From Smart Cities and Communities: Eleven municipalities hand in hand on the way to Smart Countryside

The municipality of Eppenschlag in the Ilzer Land

Carolin Pecho is the first woman to hold the office of mayor in Ringelai – and she’s a mayor on the ball: Together with ten other municipalities in the Ilzer Land region of Lower Bavaria, which are being supported by the federal government as a “Smart City” model project, she is energetically driving the rural region forward. “Hybrid” is the keyword here: hand in hand, the aim is to create a hybrid – i.e. digital and analog – future for the “SmarteLand”. Sometimes that’s not so easy. Especially when it comes to making decisions at the intermunicipal level, allaying citizens’ fears and communicating the added value of the innovations. But Pecho is not getting tired anyway – and is also devoting herself to the question of how the existing data can be used sustainably in the rural region as part of the funding project. As a project partner for the development of the regional “SmartesLand-Strategy”, we were able to talk to the mayor about the way of the Ilzer Land to a smart region with the vision of a regional data room.

The municipality of Ringelai wears the hat when it comes to the smart city project of the association of eleven municipalities in Ilzer Land: And when you talk to the mayor, Carolin Pecho, you also have the immediate feeling that this hat fits well there. The doctor of history has been working for the association of municipalities since 2018. After her doctorate, she was drawn straight back to her home country. The association of municipalities has existed independently of the funding project since 2005: The municipalities have joined forces to discuss, initiate and better implement a wide variety of projects ranging from vacancy management to senior citizen care in joint discussion groups.

Rural region on new paths: From hundreds of ideas to concrete digital projects.

How does an association of municipalities on the edge of the Bavarian Forest National Park get smart city funding? Even during Pecho’s time in management for Ilzer Land, the municipalities devoted themselves to the question of how the rural region could make itself more attractive to residents and newcomers as part of a large-scale evaluation process. As part of the evaluation process, the municipalities quickly came across the topic of digitization, which had previously been pursued rather aimlessly. It quickly became clear that there was a need for action – and the goal must be to expand regional administrative digitization beyond the requirements of the Online Access Act. “We applied to the Smart City funding program because it seemed the most appropriate for us to come up with truly innovative new measures,” Pecho explains in conversation. “In the application, we were able to incorporate some project ideas from the participation formats during the evaluation.”

The application was successful. In the course of the strategy phase, which DKSR accompanied in a consortium with project partners ateneKOM and polidia, those involved then identified a total of 400 new digital project ideas, which were clustered and broken down into eight major measures with various subprojects. One example: a regional data space comprising an urban data platform as the basic infrastructure for applications such as early flood warnings or an improvement in winter services.

Strategy Workshop in summer of 2022

Stumbling blocks on the road to innovation: More organization than technology

One major challenge in the intermunicipal strategy process: Despite the geographical proximity, each of the municipalities in the model project naturally follows its own control bodies, its own logic – and has different needs. This is made clear by the population figures alone: The largest municipality, the town of Grafenau, has a population of just over 8,000 – the smallest, Fürsteneck, has only 800. When it came to working together productively for the Smart City model project nonetheless, the association of municipalities also benefited in the strategy process from previous experience of intermunicipal cooperation, says the mayor of Ringelaier: “We therefore already know: we are definitely also similar. Topics such as inner development occupy us all. Getting that across was a challenge, but also rewarding – because in the end, it allowed us to get a lot of people on board.”

At the beginning of the process, many decision-makers, especially from the tax authorities of the municipalities, would have preferred an Otto catalog of ready-made digital solutions for municipal tasks. In this respect, some had to be disappointed – because part of the process was to first find out what was needed in the first place and how this could best be solved. “That’s where clear expectation management was needed. Either way, quite well, because we probably wouldn’t have been able to afford much of the Otto catalog anyway,” Pecho laughs.

Another challenge now facing the network’s project team members: Communicating the results of the strategy phase in such a way that they reach everyone involved. After all, the citizens should not only be asked about their needs, but also know how these have been incorporated into the project planning. In general, the participation of citizens varied greatly depending on the municipality and organizational structure. To ensure that participation runs as smoothly as possible, it is important not only to engage external project staff, but also to have project officers from the municipalities on site who can talk to the citizens and develop a feeling for the various needs. This is especially important in strategy phases, where stakeholders cannot yet anticipate tangible measures and impacts.

More & better living in SmartLand: Supported by a data platform

As soon as possible, however, the first measures should be implemented. In this respect, the strategy development resulted in various target projects: from “MITREDEN”, a digital citizen participation platform, to hybrid tourism. “It became very clear that a big data platform in the background was going to be one of the tools we needed for many of these projects – whether it was for an app or for better public services in extreme weather situations,” Pecho recounts.

The topic of the data platform was already on the radar screen beforehand, but it became more concrete during the process. The platform is intended to become the digital place where the municipal data of the network is made available transparently and turned into applications. Pecho does not doubt that enough data is already available for this: “We have a lot of data – from water meters, controlling systems in properties, and so on and so forth. There is also a lot of potential for savings in the relevant areas, for example through timely repairs to sanitary facilities in public institutions. In the same way, the platform could be used to improve the design of participation processes – especially for newly arrived citizens who do not have access to generations of knowledge about tried-and-tested processes in the municipalities. “Much of what we have done for decades will no longer work in the future,” Pecho points out. Digital applications via a data platform could also enable older people to live independently at home for longer if properly empowered.

Together smarter into the implementation phase

With the insights and plans from the strategy phase, the next steps of the model project for the municipalities from the Ilzer Land region now involve creating real digital applications. Where Mayor Pecho from the smart region sees the digital project in a few years? Soon, she hopes, there will be a digital contact point with various municipal applications for citizens – with a high acceptance and usage rate. The vision that hovers over everything is to use digitization and data together in a targeted manner – in order to provide security, exchange and cohesion for a society that increasingly wants to live freely and independently, including in rural areas. After all, strong intermunicipal cooperation like that of the municipalities in the llzer Land region provides the best basis for the success of this project!

As a rural region, like the model project in the Ilzer Land, dare to take the plunge – and learn how data can be used to do so, even in smaller communities, to address municipal challenges? DKSR will be happy to support you. Find out more about our Urban Data Discovery Package or contact us directly at any time for a non-binding, individual consultation!