Athens joins the international club of smart cities

Athens joins the international club of smart cities

When we hear the term “smart city,” we tend to think of some sort of place in a science-fiction movie, such as Spike Jonze’s “Her.” Smart lights, smart parking, smart applications, buses that fly and citizens with a permanent smile on their faces. Something far from the reality we live in today. But we do have technology already available to us today that drastically improves daily city life. In order to launch Athens into the world of smart cities, however, the groundwork must be laid and the infrastructure developed. Without fuss or fanfare, the process for attaining this has already begun.

In recent years the City of Athens has drawn valuable tips and information from big metropolises around the world, particularly New York. The aim is to optimize the technology that we already have and make it more readily available to citizens. Out of this came the idea for City Hall to do something it’s never done before, appoint a chief digital officer to coordinate the effort.

A matter of will

Constantinos Hambidis, a 40-year-old engineer who’s worked with Athens Mayor Giorgos Kaminis, is the man who was hired. “A smart city to me is a buzzword,” he says, pausing to take a first sip of coffee. It’s a very hot Friday afternoon and we’re sitting at a cafe on Skoufa Street. He’s just come from another meeting and has another after this. A back-to-back schedule that’s defined his daily life. “I believe a city can be an interactive one for its residents, visitors and workers, but the municipality, and indeed the country, must first solve five to 10 basic issues. Chief among them is public services. We must be consistent in this regard and provide the right conditions for designing large IT projects so that we can become a better place to be,” he says. For a city to be smart, municipal payments must be able to be made electronically. According to Hambidis, a smart city must have open data and information so its citizens can keep track of how the money that comes from their taxes is being used. Many of these things, he adds, are of minimal cost and it’s more a matter of having the will to do it.

Coordination is needed too, because in any large Greek organization, such as the City of Athens, the left hand rarely knows what the right is doing. Besides the CDO and his team, the city’s Cultural, Sport & Youth Organization, Technopolis, childcare centers, 984 Radio and the Athens Solidarity Center are also involved. Most of these organizations have their own independent IT structures, but they’re not required to work with others.

Working in sync

“Let’s say the City of Athens is a person. Innovathens, the Innovation and Entrepreneurship Hub at Technopolis, is an extrovert who is very sociable and goes out for a drink, but this extroversion doesn’t come home, or in this case inside the operations of the municipality. On the other hand, there are parts of the municipality that work very hard, but are very introverted. They have a well-organized house and work inside it with hardly anybody knowing what they’re doing. The aim is to have all these different people working together in sync – to bring innovation inside the municipality and get the public familiar with what goes on in there,” says Hambidis. An aim, he says, which is to glue the pieces together to form an open, friendly city that better serves its people and its businesses.

The basis for a smart city

I ask Hambidis what he would change in the City of Athens if he had the power. “That’s a good question. Let’s see, it’ll be easier for me to tell you what I’m envious of. I’m envious of the projects that, with the encouragement of the local government, facilitate a market for the expansion of high-speed broadband networks. This to me is the base that’s needed to even begin talking about a smart city. If you don’t have high-speed internet, both wired and wireless, then you cannot properly deploy applications. The other would be to be more open. Information is becoming more digital and data has increased in volume. This data is a public good that must be open and available. Open information enhances transparency and accountability, which in turn helps citizens be connected with their city’s administration. If someone goes to a seminar about smart cities, they will learn about smart lighting and other things that cost millions of euros. I’m all for smart lighting, but if someone can’t find out where the children’s playgrounds or the senior centers are in their city with just a few clicks of the mouse, then we have more important things to take care of first.”

Low-cost prototype

Steps have already been taken in this direction. This year, for the first time ever, childcare centers introduced electronic registration. “For us, that was a prototype because it was very low cost, developed over the course of three to four months, and included 6,000 families. Before that, they’d have to get all their papers together and go to Sepolia to submit them and wait in very long lines to complete the process. Now that can all be done online and safely. That not only saves time for thousands of people – not to mention the stress – but it also strengthens transparency.”

The City of Athens provides 55 online services through its central electronic services site, which is another low-profile service which has not been widely advertised. Recently, digital signatures have also become possible, meaning all documents that pass through the municipality can be digitally signed by civil servants and a handwritten one won’t be needed.

Some 1,500 workers have been trained under the smart city program so that all offices up to and including the office of the mayor can sign documents electronically. The municipality will also be able to receive digitally signed documents from citizens. “This project was done with our own abilities and we are very proud of it. We’re finally reaching the end of the era of printing paper after paper, then passing them from hand to hand,” says Hambidis.

Since last December the online registration for complimentary tours of the Cultural, Sport & Youth Organization (OPANDA) has been open. “Previously, if someone wanted to register for this, they would have to telephone, someone would answer and would have to write your name down correctly, etc. The online registration tool took a few weeks to be constructed but now that it’s up and running, it has helped thousands who would otherwise have to deal with the frustration of calling to get information. It will reopen for events at the National Garden and soon there will also be electronic registrations at public pools. You’ll be able to view your account online and be able to view how many times you visited the pool.”

Since February 2015, a project management tool has been created for the municipality, which tracks 50 selected projects in real time. “This program was not intended to be just for following projects, it was intended mainly for various services to work better with each other. With this project now, for the first time, officials realize they need not be afraid of sharing the work they do with others. The most important thing in public administration is communication. So, with this, we develop a new culture of sharing information and responsibilities, enhancing communication.”

Similarities with New York

The position of CDO was originally created in New York by former mayor Michael Bloomberg. Since then it’s been successful and CDOs have been appointed in other cities too. The initiative in Athens is supported at no cost by the international nonprofit consulting company Bloomberg Associates. Katherine Oliver, Bloomberg Associates chief of media and digital strategies, has visited Athens on many occasions in order to brainstorm on how to improve the city’s technology.

What do Athens and New York have in common?

Many things. Athenians and New Yorkers love their city and are not afraid to express their desires. When we were advising Mayor Kaminis, we heard from citizens of Athens who said they wanted better services, like garbage collection, parking, transportation, daycare centers and more transparency. These requests are common amongst the citizens of many big cities we've worked with around the world. Size and location are not things that the digital world is affected by. Today you can do many things with few resources.

How would you describe a smart city?

A city that uses technology to improve the lives of its people by making things easier, faster and more reliable. People want – and with good reason – to save time and to save trouble. Interacting with public administration is often unbearable. Digital tools make it a more effective and more bearable experience.

Can a digital municipality survive with a much less digital public administration environment?

Through our work, we've found that cities play a leading role in bringing about positive change and that municipalities around the world are managing to overcome slow bureaucratic procedures that often harm the central administration. Public officials must move toward a digital structure if they want to provide their people with faster, more effective services. It must be where the people are, and people are increasingly online now. Athens has committed to bringing more information online, making its actions transparent and accessible, unleashing resources to help people with more complex face-to-face challenges.