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Elizabeth Calderón Lüning

Digital City Alliance Berlin

Founded in 2019, the Digital City Alliance Berlin aims to create public spaces to exchange information, network with others and establish cooperations. More than 30 organisations, initiatives and people from the realms of science and civil society belong to the network, which is open to all and is not run along political lines. The Alliance is also actively involved in the Berlin Smart City Strategy development process. We talked to Elizabeth Calderón Lüning, member of the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society and spokesperson for the Digital City Alliance Berlin, about the network’s activities and goals and why it is so important to involve urban society in the digitisation process of a city like Berlin.    

Ms Calderón Lüning, since 2019 the Digital City Alliance Berlin has been creating “space for dialogues and criticism in the digital city” – why that? 

Digitisation is all around us, and at the same time is extremely intangible. We use our digital gadgets every day, but we rarely feel that we truly know all there is to know about them. What happens to my data? What would my technology look like if it were truly designed and developed in accordance with my needs, and not by major companies that are pursuing their own interests? The same applies at a municipal level: our administrations are being updated and digitised. By connecting technologies, we aim to make our commutes and power consumption more efficient, we see new vehicles such as electric scooters on our streets and more and more delivery services are shaping our urban landscape. We need new spaces in which to negotiate, where we can get an impression of all the things that are going on on the one hand as well as have political talks on how we should be shaping Berlin in digital terms. As an urban society, we have the right to shape and determine the digital realm of our environment. Our city government can only act democratically in a digital-political sense if it supports and promotes these talks.

In early 2021, the Digital City Alliance Berlin initiated the Round Table on Digitisation Policies  to create that precise space ... 

That’s right, we aim to institutionalise participation with our Round Table. By networking with actors from various fields – such as politics, administration, civil society, science, business, culture and social life – we gather and condense knowledge, pursue digital-political trends and develop digital-political positions for Berlin together.  The Runde Tisch Digitalisierungspolitik (Round Round Table on Digitisation Policies) is publicly accessible and curated by civil society. However, what brings it to life is the willingness and openness of the Berlin government and administration. As a first step, we organised a talk on the Smart City Strategy We are currently in the process of organising a political survey of democratic parties in Berlin to find out more about their visions for a digital Berlin. In autumn we plan to tackle the municipalisation of the city portal

The Alliance website states that “the digital city connects everyone”. What is your aim?

As the Alliance, we are delighted that the Berlin government has signed the Declaration of Cities Coalition for Digital Rights. The declaration is the result of a broad, international coalition of cities and focuses on digital human rights and democratic processes. Taking the declaration as our starting point, we aim to achieve the following:

  • Civil societal participation in Berlin digitisation policies must be institutionalised.
  • Public digital infrastructures need to be shaped in a manner that ensures they are independent, accessible and resilient.
  • The larger part of data and data processing systems that link public authorities and urban society should be in the hands of these public authorities and must be shaped in a manner that is compliant with fundamental rights – particularly with respect to maintaining and strengthening informational self-determination: open source, open data, open government and data trusts should be guiding principles for data policies that are geared towards the common good.
  • Software that performs governmental and societal tasks in the form of (semi-)automated decision-making systems have to be subject to democratic control.n.
  • We need to develop funding programmes (e.g. for technical equipment) that reduce and secure the digital divide in education.
  • We further need to create local points of contact for digital participation (e.g. labs in the different neighbourhoods, which we call KiezLabs).

Why is it so important to involve all actors in society in digitising a city like Berlin – and with it, in the city’s emerging digital strategy?

Digital policies are also democratic policies. We are currently in the process of setting the course for the future. The technologies we integrate into the basic infrastructure of our urban society are never neutral. Technology always contains inherent ideologies and interests, which is why democratic negotiations are imperative. Berlin is privileged in that its urban society is extremely well-informed and bundles tremendous expertise. Berlin has everything it takes to develop a truly progressive and democratic digital policy that is geared towards the common good: from a wealth of expertise in technology development to a prominent international knowledge landscape that expressly deals with digitisation (the Weizenbaum Institute, the Einstein Center Digital Future, the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society) to a lively civil society that has tested urban participation in other areas of politics, such as urban development, for years. Political administration needs to include and promote this potential. 

How can we achieve participation most effectively in this context? And what are the key challenges?

Participation – particularly participation in political decision-making processes – is not a one-off project but a permanent process. It requires institutionalised spaces, such as the Round Table on Digitisation Policies, transparency and, above all, clear decision-making authorities. When we “participate” as an urban society, we want to be sure that the time, knowledge and resources we invest are heard and included. One tremendous challenge in this context is the (currently) lacking interest in and knowledge of digital-political questions. That’s why we are also calling for digital-political education: decentralised places throughout Berlin where people can try out, learn how to use and discuss digital technologies. As mentioned, we call these places KiezLabs and we believe that they can be integrated into existing institutions in the neighbourhoods, such as district libraries, neighbourhood and family centres. CityLAB Berlin is a good start; as an educational facility for residents of the city as well as for public administration. Now, we need the same thing in every district. This would also be a great opportunity to involve district administrations in digital-political talks. 

In a multi-stage process, Berlin is currently drafting and developing its Smart City Strategy, a “living document”. How is the Digital City Alliance involved in this process?

The Alliance is delighted to see the tremendously important role civil participation plays in the Smart City Strategy process. We have been able to support this process in a number of ways: on the one hand, we dedicated our first Round Table on Digitisation Policies in February to the Smart City Strategy. Together with Secretary of State Dr Nägele, we were able to involve more than 100 participants in the talk in our public format.  The Alliance furthermore cooperated with the Weizenbaum Institute, the Einstein Center Digital Future and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society during the Berlin Science Week, hosting a workshop with the express aim of taking a closer look at digital-political participation to define key components of good participation. Organisations within the Alliance also organised their own workshops within the scope of the “Call for Civil Society” as part of the official Smart City Strategy participation process. And we of course commented on the draft of the Strategic Framework via 

What were the results of the Round Table on Digitisation Policies with regard to the Berlin Smart City Strategy?

 There was a remarkable amount of interest in the topic. We aim to ensure that every Round Table is open, which is reflected in their documentation: for one, we record everything and we also publish a public protocol.  Some of the main critical observations included the fact that digitisation is often driven by business and that it is necessary to conduct progressive smart city politics in accordance with the principles of participation and sustainability. People also voiced the opinion that we need to exercise caution regarding our expectation that the mere implementation of pilot projects will result in a sustainable digitisation strategy, as this requires specific participation processes and long-term participation structures that exceed the scope of pilot projects. 

Does Berlin already have any examples of best practice for responsible, democratic digitisation, besides the strategy process?

Berlin has several approaches that I find quite interesting. The CityLAB Berlin is slowly becoming a space in which public administration and civil society can experiment, where administration employees and civic tech actors can engage in dialogues to better integrate the needs of both parties into technology. Freifunk is another example that has been around in Berlin for some time now. Freifunk aims to ensure that the Internet is more or less accessible throughout the city and is also a driver when it comes to digital education. One example that may not immediately be apparent are the political initiatives around the Google Campus and the Amazon Tower. These doesn't necessarily have anything to do with digitisation, but they do link various, contentious interests, such as urban displacement processes; platform economies and their impact on cities; and working conditions in the digital economy. These dimensions also play a key role in democratic talks about our digital future.  

Speaking of which: what do you think the city of the future will look like?

The city of the future can only gain from involving its residents more strongly in negotiations. By strengthening local democracy in all areas of urban life, we can ensure that the actual needs of the city are heard and tackled – and not just the interests of those who make the most noise. Berlin needs a new digital contract: an agreement between its government and its citizens that protects every single resident and focuses on participation and progress. The city of the future is aware of the fact that techno-political debates also mean having a conversation about power. And that this power has a democratic basis, and that every single resident is thus equally entitled to it.  

Please complete the following sentence: “Berlin is a smart city, because...”  

...its residents are smart and (sometimes) listen to their administration. Together, Berlin can continue to be one of the most progressive and interesting cities in the world. 

[Translate to English:] Elizabeth Calderón, Sprecherin Bündnis digitale Stadt Berlin
[Translate to English:] Credit: Marc Brinkmeier

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