Using Data to Shape our Future Cities: Best Practices from Germany
As the digital transformation of society changes our cities, an essential issue is that of so-called ‘data sovereignty’. How should the data generated in urban areas be handled? And who should handle it? While the private sector has long been using data to build new business models, city leaders are only beginning to understand the value of data for strategic decision making. Data sovereignty is therefore a vital question of municipal self-determination and independence in the digital space.
While awareness for the importance of data sovereignty is growing, cities are now facing the challenge of translating this awareness into local action: How can cities use data to take better decisions? What kind of data infrastructure is needed? What new roles and competencies do city administrations require in this context?
In a joint project, the ‘Association of German Cities’ and Germany’s public sector inhouse consultancy PD explored answers to these questions. The study, entitled ‘Using Data to Shape our Future Cities’, helps city leaders to prepare their cities for future challenges by bringing together the perspectives and knowledge of a sounding board of representatives from 14 German cities. The cities represented within the sounding board are not intended to represent all German municipalities; they are rather pioneers in the field of digitalisation who can consequently share best practice experiences on the topic.
The study illustrates how cities can approach the topic of data sovereignty across strategic, organisational and infrastructural levels. It should be considered an interative rather than linear process. As digitalisation continues to develop in a dynamic way, cities will have to continually redefine their understanding of data sovereignty. New possibilities for data usage will emerge, as well as new aspects of the city’s vision and requirements for data infrastructure. This is illustrated in the figure below, which summarises the most important elements of the data sovereignty cycle.
Let’s take a look at the elements of the strategic circle:
Identifying the status quo
Cities were using data to control and manage their services long before the concept of ‘smart cities’ emerged. Almost all city administrations make use of data to improve the effectiveness of their work across departments. Most have traditionally dealt with data at a senior management level within specific units, e.g. the statistical offices or the geoinformation departments. In order to approach the topic of data more strategically, it is therefore essential to systematically analyse the status quo and identify how data is currently being used.
Implementing use cases
Discussions within the sounding board clearly highlighted that the sovereign handling of data does not have to begin with a comprehensive strategy concept. It makes much more sense to approach the topic by starting to use the data. This makes it possible to begin with small attempts, experiment, make mistakes, integrate learnings, and start over again. In doing so cities can iteratively develop an understanding of what they want to do with data, how it should be used and by whom. Every successful data use case can also be used for communication purposes to encourage cooperation, both internally within the city administration and externally with other stakeholders or cities. Cities do not have to come up with new, innovative ideas for every data use case. Rather, they can take the opportunity to focus on growing a shared learning environment with other cities addressing the same challenges.
Developing a self-concept
Based on an understanding of the status quo and some first use cases, the city should develop a vision of how it wants to deal with data. This vision has a top-level, strategic character, which means that the top administrative level must be involved and communicate this strategy both internally within the city administration and externally to other stakeholders. Data is not a technical issue, but a strategic one. The vision clarifies the role the city would like to play when dealing with data, both in relation to the private sector and also for broader society. It defines how the use of data should contribute to reaching the city’s strategic goals and the aspired outcomes and impacts for different target groups. It also specifies an ethical framework as well as overarching technical considerations at a strategic level.
Based on the municipal vision, cities should develop structures that enable a sovereign handling of data. There is no such thing as a blueprint that can serve all cities, yet it is important that all essential roles are covered. It is also important that the strategic roles are not limited to an operational focus. Cities should always keep in mind that data is of utmost priority. This means that the highest administrative level should be responsible for managing and advancing the topic. A major challenge here is that urban data has so far often only been used within specific departments. Data can only be leveraged strategically when those silos are broken down. It is vitally important to involve staff at all levels and to provide targeted training to key personnel.
Securing data ownership / access
The structures owned by the municipal government are not the only ones that matter. Data is generated, processed and used by a wide variety of stakeholders in the city. Municipal companies are particularly important in this regard. When it comes to using data, municipal utilities – such as local public transport or energy services – are often far more advanced than the city administration itself. For them, data is a business model. Consequently they are usually not too enthusiastic about sharing their data with the “Konzern Stadt”. City leaders and politicians must therefore ensure that municipal companies are not able to simply pursue their own unfettered data agendas, which in the worst of cases can be contrary to the city’s overall strategic goals.
When cities want to use data from different specialist areas, perhaps also together with urban companies and other stakeholders, they require new data infrastructures. Urban data platforms are the basic infrastructure for the sovereign handling of data. Municipal best practice clearly points in the direction of a “system of systems”: data remain in their silos, but are linked to each another through to allow for joint access and usage in accordance with defined data usage rights. Depending on the context, existing competencies and resources, data infrastructures can either be set up by the city itself or by external partner companies. In this respect, there is no right or wrong. What is important is that the infrastructures align with the data handling specifications developed for a city’s selected self-concept. Urban agglomerations and centres should not only think about data infrastructures within the city limits: inter-municipal cooperation is beneficial for all parties (e.g. mobility across city limits).
The topic of data sovereignty is not one with an endpoint. Once the cycle is complete, you have to start over again. As new forms of data use, new players and new technical infrastructure solutions continue to evolve, data sovereignty is in a continual state of re-negotiation and re-shaping. However, once you have been through the cycle once, the foundations are laid and each new iteration can build upon it. In following these steps cities can actively shape the digitalisation of services in the interests of their citizens and have a solid basis for dealing with new challenges – such as the climate crisis, refugee movements, a pandemic or a city-wide blackout.
If this sparked your interest, you can download the full study below:
For further information, you can also contact project lead Katharina Schlüter via email (Katharina.Schlueter@pd-g.de) or via phone (+49 30 257679-367).
Are you interested in best practice examples of smart city governance from other countries around the world? Then check out this session from the 2021 festival: Citizen Initiatives, PPPs or Centralised Governance? Best Practices From Smart Cities Around the World.