Smart city blues – 5 reasons why many cities are (still) not smart

For politicians, companies and town planners who are actively involved in transforming their own cities, it is essential to engage the people who actually live (or want to live) in their city. Just being a smart city is not sufficient to achieve sustainable improvements in the urban environment.

Berlin – sexy but smart?

Let’s look at the example of Berlin. In 2015, the “Smart City Berlin” strategy paper was published. This was intended to act as the basis for initiating projects on innovative topics within Berlin’s infrastructure.

After more than a year, a certain disillusionment prevailed. It wasn’t that nothing had happened, as 40 projects had been implemented in conjunction with 20 partners – eight times as many as in Hamburg in the same time period. Nevertheless, the verdict of companies in Berlin was hardly positive. 51 per cent of 121 experts surveyed in a study by VBKI rated the ACTUAL state of Berlin as a smart city as grade 4 (not sufficient) or below. What is it about smart city initiatives – not just in Berlin – that makes them so difficult?

Lack of infrastructure

Firstly, there is the question of which conditions actually need to be in place to provide the right breeding ground for a smart city.

In 2015, around 25 projects were envisaged within the Smart City Berlin strategy which actually have links in term of content, but which were implemented completely separately from each other in terms of structure. The projects “One Stop City” for bundling together bureaucracy, the my Berlin portal for submitting proposals and the “Public Order Office Online” complaints management tool are, in their own right, very useful and helpful initiatives which also make Berlin a bit more digital and thus also smarter. But their full value has not been realised from the user’s perspective. An involved Berlin resident often doesn’t know straight away where he or she should turn to about which problem.

A worthwhile aim would therefore be to offer a central contact point for citizens, municipalities and companies where all data and information is gathered together and can be retrieved. This would not mean that each individual use case would have to be covered within a single oversize software solution. Quite the reverse. Numerous small applications could be developed by a range of providers to meet specific user needs and made available via an open platform.

Lack of finance

It’s no surprise that a central problem is, unfortunately, finance. Berlin’s total debt is currently EUR 60 billion, putting the city at the top of the ranking of German cities. However, that doesn’t mean that things look better in other cities.

Berlin’s 2017 budget includes total expenses of EUR 26 billion – a considerable sum, of which, however, only slightly more than one per cent is left over for technology and research. The exact proportion for a smart city is not defined, but huge levels of investment should not be expected.

Lack of sustainability

This leads directly to the next problem. As long as smart city initiatives are dependent on subsidies, there will be little sustainable development. Individual projects can deliver highly innovative outcomes, but the project comes to an end as soon as the money has run out.

If a large part of the current project budget has to be used to apply for the next project budget, too little attention will be paid to the specific applicability and it will have no lasting impact on the modern cityscape. Under such conditions, it is very difficult to align the intrinsic motivation of the project team (survival) and the extrinsic motivation of the subsidy provider (desire for innovation).

It needs cross-functional teams consisting of researchers, engineers, town planners and entrepreneurs, together with experts in marketing, design and user-centric development. These teams need to treat the project like a start-up, with the clear aim of being commercially successful.

Lack of participation

The “Berlin Partner” network is the main contact internally and externally for implementing the Smart City Berlin strategy. The associated Twitter account had just over 5,000 followers in May 2017. In comparison, Hertha BSC has 250,000.

A city’s inhabitants are very busy people. They have to go to work, look after their families, shop and sleep. The small amount of time left after is often spent on the wide range of urban leisure activities on offer, so there is little room for additional involvement in improving their own city.

And that brings us back to the initial problem: a smart city in which no one is interested is probably not a smart city. Sustainable business models can only be established together with the citizens and local businesses. A central task on route to becoming a smart city is, therefore, not just the technical implementation of innovative ideas, but the involvement of all those affected. That means, before you start on the complex implementation of a software solution, you should first be able to answer the following questions:

  • What specific outcomes do you want to achieve with a smart city platform and for whom?
  • How can you check the interest and effectiveness of the planned solution as simply and early on as possible?
  • Where can you offer these solutions so they can be found and operated quickly and easily?
  • And how can you let everyone involved know that these solutions exist and where they can be found?

Lack of marketing

Outside of Berlin, the city is judged to be playing a leading role on route to being a smart city. In the book “Smart Cities in Europe” by Maria Sashinskaya, the use of real-time data in the local public transport system in Berlin as the basis for live information at rail stations and in the VBB app is cited as a positive example of the smart and targeted use of data in the smart city context.

However, Berliners themselves are simply not aware of what promising and innovative projects there are in and about Berlin. The only large project in Berlin which has made it into the public’s perception on a regular basis uses innovation only in the very flexible use of deadlines, thereby providing comic highlights instead.

That means, if Berliners do not believe that their city is smart, then it really isn’t. It is not very helpful when sentences like the following can be found in the strategy paper:

“The smart city of Berlin is thus a settlement and economic area which is evolving through a systemic and intermodal use of innovative technologies, materials and services.”

The key message is good, correct and important. But it is not any use as an ice-breaker at the next networking event.

There needs to be much more reporting of positive examples. The more people are interested and involved in their city and communicate about it, the greater is the chance of sustainable smart city initiatives. If a central marketplace is created to exchange data, information and ideas, a city can develop into a smart city not just theoretically, but also very practically and visibly.

If you are interested in using innovative methods to forge ahead with your own city’s development, etventure would be delighted to hear from you in confidence. We have experience in dealing with complex clients. And, as implementation partner for the EU initiative SELECT for Cities, we have in-depth experience in developing smart city platforms for the cities of Antwerp, Copenhagen and Helsinki. Find out more about this project in the press release .



Gregor Ilg leads the product team at etventure. Under his guidance, the team has delivered hundreds of MVPs for clients – across a range of industries.

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