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Urban networks

By LUIGI GAMBARDELLA | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-06-22 08:00
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We are used to seeing global governance and big tech companies as the main components of innovation and industrial transformation. However, the role of cities is also crucial if we want to ensure that the transformation process is inclusive, balanced and centered on the quality of life of citizens. After all, it is in the cities that barriers to the flow of elements such as knowledge, technology, talent and capital are broken down and the integration of science and technology with economic and social governance is facilitated.

At the same time, resources of cities are limited. Therefore, networking is crucial to scale sustainably. Different smart city networking initiatives have been started over the past years. For example, the Open&Agile Smart Cities, initiated in the European Union and now encompassing more than 150 cities worldwide. In China, the World Innovative Cities Cooperation Organization is also setting up a network, which seeks to connect 37 Asian cities, including Beijing, Tianjin, Chengdu, Chongqing, Xi'an, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, and Shanghai; 23 European cities, including Brussels, Turin, Milan, Paris, Barcelona, Copenhagen and Moscow; eight American cities; three African cities and two Oceanian cities. Both initiatives could gain cooperating.

Global city networks provide the participating cities indispensable tools and opportunities, enabling cities to assess their projects against those of other cities and compare means and procedures. The more cities are part of the network, the most relevant will be such mutual benchmarking.

Such networks can set up mutual technical assistance mechanisms. Local governments often lack knowledge and depend on independent partners/consultants to design projects. Such networks can act as intermediaries, allowing cities to find and make use of technical, organizational or budgeting experience acquired by other participating cities. They can help establish virtual task forces where city managers with expertise in the deployment of specific projects can offer advice to other cities wondering how to start the digital transformation process.

Such networks can also help in creating new business models. Cities face budgetary constraints as budgeting rules often restrict their capacity to invest. However, projects that do not appear economically sustainable today, will not necessarily remain so in the future. Cities can identify cost saving models by looking at other cities' approaches. Network such as WICCO can bring together cities, institutions and industry to reflect on new business models to finance smart city projects. A promising approach is the creation of partnerships between local governments, institutions, and the private sector.

We see at least four areas where global cooperation can have a substantial impact on the implementation of smart city solutions.

Mobility is key for every city as it has a direct bearing on sustainable development and efficiency in our daily lives. Exchanging ideas on the best practices in the use of artificial intelligence technologies for mobility management is critical in view of the diversity of possible solutions.

Fintech and smart retail are vital for smart cities. For example, new tech solutions for payments and vouchers can be deployed to boost traditional retail, which suffered from restrictions imposed because of the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and competition from online platforms. Rhea Vendors Group, a technology-centered European company dealing in vending machines, is working on innovative forms of retail to transform even the act of getting coffee from a vending machine into a new digital experience.

Health applications and safety are also important. Pollution endangers the health of urban dwellers. And the COVID-19 pandemic has shown the importance for cities to have tools and skills at their disposal to promptly handle complex tasks such as setting up and managing vaccination centers. We do not know what the next emergency will be. However, cities should prepare and deploy tools to allow for quick reactions in the future.

Design is indispensable to smart cities. Smart cities are not just about technology. They are also about what our aesthetic sense tells us while we are moving around. Design is an area providing significant cooperation and business opportunities between European and Chinese cities. Several European cities have taken the lead in involving reputed designers when planning new smart city projects. Chinese cities are doing the same. For instance, well-known Italian architects such as Massimilano and Doriana Fuksas were invited to design the Shenzhen International Airport. Design is an area providing significant cooperation and business opportunities between European and Chinese cities.

Cities are also bound to adopt smart city solutions to cope with the challenges they are facing, such as their aging populations, climate change or digital inequality. However, a single tree does not make a forest.

As global challenges cross countries' borders, multilateral initiatives are the best ways to address the challenges, pooling resources and achieving greater impact. We need more worldwide networks enabling leading cities of all continents to share experience and reflect together and with the industry on the solutions for tomorrow. This will ensure that the transformation process of cities is implemented in the most effective way.

The author is president of China EU, a Brussels-based international association. The author contributed this article to China Watch, a think tank powered by China Daily. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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