Politicians often opt for a short-term strategy with quick wins to have a positive influence on voting behaviour. The Municipal Council of Aalter cannot be accused of that.

On the contrary: the council has been playing a pioneering role when it comes to forward thinking. Today it has once again shown itself to be a pioneer because, together with TomorrowLab, it is rolling out a unique communication solution. With an area of 8,192 hectares and a population of approximately 20,000, Aalter is one of the largest towns in East Flanders. Shortly, the boundaries will be changed slightly, as it will be merging with Knesselare (pop. 8,000) on 1 January 2019. Aalter is the town where Pieter De Crem has been Mayor since 1995. It is also a progressive local authority: ten years ago, the backoffice was completely digitalised and Aalter was the first Belgian local authority to be awarded ISO 9001 quality certification. Joachim De Vos, CEO of TomorrowLab: "That is precisely why Aalter finds it easier than most towns and villages to implement forward-looking solutions. Data and digitalisation are the most important facilitators for applying new technologies."

Pioneer in digitalisation

When Aalter started on digitalisation, it did not have any revolutionary ideas in mind. "In view of our location between Ghent and Bruges, there was a real chance that we would evolve into a dormitory town", says Alderwoman Bieke De Neve. "To avoid that, we always invested actively in the economy, amenities for young people and seniors, education, ... We soon discovered that we could achieve the success we were aiming for by listening to citizens and involving them in policy. Which requires good information and service provision. That was actually the trigger for digitalising everything in order to implement a quality system. In an organic way, other projects came out of that, such as a modern website, communication via Facebook and Twitter, live streaming of council meetings, etc."

In a search for the communication of the future

Last year Aalter decided the time was ripe to take another step forward. "Our information signs needed to be replaced", says Alderwoman De Neve. "Because communication is evolving so fast, we wondered whether it was a good idea to invest in new signs. And who could provide a better answer to that question than TomorrowLab? The solution that they come up with together can actually be described as revolutionary. The information signs were replaced by smart urban furniture: interactive signs that were set up everywhere in the local authority area. Alderwoman De Neve: "These not only display information messages but enable citizens to make direct contact with municipal services. For example, they can ask when the waste collection centre or the swimming pool is open, as well as whether their new identity card is ready yet. Because the signs work by using a large number of sensors and cameras, they offer many futuristic functionalities. This include counting the number of people attending events, so that the safety limit is not exceeded. Or indicating that there is too much ozone or pollen in the air." Joachim De Vos CEO of TomorrowLab: ‘The sky is the limit: smart urban furniture can be expanded with any sensors of modules. For example, Aalter will be able to link it in future to interactive smart lighting or dynamic traffic control systems.

An app and even a robot

A second aspect is the development of an app with which municipal services can give information and push messages. Alderwoman De Neve: "Just think of informing parents if a course is cancelled at the art college. Or telling someone that their passport is ready. Here too, the possibilities are enormous. So we dream of being able in the longer term to communicate road works and traffic congestion in this way to our citizens. On the other hand, people can ask their questions instead of phoning or consulting the website. A third component of the plan really is revolutionary. Aalter is experimenting with a robot that receives visitors at the town hall, accompanies them and gives answers. A few months ago, together with TomorrowLab and the Cronos Group, it already tested a first version for a week. And the reactions were extremely positive. 'People were standing there jostling each other to get a sight of Pepper", says Alderwoman De Neve. "What is still holding up a definitive application is the fact that the robot has difficulty distinguishing dialects. But the Cronos Group is working on that. It is important to realise that we have no intention of using Pepper to cut jobs. The robot is intended to ensure that our people are not constantly disturbed by phone calls asking for information that can be obtained in other ways. In that way, they will be able to work more efficiently, which will result in improved value." The robot is controlled by Artificial Intelligence. "We use a chatbot, an automated interlocutor which can also be found on sites like bol.com", says Joachim De Vos. "This tool communicates via the Internet with the council's back office. Unlike ordinary robots that speak pre-programmed sentences, the chatbot uses information in the backoffice, which means he can give real answers."

Still lots of plans

Of course, the people will still be able to come to the town hall to talk to staff or phone council services. "We can't expect all our citizens to adopt technology", says Alderwoman De Neve. "Nevertheless, we think that the overall communication initiative will be received very positively. People will be able to obtain all the information they want from the comfort of their armchair. Furthermore, we are pretty sure that we will be able to reach more of our citizens. And that we have a solution that we will be able to continue expanding and adapting to new technologies, requirements and opportunities." Meanwhile, with the support of TomorrowLab, Aalter was also awarded ISO 37210 certification. This measures the quality of service provision of towns and villages in a uniform way, which means that Aalter can be compared objectively with other towns and villages in Belgium and abroad. This year, the aim is to work out an innovative plan to encourage entrepreneurship in the local authority area. "Thanks to TomorrowLab, we are learning to broaden our horizons", concludes Alderwoman De Neve. "We found a sparring partner who helps us to take carefully considered decisions that will benefit the municipality in the long term. Even if we are going against the flow. Quick wins are not for us, because they can sometimes become long failures ..."