Telecities Propels Local Government into Information Age

Andre van der Meer heads an intergovernmental project

by / January 31, 1999
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 citizens' demand. The early adapters in the pilot projects make the effect of technology tangible, not only for themselves, but also for others to look at. It is a way of familiarizing the local community with technology. At a more profound level this also means building up insight on the effects on society at large. It touches upon lifelong learning, flexible economy and so on.

Second, there is a financial element. Local governments are spending public money. So they are very interested in small-scale test cases that require only limited use of local public resources before they start spending for full-scale implementation. The local SMEs and the sectors of industry that develop applications also are interested in test beds to attract venture capital for full-scale market roll-out. Finally, the European Union, spending money on research and development, is very keen to find real-life demonstration of R&D results. From this approach and the partnerships that have developed, typically the financial scheme of those projects is 30-30-30 percent contribution from local government, local industry, and the European Union.

Q: It also seems that there really is a spirit of competition and cooperation between the cities and regions in Europe that not only encourages new approaches and sharing of ideas, but also treats the social possibilities of new technology almost as an adventure. Is this a fair assessment?

A: Yes it is. The competition is twofold. Many cities in Europe tend to label themselves as telecom or information technology cities. This is done to attract enterprises and to enhance employment. Although we are in a growth market here, there is some competition involved. And there is also some competition in attaining financial support from the European Union. However, the local authorities in Europe also unite because they represent the European citizens. We consider ourselves to be the level of government that is closest to the citizens in a political sense and closest to the market economically. The adventure is to make information society a place that is worthwhile to live in.

Q: While much is being done on a pan-European basis, it also appears that use of new technologies is not just being driven from the top down, but also from the bottom up, from the cities and even the grassroots within cities.

A: This is one of the core issues in our existence as an international organization. In fact, at the European level, discussions -- and even research and development -- tend to become rather abstract. It is our experience that the action lines that are rooted in society are the most successful. Educational projects, for example, are based on the wishes and the ambitions of local teachers, the parents and, in some cases, the

Andre van
der Meer


children. The effect is that such a project is not only about bringing computers and the Internet into the classroom, but bring about a renewal of education through the creation of digital learning environments, electronic classrooms, and about the need for supporting structures such as teaching the teachers, help desks, and the like.

Q: In all the work that European cities and regions are doing, there seems to be a sharp awareness that the information society will bring significant social, economic and cultural changes. What does the future hold?

A: We believe that the Information Revolution, although it comes in a different shape, will have at least the same impact as the Industrial Revolution. There will be a tremendous change in the way we live, work, learn and recreate. This goes beyond interactive service delivery, which is still very much under the control of the suppliers and still really the same system that we now know. In five or 10 years' time, the initiative for economic transactions, even more than today, will be with the individual. The individual will trigger chains of events that lead to tailor-made services and products. It will be, in a way, a do-it-yourself interactive information society. Not only for economic transactions, but also for the needs and requirements in other areas of society such as education.

If this is to be the future, then we have to rapidly come to terms with these changes. Our educational systems, for instance, should enhance our ability to live in this way, if for no other reason than to prevent large groups of people from dropping out of the information society in the near future. We are talking here about the world that the kids who are now going to primary schools will inherit. But also we are talking here about the way government operates and why it is so important that we start soon in adapting to the new realities. Changes in government tend to take quite a few years. And this also applies to many business enterprises, in particular the small and medium-size ones.

Q: There also seems to be a distinct awareness that the new world that technology is creating is not an inevitable outcome of these technologies, but rather that a vision of how to best use these technologies is needed, and that this vision is going to have to emerge from a lot of human ingenuity and public discussion. Is this a fair assessment? What processes has Europe adopted for encouraging and doing this?

A: In Europe, we believe very much in the ability of people to build their own future. In order to help them do so, the European Union and the local governments of Europe agree that we should put a lot of emphasis on the applications of technology. In fact, for local government, the basic technologies are not an issue. They focus on stimulating businesses to make effective use of the available technologies, developing content and business tools. And they invest in the development of applications in the pubic domain for health, education, culture, transport and public service. Images of a "learning" or "creative" city underline this approach.

The European Union in its Fifth Framework Program for Research and Development is also working from this perspective in trying to develop the user-friendly information society. From 1999 until 2002, the European Council will support this development with a total budget of 3.9 billion euro, thus generating an investment in research and development of at least 10 billion euro, including so-called matching funding by participating organizations from industry and local government. Almost half of the budget is going to R&D for basic technologies and infrastructures. The rest however, in equal portions, is available for systems and services to the citizens, new methods of work and electronic commerce and multimedia content and tools. Each of these cover about 17 percent of the total budget.

Q: There is growing speculation about how technology will ultimately change governance itself. Is there an emerging European view of what some of these changes might be?

A: As yet in Europe, there is not yet really an emerging or shared view on this as far as electronic democracy is involved. By this I mean participating through some kind of a vote in the actual decisions that government takes. In the EEC's Information Society Technology program, it is anticipated that possible directions will become apparent after a first year [1999] of exploratory actions. But governance also refers to the way government services are delivered, the way government controls or guides its citizens, and the ability to participate in debates preceding the decision-making, this is happening along the lines of interactive government and interactive service delivery. [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair, for instance, has set the goal of 25 percent of all government services to be available in an electronic form by the year 2002. The most critical factor in achieving these kind of targets, which I believe are realistic and even conservative, is the need to restructure the way government agencies work. It takes time to redesign business processes, to implement a new information architecture and to rearrange internal powers.

Q: Is there something that American cities might learn from what is happening in Europe?

A: Over the past few years we have seen that more and more European cities adopt an open mind about learning lessons from anywhere around the world. Elected officials in Europe believe that there is much to learn from experiences and best practices around the world. They also believe that there is a lot to gain from cooperative action. There are now indications that this openness will eventually extend beyond the present networks of mainly cities in the European countries. First of all, the [admission] to the union of the central and eastern European countries brings in many new cities. And in special issues of development, the European Union is encouraging this perspective with special funds. Secondly, the New Transatlantic Agenda may give rise to cooperation between cities across the Atlantic. We would welcome initiatives in this field.

The main problems here seem to be the lack of resources for U.S. and Canadian cities to build networks like Telecities, and the lack of resources to build transatlantic partnerships of local governments. Finally, there is the Global Bangemann Challenge. Like the G7/G8 global inventory, this is very much about best practices. But in the Global Bangemann Challenge there is a competitive element too, which makes it fun to participate. I would like to encourage American cities to join this challenge.

More information about these European projects can be found on their Web sites: Infocities, the Telecities Web site, part of the European Digital Cities project, and the Equality Web site.
Blake Harris Editor
Platforms & Programs