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Athens shows how smart cities can do more with less

Last year, Greece’s capital city, Athens, hired its first Chief Digital Officer – Konstantinos Champidis talks to Smart Cities World about his first 18 months in the job.


Many cities hired Chief Digital Officers years ago and their smart city drives are well underway. Athens has had other things on its mind.


Since the Greek government debt crisis began in 2009, the income of many Greek people has declined dramatically, levels of unemployment have soared and the country has experienced political upheaval. Although digital technology has a role to play in helping Greece and its capital city recover, it’s not a magic bullet for a challenge of this size.


Konstantinos Champidis, Athens’s Chief Digital Officer, appointed in 2017, says: “Athens faced a lot of difficulties – a huge economic crisis and a very important refugee crisis. Athens had a lot of stresses that a typical western city cannot even imagine – the digital sector wasn’t a priority for the Mayor until 2017. In 2017, we just started working on the digital agenda.”


Athens was recently named the European Capital of Innovation 2018 by the European Commission.


Despite this late start, last month Athens was named the European Capital of Innovation 2018 by the European Commission. Athens will receive €1 million in prize money, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.


“I like challenges”


The news of Athens’s win surprised some but Carlos Moedas, Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation, said: “Athens stands out as an example that a city facing many challenges can achieve great things. Through innovation, Athens has found new purpose to turn around the economic and social crisis. It is proof that it’s not the difficulties but how you raise yourself above them that matters.”


"I saw the huge challenge and, to be honest, I like challenges.”


Champidis says that when he took the job of Chief Digital Officer on, the city had no digital strategy at all in place and few tools. Champidis likened his early position to being “an admiral without any sea,” let alone a boat.


He comments: “I had a very good job in the shipping industry. But I saw the huge challenge and, to be honest, I like challenges.”


Three steps and a year at a time


His first move was to pull in partners to form a Digital Council. These include CEOs at IT and tech companies, telcos and universities. However, the opportunity in Athens might not be like the ones they’re used to.


As Champidis explains: “I told these companies: ‘We are not here for a contract, we’re not here to do business, we’re here for strategy – to help each other.’ It wasn’t something that was very easy to do because a lot of people had to change mentalities. We had to learn to talk with big companies. We didn’t have that mentality inside the municipality. The businesses had to learn to talk with the local authorities without discussing contracts and sales. And the universities had to talk more [openly] about what they are doing.”


So what’s in it for the tech companies, if not money?


“I think that the good thing for them is that they are realising step-by-step that this is good for the ecosystem, and this is good for promotion – if a tool is working in Athens, maybe it can work everywhere,” Champidis says.


From this Council, Athens’s first Digital Roadmap emerged.


The approach here also differed from that of many cities in that the strategy only set targets for a year ahead.


“It’s very easy to have a strategy for 2030, and then you’re doing nothing – waiting for 2029,” Champidis says. “So we formed a strategy and an action plan for only a year. This helps us to keep the municipality focused on the plans, projects and initiatives in the next 12 months and not changing things for two or three or five or ten years.”


Hyperloop won’t fix it


The first roadmap was announced in 2018 and the second – again spanning a year – will be released in January.


The roadmap focused on five key pillars: infrastructure such as networks and internet access for the municipality, public spaces and residents; government digital services; engagement with citizens; and innovation. The fifth pillar is digital skills – particularly to help unemployed people and refugees, and to combat crime.


Champidis comments: “We’re not discussing hyperloops or drones or even electric cars, which are good for other cities but not for Athens. If you have a lot of unemployed people, hyperloop is not something that’s going to solve their problems.”


One year on


Now, the first 12-month Digital Roadmap is coming to a close.


Champidis says: “In [our] five pillars, we don’t have huge, multi-million projects, but we have very specific things. It’s not very ambitious, maybe, but we deliver. This year now is almost at the end, and I think that we managed to implement a lot of projects. Not 100 per cent but I think we did it.”


"We don’t have huge, multi-million projects, but we have very specific things. It’s not very ambitious, maybe, but we deliver."


One of the first initiatives was to open Athens Digital Lab – a research and development lab for smart city solutions. It was launched with a grant from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation (SNF), Athens Partnership and support from COSMOTE and Nokia – through, for example, access to their networks and platforms for testing solutions.


Champidis says: “We are investing in young entrepreneurs, giving funding for specific ideas that we think are very interesting for implementing inside the city’s infrastructure.”


Four applications from the Athens Digital Lab are now being piloted in the city.


Another big area of work this year has been working towards making Athens a “gigabit society”, investing in fibre optic wireless networks.


“If you don’t have a network, you cannot implement a smart city project,” Champidis notes. “When you have a city network, it is the foundation of a smart city.”


Other initiatives have included public Wi-Fi hotspots, e-government projects, electronic registration for sporting and cultural events and early work to transform the back-office of the municipality. A large ERP (enterprise resource planning) project and a GIS initiative are now underway.


Athens is also in the process of rolling out participatory budgeting as part of the engagement pillar, as well as launching a new citizen app. Champidis says the city has also delivered 10,000 opportunities for free digital skills training through schools, libraries and local community centres, as well as a digital skills centre funded by the Microsoft Foundation.


Where next?


In 2019, Athens is looking to do more with data.


Champidis says: “Until now we didn’t actually have systems that could produce data, so it’s the first time Athens will have data, to analyse and make adjustments to our performance.”


He adds: “We’re not going to change the five pillars – we will keep them as they are but I think we will go deeper and deliver more.”


While cities with big budgets and bold projects may grab most of the smart city headlines, Athens shows that this isn’t the only way.


Champidis concludes: “We did more with less. I think that one thing that other cities can learn from Athens is that we’ve created a lot of partnerships with private companies, local communities and individuals in order to overcome the difficulties. We cannot do it alone.”


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