The digital city

Santander is a real “smart city” where the bins themselves organise rubbish collections and streetlamps turn off when there is nobody around. The sensors that make this possible are concealed in containers the size of shoeboxes with antennas, which are attached to masts, streetlamps and facades.
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Text: Juliane Gringer und Stefanie Claudia Müller
Photos: Alvaro Rodriguez, Bitkom, Fotolia – Takashi Images

Modern technologies should help to simplify urban living. Technical progress can optimise processes, cut costs and facilitate mobility. Pioneering cities such as Santander in Spain are already implementing a number of ideas.

In Santander, lights only come on at night if people are present. Rubbish is only collected when containers are actually full, and road congestion and environmental sensors provide for better traffic management. This is all due to the unassuming grey boxes on the city’s old iron lampposts, or rather the sensors inside them and on numerous buses and taxis – 15,000 units in total. They are intended to turn Santander into a smart city after many economically difficult years. The residents are participating via an app developed by the city authorities and can report incidents such as fallen trees or defective parking meters.

Safeguarding quality of life

„Santander Smart City“ is an initiative of the Spanish government. It has been running since 2009, but for a long time was more theory than reality. Thanks to intensive cooperation with companies such as Telefónica and locally headquartered Banco Santander, as well as the city’s university, it has finally picked up speed. This is how Gemma Igual Ortiz, the young mayor of Santander, describes the initiative: “This project is helping our city to reinvent itself with a view to safeguarding its residents’ quality of life.” First and foremost this means jobs, as eight years of financial crisis have clearly taken their toll: 14 percent of the population are still unemployed. This is about to change. And costs will be cut, too. “In many areas, such as rubbish collection and lighting, we have already managed to reduce expenditure by 25 percent because we have better control of everything thanks to the sensors and a central management system,” explains Igual Ortiz proudly. The money can be invested in other projects, including an arts centre.

Technology also helps to manage irrigation in the gardens and parks of Santander, as aridity can now be measured precisely. Digital signs indicate free parking spaces, and the city app knows whether a bus is delayed. “If we identify a high level of air pollution or adverse weather, we can warn residents in good time via the app and the digital warning signs in the city. Traffic is diverted appropriately”, says Luis Muñoz, an IT professor at the University of Cantabria. Urban traffic data should soon be incorporated into motorists’ navigation systems in Santander, so that they can better avoid accidents and traffic jams.

A holistic approach to future issues

The smart city should be efficient and technologically advanced, offering its residents a better quality of life – in other words, it should be greener and more socially inclusive. State-of-the-art technology and networking foster the development of appropriate infrastructure, environmentally compatible mobility and high levels of productivity in a liveable environment. The term “smart city” means a city with additional functions. But it also means an approach in which all issues faced by major cities are considered as a whole, and appropriate solutions are developed to deal with them.

“The concept of smart cities has been a central theme in urban development for a few years now,” explains Jan Strehmann, a spokesman on smart cities and regions for the German digital industry association Bitkom e. V. “Many cities are working on it, also in Germany. Their focus is no longer on digitising administration only, but all associated services as well.” From e-governance to the intelligent control of building technology or traffic flows – people have become much more aware of the importance of collaborations. “For example, there can be no e-mobility if the energy network is not designed for it,” he continues. Accordingly, an increasing number of urban energy companies, utilities and transport providers are being included. “This interdisciplinary work is a challenge that requires viable structures and good project development,” says Strehmann.

Germany’s digital pioneers

Major German cities have a particularly large number of issues to bring together, but they are also addressing the topic in a particularly ambitious manner. Berlin, for example, expects to become an intelligently interconnected, future proof, post-fossil and resilient city by 2030, for the benefit of an educated, tolerant and creative society. As one of several measures to make this vision a reality, the Smart City Berlin Network has been founded – a working group of over 100 companies and academic and research institutions in the city that are actively involved in the smart city strategy of the federal state of Berlin. Hamburg is cooperating via its Digital City Science Lab with the Media Lab of the renowned Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA and undertaking basic and applied research. Among other things, the Lab aims to investigate digital innovations and their effect on society, and to discuss current urban challenges with experts and citizens.

But medium-sized towns, too, are keen not to be left behind. In 2017, Bitkom joined forces with the German Association of Towns and Municipalities to hold a Digital City competition for municipalities with 100,000 to 150,000 residents. Darmstadt came out on top with the best overall concept, while Heidelberg, Kaiserslautern, Paderborn and Wolfsburg also achieved a lot of points. Above all, the jury assessed whether the cities already met the requirements to implement smart city projects in the next two years – because this is happening now in the winning city. “Applicants had to show that they can contribute the appropriate personnel, expertise and motivated local partners, and that they also have the political will to undergo such a comprehensive process of change,” explains Jan Strehmann. A broad alliance of over 20 partner companies is now supporting Darmstadt’s digital expansion free of charge, providing products and services valued at more than ten million euros. Soon Darmstadt will probably boast such things as smart street lamps – as in Santander.

The science city of Darmstadt won the Digital City competition held by the IT industry association Bitkom and the German Association of Towns and Municipalities.

Need for new business models

Gernot Liedtke heads the Commercial Transport department at the DLR-Institute of Transport Research in Berlin. In his opinion, when it comes to smart cities, the problem is less the technology than the business models that use its potential – especially in the area of mobility. It is clear why companies want to become more digital, he says, “They are trying to create new living environments in which they can create new services – not in order to enhance mobility, but to integrate mobility in their business models to a greater extent.” Cargo sharing is a case in point, in which companies use free cargo space offered by other companies for their own cargo. The use of private individuals as couriers is also under consideration. “Today we cannot say for sure whether giving goods a lift could be a business model,” says Liedtke. “If we look at it more closely, it’s nothing more than an outsourcing of transport to subcontractors. A much more interesting question for me is where, in future, concepts will be created which will also bring benefits to society in that they protect the environment, reduce traffic or make a social contribution.”

Liedtke explains the example of loading bay management, “In future, if all vehicles delivering goods are interconnected with customers, then consignors will know when the recipient is available and whether they can use a loading bay in the area.” A big advantage would be that delivery vehicles would always find a parking space and not block traffic. “This would necessitate some coordination, and a reservation system would need to be set up. We would have to see whether the loading bays are to be reserved by the city or by a traffic management centre – or whether the scheme is to be coordinated privately.” Because, to some extent, information technologies also need new institutions to organise them, according to the expert; it might even be necessary to reallocate the roles of public authorities and private companies: “Regarding freight transport in particular, many details remain unclear.”

As for delivery traffic, Liedtke is confident that “companies using modern technologies, such as alternative drives and digital fleet management, will come out on top”. He believes that it is precisely the cooperation between hauliers and their fleet management on the one hand, and urban traffic management on the other, that can bring about win-win situations: “Both parties have similar interests and don’t want any trucks sitting in traffic jams.” Or paying road tolls. “In London, the Congestion Charge only applies on weekdays between 7 and 6 pm. If you drive outside of these hours, you save money,” says Eileen Mandir, who is a management coach and specialist in digital mobility. “Traffic can also be influenced by such pricing policies.” Mandir can imagine digital cities without any physical traffic lights, in which vehicles will recognise traffic signals via augmented reality or a digital map. “These light signals will be controlled more flexibly.”

Call for intelligent data management

Control of this kind requires data – and this would have to be managed intelligently. Luis Muñoz comments, “We have an inconceivable amount of data and we have to handle it very carefully.” Above all, he wants Santander Smart City to serve local businesses and foster better interaction among the various urban service providers. “Collecting data is not enough – it has to be interconnected,” he says. After eight years of gathering information, the Santander Smart City database is the most comprehensive to date in the field of city intelligence. Traffic data and environmental pollution information is collected on various IT platforms and evaluated by Muñoz and his university team.

As far as Gernot Liedtke is concerned, the concept of a smart city is not new. “The development towards a digital city has been going on for a number of years now and, for the most part, even the technology has been available for a while,” says Liedtke. There were breakthroughs whenever players took up the reins and drove innovation forward. To illustrate this point, Liedtke references the Baltic states, in which it is already possible to register vehicles paper-free within the scope of e-governance. Moreover, he sees Industry 4.0 as being a major driver of smart cities – and the software developer SAP as a dominant driver of Industry 4.0 itself. “There is already a trend towards making production more individual, and I think this trend will become even stronger and be facilitated by technical means such as 3D printing.”

Around 12,000 sensors are spread all over Santander – on masts, facades and streetlamps. The transmitters send a constant stream of information about various processes in the city to a central control station.

The first energy self-sufficient municipality

Feldheim, a district of Treuenbrietzen in the state of Brandenburg, has introduced an intelligent concept for supplying energy and become Germany’s first energy self-sufficient municipality. The 130 residents generate their own electricity and heat entirely from renewable energy sources, such as wind, corn, sun and manure. A separate network transfers the locally generated heat and electricity generated directly to consumers. Excess energy is fed into the public network. But the district can serves as a role model only to a limited extent. “Feldheim has the perfect prerequisites for this project, among other things due to its compact size,” explains Doreen Raschemann of New Energies Forum Feldheim. Above all, the project is intended to show that it is possible to have your own electricity and heat supplies on a renewable and affordable basis.

The electricity is mainly generated by a wind farm nearby, while heat is produced by the local biogas plant as well as a wood chip heating plant. A peaking power plant with a battery system keeps the network frequency stable and provides an interim storage facility for surplus energy. The people of Feldheim will soon be able to see for themselves how much they are using. An app not only documents their heat and electricity consumption, but also enables them to see from which source the current consumption of electricity is coming from and at what price.

In the centre of Santander, 400 sensors embedded in the roads ensure that motorists do not have to drive around forever to find a parking space: they are directed to the nearest vacant space by GPS and illuminated signals.

Including people

“How smart our city will be ultimately depends on people and their use of the new technology,” says Juan Echevarria, who manages the innovation department of the Santander municipal authority. In particular, older Santanderinos – as the residents are known – are often ill at ease with technology; they are not accustomed to carrying their smartphones with the city app when they go shopping. Other residents are worried that they are being observed by the sensors. Luis Muñoz is therefore keen to highlight the benefits of the technology more clearly. The city also offers free courses to help residents get the most out of the internet and their smartphones. A lot of imagination has been invested in increasing acceptance. “Smiley coupons” offering discounts in local shops have been given to residents willing to smile while having their picture taken – the bigger the smile, the bigger the discount. “These measures will bring the city centre back to life,” says Echevarria. The city’s retail sector is very close to his heart, and he hopes that technical possibilities will help to give local businesses a boost, “In a smart city, there are completely different kinds of customer relationships. Our shops can even communicate with customers outside of opening hours via a QR code on the door, for example. In turn, the customers obtain information about the business via the code.”

Jan Strehmann of Bitkom is also convinced that a smart city cannot be implemented “if we only focus on technology, without including people.” He considers digital participation to be crucially important, as he explains, “If the city council meeting is streamed live, you may get several thousand residents watching, rather than the usual 50 or so in the public gallery. It would allow local politics to reach many more people.”

The smart city concept can only be successful if residents are open to the technologies and willing to participate.
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