Yesterday marked the first day of the Intelligent Cities Challenge's second City Lab. As the ICC cities start drafting concrete plans for their digital transformation, they were joined by some 100 members of the public for an afternoon of inspiring talks on cities' pivotal role in building a green, digital and fair Europe. Policy experts and city representatives spotlighted city strategies to build back better after COVID and ICC cities presented their work so far.

The event opened with an overview of EU city policies on the European Commission's COVID recovery strategy. To provide context to the City Lab's presentations, Ulla Engelmann, Head of Unit for Social Economy at the European Commission, gave an update on the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RRF) as it was accepted by the European Parliament and Council last week. She outlined the RFF's flagship areas for reform and investment:

  • Power up - clean technologies and renewables
  • Renovate - energy efficiency of buildings
  • Recharge and Refuel - sustainable transport and charging stations
  • Connect - the roll-out of rapid broadband services
  • Modernise - digitalisation of public administration
  • Scale-up - data cloud capacities and sustainable processors
  • Reskill and upskill - education and training to support digital skills

Ms Engelmann reminded the audience that EU Member States need to submit their national plans by the end of April, making sure to earmark at least 37% of their expenditure to climate investments and reforms and a minimum of 20% for their digital transition.

Her presentation then zoomed in on the Renovation Wave and New European Bauhaus initiatives that are part of the European Green Deal. She pointed out that renovating housing to decarbonise heating and cooling systems while increasing energy efficiency is not just a green policy but a social policy. Smart renovation also reduces energy poverty, as it is often socially disadvantaged groups that live in the worst-performing buildings and foot the highest energy bills. Ms Engelmann concluded her talk with an overview of the Green Deal Going Local, emphasising the role cities in general and the Intelligent Cities Challenge in particular can play in this movement.

Dana Eleftheriadou, Head of Advanced Technologies Team at the European Commission, further underscored cities' crucial role in Europe's green and digital recovery. She was heartened by the sense of responsibility cities continue to demonstrate in the COVID pandemic. The past year not only saw cities across Europe take the lead in fighting COVID, but they also made considerable efforts to make "the new normal" more liveable for their citizens. Ms Eleftheriadou expressed the strong belief that "cities can not just build back, they can build back better". She recognised that cities need guidance and sufficient funds to do so, but finds that cities are uniquely placed to collaborate with their local ecosystems to bring about tangible change. Her view was echoed by the experts and local practitioners that took the floor later in the afternoon. Each of them presented city strategies and solutions to support an effective recovery and help build future-ready Europe.

In her presentation on emerging trends in cities, Alice Charles, project lead for the World Economic Forum's Cities, Infrastructure & Urban Services Platform, showed how the pandemic both disrupted and accelerated urban change. Pre-pandemic, for instance, cities were witnessing a rapid move to sustainable modes of transportation. Now, they are struggling to promote the use of public transport while implementing social distancing measures. Presenting some of the top issues cities are currently facing, Ms Charles identified four cross-cutting priorities for cities that perfectly mirror both broader EU policies and the aspirations of the Intelligent Cities Challenge:

  • the need for social equity
  • climate change mitigation and adaptation
  • resilience to overcome disruptions
  • improved prosperity for all

Ms Charles outlined how cities might address these challenges, focusing in particular on ideas for “localised” cities, such as Paris’ 15-minute city, or Melbourne’s 20-minute neighbourhood. These innovative city models propose that everyone living in a city should have access to everything we need to live, work and play within 15 or 20 minutes by bike or on foot. The models place a heavy emphasis on walkability, safe cycling and good connections to affordable public transport, while also ensuring local employment opportunities, local healthcare, local recreation opportunities and green space, education opportunities, affordable and diverse housing and buildings, etc.    

Throughout her presentation, Ms Charles spoke especially passionately about the need for social and inclusive infrastructure, from accessible healthcare to affordable housing and education. She further stressed that "the inequalities that existed in our cities where there before COVID; we just didn't notice them to the same extent. It is good that we are talking about a green and digital recovery, but we must also have a just recovery that addresses the many equalities in our cities."

Next, representatives from several ICC cities presented lessons learnt from the pandemic and ideas for emerging stronger.

  • Filipe Araújo, vice mayor of Porto (Portugal), explained how his city continues to invest in its long-term strategy for sustained and sustainable growth. The city does so through concerted efforts on several fronts, from sustainable mobility over waste reduction to nature-based solutions that promote biodiversity and rainwater management. In its approach, Porto makes the most of city's short decision loop and compact ecosystem. To provide clean, affordable and secure energy, for instance, the city is transforming its municipal water company into an energy utility company. By doing so, it can have direct local impacts. The new full-service utitilify company can drive the implementation of Porto's various green energy projects while also promoting decentralised sustainable energy production.
  • Goele Haest, director of the City of Antwerp's (Belgium) economic department, showed off her city's creative flair with a video presentation of Antwerp's response to the pandemic. The clip first showcased a COVID communication campaign that eschewed a focus on repressive measures to focus on the positive. It then went on to explain how Antwerp is supporting businesses to weather the pandemic. Ms Haest also showed how the city has invested in projects that help address the pandemic: from novel ways of producing medical-grade masks to high-tech solutions for contact tracing and medical monitoring.
  • Harri Paananen, head of economic development for Espoo (Finland) explained how Espoo's strategic vision has relied on co-creation with businesses, researchers and citizens for over eight years now. When the pandemic hit, Espoo could thus rely on an existing network of stakeholders that trusted the city and each other. Through Business Espoo, for instance, the staff of seven different organisation coordinated their actions to communicate safety and stimulus measures to local businesses. The city also worked closely with immigrant organisations and neighbourhood groups to communicate effectively about sanitary measures, even to those that don't speak Finnish or do not consume Finnish media. Mr Paanenen also pointed back to Alice Charles idea of the localised city, pointing out that Espoo doesn’t see its city as a unified whole but instead tailors ideas and their implementation to the needs of five distinct neighbourhoods.
  • Sébastien Viano, Director of European Affairs and External Funding at Metropole Nice Côte d'Azur (France) closed the panel with a talk on the importance of European funding opportunities for cities. Last year, Nice was hit by a terrorist attack, COVID-19 and a devastating storm. To address the fallout from these overlapping crises, the city has recently passed a 2.8 billion euros relief bill. Mr Viano acknowledged that such an investment would not be possible without national funding and EU support. He stressed how important it is for municipalities to be better informed about available funding, to draft and implement more ambitious strategies. Mr Viano also expressed the belief that citizens should be better aware of EU funding and national programmes backed by the EU, to foster European sentiment.

The public event wrapped up with three ICC cities' presentations on the progress they have made so far:

  • Cristina Mora, councillor of sustainable development and European programmes at the City of Cartagena (Spain) described how the Intelligent Cities Challenge has encouraged Cartagena to grow its stakeholder network. Since the start of its ICC journey, the city started collaborating more closely with its local ecosystem and is building long-term relationships with other ICC cities.
  • Anna Riccioni explained how Reggio Emilia (Italy) is building on its participation in ICC's predecessor programme, the Digital Cities Challenge, to improve digital city infrastructure. The city has, for example, already put in place a transversal Digital Transformation Office to foster comprehensive change. It coordinates data collection and dissemination for every department of the municipality to support integrated policy approaches.
  • Tim Guily, smart city advisor for the City of Leuven (Belgium) presented Leuven's ambition to become a caring, green, sustainable and prosperous city. As part of ICC, Mr Guily explained, the city is working with Leuven 2030 and Leuven Mindgate, organisations promoting respectively climate neutrality and prosperity through innovation. Together, they want to turn Leuven into a circular hub and make the city more digitally savvy.

After the public sessions, the Intelligent Cities Challenge cities got down to work. They ended the first day of their second City Lab with a round of peer review sessions in small groups. Over the coming three days, they will define concrete steps for their digital transformation through further peer discussions and working sessions with thematic experts. Tomorrow will also mark the formal launch of the Tech4Good ICC Marketplace, which is already available in its beta version.