Andre van der Meer leads the Netherlands' Telecities project, a sweeping effort on the part of more than 100 European cities to bring local government into the Information Age, not just in electronic delivery of services, but also by playing an active role in creatively using information technologies to transform many aspects of society.

Q: How did the European Telecities project came about?

A: First of all, we should not forget that municipalities throughout Europe, probably much like in North America, tend to face the same kind of challenges. It is about the quality of life, including public safety and care for the environment, about education, about employment, about social cohesion, and so on.

Since 1993, a grouping of major European cities, starting with Antwerp, Barcelona, Bologna, The Hague, Manchester and Nice as the founders of Telecities, have been working together to assess the impact of the emerging information technologies on society. Of course, there is due attention to the quality of public administration and services to the citizens. The focus of the Telecities group is, however, much more on the impact of technology on local society, e.g. social inclusion, economy, education and local democracy.

The Telecities group now has well over 100 members that form a kind of a virtual community of cities and work together in a quite intensive manner. On a day-to-day basis, municipal officers work together electronically, using the Internet, electronic mail, newsgroups and video conferencing. Furthermore, they have the opportunity to really meet and work together at seminars four times a year. From this living organism, proposals for concrete pan-European projects emerge easily. The group has developed methods to manage such projects at a European scale.

The European Union, in its turn, is promoting information-society technologies in a very consistent way through programs that support the development of Telematics Applications and telecom infrastructures. The challenge for the Telecities members is to find the interjunction between the European and the local approach. We try to direct some of the policies and the funds of the European Union toward the local perspective. Furthermore, we also try to gain support for the way local government representatives work together throughout Europe. And we are successful. The Infocities project and the European Digital Cities project are examples of this success. But there are many more.

Q: What are you trying to achieve through these projects?

A: In the Infocities project, 17 cities and regions work together with relevant sectors of industry in the development of telecom-infrastructure and interactive services in the public domain. These include services in the field of education, transport, culture, SMEs [e-commerce] and government services to the public. Of course, the project helps to reshape the information architecture of public administration and related workflow, in order to enable customer-driven service delivery.

The purpose of the European Digital Cities project is different. It is not to develop infrastructure or applications. It is a project with the single aim of disseminating as much as possible the results from European research and development projects to the cities and regions of Europe. This is done by scrutinizing some 200 European R&D projects, typically led by industry, research institutions and consultants, that claim to be of interest to cities. The results of those projects are discussed in working-group sessions and disseminated through newsletters, the Internet and conferences.

Q: Part of the approach of these projects seems to be experimenting with possibilities, and when something proves successful, only then turning that loose for full-scale everyday use within cities and regions.

A: The main thing here is that there are two problems: First, our citizens and local enterprises have to get used to the phenomenon of information technology and information society. So we tend to start with small-scale pilot projects based on a thorough study of the

Blake Harris  |  Editor