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The challenges of digital technology for local authorities

Step 1

Clarify expectations about digital services


Move beyond the fantasy of the “smart city” and identify the real opportunities and risks inherent in digital technologies for sustainable and inclusive development of your territory.

How can we ensure that ICT development effectively contributes to greater sustainability and inclusion in cities? In which direction can local authorities direct this transition and innovation?

Identify the real opportunities and take a stance

The first step is to clarify collective expectations in terms of sustainable urban development and adopt a political project that could be based on digital tools. A clear vision of the opportunities and limits of digital technologies is necessary.

This vision will allow the local authority, as guarantor of the public interest, to structure its action and the initiatives of third parties. Digital technology should be at the service of its political project.

Four models of “smart city”

Schematically, we can sketch four models of “smart city” influenced by ICT.

Types of city based on digital technology (Douay, 2017)
Type of smart city Algorithmic city Uberised city Wiki-city Open source city
Type of city planning Expertise planning Post-strategic planning Communicational planning Participatory planning
Dominant stakeholders Private and/or public Private Citizen Institutions and citizens
Urban planners Engineer Innovator Volunteer, civic hacker Digital mediator
Dominant values Rationality Market Contributive democracy Representative and participatory democracy
Objectives Efficiency, sustainability, control Innovation, disruption, profits Sociability, alternative models of government and city Participation, new legitimacy and capacity for action
Methods Data mining and algorithms Data mining and algorithms Crowdsourcing Crowdsourcing Consists in the use of information, creativity, expertise or intelligence of a large number of people through the intermediary of a platform. From an economic approach, it may be a question of distributing a large number of tasks for the lowest cost. From a collaborative, social or altruistic approach, it is a question of making use of the specialist or volunteer networks of the general public to collect or process information. and collective deliberation Crowdsourcing Crowdsourcing Consists in the use of information, creativity, expertise or intelligence of a large number of people through the intermediary of a platform. From an economic approach, it may be a question of distributing a large number of tasks for the lowest cost. From a collaborative, social or altruistic approach, it is a question of making use of the specialist or volunteer networks of the general public to collect or process information. , control or participation, collective deliberation
Systems Closed command platform Closed “cooperative” merchant platform Open, co-built, “cooperative”, non profit platform Open, participatory, sometimes co-built, platform
Rationale and vision Confidence in the technical expertise and data as closed resources Extension of the domain of urban capitalism via new markets for services Civil society seeking an alternative city via the social networks and cooperative exchanges Renewal of planning practices and institutions and initiation of dialogue among all the stakeholders
Risks or limits Domination and control of private stakeholders and depoliticisation of the solutions Calls into question the legitimacy and capacity of action of the public sector Bypasses or even calls into question the public stakeholders through the cooperative approach Political and administrative supervision of processes; lack of representativity of participation

Inspired by Douay, 2017

This typology is schematic. Nonetheless, it allows us to define scenarios that can be used to draw attention to the risks and limits of trends pushed to their extreme.

The “compass” of digital technology

Depending on the orientation chosen, the participation of non-institutional stakeholders and the degree of openness and access (internally or externally) to the data and digital tools will be more or less necessary. By taking position on the “compass” of digital technology, the local authority can start to identify the type of approach and the role to be adopted. Different alliances, tools, contractual arrangements will result.

The further to the left of the compass, the more the local authority should build and ensure its positioning vis-à-vis third party players. The lower the position, the more the local authority must defend its legitimacy and the accountability of the decisions in the public debate.

Digital urban planning compass
inspired by Douay 2017
Key questions

Choose keywords that convey a digital vision

What must digital technology contribute to as a priority in my city?

  • Local economic development?: experimentation, innovation and creation of new services; increasing competitiveness of firms; improving the appeal and city image…
  • Social inclusion and local democracy?: access for all to digital tools (public terminals and Wi-Fi); cooperative public services; citizen participation and co-construction; increased accountability and transparency…
  • The sustainability of my territory?: planning and forecasts; better knowledge of the territory; constitution and analysis of databases; preservation of natural resources, etc.
  • Modernisation of the local public action of my administration?: efficiency of the management procedures; reduction of administrative costs and time-frames; relevance and legitimacy of the decisions by defining priorities in accordance with the needs of the population.

From promises to actual uses

The way private stakeholders, formal or informal, the population and even the local authorities make use of ICT generates unexpected effects. These initiatives are often situated where public services are weak or absent; they fill up the gaps and meet unsuspected needs. The local authorities can discover new niches for urban policies that previously were not in the scope.

Part B of the guide describes various actual and possible uses of digital technology in developing cities in four traditional urban functions, accompanied by examples: management of urban services, planning for the most vulnerable, relations between administrations and users, and local economic development.

We must therefore first of all return to basics: digital technology depends on information and communication technologies. It is not only a question of managing the city using data, but also of an ecosystem of stakeholders connected through digital devices. Of course, the effects of communication and information become intertwined: information serves as the foundation of new relations and the exchanges generate data.

The arrival of digital technology obliges local authorities to take position.

  • ICT is shaking up the world of information and digital tools, opening up new opportunities for knowing, managing and anticipating the way the territory is changing in a much faster, more responsive way.
  • Digital technology renders perceptible activities, urbanisation areas, categories of population, or even social movements, which previously had little visibility. This obliges the local authorities to define a position and a strategy for action.
Key questions

Define what you want to use digital technology for

Support the production and use of information, and especially data

  • Producing, collecting, storing, processing, analysing and sharing data: which action(s) must the local authority take charge of?
  • Which types of data that are important for municipal development and public action should be given priority: statistics, council decisions, maps, civil registry?
  • For what purposes should the local authority use and exploit the data generated: knowledge, forecasting, controlling, programming?
  • For which users: the local authorities, third party public authorities, the private sector, citizens?
  • What are the limits to be anticipated: data storage capacity, data formats, ignorance of the problems for which there is no data?

Facilitate communication and the exchanges between the stakeholders of the territory.

  • Which priorities: connect the stakeholders who are disconnected, foster the emergence of new stakeholders, encourage new ways of exchanging?
  • Which stakeholders: connected users, vulnerable populations, the private sector, informal sector, the NGOs?
  • To what ends: to raise awareness, consult, open new markets, tax, census?
  • In what form: information campaigns, forums, call centres, social networks, trade services?
  • With what limits: feed the practices that bypass local authorities; develop a supply and demand system that excludes the most vulnerable; dependency on intermediaries?

Become aware of the risks of digital technology

The question of exclusion or the digital divide is not only a question of access to the new technologies or network coverage, but takes in more broadly the issues of pricing, social acceptability, gender, age, appropriation and literacy.

Dedicated support systems are necessary:

  • to reach the most vulnerable sections of the population or the excluded of the digital,
  • to design systems suited to their needs and capacities.

While introducing municipal services on digital media, it is therefore important to maintain physical services, ensure the presence of facilitators to accompany the users, and design tools and interfaces accessible to all (including the illiterate).

Setting up partnerships, planning a training budget, or making equipment available are municipal actions that can easily bring together the conditions necessary for an inclusive digital transition. The NGOs, the universities or educational institutes, the stakeholders in the social and solidarity economy (SSE SSE Social and solidarity economy. ) or again the third places Third places Correspond to social environments other than home and work. These are physical spaces where individuals can meet, come together and exchange informally in response to the needs of a community present. Third places all have their own personality, depending on their location and the community that is present there. Co working spaces are considered specific third places. and incubators Incubators Support structure for business creation projects. Provide know-how, a network and logistics during the first stages of the life of the company. Incubators address companies that are very young or in the course of being incorporated.
Incubators stand out by the services they propose, whether or not they are profitable or by the type of projects they target.
Since the mid 2000s, “second generation incubators” have appeared known as accelerators, offering aid for the creation of a firm in exchange for shares in the new company.
who democratise the use of digital technology can be relays and mediators.

The local authority, for its part, can take the responsibility of identifying the target populations, and the intermediaries who can work with them.

Suggestion box

Set up digital mediation systems

  • Improve the coverage in secondary infrastructure and equipment: installation of digital booths, free access computers, Wi-Fi terminals in public places, stations, libraries or markets.
  • Organise or support training, workshops and educational campaigns on the use of digital tools and the Internet with mediators in municipal spaces, schools, etc.
  • Design and define accessibility norms for the online municipal services with easy, intuitive interfaces for users.
  • Diversify communication materials combining the circulation of information on paper, telephones, online, and drawing on the media to reach as many people as possible.

Community Internet access points implemented by the local authorities

In Jamaica, the creation of telecentres and libraries is one of the means used to facilitate access to e-government services, in particular in low-income neighbourhoods.

A government programme to develop community Internet access points was implemented in Jamaica in 2011. The telecentres provide public access to ICT, especially for personal, social, economic and educational development. They encourage the creation of websites and virtual communities. They serve as meeting spaces for young people. They train or support the older generations who wish to remain in contact with the expatriate members of their families.

A communication and awareness raising campaign promotes the idea that the execution of administrative operations in these access points is less expensive than travelling to the authorities. In addition, inhabitants can send questions to the telecentre by SMS, and the agents reply on the Internet and through local radio.

The implementation of this programme draws on the local authorities and non-profit organisations to whom they delegate the management of the access points. In parallel to the national ICT strategy, it is a question of giving everyone the chance to take advantage of the development of the e-services.

Lessons learnt

Financing and developing a local network of universal access points to digital tools constitutes a system for including all of the inhabitants.

Key questions

Design an inclusive digital system

  • Who are the people excluded from digital technology or from the service to be developed: senior citizens, women, peripheral neighbourhoods, informal sector?
  • Why are they excluded, what are the obstacles they come up against: cost too high, literacy barrier, cultural practices, zone not covered?
  • How can they be included, what targeted system can be put in place to include them: digital literacy classes, digital mediation, communication campaigns, public facilities and access, simplified design?
  • Which partners can be involved: which intermediaries are the best placed to transmit the knowledge and know-how necessary for the appropriation of digital tools?

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