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Digital, urban development and local authorities

The purpose of this guide

This practical guide, drawn up by AFD and IDDRI, is intended to assist local authorities in meeting the challenge of a smooth digital transition with all city stakeholders: decision-makers, technical teams, inhabitants and users, operators, urban project implementers.

The content is based on the realities of cities in Africa, the Arab world, Asia and Latin America, but the methodological support has a universal reach.

The questions this guide will endeavour to answer include: how do you achieve the gradual digitalization of one or more sectors of local authority action? How do you stimulate and facilitate innovation on the local territory? How do you act with pragmatism and through a “test-and-learn” process? How do you define the frameworks and regulate data access and openness in an approach that is in the public interest? How do you build urban knowledge through digital tools, that will help define the action of the municipality? How do you start an internal process of digital transformation? How do you boost the capacity of municipal staff in the digital sphere?

Digital transition: cities in the front line

Over the past few years, the swift propagation of digital technologies and services has caused economic and social upheavals. The digital sector encompasses an array of tools and solutions based on information and communication technologies (ICT): connectivity infrastructure, management software, mobile telephone applications, geographic information systems (GIS GIS Geographic information system: system designed to gather, store, process, analyse, manage and display all types of spatial and geographic data ), SMS, online forums, urban databases, etc. It entails the exponential production of data and the development of new stakeholders, uses and services.

Cities, in the North as in the South, are at the forefront of this digital transition. And the use of the phrase smart city is spreading. The image is attractive, but it often goes hand in hand with a “solution-oriented”, technical vision brought in and sold by the ICT operators and experts themselves. In addition, the majority of international best practices correspond to cities in the West or in the “major emerging countries”. This restricts the smart city to the optimisation of urban services (Singapore), city performance (Songdo in South Korea), or the integration of data symbolised by a sophisticated command and control centre (Rio de Janeiro has been experimenting this with IBM since 2010).

In reality, local authorities all over the world are still in the learning phase and facing a twin challenge:

  • to support the dematerialised production and exploitation of urban data to improve city management,
  • the effects of immediacy, responsiveness and transparency in exchanges among stakeholders in the administrative area.

The smart city as a catalyst for the SDGs

This guide contends that actions related to the smart city must not be part of a rationale of “turnkey” digital services that are not anchored in the local territory and uses of these services. On the contrary, a city that is really smart initiates processes based on local uses and issues, analyses demand, seeks suitable– technical and organisational – digital solutions and provides a straightforward, accessible response.

The users of digital tools may be the citizens, but not exclusively. Digital services can be designed for local administrations and firms, or can aim to facilitate the relations between these different communities of stakeholders. The generic term of user therefore designates the different target groups likely to use digital services depending on the context.

The smart city thus has human and institutional dimensions which make it “the” condition of success for a city engaged in a sustainable digital transition. It combines the hardware of the digital infrastructure with the software of the “solutions” that can be simple and cheap, and match the immediate concerns of the local authorities and their citizens.

To summarise, the smart city is a lever, without being an end in itself, since the aim is to contribute to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The local authorities have a considerable responsibility for orienting the digital transition on their territory, regulating the generation and exploitation of data and creating synergies among the stakeholders. They must appropriate this new skill and encourage “good governance” of digital procedures, uses and tools.

Digital technology: an opportunity not to be missed

The digital sector is without a doubt full of potential opportunities for urban areas. It permits technology leapfrogging; that is to say, skipping over certain stages in development and/or using tools tested by previously industrialised countries. Examples include mobile banking, mobile telephony, e-health and e-education. For cities undergoing development, the perspectives are also considerable: digitalized land registry map in the absence of a conventional land registry map, digital mapping by inhabitants of a neighbourhood outside of any census…

Digital tools also allow immediacy in the steering of urban action: they cross geographic and administrative borders, provide real time information and reduce response times. They allow new, more flexible and experimental project management methods and new business models.

The uses of digital tools generated by the inhabitants and citizens also allow the authorities to gain a better understanding and recognition of informal activities, to make them an asset and not a constraint on development.

The risk of local authorities falling behind on digital technologies

National and local public authorities must engage with digital services, or they run the risk of falling behind with respect to their citizens, and of being overwhelmed by the major corporations (in telephony and the Internet in particular) and other innovators.

In developing countries where a youthful, urban population is increasingly connected, the use of digital tools is growing exponentially, without intervention from the government. Major private platforms possess big data Big data
Literally large amounts of data or mega data. The production of data in the digital world has changed scale at the level of 3 “V”s: volume, velocity (speed of production in real time) and variety (multiple sources and types of data). This new paradigm imposes a change of computer tools, at the level of capture, storage, searches, sharing, analysis and display. Big data can produce information that is often original for marketing, research, optimising business processes, sports, etc.

which it is lucrative to exploit.

There is therefore a risk of local authorities falling behind, which can be evidenced in the development of alternative digital services by third parties either disrupting the efficiency of or competing with the local public services. Another risk is that local authorities may have only limited or incomplete access to the data produced by the users and firms in “their” area, depriving them of essential material for urban planning and urban policies.

It is not a problem per se that the major national or international firms generate large volumes of data. But they are not the guarantors of the public interest and local authorities must regulate the full availability and exploitation of all kinds of data.

This guide encourages local authorities to define clear rules and initiate partnerships with the other stakeholders on their territory to (re)position themselves at the centre of local digital governance.

The risks of digital technologies related to lack of municipal steering

  • Economic risks: hegemony or monopoly of major platforms, privatisation of data, disappearance of jobs or job insecurity.
  • Ecological risks: doubling of infrastructures (in the absence of sharing practises), excess energy consumption and carbon footprint of the ICT, lack of apprehension of the lifecycle of the infrastructure and connected objects.
  • Social risks: inequalities of access and use, discrimination, addiction, lack of respect for private life.
  • Political risks: control and surveillance threatening individual freedom, disconnection from social and democratic demands.

The need to capacitate local authorities

The digital transition of a local authority requires strong political support and dedicated accompaniment, to facilitate the appropriation of the new tools by the users and to direct them properly towards sustainable and inclusive development of the local territory. Moving from the promise of the “smart city” to the reality of digital services in the city therefore requires capacity building for the local authorities to secure and supervise the change.

Properly managed and integrated into urban action, digital tools can achieve gains in efficiency, foster new cooperation and facilitate the co-construction of urban action. For local authorities, this means leading the change according to the following four operational objectives:

  • digitalise the modes of action of the local authorities themselves and improve their interaction with the citizens;
  • design and implement new modes of communication and exchanges between stakeholders (public, private, civil society, etc.);
  • gradually integrate ICT into the competencies of the local authorities to improve impact, efficiency and accountability;
  • regulate and manage governance of the digital sector through partnerships, legal frameworks and provisions on information management.

A small number of computers per capita, lack of access to digital tools, few or no digitalised information systems are not obstacles in themselves: any city, depending on its initial situation, can define goals in relation to its territory and needs. Nor is lack of local finance an obstacle: there are simple, accessible digital tools which can be easily introduced and have significant effects.

Special support for the local authorities and adequate appropriation time are indispensable for initiating the approach and removing potential resistance to change.

The digital transition of a local authority requires strong political support and dedicated accompaniment, so that the tools can be designed on the basis of needs and expectations, and their appropriation by local authority staff and citizen users be facilitated.

The switch from the promise of a “smart city” to the reality of local digital services therefore requires capacity building for the local authorities in order to materialise and guide the transformation.


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Digital, urban development and local authorities