The City of Brussels: Setting Foundations on Digital Human Rights


The City of Brussels is the capital of the Kingdom of Belgium and is considered the capital of the European Union, with a population of 188,737 inhabitants. The City of Brussels strongly believes that building a smart and sustainable city should involve all citizens and city players and delivering digital tools and innovation can help to build a more supportive, dynamic, and inclusive society.

To develop a smart, sustainable and inclusive city, the City of Brussels has recently defined a Smart City Strategy, a Data Strategy and a Digital Transformation programme (called BXL2021) which is implementing several programmes and initiatives to foster a human-centric approach to digital transformation. As the City of Brussels is in the middle of an important digital transformation and is setting new ambitions in terms of smart city and data governance, the ity needs to make sure that the right mechanisms and structures are foreseen to protect digital rights and reduce the digital divide.

Selected through an open call that attracted 11 applications from across Europe, the City of Brussels, alongside Dublin, Sofia, and Tirana, was one of the cities chosen to participate in the pilot phase of the Digital Rights Governance Project. This project, a collaborative effort implemented by UN-Habitat, the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, Eurocities, United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and funded by the Open Society Foundations, was designed with a clear mission: to support local governments in integrating a human rights-based approach into the digitalization of their services. Each city was selected according to its unique commitment to protecting and implementing digital rights at the city level and its project’s ability to be scaled up and adapted for wider application.

At the time of the open call, the City of Brussels needed support to plan its actions to fight the digital divide. Through the pilot, the City of Brussels aimed to define a clear action plan to promote digital inclusion and define core areas for the protection and promotion of human rights in digital contexts.

In collaboration with the Smart City Unit of the City of Brussels, the design phase started by hosting a workshop in late August 2022 to gather insights on the challenge and analyse opportunities and assumptions behind the problem. This led to new insights to define the pilot. During the workshop, the participants identified a series of barriers to addressing the challenge, including formalising commitments to digital rights with a clear vision and action plan to uphold digital human rights and sponsorship; understanding the digital divide at the city level; fostering multi-stakeholder engagement to raise awareness and strengthening public capacities.

As a result of this pilot project, 27 workshops, meetings and roundtables were held, 57 people were involved in the consultation process, 6 civil society organisations and 17 citizens engaged in consultations.

The City expressed their need to develop an official set of principles to serve as the basis for future actions at the municipal level regarding digital rights in the City of Brussels. Hence, a document with the City of Brussels’ Digital Rights Charterwas drafted to establish the City of Brussels’ digital rights commitments and lay out the actions the City of Brussels is committed to. This draft started with preliminary research on the existing policies at the local, regional, national and international levels that are relevant to digital rights.

The draft included a set of principles based on the EU Declaration on Digital Rights and Principles for the Digital Decade, the principles of the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, the Declaration on joining forces to boost sustainable digital transformation in cities and communities in the EU, the UN-Habitat’s people-centred smart cities pillars, as well as existing political roadmaps of the City of Brussels, such as the Citizen Participation Charter, the IT Masterplan and the 2018-2024 Majority Agreement of the City of Brussels. For the drafting of actions, the City of Brussels conducted a mapping of existing initiatives at the local level, looked for synergies with the regional and federal actions but also best practices in other cities to draft the actions to be launched by 2030.

As a complement to the document that drafts the City’s Digital Rights 2030 vision and commitments to uphold human rights, the City of Brussels assessed the local digital divide on its territory, conducted by a university. This process entailed analysing existing databases and interviewing field actors and experts to map the gaps and identify who is the most affected by the digital divide in the City. This study provided key insights and a list of priority actions as an output of the analysis to be included in the document. A communication campaign will also inform all residents and digital rights actors (e.g. digital inclusion organisations, social workers, etc.) about the existing and future efforts to promote and protect digital rights in the City’s territory.

Through existing and planned initiatives in areas such as digital inclusion, accessibility, and procurement, among others, the City of Brussels will use all reasonable endeavours to meet the commitments listed in this document and to implement the associated actions by 2030. In terms of governance of the charter, the commitments and the action plan will be reviewed yearly by organising meetings with stakeholders involved in the design and implementation of the plan. This action plan will be a living document and updated gradually based on political priorities and new initiatives.

The City of Brussels was the first pilot city to work on setting up a foundation with local core values and commitments to digital human rights and affirming them at the political level. The City of Brussels Digital Rights Charter also included actions to strengthen structures mentioned in the Guide, focusing on Mechanism 3: “Mainstream human rights and digitalisation in all policy areas and processes of the city administration”, Mechanism 6: “Organise and promote the participation of people in the decision-making process of the city”, Mechanism 11: “Build a repository of human rights impact assessments for new projects” and Mechanism 12: “Apply a human rights lens to procurement and funding of digital solutions”.

This pilot was also insightful in understanding how to engage with local stakeholders and communities affected by the digital divide and how to connect local values with existing international frameworks. Another key learning from this pilot was the need to host meaningful engagements with internal stakeholders working across different topics of the digital human rights agenda in the city, and having their views and initiatives reflected in the early drafts of the document. This contributes to strengthening a whole-of-government approach and the development of commitments based on existing needs and capacities.

To assess the digital divide and promote digital inclusion, it is important to have a fundamental awareness and understanding of the digital divide and how it affects specific community groups. It is extremely relevant that the City of Brussels has initiated the collection of information through a series of roundtables to consult with residents about connectivity, digital skills, and literacy so that the input and feedback from residents can complement the contributions of experts and public employees for the charter document to properly represent their views and needs.

Digital rights charter of the City of Brussels

At the same time the City developed this pilot project, it also carried out a study of digital inclusion on its territory. Resulting from these two projects, the City of Brussels launched, in October 2023, a human rights in the digital sphere charter, which includes both the commitments that the City wishes to make on this matter and a list of actions to reflect these commitments. Existing initiatives are included to highlight what is already being done at City level, and to make people aware of existing solutions that are sometimes little-known. It also sets out new actions to be implemented in order to achieve concrete targets in this area by 2030.

What is its objective?

The City aims to promote a human-centred vision of technology, in which digital tools and innovation can help build a more cohesive, dynamic and inclusive society. The City wishes to protect and promote digital human rights and reduce the digital divide, which can be defined as: “The gap between those who have access to and use Information and Communications Technology (ICT), including internet connectivity, internet-enabled devices and digital culture skills, and those who do not have access or know how to use them». (Source: UN-Habitat).

Why is this important?

There are various factors that can lead to digital exclusion. Everyone may be confronted with it at some point in their lives. Inequalities when it comes to digital technology are factors that exacerbate the difficulty of accessing certain rights (bonuses, training, subsidies, complaints, etc.).

What does it contain and how does it help Brussels’ citizens?

Below is a non-exhaustive list of some of the commitments and actions taken from the charter, which can be found in its entirety here.

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