Shaping smart city initiatives – who are the protagonists that need to collaborate to succeed?

Shaping smart city initiatives – who are the protagonists that need to collaborate to succeed?

As a resident of Berlin, every day I very closely experience the problems of a rapidly growing metropolis: air pollution, traffic jams, tardy and crowded buses and trains, scarce living space and rising rents, and not to forget slow and hardly digital public administration. Challenged by trends such as demographic developments, urbanization and climate change, and the increasing need to increase the efficiency of urban infrastructure and government services, more and more cities around the world are turning towards the opportunities of smart city initiatives.

Smart City is generally defined as a concept which serves to improve the living and working conditions of residents and make cities more attractive for companies and visitors by relating technical systems, urban spaces and people in a meaningful way. Addressing environmental, economic and social objectives, the aim must be to transform cities through innovative data-driven urban solutions.

If you take a look at the areas brought together by the smart city concept, you inevitably realize that smart cities is a highly interdisciplinary subject. Consequently, in order to get the best possible outcome, it is crucial to create a smart city ecosystem that involves all affected parties. But who are the major parties that want to become part of the smart city ecosystem?

Citizens must be at the heart of every smart city initiative

First of all, a smart city will only be successful if all measures and actions are brought into line with the citizens’ real needs. Citizens – not technology – need to be at the heart of each smart city strategy as this guarantees people feel they are being heard, and the likelihood increases that they will actively participate with their own ideas or actions to support city initiatives. Thus, city administration and citizens need to be brought together at an early stage, and city administration must provide (not least digital) options for people to get involved.

City administration itself of course plays a key role as initiator, coordinator and manager of smart city projects as they feel the need to provide better service. Public administration needs to develop its own, city- or region-specific smart city strategy, actions and partnerships. In order to avoid silo projects and additional costs as a result of duplicate work, coordination must also take place within the administrative body, thus involving different departments, for instance.

In addition, smart city projects will be shaped by industry representatives from a broad range of fields. From my point of view, we can differentiate four main groups, which in turn consist of players coming from different fields: ICT providers, startups, municipal enterprises and smart businesses.

The growing field of ICT players involved in smart cities

As smart city initiatives by definition are enabled and supported by information technologies, ICT providers obviously play a crucial role and contribute with a variety of solutions and services. First, there are telecommunication companies like Deutsche Telekom, Vodafone or KPN who create a crucial part of the telecommunication infrastructure by setting up specific networks, such as LoRaWan or Narrowband IoT. Second, especially for technology companies already active in the Internet of Things (IoT) area, the step into the smart city solution field often is not a big one.

For example, large technology providers like Cisco, Huawei and Siemens do not only offer sensor technologies – important cornerstones of the smart city playground – but are rapidly enhancing their offerings to a smart city platform approach, providing the option of consolidating and analyzing the tremendous amount of data coming from multiple data sources (e.g. sensors, cameras, meters, also smartphones).[1] Large IT companies like IBM and Microsoft are particularly aiming to add their data analytics and artificial intelligence capabilities to the smart city ecosystem. And C&SI providers like Capgemini and Accenture support public administrations by offering the development of smart city strategies and roadmaps and implementing the solutions. Today, they additionally often position themselves as a kind of moderator between the different parties involved in the smart city ecosystem in order to initiate and improve exchange.

Municipal utilities are becoming interesting partners in the smart city ecosystem, especially as more and more of them realize the potential coming from the creation of new business models. An interesting initiative in the area of sustainability is the InfraLab Berlin, a long-term co-working project of the six major infrastructure companies: BSR, BVG, BWB, GASAG (GASAG & NBB), Vattenfall (Vattenfall & Stromnetz Berlin) and Veolia on the EUREF Campus in Berlin Schöneberg. The aim of this collaboration is to make an important contribution to urban development. InfraLab Berlin not only serves the six partners’ own activities, but is also aiming to push the implementation of smart city projects in close cooperation with politics, industry and science.

Another smart city ecosystem player are “smart businesses”, who have already taken first smart city initiatives in their own hands (such as smart parking providers, or car-sharing providers). However, their approach is often rather siloed, which for example leads to a mess of different bike sharing providers in the center of Berlin with a large number of differently colored bikes clogging paths and driveways.

Startups often trigger the exchange of ideas

Rarely on smart city coordinators’ agendas today, they should much more often involve the highly innovative startup community into their brainstorming around better citizen services. As in cities like Amsterdam or Barcelona, the number of Berlin-based startups in the smart city area is growing at a rapid pace. And to me it seems that at least in this city they are among the most active players in starting cross-vertical discussions, setting up ecosystems and involving the different parties.[2] To provide just one example: By bringing together startups, corporates and city representatives, the smart city community NUMA is helping Berlin (and other cities worldwide) to start first innovative trials.

Not to forget: the research community

The overview of players in the smart city ecosystem would not be complete without mentioning the highly active community of research institutions. Especially among the Fraunhofer institutes there are a lot of great projects dealing with topics like open data, data integrity and privacy. Within the interesting "Morgenstadt" initiative led by Fraunhofer IAO in Stuttgart, research, industry and municipalities work together to develop solution strategies in urban systems, identify impending technological leaps and disruptive developments for the city of tomorrow and design new product systems and business models for them.

But how to connect?

There is hardly any topic that is currently discussed where ecosystems play a role as important as in the smart city area. In order to drive innovation, ecosystems must be rapidly expanded and filled with life. But how can this be achieved? Who will take responsibility for building ecosystems, and how can the different players be interconnected with each other to start partnerships?

See you in Barcelona?

I’m going to attend the Smart City Expo World Congress in Barcelona on November 13 and 14. Would be happy to meet you there to discuss the potentials and challenges around smart city ecosystems.

And Berlin?

Well, I don’t give up hope yet that the speed and courage in terms of smart city initiatives will soon be noticeably improved in this great city.


[1] If you are interested to learn more about the landscape of smart city IoT platform providers in Europe, please see our specific IoT platform RADAR for smart cities in Europe 2018.

[2] By the way, PAC’s DETEKTION service can support smart city players in finding the best partners among technology companies on the rise.