Navigating Smart City Development: A view from Germany

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German Smart Cities: An Evolving Discourse

For many years, the discussion on smart cities in Germany has been dominated by ambitious technical visions, with many early smart city projects focusing on utilizing networked sensors and applications such as motion and traffic control cameras, or data on energy and water consumption in buildings to improve municipal services and utilities. However, these projects were often criticized for not fully addressing the needs and concerns of citizens, such as providing access to information on environmental pollution, and for being overly focused on technical feasibility rather than addressing the actual needs and concerns of citizens. Additionally, there were concerns that these projects could lead to the collection of potentially private data, such as individuals’ physical presence in buildings or vehicle license plate numbers, and that the data collected would primarily be used for commercial interests rather than for the benefit of citizens.

In recent years, the digital transformation of German society has accelerated, leading to a shift in the focus of smart city discussions from solely technical considerations to also include the assessment of societal and individual benefits, the design of new applications, and the improvement of data collection for their proper operation. The emphasis on sustainable development, as well as concerns about data protection and usage, now drives the discourse surrounding smart cities in Germany. This broader perspective reflects the diversity of interests involved in smart city development, including the profit motive of companies seeking to capitalize on smart city applications, and a socio-political perspective that prioritizes aligning technological advancements with societal needs.

The advancement of smart cities in Germany faces a unique challenge in the form of widespread public opposition due to concerns about the collection and use of personal data, which are more prevalent among the German public compared to other countries. These concerns stem from Germany’s history and experience of the importance of protecting democracy and privacy. Despite the stringent standards set by the European General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) for handling personal data, the German public remains skeptical about the potential for smart city applications to collect excessive personal data for commercial use. These concerns are not unfounded as balancing the benefits of smart city applications, such as improved information for citizens, with the potential risks of data collection, such as misuse of personal data, is a complex task in today’s digital age.

Germany’s Smart City Dialogue and Charter

In 2015, the German government launched a nationwide smart city dialogue and developed a smart city charter to foster a shared understanding of the smart city concept among the public and to establish guidelines for the digital transformation of German cities. These initiatives aimed to align smart city development with European and international development goals, such as the German city development policy and sustainability goals, the Leipzig Charter on sustainable European cities, and the urban agendas of the European Union and United Nations.

The German smart city dialogue and the smart city charter, which are administered by federal ministries and agencies, have the support of a broad platform of organizations from politics, administration, business, research, and civil society. The platform has developed guidelines for smart city development in Germany, which prioritizes the well-being of citizens, livability, diversity, open democracy, participation and inclusion, climate-neutrality and resource efficiency, economic competitiveness and prosperity, innovation, responsiveness, and the protection of private and public digital spaces.

To further advance the smart city dialogue and charter, the German government has launched two dedicated programs:

  1. A program for smart city pilot projects that supports cities and municipalities in developing and implementing smart city strategies since 2019.
  2. A data strategy for city development that focuses on common welfare, evaluating the benefits and risks of digitalization in city development, which was published in 2021.

Exploring Smart City Solutions in Germany: An Overview of Pilot Projects

Under the program for smart city pilot projects, Germany is currently financing 73 research and development initiatives, spanning both the development of smart city strategies and the implementation of smart city applications. These projects, located in both major cities and smaller municipalities, cover a wide range of smart city solutions. While many are still in the strategy development phase, some have already begun implementation.

A total of 73 projects have been selected through three rounds of funding between 2019-2022, with an overall budget of 820 million euros. Three examples from among the diverse range of projects are highlighted below.

Berlin’s Smart City Strategy: A Collaborative Approach

Berlin began by developing a smart city definition and strategy that considered digitalization in the context of common welfare and sustainability. The goal of this process was to create a shared understanding between the city administration, citizens, and the business sector, which would serve as a foundation for deriving guidelines for future projects.

In the next step, pilot projects were identified for implementation by 2026. These include:

  • Smart city squares, which provide real-time information on transportation and environmental data in public urban spaces
  • Improved governance and administration of data relevant to the smart city, in cooperation with industry and research
  • Citizen engagement through discussion events, hackathons, exhibitions, collaborations with think tanks etc.
  • Smart water modeling for city planning using smart applications to cope with climate change and other challenges to the water supply
  • Collection and use of environmental data e.g. pollution and climate and applications to create a resilient communication infrastructure

Berlin’s smart city strategy serves as a valuable example of an open discussion and strategizing process at the very first stage of defining the needs and goals, which aims to integrate multiple stakeholders to the benefit of the entire city.

Hamburg, Leipzig, Munich: Leveraging Connected Urban Twins (CUT) for Integrated Urban Planning

Urban digital twinning refers to integrating data sets to advance urban planning goals. For example, a digital twin for buildings and traffic infrastructure can advance planning and assessing for emission reduction and climate change adaptation in the built environment e.g. prevention of heat waves, managing droughts and storm water surges. The goal of the model and platform is to make complex and extensive data sources available to professionals and citizens to enable integrated urban planning as well as citizen participation. Hamburg, Leipzig, and Munich, among the German smart city forerunners, have joined forces in an implementation project that focuses on the development of digital twins and urban data platforms for urban applications in the three cities.

The results of the project will be made available to other cities and municipalities via a model tool kit for the implementation of digital twins in urban planning. This project represents cities that are further advanced in their smart city strategy and that have already defined areas of smart city application and benefits.

Cottbus: From Coal-Mining Town to Smart City

Cottbus, a city in a former coal mining region, has embarked on an ambitious journey to transform itself into a modern smart city. In collaboration with its citizens, the city has developed a smart city strategy that aims to strike a balance between preserving the benefits of a safe and livable city, innovation, economic success, and sustainability. The Cottbus project is noteworthy for its potential to serve as a model for other smaller and medium-sized communities in Germany that are seeking innovative smart city strategies and solutions.

The city has identified and prioritized seven realms of smart city development: Education, energy, health, mobility, urban development, administration, and business. These realms are combined with three layers of digital transformation: the public sector, production and services, and citizen participation.

The fields of energy and health were selected for the first two pilot projects:

  • Energy monitoring in public buildings, with the goal of improving energy efficiency and reducing CO2 emissions
  • The development of an express check-in system for local health services including the hospital, with the aim of improving transparency and patient treatment quality.

The approach in Cottbus stands out for its potentially unique contribution to smart city development. In choosing two pilot projects (energy monitoring and check-in for local health system) that involve the use of personal data, the project may ultimately succeed as a model that demonstrates how privacy and data collection can coexist in smart city development, if applied in a local setting with clear benefits for the citizens.

Smart City Objectives in Germany: Will Thorough Planning Keep Abreast of Rapid Technological Change?

Despite Germany’s active development and promotion of smart city strategies and initiatives, as well as its profound industrial expertise in applications such as telecommunications, control systems for energy and water, traffic engineering, German cities are not among the smart city forerunners in Europe. One of the reasons for German cities to fall behind European counterparts, is the fact that the country is still deeply entrenched in the process of defining its strategy and objectives for a smart city development. These discussions are deeply embedded within a broader conversation on how to shape the digital transformation of German society, taking into account opportunities and risks associated with data collection, sustainability goals, and citizen participation.

Despite the slow pace of smart city development in Germany, the government has decided stay its course over the coming years and continue the dialogue process, to implement the smart city charter and to evaluate the pilot projects that have already started, including the three described above. In addition, striving for alignment with international smart city strategies such as by the European Union and the United Nations, as well as the exchange with European smart city forerunners such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, and Copenhagen are expected to play an important role.

The German approach to smart city development is characterized by caution, vigilance, and a slower pace, which presents both risks and opportunities. The risk is that this approach may fall behind the rapid pace of technological advancements in the private sector and in other European countries and cities that are quickly gaining experience from trial projects of smart city applications. However, this approach has the potential to result in a well-grounded, inclusive understanding of what smart cities should deliver to citizens and how they can be optimized to promote welfare-oriented development. If successful, it could serve as a model for how to balance citizens’ and other stakeholders’ interests and concerns while promoting smart and sustainable cities.

Recommended resources/ reading

German Smart City Charter

German Smart City Dialog

New Leipzig Charter on Sustainable European Cities

European Commission, Smart Cities Marketplace

United Nations, The New Urban Agenda

The opinions expressed in this text are solely that of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Israel Public Policy Institute (IPPI) and/or its partners.

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