Data, partnerships and innovation: building competitive cities in Central and Eastern Europe

Last week, the European Commission released the results of its three-yearly survey on the “Perception of Quality of Life in European Cities”, which examines citizens’ satisfaction with various aspects of urban life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it found that healthcare, employment, education and training were the areas that most people want their cities to deal with; while in only nine cities did a majority of citizens say it is easy to find employment and low satisfaction with schools and education institutions was recorded in many capitals.

Since the official launch of Microsoft CityNext this summer, I’ve had the opportunity to travel to cities around Europe and chat to mayors about these challenges, and how we can help solve them. I’ve discussed many of the above issues at length and, as the research was released, I was in Brussels for the Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) launch of Microsoft CityNext, which gave another chance to hear what’s on city leaders’ minds – and what technology can do to support, specifically through three themes: data, partnerships and innovation.

When thinking about the volumes of data that cities hold and generate, there’s considerable potential waiting to be harnessed in understanding it all. However, the city leaders present told us about the challenges that siloed data can present, such as departments not having access to potentially useful information. Cloud computing has proven itself as a strong solution in giving them the power to break down these data siloes, reduce costs and increase efficiencies. Ultimately this technology is enabling city authorities to connect systems and data across separate departments to improve access and affordability of information and services.

A great example of this is Zagreb, Croatia. Tomislav Ivančić from one of our Croatian partners, IN2, discussed how local city leaders in Zagreb recognised the city’s technological shortcomings and decided to make a change. Microsoft technology has subsequently helped them to transform data management for health and social services. It has also allowed the city to open up opportunity for entrepreneurs, which, in a city where one-in-three people are small or medium sized business owners, is vital.

Microsoft CityNext takes a partner-led approach, so it was great to see conversations take place on how public and private partnerships can play a strong role in helping cities in the region reach their potential. What was clear was how important these partnerships are. Initiatives such as European Innovation Partnerships help break down the barriers to accessing new ideas and ways of doing things, meaning that cities can do things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Working with partners also means that cities get the benefit of local knowledge, but with global scale and insight – so we can share the experience we have from working with cities around the world.

Looking at countries in the CEE region, it’s clear that there are some impressive innovations in technology – take Estonia as an example, the country which has the most start-ups per person and where children as young as seven are being taught how to program computers. It was good to hear some of this enthusiasm come through at the event. It’s clear that cities must be aware that the innovation environment of the future will be different to today’s and encouraging innovation in growth areas , like ICT, must be promoted. This will hold the key to creating solutions to some of the core problems and solutions facing cities in the region.

Cities produce the vast majority of the region’s GDP, but face a range of challenges in their efforts for growth and attracting the best investment and talent. Cost cutting will continue to be an issue, but it’s important for city leaders to look at the new things they can do with the resources they have. While it’s clear that cities in CEE develop fast and have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, they also need to modernize their infrastructure. By taking a partnership approach, technology can help them get through these challenges, improve services for citizens, and create world-class cities that can compete with some of the biggest nations in world.

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