Smart cities between citizen consensus
and technological vision:
The future of municipal platforms

Integrated municipal platforms build the basis of sustainable smart cities. Michael Dusch explains why their implementation goes far beyond the technological questions and which factors are critical for the success of transformation projects.

Platform Characteristics

Mr. Dusch, what are the most important characteristics of municipal platforms?

From the citizens’ perspective, such platforms are consolidating portals that combine services that define the municipal life. Citizens access these services as soon as they are uniquely identified and legitimized. The technological and legal complexity here must be managed beneath the interface. For example, the organization and coordination of different players and systems on the basis of valid contractual relationships, the technical connection of heterogeneous systems or the provision of specific master data.

A context for potentially all transaction and communication processes that connect the citizen to his/her municipality is created. I say potentially because today we don’t talk about actually integrated municipal ecosystems but rather about individual services such as parking guidance systems. Such use cases are combined on the platform with other services of the municipal utilities such as electricity supply so that citizens can access them using a single app and a possible user account. Swimming pools or cultural institutions, which are managed by the municipality, can also be connected.

The question is which actors, institutions and processes must also be connected to the platform. Obvious are further municipal institutions or processes such as legitimized access to shopping streets under pandemic conditions. But also smaller, independent institutions could organize their interaction with the citizens using the platform.

 

Can municipal platforms be integrated into e-government topics?

It is conceivable to connect specific administrative processes and institutions such as energy supply or public health offices. This way, processes could be facilitated and the existing data structures could be used for forecasts. If it can be detected that the energy consumptions moves into the wrong direction, for example. In this case, individual consulting services could be offered or funding programs could be initiated to motivate citizens to make the necessary investments. That is beneficial from a consumer perspective and also from the perspective of the emissions politics – a win-win situation.

The strategic use is also that the different actors in the municipality can learn to design their process logics and technological infrastructures in an adjustable and compatible way. That is a central prerequisite for the success of smart city initiatives. And this can be promoted using such platforms, whether they are municipal or commercial or borne by a merger of smaller municipal utilities. This is achieved by creating use cases, designing logics and processes and creating them in the platform. You then create technological and process-related contexts. lattform anlegt. Man schafft dann technologische und prozessuale Kontexte. 

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"Municipal platforms enable actors to design process logics and technological infrastructures in an adjustable and compatible way. That is a central prerequisite for the success of smart city initiatives."

Nudging & Data Governance

You describe a “nudging scenario” – this means data-based behavior cues in a municipal ecosystem?

For sure, this is a topic with very high potential and an option to initiate changes without having to rely on regulations, prohibitions or financial sanctions. By gamification elements, competitions, incentives and information, for example. The data that is collected in the smart city generate very far-reaching options to optimize traffic and energy consumption, to prevent traffic jams and much more.

But it still is a generation topic. Younger people are far more open for such approaches. They increasingly regard their data as assets, which can be shared for value and also monetized. For them, game elements and communities are something natural. However, this doesn’t mean that they are not sensitive to the misuse of data.

 

Do data protection and data sovereignty play a critical role?

Ecosystems, and one should comprehend smart cities as ecosystems, thrive on the mutual trust between the participants. And this also includes clear legal framework conditions, accepted rules and transparency. In telecommunication, where they have already been working with very personal data for a long time, there is a very clear legal basis in place that regulates the duration during which data can be stored and analyzed and for which purpose this data can be used. At least to my knowledge, such regulations do not exist in the context of smart cities, at least not in this level of detail.

That is why I think it is urgent to find a way in the dialog with the citizens that has the quality of common sense. And this common understanding should then be legally formalized. This common sense must also include a general concept of citizens’ data. It is about differentiating between different aggregation levels of data. To clarify which data can be designed as general, municipal resource and which data remains property of the citizens. And to determine, which monetization models and use scenarios can be defined and how to build up a performant and secure technological infrastructure.

The citizens’ trust in municipal utilities is very strong. That is why they are predestined to lead this dialog and to cultivate corresponding governance structures.

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"As ecosystems, smart cities thrive on mutual thrust between the participants. This includes clear legal framework conditions, accepted rules and transparency."

Driver Smart City Initiatives

Municipalities are implementing smart city initiatives at a very different pace. What determines this speed?

A central starting point for this topic are municipal infrastructures, partially connected with buy backs of electricity, gas and district heating networks that can be seen in the past years. For this "pulling together," there is also strong, non-partisan motivation and broad citizen consensus in some communities, often preceded by controversial discussions, of course. Municipal utilities must be able to act; they need resources at their disposal. In an ideal case, this process corresponds to a compelling, comprehensive vision, long-term investments and a focused implementation. Major directional decisions made in this context are more sustainable than small initiatives that may be reversed in the next legislative period without prohibitive collateral costs.

 

Rich metropolises presumably have an advantage here?

Metropolises do not necessarily require external platforms because they often have the critical mass and means for individual developments. Smaller municipalities run the risk of straining themselves – technically and financially. What is needed here are commercial providers that provide a certain technological and process framework, contribute their know-how to the project and perhaps also provide some of the risk capital. Moreover, smaller municipalities can pool their strength.

However – that is also an aspect of implementation speed – such cooperations are interfered by political and logical interests, what may result in a lengthy and complex opinion-building process. Commercial suppliers must be capable to bring together the relevant interest groups for a use case. In addition, they must have a handle on the very demanding technological implementation.

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"Metropolises do not necessarily require external platforms because they often have the critical mass and means for individual developments. Smaller municipalities run the risk of straining themselves."

Topology & Boundaries

Does the topology of the smart city also have an impact on the feasibility of initiatives? In other words, the question of the boundaries of the planned ecosystems?

In principle, it is difficult to define the boundaries of a city – it never was. Modern cities are not hermetically cordoned off entities but have diverse interfaces and connections to their environment. This also applies to digital city platforms. The question also arises within the city when, for example, neighborhood concepts are to be implemented. The main regulatory factors here are the concession agreements on the one hand and the ban on discrimination on the other. Since a city is essentially funded by the taxes of its citizens, initiatives must always address all potential users, not just a subset. A charging station concept must be designed in such a way that every citizen can charge his or her vehicle – totally independent of the neighborhood in which he or she lives, the charging status and the charging system used.

In summary, I would say that trust, a broad citizen consensus, a stringent vision and strategy, a transparent and clear legal framework, the ability to implement technology and processes and a fundamental openness and ability to evolve will determine the sustainable success of smart city initiatives.

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