Digitally managed cities of the future – how close are we?

Digital management of city infrastructure holds the potential to mitigate the increased demand for energy and other resources as those cities grow. By 2050, two thirds of the world population will live in cities; they will account for over 70 per cent of the world’s energy consumption. The Erasmus Centre for Data Analytics (ECDA) at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) has researched the efforts of 80 European cities as they develop their digital capabilities. ECDA studied those cities that are already part of the EU’s smart city projects’ and already have a functioning Urban Data Platform (UDP), as well as cities that are still developing their own UDPs. The study aims to share new information about way that data is managed in UDPs in European smart cities. Here’s a summary of what they found.

ECDA’s study analysed urban data platforms’ development; the vision behind these platforms; the business and technology design; barriers to implementation and accelerators for implementation, and the use and impact of these platforms.



What is an urban data platform?

An urban data platform (UDP) enables digital technologies that can bring together and integrate data flows via open standards within and across city systems, and city infrastructure of the public and private sector. It also makes the development of data resources and information tools accessible for further exploitation, visualization and modelling in a comprehensive, reliable and affordable way. This can empower participants in the cities’ ecosystems to contribute to a city’s triple bottom line – in other words, its focus on social and environmental concerns as well as economic concerns, otherwise known as people, planet and profit, or the ‘three Ps’. 

In the future, urban data platforms will be important infrastructure for facilitating use cases, applications and new start-ups to create triple bottom line value that can contribute to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for smart cities. Those charged with making decisions in cities can also benefit from UDPs’ artificial intelligence, and from the software programs that identify patterns and learn from large data sets.


“The study on UDPs is very valuable for us, and we will try to incorporate the findings in our next development steps. The most important one at this moment is: if we want to organise a successful UDP we need to create trust, not only in the platform but in the whole urban digital ecosystem.”

Roland van der Heijden, Programme manager Digital City for the Municipality of Rotterdam


Why are we building UDPs?

UDPs can contribute to the triple bottom line: people, planet and profit. The study indicated that UDP strategy is driven mainly by a city’s internal objectives such as informed decision-making by policy makers, and cost-efficient and effective city operations. But UDPs also contribute to more external engagement objectives such as entrepreneurship and innovation, co-creation of city services, and citizen engagement. Environmental sustainability forms a welcomed, perhaps less expected, priority. Data privacy and security are a top priority in all of these objectives. Social objectives such as liveability, reduced inequality, public health and fighting poverty are perceived to be less important objectives driving UDP strategy. 


Explore, build, then operate

UDP development is still in its early days. ECDA’s study divided the adoption of urban data platforms in cities into three phases; the explore and plan phase, the build and implement phase, and the operational phase.

Of participating cities, 44 per cent are in the first explore and plan phase, 25 per cent are in the build and implement phase, and only 31 per cent have an operational urban data platform to date. The first urban data platform in a city was initiated and developed in 2001, but only since 2015 has there been a major increase in the number of cities developing their own UDP.  



Big data has its challenges

UDPs are a great example of big data. They connect and combine data from a multitude of sources.  Around 20 per cent of the cities in ECDA’s study have closed data contained in silos: a functional application area, like waste management. Usually such a department uses its own system and stores data within a waste management application.  or verticals, and no platform. Another 19 per cent of cities are developing an internal data platform within the municipality, while 45 per cent are developing, or already have, an urban data platform that includes data from their municipality and other business stakeholders. And 16 per cent of participating cities have an urban data platform governed by an external stakeholder that does not include data from the municipality.

 The usage of the operational UDPs in terms of connected data sources, actual end users and applications that run on top of the UDP is still low.

This is mainly because of factors that also restrict the development of UDPs. Municipalities need to develop several extra capacities as part of their drive to develop UDPs. These include data management – across silos, engaging and making the case for their development and adoption among city services, and working in an open innovation ecosystem. This requires an agile development approach that includes the ability to learn from failures, as well as new leadership skills and innovation methodologies.

In addition to the development of internal capacity, there are several external factors that restrict the development, adoption and use of UDPs. These are contractual complexities, legislation (such as privacy and procurement), cyber security risks, data ethics and societal concerns, and the digital literacy and skills of end users. ECDA observed that these restricting factors are relatively stable for the three stages of UDP development.


Trust important for accelerating action

An important accelerating factor in the development and use of UDPs is trust among the partners. The difference between the level of importance given by respondents and the level of maturity of a factor within a UDP is called ‘a gap’. Right now, trust in data quality, platform security and trust in the platform owner are the biggest gaps. Overall, platform security is perceived as most important. 

The top three measures for enhancing trust in terms of their perceived importance are:

  1. the use of a privacy statement and GDPR compliance
  2. transparency towards UDP users on how their data is handled, for instance via a personal dashboard
  3. A data privacy charter that describes the key principles of the platform.

Other accelerating factors are having a ‘triple helix’ collaboration comprising academia, industry and government, the use of open data standards and protocols, and the availability of subsidies and grants.


Platform maturity

UDPs differ in their levels of maturity. ECDA reviewed the maturity of platforms in smart cities, and found that the majority, 70 per cent, currently use an open data platform to make data available to users. Just under half, or 49 per cent of smart cities, provide Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) to provide platform services and to connect partners.

Currently, 12 per cent of platforms visualize their data as a 3D digital twin of the city, but another 56 per cent of smart cities are thought to have this ability. ECDA expects that platforms will be able to support increasingly advanced interactions and will develop into real marketplaces. Right now, platforms facilitate data analytics only to a limited degree. Where data is shared, it is through barter (data for data), and the potential for monetising data has not yet been exploited.

Many smart cities have stretch targets and ambitions to improve the creation and implementation of business models so that activities are better managed, and so that UDPs can develop their potential as marketplaces.


“The study has created a comprehensive landscape of the current deployments and plans for urban data platforms in the EU and comes to evaluate the results of the intensive seven-year work performed at the EIP SCC and the Smart City lighthouse projects. It allows us to highlight the progress in comparison with a similar 2015 study and what still remains to be done. The study comes at a crucial moment when we are defining our actions and commitments for the next framework programme within the Horizon Europe and the Digital Europe Programme as well as the accompanying Joint, Boost, Sustain initiative of the EU cities and communities.”

Svetoslav Mihaylov, Policy Officer Smart Mobility & living for the European Commission


UDPs in times of crisis

ECDA predicts that UDPs will become a central feature of a resilient city when they have enough data sources and active users. This potential is at the forefront of the minds of many people involved in UDP development right now, in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.

This pandemic, in the spring of 2020, has brought extreme stresses to many services: healthcare supply chains; public safety and response services; core services such as transport, communication, water and power; and food supply chains, as well as to the policy and decision makers.

Vast amounts of data are being produced as the pandemic spreads around the world. This data needs to pass securely through a complex system that has various actors with different levels of decision making – who are often dispersed in different systems that use different formats.

Connecting and aggregating multiple data sets from various sources via a UDP helps create transparency, and allows society to be better prepared for such scenarios.

Done well, connected and aggregated data sets in a UDP enable the real-time city to be organised as a single platform during a time of crisis. A UDP can empower policy makers and citizens, and provide them with real-time information about their city. Cities that take things further and develop a ‘digital twin’ – a virtual image of the city and its systems – give themselves the capability to simulate and visualise scenarios and events, and evaluate the effects of policy measures.

During the corona crisis, data from traffic sensors plus citizen sensing (people using sensors, often low-cost and self-built, to collect data that helps them find out more about issues they care about) via sharing of geo-fenced data, and data from CCTV could be used to monitor how the effectiveness of instructions to maintain social distancing, and to keep apart from other people when in public.

It could be that specific apps use data from the UDP to inform citizens and influence their behaviour, for example to smooth the peaks in numbers of shoppers in supermarkets by rewarding ‘desired behaviour’.

A city’s digital twin could be used to visualize in more detail where infection takes place (with a certain level of abstraction). Analytics running on data from a UDP could support, for example, streamlining the food supply, and perhaps even improve predictions for, or even help to prevent, the spread of the virus. 


Are we there yet?

Are cities in Europe well served, in terms of their ability to manage data? Not well enough would be the honest answer, if you look at the potential offered by that digitization and the findings of this study. Although there has been progress in implementing urban data platforms in cities, there is a long way to go before the real potential is realised and before we reach the goal set by the  European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities (EIP-SCC) – to ‘serve 300 million Europeans with urban data platforms in their cities by 2025’. This goal is still feasible, and it is still very sensible, but it will take commitment:

  • City leaders must lead by deciding to invest in this vital infrastructure as a matter of policy, and / or request the preparation of a business case to justify their data platform
  • Institutions and national governments should encourage the uptake of UDPs at city or regional levels using incentive schemes, vouchers, and initiatives that build capacity
  • Trust between city hall and industry needs to be improved, which requires local measures. Some cities will need to strengthen engagement with communities to increase trust between city hall and society. They will also need a core actor in the data system.

The EIP-SCC and the 116 cities currently involved in major pan-EU smart city ‘Lighthouse’ programmes are gathering the new knowledge – the ‘why’, ‘what’, and ‘how’ of UDPs – and using it to support and scale-up adoption of UDPs in other European cities to help speed up the rate at which communities become digitally enabled .

This won’t fix the current crisis, but it might avert a future one.


About this study

The study was conducted by a team of faculty and master students from the Erasmus Centre for Data Analytics (ECDA) as part of the EU smart city project RUGGEDISED and collaborates  with the EU’s network of Smart Cities and Communities (SCC) and the European Innovation Partnership (EIP) Smart Cities marketplace. The study concluded in mid-January 2020 and researched and gathered data from more than 100 respondents in 80 European cities. Of these cities from which data was gathered, 85 per cent were partners in one of the EU SCC Lighthouse projects funded by the European Commission.

Research team: Dr Marcel van Oosterhout, Dr Haydee Sheombar, Julia Amelie Holst , Dr Tobias Brandt, Prof. Eric van Heck.

The full paper is available by emailing Dr Marcel van Oosterhout

Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University (RSM) is one of Europe’s top-ranked business schools. RSM provides ground-breaking research and education furthering excellence in all aspects of management and is based in the international port city of Rotterdam – a vital nexus of business, logistics and trade. RSM’s primary focus is on developing business leaders with international careers who can become a force for positive change by carrying their innovative mindset into a sustainable future. Our first-class range of bachelor, master, MBA, PhD and executive programmes encourage them to become to become critical, creative, caring and collaborative thinkers and doers. Study information and activities for future students, executives and alumni are also organised from the RSM office in Chengdu, China.

For more information about RSM or this article, please contact Danielle Baan, Media Officer for RSM, via +31 10 408 2028 or

Share this article: