As a global megatrend, digitalisation is changing almost all areas of society: our way of communicating and learning, our way of getting around, our way of producing goods and services and our consumption patterns. This brings along an enormous potential for building more sustainable societies – be it by avoiding emission-intensive mobility or conserving resources through more efficient production processes or increased digital participation. At the same time, those aspects of the digital transformation that contradict global sustainability goals are increasingly coming to the forefront of the debate. The enormous energy consumption of ever-growing data centres, the discrimination of already marginalised groups through algorithms, or the concentration of power with global tech giants are just a few examples.

Several atene KOM projects and initiatives are currently focusing on this tension between digitalisation and sustainability. They show perspectives on how cities and regions can use the opportunities of digitalisation in such a way that they support an ecologically, socially and economically sustainable development on-site instead of counteracting it.

More digital = more sustainable?

At the end of November 2020, atene KOM co-hosted a session of the international conference “Sustainable & resilient urban-rural partnerships”, which took place under the German EU Council Presidency under the patronage of the Federal Minister for Education and Research, Anja Karliczek. Addressing the key question “Digital = more sustainable?”, representatives from cities and universities across Germany, Denmark and the United Kingdom discussed what cities and municipalities can do to place digitalisation in the frame of sustainability. The presentations showed that important contributions to global sustainability goals can be achieved at the local and regional level; for example, by using real-time data to monitor the municipal carbon footprint, by promoting sustainable and digitally supported mobility solutions or by supporting small and medium-sized companies in their digital development.

During the discussion it became clear that municipalities and local communities must play an active role in shaping their future. This requires strong partnerships with other sectors and regions and an increased focus on social innovations in order to empower people and create spaces for exchange and mutual learning. When it comes to rural areas, it also became clear that existing narratives from the smart city debate cannot simply be transferred on a 1:1 basis, but that individual, location-specific solutions must be found.

Moving towards “intelligent” spatial development

In our project “Integrated solutions for smart regions” (iSmart), we are investigating what successful integrated strategies for a future-proof and sustainable development of “smart regions” can look like. In the past few months, we have analysed and compiled the results and experiences of 12 Interreg B projects with German participation in the subject area. We wanted to know: What is the vision of a future-proof and “smart region” for these projects? And what does it take to achieve this vision?

The first interim results clearly show that “smart” regions use the opportunities of digital transformation in a very targeted manner in order to reconcile ecological, social, economic, cultural and spatial issues. The importance of active local communities and a public sector that is capable of acting and willing to shape it is particularly important.

On the basis of these interim results, we are currently developing a joint position on which priorities in the realm of “intelligent” regional development appear feasible and necessary in the Interreg funding period 2021–2027. The project will result both in new project ideas as well as in comments and recommendations on the draft cooperation programmes for the six Interreg B programmes with German participation.

iSmart is funded by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Home Affairs as part of the federal programme Transnational Cooperation as an add-on project to our Interreg North Sea Region project, CORA (COnnecting Remote Areas with digital infrastructure and services).

Reducing the carbon footprint with digital technologies

In two very tangible application areas, our Interreg projects Stronghouse and LUCIA demonstrate how digital technologies can contribute to greenhouse gas reduction. In the North Sea Region project Stronghouse, atene KOM pursues the goal of examining and presenting smart home technologies and their influence on the energy efficiency of residential buildings. In the Baltic Sea Region project LUCIA, which is supported by atene KOM, the project partners are helping municipalities to make better use of the enormous potential of energy-efficient and “intelligent” urban lighting solutions.

In future projects, too, we would like to support cities and regions in shaping their digital future in such a way that they largely contribute to achieving the global sustainable development goals locally and regionally.