A smart city needs to be more than a utopian vision. It needs to be a decision framework, applicable for every city to solve its individual problems. This requires an administration that can flexibly and quickly adjust processes and make decisions.
Why today’s cities can’t act smart (yet)
City administration is historically seen as the implementation of government policies: politics become reality. Public administration organizes everyday life. In democratic states, administrations are well structured, from a nationwide, federal level down to that of local communities. This structure leaves little room for flexibility in its decisions. In this manner, change can only be effected by the legislative counterpart and it can take several years to pass bills that reflect these changes.
Furthermore, public administration is divided vertically into several functional units. This appears similar to common company structures and may have its historical reasons.But for both companies and cities this might be the biggest issue when it comes to the challenge of digitalization:
How can these different functional units work or even decide together on a single topic? How can decisions be made against the background of this fast-changing information?
Of course, there are decisions with limited scope, like rerouting the daily trip to the office due to a traffic jam. This seems very individual. But what about decisions with greater scope? One would assume that these would be the responsibility of the public administration. As pointed out above, the low speed at which public administration operates and its siloed structure are preventing cities from (re)acting in a reasonable amount of time.
This conflict between rather “outdated” bureaucracies and agile, information-based decision-making isn’t real news. But while companies from the private sector have accepted the challenge of structural change and are facing it in various ways, public administrations still seem to be far away from any such thinking. And this appears to be both good and bad at the same time. On the one hand it’s protecting us from rash actions. On the other hand it doesn’t seem flexible enough to turn the information gathered into a valuable asset.
To name but a few examples from Berlin:
- When new mobility services were introduced in the city, the administration did not have any say in their use and connection
- The Berlin administration is insufficiently digitally transformed and describes its technological status as being “one step away from the index card”
- The digitalization of the city’s administration is expected to take until 2025 due to problems with tenders.
The biggest challenge for cities seems to be to change existing structures and processes in a way that makes agile management possible without giving up democratic achievements. Despite the inflexibility of the city’s administration, the main characteristics need to be maintained. This is because it is here that the democratic will is defined.
That means that structures and processes need to be changed in such a way that they define the foundations of decision-making.
An example from New York City provides some indication: Instead of long and complex procurement processes, the municipality works with small and iterative “challenges” to solve some of the city’s larger problems.
Even if this is not easily applicable for Berlin, it might be an inspiration to slowly open up and accelerate decision-making processes.