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European Commissioner for Digital agenda
The critical role of cities in making the Digital Agenda a reality
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Closing speech to Global Cities Dialogue Spring Summit of Mayors
Brussels, 28 May 2010
Ladies and gentlemen,
I cannot tell you how pleased I am to be here today. In my mind, cities are absolutely critical units of administration for getting our new Digital Agenda for Europe up and running. 80 per cent of people already live and work in cities in Europe, and I understand that Europe in the best represented continent in your Dialogue.
When I launched our Digital Agenda last week, I said I wanted to take away the digital virginity of Europeans who don't go online. This week I hear wedding bells. Each of you look like 'marriage material' and I think we can be great digital partners.
Why? You are in charge of the housing, healthcare, energy, education and mobility infrastructures. You know what the needs are for increasing resource efficiency, reducing emissions, improving care services for your ageing populations, empowering youth and integrating minorities (new and old). Adding intelligence to your public services and actively deploying ICT solutions is more of your every day business than it is ours. For you the things that we talk about are not statistics but real: they pose real challenges and offer real benefits if you get it right.
You have both the critical mass and the local engagement that are so important in getting pilot projects running. You have the trust of citizens to be able to change their minds and habits. This is something that those of us at the European level sometimes lack because of the distance between our work and individual families and businesses. You can be a credible bridge between us.
So what is this Digital Agenda all about?
It is really about maximising the social and economic potential of ICTs. We aren't doing that now – 30% of Europeans have never been online, we don't invest enough – either in research or networks or figuring our how to use ICTs to build a more inclusive and sustainable society. In this case, building the sorts of cities that people want to live in and are happy to raise families in.
With public service delivery getting harder and more complex, you might wonder whether you really need more technologies to throw into that mix? Sometimes not, I imagine. But on the whole there is really only one way to meet many of our current challenges simultaneously.
Let me ask you a few questions about some of your biggest challenges, for example:
Do you have a staff pension deficit?
I think we may have the same answer in our heads. None of the pressing challenges can be solved without a strong ICT component. ICT investments create jobs, save money or resources and free up people to focus on the things they most need to do in teaching or caring or connecting in their communities.
But who am I kidding? You know all that. I had better tell you – using a few examples - about what makes this action plan different, and why we need YOU to be involved for it to work.
Environmental role of ICTs
Different cities clearly follow different development paths. This Digital Agenda does not seek to change that. But it does seek to recognise the power of urban planning and the role of ICTs in managing infrastructures. For example our work at the European level to support the Internet of Things is going to play a major role in underpinning urban development. In this way the Digital Agenda can certainly build better lives.
Local authorities have a catalytic role in addressing climate change that few others can match – you are the right test bed for new and innovative technologies; you are good at exchanging practices. That is why we are supporting work like the European Smart Cities Initiative, the Green Digital Charter, and the Covenant of Mayors which 1600 local authorities in Europe have now signed in just two years.
More broadly there are other contributions that ICTs can make to our environmental impact: doing government business virtually, cutting energy use in buildings, and of course the well-publicised smart energy grids that will be replacing the dumb and inefficient grids of today. You might not have mines in your urban areas, but you do have plenty of resources to mine through ICT-supported recycling programmes, for example. Careful planning at the city level will determine how well and how quickly we can roll-out these possibilities.
eHealth is our key to more sustainable healthcare – it's as simple as that. There's literally no other way to pay for and manage the workload our systems will experience in the coming years. And given that eHealth initiatives like telemedicine are leading to a safer, longer and higher quality of life – the question isn't whether to invest. The question is – where do I sign up?!
Most of making eHealth work is behind the scenes: interoperability is the key. When systems can talk to each other it means quicker, better and safer care – you don't waste time and money searching for information – and crucially you can avoid harming people with a wrong diagnosis.
So we are working towards a fully interoperable system where a minimum set of patient data can be accessed or exchanged across EU Member States (epSOS).
Some 30% of Europeans are missing out because they have never been online; they do not have the digital skills or access. Predictably those who are older, poorer, lacking education or living with a disability are more likely to be out of the digital world. Ultimately this is damaging both to those individuals and our society and economy.
But we are finding ways to break through. Many local authorities in the EU are participating in projects addressing ageing issues. Joined-up health and social care services, smart technology for independent living at home and ICTs for staying involved with family and community can bring dramatic reduction of institutionalisation of elderly. Such Ambient Assisted Living projects and practical one-off efforts like tele-alarms are achieving significant savings of up to 30% in costs of care, while increasing personal independence.
I know that the city of Bremen – a member of the Global Cities Dialogue - has also made a concerted effort to become a leader in mobile solutions. That is another successful strategy: the gathering of experts, supportive institutions, universities and the use of public-private partnerships.
On their own these examples show us how city-level action can make good use of technologies that are already out there. But in my view, the real difference comes when these services are networked and aggregated – when they can play a useful role in each part of daily life.
Networks and instruments
The internet provides us with a platform for a new generation of instruments that greatly facilitates social networking, information sharing and collaborative work. We can now do everything from jointly producing public services to re-using public sector information – especially in fields like mapping – that I certainly never imagined were possible.
So I see networks like the internet as an instrument for public value creation. It also allows the exchange and storage of vast amounts of data that can be put to good use in making public services smarter. Through your decisions and determination to embrace ICTs (be it in deploying linked sensor networks, eLearning applications, effective eGovernment tools and services, or investments in super fast broadband infrastructures) you empower people and businesses, to innovate, learn, and create. In doing so you are building a more sustainable future.
At the heart of that vision is a need for us to see ourselves as collaborators. All levels of government will need to collaborate with our citizens and rate-payers and our colleagues and our neighbours. If we don’t, we will miss out on many of the benefits of the digital world. Personally speaking, I gain from listening to your hands-on experience; while you can benefit from the EU´s coordination and best practice sharing. You are test beds of a new interconnected Europe. This is where Europe starts to deliver real value for its citizens.
The primary platform for all of this is, of course, the internet. Which is why fast and ultra-fast internet is so important for a truly digital future.
However, the short-term business case for these networks does not always stack up – even if the social benefits and long-term economic benefits are very clear. Such investments will undoubtedly deliver competitive advantages to the cities that make them. We need to look no further that Seoul in South Korea – the world leader in ultra-fast internet – to see the benefits.
To assist in this, we are looking at developing new financing mechanisms for these projects to help spread burdens and risks – for example, ways to raise bonds and providing credit enhancement via the European Investment Bank. And tapping into existing funding for regional development.
But we also have to do absolutely everything possible to reduce the costs private providers face in making investments in these networks.
What can you do as city leaders? Simple things like facilitating access to ducts; helping investors to share parts of infrastructure like trenches to avoid duplication. This is what happened in the Amsterdam CityNet project for example. In that case the city went a step further and was itself the investor in the fibre infrastructure – renting it later on an open, non-discriminatory access to retail operators.
Better still, your city could lay down fibre while carrying out other civil engineering works and turn it into a revenue stream potentially. In Denmark almost 20,000 fibre-based connections have been provided through such cooperation between local authorities and the two local electricity suppliers. Cities and regional authorities could also mandate indoor pre-cabling for new house settlements and or buildings.
Best of all – whatever your preferred support mechanism you can know exactly where you stand because of State Aid guidelines I announced on this issue in my previous role as Competition Commissioner.
In conclusion I want to say that I know the Commission's funding offers and structures don't always align with the support you need for particular projects. Please don't let that discourage you. See my services at DG Information Society as a kind of clearing house for your questions. If we can't help you – we will know someone who can.
We've got a long series of challenges ahead, but Martin Luther King did not say “I have a nightmare” – he had a positive outlook and a positive vision in spite of the challenges ahead.
I take the same approach, and I hope you can too. You have grown from 12 cities to more than 200 in just one decade. You are an example I can use around Europe to say we can build a strong movement for action.
The power is now in our hands to make the most of these digital opportunities. The European Commission will be there supporting you to move forward – and I ask you to join me in this movement for digital action.