It is getting tight. According to a study by the United Nations, in the year 2050 there are expected to be almost ten billion people living on our planet, with almost 70 percent of them in large or megacities. To counter the challenges resulting from this such as cramped living conditions, traffic jams, bottlenecks in the supply of water, electricity and food or environmental pollution, especially future-proof digital solutions are required. Dirk Krischenowski, expert for digital communications infrastructure in the public sector, explains why robust IT infrastructure is required in the concepts for the so-called “smart cities”.

“Smart cities sustainably increase the quality of life of their inhabitants.”

Mr. Krischenowski, you are a Berliner. How do you imagine your city as a fully fledged Smart City?

Well, first of all, there are already policies in Berlin which are part of a smart city. A few weeks ago for example, a report circulated in the media that, from spring 2018 on the grounds of the Charité hospital, Berlin’s public transport companies will be testing the first electric buses which no longer need a driver, operating completely independently. I think that is quite exciting. In a smart city however, this idea would go even further. Not just the buses would do without a driver, no one would need their own car, as instead, you could use an app to order a robot taxi – a vehicle that drives itself – to take you from A to B. These vehicles would be able to share traffic information with one another, so that they could optimise their route, depending upon the traffic. This would much reduce the risk of a traffic jam.  As electric taxis would use electric motors, the environmental pollution would also be reduced.

Mobility is however just one part of a smart city concept. Speaking quite generally, a smart city stands out from other cities, in that its development relies on the latest technical innovations to be more efficient, more sustainable and more healthy for its inhabitants. Apart from mobility, this also includes the fields of energy, town planning, administration and communication, which are so interwoven that the quality of life tangibly increases for the city’s inhabitants. This smart city is based on a robust, fail-safe infrastructure, especially for the power supply and the IT infrastructure, which doesn’t just include redundant, broadband fibre-optic cables, but also IP and Internet addresses.

How well is Germany doing as far as the smart city concept is concerned?

I would say that there is some catching-up to be done, especially away from the major population centres, and particularly in medium-sized towns with 50,000 inhabitants or more. Our major cities such as Berlin, but also Hamburg or Cologne, are more ready to experiment there and have in part made significantly more progress.

And how far are other countries?

The development of digitalisation varies widely across Europe. Often, you can’t tie it down to the country itself, it is the individual cities with special projects which stand out. Darmstadt is a nice example of this, which won a competition run by BITKOM and is now the first German town permitted to bear the title of “Digital City”.

In Europe, Barcelona, Vienna and Copenhagen are doing quite well on the subject of smart city. It is just that this only applies for the individual cities and not for all cities in the country concerned. Scandinavia is an exception here, which is absolutely leading the field, also for digital payment. Cash is scarcely needed here, even church collections are paid with a credit card. Something like that is still inconceivable in Germany.

In the field of DNS, the domain name infrastructure, Germany continues to lead the world. In no other country are there as many local Internet endings as in Germany, with the city endings .berlin, .cologne, .hamburg and .koeln, the regional ending .ruhr right up to the federal state endings of .bayern, .nrw and .saarland.

A smart city should be able to better deal with the problems typical of large cities such as the massive amounts of traffic or the polluted environment. Does that make the concept of smart cities unusable for smaller local authorities, who are confronted with challenges which are not quite so large?

It is true that villages and communities with a smaller population are taken less into consideration by politics and industry simply for reasons of prestige. That in no way means that the smart city concept is useless, and neither will they be forgotten as for example happened with the broadband rollout. As small local authorities are generally associated with a conurbation or metropolitan area, their interests are taken up and considered during discussions about smart regions. It is frequently local pressure groups and associations through which villages and communities are networked with cities intelligently and digitally. One example of this is the Internet ending .ruhr, which includes the major cities in the Ruhr region and all of the communities in one common Internet communications infrastructure. There are also communications aspects to this. While many smart city activities remain largely out of sight, local people will see the new, intuitive Internet addresses with the name of their city or region every day and will have the feeling that something positive is actually happening in the digitalisation.

What are the most important requirements so that we can really become digital and smart in Germany?

The most important requirement so that all aspects of a city can be digitally networked together, is for local people who are able to use it, who are at home in the digital world. Unfortunately, politicians tend not to see this. Without teachers and parents with digital skills, it will be difficult for the coming generation. How else are they supposed to learn about it? Even with what is currently the largest group in the population, the ageing baby-boomer generation, is far from being as digitally well versed as would be necessary for a smart city.

In my opinion, to sustainably anchor digital networking in the heads of the population, it is also important that the name appears everywhere: the name of the city, the local authority or the region. Having your own address space, which is only possible with an Internet ending of the same name, is really helpful to gain the acceptance of the population. In more concrete terms, an Internet address such as www.citizen-account.york is much more intuitive and will be much better accepted than www.citizen-account-york.info. Studies, for example from the Association of the Internet Industry (eco e.V.) have already demonstrated this.

A reliable and stable digital communications infrastructure is however just as important as is a digitalised administration which understands itself to be a modern supplier of services for the people. Besides that, there must also be an open climate towards technology and a readiness to experiment, as mistakes are simply unavoidable.

Implementing a smart city is a mammoth project. Who is to bear the costs of the necessary digitalisation measures?

So far, cities and local authorities have mostly borne the costs themselves. Now there are already numerous funding opportunities, but in the context of their significance for smart cities for our future, the total number is too small and they are also too inflexible. Here, I would really like the EU, Germany and its states to be braver and to come to do more than just pay lip service. Frequently, we also find that cities prefer to commission large companies instead of bringing in innovative startups for a change. Competitions then scarcely help, when attempting to provide cities with incentives to finance digitalisation projects.

You already mentioned Darmstadt as the bearer of the title “Digital City” – did Darmstadt deserve this award?

We took a look at Darmstadt’s presentations and we definitely see potential for a showcase digital city of the future. In the Bitkom “Digital City” competition, there were good reasons why Darmstadt won. We particularly liked the integrated approach to the digital infrastructure, which is vital for every digital city.

Is it a problem, that currently every city is working on its own solution?

Definitely not, that is not a problem. Imagine smart cities as a sort of giant laboratory. The more that you experiment with software and other innovative solutions, the better. This is the only way to reveal the best solutions, which can then be copied by other cities. For startups, smart cities are a great business opportunity and we hope that the cities also understand that and promote it.

As far as the physical infrastructure is concerned it is better to think bigger for, in the near future, given the way that cities are constantly growing, we will definitely be needing it. Of course every city has its own special features and characteristics, so that there will always be very individualised digital solutions.

A fully fledged smart city can reduce the problems typical of large cities. Are there other benefits?

Yes, the concept pursues clear goals and it has a lot of positive side-effects for a city’s development. This doesn’t just mean increasing the inhabitants’ quality of life, it also attracts more tourists to visit the city. Apart from that, a well implemented concept also strengthens a city as a business location, as it becomes more interesting for potential employees as well as for investors. High performance digital infrastructure is necessary for this, including for example a broadband connection, but also the city having its own Internet ending, under which digital offerings can be collected and be intuitively accessible.

What would be the consequences of Germany, its federal states, cities and local authorities approaching digitalisation too hesitantly ?

Germany really cannot afford to sleep through the digital revolution. Today we are setting a course for the future, whether we want to or not. And we are also deciding whether the next generations will be able to continue to live in our customary prosperity.

Today, Germany is still a great exporting nation, but only for non-digital goods like cars or machines. In the rapidly increasing digital world of tomorrow, there will be less and less demand for that. Other nations are already exporting about one third of their goods in digital form.

And once more, the citizen must be at the centre of this digital transformation, as a human, as a consumer, as a voter etc. and especially of course in the smart cities. For the smart cities are in worldwide competition for investment, for skills and also for citizens.