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Sandra Rohrbach

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Cities need Chief Digital Officers, too

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German cities are lagging when it comes to digitization. Compared to other European cities, far too few German municipalities already have smart city strategies. Do they need a Chief Digital Officer? 

Bitkom, the German Federal Association for Information Technology, Telecommunications and New Media, is looking to nominate a new model city at this year's digital summit, which they hope will become a pilgrimage site for mayors with smart city ambitions. At least the competition for the digital crown conveys the impression that Germany's stressed urban population shouldn't give up hope quite yet.

Mayors breathe in the startup air

"Although we still have some catching up to do, Germany can still become a pioneer for intelligent, digital urban development," emphasized Bernhard Rohleder, CEO of Bitkom, recently in Berlin. Digitization now needs to enter the practical phase and become tangible for city residents. A total of 14 cities entered the competition, organized in cooperation with the German Association of Towns and Municipalities. Five of them made the shortlist. Their mayors had the opportunity to fight for the title of "Digital City" and present their visions of their city of the future to the panel in brief presentations. The selection process was reminiscent of startup pitches. The aim was to be brief and to the point. The panel members wanted to know what is really driving the cities to connect their infrastructures. 

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Even though only one city can become "Germany's Next Smart City," the competition is already a success for all participants, because they succeeded in inspiring a pioneering spirit in the normally staid city halls and beyond. The residents, companies and universities of the participating cities also supported the applications in a variety of ways, ranging from Facebook likes to conventional signature-gathering. Specific projects are eagerly awaiting implementation. The cities and federal states held out the prospect of major funding.  We hope that the unsuccessful cities seize their lack of success as an opportunity – in line with the startup mentality – and begin to implement the projects nonetheless, although they didn't win.

No limits to creativity

There are more than enough action areas for the cities to explore. Many areas can benefit from digitization: energy, environment, transport, public administration, healthcare, education, safety, and society. Smart street lighting, for example, can minimize CO2 emissions and cut energy costs, while smart parking space management can cut down on the time spent fruitlessly driving around the block. The city mayors making the Bitkom pitches agreed that they can all benefit from massive creativity potential by letting their residents take part in the development of the smart city and taking their interests into account.

Another trend is also showing how important digitization has become to cities. Major companies are not the only bodies to appoint Chief Digital Officers to develop sustainable digital strategies. Many city governments are doing the same, as shown by recent announcements by Darmstadt and Kaiserslautern. Maybe these new urban CDOs can also help to make existing standalone solutions more widespread. One thing is clear, however: help of any kind is welcome! To ensure that our cities remain livable and attractive – despite shrinking budgets and ever more people, traffic, buildings, and waste.

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