The city of Berlin has unveiled a ten-point plan to make the city a hub of digital technology and culture. The measures include new research groups, better startup financing, and tests of the new 5G mobile standard.
On Monday in Berlin, the city's Mayor, Michael Müller, and Christian Thomsen, the president of the Technical University of Berlin (TUB, pictured at top), presented ten "strategic projects" aimed at making Germany's capital city fit for the onrushing digital future.
"Digitalization has a key role to play in the development of Berlin, whether in terms of 'Smart City' initiatives, Industry 4.0, or the business models of many startups," said Mayor Müller.
The ten initiatives were the outcome of five months' worth of planning - which anyone familiar with the rhythms of governance will recognize as blazingly fast. The Mayor and Council had set up a working group for digitalization at the end of June 2015, and recruited more than 50 experts from politics, academia and business to take part.
One of the most important initiatives is the "Berlin Centre for a Digital Future," which they expect will be funded by the city-linked Einstein Foundation. All the capital's universities and technical colleges are meant to participate in the centre, in an effort to generate a strong city-wide network for digital research and innovation.
A total of 30 new professorships will be funded within the framework of the new Centre, distributed around the various colleges. These will include 25 Junior Professorships and 5 more senior professorships. In addition, prominent experts will be brought to the city as Visiting Fellows.
"In just five months, we've already secured financing for 20 professorships," Thomsen said. "That shows we've hit a nerve in terms of the spirit of the times, and that Berlin is seen as very attractive" as a research hub.
The money for the professorships was raised from business and from other non-academic sources.
Berlin's regional government will also invest additional funds in providing open access to research journals and materials via the Internet. Total spending for the professorships, the Visiting Fellows, and the Open Access program will amount to about 5 million euros annually ($5.4 million).
A fourth element in the City of Berlin's package of ten projects is a commitment to early testing and deployment of 5G mobile digital communications networks.
Fifth-generation or "5G" mobile Internet access technology is still in development, and not expected to be ready for widespread commercial deployment before 2020. The current 4G standard for fast mobile Internet access is called LTE, or "long term evolution." 5G is expected to enable data transfer rates of around 1 Gigabit per second, around ten times as fast as LTE.
5G networks will enable a leap in the scope of mobile digital applications. 5G will allow self-driving cars to find their way around crowded city streets without bumping into anything. Other applications will include health services applications and networked augmented-reality gear. Berlin's plan is to be the first major city in Europe to initially test new 5G gear, and then the first to roll it out commercially. The city wants to offer itself as a hotspot for cutting-edge technology developers and startup entepreneurs looking for a real-world environment to test applications that require 5G connectivity.
Digital health records and diagnosis
Berlin's Charité hospital group will move forward with the development of sophisticated, user-friendly digital health records accessible via mobile connections, in cooperation with Berlin's Institute for Health Research, the Berlin regional government and various industry partners.
The idea here is to improve patient care by allowing quick access to well-organized patient data for medical practitioners, independent of location. So if someone has a stroke, a heart attack, a fainting spell or some other problem, emergency personnel will quickly have the patient's medical records on hand - and at the same time, automated context-appropriate advice on diagnostics and therapies.
All relevant personnel, ranging from the patient her- or himself through doctors, nurses, social workers, medical insurers and others would have access to well-organized "e-health" records and systems, subject to appropriate data security and privacy guarantees.
And five more
The remaining five initiatives cover a broad span. There's a proposal to tap a City of Berlin program on gender equity to provide doctoral scholarships for women IT researchers. There's a plan for several Berlin universities and the Charité to jointly apply for digitization funding through a federal "Excellence Initiative," as well as a drive to fund a Berlin Institute for Digitization and Society involving faculty from several universities.
Outside the academic domain, there's a push to include startups, established businesses, and corporate management to get behind a new digital skills development program. This will include the development of entirely new trades, within the context of Germany's famous twin-track three-year skills training system composed half of schooling and half of on-the-job training. A working group will get going on that in 2016.
In addition, civil servants are to be provided skills training upgrades to bring them up to speed on digital systems, and the City of Berlin's management academy will develop new programs and upgrade existing ones, to make sure digital competencies are included in its course offerings.
Then there's something called CityLAB Berlin in the works. It's meant to be an indisciplinary institution that combines the themes of digitization and "smart city" applications - a place to dream up and assess solutions for the digital city of the future, a place where business, startups, city development staff, engineers and creative types can meet, brainstorm and compare notes. It will also provide a forum for the professionals to talk about their ideas with the public during events.
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CityLAB is still in a conceptual phase, with the development of a specific institutional design in the works using the same sort of interdisciplinary hocus-pocus CityLAB is itself meant to follow once it's set up sometime in 2016.
Last but not least, Berlin's regional government and Investitionsbank Berlin (IBB), a special city-owned bank that supports early-stage ventures and small to medium-sized businesses, will be expanding their financing for digital businesses.
All in all, the measures announced today look like a pretty solid effort on the part of the City to make sure it has a comfortable seat booked on the train into the vastly information-overloaded, digitally hyper-connected future. Come to think of it, maybe Berlin should buy a couple of thousand hectares of woodland and farmland in the countryside outside city limits as well, just to hedge its bets, so it can set up a few digital-media-free sanatoria for people at risk of digital burnout to rest and recuperate from time to time.