BilbaoIn November 2005, a World Summit of Local Authorities on the Information Society was held in Bilbao. Part of a UN-led process, it emerged from the idea that access to information and communication technology is a basic right. The Bilbao summit brought together more than 2000 local authorities, as organisations well-placed to understand and help provide for the needs of their citizens.

The local authorities jointly agreed to the Declaration of Bilbao, and agreed to support each other to work towards the development of cities and regions, using ICT as an instrument to promote sustainable development. In particular, they wanted to bridge the North-South divide, and work against marginalisation and social division. Each would develop their own agenda, taking into account local conditions, but aiming to strengthen the role of local authorities in supporting inclusion and preventing marginalisation.

A committee was set up to monitor the implementation of these commitments, and based on 2012 reviews, has published a study on the progress made by local authorities, which makes for interesting reading.

Findings: the North-South divide is alive and well

Perhaps it would be more surprising not to see a North-South divide in the findings, but nonetheless, it seems noteworthy. And it’s not just a North-South divide, but a clear division between Europe and Asia on the one hand, and Africa and Latin America on the other. On almost every measure and trend, Europe and Asia are significantly higher up the digital scale than Africa and Latin America. The report considers six aspects of the Information Society: Smart Economy, Smart People, Smart Governance, Smart Mobility, Smart Environment and Smart Living.

  1. Smart Economy refers to the use of ICT in businesses, financial incentives to businesses and talent, encouraging entrepreneurs. Many cities have established a local development agency to promote their region or area, although this is almost universally outside Africa. More than half of the cities have established initiatives to encourage companies and individuals to come to them to work, including science or technology parks.
  2. Smart People identifies a distinction between a ‘smart city’ and a ‘digital city’ in terms of the people. A Smart City has people who are smarter; that is, they have higher levels of education, and are committed to lifelong learning. So this part of the study looks at levels of higher education, and also the focus on universities. The North-South divide can be seen very strongly, since African and Latin American cities are, for example, far less likely to have digital development plans for schools, and far more likely to have populations that believe that the education provided is not suitable for the demands of the current market.
  3. Smart Governance discusses the conduct of government, provision of e-government services, and investment in ICT infrastructure, as well as the use of ICT to increase transparency and promote democracy. Most cities have a plan to develop e-government and online services for their citizens. However, as might be expected the use of digital engagement systems for citizens is almost entirely a European and Asian trend.
  4. Smart Mobility states that more and more city dwellers have access to broadband and internet connectivity, although this is stronger in Europe and Asia. Many cities have open access WiFi services, and the use of smart phones is also a growing global trend.
  5. Smart Environment refers to the use of technology to promote and protect the city’s environment, including security and safety of citizens, and particularly the use of technology to provide surveillance systems such as CCTV, a global trend.
  6. Smart Living refers to the use of technology to improve quality of life. Interestingly, few cities have engaged with health systems, although it is not clear why. Perhaps many do not fund healthcare and so have little incentive to do so? However, large numbers of cities, especially in Europe and Asia, have programmes which aim to improve digital access for those at risk of social exclusion.

Inter-city collaboration still woeful

Although the findings of this study shed an interesting light on progress made by individual cities in delivering on the commitments made at Bilbao, what is still more interesting from a global point of view is that there is very little collaboration between cities in achieving the commitments. While this remains the case, it is hard to see how the North-South divide will be bridged. It remains to be seen whether North-South collaboration and support is an unaffordable luxury during hard times, or an essential expense to prevent a further widening of the gap between rich and poor.

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