‘Technology for us is a means not an end and becoming smarter is about a whole lot more’

Put citizens first for a successful smart city of people

In Ghent, we combine our historical façades with a forward- looking vision. By 2020, I want my city to be open, inclusive, smart and child friendly. Key to this vision are our citizens – we want to build the Ghent of the future together.

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 innovative solutions to manage our energy and transport systems better, manage, process and visualise data, and make life easier for all.

But 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 happen, such as the Ghent Climate Alliance, which is behind our vision of becoming climate neutral. Our Ghent Living Lab is an innovative platform where citizens, developers, researchers and businesses can co-create their city.

Smart 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, such as a waste collection calendar and an app to locate available parking spaces in real time.

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, such as Studio Dott’s PopBike, which enables users to calculate the best bike route and share bikes, and Ghendetta, a game that encourages users to explore city districts.

One of the challenges many cities face with opening data is protecting 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.

It is essential then that we create a level playing field. We need common and open standards and better interoperability between systems. This would open the market to more actors and would also bring down costs, and maximise the release, accessibility and usability of data, helping businesses grow.

Working together on projects is a must for testing and scaling up new solutions. Ghent is involved in several, including the Green Digital Charter, through which we commit to reducing our carbon footprint with smart ICT. We also need direct dialogue with European Union decision-makers.

With the Urban Agenda for the EU and the European Innovation Partnership for Smart Cities and Communities, we see new work processes that support the joining up of different levels of government and different sectors. This is a step in the right direction to address European and urban challenges together.

I am looking forward to the journey ahead and I am pleased to be sharing it with my colleagues at Eurocities, the network of major European cities. This is where I can bounce off ideas, discover new solutions and find ways to address shared challenges.

As a mayor, I know every corner of my city and have daily contact with citizens. This knowledge is crucial for making smart city solutions work. Working with cities means working with citizens, so by strengthening the links between EU institutions and cities, we are building a stronger Europe.

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