Smart City Berlin: a hub for innovation

berlinBerlin has embraced ‘smart’ in a big way. Starting from the idea that open data is vital to driving and supporting innovation, the city has now truly earned the title ‘smart city’. Berlin aspires to being a “laboratory for 21st century urban living”, and young people from across Europe are flocking there, away from traditional but increasingly expensive hubs like London.

Recognising that being a pleasant place to live is crucial to attracting business, Berlin has focused on its built environment. In the European Green Cities Index, it is top for Buildings, and number three in the Waste Management category. The city is also at the top of the Federal State Mobility Index for environmental protection and land use, and is in second place overall, but is by no means resting on its laurels. Improvement is an ongoing ambition.

Open Data: a starting point for innovation

The city leaders in Berlin recognised early on that open data was vital. They saw open data as supporting two key aspects of development:

  • Increasing transparency, and helping citizens to understand public administration, which in turn supports civic engagement and participation; and
  • Supporting the development of new and innovative products and services. These improve the lives of citizens, but also help to make the city a magnet for developers and other technology workers.

Berlin was the first city in Germany to release public data, and make it openly available. Since autumn 2011, the city has published several datasets, and a number of applications have been developed based on these. Berlin now participates in the Open Cities PanEuropean Challenge, hoping to widen awareness of the importance of open data.

Pay-off time: becoming a creative and technological hub

The city leadership’s enlightened views on Open Data seem to have paid off. Berlin has become a magnet for start-ups, and is recognised as being a key hub for creative, media and technological industries in Europe. McKinsey’s Metropolitan Report describes it as the leading city in Germany for innovation. Over 500 technology companies have been founded in the city during the last 12 months.

The secret to Berlin’s success is having the right balance of business, research and support. As well as a thriving business community, Berlin also has supportive scientific and research institutions, with over 300 research groups working on Smart City-related projects. Technische Universität Berlin has set up an Urban Lab, and Cisco recently announced the establishment of a new Internet of Everything (IoE) Innovation Centre in Berlin.

This centre, which will be called openBerlin, is one of a series of such centres. They are designed to catalyse and demonstrate IoE innovation and development. They bring together all those interested in IoE development, including commercial interests, customers, startups, application developers, accelerators, government organizations and universities. The centre will have an R&D lab, and also open areas for partners and others to work on new concepts.

The city has a large and skilled workforce, boosted by increasing numbers of young expats. Many of these are British, driven out of London by the rising cost of living, and the difficulty of starting their own businesses there. Some native Berliners are concerned about the impact on their city, and particularly on rising house prices and rents, and the expansion of the city. Others, however, have welcomed the influx, and the way that this new skilled workforce is enabling the city to compete on an international stage. Co-working hubs and cafes have sprung up to cater for these individuals.

Despite the rapid growth, the city has retained a sense of perspective. Many among the expat community have commented on their quality of life compared with London, with comments in a recent Guardian article about the attractions of Berlin focusing on the ‘freedom to breathe’. Others describe how they came for a break, and just stayed, starting their own businesses, and becoming part of the entrepreneurial buzz. Berlin has very much become the place to be for aspiring young people across Europe.

Smart technology designed for people

Like other successful smart cities, including Barcelona and Rio de Janeiro, Berlin has not forgotten that cities are about people. It has used technology as a way to improve city life, in this case to drive innovation, creating jobs and a buzz about the city that has been hugely attractive to expats. This, in turn, has attracted companies looking for a young, skilled workforce. The combination has successfully achieved a smart city that is a hub for innovation in Europe.

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