Dr. Angela Jain, Deputy Head of the CDO/Smart City unit within the Berlin Senate Chancellery

© Smart City Dialog/Marco Urban

Harnessing the Potential of Business, Science and Civil Society

“Shaping Transformation – Towards Urban Resilience“ – The 15th Federal Congress of the National Urban Development Policy” (NSP) took place under this heading in Berlin in mid-September. This year, national and international smart city experts once again met at Germany’s most important forum for urban development policy to obtain professional stimuli and exchange experiences. A side event on the Smart Cities Model Project (German only), which is funded by the Federal Ministry for Housing, Urban Development and Building, revolved around viable urban development which is geared towards the common good. Here, Dr Angela Jain, Deputy Head of the CDO/Smart City unit within the Berlin Senate Chancellery, presented the “Going Digital Together: Berlin” strategy  (German only)– a fusion of Berlin’s digital and Smart City strategies. In her interview with Smart City Berlin, Dr Angela Jain gives us a bit more detail and lets us in on the ideas she took away from NSP.

Dr Jain: “Going Digital Together: Berlin” (“Gemeinsam Digital: Berlin”) – the title of the new Berlin Smart City and digital strategy sounds promising. What sets this strategy apart?

The name is a bit of a give away: the “Going Digital Together: Berlin” strategy is characterised by its participative approach. In other words, administration didn’t start by presenting a strategy paper which residents and stakeholders were then allowed to comment on; instead, every group within urban society was involved in the document’s development from the start. We are currently getting feedback from experts in administration and expect to submit the strategy to the Senate at the end of the year.

Another thing that is specific to this process is the fact that the city is pursuing a “learning strategy” approach ...

That’s right. We don’t expect to complete Berlin’s digitisation and realise the smart city in a couple of years, so we need to keep checking to see if we are still on the right path. If what we are doing is still in line with our “compass of values”, if it matches our fields of action and if the measures are having the desired effect. These are all things we aim to analyse on a regular basis and adjust if necessary. Incidentally, another characteristic of the strategy is the fact that it doesn’t so much define WHAT we want to do, but rather HOW we want to do it. Berlin’s understanding of a smart city sees “smart” as the manner in which challenges are tackled in creative, participative and appropriate processes. A city like Berlin becomes a smart city when digitisation and technology generate benefits for society and strengthen the democratic polity.

The Smart City Wolfsburg and Smart City Bochum model projects were also on the panel. Did any overlaps with or parallels to Berlin emerge with regard to the strategy development process and/or problems facing these cities? 

One common issue, for example, is how to communicate the smart city matter externally. How can we talk about it and show people what a smart city is?  After all, we want residents to understand the matter and see it as a contribution to the improvement of their city. The same applies to internal communication within administration. The smart city topic is one that concerns administration as a whole, across sectors and departments; for a lot of smart city projects, we therefore need to leave the beaten track when we implement them, and work in new constellations. This requires activation, a network, and support by those responsible for the smart city project. As soon as a city has developed its smart city strategy, it needs to bring it to life. All three cities are currently facing questions on governance, decision-making processes as well as on the role of the different actors: politics, administration, municipal companies, business, science, civil society – and the residents, of course. We won’t all come to the same answers to these questions – the constellations have to fit the needs of the respective city.

What are the main challenges Berlin struggles with when it comes to digitisation?

Berlin, like many other cities, primarily struggles to cooperate beyond the boundaries of the individual departments. In Berlin, we have an additional layer, besides the specialised departments at senate level; we also have the district level. Administration is organised hierarchically; however, smart city and digitisation projects both tend to need a network structure, in other words, teams from sometimes very different fields. This is something administration has initially not provided for and causes resistance and practical obstacles. Another reason why the city’s digitisation – or rather, its digital transformation – is taking so long is because people often have an insufficient understanding of a problem at the start of a project, and are not sufficiently open to different, and new, solutions. All too quickly, they think of a very specific solution, instead of asking which of the existing options could solve the problem best and most sustainably.

And finally, if we want to implement the strategy successfully – and we do – we need to integrate the users’ perspective in a much more targeted manner and at a much earlier time then we have been doing – for example when we develop solutions and applications. We hope this will make our digital services more user friendly from the start, an aspect that is often neglected under the pressure to digitise citizen services quickly.

As you mentioned earlier, the core approach of Berlin’s strategy development is to involve various actors from urban society through workshops and digital participation formats. How has this benefited the process so far?

In order to establish a smart city which is committed to the common good and aims to improve quality of life, we need to know what our citizens need and what improvements or new solutions they propose. That obviously doesn’t mean that we have to implement every idea and request, as we do need to consider sustainability and environmental aspects. But because our citizens know which areas need improving based on their day-to-day experiences, they often have very concrete and practical suggestions, for example when it comes to application forms and how to make them easier to understand with a more intuitive user guidance. Then we have the business sector, which sees the city and cooperation with administration from a very different perspective and gave us some valuable pointers over the course of our strategy process. Many companies in Berlin already offer great smart city solutions and want to support the city’s transformation, as does the scientific field. From my point of view, administration doesn’t need to solve every single problem on its own but can harness the existing potential of business, science and civil society.

“Smart Space Hardenbergplatz” and “Smart Water” are two of Berlin’s exemplary pilot projects, in which the teams aim to develop existing Smart City Berlin solutions and bring them to test maturity. When and with whom will these projects be implemented? 

Hardenbergplatz is the forecourt of Berlin Zoologischer Garten station and is typical in that it is heavily frequented. The Smart Space Hardenbergplatz (German only) pilot project aims to ensure this space can be used in a smart and flexible manner – regardless of the event, date, season or weather. This calls for new ways of cooperating between a range of actors, including German Rail (“Deutsche Bahn”), Berlin’s public transport companies, and the district. An operator model and a digital negotiation platform help coordinate utilisation requirements, such as shared mobility offers, for parts of the area. The aim here is to consider concrete mobility needs while at the same time improving quality of residence. The project has already launched, and the first concepts are being developed; the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district is responsible for the project, in cooperation with many other actors.

And which approach does the Smart Water pilot project pursue?

By combining blue and green infrastructures with other planning aspects, such as road planning, we can significantly reduce the impact of climate change and add additional qualities to the city. The Smart Water (German only) project aims to ensure more climate-friendly urban development through predictive use, or rather, through rainwater management, and focuses on the targeted reduction of water contamination, heat islands and flood centres. The project further aims to raise awareness among residents for the potential of rainwater usage, for water protection and for a greener urban landscape through (data) visualisations. The project is scheduled to launch in the near future and is run by the Berlin Centre of Competence for Water in cooperation with the Berlin water works and the Berlin Rainwater Agency (“Berliner Regenwasseragentur”) as well as the Senate Department for the Environment, Urban Mobility, Consumer Protection and Climate Action and the Senate Department for Urban Development, Building and Housing.

Which ideas did you personally take away from the federal congress?

We are currently having to cope with a lot of crises at once; cities are facing diverse and complex challenges. On the one hand, I felt a message was being sent: the situation is serious; on the other, there was an apparent, firm determination to face the current challenges and not delay matters further. There is usually no lack of knowledge, good solutions or technologies. But almost all cities still have potential for improvement when it comes to shaping and managing processes: from problem analyses to decision-making to testing, learning and improving. Transformation is a continuous process. And the fact that things change at such a rapid pace is the precise reason why we need to keep on taking the time to pause and to reflect, to learn from experience and look ahead – to see what the future holds in store. Visualising urban data can help us do just that – by making connections visible. But it is equally important that we use the abilities of different actors and learn from one another, and congresses such as the Federal Congress of the National Urban Development Policy are a perfect opportunity to do just that! (vdo)