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The last decade has been tumultuous in many aspects. Climate change and the steady loss of our planet’s biosphere in the Anthropocene era (or is it already the Diocene of the robots?) is pushing humanity to look for new ways of addressing unprecedented challenges. We are flirting with ‘planetary boundaries’ too much, as Pr. Johan Rockstrom from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research would put it. Managing resources and energy scarcity, decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, or protecting biodiversity are just some of the fundamentals to sustain a decent life in this hyper-connected world where goods and epidemics are moving at light-speed. This is why the European Commission is now focusing on the most pressing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. The ambition is clear: Europe aims to be the first climate-neutral continent by becoming a modern, resource-efficient economy while preparing the continent to be fit for the Digital Age.
Mitigating climate change at a global scale is a huge defy nonetheless, and time is running out. Cities may cover only a tiny part of the Earth’s land surface, yet they produce more70% of all global greenhouse gas emissions. On top of that, cities are growing fast. Around 85% of Europeans are expected to become city dwellers by 2050. Cities are also the breeding ground where decarbonization strategies for buildings, energy, mobility, and even industry or agriculture meet. As the density of infrastructure is higher in cities, there is an equally higher potential for crosssector and complex digital solutions such as digital platforms, smart grids, or digital twins.
"Mitigating climate change at a global scale is a huge defy nonetheless, and time is running out. Cities may cover only a tiny part of the Earth’s land surface, yet they produce more70% of all global greenhouse gas emissions"
This past decade gave birth to a plethora of new techno concepts such as big data, HPC, edge computing, blockchain, connected and automated vehicles, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Augmented Reality, or facial recognition; each of them with a potential to become game-changers for city life. Think of 5G-type technology connecting terabytes of urban data feeding machinelearning systems. Another inevitable trend is the rise of city sensing capabilities thanks to thousands of connected cameras and sensors deployed in public spaces that collect real-time data linked to other data sets like earth observation data, or geo-positioning data. The city itself becomes a living body capable of sensing and responding to its changing environment. A true embodiment of the smartness concept.
The question is, will AI and the likes be the answer to our problems? The European Commission is keen to support European cities in their twin (green and digital) transformation in the ‘European way,’ that is, with systemic and ‘clean ‘solutions that ensure ‘technological leadership’ and autonomy, respect European values and diversity, as well as individuals’ digital rights. Because the global economy looks gloomy, local communities are re-localising some activities and repurposing technology. The challenge is now how to innovate, deploy, and upscale holistic, integrated platforms and solutions to achieve the European Green Deal objectives with the kind of technology that reconciles deep economic insecurity with our longer-term goals.
What is the path to success? The European Commission has been promoting the concept of Smart Cities for a long time, thus recognising the essential role that cities play in fuelling innovation and contributing to social and economic prosperity. Various EU programmes have brought forward smart cities and smart specialisation strategies, while decades of research programmes have delivered technology solutions that are now struggling to scale up. It is the Holy Grail of every policymaker in this area to find a successful path from the vision to replicable, cost-efficient innovations that could spread across the Continent. Platforms for innovation seem to be one type of solution to evolve city management types and create new value models for communities. One that incorporates public-private partnerships and citizen engagement, one that is led by commons and open innovation paradigms, one that re-defines quality of life and well-being in urban contexts and addresses planetary challenges at the local level.
Achieving these difficult tasks in a poly-nodal world will be unfeasible without cities and communities, progressively claiming their seat at the table where decisions and financing plans are shaped. Throughout Europe, mayors take on this leadership role because they have to build their communities’ resilience to a number of new and old threats (pollution, traffic jams, climate events, the housing crisis, the gilet jaunes, and many others). They feel it in their lungs and in their budgets and have no choice but to fight these realities. The Living-in.eu Declaration(http:// www.living-in.eu/) on ‘joining forces to boost sustainable digital transformation in cities and communities throughout the EU’ is one example of their commitment to co-create, alongside their citizens, smart and sustainable cities and communities where people enjoy living and working. It can pave the way towards an ‘EU ecosystem for communities of the future’, built on open, digital, and trustworthy urban platforms, while at the same time respecting citizens’ digital rights.
All the planets seem to have aligned for the twin transformation to take place. The European Commission aims to support it through its upcoming Multi-Annual Financial Framework (with programmes such as Horizon Europe and Digital Europe). The plan is to make the Union’s economy sustainable, and cities are surely an integral part of this plan. We are looking into a European way of transitioning to a resilient, greener, and united society that relies primarily on its communities. One that empowers its citizens and assists their local representatives. It is true that at this time, we do not have a smart and sustainable city landscape in Europe but rather a loose network of variable, small-scale experiments that require a significant push to truly expand and scale-up. What we do have in place, and it is already a big step, are all the elements needed to make this European vision of truly smart and sustainable communities a reality. The time has come to take action.