Using Data to Shape our Future Cities

Digital sovereign cities – sustainable investments in data infrastructure

Cities have always been places where people meet and connect with each other. They are changing constantly, they are living labs. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the evolution of cities becomes even more visible. It made us reflect upon some big questions: How will we live and work in the future? In which way will we use our public spaces and strengthen social cohesion? Digitalisation can provide new answers to these questions because data will be the foundation of future cities.

Using and linking extensive databases allows for a more effective management of mobility, social planning and crisis management issues. Data handling is also a question of municipal self-determination and independence in the digital space. In November 2020, the main committee of the Association of German Cities met and discussed these topics. The result is the discussion paper “Strengthening the digital sovereignty of municipalities”.

Francesca Bria is the former Chief Digital Technology and Innovation Officer for Barcelona and contributed significantly to shaping the digital path of the city. Her message to cities is: ”Take your data back!” She says: “The cities that do not have a system for managing this data infrastructure and that do not know what to do with it, are putting what is perhaps the greatest collective treasure of a society in the digital age into the hands of private organisations [...]. Those cities are slowly losing their know-how and their ability to control and shape their societies in a way they think is best. Instead, the tech companies will be in charge.”

Data is not a side issue, but extremely important for political and strategic control – that is, a task for the leaders of the cities. Municipal data management is a complex undertaking. You need the right infrastructure, trained administrative staff, a powerful organisation and a forward-thinking legal framework.

Therefore, in a joint project of the Association of German Cities and Partnerschaft Deutschland, we discussed the question: How can data be used to shape the cities of the future?

I would like to thank the Sounding Board with experts from our member cities for their involvement in this project and my thanks also go to PD – Berater der öffentlichen Hand GmbH for preparing this study. These are practical insights, which showcase the challenges of municipal data management, but, more importantly, they also demonstrate concrete solutions and give actionable recommendations.