The journeys of Oulu and Sant Boi de Llobregat

A hand holding the replica of a city that is coming out of a phone.
16 May 2023

As technology advances at an ever-increasing pace, the way we live, work, and interact with our environment is constantly evolving. Now, more than ever, it is essential that city leaders come together to discuss and strategise how to harness the power of digital innovation to improve the quality of life for their residents.

That is the goal of the Mayors' Digital Assembly, the political advisory body that provides guidance to the Living-in.EU movement. On 15 June, the movement organises its first EU Mayors Digital Assembly in Brussels, in the framework of the Brussels Urban Summit 2023. Local, regional, and national policymakers will get together to share their views on what leadership decisions are needed to accompany a city and a region in its digital transformation, and how to ensure that people are placed in the centre of the process.

Two cities on the digital frontier

Located in Northern Finland, Oulu was the first city to sign the Join, Boost and Sustain declaration, and has acted as an Ambassador for the movement since. Over the past few decades, the city has undergone a deep transformation to become a digital, smart city.

Oulu has exported tar, paper, and technology solutions for many years. “Over 3 billion people daily use technology developed here”, says Seppo Määttä, Mayor of Oulu and Co-Chair of the Mayors Digital Assembly. Nokia established its main development site in this Finnish municipality in the 1970s, and the city founded Europe’s largest technology park in 1982. “The products of our northern, real-life living lab have not only made locals’ day-to-day lives smoother but also gifted the world with smart solutions,” states Määttä.

The city of Sant Boi de Llobregat, in Spain, is also making strides in digitalisation. For the past three years, Sant Boi has fostered a wide range of digital transformation initiatives in the city aiming to tackle a range of interconnected urban challenges, and they are currently working on a smart city strategy.

“We are facilitating the digital transition so everyone can develop or enhance digital skills, regardless of their socio-economic status and personal or professional background,” explains Lluïsa Moret Sabidó, Mayor of Sant Boi de Llobregat and Co-Chair of the Mayors Digital Assembly.

The city is providing training to acquire digital skills for those who suffer from the digital divide due to their gender, age or socio-economic circumstances. Currently, the focus is on experiential learning, involving different generations and groups of interest, such as social entities, local businesses, educational centres, and academia. “This approach is proving to improve the digital competences of residents with scarce skills,” adds the Mayor.

Overcoming obstacles, learning lessons

Digital transformation is an intricate process, and there are challenges that cities need to overcome to succeed. “In Digital Oulu we have learned that urban digital transition is a long-term, complex, and cross-functional process, which challenge the strategic leadership and political decision making,” details the Finnish Mayor.  “Successful digital transformation meeting the needs of people requires understanding of local needs, a clear vision and strategy as well as a collaborative implementation and investment plan,” he adds.

In Oulu, the input of the entire urban community is needed to create new digital solutions that meet the diversified user expectations and achieve the city’s economic, social, and environmental sustainability goals. This includes residents, employees working in the city, politicians, universities and educational establishments, governmental and non-governmental organisations, businesses and so on.

To this purpose, Oulu has created the Oulu Innovation Alliance, a well-known innovation ecosystem bringing together the city's universities, research institutions, leading companies, and citizens as a development platform. Their joint vision is to be Europe’s best ecosystem to produce global added value through digitalisation.

The city of Sant Boi de Llobregat has learned that the success of many digital tools used broadly relies on their simplicity. “We would advise that the digital transformation starts within the public administration itself,” explains Moret, “by putting in place digital solutions and providing training and capacity-building opportunities.” This approach then needs to be embedded in any initiative addressed towards local actors and the city.

Building bridges

The digital transformation of cities is a complex and cross-functional process that demands strategic thinking and a joint effort from both the public and private sectors. Effective knowledge-sharing and collaboration are crucial components for digital transformation success. Oulu’s Mayor acknowledges that “it is more resource effective to learn from other’s experiences and transfer, adapt or scale up practises that are already tested and working in local environments.”

By coming together in joint forums for discussion, cities can address the complex challenges of digital transformation faced by their governments and find the most effective ways to achieve their objectives for quality of life, efficiency, effectiveness, and sustainability in economic, social, and environmental terms.

“By collaborating and sharing, we can improve our own policies and practises and unleash innovation in grander scale,” says Määttä. “Bringing that back home to our city- business collaboration ecosystems we can create economic growth and strengthen the European competitiveness.” Locals can benefit from world-class digital public governance and services that are easy to use, equally accessible, and reliable, making everyday life easier. Additionally, digital governance with open data promotes transparency, participation, and democracy.

The Living-in.EU movement

In this sense, the Living in EU movement is leading the charge towards a digital transformation with people at its heart, with over 140 signatories from cities representing more than 40 million EU citizens, as well as regions and Member States, and approximately 140 supporting organisations from from businesses, academia, and associations.

"Digital transformation is not about technologies, but about people changing the way they think and act,” declares Mayor Seppo Määttä. According to him, “mayors and local policymakers have a finger on the pulse of their citizens,” so by engaging in the Mayors’ Digital Assembly, they can convey local voices to the European sphere.

For Sant Boi, Living in EU is an excellent opportunity for small and medium-size cities not only to learn from bigger and experienced smart cities, but also to bring their needs to the political agenda at EU level. “This will enable us to launch transnational collaborative actions under the movement to ensure an inclusive digital transition in our cities,” specifies Mayor Lluisa Moret.

The power of partnerships

These cities are already exploiting the benefits of sharing knowledge and experiences around digital transformation and innovation. In Finland, Oulu is actively engaged in the Six City collaboration of Finnish cities and is a member of the InnoCities network of Finnish university cities and towns.

At European level, the municipality has had active roles as Urban Agenda Digital Transition Partnership, as a top-level European reference site for Digital Health, as a Horizon Europe Lighthouse City, as a partner in Urbact DigiPlace, or as an active member of Eurocities.

Sant Boi de Llobregat shared that their city actively participates in working groups of different city networks at a regional and national level in Spain and Catalonia, such as Innpulso (innovation), RECI (smarts cities), or Localret (IT). The city has worked on a common digital agenda to foster the digital transition in their region. “Smaller cities have already publicly thanked the initiative because otherwise, they wouldn't have had the resources to design a strategy for their digital transformation,” recognises Mayor Moret.

Looking ahead: a digital future

When thinking about the future, Oulu is taking a proactive approach. The city is leading by example in the fields of digital smart city, health technology, and radio connectivity. MetaCityOulu is a leap to a novel generation of the smart city concept to accelerate the evolvement of digital and virtual city services and governance to the next level of the post-pandemic era, after the transition to virtual cooperation.

“Collecting and utilising the data for the benefit of local people is one of our priorities,” explains the Mayor. Oulu is also engaged in the implementation of Finland’s metaverse strategy. “In coming years, we will have an improved customer experience high on our agenda,” explains Määttä.

For Sant Boi de Llobregat, the digital future looks bright as the city is strongly committed to using technology to manage the city, its public facilities, and its services to ensure sustainability in its triple dimension: climate, social, and economic. Mayor Lluisa Moret shared that “the digital future of Sant Boi de Llobregat is a balance of innovation, smart management and data-based decision-making.” The city aims to become a data-driven organisation, offering public services tailored to the needs and interests of citizens and other local actors.

Both Oulu and Sant Boi de Llobregat's digital journeys have been impressive. They are a great example on how collaborating with other cities and sharing best practices around digital transformation and innovation can amplify their influence, create long-lasting synergies and partnerships, and accelerate progress.

The two mayors will be elaborating on these issues during the first EU Mayors' Digital Assembly. The event is aimed at mayors, regional presidents and other signatories, to debate the political priorities of the movement and to launch new strategic coordinated actions to tackle some key challenges and advance the twin green and digital transformation of EU cities and communities. Registration and agenda are available on the Living-in.EU website.

Please note that to access the Mayor's Digital Assembly event you also need to register to the Brussels Urban Summit. Please do so to receive your badge to access both events:

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