The EUROCITIES Knowledge Society Forum met in Ghent on 16-18 April to discuss practices, initiatives and innovative tools adopted by cities to engage with citizens, creating new forms of democracy in the digital age. The forum attracted over 60 participants from 42 cities and organisations.
Members learned from each other in speednetworking sessions, working group meetings, and in informal discussions about the challenges and opportunities related to the digital transition in cities. The forum meeting also featured a public conference on ‘Democracy in a digital age’ debating the impact of digital technologies on governance. Highlights include:
Democracy in a digital age
Our keynote speaker, Albert Meijer, a professor at the Utrecht university school of governance, said: “building democracy in an information age is not only about creating something new, it is about embedding the new in the old” - enriching representative democracy with more ICT-enabled participatory democracy mechanisms. But who owns our data? In the direct aftermath of the Cambridge Analytica-Facebook scandal, the most critical issue relates to the conflict between public and private interests.
Leading by example
Ghent webstreams city council meetings for citizens to watch online. By having its own domain name (.gent), Ghent shows that the city administration retains control over collected and processed data. In addition, Ghent is exploring the possibility of developing and deploying Federated Personal Web Sites (FPWS). The Indie.net initiative intends to empower people taking control over their own data.
What is the role of people in the political, economic, social and environmental aspects of our societies? Karl-Filip Coenegrachts, chief strategy officer of Ghent, said: “When we speak about the Commons, it touches upon all these areas. We have to rethink the way we work with people”. Ghent, as a city of people, is trying to find a new balance between representative and participatory democracy, between online and offline mechanisms, between high-tech and low-tech. Paola Pisano (the deputy mayor of Turin) and Mary-Ann Schreurs (the deputy mayor of Eindhoven) agreed on the need to give citizens opportunities to co-create their cities.
Tackling the challenges
Dealing with large amounts of urban and citizens data and metadata brings opportunities but also challenges for city administrations. Access and re-use of public and publicly-funded data raise new questions, especially related to public tenders. Interoperability of data flows remains challenging to build urban platforms gathering city-wide public services. Challenges persist in some cities, such as the lack of data sharing between city departments and public institutions or the shortage of skilled civil servants. Some municipalities are missing 21st-century professionals, from ‘data analysts’ able to extract knowledge from urban data to ‘data mediators’ capable of communicating this knowledge to citizens.
Imagine the urban future
Science fiction is full of urban examples. It helps predict the future and prevent unwanted outcomes. Some cities use future forecasting as a tool to develop scenarios and plan ahead. EUROCITIES will continue to explore opportunities for cities to work together on technological foresight. Finally, an EUROCITIES lab within the knowledge society forum is taking shape to experiment with new ideas and enhance collaboration on delivering and scaling up digital solutions together. Watch this space!
The EUROCITIES Knowledge Society Forum will next meet in Zaragoza from 22 to 24 October 2018 on the topic of ‘Co-creation and urban data’.