve technical issues but also address societal challenges.

There is some work to be done,” calls André Sobczak, Secretary General at Eurocities. “Digitalisation has a strong place in the European agenda, but mostly covering its economical dimension. We need to push to add the ecological and social dimensions of the digital transformation in the upcoming EU agenda.”

Safeguarding digital rights

The pandemic served as a stark reminder of the importance of digital rights. The world went online overnight, and those without access to the internet were completely isolated. “Those who have not been able to join this transformation, they can’t be left behind from the opportunities the digital world brings,”, says Paul Leinster, Glasgow City Councillor, “but also to access their rights in today’s digital society, such as accessing public services or making a doctor’s appointment.”

Just as we defend our rights in the physical world, we must ensure the same in the digital realm. This entails safeguarding privacy, protecting data, and upholding freedom of expression.

As Ivan Goychev, Deputy Mayor for Digitisation, Innovation and Economic Development in Sofia puts it: “Just as safety is paramount in the construction sector, so too should be our approach to digitalisation”.

This means, among other things, imposing regulation to large platforms that collect, process, and utilise our data. “We need to regulate how large platfoms deal with consumers rights, keeping the human centred approach” says Josianne Cutajar, Member of the European Parliament. “We need to master how we can use digitalisation in a way that we remain in control of it.”

Along these lines, Barcelona has taken a proactive stance, recognising technology as a public good for the administration. “Digitalisation should be governed by cities, not the other way around,” states Pau Solanilla, Commissioner of City Promotion in  Barcelona.

Protecting the youngest

Although it’s a common believe that the older generations are the only ones suffering from the digital divide, the reality is quite different. “We are not allowing children to cross the street, but we are letting them into the internet world without any preparation,” observes Ivan Goychev.

Young people master video application or social media, but sometimes struggle accessing public services on a website. At the same time, education is not up to date with the latest developments. “We need to teach young people how to use digital technologies,” demands Jamet.

“In schools, teachers usually ask children not to use ChatGPT or similar technologies – but they are using them! So we need to discuss the digital challenges our children face. Instead of forbidding them from using devices, we need to teach them, and ourselves, how to use screens,” adds the Bordeaux Metropole Councillor.

Cities are stepping up

European cities are stepping up to the challenge, implementing innovative solutions to bridge the digital divide and empower their communities.

For instance, Glasgow is one of the many cities that focuses on empowering future generations through digital education. They have been distributing tablets to schools to promote digital literacy among young people. In addition to equipping students with essential skills, the city found a pleasant surprise. “Students are learning skills at school, and then they take their tablet home, so they can teach their parents and family members,” explains Paul Leinster. “It’s a cascade effect, which we did not intend in the beginning, but we are seeing now.”

Local solutions to local challenges

In the pursuit of digital inclusion, one size does not fit all. Cities face unique challenges shaped by their demographics, infrastructure, and socioeconomic factors. Even cities are not homogeneous entities; they are comprised of diverse communities with distinct needs and circumstances.

“I believe in grassroot, local initiatives, that tackle challenges at local, neighbourhood, street level even,” states Achbar.

While local solutions are essential for addressing disparities within cities, scaling up best practices is equally crucial for driving progress at a broader level. This requires collaboration and collective action. Cities must come together to share knowledge, resources, and best practices, fostering a culture of learning and innovation.

To promote this culture, Sofia is embracing open-source tools as a means of fostering collaboration and inclusivity. “By betting on open-source solutions, we are enabling everyone to contribute to the development of projects and ensuring that digital initiatives are accessible to all,” explains Goychev. This inclusive approach not only promotes transparency and collaboration but also empowers communities to shape their digital future.

Towards a brighter digital future

While the digital era presents its share of challenges, there’s also immense potential for positive change. By prioritising inclusion, safeguarding rights, and embracing ethical practices, we can harness the power of technology for the greater good.

“There are examples of AI helping people with mourning a loved one, or feeling lonely,” remaks Achbar. Assistive digital technologies are also of great help to people with disabilities.

Even during the Eurocities Forum, participants could saw live Rotterdam’s automatic translation tool. While one of the speakers was using their native language, participants could see live on screens the words in English.

“In the recent years, we’ve brought back ethics to the table, which were forgotten for a while when discussing technology and innovation”, says Pau Solanilla. “The fact that we are having this debate, that we want to bring technology to assist the public interest, is already a great start.”

Indeed, people-centred digitalisation plays a key role within Eurocities campaign ‘A better Europe starts in cities,‘ which had not been the case in the past.  

As Paul Leinster notes, “We want to look to the digital future in a positive way, where everyone gets the same opportunities and can participate.” By working together, cities can overcome barriers, bridge divides, and create a more inclusive and equitable digital society for all.


Eurocities Digital Forum 2024, ‘Digital Inclusion in European Cities’ is taking place in Rotterdam 16-18 April. As the event unfolds, we anticipate a wealth of innovative ideas and solutions that will help European cities ensure no one is left behind in their digital future. 

Stay tuned for more updates on the Digital Forum 2024 and follow the hashtag #EurocitiesDigital on social media.


Lucía Garrido Eurocities Writer