Digital Cities Challenge Mayors Summit | Speech Franc Weerwind

Honorable guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure and honor to me to be invited to the Mayors Summit of the Digital Cities Challenge in Brussels,  and I am very excited to share with you some of my thoughts on the challenges of digital transition in the cities and regions of Europe. I also would like to express my gratitude to the European Commission and Committee of the Regions for organizing this event and for launching the Digital Cities Challenge. By doing this, you recognize the power of cities in the digital transformation, you see the need for support for cities to make this transition happen and by this programme, you facilitate the network that cities can create.

Why is this so important? Digital transformation is about making connections, is about bringing people, things and data together, linking the digital and physical world with each other. And today we as politicians are here together, because we see the urge of the digital transformation in our cities.

This afternoon I represent the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, the region consisting of 32 municipalities and two provinces, an economically strong region in Europe with a high quality of life, an international hub with a huge amount of talent, knowledge, innovation and businesses. The Amsterdam Metropolitan Area is one of the so-called mentoring cities in this programme, because we believe in sharing our vision with other cities in terms of knowledge and innovation, but, please, let me assure you that our ‘success’ story has been established, due to knowledge and innovation coming also from your cities, from the cooperation between cities.

My aim for now is to continue the dialogue with you on the issues that we are sharing together.
I will not give you the recipe for the cities’ digital happiness, because I do not know it.
What I will do is to share with you openly how we in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area follow this important, sometimes extremely complicated, but by all means very exciting path to digital transformation.

The question that I am asking myself is:  when we can say that we have achieved the digital transformation?  When will we have crossed the finish line, where we can, like a winner, triumphantly throw up our arms and call out loud: Yes, we did it! We live now in a digital city!
Do we actually know what the ideal digital city looks like? As the mayors of our cities we have to be visionaries. Do we have this image in our head of our city which ‘has made’ the digital transformation?

The end goal, of course, is not to have our cities completely automatized, robotized and provided with the latest technologies ever. No, the goal of the digital transformation is to make our cities livable and resilient, to improve the quality of life for people, to realize inclusive growth.

For me the digital city is a dynamic city with interactions via the network of digital and physical connections throughout the city. The digital city is also a citizen-driven, inclusive and green city  – it is not driven by technological progress, but by the demand and needs of citizens.

In this era where technology changes our world every day, our strategy as Mayors should be adaptable. To be adaptable, we should formulate some principles, a kind of framework that will help us to choose the right things when making decisions in our digital transformation.

Therefore, I would like to invite you to think about the principles with which we can form this framework. Let me share with you by some examples from the region I represent here today.

I think one of the biggest steps is to bring the digital transformation in the DNA of the city, in things that you are already doing, looking at opportunities, and using other transformations in your city to start or to foster a digital one, to accelerate those transformations with the help of digital technologies.

In our region, we started quite early with the digital transition. The Amsterdam Metropolitan Area has been a financial hub since the early days. And financial institutes developed financial exchanges, followed by exchange trading. All over Europe you see that financial centres, because they generate and exchange a lot of data, were the early adopters of ICT and the internet. So financial hubs, like London, Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, were also the hubs where the upcoming digital industry, especially datacenters, wanted to be based. Moreover, the Amsterdam region had an extra advantage: the biggest part of the internet traffic between Europe and the rest of the world, enters the European continent in Amsterdam. This unique position has attracted even more digital industry, and also a strong science base for the further development of internet and its ample applications.

Another example comes from my own city, Almere, a new town near Amsterdam of just 42 years old: it was created from scratch on reclaimed land, or polder, and is now a city  with over 200.000 inhabitants.  It is city without ancient history and traditions, without established industries and universities, but a city with a pioneering spirit, where there is space to experiment and to test innovative solutions in living labs. The physical and virtual space that we have in the city, combined with the densest network of optic fiber, gives us immense opportunities to make the digital transformation in the city happen. Always in relation to other challenges like circular economy, construction and housing.  Our living lab approach has led to the choice for Almere as the location for the World Expo on Horticulture in 2022, the Floriade, which will showcase the innovations on greening, energy, circular economy, food. Of course digital innovations will be at the core of this.

So I plea, as a first principle, for embedding the digital transformation in the heart of your city and connect it to other transformations that we have to make to keep cities livable and sustainable.

The second principle in the framework for digital transition is cooperation. Cooperation at different levels.

Let’s start with the cooperation within our city governments. Let us once and for all break the silos between all the departments that so often work separately. Let our own local government be the example for the digital transition, where citizens can come to a physical or virtual one-stop-shop get the public services they need.

Another cooperation essential for the digital transformation is the cooperation between local government, the business sector and knowledge institutes.
Firstly, government plays an important role in developing the digital potential of a city, of a region. Secondly, without innovative companies, our cities would be nowhere. And thirdly, these companies, but also the city staff, need not only to have access to knowledge, but also to skilled employees on all levels, hence the cooperation with science and education.

As a Member of the Amsterdam Economic Board, responsible for Digital Connectivity, I am proud that we have the institution, the Amsterdam Economic Board, that embodies this cooperation between government, business and knowledge. For a real transition you need a systemic change, and therefore, you need to connect all the relevant stakeholders. In our Economic Board, Mayors and Vice-Mayors from our region have an open dialogue with both the regional business sector as well as the regional knowledge and education institutions. Aim is to remove barriers for sustainable growth and to scale up innovations, on subjects as digital connectivity, but also energy transition, mobility and the circular economy

The third principle I would like to stress is putting our citizens in the centre of digital transformation. The cities in our region implement various data innovations: in Almere people can build their own pre-fab houses by using open source digital platform and data. In Zaanstad we use open data for the energy transition, in Amsterdam we use data of our citizens for Mobility as a Service. However, we want to use the data with respect for our citizens, and we do not want the data to be owned by the private sector. For innovation, companies can use the data, if they accept the terms and conditions that follow directly from our values. We established our values, with experts from all sectors, in our Tada Manifesto for Responsible Digital Cities, where Tada is of course an anagram of data

Meanwhile, we see that all data we produce in the world, is collected and stored by a few very big companies, most of which are based outside the EU. We all know the success of the EU GDPR and net neutrality. We feel we should continue this line of our European values for the digital single market, now for storing and exchanging data. We do not want to follow the googles and facebooks of this world, we want to keep control in non-commercial and preferably European hands. That is why, with several cities in our region and in Europe, we will try to establish open and neutral marketplaces for data, where we guarantee that data is shared and used in line with our values, under our European conditions, with respect for our citizens’ privacy and our companies’ competitiveness. We want Europe to become a network of those marketplaces, and that is why we as cities should play a facilitating role in this.

The fourth principle is that we should focus on right skills. The number of tech jobs in our region will grow over the next two years to around 20,000. But already more than 50% of the present 10,000 vacancies can’t be filled. There’s mainly a lack of programmers, data analysts, growth hackers, tech support and expert engineers in AI and blockchain. With partners from businesses, education institutes and local and regional government we started the TechConnect programme: aimed at strengthening and diversifying digital talent in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area. We don’t want to attract international talent only, causing a brain drain elsewhere. TechConnect’s ambition is to reduce the mismatch between the supply and demand of tech talent and to increase the number of people in tech jobs by education, especially concentrating on re-skilling people that do not have a job right now.

My fifth principle is on finance, and also, how to avoid concentrating too much on finance as enabler or disabler, of digital transformation.  As government we should be open for other forms of cooperation. Perhaps I have drawn a very optimistic vision so far, while a lack of resources can of course be a huge barrier for transitions. For this reason, I do appeal to the European Commission to think in the new programme period about how the funding programmes for innovation could be more accessible for small and medium-sized cities.

But even without funding programmes you can have success by linking the right skills and knowledge and partners together.  A good example of this is the Amsterdam Smart City programme which has been launched in 2009 with 3 partners and a four year ERDF subsidy to kick-start it. It is a public-private partnership focussing on energy transition. In 2018, it doesn’t subsidize projects and there is no top down masterplan, but still it is highly successful and helps us in the region reaching our goals, together with now 20 core partners from government, business, science and society, and almost 300 projects. In our view, you only can create new business models if all participants are willing to invest in the project idea, in capital or in kind, and if governments being prepared to be an equal partner instead of a directing partner. Amsterdam Smart City has its own online community platform with over 5000 members from all over the world. I would strongly recommend you to have a look at this Amsterdam Smart City platform, check projects and you and your stakeholders could  become a member for free and ask questions to the smart city community.

So, dear Fellow Mayors, digital transformation is at our doorsteps. We all share this challenge, as big cities and as small and medium-sized cities.  It means that we have the responsibility to take the coordinated action with our neighbour cities in metropolitan regions, with our businesses, industries, and our citizens. We can use national, European financial programmes to give a boost to our digital initiatives, but we can also use the power of digital transformation itself to get things done by linking the right skills, and knowledge and partners together.

To conclude, I would like to compliment you with your efforts in the digital cities challenge. And please feel free to look into the work of the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area and to learn, copy the elements that would benefit you, but also to bring your knowledge to us. That way, together we advance in the European Digital Economy. And move forward to the digital, inclusive, sustainable future of our cities.


Image Credits: Floriade