Urban experiments boosting digital skills

European Urban Initiative
Bilbao credits Cloud-Mine-Amsterdam

Here, discover inspiring Urban Innovative Action (UIA) projects launched by EU cities working with local partners to bridge the digital skills divide, making communities more inclusive and competitive along their digital transition journey.

These experiments demonstrate the importance of EU Cohesion Policy support in ensuring that European cities effectively address digitalisation and the digital skills gap, to create more inclusive and digitally competent urban environments across the EU.

But first, how big is the digital skills gap – and why should cities help close it?

Europe’s skills challenge is enormous: over 40% of adults, and 37% of workers, still lack basic digital skills, according to the EU Digital Economy and Society Index. Competitive organisations require workforces to evolve in line with rapidly emerging technologies, while city-level civil servants need to oversee digital service development to benefit everybody.

With advantages and risks of the digital shift varying greatly across Europe, EU Cohesion Policy aims to ensure no one is left behind. This includes support for innovation and entrepreneurship, smart specialisation strategies and digital innovation hubs, as well as investments in digital infrastructure, and initiatives to improve digital skills training.

“Large cities tend to be at the forefront of digitalisation due to higher demand for more complex services and interactions, and their greater capacity to develop and provide those services. The main factors constraining the digital transition of cities are lack of funds and lack of skills”, states the Urban Agenda of the EU partnership on digital transition (2018 action plan). Variation in digital skills across the EU remains a challenge, complicated by factors such as ageing and shrinking cities.

In short, towns and cities, wherever they are, can only become more productive, smart and connected if people have the right skills for quality jobs, and companies can recruit necessary talents. So, what can urban authorities do to support digital skills development and retain talent?  These Innovative Actions projects Bilbao and Växjö go some way towards improving digital skills, a vital step for city authorities in improving lives, supporting urban resilience, and promoting social and environmental sustainability.

Developing digital talent to support future manufacturing needs – Bilbao, Spain

The post-industrial city of Bilbao launched UIA project AS-FABRIK to increase competitiveness in the city’s advanced services sector, and meet new digital demands in manufacturing – a sector that comprises 161 000 companies and more than 800 thousand workers.

Bilbao City council formed strategic alliances with key partners including local policy makers and policy experts, universities, Knowledge intensive Business Services (KIBS) providers, entrepreneurs, and the Basque industrial sector.

This public-private collaboration ecosystem positioned Bilbao as a territory specialised in the development of digital manufacturing solutions. Six start-ups have been created, as well as six new services by KIBs companies from Bilbao. The project helped encourage students, entrepreneurs and professionals to work in KIBS, creating at least 120 specialised jobs and supporting manufacturers with advanced technological and professional knowledge. Actions included creating:

  • specialised courses, attended by more than 450 industrial professionals; and 35 new partnership and educational agreements ;
  • new business models covering industry demands and specialised start-up support, mentoring 36 entrepreneurial ventures so far;
  • and a Fab Lab to design and create products supporting digital manufacturing solutions.

While the UIA project closed in 2020, the AS-FABRIK Building remains an energetic innovation hub for industry, education, advanced services, experimentation and incubation, sparking many nearby projects involving digital economy, smart specialization and KIBS –and contributing to the local area’s redevelopment. Mondragon University’s Luis Berasategi describes it as “the newest part of the expanding entrepreneurship ecosystem in Bilbao”.

AS-Fabrik - Bilbao Alliance for smart specialisation in advanced services towards the digital transformation of the industry        


A new model for successful digital acceleration – Växjö, Sweden

The City of Växjö launched the UIA project Digital Acceleration for Medium Sized Cities (DIACCESS), creating new skills, partnerships and working methods.

The aim was to improve public procurement procedures to develop new digital solutions addressing the city’s needs and sustainability challenges. The project started from the double finding that rigid procurement processes, and a lack of cross-sectoral cooperation, was complexifying the collection, access and use of data.

DIACCESS piloted a new procurement process, creating a Digital Acceleration Hub, where Municipal services and digital entrepreneurs started solving problems together, improving skills and developing complete innovative solutions, from needs and challenges identification through to final digital service delivery.

Växjö created smart systems to heat schools, manage waste collection, and improve snow clearance on local roads. Now used by many Swedish municipalities, the system uses sensors, IoT-technology, weather and topography data to plan interventions. Recently added features include snow-measuring cameras, and real-time reporting by car drivers.

A new Digital Lab also supported innovators and unemployed people with services like digital prototype creation, coaching, IT training and job placement.

As a result, 67% of municipal employees reported improved satisfaction with IT solutions, and 20 trainees improved their chances of being hired in the IT sector. 90 % of IT-suppliers are satisfied with the new procurement process, improving conditions for city operations and entrepreneurs to innovate together.

Växjö has become a smart development hub, exporting innovative digital solutions and attracting skilled IT professionals.

DIACCESS - Digital ACCeleration for medium SizE Sustainable cities

Explore more resources and examples of cities boosting digital skills on Portico

More about digital transformations in cities

Other innovative digital transformation experiments have been undertaken by other cities across Europe. Projects such as BRISE in Vienna automate the assessment of building permits, while DARE in Ravenna empowers citizens to help shape urban regeneration through digital tools. Meanwhile, VoxPop in Lisbon is improving mobility services through data-sharing models, and Gavius in Gava is using AI to streamline access to social assistance. These initiatives demonstrate how digital innovation is improving public services, engaging citizens and fostering the development of urban ecosystems. The Ghent project is also an inspiring approach to digital and culture.

Ghent project

Opening up digital cultural data and community spirit – Ghent, Belgium

Ghent formed a multi-stakeholder UIA project CoGhent to broaden access to digital cultural data. Focusing on three neighbourhoods, its new platform, Collections of Ghent,  made 80 000 digitised cultural objects accessible for reuse, working with museums, city archives – and citizens. Residents contributed hundreds of personal heritage stories, objects and pictures, exploring local roots, and forming a rich repository of diverse cultural heritage data.

A CoGhent Box publicly showcased the new digital cultural data service in the three neighbourhoods, bringing museum collections closer to residents. The box will integrate Ghent’s Design Museum in 2026. As part of its participation and co-creation action plan, CoGhent delivered a student hackathon, and an exciting Co-creation Fund rewarding projects that reuse the newly digitised collections – including a map app, interactive photo booth, and pop-up cultural events.

The project enabled City of Ghent staff, and their partners, to develop new skills and expertise in digitising cultural heritage. As a result produced a set of data management technology blocks to guide other institutions opening up digitised cultural data, with tips on data storage and consultation, recombination in a third-party application, and a reuse rights protocol.

In this way, CoGhent both improved social cohesion and sense of belonging, and helped diffuse digital skills to citizens, broadening access to digital tools.

COGHENT Final Journal

See what cities are doing to seize digital opportunities with Innovative Actions and with URBACT support

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