Dominated by the Acropolis, remnants of an era when Mycenaean civilization was at its height, the Greek capital seems to have risen from its ashes, after having gone through a 10-year crisis due to the corruption of its politicians. Indeed, the public accounts have been masked to meet the Maastricht criteria. Brussels, like the Cyclops fooled by Ulysses’ trickery, saw nothing. In 2009, the new Socialist Prime Minister, Georges Papandreou, opened Pandora’s box by revealing the real size of the deficits. Since then, the city has been trying to get its head out of the water, at the cost of budgetary restrictions and Chinese investments, such as the port of Piraeus, which was privatized in 2016 despite Alexis Tsipras’ promises to oppose privatization.
“Athens has experienced a lot of difficulties – a huge economic crisis and a very serious refugee crisis. Athens has experienced a lot of stress that a typical western city cannot even imagine the digital sector was not a priority for the mayor until 2017. In 2017, we started working on the digital agenda. “The municipal authorities recently appointed a chief digital agent to coordinate the effort, Konstantinos Hambidis, a 40-year-old engineer. “I believe that a city can be interactive for its residents, visitors and workers, but the municipality, and indeed the country, must first solve five to ten fundamental problems. The main one is the public services sector. We need to be consistent in this regard and create the right conditions for the design of large IT projects to become a good place to live,” he says.
The municipality of Athens is therefore mobilizing and intends to transform its city, both technologically and ecologically. In recent years, the city of Athens has relied on valuable advice and information from major cities around the world, particularly New York. The aim is to optimise the technology it already has and make it more easily accessible to citizens.
A progressive digitization
Since February 2015, a project management tool has been created for the municipality, which monitors 50 selected projects in real time. This program was not only intended for the following projects, it was mainly aimed at making the various services work better together. With this project, for the first time, public servants realize that they do not have to be afraid to share the work they do. In 2018, for the first time ever, daycare centres introduced electronic registration. “For us, it was a prototype because it was very inexpensive, developed over a period of three to four months, and included 6,000 families. Before that, they had to gather all their documents and go to Sepolia to submit them and wait in very long lines to complete the process. Now, all this can be done online and securely. Not only does this save thousands of people time – not to mention stress – but it also increases transparency.
The City of Athens offers 55 online services through its central electronic services site, another discreet service that has not been widely advertised. Recently, digital signatures have also become possible, which means that all documents that pass through the municipality can be digitally signed by civil servants and that a handwritten signature will not be required. Some 1,500 workers have been trained under the Smart City program so that all offices, including the mayor’s office, can sign documents electronically. The municipality may also receive documents digitally signed by citizens. “This project was carried out with our own capabilities and we are very proud of it. We are finally coming to the end of the era of paper-by-paper printing, and then we pass them from hand to hand,” says Hambidis.
The environment, one of the key factors of the Athenian smart city
The Greek capital is particularly polluted, overcrowded and chaotic. It is one of the most polluted cities, alongside Paris, Warsaw and Zagreb. Regions with high road traffic combined with sunlight are particularly affected, such as Italy (Genoa, Milan, Parma…), Spain (Madrid). Today, it seems that Athens intends to finally offer its citizens a source of respite, as it is ready to host the largest urban park in the world. Built around Hellinikon Airport, south of Athens, the Hellenikon Metropolitan Park will cover an area of 2 million square metres and will provide the city with the green space it desperately needs, as well as a park almost twice as large as New York’s Central Park, with 2 miles of Mediterranean coast.
A promising city, but subject to many weaknesses
Despite this late start, Athens was named 2018 European Capital of Innovation last month by the European Commission. Athens will receive €1 million in prizes, funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme. The European Capital of Innovation competition was launched in February 2018. It was aimed at cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants in the Member States and countries associated with the “Horizon 2020” programme. Twenty-six cities from sixteen different countries took part. The selection of the winner and the five other finalists was made by an independent jury, composed of high-level experts from local governments, universities, businesses and the non-profit sector. The city of Athens has given a very important place to innovation, seen as a way to help a local community to change and open up to the world.
The example of Athens as a smart city is interesting because of the economic and societal upheavals it would bring. This digital transformation of the city would indeed bring a new lease of life to the Greek capital after a chaotic decade, and would boost foreign investment. For the time being, they are therefore more communication tools than means of meeting basic needs. Existing local applications are not identified on a national scale, such as the car park management system in Athens or the optimization of delivery routes by individual distributors.
However, some projects are broader and more ambitious, such as the transformation of Athens Hellinikon Airport into a giant leisure center. With its luxury stores and casinos, 70,000 jobs should be created, according to Lamda, the consortium with Greek, Chinese and Emirate capital, which won the tender. It is estimated that this project will increase GDP by 0.3%. The aim of the maneuver is to regain the confidence of Europeans. Athens has undertaken to privatize part of its assets for 50 billion euros. By 2030, Athens aims to become a receptive, welcoming and inspiring city, proud, green and civic. It encourages creativity and innovation, by creating prototypes of belonging, by bridging history and progress.