European Commissioner Thierry Breton had a vibrant and honest discussion with Mayors from the Intelligent Cities Challenge (ICC) and Living-In.EU initiatives, on the challenges facing cities and emerging opportunities in Brussels on Thursday 2 December.

Cities all over Europe face big challenges: the pandemic, climate change, the green and digital transition amid supply chain shortages and rocketing energy prices.

Despite these challenges, mayors and city leaders impressed with their ambitious visions, cities’ strategies and innovative actions for a sustainable, innovative and prosperous future.

There were clear messages:

  • The green and digital transition is a matter of urgency: The challenges are pressing and ask for immediate solutions. The EU cannot afford the cost of "non-action or too-late action".
  • Collaborative governance models, i.e. where citizens and businesses co-govern with the City Council, are key to implement the twin transition and deliver on the EU Green Deal.
  • Allies to this transition are technology such as digital twins, urban data platforms and #Tech4Good, and sustainable investments.
  • Cities have a track record of experimenting and piloting technology-powered solutions. The time is ripe for massive scale-up underpinned by skilful workforce, private investments, EU and national funding instruments. They need technical assistance and support.
  • Emerging human-centric city models such as the 15-minutes city or “superblocks” are effective levers to accelerate the transition.
  • There is a clear need to involve cities effectively in the EU policy making process.
  • Digital inclusion is crucial: “Business as usual is not an option. Innovation will not work if it does not work for everyone in the city”. Ms Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona (Spain).
  • Mobilising citizens is essential, even if “the best plan will be there (…) no one will be there to implement it”. Mr Grigoris Konstantellos, Mayor of Vari-Voula-Vouliagmeni (Greece).

The event was moderated by Ms Meabh McMahon from Euronews who welcomed participants before Commissioner Thierry Breton gave his opening address.

"We stand together with you on this fight and transition”. Commissioner Breton

Breton

 The Commissioner recognised how cities are “key players, at the front line” in the ongoing struggles against the COVID-19 pandemic and thanked them for their work. He emphasised how the European Commission is here to support them and encouraged participants to engage directly with him.

The importance of initiatives like Living.In-EU and the Intelligent Cities Challenge in achieving broad consensus and progress across the local, regional, national and EU level was emphasised by Minister for Public Administration of Slovenia, Mr Boštjan Koritnik. “I’m deeply convinced that cities and communities are becoming ‘launchpads’ for the entire society”. He also shared his pride in the involvement of Slovenian cities in both projects and praised the work of OASC as “a great example of how to set minimal interoperable standards”.

panel

The first interactive panel on green and digital transformation of local economies welcomed panellists both online and in person where the below insights were given.

Mr Grigoris Konstantellos, Mayor of Vari-Voula-Vouliagmeni shared how the city’s use of the triple bottom line theory and quick turnaround have allowed the city to already achieve 65% of its aspirational actions and policies. This creates a promising basis for its goal of delivering a Local Green Deal in the near future.

Turning towards green policies in France, Mr François Baroin, Mayor of Troyes (France) and former President of the federation of French Mayors who explained the ‘15 minute city’ policy that has now been adopted as a fast-track policy by 10 cities in France so far. This means that developing low carbon, public services is now prioritised in order to make this concept a reality.

Taking note of these impressive developments, strong encouragement for cities to work together and learn from each other was given by Ms Laia Bonet, Deputy Mayor of Barcelona. She stated “It is important that we cities who are on the frontlines of transformation, are involved by the Commission when we implement brave policies that get us closer to our common objectives”.

Meanwhile, as recent finalists in the European Green Capital, Sofia (Bulgaria) has been going the extra mile to take the title in the future. Mr Gencho Kerezov, Deputy Mayor of Sofia outlined the city’s efforts which include preparing ahead for the implementation of the principles of the EU Taxonomy for Sustainable Development and digital transformation strategy. The city has already conducted an analysis ahead of new changes to allow Sofia to position itself well.

Finally Mr Jacob Bundsgaard, Mayor of Aarhus (Denmark) explained how cities can go the extra mile and not only help local businesses to invest in the green transition, but support them to develop new ‘green’ products. This is currently being practiced with a local company in Aarhus working on an alternative to petrol-based plastics. The city is helping with planning and connecting the company with universities.

Panel and audience

 

The second interactive panel, entitled “Local digital transformation”, welcomed a new range of speakers.

The cities of Grenoble (France) and Helsinki (Finland) celebrated their work on digitalisation. Ms Amel Zenati, Counsellor for Grenoble highlighted the progress in this area, including the availability of public documents for citizens and use of free, open-source software in all of Grenoble’s primary schools. Mr Juhana Vartiainen, Mayor of Helsinki, expressed his pride in the reforms on frontline work such as healthcare and providing citizens with advanced services that anticipate their future needs.

Mr Mohamed Ridouani, Mayor of Leuven (Belgium), discussed the citizens’ willingness to contribute to data collection in his city which demonstrates a collaborative governance model. A project led by a start up from the university, WeCount, is one example of this. It is an instrument attached to citizens’ windows that counts traffic to provide data on mobility which allows needs to be identified more easily.

Meanwhile, Ms Carmen Carvalheira, Vice-President of the region of Alentejo (Portugal), stressed the need for smart city policies to spread to smart communities and regions too. She expressed her region’s challenges of an elderly population and a low population density but noted that a new transportation platform providing on demand transport signified progress with the digital transition.

The concept of ‘urban trees’ in Budapest (Hungary) was outlined by the city’s Deputy Mayor, Ms Kata Tüttő. A mapping of urban environments using a digital tool car to make a 3D map of trees is currently underway in the city. AI is used here to identify the species and health of tree which ultimately helps determine what the environmental value of the tree is, allowing the city to make smarter and greener decisions.

“We will win this digital and green transition only with you”.  Commissioner Breton

Commissioner Breton took the time to respond to each speaker individually and expressed his gratitude to the participants for providing him with a better understanding of their challenges and needs. He strongly encouraged all cities to contact him and his team with ideas, initiatives and demands, emphasising that it is a team effort.

The ICC thanks all participants for a fruitful discussion and hopes this important dialogue continues beyond this session. You can re-watch the session in English and French.