Beyond open data:

The strategic role of an interoperable digital platform for sustainable and human cities


by Vincent Demortier, Creative Technologist –  DIH Faubourg Numérique 


In the context of the digital transition and the challenge of environmental sustainability, local governments – especially cities – have a crucial role to leverage the available technologies to stimulate and structure the direct interactions of the public services with the local ecosystems (the citizens, the education organisations, the enterprises,…). To undertake this role, from technological perspective, they have to deal with an increasing level of technical complexity due to the multiplication of heterogeneous but interdependent systems and data sources that must be combined and controlled, in order to:

  • deliver relevant information for transparent and understandable decision making 
  • get a significant impact on fair and open business development

Following this vision, the implementation of an interoperable digital platform based on open standards is key to build up and share the virtual representations of the cities assets and to manage them as new digital commons that can be named “digital twins”. Thanks to such an interoperable digital platform, a city or any other public administration, gets the capacity to:

  • own and manage its digitalized assets and processes, independently from any vendors or proprietary technologies (avoiding “vendor lock-in” effect)
  • better structure the public procurement policy using clear technical references to address interoperability and integration challenges, including data availability and ownership 

This technical architecture is  the most direct and concrete path to reach local/regional sovereignty, efficiency and transparency of the cities and local public administrations digital transformation processes. The impact is almost immediate:

  • more efficient IT operation and more efficient public service operation delivery
  • more inclusive digitalisation processes involving a variety of stakeholders based on public commons (and understandable concepts): public services, citizens, private solution providers, education (quadruple helix approach)
  • clearer and more accessible public calls for tenders receiving more relevant applications, especially from local/regional SMEs competitors
  • better return on existing investments, and reduced risk for future investments; because thanks to the interoperable digital platform operating as a “system of systems”, it is easier to integrate existing or new systems that demonstrate their efficiency; and in the same way, it is easier to dismiss or replace obsolete systems or systems showing insufficient performance

The good news for all the stakeholders, including mid-sized cities and even rural territories, is that for more than a decade, huge public investments have been engaged to define and provide mature (adopted and curated) deliverables to implement and benefit from an interoperable digital platform: open source building blocks, open standards (API and data models), test bed environments,… are now available and accessible, for free! This global effort has mainly been supported by the United Nations and the European Commission, and the “interoperability” strategy has been widely applied for many years in frontrunners cities, mainly in Europe and in Asia (India, Japan) where it has demonstrated its relevance and sustainable impact. There are no technological barriers to initiate digital transition through the support of an interoperable digital platform. 

The challenges stand in the capacity building and the change management

As the technology is available, supported by global public/private communities, and adopted by solution providers, the toughest issue for cities and public administrations is probably to adapt their internal organisations and to stimulate the local capacity building in order to reach enough technical autonomy, flexibility, security and openness. To tackle this challenge and the possible lack of local means, there are two main resources that might be leveraged by the local governments in order to mutualize their efforts in the digital transformation: networks of cities and networks of competences centers. 

Of course, the activation and efficiency of these resources requires a strong political support and vision to engage the public services teams and local ecosystems in the definition and execution of a strategy for their digital transformation, including the management of the internal changes and of the external partnerships.

Within the European Union, regarding the cities and competences networks, two initiatives can be highlighted as references to be integrated in local strategies:

  • The community animated through 5 thematic work groups (including “technical” and “capacity building” thematics)
  • The European Digital Innovation Hubs network that will be active at the end of 2021 in almost all regions, to provide localized services to enterprises and public administrations for their digital transformations and innovations

So, if you are working for a regional, local or city government, do not hesitate to contact the Interreg 2 Seas SCIFI cities representatives from 3 different countries, or their associated private partners acting as competence centers: they have experimented and for some, implemented real interoperable solutions through a shared acceleration program and innovative procurement, involving 13 SMEs or startups from their regions and from all over Europe. 

The SCIFI partners are putting together a report based on learnings from the 12 pilots which will be released in 2021, which will cover issues such as opening data, interoperability of solutions, co-creation and innovative procurement.  If you would like to receive a copy, REGISTER HERE.

by Vincent Demortier, Creative Technologist – DIH Faubourg Numérique