Smart cities: EU needs greater coherence in city policies

The EU should streamline city and regional policies to encourage innovation and the development of 'smart' cities, says Lambert van Nistelrooij.

By Lambert van Nistelrooij

12 Oct 2015

Living and working very closely together has many advantages. Cities are engines for economic growth and employment, the breeding grounds for art, culture and creativity, and the perfect platform for innovation and start-ups. 

For these reasons, almost three quarters of the EU's population live in cities. But how can we keep them liveable and enjoyable?

The European Commission has come up with initiatives to implement so-called 'smart cities'. At the same time, smart specialisation has been adopted into mainstream regional policies, which also apply to European cities. 


It's about time we came up with a single policy for regions and cities. In my new book, 'Cities in the spotlight', I explore the exact link between smart specialisation strategies and smart cities. How can two 'smart concepts' become a single, excellent one?

Smart cities and smart specialisation strategies are two novelties that have been quickly adopted by policymakers, and translated into specific EU policies or initiatives. 

Smart specialisation is all about making the right choices - a region identifies its priority, enjoys its benefits and shares acquired knowledge with other EU regions. 

A smart city, logically, does roughly the same. A city that makes the most of its possibilities, is driven by its inhabitants' strengths and develops into an enjoyable and 'user-friendly' place, is doing a smart - even excellent - thing.

But a smart city is more than that. These days, a smart city needs technological improvements to be a frontrunner in Europe. The Commission has recognised that the smart city concept goes beyond the use of ICT for better resource management and less emissions. 

This means, for example, setting up smarter transport networks and new, efficient ways of lighting and heating buildings. It also means the city administration should be more interactive and responsive, and safer public places. 

However, there is currently a lack of clarity in terms of concrete initiatives and funding scenarios for smart cities. They need investments and a coherent policy, and Europe must fill this gap.

A smart city does not operate in a vacuum. Cities are surrounded by regions. Urban activities are related to external exchanges, for water supplies and electricity, for example. 

Therefore, a smart city cannot exist without having a smart relationship with its surroundings. Creating a smart city means establishing coherent links with a smart specialisation regional strategy. 

This can help cities become successful and enables them to be at the forefront of innovation, especially when it comes to technological renewal processes, such as the use of big data in dealing with traffic or within healthcare.

Cities, regions and local authorities must work closely together to create smart areas. In the Netherlands, 'BrabantStad' is an example of smart cooperation between cities in a specific region. It is strategic cooperation with a common agenda. 

The main goal is to achieve competitive cross-border and transnational alliances. But cooperation does not stop at one border; Europe needs to create a level playing field.

The EU needs greater coherence in its city policies, as until now it has been highly fragmented. We need a breakthrough in governance between all actors. First, there should be an overhaul of the EU urban agenda. Once this has been done, Europe should play a leading role in monitoring its implementation.

We recently launched, together with the Commission, a first budget for 'city deals' worth €370m. More than just another declaration on the urban agenda, this may lead to an 'Amsterdam pact' - a future-oriented programme, with the participation of European cities as a central element. 

The pact, which is the brainchild of the upcoming 2016 Dutch EU Council presidency, aims to create a bottom-up approach to empower cities. They will be able to share their ideas, knowledge and fears. 

Together, we will build a strong European framework for sustainable and intelligent cities: the EU urban agenda for the cities of tomorrow.

I will take a first step towards this, with the presentation of my book on 14 October in Brussels. The EU urban agenda will be one of the Dutch EU Council Presidency's focal points.

After this, hopefully, we will be able to turn 'smart' policies into 'excellent' ones.


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