Focusing on the least connected in cities of Europe
Paul Drewe and Ana María Fernández-Maldonado
Spatial Planning Group
Faculty of Architecture
Delft University of Technology
Paper for the Global CN 2001 Congress, Buenos Aires, December 2001
1. To set the scene
As with the introduction of most other technologies, ICT introduction in society is a
process that has began within the better-off groups living in cities of the most
economically advanced regions and nations. Despite the rapid speed of adoption of
technologies as Internet, the promises of the "trickling-down" to all corners of society
remain highly unfulfilled. No nation can claim that all of its citizens have full
connectivity. That is why most countries, including the most connected, have
launched nationwide strategies to tackle the differences in connectivity.
It is important to remark that the practice in advanced industrialized regions shows
that access to the infrastructure is the first step to connectivity but not the only one.
There are always groups that having access do not connect for one or other reason.
Indeed, universal access to ICT, meaning that ICT is accessible to all people in all
places, is considered as one of the myths about these new technologies (Graham,
1997). A similar myth prevails with regard to the Internet in particular. The Web is
supposed to be a global and open technology which allows all nations and societies
to equally access the continuously expanding cyberspace to provide them with
information, commercial opportunities and business relationships, to finally “usher
into a new age of democracy, a socio-political utopia” (Gorman, 1998).
Whether all people in all places are equally connected to ICT, however, remains an
empirical question. Even if post-modern thinkers may find this to be an old-fashioned
stance. Solid empirical research still can help to debunk myths. However, this is not
only a matter of knowing. If certain people in certain places are excluded from ICT or
among the least connected, this calls for action. Universal access or universal
service, instead of being a myth, can be a meaningful goal for action even if the only
thing one can strive for is to make the least well-off as well-off as possible.
Consequently, the present paper presents ways of tackling this problem in the
European context. As the title of this paper says, we are addressing the group(s) of
the least connected, the most deprived living in urban areas. Several reasons make
this group worth the attention. The first one is pragmatic. Cities are per definition the
most connected and well-served places in terms of telecommunications
infrastructure. Even Third World cities are wired for telephonic services, so basic
connectivity can be easily provided through dial-up connection or leased lines.
Theoretically, no huge investments are needed to provide universal access to the
most deprived areas in cities, because the networks are close by 1. Besides, people
living in cities have a better motivation and are more aware of the advantages that
the new technologies can bring about in their daily lives.
And it is precisely providing access to the most deprived groups where ICT can help
to correct socioeconomic imbalances and to provide the most relative advantages to
society. At local level ICT can help create new jobs and economic opportunities plus
a more educated work force. At city level it can deliver online services in the areas of
education, training, health care, etc. With its multifunctional character of
entertainment/training /information/communication, Internet centers seem particularly
fit to help the youth in problem areas overcome its difficulties. In short, the creative
use of ICT can help improving livability, overcoming deprivation and fostering local
2. The European agenda
There are multiple Community initiatives in the field of the Information Society (See
dial/info_soc/esdis/documents.htm). From all of them, we are mainly interested in the
ones about universal access and the ones linking ICT and urban deprivation.
The most comprehensive European program for universal access is the e-Europe
“An Information Society for all" initiative, whose first Action Plan was launched in
(http://europa.eu.int/information_society/eeurope/action_plan/index_en.htm). At the
beginning 10 domains for action were identified. But the current Action Plan re-
examined and re-elaborated the domains to ensure a more precise concentration of
action lines. The three key-objectives and related priorities are now:
A cheaper, secure and faster Internet
Cheaper and faster Internet access
Faster Internet access for researchers and students
Secure networks and chip-cards
Investments in people and skills
Introduce the European youth in the digital era
Work in the knowledge-based economy
Participation for all in the knowledge-based economy
Stimulate Internet usage
Accelerate electronic commerce
Online government: electronic access to public services
Digital content for the global networks
Intelligent transport systems
For each priority, the Action Plan sets a series of concrete actions and appoints the
actors that must executed them. The Action Plan is focused in 2002, the date when
all the objectives must be met. One of the methods to achieve the objectives is the
coordination and comparative evaluation of the performances among the different
member countries. According to this, the results of the comparative evaluation of the
policies to avoid info-exclusion, an action related to the third priority of the second
key-objective, the participation for all in the knowledge-based economy are useful to
have an overall idea of what are the different member countries doing regarding
universal access (see table 1, a summary of European Union Council, 2000:52-55).
There exist also several other initiatives that are relevant to ICT and urban
deprivation, the latter referring to already existing inequalities. That ICT is able to rid
us from the old inequalities straightforwardly is a myth. The rise of ICT might tend to
aggravate them. That is why a joint or integrated approach is called for. Another
argument for such an approach is the multidimensionality of inequalities. These
initiatives should include a spatial dimension, which turns the old issue of people –
versus – place orientation into a controversial point. People need to be helped
directly as well as indirectly by aiding local places, governments, and businesses
This is precisely the approach adopted by the European Commission. The rationale
is spelled out as follows: "Poor living conditions aggravate individual problems and
distress. In turn, social malaise and the lack of economic opportunity make the
individual hostile to his/her environment. This vicious circle is today the cause of
growing conflicts and imbalances, particularly evident in the areas where the
problems are most acute.
The novelty of the approach proposed by the URBAN Community Initiative is that it
tries to break this vicious circle by re-valorizing the individual through his/her habitat
and not in spite of it." And: "The clear targeting of a well-defined area is the most
efficient means of tackling urban deprivation. This spatial focused approach
maximizes the impact of the interventions and reinforces the mutual benefits of the
projects. The overall effects of each program thus become more visible."
Table 1: Comparison of policies to avoid info-exclusion in Europe
Belgium Included in the e-gov concept
Germany Establishment of Internet certificates for unemployed people since October 2000;
"Internet for everybody", a program of the Federal Chancellor for the integration into the
Information Society since September 2000; The "Information Society Forum" of the
Federal government for the integration of underrepresented groups to Internet (e.g.
women and elderly)
Denmark There is strong political support for the idea that availability should be allowed for in all
new IT policy initiatives, and that this should be followed up on a current basis via
initiatives to create awareness as well as concrete initiatives. See
http://www.detoffentlige.dk and http://www.service-og-velfaerd.dk
Greece Through the OP "Information Society" an IS Observatory, experts will be in charge of
importing the international state of the art, disseminating best practice methods,
assisting the exchange of experiences, know-how and information, providing training
tools, commanding and supervising benchmarking studies, and forecasting skill needs
and skill gaps for information society applications.
Spain Conducted under ESDIS works
France The Ministry of Culture established a program of observation of the use of new
technologies that applied the results establishing a hundred of places of public access,
the Espaces Culture Multimédia (ECM), whose number will be increased to 220. The
project is now under evaluation and will promote the links with other networks of public
access to the new technologies.
Italy The 'Action Plan on Human Capital' outlines a set of measures to promote digital
inclusion. Its main sectors are territory and citizens, school, university, and private
businesses. The actions include 40 multimedia centres for training and access to ICT;
training for schools at regional level; professional training in ICT for 150.000 people;
and 12 incubators.
Ireland The Information Society Commission carried out a study to identify late adopter groups,
developed a TV series to inform people about new technology in a user-friendly way,
and hired a mobile computer classroom to travel around Ireland to provide basic e-mail
and Internet training to local groups.
The Prime Minister’s Department made a substantial announcement in respect of
measures to avoid exclusion from the Information Society in early December 2000. The
Community Application of Information Technologies (CAIT) initiative will fund
demonstration projects undertaken by the voluntary and community sector promoting
information and communication technology solutions for late adopter groups. Over €3.2
million has been allocated for this purpose. 25 projects representing a balance of
different late adopter groups and geographical regions of the country will be
commissioned by April 2001.
Austria New national measures in the frame of the planning program of target 3 of the European
Social Funds 2000-2006. Internet training courses for the elderly at the Center for
Usability Research. Progress in the acquisition of communication media for handicapped
people. Progress in the Multimedia project 'MUDRA Version 1.0' to promote gesture
language training and lip-reading skills in CD-ROM.
Portugal The Internet Initiative to combat info-exclusion includes: tax benefits in the acquisition of
computers; easy payment plans for computers by companies; stimulating the second-
hand computers market; reducing the costs of Internet traffic and offering systems for
capping such costs.
To promote a minimum free-access to the Internet (citizens’ internet): The School
Internet Programme, programs for the creation of public Internet access points (Netpost,
Aveiro - Cidade Digital) and the Digital Portugal programme.
Finland Actions are under preparation.
Sweden Measures include the investment in infrastructure proposed in the IT Bill and the change
in the law regarding taxation of private persons´ use of home-computers provided by the
employer. A study is commissioned to propose how experimental work regarding people
with disabilities´ access to products and services requiring a high transmission capacity
can be designed. There is also a five-year programme directed at disabled and elderly
people. Government authorities will ensure that their activities and data are accessible to
people with disabilities, including websites and other uses of IT.
United Providing low cost recycled computers for 100,000 low income families by setting up
Kingdom schemes to improve access including Computers Within Reach and Wired Up
Other important ingredients of URBAN are:
the integrated approach that takes account of all dimensions of urban life
citizens affected by the interventions, participating in the development and
implementation of the programs
the integration of each target neighborhood into the rest of the city instead of
treating it as an isolated unit.
There are several other European initiatives linking ICT with urban deprivation, such
the Commission’s stance on the need for an urban perspective in European
Union policies, such as “telecommunications policies, including Universal
Service obligations3, to ensure the earliest provision of links to the information
highway involving depressed urban neighborhoods and smaller urban areas”
(European Commission, 1997)
the Commission’s plea for exploiting the potential of the information revolution
with regard to job opportunities (European Commission, 1998)
experiences with the so-called Urban Pilot Projects (there are 59 of them)
the Stockholm Challenge, a competition covering a variety of eleven themes or
fields of ICT application (more about this later)
the earlier telematics projects for urban (and rural) areas from 1994-1998.
But where ICT in conjunction with urban deprivation is most clearly expressed is
precisely in the agenda of the European Union of the second edition of the URBAN
Community Initiative (2000-2006). As in the first edition (1994-1999), the new
URBAN advocates an integrated approach to tackle the high concentration of social,
environmental and economic problems increasingly present in urban agglomerations.
The approach comprises a package of projects that combine the rehabilitation of
obsolete infrastructure with economic and labor market actions. These are
complemented by measures to combat the social exclusion inherent in run-down
neighborhoods and measures to upgrade the quality of the environment.
But unlike the first edition, the new URBAN refers to the development of ICT potential
to improve the provision of services of public interest for small enterprises and
citizens, contributing to social inclusion, economic innovation and regeneration,
integrated environmental policies and management, management of human
resources and employability, and efficient management of services such as health
care, education and training and services of proximity (European Commission,
1999:5). For an indicative list of eligible measures in this field see box 1.
Box 1. The URBAN initiative: indicative list of eligible measures
Mixed use and environmentally friendly brownfield redevelopment
Entrepreneurship and employment pacts
Integration of excluded persons and affordable access to basic services
Integrated public transport and communications
Waste minimizing and treatment; efficient water management and noise
reduction in consumption of hydrocarbon energies
Development of the potential of information society technologies
Improvements in government
3. Some inspiration for actions
An extensive survey of possible ICT applications goes beyond the scope of the
present paper. Nevertheless, an attempt can be made to illustrate the scope of these
applications, which at least, potentially, are relevant to the urban level.
A good source of inspiration can be found in the submissions for the Stockholm
Challenge competition (http://www1.challenge.stockholm.se), which has eleven
different categories that reflect both the multidimensionality of the problem of
deprivation and vulnerability and respond to the integrated character of the approach.
The winners address (in decreasing order of frequency) ICT applications in:
education, public services & democracy, equal access, health & quality of life, culture
& entertainment, new economy and environment. According to the statistics of the
Stockholm Challenge 2000, only 3.6% of the projects target neighborhoods and 8.8%
cities. Nevertheless all of the projects, including the "losers", can inspire actions at
the local level.
Two examples of initiatives that are using ICT as a tool to improve living conditions in
problematic neighborhoods in the European context are the ones implemented by the
Generalitat Government in Catalonia and the Dutch Ministry of Integration in the
3.1. The Catalonia approach
The OMNIA project was launched at the beginning of 1999 and is mainly addressed
to provide Internet access and familiarity with computers to the youth with difficulties
to access the job market, to the elderly, to immigrants and to long-time unemployed
residing in territories at risk of social exclusion in Catalonia.
The project grew and evolved from a bottom-up initiative of a local youth association
(TEB) in Barcelona that gradually and "spontaneously" transformed its center into an
Internet center. This began as a youth center in the Raval, a poor and dense area
located in Barcelona, with high proportion of migrants and high unemployment. Apart
from a meeting point for the youth, the Raval center wanted to promote skills and
attitudes that could help the local youth in their future insertion in the labor market, in
a playful and attractive way. The main activities to undertake for this goal were
computing, sports, serigraphy and photography.
The center began with few computers and grew gradually to include more computers
and equipment. The free computer activities and Internet access in the center
became so popular that the TEB decided to focus its activities in that field and
became RavalNet (http://www.ravalnet.org). They implemented a website with local
information and services for the neighborhood. At present they give training courses
on computer software and video, where the young teach the old. The local youth also
created a community radio RaDialNet broadcasted digitally, to let the local individuals
and organizations express their opinion, while propagating their favorite music. They
have now multiple activities as free Internet accounts, a forum, employment services,
surfing activities, etc. (see Figure 1) all of them organized and managed by the local
The success of this initiative in improving the livability on the neighborhood has been
so remarkable that the provincial government decided to replicate the concept of this
center in other neighborhoods of Barcelona at risk of social exclusion, establishing
the Omnia network (http://www.xarxa-omnia.org) for that purpose.
Figure 1. The homepage of RavalNet in Barcelona
The Omnia project counts on the participation of local associations and voluntary
individuals to initiate and run the centers. In all these centers there is free access to
Internet for all people, and there are waiting lists to use the services. Three local
public institutions are in charge of the finance and promotion of the project. Its
specific goals are:
1. To develop local skills and capacities through access to the new technologies
and training programs,
2. To promote synergy on a territorial scale.
3. To strengthen mutual aid networks,
4. To enable and encourage local neighborhood associations.
Due to the success of the Omnia project, the Catalonia's government has decided to
expand it progressively to the whole territory of Catalonia. There were 43 Omnia
points (9 computers on average) in November 2000, managed by 42 non-profit
associations, and located in low-income neighborhoods. They expect to have 100
points working at the end of 2001 (Omnia team, 2000).
3.2. The Dutch approach
The spearhead of the current Dutch approach was launched in April 2000 by the
Dutch Ministry for the Large-Cities Policy and Integration. The metaphor used to
denote the policy intention is the digitaal trapveld (digital playground)
(http://www.trapveld.nl), though they target not only the local youth but all residents.
They consist of Internet and computer centers (20 computers in average)
implemented in the neighborhoods. Their main objectives:
to foster general ICT skills in order to fight the digital divide
to improve the position of residents on the labor market position thanks to
improved ICT skills
to strengthen social cohesion or community building through more intensive
contacts between different groups of residents.
There were 30 trapveldjes in 23 cities in May 2001 (see Map 1) and they were
expected to grow to 100 in the short term (Van Boxtel, 2001). With a global budget of
20 million guilders, the projects are to be carried out by the municipalities sharing the
costs with the involved Ministry, and third parties.
The local residents may ask for the establishment of a digital playground in their
neighborhood, if they fulfill a number of requirements. However, the specific content
of a project has to be decided by the municipality. In the practice, this has proved to
be a quite bureaucratic and difficult process, which contradicts the bottom-up spirit of
An important feature is that the whole project is supported by a coalition of 12 ICT
firms (shown in box 2). Their support, depending on their specialty, consists of:
hardware (discount on the sale of computers and other hardware and a
possible extra discount on the net server);
software (free software for the network, the Internet and applications)
Internet access (a free provider for half a year and, after that, a reduced rate
and discounts on Internet hardware)
“supporter” (free support of planning and partly of the installation of the
“playground” and for the period thereafter discounts on supporting its further
development, maintenance and management).
Map 1. Digital playgrounds in the Netherlands
Box 2. A coalition of ICT firms
Category Supply Firms
Hardware discounts on computers and other hardware Compaq, IBM,
with a potential extra discount on the net Getronics, Info
Software free software for network, Internet and IBM, Microsoft
Internet free provider for the first half year, after that a KPN, Cisco
access discount on Internet hardware systems
Support free support with planning and partly, CTG, Getronics,
installation of “trapveld”, afterwards discounts IBM, KPN, Ordina,
on further development and Roccade, TAS
6. Where do we go from here?
There exists a wealth of potential ICT applications that can serve as a source of
inspiration for local ICT-related initiatives and activities. At national level, the
European Union agenda provides guidelines for an integrated approach against
urban deprivation and lists precise actions for an 'Information Society for All'. Most
European countries have already developed ICT strategies against urban
deprivation. These strategies are mainly focused on universal access: the access to
the new technologies of population groups that might otherwise fall behind, with the
lack of connectivity worsening their (deprived) living conditions.
On the other hand, there are also interesting strategies that attempt to use ICTs'
capabilities as a tool to improve the living conditions in problematic areas. The Omnia
experience in Catalonia, the Digital Playgrounds in the Netherlands, and other
initiatives as the German campaign for digital integration, for example, can help to
draw practical lessons. The evaluation and dissemination of these experiences may
be highly useful to show the actual potential of ICTs at local level.
This is, of course, not the case for broadband access. The optic fiber networks have
to be deployed in poor countries and this means large investments
For further information visit http://inforegio.cec.eu.int/ (for urban matters)
http://www.cordis.lu/ (for European Union-funded research). See also Drewe (2000).
The principle of universal service (or service of general interest) is also embraced
by the French government. See DATAR (2000).
Centraal Planbureau (2000) Op weg naar een effectiever grotestedenbeleid,
werkdocument no. 117, Den Haag.
DATAR (2000) Schéma de Services Collectifs de l’Information et de la
Drewe, P. (2000) European experiences, in P. Roberts and Hugh Sykes (eds.),
Urban regeneration: A handbook, Sage, London, pp.281-294.
European Commission (1997) Towards an urban agenda in the European Union,
European Commission (1998) Job opportunities in the information society: exploiting
the potential of the information revolution, Report to the European Council, Brussels.
European Commission (1999) Guidelines for the new URBAN Community Initiative
European Union Council (2000) Bilan des actions menées par la Présidence pour la
mise en oeuvre du Plan d'action e-Europe. Available at
Graham, S. (1997) Telecommunications and the future of cities: debunking the
myths, Cities, vol. 14, no. 1, pp.21-29.
Gorman, S. (1998) The Death of distance but not the death of geography: the
Internet as a network. Paper given at Regional Science Association, Santa Fe,
Omnia team (2000) Interview to Cheve Cartevila, Albert Puerta and Monse Cardonel,
from the OMNIA network by Silvia Lagos and Alejandra Jara in Barcelona, November
Van Boxtel, R. (2001) Overheid wil sneller Internet door impuls breedband.
Toespraak tijdens opening nieuwe website RTL, 23 april 2001. Available at
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (2001), Strategies for success:
reinventing cities for the 21st century, Washington D.C.
UNDP (2001) Human Development Report 2001, Making new technologies work for
human development, New York.
nt, New York.