Big cities – London, Amsterdam, Barcelona, New York and Tokyo – are the stars of academic studies and the smart city industry. But what about small cities? Small cities cannot match the performance of financial, technological, touristic centers of the world, hence they do not possess the budget or the resources of even the human capital necessary for digital transformation. Or do they?!

The smart city industry is a cash cow and the pandemic will definitely accelerate this trend. But what about the people?

I found out about Darmstadt from a German university professor in the fall of 2018. “Germany’s first digital city”, he told me at a conference and aroused my interest about what exactly this meant. The initial impression after preliminary research was that of a futuristic city in the style of the Jetsons. So, the non-academic reaction was: wow, so cool! Then, I was lucky enough to have some initial conversations with people in charge of the project, but also to study within a research stay so that I could see for myself how a small and digital city looks like
Principles of the Digital City. Source: https://www.digitalstadt-darmstadt.de/
Now, a few words about Darmstadt, a city the size of Oradea, an Art-Nouveau city, just like Oradea. It is a strong university city with a young and multicultural population, the headquarters of a European organization – EUMETSAT, as well as the headquarters of one of the oldest science and technology companies in Germany, Merck (established in 1668).

The differences are obvious, but both are small cities and are somehow in the shadow of other more developed, more tech-friendly cities. I felt this when talking to the people involved in the digital strategy of Darmstadt, as they could not dare compare themselves with Frankfurt or other big cities and asked me what I found so interesting about their small city.

This is what I wanted to find out in Darmstadt: how a local administration sensitive to the dangers of technology and to the needs of the people addresses digital transformation.

Cities are truly the closes political entities to the individuals, and this is even more obvious for smaller cities. Individuals can be put at the center of a smart city strategy by means of this closeness. There is one condition, though: the existence of a local administration focused on improving citizens’ lives. This is what I wanted to find out in Darmstadt: how a local administration sensitive to the dangers of technology and to the needs of the people addresses digital transformation
Coming back to Darmstadt. As I said, I managed to spend almost 4 months in the digital city. I didn’t live in a sci-fi town, I didn’t feel watched by millions of sensors and by Big Brother and nor did I have a digital identity. Each technological innovation put forward centered around the community with ideas of apps to encourage the circular economy by which people could lend their tools to one another or ride together to Frankfurt in one car. The Digital City strategy also entails free digital and media education courses for the elderly, but also free education modules for cybersecurity (Bleib wachsam, Darmstadt – stay alert, Darmstadt). Yes, there are sensors and a lot of data flying around, but they are generated with the LORAWAN protocol, a cheaper one that can be better controlled by the local administration. The interventions are targeted towards the community.

The biggest fear of people was to not be overcome and overwhelmed by technology.

Actually, the local administration organizes regular meetings with the citizens, where they can talk about the projects and where the local administration collects feedback. This is how the strategy began, by inviting people to an event where they could, among others, list their main fears related to digitization. The biggest fear of people was to not be overcome and overwhelmed by technology.

And by the way, the management of the Digital City has a series of committees that push forward and oversee the idea of tech for the people. According to them, they are among the few in Europe with an ethics committee, which has drawn up a series of ethical principles that should guide the local administration in the adoption of new technologies. As a matter of fact, this is the reason why they turned down a series of “black box” tech solutions offered to them, as they did not want to use technologies that could not be explained and opened up to the citizens,

Life in Germany’s first digital city is somehow the same even after they won this title, thus showing that digital transformation is a long-term effort and also an iterative exercise of governance. People ride their bikes, but they can also rent a bike from the bike sharing service administered by the local transport company. The administration functioned quite well during the lockdown. They are currently working on the city’s data platform, so that they can connect different sources of data in order to improve mobility, for instance. So, if pollution sensors report increases in values, this mostly likely means that traffic is high and several adjustments to the traffic management system can be made in order to lower pollution levels. And just to round the circle, the administration will open up the data platform partly to the citizens for so-called “citizen-science” project. Does this happen in a big city? Does this happen in Romania?
I deem these questions rhetorical, but I can offer certain ideas on how we can think differently about small and smart cities. The steps below are just one of the results of my research financed by the Deutscher Akademischer Austauchdienst (DAAD).

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