Regions and cities have their say on achieving Europe’s Digital Decade

Event Poster
23 Mar 2022

Regions, cities and communities showed they are key players in achieving Europe’s Digital Decade at a webinar organised by Futurium and Living-in.EU on 16 March. Local and regional governments are drawing inspiration from the EU’s Digital Compass to steer their digital transformation. At the same time, their contribution is essential to achieve the ambitious goals set out in Europe’s Digital Decade by 2030.There were plenty of inspirational ideas on how to kick start the local digital transformation in a “European Way”.

Regional leaders, smart communities practitioners from across Europe and European Commission officials exchanged views on their approach to digitalisation:

The event began with a scene-setter by Rita Wezenbeek, Director of Connectivity in DG CONNECT, on the policy objectives of Europe’s Digital Decade. Launched in March 2020, the Digital Decade communication presented the EU’s vision for an integrated approach to the digital transition anchored in values, and with 16 targets for 2030 for a globally competitive EU. In September, the Path to the Digital Decade was published which includes a governance structure to achieve specific targets under the four points of the Digital Compass: Skills, Public Services, Infrastructure and Business.  Member States will determine their national trajectory to achieving EU level goals, and each year the European Commission will publish an assessment of progress made.  A Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles was also proposed, underlining that this digital transformation will follow “the European Way” based on shared values. For this ambitious vision to be achieved, Rita encouraged all levels of government to provide their input into the national roadmaps, as well as contribute to their implementation.

Prof. Kristina Sinemus, Minister for Digital Strategy and Development, Hessen, the first digital minister of a German Land, delivered the keynote speech. She outlined the main elements of Digital Hessen: where the future begins, the region’s dedicated Digital Decade Strategy as an example of the importance of integrating Smart Regions in Europe’s Digital Decade. The strategy was developed in co-creative process with many stakeholders, and a large focus is on local level for the digitalisation of public administration, energy and cities. Municipalities use digitalisation to improve sustainability and quality of life. While there are a number of innovation centres in Hessen like Frankfurt and Darmstadt, a particular challenge is also to bring the benefits of digital innovation to all areas, including rural areas. Cooperation and exchange of best practices within the region facilitated by a database, is essential to create synergy effects. Her credo is “Don’t reinvent the wheel. Learn from and with each other.” Minister Sinemus said Hessen can be a role model at EU level to encourage other regions to be part of delivering the Digital Decade together.

Minister Sinemus expressed pride that Hessen was an early signatory of the Living-in.EU declaration in 2020, the first in Germany and the first one at regional level in the EU.  More than just technological innovation, digitalisation must follow a citizen centric model. Use of common technical standards are an essential element to build a pan-European community and exchange at all levels of government is needed.  Asked to share her tips to those hoping to follow Hessen’s example, she said the design of their funding programmes means at least two cities must work together, which leads to a good spirit of cooperation. Additional resources and assistance has to be provided to small and medium sized cities and rural areas. This includes setting up a start-up ecosystem outside the usual hotspots, which is having a good impact, and making the entire region smart.

The next speaker was Marek Bobis, Policy Officer in the Committee of the Regions. Marek presented work by the Living-in.EU community on developing LORDI, a set of local and regional digital indicators. While the DESI exists at national level, it’s much more difficult to get reliable data measuring digitalisation at sub-national level. Working with ESPON and OASC through the DIGISER project, a survey on digital transformation at local level was conducted and 130 responses were received. Living-in.EU is now refining the list of indicators, combing statistical data with self-assessment by communities, to come up with a Local Digital Health Check instrument. This tool is needed for well-informed decision-making by municipalities, and to be able to benchmark themselves against others in Europe.

The second part of the event was a dynamic discussion on ‘Strategies for localising the Digital Decade in cities and regions’, with a diverse panel, moderated by Cristina Martinez, Deputy Head of Unit, Technologies for Smart Communities, DG CONNECT. Petri Räsänen, Director, Council of Tampere Region (Pirkanmaa) described how his region is working on its own regional digital compass. Working groups  were formed to feed into the development of a strategy, for implementation in conjunction with regional partners. The region has signed the Living-in.EU Declaration, which the city of Tampere is also part of. He concurred that data and indicators are badly needed, in particular for some parts of the compass. The weakest area is the business digitalisation, where existing EU indicators are not useful at local or regional level.

Wim de Kinderen, Programme Director, Brainport Eindhoven joked that he himself is a Public-Private-Partnership, working for both the City of Eindhoven and Brainport Einhoven, a technology region in which companies, governments and educational institutions work together for innovation. He spoke about how the Netherlands is approaching European Digital Innovation Hubs, which can be a great tool to accelerate the local digital transformation. They have proposed one specifically to work with industry, and one to focus on public administration. Looking at the digital compass, digital infrastructure, including semiconductors are essencial, as companies in the Eindhoven region are key players in the value chain. Even in a global debate, it comes down to the local in the end. EU engagement is key to being plugged into these discussions and to learning from others. For this reason Eindhoven is  actively engaged in networks such as Living-in.EU, ENoLL (European Network of Living Labs) and Eurocities.

Daniel Marco Parraga, Director General for Innovation and Digital Economy at Government of Catalonia also spoke about his region’s strategy, the Smart Catalonia Strategy, which broke new ground when launched in an area where cities have dominated. It sets out a vision of how to change the region with technology, moving from an industrial to a digital focus. It is led by the Vice President which gives strong political impetus. In terms of measuring, Catalonia used the DESI to benchmark itself against EU Member States, but Daniel would find regional digital indicators very useful.

The region has developed tools to enable citizens to contribute in the public space to share views and identify services. The strategy develops the concept of Digital citizenship, ‘empower and protect’, including digital skills, rights and principles.The regional government itself is open digital and efficient, with a focus on citizen experience. Digital infrastructure is another essential element (public infrastructure connecting all municipalities, 5G, international connectivity) and they have recently launched a new space strategy. Daniel also sees great potential in Digital Innovation Hubs as a digital accelerator for the region. The Digital Innovation Hub for Catalonia (DIH4CAT) is a candidate EDIH offering services to the public and private sector and bringing together seven universities and technology institutes. It will focus on rollout of advanced technologies such as AI, blockchain and 5G by connecting with businesses and administrations. 

Vincent Demortier, President of Faubourg Numérique (Digital Innovation Hub) in Saint-Quentin a small city of 60,000 in northern France, brought the business perspective to the discussion. He leads the French chapter of OASC (Open and Agile Smart Cities) and is a strong believer in the MIMs (Minimal Interoperability Mechanisms), a framework for cities to follow when implementing digital solutions in a way that allows them to control implementation and retain data sovereignty, also endorsed by Living-in.EU. One of the MIMs was developed by the FIWARE open source community, which he has joined. Use of the MIMs by both public administrations in procurement and by companies brings benefits by developing a bigger and more dynamic market for smart city solutions.

Stefania Papili, Director of IT, Emilia-Romagna described how for more than 10 years her region’s territorial strategy has connected local authorities, offering central services linked to national or EU services. It also develops local services though an in-house company, and supports competence building. Stefania is particularly excited about DT4Regions, a European Parliament funded project her region is leading. Emilia Romagna and eight other regions from across the EU are working together to develop a platform to share knowledge and build capacity on the use of big data and AI in public service delivery. AI Watch, by the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, is a big source of inspiration for this. She hopes that these digitally advanced regions can support others to replicate solutions they develop.

Panelists were asked to conclude with words of advice on where a region or city should start in developing a Digital Strategy. Their suggestions included:

  • Bring in the combined voices of stakeholders to develop a shared vision for the future. The Digital Decade communication is a very helpful tool to frame the discussion. Collaboration is key: involve public, private, community and academic sectors.
  • Work bottom up and start small. Identify the most relevant network to connect with. Learn from these networks, and then adapt these learnings to your local level, involving motivated and relevant local stakeholders.
  • Gather as much data as you can to understand your current situation. Do a SWOT analysis, for example based on the EU Digital Decade documents, and then identify your own goals.
  • Reach out to others, join networks: Eurocities for big cities, OASC for managing data and implementing data platforms, Living-in.EU for exchange of ideas, citizen centric services, capacity building and digital twins, ENoLL for deployment of living labs.
  • Reuse existing tools – both technological and also organisational and administrative practices.

Eddy Hartog, Head of Unit for Technologies for Smart Communities at DG CNECTconcluded the event saying that the Digital Decade and Living-in.EU, which predated it, are similar but different. While Living-in.EU evolved bottom up, the Digital Decade has its origins in the Commission. However both initiates take a values-based approach to digitalisation and are based on the same premise: only by working together can be accelerate the digital transformation for the benefit of everyone. The Digital Decade and the movement converge in their ambition to do the digital transformation “the European Way”. This process must be inclusive and sustainable so that all municipalities and regions, no matter how small, play their role.

A recording of the event is available here. To continue the conversation, join the Regions, Cities and Local Communities subgroup of the  Digital Decade Futurium Community, and become a signatory of the Living-in.EU Declaration (cities, regions, municipalities) or a supporter of the movement (companies, research institute, non-governmental organisations).

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