Already known as the site of a vibrant start-up and technology scene, the city of Berlin issued its Smart City Strategy in April 2015. It encompassed a wide-ranging agenda for promoting digitalisation in a variety of policy fields – from housing and public administration to mobility, business and infrastructures. This programme emerged out of close collaboration between the city-state government and leading businesses in the city; Berlin’s first official steps towards being a smart city followed a corporatist and multi-sectoral approach.
Since then, the city’s smart landscape has changed significantly, for three reasons. Firstly, recent years have seen a surge in digital initiatives by citizens, civil society organisations and social movements seeking novel ways of mapping and monitoring the urban, communicating and connecting across the city. Secondly, the original flagship project for the Smart City Strategy – a state-of-the-art redevelopment of the airport site at Tegel (publicised as Berlin TXL – The Urban Tech Republic) is on hold pending a referendum on whether to keep the airport open, to be held in September 2017. Thirdly, the new red-red-green coalition government formed at the end of 2016 has committed to reappraising the existing smart city strategy. To this end a round table has been set up to capture a wide range of opinions on a ‘smart Berlin’. It seems that future policy on Berlin as a smart city is likely to be more attuned to environmental and social interests than in the past.
This makes Berlin a fascinating stage for exploring a huge variety of aspirations and applications of a digital city. Some of these initiatives are business-led ventures supported by leading global ICT providers. Others are deliberately anti-establishment and citizen-driven. Still others represent hybrid forms of collaboration between the public sector, NGOs and commercial start-ups. How these express and advance their own notions of a digitalised city is core to our research in the KNOWING project. How do they aspire to ‘know’ the city in ways different to the analogue city? What difference does this make to the way the city is governed?
The project “Stadtnatur entdecken” (“discovering nature in the city”) explores how urban nature is perceived in Berlin. An interdisciplinary team of biologists, computer scientists, urban ecologists and social scientists is studying digital forms of environmental education, modes of individual nature perception in cities and their impact on how urban nature is understood. A core feature of the project is the app “Naturblick”, designed to “give young adults a digital grasp on their experience of nature in an urban space” (project homepage). On the one hand the app helps users see and learn more about their natural surroundings, for instance via an automated birdsong recognition tool and a digital guide to trees, birds and other living organisms. There is a map function to aid the exploration of nature in the users’ immediate vicinity, highlighting the diversity of species to be found in the city. Topics such as climate change, non-indigenous species and urban gardening are also discussed in the context of a specific urban environment. On the other hand the app is interactive, drawing on information provided by users. The Wiki „Offene Naturführer” (“open nature guide”) allows users to suggest topics and upload their own material or record sightings. Plans exist to develop a citizen-science component, in which the researchers will become users of data generated by the public.