Smart city citizen engagement the key to future development

Technology can enable us to implement the smart cities of the future, but knowledge sharing is just as vital.

Faced with challenges such as climate change, health problems related to air pollution and increasingly concentrated amounts of people living in cities, adapting our cities in order to offer a better quality of life is vital. Technology can offer us a stepping stone to the cities of the future, but this is not the only aspect which needs to be focused on in order to implement new ideas and create better living areas and conditions for city dwellers.

Innovation News Network spoke to Anna Lisa Boni, secretary general of EUROCITIES, about how Europe can implement smart city solutions and help governments to offer dynamic living solutions for the future.

How important is it to continue developing new technology and promoting smart city citizen engagement?

At EUROCITIES we believe technology is an enabler, rather than an end goal in itself. In this sense, smart cities should be citizen-focused and a place that allows citizens to have a good quality of life. Encouraging more cities across Europe to deploy smart technology is of course worthwhile, but there are several ways to do this; and focusing only on the technology involved is not necessarily the best way.

We need to focus much more, for example, on knowledge transfer and scaling up existing ideas and solutions. Giving cities the opportunity to learn from best practice examples saves time and money when contemplating new city projects. Moreover, cities are the perfect scale to test out innovative solutions which benefit their citizens. These solutions often make sense in different contexts and can be shared not only between cities, but also upscaled by feeding into national and European decision-making.

Of course, much of this also depends on being able to secure financing over the long term. That’s where European programmes and EU-funded projects can be particularly useful. EUROCITIES member cities benefit from our involvement in several smart city citizen engagement projects, such as Sharing Cities, which matches three ‘lighthouse’ cities with three ‘fellow’ cities to replicate urban solutions from one city to another. We then share these results more widely through webinars and other actions to ensure further uptake.

How can we ensure that we are building successful smart cities across Europe? What do you believe makes a smart city successful?

One challenge for cities is their capacity to transform themselves and work with new business models. To help cities in doing this, we work within the European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities, where we chair the action cluster on business models, finance and procurement.

This helps turn smart city concepts into real solutions by, for example, matchmaking investors to project proposals. At a time when city administrations are faced with shrinking budgets, building new partnerships with businesses, universities and other investors is essential to the development of many city projects. Working in partnerships also helps spread the risks of innovation.

Another key aspect is ensuring that cities are able to work together on projects to test new ideas and scale up new solutions. We want to boost integrated approaches to EU-financed projects which involve cities as partners and in policy developments that impact cities. We also need to ensure that cities have direct dialogue with European Union decision-makers.

For me, a successful smart city is one which benefits people in their everyday activities. This means that they have more access to better public services, while also limiting things like carbon footprint and overall energy consumption.

Do you believe that enough is being done at the EU level to encourage and support European cities in deploying smart technology?

The Urban Agenda for the EU and the European Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) are positive examples of new governance mechanisms which support the joining up of different levels of government and different sectors. This is a step in the right direction to address European and urban challenges together. However, as I already touched upon, replication and scale up are huge challenges; and more can be done at the EU level to support cities financially in these efforts.

We also need more input and to encourage a response to smart city ideas from the private sector. Business models are not usually related to a smart city model as such; but rather reflect one specific response or solution within a wider model when viewed from the point of view of a city administration. In order to help successful smart city citizen engagement we need much more in terms of innovative financing. This can include measures through the European Investment Bank, or simply use of measures like crowdfunding.

On the policy level, smart cities rely on data; so opening up data is an important aspect. However, one of the obvious challenges many cities face with opening data is protecting privacy. Citizens need to be able to access, use and manage their data, and for this they need adequate digital skills. Cities are very aware of these issues and aim to use data in a responsible way.

EUROCITIES recently launched a set of 10 principles on the responsible use of citizens’ data, which I hope might serve as potential inspiration for future EU policies and legislation.

What are the next steps in smart city development?

Thanks to a growing evidence base gathered through successful initiatives like the EIP-SCC, my hope is that we can see much more in the future in terms of innovative solutions prioritising smart city citizen engagement. City authorities need to be actively working with private businesses and other levels of government to shape the design of smart cities. As the closest level of government to the people, we know our local areas best and can work with different partners towards solutions which work for all.

When projects are city-led, we can ensure that there is clear input from the people who will use those services. This brings a balance to the urban commons and a power to people to decide on what they need from their city.

Another huge aspect in the future will be data, which is why our data principles start from the idea that citizen data must only be used in the public interest and should generate tangible benefits to citizens and society. There is a growing need for quality data in the development of smarter cities, which comes with challenges to the privacy and protection of personal data. That’s why we need to make sure people have the appropriate digital skills to access, use and manage their own data. Cities are collaborating to tackle these challenges and ensure people can trust public authorities with their data.

EUROCITIES is the political platform for major European cities. We network the local governments of over 140 of Europe’s largest cities and more than 40 partner cities, which between them govern some 130 million citizens across 39 countries.

Anna Lisa Boni

Secretary General


+32 2 552 08 88

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