From Smart City to Smart Country

As the world’s major cities become increasingly “smart”, they are driving the digital transformation. Rural areas need to follow suit or they risk being left behind. Although rendered difficult by the relative lack of resources, a “smart countryside” is nonetheless an achievable goal.

BY PROF. DR. HOLGER HELD

The enormous changes in the energy and IT sectors present local government with major challenges. Municipal bodies have no shortage of planning and work to do as they grapple with strategic issues, such as decentralized energy production, e-mobility, intelligent transportation networks, the expansion of broadband, and one-off projects like downtown Wi-Fi or intelligent LED street lighting. Transforming cities and rural districts into intelligent and sustainable living spaces is clearly one of the greatest social and planning challenges of our time.

Any community that fails to keep pace with these developments will, sooner or later, become a less desirable location.

There is thus considerable pressure on local governments to act. Major European centers, such as Amsterdam, Stockholm, and Vienna, as well as German metropolises, such as Berlin, Munich, and Hamburg, are all smart city pioneers. A number of pilot projects are underway, some backed with enormous budgets and often in conjunction and partnership with global technology companies. Given the huge expenditure and manpower required, it is little wonder that major cities are at the forefront of this trend.

Outside of those cities, there are also millions of people who live in smaller urban centers and rural areas – over 50 million in Germany, for example. According to a number of empirical studies, these non-city municipalities are fully aware of the importance of digitalization and recognize the need to act now. For those tasked with the job, however, there is often a distinct lack of both financial and human resources. Yet even smaller municipalities have plenty of options and room for manoeuver as they actively embrace digital transformation.

The most important factors here are the overall concept, complete transparency throughout the infrastructure, and the benefits for residents.

The following recommendations are based on a number of pilot projects:

1. Concept – the “digital compass”

To ensure optimum collaboration between the various local government departments plus external providers and institutions, every smart community project requires a general concept that outlines the direction in which the community will evolve, both digitally and technologically. In other words, a “digital compass” for the way ahead. Based on previous projects, the first thing to do is to create a forum where representatives of local government IT, building authorities, public utilities, and external providers can meet and discuss the various challenges, problems, and shared interests. It is also important to assess the trends and developments in the relevant technological fields. The resulting “compass” includes priorities, milestones, and specific measures.

2. Pilots and infrastructure data

All too often, the individual technologies and concepts that make up a smart community project are allowed to develop in silos. However, the linking of these elements is the key to success or failure. To create a single project database, it is necessary to document all the relevant infrastructure in an integrated data model – which also ensures the overall security of the system. The aim here is to gather the data in a single location and make it easily accessible for specific applications. Pilot studies show that using an integrated database solution can reduce the cost of coordination and on-site research by between 20 and 40 percent and cut municipal planning times by up to 20 percent.

3. Benefits for residents

A smart community is not a static entity; it is constantly evolving under the influence of multiple processes. It is therefore impossible to apply the same one-size-fits-all solution to every location. There are, however, two essential points that have a major role to play: Will the project improve efficiency and make work easier? And will it satisfy the needs and wishes of residents? Only when both criteria are fulfilled will the project gain widespread support – within local government and also throughout the community. It is up to each municipality to find and pursue its own path. Public participation is particularly important during the course of the project, since creativity and engagement are core elements in these innovation processes.

The smart community*

The basic idea behind every smart community is to create an all-encompassing and intelligent network of new technologies. As data and information is collected from multiple areas through a variety of sensors, new applications emerge. Public buildings become more energy efficient; intelligent transport systems provide better mobility; and residents have access to real-time information they can use to improve their daily lives. From improvements in medical care to better communications in the event of major emergencies and better integration of public utilities, the cities of the future offer many exciting possibilities.

(*Source: Frost & Sullivan)

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