European Cities Link to Improve Quality of Life

European cities pool resources to exchange successful IT strategies.

by / October 31, 1996
European cities, like cities in this country, are on the front lines of government, directly delivering services and affecting the quality of life in their jurisdictions. And, like here, cities band together to exchange successful solutions and lobby higher levels of government for their interests.

One such group is called Telecities, which consists of 70 cities across Western, Central and Eastern Europe, from Manchester, England, to Riga, Latvia. Telecities is funded by the European Commission (EC), the Brussels, Belgium-based executive body of the European Union (EU), although some cities are in nations which are not full members of the EU.

Telecities is based on the familiar premise that telematics, as information technology applications are called in Europe, can play a key role in improving administration, health care, economic development and other government functions. Local European political leaders are also realizing that technology can facilitate dialogue between the government and the governed.

Telecities was formed in 1993 from a working group of Eurocities, an organization similar to the U.S. National League of Cities. Telecities is an arm of Eurocities' European Digital Cities, an umbrella group which includes intergovernmental organizations specializing in different areas of technology, such as intelligent transportation and environmental protection.

Among the goals of Telecities are economic development, improving the quality of life, and developing solutions to what Europeans call "social exclusion," or the gaps between the technology haves and have-nots.

Telecities also promotes the development of interoperability and standardization for telecommunications across national boundaries. Telecities provides local government managers the opportunity to meet with peers and exchange ideas and experience. With that in mind, Telecities has organized workshops, publishes newsletters, and has a Web page at .

"We attempt to get access to good practices going on in European cities," said David Carter, head economic development officer for Manchester, England, and currently president of the Telecities Steering Committee. "Some cities have been working on this longer than others, and those who have been working on it for some time have learned some lessons that should be shared rather quickly."

Telecities members also advocate for cities on policy issues and to secure funding from the EC for joint projects, training and economic decisions. "Up to now, influence has come from national governments and the private sector," Carter said. "We feel that there is a local view to be addressed."

Before Telecities was formed, the EC had mainly promoted technology in research and development projects, said Eric Mino, Telecities coordinator, during an EC-sponsored visit to San Francisco this summer. Little international organizational investment was made for things the end-user could utilize, such as Internet navigation software and other applications, he said.

Telecities concentrates on projects for delivering service to the public, rather than working on internal administration applications, such as accounting systems, Mino said. "That's not the focus of Telecities. We focus on the citizens."

The group has a number of projects ongoing to test technology applications under field conditions. One joint project, which has 10 partners, is called DALI, and is headed by Barcelona, Spain. The project is developing and testing the delivery of local information and services through interactive television.

Another is a nine-city project led by Antwerp, Belgium, to deliver government information online and create public space online. The lessons from the two pilots may later be joined, and some cities may use both television and computers to deliver information.

A new member of Telecities is the French Riviera, which includes Nice. Sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce and France Telecom, and partly funded by the French government, a multimedia presentation has been created to promote the Cote d'Azur's business opportunities, including import, export and facilities location. Begun in 1994, potential foreign investors can attend tailor-made presentations in a room with three large screens. In the future, Internet and portable versions of the Riviera Resource Center may be created.

Another Telecities member piloting technology for delivering service is The Hague, Netherlands. The city is concentrating its efforts on social welfare and culture, rather than using technology for internal government improvements, said Andre van der Meer, head of The Hague's telematics unit, while in San Francisco as part of the EC delegation.

Van der Meer said his local government didn't support the opportunities to use information technology more intensively, so he and his colleagues went to Telecities to get a project started. "There was not enough drive in the city government to go for it, so we needed to be stimulated from the outside," he said.

The Hague's project, which began earlier this year, delivers information services through a local cable television network. The test phase was to begin in the latter half of this year, and van der Meer said it should be fully implemented within two years. Later, some features may be added, such as an alarm button that could be pressed in an emergency.

Manchester, England, meanwhile, has been working on a number of projects aimed mainly at economic development and training. Revitalizing the economy is a chief concern in this city working through a post-industrial slump. Manchester boomed during the industrial revolutions of the past and is a seaport, despite being some 40 miles inland. Now, however, the manufacturing base has dried up, forcing yet another economic transformation. City officials are hoping that telematics can be used as a tool to regenerate the local economy as the distribution of wealth and resources shifts from manufacturing to technology and information.

One of the issues that Manchester, and many other European cities are working on, is called "social exclusion," referred to here as the haves and have-nots.

"Many people who lose their jobs will not have the skills or access to training for these skills to get the new jobs," Carter said. These and other factors exacerbate social tension between those who have jobs and money and those who don't, he said. "If left alone, the emergence of these new technologies and their impacts will worsen that fact."

With this in mind, Manchester has been working on economic development and employment by running technology training centers for displaced workers to learn new skills. The city also encourages programs in technical schools and colleges, making sure that a student will be exposed to information technology and computers no matter what field is studied.

Manchester has been a center for technology research for some time. One of the first computers which could retain memory and execute programs was created at the University of Manchester in 1948, and the university has been working on technology development since.

Last year, the city established a partnership with the university to build infrastructure to support teleconferencing and other network applications. The initial proposal is to develop 12 local centers linked to a multimedia center at the university with fiber-optic lines. The centers could be used for distance learning and job retraining. They could also be used as telework centers, which employees could go to for the work day rather than traveling to a main office. Some large cities here, such as Los Angeles, have similar facilities for telecommuters.

"Many people in urban areas don't have the opportunity to work at home," said Manchester's Carter. "There is no concept of putting computers in someone's apartment."

Special thanks to Michael A. Salvato, president of DPI International, a New York City consulting firm, who helped arrange the interviews for this story.

European cities
are pooling
resources to
run pilot projects
and exchange
strategies for