Let’s not talk about ‘smart’. Let’s talk about cities..and their future. And more specifically, let’s talk about the future of our city, Ghent.

Throughout history, the City of Ghent has always been a people’s city. Emperors and kings, counts and soldiers never managed to control this pocket-sized metropolis. To give an example: the Count’s Castle that is today one of the most visited tourist attractions was built in the city centre to protect the Flemish nobility from the citizens instead of protecting the citizens from invaders.

Being the second largest city north of the Alps in the Middle Ages, Ghent today is a mid-sized European city and the second largest in Belgium after Antwerp. Since the 1980’s the Ghent city council has invested greatly in redeveloping the city to make the transformation from a grey post-industrial city to an open, liveable and pleasant city designed for and with the people.

From the start of this process the city council experimented with policy participation techniques and in every redevelopment project special attention was given to citizen participation and co-creation. To that purpose a specific office of community based planning was created within the city administration with the special task of directing the participation efforts of the municipality in a cross-sectorial way.

Today Ghent is investing a lot in new forms of digital participation and co-creation, building upon the experiences and practices of the international smart city movement. Ghent’s specific angle in this digital transformation remains however the focus on the needs and priorities of the Ghent citizen. With an open data portal, an online crowdfunding platform, a participatory budgeting platform and the Ghent living lab the city is among the frontrunners in Europe in the transition to a future proof – smart – city.

This frontrunner’s position gave Ghent the opportunity to promote its vision on the city of the future at an international level. Being very active in the largest European city’s network EUROCITIES for the past 10 years did not only contribute to the further evolution of the ‘classic’ digital and technology dominated smart city vision in Ghent but also to the development of a new vision, a new recipe of the city of the future.

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts

Today Ghent is investing a lot in new forms of digital participation and co-creation, building upon the experiences and practices of the international smart city movement.

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts

With the citizen as a focal point in the city of the future and the fact that there is no such thing as thé smart city but that every city’s DNA determines its future, the necessary ingredients of the Ghent recipe are :

  • An ever evolving and transversal strategy for the development of the city, co-created with the citizens and the other urban stakeholders
  • Data as the foundation of the strategy and of the decision making of not only the local government but also the other urban stakeholders, including the citizens
  •  Technology used as an enabler to create solutions for the priorities in the strategy; not only cutting edge technology but also low-tech solutions co-created with the citizens and other stakeholders
  • Collaboration is key; bringing together all stakeholders as co-actors in the creation of the future city, gives the best guarantee for innovative solutions and buy in; co-creation in a quadruple helix societal playing field.

These ingredients imply a fundamental change in the governance of the city itself. Bringing citizens, civil society, academics, industry and government around the same table not only to think about the future of the city but also to realise concrete solutions is not so easy as it sounds. Old and new networks need to be rethought, ecosystems need to be built and the traditional mindset of public and private actors need to change.

Watt Factory will be an important platform for bringing new initiatives and urban priorities together. By sharing data, information and knowledge about the future of urban living between all city stakeholders, much more adapted solutions will get a better chance to emerge and to grow. In one of the most exciting urban environments in Europe, Ghent!

Karl-Filip Coenegrachts

Chief Strategy Officer, City of Ghent


This article was first published on www.wattfactory.be