Though the UK as a nation is departing from the European Union, cities are working closer than ever before – answering major questions on public data, upscaling smart solutions, and creating a better connected continent.
As the United Kingdom waves au revoir, auf weidersehen, and goodbye to the European Union on 31 January, the once never-ending saga of Brexit and the fervour surrounding it will lead many to ponder what future relationships the departing nation will have with its closest European neighbours – and how the B-word will affect day-to-day lives of both Brits and residents of EU member states alike. In spite of the UK Government’s at-times desultory approach to future trade and working relations with the remaining 27 member states, there is still a plethora of cross-continent knowledge-sharing platforms and projects intent on developing more efficient and effective societies. EUROCITIES, which exists to network and stand up for Europe’s major cities, is keen on continuing to do just that.
Originating more than three decades ago, the roots of the EUROCITIES network began to sprout when a conference in Rotterdam brought together 11 major cities alongside academics and political leaders focused on ‘The city: the engine behind economic recovery,’ and what cross-nation collaboration could do to help drive economic growth in European cities. Three years later, in 1989, the emergence of a core of six additional cities who were keen to work together more closely – including Barcelona, Milan, and Birmingham – boosted the EUROCITIES’ portfolio further, giving the team behind the project the motivation to set up a formal network. Today, EUROCITIES hosts more than 180 cities, lobbying national policymakers on the value that city and local governments can provide in multilevel governance structures.
Squaring the big data circle
Though contentious issues such as the status of Freedom of Movement, the Irish Border, and what a UK-EU trade deal could look like remain as uncertain questions for national government to answer, cities both in the UK and on the continent are eager to continue the discourse on getting ‘smarter,’ by managing and legislating for the arrival of innovative technologies in the digital sector. In October last year, the EUROCITIES network released its ‘Data People Cities’ principles, giving local authorities a roadmap on the responsible use of public data. The thorny global topic of what datasets are public and what datasets are off-limits has been a difficult question to crack for policymakers in recent times. January’s news from the UK Government to allow Huawei to supply infrastructure for 5G networks has angered American allies, given the US executive’s open distrust of the Chinese telecoms manufacturer’s use of public data and security information. Those further north in Canada are having similar discussions over what data is truly ‘publicly available’ in the midst of a major decision whether to allow the Alphabet Toronto Sidewalk Labs project to go ahead, potentially creating a ‘smart’ city district with infrastructure supplied by Google’s parent company – a largely unprecedented move for the smart cities industry.
For the EUROCITIES network, its approach to big data in cities comes down to 10 principles. Whilst acknowledging that citizen data has the “potential to improve our cities through scientific, civic, social, economic, and democratic progress,” and that personal data is covered by rigorous GDPR legislation, the network advocates for more transparent processes on which data is stored where, who has access to it, and that all parties collecting data in public spaces should regularly engage with citizens to “investigate, discuss, and agree requirements for any ethical consequences of data collection.”
Sitting down with Cityscape to analyse the current state of play in establishing strong data governance across European cities, policy advisor for the EUROCITIES network Federica Bordelot outlined the network’s ethos when establishing what safe and secure smart cities can do. “Our plan is based around the implementation and very concrete examples from cities – so projects or initiatives that these cities have worked on, on how they are implementing the citizen data,” she said. “For citizen data, we basically mean all the personal and non-personal data that is produced every day by people and by machines in the city space.
“Everything is about data use and data management, but we have to consider many different contexts and different policy areas,” she continued, “from managing sustainable mobility to cultural heritage or to education and learning – so data is also very widely used in our cities.”
The principles seek to set out progressive guidelines for residents and decision-makers alike to fully unlock the capabilities public datasets can provide. In the Hungarian city of Debrecen, stakeholders launched an integrated and public open-data platform to store audio-visual files and historically archived learnings in a bid to foster Hungarian culture and rekindle attachment to the city. In the Italian city of Florence, Florentines are able to submit public data related to everything from infrastructure to student numbers and the status of green spaces, making possible a number of actions to reduce waste and inefficiencies. Closer to home, Edinburgh City Council collaborated with the University of Edinburgh to develop better ways for scientists and residents to understand their local environment and biodiversity with the data-enabled CitySounds and ParkLife projects.
In a way, it’s sort of recalling what the main principles of being a smart city are – so for our local authorities, what should a smart city be?
In Eindhoven, Federica told of an agreement that saw the local municipality grant a parking permit discount for all paid parking areas to a local company, in exchange for access to company data on the use of shared cars within the city. From this anonymised data, planners in Eindhoven will learn about the number of vehicles involved and areas of greatest use and timeframes in the Dutch city. “It’s a very good example of how, with a simple discussion and agreement, they could find a very good deal on managing that data,” she said.
Though data work is only one of the segments of the EUROCITIES agenda, for Federica the principles on citizen data can truly allow a smart city to define itself as just that – and they help her to make better EU-wide smart-city policy recommendations to the various participating EU institutions.
“In a way, it’s sort of recalling what the main principles of being a smart city are – so for our local authorities, what should a smart city be?” Federica asked. “And which principles should be followed? This can be used as inspiration for the EU institutions themselves when thinking about future legislation around data. It also allows us to better communicate the funding needs of cities to really make this transformation happen.”
Private contracts for the public good?
The concept of public-private ventures such as that of the Sidewalk Labs project in Toronto is one that could come to the fore much more often in coming years for both developed and emerging cities. Predictions from Persistence Market Research that the global smart cities sector could reach an eye-watering $3.5 trillion by 2026 is emblematic of the value that private and public sectors are putting on smart cities. Toyota’s announcement in January, for example, to build a 175-acre smart city in Japan is the latest in proposals from corporate firms to install ‘smart’ infrastructure in return for public land and resources. But how much private interference is too much? And how are the parameters set so residents can feel comfortable that their personal data is not being used for commercial means? Federica highlights how the system as a whole could be in need of a refresh. “The current business models do not entirely work – I think that’s clear,” she argued. “There are a number of problems for local public administrations to access and use private-sector data.
“I think that there should be two approaches: one is to explore, at a European level, the opportunities to regulate the access and the use of that data. This would involve cities continuing to work with the European Commission and Parliament to find a legislative way to regulate that use and that access.
“On the other side, I think a dialogue between public and private is essential,” Federica added. “To continue to push on that knowledge exchange and dialogue between the two parties might allow us to find a new business model and possibly find ways for win-win situations.”
Local public administrations are “fully aware” of the cost some private firms incur in procuring data for their platforms, she noted – but it’s not difficult to find strong examples of public-private collaboration in European cities, the Eindhoven parking contract being one of them. When the UK’s transition period away from current EU regulations ends on 1 January 2021, data flows between the two parties will come down to an adequacy decision: if the European Commission believes the data protection structures of a non-EU country – in this case the UK – are adequate, it can approve the transfer and storage of EU citizens’ data via that country. Yet reports from The Guardian suggest that at least two EU countries have raised concerns about British data standards protection, meaning that UK authorities could have future limitations on the pool of information they can access and potentially utilise in public-private partnerships.
With digital technologies it can often evolve very quickly – but one of our main objectives for the next five years is to look into the new and emerging technologies that are in flux.
The EU Commission has also highlighted the value of data-sharing flows between the political and corporate worlds, creating in 2018 the Business-to-Government Data expert group, whose cross-sector independent professionals produced a report identifying ‘B2G’ data-sharing best practice and pinpointing where data-sharing joint ventures could be developed further.
“We would like to look into new and beneficial opportunities for both the private and public sectors on how to manage that data for the benefit of the citizen,” Federica outlined. “With digital technologies it can often evolve very quickly – but one of our main objectives for the next five years is to look into the new and emerging technologies that are in flux. At the moment, the hot topics are artificial intelligence (AI) and 5G, for instance, but possibly in two years’ time we will already be talking about 7G.”
Outside of working with public and private sector experts, the EUROCITIES network is looking to break into the academia world, so that “researchers and universities can better understand the potential behind these new technologies, and the challenges and barriers that local public authorities are facing in their implementation within cities,” noted Federica. Questions such as how cities will meet the challenge of managing huge datasets will be the types of conversations the EUROCITIES network will be asking of its Urban Digital Foresight taskforce.
Riding the wave of emerging technologies
AI, blockchain, 5G, big data, augmented reality, Internet of Things: to the average city resident right now, these futuristic buzzwords may fail to elicit a response. But when you consider that each of these technologies individually are worth billions of pounds, for Federica, as a policy advisor managing that wave of emerging capabilities with cities in Europe, they present both a challenge and a promising prospect.
“What we are doing with our knowledge society community of experts is looking into the different technologies and trying to understand the values and challenges of their real implementation,” Federica explained. “We also had a mapping exercise on new and emerging technologies and have identified the ones that are most important for cities: AI, 5G, robotics, virtual reality, augmented reality, and blockchain.”
1On the topic of AI, for example, the network is working with cities such as Helsinki, London, and Amsterdam to establish best practice for public authorities interest in harnessing AI. Helsinki, for example, produced a course with basic online classes on what AI is and how it can help a city – a scheme which the EU Commission is now looking to translate into relevant languages for its 27 member states.
More broadly, a leaked white paper from the European Commission in January suggested that the EU could reflect on its AI policy by temporarily banning the use of facial recognition technology in public spaces such as sporting events and shopping complexes for three to five years, after surveillance fears were raised by European citizens. These brand-new challenges will be questions the EUROCITIES network will have to help in answering as the EU builds its policy on AI in the coming years. “The Commission is working on a future regulatory framework on AI. We are looking into the proposals and responding with policy recommendations from the local perspective, putting specific emphasis on ethical-related issues,” Federica said. “But AI is only one aspect, because now you need to deal with all of these emerging technologies; AI is just the most evident one at the moment, but maybe in two years the focus will change.”
Keeping agile in a changing environment
Of course, digitalisation happens at different speeds across Europe’s diverse cities. As Federica explained, “no one solution fits all, and there are very different ways in which cities are transformed through their work on smart cities.”
“Some cities are more advanced and others less so, but through city networks like EUROCITIES they exchange knowledge and experience. One of the main problems that can be seen as a challenge everywhere, from east to west and from north to south, is the use of common standards and enhanced interoperability of city systems,” she pointed out.
“Interoperability of urban platforms is one of the main issues that cities are encountering, because if the city systems do not talk to each other – both within the same city and across borders – this is, of course, a real problem in developing services and applications in new areas.”
To respond to this challenge, EUROCITIES, together with the European Commission, Committee of the Regions, Finnish Presidency of the EU and other city networks, recently launched the ‘Join, Boost, Sustain’ political declaration. In December, the City of Oulu hosted a conference in collaboration with the EUROCITIES network and other partners highlighting the potential of upscaling digital solutions in European cities by working at different levels of government – city, regional, and European – to come up with “concrete actions” so that they are interoperable, open, and able to produce new applications available for all.
Interoperability of urban platforms is one of the main issues that cities are encountering, because if the city systems do not talk to each other – both within the same city and across borders – this is, of course, a real problem in developing services and applications in new areas.
“The idea is that we need to ensure that if London, for example, has its own urban platform – which no doubt produces very important services for its citizens – that this can also be used in Edinburgh. Otherwise, if the two platforms do not talk to each other, they cannot be used. It’s really an attempt to reduce the resources, time, energy and money that is spent, and instead produce more citizen benefit with less effort expended,” Federica explained.
The ‘Join, Boost, Sustain’ initiative is more than a declaration of intent. In 2020, a steering board will be launched with representatives from different governance levels to develop an action plan to progress the established commitments and ensure they are implemented by 2025.
Though the United Kingdom as a nation will be abandoning from EU legislature and standards when it fully departs from the union at the end of the year, through EUROCITIES, the continued dialogue and collaboration between European cities will continue.
Local authorities around the UK will have key decisions to make in the coming years over new technologies in robotics, AI, augmented reality, and blockchain, just to name a few – as well as to ensure that both the public and private sectors are getting the most out of city data. As the UK’s national position in Europe fades into obscurity, its smart cities – and their collaboration across multi-national networks – will remain alive and kicking.