© Berliner Wasserbetriebe / Jack Hoyer

© Berliner Wasserbetriebe / Jack Hoyer

Regina Gnirss, Berliner Wasserbetriebe

InfraLab Berlin is a long-term co-working and co-creation project of Berlin’s major public infrastructure companies: Berliner Stadtreinigung, Berliner Verkehrsbetriebe, Berliner Wasserbetriebe, GASAG, Stromnetz Berlin and Vattenfall Wärme Berlin.

We spoke with Regina Gnirss from Berliner Wasserbetriebe and the deputy chair of InfraLab Berlin e.V. about the challenges facing public utilities seeking to ensure sustainability and quality of life in a growing metropolis.

InfraLab Berlin is a rather “extraordinary” association of infrastructure operators. What was your goal when you joined forces with the other partners and founded the InfraLab? What are the specific advantages for the individual members, e.g. for Berliner Wasserbetriebe? In principle, we are working to support Berlin’s Smart City strategy; our aim is to create a joint innovation platform. We see digitalization and climate protection as relevant challenges. In the context of digitalization, data plays a major role: big data, smart data, shared data. As an infrastructure company, we generate a lot of data every day that we can use to make the city smarter and more livable.

InfraLab Berlin’s constant exchange of information and support from the city government promotes smart city issues and bundles the innovative strength of the InfraLab companies. For example, with the SENSARE Project, we are collaborating with partners and start-ups in ICT to build a network of sensors to protect against flooding after heavy rain events.

And in coordination with the Senate Department for the Environment, Transport and Climate Protection and the city’s education department, we launched the KlimaMacher project (www.klimamacher.berlin). This platform provides teachers at fifth grade and higher with a curriculum for a weeklong project on the topic of climate protection and sustainability. This will help students understand the connections between climate change and sustainability in the context of Berlin’s urban infrastructure, i.e. waste management, energy, mobility, and water.

Which topics is the InfraLab Berlin currently addressing? Have you already implemented Smart City projects that are publicly evident? In addition to digitalization and climate protection, there are, of course, other project focuses, for example electromobility.

The topic of resource efficiency is always at the fore, because the innovation managers of the companies work on a shared data platform and not separately. For the Smart eFleets project. Since all partners have the fleet electrification on their agendas, we will use this project to leverage possible synergies between the companies to reduce CO₂ emissions. With Smart eFleets, we are operating a joint e-fleet with the goal of “zero emissions in traffic” and reducing space and resource requirements by sharing vehicles. Likewise, the project involves setting up fast charging stations wherever the infrastructure companies operate in the urban area to enable shared charging and thus further reduce specific costs. These are strategically distributed across the city; it doesn’t make much sense to have them only around city hall! This is how we avoid parallel structures. The joint platform has also meant a number of legal and data protection questions. These experiences are helpful for the policymaking discussion and provide important information to policymakers. 

Why are the infrastructure companies important actors for the Smart City Berlin and how do you define the role of the InfraLab? Smart cities cannot work without basic services such as utilities. The six major infrastructure operators in Berlin coming together with InfraLab Berlin is a great opportunity to promote the smart future. By ensuring that solutions are mutually compatible, new technologies can be rolled out faster. As with SENSARE, the flood hazard map for the reference area in Friedenau could be transferred to all of Berlin, for example.

We are also looking very closely at what is happening in other cities, for example Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Vienna. We have also built a strong network with our colleagues in the respective utilities: smart cities need dialog and an end to lone rangers. We have therefore been actively involved in the Smart City network from the very beginning and are particularly pleased about the successful Smart City application.

The common learning of the infrastructure companies and the enthusiasm for new things are extremely important for innovation processes! But sometimes you have to slim down projects, sometimes saying “That hasn’t worked; we’re going to need to find a different solution.” But if we approach it with all six of us, we’ll definitely last longer and find the right solutions!

What other current best practices in Berlin do you particularly like?  The Urban Heat Transformation project led by the Institute for Ecological Economic Research. It shows political actors in Berlin at the state and municipal levels how the heat supply in cities can become climate-neutral. Two things are important for a successful transition in heating buildings: the heat demand of buildings must be reduced and the share of renewable energies and waste heat in the heat supply increased.

After a few years on the EUREF campus, the InfraLab is now moving. What can the new location particularly look forward to? Right, we were on the EUREF campus for four years; that was very good for us.

We were able to receive inspiration especially on the topic of e-mobility and we could make our activities transparent for the community. In the field of e-mobility, there is a great, innovative culture at EUREF. We also got to know new formats with start-ups and tried out some creative solutions. This has delivered tremendous added value for the infrastructure companies.

In the future, we will be taking up a bit less space. For example, we would like to focus more on political dialogues in order to make infrastructure issues more innovative. Overall, we would like to become more flexible and also enter the smart city policy debate from a stronger position. The InfraLab 2.0 hopes to be perceived more as an independent network with solutions that can approach relevant decision-makers directly. That means in summary: less office space, but significantly more discussions. We are confident that we will succeed!

What does the city of the future look like for you? I am a haptic person and, for me, after InfraLab 1 and 2, there is Number 3. I would like to be in a future location where we can show that the shared use of space will reduce the consumption of resources. More synergies instead of more density! For me, InfraLab 3.0 means that we will really be in a place where one can touch something, where one can experience the InfraLab haptically. Climate change is not just about reducing CO₂, but also cooling Berlin down in the summer with green and blue infrastructure: the city must literally become greener!

Please finish the following sentence: “Berlin is smart...” because the innovation managers of the infrastructure companies are working together to generate creative ideas for a smart Berlin. This is really a highlight for me! I am also active in European networks, but in no other European city is there such a network of infrastructure companies with a common vision for their city.