Trend Analysis: The Digital City of the Future Needs Digital Citizens

Die digitale Stadt der Zukunft


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The city of the future will be digitally interconnected and will offer flexible, highly individualized services - and it will lead to completely new forms of involvement, participation, and integration for its citizens. Just one thing: It will be impossible to draw the borders of tomorrow's city on a map. Our concepts of cities and city limits will be completely transformed thanks to digitalization. The city of the future will be the community of those who are connected in life and work - independent of their home addresses. The recently published "Urban Tech Manifesto," drafted by experts in the field, describes the requirements key players will have to fulfill in order to make the digital city or tomorrow possible.


Flashback to today: The day before Cologne's mayoral election, an out-of-work painter with a right-wing background stabs the favorite candidate to death in broad daylight. Predictably, outrage and sympathy spread among the professional class, including top slots on German talk shows - it's just that no reaction came from voters. As usual, 60% of eligible voters stayed home again, and again could not be motivated to head down to the voting office. To repeatedly accuse citizens, however, of a lack of interest misses the point here. It is obvious that this election did not fit their form of participation.


Read in this trend analysis about how the digitalization of our cities will not only lead to improved quality of life and greater attractiveness, but will also create the foundation for more effective citizen participation. First things first: Digital connectedness has the potential to improve the quality of life in urban centers significantly: connected traffic lights that access smartphone data in order to precisely adjust traffic flows, connected bicycle routes whose illuminated lanes show the ideal speed for an unbroken flow of green lights, connected garbage cans that signal waste management centers when they are ready to be emptied, connected street lights that reduce light pollution and energy usage when streets are empty, but which also have access to crime rate statistics and automatically illuminate those more dangerous dark corners of the city ... Numerous international projects are using digital technologies to increase quality of life in urban areas.


The city as a place of freedom


These projects are more than original ideas, more than passing fads. They are expressions of a deep transformation. In a recent trend analysis, we showed how the city of the future will rediscover itself as a place of freedom. Freedom will be key among the drivers behind tomorrow's cities, but the concept of freedom will be fundamentally changed in the process.


For centuries, cities promised the freedom of ownership, be it of land or real estate, company or household. The city of the future, however, promises a new kind of freedom: the freedom of not needing to own things. The freedom of no longer needing to possess. The core of public and private services will thereby shift from "sales" to "provision,"from acquisition to use. This is quite obviously the core of the sharing economy which has long since ceased to be operated by idealists with the hope of a better world, and is instead driven by the experience of customers that the basic pattern of "using instead of owning" leads to far better - and individualized - products and services.


What role will the city itself play here? The city of the future will become a platform for services that can be used by its citizens, for both public as well as commercial and private offerings. This means that those cities will be in the best position who can not only individualize their services and orient them precisely to the needs of each citizen, but who are also able to make these services adaptive, i.e., to keep them flexible and constantly able to adapt to the changing needs of its citizens - in every situation.


The Urban Tech Manifesto


In September, 2015, international experts drafted the Urban Tech Manifesto, thus publicly stating key requirements for the successful urban centers of tomorrow. Many communities are advancing these kinds of solutions - even with strong support from those industries who are offering lucrative investments in this area, and are also supported by consumer demands for better products and services.


The freedom to do business


In Central Europe, a further municipal interest is involved. The more today's shortage of specialized labor becomes a general labor shortage, the faster it will become the main task of municipal economic development to increase the attractiveness of the city as a place to live and thus be able to offer the local economy the most sought-after location factor of tomorrow: a sufficient supply of manpower. Investments in the digital development of our cities are the most important form of economic development.


The city of the future will thereby profit - so it seems - from its sheer size: density of users, customers, service providers, and products represents the greatest location advantage for tomorrow's cities. This factor enables solutions in connected mobility, including those that will lower urban CO2 emissions. It also enables the development of technologies for organizing comprehensive re-usage cycles which promise to make today's garbage tomorrow's raw material. It enables the use of new technologies in architecture, thus leading to buildings which can flexibly change their substance and appearance continually.


The only problem is: European cities aren't especially large. Moscow, Greater London, etc. - using a global scale, Europe can only boast five metropolises that can be taken seriously.


In Germany, barely 10% of the population lives in cities with over a million residents. The typical German major city is too small to develop solutions for the smart digital city on its own. From the perspective of major IT providers, it is also too small to be attractive as a market. Does this mean that smaller and mid-size cities will thus become cut off from digitalization and interconnectedness? No. It means that they will take a new shape.


The solution - and also one of the core ideas behind the Urban Tech Manifesto - lies in cooperation. Cities will join together and form shared markets. Spatial proximity will hardly be a factor here. Whether Helsinki can better connect with Copenhagen or Riga is not a question of kilometers, but of shared interests, similar everyday concerns, and above all the use of a universal standard for open interfaces to the cities' data.


The end of geography


The truly astonishing thing here, however, is that the future networks for the digital city of the future have been in existence for some time now. The bank manager from Frankfurt's Westend district is "close" to partner banking center London as it is - at least closer than he is to nearby Wiesbaden. The Berlin startup founder is closer to his fellow entrepreneurs in Tel Aviv or Lissabon than to the building contractor in Dresden. The building contractor, for his part, is more closely connected to his colleagues in Prague or Kassel thanks to the industry he shares with them.


When it comes to the question of the "home city," our thoughts have long been familiar: A Berliner remains at the gateway to the world regardless of her current location. In the same way, startup founders can spend days flying around the world and land at "home" every time. Different coordinates, same city. Tomorrow's digital cities have constituted a shared, interconnected metropolis for quite some time now.


The other side of the coin also holds true: Just as the "same city" awaits many air miles away, changing cities can also be as easy as crossing the street. The cities of the future form a common network with various layers - of varying thickness, but connected nonetheless.


The consequence: The city of the future can no longer meaningfully be described in geographic terms. It will no longer follow the principle of municipalities existing side-by-side. For cities, proximity can no longer be measured in kilometers, but in the intensity and volume of interactions. Rather than distinguishing urban centers by the points of the compass, in the future we will speak of the startup city, the health city, the educational city, the cultural metropolis. The emerging principle of city "layers" will come to replace the logic of cartography.


We are not speaking primarily of a feeling of togetherness. The links between the world's major cities are more than a feeling. When Tel Aviv chooses to invest in expanding its broadband connections or to repair crumbling roads, there will be an immediate effect on the business activities of startups in Berlin and London. The success of a given company is directly dependent on the decisions of a number of municipalities: investments here, consequences there. Only that these businesspeople have so far been shut out of any participation in these decisions ... and that the regulatory competence of local and regional communities is going nowhere.


This is the root behind the fact that all the campaigns to bring citizens to the voting booth have yielded practically no result: The truly important questions are not put to a vote. Those who see the universal drop in voting participation exclusively as the result of a general weariness with politics overlook the greater development behind the trend: Elections lose relevance when the questions that are important in the eyes of voters are not - or are only minimally - eligible voting topics.


Connected cities, connected values


What is true for infrastructure also applies to the "layer" of shared values. A high school student in Munich joins an international team at a high school in Miami to work on a project on studying and protecting sharks - who would deny him the transfer of credits towards his home education? Over the course of the project, he learned biology, gained valuable teamwork experience, and learned first-hand about the organization of project campaigns - in English, no less. But: Whether or not the US high school recognizes or rejects the theory of evolution is a question that is discussed and decided solely by a local committee. And that particular question happens to be extremely relevant for prevailing views on education in Munich.


Whether it's with discussions about values, investment decisions, or the passing of legislation: The pattern is a recurring one. In the globally connected city, companies and individuals at one location will be directly affected by - and will often depend on - decisions made somewhere else, giving the advantage to those cities who can involve their citizens in the development of the city across locational boundaries.


Connecting: The location politics of the future


The digitalization of cities leads directly into the question of digital citizen participation. The most important driving factor is the sober consideration: What city will best promote its local economy? Which one will make the best decisions? The answer: the city that manages to bind to itself, economically, technologically, and in terms of innovation and ethical values, the people and companies who are already interconnected within the global digital megalopolis. Connecting will be the location politics of the future!


To avoid misunderstandings here: The development of a high-performance network infrastructure is the obvious prerequisite for all that is future-proof, something not to be debated but immediately undertaken and secured for the long term. The connectedness, however, that will decide the future-capability of our cities is not one of copper or fiber-optics. This also means that the municipality of tomorrow will not need a department for "Digitalization, Broadband, and Surveying" as can be found in some cities today. The connectedness of tomorrow's urban centers will consist of communication and relationship management. The faster cities come to view the local mayor as the top Relations Manager and equip him accordingly, the more advantages they will reap. The mayor who is "digital" in this sense makes good on the promise of freedom offered by the adaptive city of the future. The intensity and quality of international connectedness forms the foundation for the development of future urban centers, and will primarily decide the attractiveness and appeal of the city as a location for living and doing business.


Digital participation - digital citizens


Thus the operating principle behind voter participation will be reversed, and the right to vote put right-side up: In the global metropolis of the future, no district council will be able to decide who is entitled to vote on which issue. This kind of construct is only needed by those who want to limit the circle of those included, by those who want to control and exclude.


The digital city of the future will take another road when it comes to power, and will breathe deeply the spirit of empowerment and inclusion. And it will do so because the only city that will manage to reap the benefits of our emerging future will be the one that actually manages to create citizen involvement. Thus this cannot be limited to informal involvement in the long run. We are not speaking of show here, but of genuine participation by digital citizens possessing full civic rights - regardless of street address.


Tomorrow's digital citizens will need to be allowed to decide freely for themselves when and where they take part in decisions and developments. This is no pipe dream for grassroots activist groups: It is not a matter of being nice, but of offering better services, a better economy, a better life.


Work will need to be done on a host of practical questions: the technological basis for citizen involvement- and voting processes for one, the prevention of abuse, repression, and organized vote buying. The city that manages to continually include its citizens - regardless of their places of residence - in the opinion-forming process will also succeed at making better decisions on matters of infrastructure, investments, and policy. It will offer better solutions for its residents and its global citizens, its digital citizens. The Berlin Urban Tech Manifesto, drafted by international experts in conjunction with the 2b AHEAD ThinkTank and the city of Berlin, formulates the specific requirements for cities on the way to the future, and marks the beginning and cornerstone of this development.

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