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Put citizens first for a successful smart city

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 11:59

Building a successful smart city requires a city-led and citizen focussed approach. Smart cities need to have smart citizens to be fully inclusive, innovative and sustainable. The city of Ghent strongly focuses on its smart citizens, and actively enables them to become smarter. Daniel Termont, Mayor of Ghent explains his vision for an inclusive, smart and child-friendly city, which will be a better place for everyone to live, work and enjoy

ghent_mayors_daniel-termont_3In Ghent, we combine our historical facades with a forward looking vision. By 2020, I want my city to be open, inclusive, smart and child-friendly. Key to this vision is our citizens: we want to build the Ghent of the future together, a better place for everyone to live, work and enjoy.

Discussions around smart cities are too often driven by technology and industry. I believe cities – and their citizens – are at the core of the smart city transition. Technology is an important ingredient of course: we are looking to cutting edge solutions to better manage our energy and transport systems, process and visualise data and make life easier for citizens. We’re not overlooking the low tech solutions that complement these: well-organised bike paths, for example, and vertical farming. Technology for us is a means not an end, and becoming smarter is about a whole lot more.

We need to find new ways of working together so we can make the most of everyone’s expertise. Public administrations, citizens, businesses and research institutes: we are all part of the same urban ecosystem and we all have something to offer. By pooling our resources, we can create better solutions that truly address our challenges and are owned by the entire city.

In Ghent, we have several tools to make this cooperation happen, like the Ghent Climate Alliance, which is behind our vision of becoming climate neutral. We bring everyone together to discuss, debate and explore the path to climate neutrality. And our Ghent Living Lab is an innovative platform where citizens, developers, researchers and businesses can co-create their city.

Smarter cities rely on data, so opening up data is an important initiative for Ghent. Students and developers can use it to work on new solutions, including apps that make life easier for residents, like a waste collection calendar and an app to locate free parking spaces. We’ve even turned it into a competition: our annual hackathon, Apps for Ghent, invites developers to turn our open data into exciting new apps. We’ve seen examples such as Studio Dott’s Popbike, which allow users to calculate the best bike route and share bikes, and Ghendetta, a game that encourages users to explore and conquer city districts.

Ofcourse there are limitations. One of the challenges many cities face with opening data is protecting citizens’ privacy. Citizens need to be able to access, use and manage their data, and for this they need adequate digital skills. This is a priority for Ghent, as we want to make sure technology is accessible to everyone. All of our citizens need to be part of this transition.

It is essential then that we create a level playing field, so local businesses and entrepreneurs can benefit. We need common and open standards and better interoperability between systems. Not only would this open the market to more actors, especially locally, but it would bring down costs and maximise the release, accessibility and usability of data, helping businesses grow.

In becoming smarter, we will learn lessons and encounter challenges along the way. A direct dialogue with the European Commission would enable us to address these challenges as and when they arise. The new urban agenda for the EU provides a suitable framework and the tools for this cooperation.

EU-funded projects are important for testing and scaling up new solutions. Ghent is involved in several projects, including the Green Digital Charter, through which we commit to reducing our carbon footprint through smart ICT.

While these projects are important, we are noticing that competition between cities to win EU-funded projects is on the rise. Applying for these opportunities is demanding on administrative and staff capacity, and there is no guarantee of success. What’s more, it is often national or regional governments that allocate the share of funding that local authorities can receive. This means that the opportunities at EU level don’t always match our local needs, so I would strongly recommend giving cities direct access to EU funding.

As a mayor, I know every corner of my city and have the daily contact with the citizens. From street to strategic level, this knowledge is crucial for making smart city solutions work.

Working with cities means working with citizens, so by strengthening the links between the European institutions and cities, we are building a stronger Europe, one that is closer to its citizens