The programme Digitalstadt Darmstadt evolved as a result of winning a 2017 Bitkom competition to create a German “digital model city with international appeal” (Bitkom e.V., 2020). Motivated by this success, the city of Darmstadt has further been supported by several private and public sponsors such as Deutsche Telekom and the German Federal State of Hesse with the goal to develop into a lively and experimental space for designing and testing Smart City technologies. Darmstadt today, with its accumulated experience, is considered an innovative pioneer to cities and municipalities seeking to master the challenges of promoting their digital transformation.
Aims and scope
The network around Digitalstadt Darmstadt consists of a large number of public and private actors from Darmstadt’s strong ecosystem of renowned research institutions and its vibrant start-up scene. Comprised of upwards of 70 members, this broad collaborative network has been structured and held together by a single coordination entity, which is both physically and structurally located outside of the city’s core administration. Established in the legal form of a limited liability company (LLC), this entity is led by a two-person executive team and a steering committee, the latter holding the final decision-making power. The steering committee includes personalities who have been active in the programme’s initiation and continued development, such as Darmstadt’s incumbent mayor and the CEO of the city’s holding for public entreprises. In addition, 14 divisional heads with a certain degree of managerial autonomy serve as intermediaries between the LLC, the core administration and 32 Smart City project teams. Guided by Darmstadt’s digital strategy on the premise that they generate benefits for the greater urban society, projects are currently being jointly implemented in the following thematic areas: administration, security, IT infrastructure, cyber security, data platform, health, culture, and Industry 4.0.
Statements about the success and the innovative value of the overall Digitalstadt Darmstadt must be made with caution, as its transition to the longer-term implementation level is still pending. Some of the projects have yet to be realised and so far only small-scale projects have been implemented such as testing sensor technology in single objects. As it stands, it is less the individual Smart City projects than the governance structure of the LLC itself that can be understood as innovative.
Main collaboration challenges and conditions for successful collaboration
Though Digitalstadt Darmstadt has struggled with complexity and gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the public, its collective action has been strengthened by actors’ commitment and joint guiding principles.
The strict reporting system and two-year time constraint set by the main public funding body have made it difficult for Digitalstadt Darmstadt to instil an explorative approach and remain agile in its joint decision-making.
Given the limited time frame, the LLC as the coordinating body was challenged by the complexity of building a broad network amidst the large amount of parallel information, divergent interests of network members and the dual roles of the internal actors. Most of the internal actors involved in Digitalstadt Darmstadt were engaged in the collaboration alongside their regular working duties. It proved time-consuming and challenging to find the balance between the highly administrative apparatus of the city’s administration and the more lateral structures of the LLC.
A lack of clarity on legal issues related to digitalisation further restricted project implementation at the operational level and fostered uncertainty within the collaboration. As a result, collaborators felt held back and discouraged from pursuing projects as ambitiously as desired.
Moreover, the risk of losing legitimacy and public acceptance posed an additional challenge for the LLC. Fears continue to persist among Darmstadt’s population regarding the consequences of digitalisation. The negative aspects of digitalisation and accusations of blind digital capitalism have been frequently projected onto the LLC, which has often made it difficult to promote itself and foster a positive public image. The fact that winning the competition came with several pro bono services from private companies has further fuelled allegations of LLC having overstepped the line between public and private enterprise.
For Darmstadt’s collaborative network, a stepwise approach helped to address the complexity of engaging and retaining multiple stakeholders. It was considered essential to first start with a limited number of key individuals who held a pre-established sense of mutual trust and a common vision. This well-functioning group dynamic proved beneficial for attracting and integrating other actors later on in the collaboration. Considering the intense double workload required for those involved in the project, it was furthermore important to engage people who could bring to the table a good amount administrative experience and an intrinsic enthusiasm for the topic of digitalisation.
Although the institutionalisation and involvement of several advisory boards helped to bridge existing knowledge gaps, the lack of clear legal foundations to mobilise digitalisation remains an issue to this day.
Coordinating Digitalstadt Darmstadt in the form of a limited liability company intensified tensions between private and public sector logics, but it in turn allowed for a wider strategic and financial scope of action and encouraged more horizontal work and learning processes. Joint framework conditions (e.g. ethical guidelines and a common strategy) assisted with navigating the complexity regarding diverging interests and rationales by enabling all the actors involved to draw on common principles. Joint framework conditions further empowered leadership to impose regulation in critical situations and represent the programme in a uniform and transparent manner, which significantly helped to gain legitimacy within and outside the collaboration.
Implications and lessons learned
All measures taken to overcome Digitalstadt Darmstadt’s various challenges underscore the relevance of individuals’ actions in contrast to formal structures for success. This held true both within the structuring coordination entity (LLC) and within the wider network of actors.
It is therefore important to consider paying greater attention to strengthening interpersonal competences when designing future Smart City endeavours.
As broad acceptance is key to collaborative projects maintaining their legitimacy in the long term, it is also essential to involve relevant interest groups at an early stage and to respond effectively to the concerns of the population. In the concrete case of Darmstadt, this included conveying that conventional approaches would be retained alongside new digital services and that the project has been motivated by public good.
In this sense, it is worth thinking twice before considering external funding, either private or public and carefully assess one’s own strengths with regards to strategy implementation. Trust-building and the cycle of trial-and-error will take time, and although there is a clear need for a certain set of ‘rules of the game’, rigid framework conditions proved to ultimately influence or even hinder collaborative innovation dynamics.
- Darmstadt’s digital strategy. Available here.
- Partsch, J., and Kolmer, M. (2020). Die Transformation von Stadt durch Digitalisierung. In M. Grosser, E. Hertzsch, and L. Heuser, Mensch und Technik in der Smart City. Gemeinsam Zukunft Planen. Berlin: Beuth Verlag GmbH.
- Website of Bitkom’s competition. Available here.
- Website of Digitalstadt Darmstadt. Available here.
About the Author
Maike Rackwitz, Hertie School