COVID-19, extreme weather events, supply chain disruptions, refugees fleeing war and natural disasters, the energy crisis…in the European Union, today’s cities face a litany of challenges, further compacted by systemic issues such as inequality and sustainability. Cities need to think carefully and fast about smart solutions in order to remain competitive, attractive to talents and in step with the rapidly evolving technology space. Yet, addressing these challenges is not an easy ask. The way many cities work, tethered to budgetary and resource constraints, has reinforced silos and divisions along sector or departmental tracks. How do the cities of today overcome these divides to foster cross-domain and sector collaboration among stakeholders and innovation?
A bottom-up, collaborative approach
Smart cities have a lot to do with facilitating agility and resilience to ongoing and emerging challenges. In another sense, a city is ‘smart’ when it puts its citizens first by making public spaces inclusive, reliable and flexible. It also necessitates cities to create job opportunities and, in turn, favourable conditions for local companies to thrive. Yet, to repeat, it is not an easy task to overhaul the city planning and administrative inner-workings of cities to embrace the green and digital transformation in an equitable and sustainable way. Cities often become locked in certain paths of thinking, predicated on mayoral mandates and multi-annual budgets. As a result, there is seldom time to review and keep strategies fit for purpose.
To overcome these hurdles, it is worth looking at two key drivers for smart cities and regions: multilevel governance and technological transformation. First, we have collaborative mechanisms in place to not only consult but also decide with local stakeholders (be it citizens, associations or businesses). Some European countries, like Finland, have invested significantly in participatory decision-making processes, for instance on budgeting, at the city level. Overall, stakeholder engagement engenders a more critical mindset because it exposes public decision making to local constituents, allowing different perspectives to inform decisions. Second, finding ways to use technology as a means to deliver on city objectives is critical. While there are clear benefits to implementing certain technologies, this also poses many questions about implementation, and requires skills and important decisions around ethics. Take, for instance, the algorithms behind Artificial Intelligence. Amsterdam and Helsinki have created registries on the use of AI locally to trace their development, have transparency around their use and facilitate learning.
The above examples show a way forward, by putting citizens at the core of decision making, promoting transparency around technology use and allowing for better comparison and decision making on the use of digital technologies.
Fostering inter/intra connections at city level
Technopolis has been leading the European Commission’s Intelligent Cities Challenge (ICC) initiative for some time, starting with the Digital Cities Challenge (2017), then the 1st edition of the ICC (2020), and now the 2nd edition (2023). Close to 100 core and mentor cities are involved in the initiative. The ICC is unique in that it emphasises cross-sectoral and cross-departmental involvement, thereby enabling cities to work across sectors (i.e. Built Environment, Energy & Renewables, Mobility, Tourism, Cultural & Creative sectors).
Typically, smart city initiatives tend to focus on a narrower scope, or one sector. In the case of the ICC, the ambition is to go beyond – which is challenging, given the tendency of departments to operate independently – and get departments and stakeholders across different sectors and domains to co-work and collectively define strategies and implement solutions.
While the predecessor ICC initiatives were more focussed on digital transformation of cities and implementation of technology-backed solutions, the current edition is helping cities in the EU-27 design Local Green Deal (LGD) strategies and action plans. Cities clearly play a role in the world’s carbon footprint, producing over 60% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Yet, they should also be part of the solution; in the EU, around 50% of the reductions needed for net-zero emissions can be achieved at city level (C40, EUROSTAT).
Looking closer at the ICC, there are obvious parallels between the concept of LGDs and the policy of the European Green Deal. In fact, you might say that it is a matter of implementing the Green Deal at the local level. The initiative aims to build partnerships with local stakeholders such as companies and business associations.
Evidently, the concept of LDGs, put forth in the ICC initiative, represents a concrete way for cities to work closely with the relevant stakeholders to maximise their sustainability potential, while also working closely with local businesses. This process should result in better strategies that actually respond to the needs of citizens living in urban areas.
Technopolis Group: Connecting the dots
There is still much to learn from cities within and outside Europe when it comes to sustainable and technological transitions. Still, many cities lack the resources to scout and search for best practices, and to ensure the roll-out of initiatives delivering substantial progress on the transition objectives. Despite this hurdle, we see a potential in city initiatives supporting bottom-up and collaborate approaches, also across sectors and domains.
Technopolis Group has a lot to offer in the EU and regional space, when it comes to supporting cities in their green and digital transitions. The ICC programme is just one example of this support, which extends to developing data-based metrics and indicator frameworks for digital transformation, advising cities and networks on LDG strategies and supporting policy makers and decision makers in strategy implementation.