From small towns to sprawling metropolis, spanning across Western and Eastern, Northern and Southern Europe, mayors agree climate change will be the top priority for action in the upcoming years – according to Eurocities pulse survey.
Greening urban spaces, reducing energy consumption, or slashing air pollution, are urgent and heavy challenges cities are called to deal with every day.
Digitalisation, if fully leveraged, can become a key ally for cities in the journey towards a sustainable future. But at the same time, it accounts for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, and 10% of energy consumption in Europe, and these number are likely to keep growing.
“The digital transition comes with great potential to transform how we interact with each other and the environment,” acknowledges Gatis Ozols, Deputy State Secretary on Digital Transformation Affairs in Latvia, “but it is up to us to realise this potential.”
How can cities ensure that digital technologies are leveraged to build a greener, more just, and smarter future?
First of all, it helps us understand the climate crisis – how it is affecting us, what effects are to come, and what works best when tackling it.
“Climate change is a fact, and we know it because scientists can measure and monitor climate change using data,” affirms Delphine Jamet, Councillor for Digital Affairs at Bordeaux Metropole.
According to Felix Sproll, City Councillor in Munich, “Thanks to artificial intelligence and augmented reality, we can visualise consequences of what will happen if we don’t act on climate change.”
Indeed, these technologies can be of help in showing citizens the inmediate impact of policies in short-term, for instance, what would happen or even how the city would look if a street is peatonalised, more trees are planted, or new bycicle lanes are built.
But these digital technologies, along with data, and data visualisation tools, can be even more useful when we look at long-term consequences.
“We need facts to understand reality, and to understand what we aim to change,” explains Jamet. “And we need data to support our political decisions, so people understand what we are doing, and more importantly, why.”
“If we show citizens the real impact of different policies, they can decide in what kind of place they want to live, and then we can build that future together,” adds Sproll. “People felt lost and unheard – but now we can fix it.”
Smart and climate-neutral
Cities have the responsibility to lead by example, pioneering innovative solutions that enhance the lives of their residents while championing sustainability and inclusion.
“AI-based technologies will have multiple uses in the coming years that will help us achieve the Green Deal goals,” recognises Martin Bailey, Head of Unit Technologies for Smart Communities at DG Connect, European Commission.
In this sense, the European Commission has launched a procurement to build a Local Digital Twin Toolbox. “With the toolbox, we will actually build technologies through various means, technologies that will help us achieve the climate agenda.”
Some cities are already embracing the use of AI-based tools. For example, Munich is involved in a Horizon Europe project to create Positive Energy Districts (PEDs). Thanks to their digital twin, the German city was able to map the area and show people how the PED will look like, but also monitor how energy will be stored and distributed.
Imagine if people download an app that tells them at what time of the day energy production is peaking so they can do their laundry then. Or even better, the washing machine self starts when there is an energy peak.
In order to become a climate-neutral and smart city by 2030, as more than 100 European municipalities have committed to, it is important to mobilise all stakeholders within the city’s ecosystem.
An innovation playground
Riga, aspiring to be the Baltic capital of smart cities, serves as a great example of how to do it. As part of their strategy, in 2022 the Riga Digital Agency was established to support and promote the digital transformation processes of the municipality. Two years ago, the city initiated the launch of three smart cities in specific territories to accelerate project implementation through the testing of innovative solutions.
“We aim at becoming the central heart for digital competency at regional and national levels,” explains Linda Ozola, Vice Mayor of Riga. The city has set up a testbed to implement pilot projects that will speed up the green transition, by building an ecosystem between the industry, the government, academia, and citizens.
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“We want to provide a chance to test innovative solutions in the city environment,” says Armands Jukums, Chief Project Manager of Smart City projects, Riga City Development Department.
Through this testbed, the city has implemented several projects on a vast variety of issues, such as car charging from lampposts or smart lightning, that help the city improve their resource management and save costs. Riga has also introduced a participatory budgeting system, allowing residents and NGOs to have a say in how a portion of the city’s budget is allocated, voting on what projects they would like to see implemented.
The Hague has created the Scheveningen Living Lab, located in one of the sunniest, busiest spots of the city. In the Living Lab, digital innovations are experimented with through small-scale research projects and use cases.
As Carlien Roodink, Manager of Digital Innovation & Smart City in The Hague, acknowledges, “Having our own Smart City infrastructure in a real-life urban area contributes to a sustainable, safe, and pleasant living environment.”
Procurement: cities’ ace up the sleeve
“Municipalities, as public sector organisations, are big enablers of innovation,” affirms Viesturs Zeps, Chairman of Environment and Housing Committee in the Riga City Council, “but when we analyse how it is actually implemented, we find a common way: through procurement.”
“In Riga, we have introduced the concept of ‘first costumer of new technologies’,” explains Zeps, “which enables technology developers to use public infrastructure.”
Sproll also emphasises the importance of responsible spending, stating, “We are using taxpayers’ money, so we need to be responsible in the way we do it.” Many cities are purchasing similar tools or programmes to tackle common challenges, which means the total expenditure is doubled, tripled. “We need to ensure we don’t pay again and again and again for the same software, by sharing technologies and programmes already existing in cities.”
Luckily, European Digital Infrastructure Consortium (EDICs) can support in ensuring digital solutions are purchased once. EDICs are legal frameworks aiding Member States to set up and implement multi-country projects.
As Bailey promises, “EDICs will make it possible for cities to build a common infrastructure while sharing the investments.”
During the second day of Eurocities Digital Forum 2023, we heard from cities across Europe that are embracing digital solutions to build a brighter, smarter, and safer future.
All the pictures of the event can be found here.
Stay tuned for more updates on the Digital Forum 2023 in Riga and follow the hashtag #EurocitiesDigital on social media.