The Metropolis Ruhr on its way to becoming a smart city

Dortmund, 12 February 2028, 6.42 a.m. Outside, dawn is still breaking. As I leave the house, the street light in front of the door comes on and lights my way. On a display, I see the particulate levels: in the green zone, as always. I’m running late and decide to order an e-bus via an app. I’m given a personal boarding point with coordinates – there are no longer any fixed stops. Five minutes later, I’m sitting with other commuters on a self-driving bus, which is free of charge, like all public transport. There haven’t been any traffic jams for a long time, and there have been far fewer accidents since self-driving vehicles were introduced. On the way to work, I quickly apply for a new passport in the electronic citizens’ office and order some fresh ingredients for my dinner – easily and conveniently on my smartphone via an open Wi-Fi network. I just manage to arrive on time in the street in Essen where my co-working space is situated. The street is closed to cars from 8 a.m. to 12 p.m. During this time, it is transformed into a children’s playground – the grey LED surface with the white stripes becomes green and offers interactive games. My favourite is the giant floor piano.

Intelligent, efficient, networked – The city of cities is combining many initiatives, ideas and projects to become a smart city

A pie in the sky? Yes, but entirely conceivable. And in progress. The city of the future is smart. In a smart city, digital technologies are used so that people’s lives can be made less stressful. The environment, energy and transport are cleverly networked with each other. Through the efficient connection of objects with the Internet (IoT), processes such as traffic management become more efficient and are adapted individually. The lighting and energy supply of all public buildings are controlled with sensors, which greatly reduces electricity and heating consumption. Fewer CO2 emissions as a result of electric cars enhance inhabitants’ quality of life. There are also more public spaces thanks to the now vacant parking spaces. This is the ideal time, and these are the ideal conditions for the Metropolis Ruhr area to become a smart city.

People here are used to dealing with change. The Ruhr area has already mastered the structural change from coal and steel to a service and technology location excellently. Here, there is now the densest higher education and science landscape in Europe, and Greentech expertise is famous nationally. A former steelworks location is now a lake, and old breweries and mines have become cultural and leisure centres or modern workplaces. ‘Our region’s innovative power remains unbroken,’ explains Dr Hubert Schulte-Kemper. He is chairperson of the board of FAKT AG in Essen. The company wishes to promote start-ups with ideas for becoming a smart city as part of an accelerator programme in 2018. ‘The entrepreneurial spirit extends across many initiatives that are preparing the way to create a smart city with new technologies, new ideas and new solutions,’ describes Schulte-Kemper.

Transparent digitisation strategies with citizen participation

Smart city, the topic for the future, is also highly relevant in Dortmund. A municipal Chief Information Office will soon take over the coordination of the digitisation strategy. Some projects have already been implemented, for example nebenan.de: this networks the residents of a particular district via an app. Using this platform, neighbours communicate, help each other out, lend fretsaws and arrange street festivals. Citizen participation is part of every smart city concept.

The city of Dortmund is the largest IT training location in Germany. So it’s no wonder that a digital entrepreneurial culture is developing here. In addition, there is the optimum networking of science and business. Forming the expertise for a smart city are digital giants like Fraunhofer ISST/IMK, the Mittelstand 4.0 Competence Centre or TU Dortmund with its technology-park-based special research project ‘Data Mining’, which is unique in Germany.

Smart digital solutions

It’s not enough just to digitise the citizens’ office and to make official procedures possible online. Broadband connections with fibre-optic networks are a basic prerequisite for a smart city. As are open Wi-Fi networks. The grand coalition wants to conclude the comprehensive expansion with gigabit networks by 2025 and to thereby implement the change to a fibre-optic infrastructure. This approach is to be supported with public funds of around 10 to 12 billion euros.

The city of Gelsenkirchen received the Smart City Award for its broad fibre-optic structure in 2016. More than 800 companies and 5,000 residential units benefit from the fast Internet connection. After Gelsenkirchen has successfully introduced stationary hotspots in pedestrian zones, city centres and at the zoo, the hotspots will soon be used in a mobile way – in local public transport. Together with Huawei and GELSEN-NET, a 100% subsidiary is to promote innovative projects in the future. For example, refuse bins with sensors that indicate when they are full to the waste disposal service provider are being planned, as are street lights that dim if no one is nearby, and apps that direct drivers to the next free parking space.

Bochum is also focussing on fast, fibre-optic Internet that is available everywhere. There are already 22 hotspots. So-called access points supply an area of three football pitches in the city with free Wi-Fi. The Freifunk Bochum association is working voluntarily on the progressive networking of the city. The aim is to enable free Internet access for everyone.

Acceleration through Chinese IT global market leader Huawei

Duisburg is receiving assistance and technical expertise from the Chinese IT global market leader Huawei as it becomes a smart city. Among other things, the expansion of the Wi-Fi network and intelligent classrooms including a broadband connection for Duisburg schools are planned. Together with Huawei, the city is developing cloud solutions for digital official procedures and is speaking about autonomous driving. The city is already testing a new mobility concept: in Duisburg, the bus comes to the passengers. If you want to go into the city, you order a minibus via an app and you are collected. Individual journeys are combined in such a way that several destinations lie on one route – and you pay online. The offer is called ‘bus on demand’ and is unique in Germany when it comes to the local public transport of a city.

‘Last but not least, it’s the pragmatism of the inhabitants, their enjoyment of collective experiences and the cultivated clarity, down-to-earth attitude and calmness in the region that will help meaningful and useful solutions to be accepted,’ summarises Chirine Etezadzadeh, chairperson of the board of the federal association Smart City. ‘The energy region, which is being transformed, will be able to supply energy-hungry cities of the future sustainably.’

Living and working in the smart city future

I call it a day at lunchtime after a snack of an omelette made with eggs from chickens that live in our green rooftop garden. A start-up that I know from San Francisco wants to ask my advice on the topic of charging stations this evening and to have a video conference, which I can do from home. The sun is shining, so I decide spontaneously to hire an e-bike and to go for a ride on the Ruhr fast cycle route. Just after I’ve arrived home, a drone delivers the shopping and my new passport I ordered. Even if virtual reality trips are becoming ever more popular, I’m planning a traditional holiday.