Darmstadt has won Germany’s first ever Digital City award. Surprised? You shouldn’t be: This confident city champions networks, e-mobility, and autonomous driving.

On a sunny late-summer day, Prof. Dr. Klaus-Michael Ahrend parks his hybrid. After a quick stretch, the 46-year-old enters the HQ of HEAG Holding AG, bypasses the lift, and takes the five flights of stairs up to his office.

“I enjoy getting around on foot,” the head of Darmstadt’s municipal utility states in a matter-of-fact- tone that doesn’t fish for compliments or betray any sign of exhaustion. Once arrived at his desk, he takes a quick peek out of the window. “You can literally sense the spirit of openness and optimism,” he declares. “It’s palpable how society has taken it in.”

a green space in Darmstadt
Great visions: German city Darmstadt has won the Digital City competition.
Photo: Digitalstadt Darmstadt

The Digital City contest promotes infrastructure

“It,” in this case, is the Digital City competition. Sometime towards the end of last year, the German telecommunications association, Bitkom, staged the future-oriented contest for the very first time. This summer, Darmstadt was pronounced the overall winner – and recipient of several million Euros earmarked for getting the city and its infrastructure in perfect shape for a successful digital future.

While outsiders might wonder why the award’s promoters picked this particular municipality – located somewhere in Hesse, but otherwise a blank spot on the map respectively in most people’s minds – those in the know appreciate the decision. Most of all Klaus-Michael Ahrend, whose job as project manager of the Digital City makes him more or less its virtual mayor.

Local residents are justly proud of their city, one of Europe’s leading IT hubs. In the European Commission’s Information and Communication Technologies ranking, Darmstadt claims the top spot among similar sized cities – from all corners of Europe.

Last year, the science city with a population of almost 160,000 already received a Digital Leader Award for its open data project on traffic flow improvement. What’s more, Darmstadt is also the first city in a decade to switch its entire tram power supply to 100% green electricity.

E-mobility based on renewable energy

“What good would e-mobility do if it was powered by coal-fired electricity?” is Ahrend’s rhetorical question when asked about this issue. “It’s our mission to encourage a sustainable digital transformation – one that isn’t an end in itself that mostly benefits the involved IT industry. We want to ensure that the city’s residents actually reap the advantages.”

The city obviously flourishes, offering a high density of enterprises, a popular university, and even an underground particle accelerator (Fair, to be completed by 2025) designed to unravel the last remaining mysteries around the creation of our universe. So, while local football club SV Darmstadt 98 might have suffered defeat and relegation this year, the rest of Darmstadt easily plays in the top league.

symbol image of data
The city wants to push digitalization sustainably.
Photo: sakkmesterke – Fotolia, montage: vrm/kl

Autonomous driving is part of the mix

Yet goal-oriented and self-confident Klaus-Michael Ahrend is not content with the city resting on its laurels. After all, Darmstadt’s digital transformation will also hinge on environmental and traffic-related factors.

Ahrend’s transformative push launches in 2018 with a connected parking app, designed to help residents and visitors alike to find and reserve parking spots. Special sensor-equipped antennas will measure each district’s environmental factors and make the resulting readings available as open data.

Meanwhile, a trading platform will offer regional products with same-day delivery by cargo e-bike.

“In closed areas, we’re also experimenting with autonomous busses,” Ahrend adds. “In the near future, Darmstadt will run semi-autonomous trams. Naturally, and just like everyone else, autonomous driving is governed by a strict regulatory framework. But with our projects, we are already preparing for day X to make sure Darmstadt is absolutely ready for the official introduction of this technology.”

symbol image of a phone and a laptop generatring data
Darmstadt will continue to set standards as a connected city.
Photo: www.digitalstadt-darmstadt.de, shutterstock

The city as an organism

The recent announcement to open a ten-kilometer stretch of motorway between Darmstadt and Frankfurt Airport for electric trucks powered by overhead lines (starting in late 2018) already caused a sizeable stir among residents.

Aware of local perception and reactions to such innovative projects, a level-headed Klaus-Michael Ahrend considers and finetunes future plans. After all, his office is just a stone’s throw from Darmstadt’s city hall and Mayor Jochen Partsch – who needs to rubber stamp every single step of the Digital City project.

So, what can we expect to see in Darmstadt by 2025, when the particle accelerator ramps up to recreate the Big Bang?

“By then, traffic will be completely electric while residents enjoy greater access to carsharing and other sharing models,” Ahrend envisions. “Our city will no longer be the sole domain of the car, but rather an organism to be navigated using the best possible mode of transport for each route or occasion, whether that’s a car or an e-bike. Mobility is about to undergo a seismic shift.”

A future city designed to be even more liveable, pedestrians will also experience a new level of comfort. Staircase enthusiast Klaus-Michael Ahrend knows how important this is.

Initiated by Germany’s digital association Bitkom in collaboration with the German Association of Towns and Municipalities, the Digital City contest called for medium-sized German cities that have a decent infrastructure, an urban character, and a nearby university. In the final round of selection, Darmstadt managed to prevail against Heidelberg, Kaiserslautern, Paderborn, and Wolfsburg. In their declaration, Bitkom underscored the holistic nature of Darmstadt’s concept and its focus on cybersecurity. For the latter, Darmstadt had involved the CDO services of Michael Waidner, head of the Fraunhofer Institute for Secure Information Technology.