Digital Cities Challenge High Level Conference sets the vision for the future of cities

DCC High Level Conference

In what was a fitting send off for the Digital Cities Challenge, the participating cities came together in Brussels on 5 June with a host of city stakeholders from policy to business to academia for the High Level Conference: A Strategy for EU Cities in the 21st Century.

With so many experts and smart city practitioners in one place, it also presented the perfect opportunity to look into the future of cities and the policies and actions needed to shape them. An opportunity that was grabbed with both hands by thought-provoking speakers and lively panel discussions.

Timo Pesonen, Director General for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs in the European Commission, set the tone for proceedings from the very beginning when he welcomed attendees by paying tribute to the Digital Cities Challenge before switching his attention to what the future holds.

“Today is about celebrating and recognising the accomplishment of the digital transition of the cities in Europe,” said Director General Pesonen. “It is about learning from what did not work and preparing the ground for the future. This is the time to think about the future of our cities and the future of our citizens.”

Following on, First Vice President of the European Committee of the Regions and Rapporteur for the Digital Europe Programme, Markku Markkula, set the scene for sustainable urban growth and development in the EU agenda when he laid out the key principles for successful 21st century cities – place leadership, investment in digital infrastructure and effective use of data.

Next up on the podium, Wallis Goelen-Vandebrock, Principal Advisor for Inclusive Growth, Urban and Territorial Development at DG REGIO, praised the Digital Cities Challenge for bringing a “new level of collaboration between cities” and “joining forces to develop a clear common agenda to boost the digital transformation of cities.”

“Without scaling the solutions that are emerging that enable successful urbanisation, the impact of innovations will only ever be limited. The time has come for cities to join forces on policies and standards that enable scale,” said Ms Goelen-Vandebrock.

Bringing an end to an insightful opening session, Catherine Trautman, Vice-President of Strasbourg Eurometropole, called on the EU to build a dedicated platform for programmes that facilitate the digital and social transition of cities through better connecting clusters. 

With the floor set, high level speakers from industry and international organisations then led riveting sessions on topics ranging from cities leading local innovation ecosystems, to upskilling cities through disruptive education and training, to cities as market creators.

Jan Schoenig, Director Urban Development and Smart Cities at Siemens Global Center of Competence Cities, held nothing back when he warned of the challenges facing cities with traffic jams, air pollution, power outages and new modes of transport putting extra stress on electrical infrastructure, more and more leading to the need for a domain-overarching city “operating system” and connected city.

A good example of a connected city was presented by Olga Blanco, Executive Partner IBM Global Business Services in Madrid, where they worked with the city to create a single digital platform covering all public services. “Now we have the main ingredients to tackle challenges because we have the data needed,” said Blanco.

DCC High Level Conference

Success stories and good practice examples were also presented by a number of participating cities from Rijeka, Alicante, L’Aquila, Nice, Thessaloniki, Sofia, Espoo and Pori throughout the day. While cities showcased their digital strategies and initiatives in the breakout area, including a demonstration by L’Aquila of its new virtual and augmented reality smart tourism applications.

Looking forward toward the Finnish Presidency of the EU, Marja Riitta Pihlman, Director General of the Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment in Finland, laid out some examples of how Finnish cities are using digital solutions to fuel sustainable growth, pointing to projects in Helsinki for implementing air quality measurement solutions and Lahti becoming the first city to pilot personal carbon budgets on mobility emissions.

Leaving attendees with some excellent takeaways, Martin Klein, Global Head of Industry and Business Unit for the Public sector at SAP, advised that to achieve better quality of life and economic growth cities need to “create urban ecosystems orchestrated for innovation, invest in intelligent, joined up digital solutions and engage data-driven business models to re-imagine public services”.

There was more great discussions to be had when Jose Antonio Ondiviela, Microsoft Western Europe Public Sector Industry Solutions Executive for Government, called on cities to “build a connection between citizens’ needs and data”, before William Jonker, CEO of EIT Digital, got the audience thinking by pointing to the increasing inequality created by digital platforms and the importance cities maintaining public ownership of their data.

Joining the panel on Upskilling the city, Olivier Crouzet, Director of Pedagogy in Ecole 42, gave some insight into the tuition-free computer programming school disrupting education in France, declaring that education has to adapt because “maybe half of the current jobs will disappear in the next 10 years”.

While more traditional academia was represented at the event in the form of Pierre Alexander Ballard, Innovation Strategy Advisor and Professor at Utrecht University and MIT Media lab, who presented evidence on how cities can jump start new markets by designing strategies for growth based on existing skills, know-how and points of excellence.

The highly subscribed event brought up to 300 city stakeholders from all over Europe keen to share ideas and experiences on the benefits and challenges of digital transformation. There were a number of recurring themes with the key takeaway messages for cities being:

  • Putting citizens in the center through visionary leadership and collaboration between citizens, business, academia and local governments is vital for success as city ecosystems design future strategies for smart sustainable growth.
  • City ecosystems controlling data and unleashing its full potential is the big topic governing smart policy making and sustainable growth. 
  • Upskilling and attracting talents through innovative and disruptive education and training schemes that prepare its citizens for a bright future is a key area of action among cities.
  • Cities are vibrant market creators as they base more and more decisions on data analytics and procure cutting edge technology solutions and services.

The Conference was the culmination of 18 months of coaching, collaboration, knowledge sharing and peer review through the European Commission’s Directorate General GROW initiative, which led to the formation of a network, a declaration of cooperation and numerous smart growth strategies being developed. 

In her closing remarks, Ulla Engelmann, Head of Unit for Advanced Technologies, Clusters and Social Economy in the European Commission, picked up on one of the underlying themes of the day to reveal that controlling data for the benefit of citizens is the key to the EU’s new industrial strategy.

“During the different presentations from the industries, it shows we are on the same direction. We are currently working on a new industrial strategy at EU level and industrial data is one of the main aspects we are discussing,” said Engelmann.

See photos from the Digital Cities Challenge: A Strategy for EU Cities in the 21st Century