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Smart City - Menschen in einer Start - Knotenpunkte als Grafik

Smart City – digitising everything is not enough

Integrated strategies for the city life of tomorrow
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The future of European cities and municipalities is smart. What is needed is viable future concepts that make urban, but also rural areas sustainable, resilient, inclusive, competitive and liveable. There is more to it than the mere digitalisation of current life.

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On their way to becoming Smart Cities,worldwide, cities and municipalities are using digital solutions in urban development. This affects almost all areas of daily life, such as mobility, housing or education. In the spirit of the sustainable European city as a guiding principle, the aim is to improve the life of every individual, to involve citizens more transparently in decisions, and to conserve resources and protect the climate.

Smart does not equal digital

It is about linking the digital and analogue worlds, involving the entire urban society in the creation of visions for the future, developing and implementing innovative concepts and networking with other cities and municipalities. Digitalisation is always just one tool that enables municipalities to improve the living conditions of their citizens.

From driven to shaper

In order for cities and municipalities to actually arrive at their smart future, politicians and administrators must succeed in bringing the people on the ground along with them - and also involving less digitally-savvy groups here. Analogue and digital services must be combined for all interest groups, civil society and the regional economy. This is the only way to steer and implement the transformation to the city of the future. At the same time, the smart city must not become an end in itself: Debates about the meaning and purpose of digitalisation must be possible, and other options must be open. It is therefore now important that municipalities, which have so far tended to be following digital development, start to actively shape their "smart" community.

Balancing interests

The collection and commercial use of data has evolved into the fourth and probably most important factor in the value chain creation alongside labour, land and capital. This is particularly visible in inner cities. "Smart" therefore also means striking a balance between public concerns and corporate interests, especially those of multinational technology providers and data service providers. A constant "renegotiation" of the interactions between public interest and private interest is therefore necessary.

Upgrading the municipal operating system

One goal of policy should therefore be to enable the public sector at all levels to become the shaper of its own development. To achieve this, a kind of "upgrade of the municipal operating system" is needed, renewing and combining, analogue and (partially) digitalised processes in a modern and sustainable way, and requiring that cities and municipalities expand their "smart" competences by improving their methodological skills in planning, control and implementation processes. This can be achieved, among other things, by municipalities networking with each other and building shared data platforms, for example. In such a manner, for example, "digital twins" of cities can be created that enable complex simulations and thus open up new paths for forward-looking urban planning and citizen participation. The development of such a learning and open innovation system is a central goal of the Coordination and Transfer Office for Model Projects Smart Cities run by DLR Projektträger (DLR-PT).

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Coordination and Transfer Office Smart Cities

The new Coordination and Transfer Office (KTS) is the point of contact for cities and municipalities on their way to becoming smart cities. Under DLR-PT leadership, a consortium of different partners from research, urban development and consultancy is involved. Among other things, the KTS supports and networks the 73 Smart Cities model projects funded by the Federal Government. The aim is to develop innovative solutions for future issues and to provide impulses for successful transformation processes for all municipalities in Germany.

Further information can be found here..

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The Federal Programme Smart Cities Model Projects

(in German)

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Citizen participation as a central element

Openness, dialogue and involvement are essential to meet the pressing challenges facing urban and rural society – in dealing with the climate crisis, the digitalisation of administration, the economic recovery and stability of inner cities, sustainable energy supply or future-proof mobility. We need digital participatory formats across the board that enable decision-makers to efficiently and effectively involve civil society and business, experts and citizens in identifying solutions. Examples of experimental spaces for developing and testing innovative solutions include hackathons and reallabs.

DLR-PT's experience in designing participatory agenda processes at municipal and regional level (for example in citizen or stakeholder dialogues) shows that the concepts opted for in these processes are legitimised in the long term and meet with broad acceptance among those involved in their implementation. The potential of such approaches for collaborative planning, working and implementation, for example in the development of guiding principles or the drawing up of participatory budgets, is considerable.

Future-proof development

Here too, digital formats can only develop their potential if basic principles of good participatory practice are observed: transparency of the process, real opportunities for participants to exert influence, openness of the content of the results and accountability of those responsible. We also know from supervising support programmes for municipalities that digital education measures as an element of lifelong learning are an important prerequisite for enabling social and professional participation. In order to address as many groups as possible, the formats and the approach must be user-friendly, low-threshold and barrier-free. If this can be achieved, educationally disadvantaged, young and older population groups can be reached in equal measure.

Transnational framework necessary

Despite all the common challenges and approaches to solutions, one aspect must not be forgotten: there is no such thing as "the" smart city. While smart city strategies around the world pursue similar goals, the dimensions and ways of implementing them are extremely diverse. Thus, when developing a smart city strategy, cities and municipalities must define their respective "own language" and objectives and involve all relevant actors of urban society. This requires structural national, European and international framework conditions that enable data-based public action and private economic activity in a transparent, fair and secure manner. In addition to infrastructure requirements such as data protection-compliant cloud solutions (e.g. GAIA-X) and a regulatory framework for data access and use, this also includes a cultural change in public administration, for with new formats, more courage to innovate, more flexible administrative processes and financial resources for the broad promotion of projects, smart city strategies can have an even greater impact. The funding policy instruments, also at federal and EU level, that effectively flank the structural framework conditions should be adapted and expanded to directly support the future-oriented transformation in cities and municipalities.

Key recommendations to policy-makers

  • Interdepartmental cooperation at all levels

    For a credible integrated framework of action for municipalities in Germany, coordinated, interdepartmental cooperation must be strengthened at all levels. In this way, different departmental responsibilities, such as climate protection, transport, construction or data strategies, can contribute to the goals of smart cities. Here, the Smart City Competence Centre announced in the traffic light coalition agreement is a step in the right direction.
  • Expansion and adaptation of national and international coordination formats

    There is an enormous need for cities and municipalities to build and expand strategic and creative capacities in order to develop future-oriented and realisable visions and put them into practice, involving the entire community. National and international coordination formats for a structured and open knowledge transfer and exchange of experience as well as the co-creative development of (open source) solutions that can be adapted, replicated, scaled, further developed and in turn shared must be expanded for this. In this way, a self-learning system of cities and municipalities can emerge that masters the sustainable and digital transformation in increasingly autonomous networks.
  • Develop targeted funding instruments

    In order for public investments to have a leverage effect in the economy and society, special instruments are needed, such as the promotion of public procurement practices geared towards innovation and sustainability. Our consultancy experience shows that such demand-driven promotion is an essential building block for future investments by the municipal public sector. The creation of new markets, especially for small and medium-sized enterprises and start-ups, is of high industrial policy importance and strengthens technological sovereignty. At the same time, strategic goals, such as that of a circular economy, can be achieved better and faster.
Main and Other Contacts

Contact at DLR Projektträger

Thomas Schulz

Thomas Schulz

Head of Department
Social Ecological Research
Environment and Sustainability
+49 228 3821 1584