Time to open up the digital infrastructure!
CityLAB Berlin is driving forward digital innovation in the Berlin state administration. This technology not only benefits the city’s 3.8 million inhabitants – it also helps 625,000 thirsty trees throughout the city.
Benjamin Seibel literally sees Berlin’s greenest side each and every day. His office at Tempelhofer Feld – the former Tempelhof Airport – has been a gigantic park for years now. And, like all green areas, it suffers from the effects of dry springs and hot summers. Frequently, people have to help the thirsty plants with a watering can and a garden hose. This is also what led to Benjamin Seibel, the head of CityLAB Berlin, becoming the German capital’s “top gardener”. Yet, his tool is not a watering can but an algorithm. Seibel and his staff have invented an online portal known as Gieß den Kiez (only in German) to coordinate tree lovers and watering requirements.
Watering where it is needed: Berlin’s trees are just a click away
“In 2019 we were seeing that the Berlin district administrations were barely keeping up with the need to water all trees,” says Seibel. “But some locals took things into their own hands.” The portal seeks to add some order to these exemplary but chaotic good deeds. Locals can find out what trees are most in need of watering by clicking on each individual tree on a map. This displays information on the type and age of the tree and how much water it requires. At the same time, it is even possible to become a “foster parent” to individual trees. At the same time, policymakers and administrators gain a practical overview of the trees’ condition.
Digital technology offers the best way of tackling such a complex task. After all, the German capital has an official total of 625,000 trees lining its streets and in its parks. Such a large number is too much to be organised using pen and paper. And certainly not when numerous but unconnected citizens are available to help.
Yet the Gieß den Kiez project is not only receiving praise. There has been some criticism that the city administration is simply hiding behind a fancy technological project to conceal cost cuts. Benjamin Seibel does not accept this argument, saying, “Obviously, the park offices are still responsible for watering the trees. But many locals take action simply because they like trees and want to do something to help them.”
Lab committed to open-source principle
After all, everyone benefits when trees are healthy. Accordingly, the portal is a modern example showing how civic involvement can be organised. “Our projects are open-source developments on principle,” Seibel says. “We want to open up the digital infrastructure for the common good. By opening up to the outside world, we will also get a lot back.” In saying this, he is not only referring to the support of nature lovers but also the interest that public authorities have in taking new technological routes.
The nine-strong CityLAB team sees itself as a public innovation laboratory that supports but also drives the authorities. This is because Seibel believes that there is still plenty of potential for digitalisation: “The public authorities are frequently unaware of the extent of the digital competence of the city. And most authorities lack knowledge when it comes to digital aspects.”
Technologiestiftung Berlin and the Berlin Senate Chancellery founded CityLAB, providing it with considerable scope for action. This applies to the selection of processes as well as what at first glance appears to be trivial: “My colleagues decide for themselves the place they want to work from. And they all select their own technical equipment as well.” Such liberties are not a matter of course for public authorities: “Some developers are not even allowed to install programs on their own computers without first asking the IT department.”
Not all authorities are interested in new things
In this respect, CityLAB Berlin is not only a helper but also a driving force for public authorities, pursuing the ambitious goal of creating as many digital innovations as possible for the benefit of the general public. As Seibel explains, “Our projects expose the differences – between authorities eager to change and those with their feet on the brakes. Gieß den Kiez has triggered both enthusiastic and concerned reactions.
Ulitmately, CityLAB won the day and Gieß den Kiez went online. “We accept the possibility of conflicts arising but see these conflicts as something productive,” says Seibel confidently. CityLAB proposes ideas, builds prototypes and then releases them – ideally to public authorities that realise that digital innovations are not an additional burden but an improvement.
The use of artificial intelligence could also result in an improvement in Berlin’s parks and trees. CityLAB is already testing this somewhere else: in the Algorithmische Stadtvisionen (Algorithmic City Visions) project, developers are using city maps to train an algorithm and to have the computer develop a vision of a city. It sees this as a source of exciting ideas rather than as competition for urban planners.
The Gieß den Kiez project already incorporates weather data. However, a lot more data, such as long-term forecasts or soil moisture levels, could be used to design models and develop forecasts. In this way, the system could identify roads facing dangerously dry conditions at an early stage. This would be an exciting example of machine learning,” says Seibel. Because sometimes not even the experts at the authorities understand why a tree fails to survive the summer.”