If you visited the Intelligent Cities Challenge (ICC) cities of Aarhus (Denmark) or Antwerp (Belgium), the constantly evolving digital transition of each city might not be immediately apparent. However, every interaction between citizens or visitors and the city is part of a carefully considered, strategically implemented plan. According to the ICC representatives from each of these cities, the mark of a truly smart city is the fact that most citizens are unaware of the efforts in place to make their day to day lives easier; they simply enjoy the benefits.
Bo Fristed, Head of the Innovation, Technology and Creativity Department for the City of Aarhus and Annik Schouteden, Programme Lead for the Digital Transition, City of Antwerp, shared information about their cities’ digitisation efforts and their roles as mentor cities in the ICC in a recent interview.
Aarhus - “Less System, More Citizen”
This mantra has guided the Aarhus city strategy for years. By putting the citizen user experience at the centre of their work, Aarhus has developed tools to make daily life in the city more simple and intuitive. One of their most successful initiatives has been their digital democracy platform, which empowers citizens to:
- Engage in discussion about the city council’s activities
- Find answers to their questions about city infrastructure, policies, events and more
- Take an active role in the city’s innovation by addressing a challenge posted by the city – here Aarhus presents a problem related to sustainability or digitisation and citizens compete to create the best solution, with the potential of being paid for their work
- Have their voices heard through a forum that allows them to select initiatives that matter to them, initiatives that receive 3 000 votes must be put on the city council’s agenda.
After working on the digital transition for nearly a decade, Mr Fristed and his colleagues feel Aarhus’ purpose has shifted. Despite the fact that the city still faces certain challenges, their years of experience with the “Citizen participation and digitisation of public administration” thematic track allows them to advise and guide other cities. This is particularly true in relation to the principles of open data and resource sharing which are near and dear to the heart of those working towards change in the city. Through participation as a mentor city in the ICC, Aarhus has learned to give back in the form of best practices and advice.
Antwerp - “We’re building a seamless city for our citizens"
When discussing the concept of a smart city, Annik Schouteden emphasised that citizens cannot point to specific objects or locations that make their lives easier, they simply live each day seamlessly. The city’s previous participation in the Digital Cities Challenge helped the city of Antwerp to gain experience here. Currently, the city has a few projects in development that will add to this effect, including a digital app which is set to launch at the end of the year. It will feature:
- A strategy with the citizen’s user-experience at the centre
- Simplified processes for accessing city resources and information through a mobile-first approach
- A dedicated platform for citizens to connect to social services
Ms Schouteden also discussed how the pandemic doubled as a boost for the city’s digital transition. As families began to isolate at home, the gap in access to technology became clear. In response, the city sped up its digital inclusion efforts, offering refurbished laptops to students and other citizens who suddenly found themselves disconnected from services. In the end, the lessons the city learned from their quick response to digital inequality served them well as they assumed the role of mentor city in the ICC.
As the two city representatives shared their experiences and explained how they have overcome challenges, it became clear that the role of mentor city looks different for everyone. After beginning their transformation to a smart city a decade ago, Aarhus is able to speak on the resilience that digitalisation brings to a city. Whilst Antwerp felt that the city hit their stride as a mentor city during the recent 5th City Lab. Ms Schouteden mentioned that it is important to take time to craft your story in a way that allows others to get the most out of it.
The ICC is proud to have both Aarhus and Antwerp as mentor cities. Their efforts toward transforming the citizen experience to one that is simple, seamless and accessible are a prime example of what can be accomplished through knowledge sharing and innovation.