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Heidelberg on its way to becoming a Smart City

City panorama of Heidelberg, the river Neckar in the foreground, Mount Königsstuhl in the background

Heidelberg is more than just a family-friendly city in the countryside - Heidelberg is using data and know-how to promote sustainable urban development. Photo: City of Heidelberg

According to the Shanghai Ranking, Heidelberg University is the best university in Germany. In addition, there is a strong startup scene in the city, which reflects the future-oriented mindset of the people in Heidelberg. It's an ideal environment for innovation, says Anna Markus from the City of Heidelberg's Office of Digital and Information Processing; "Wherever technology can be used to improve the lives of citizens, we want to use it. A smart city can create enormous added value for the entire urban society. We want to take advantage of this opportunity."

In the network to the Smart City

Since 2021, Heidelberg has been part of the "Model Projects Smart Cities Made in Germany" as a consortium partner of the Rhine-Neckar metropolitan region, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of the Interior and Homeland. "Smart City" is not just one project for the people of Heidelberg, however: "But rather various individual projects that contribute to the overarching goal of a smart city. We receive positive feedback on these overall, for example on the climate compass or the citizens' portal," says Markus. Sensors are used to collect data in many places, which is then compiled and made available to the city's citizens.

Sensors and AI for the city of the future

In this way, people experience the benefits of the smart city very practically in everyday life, for example in traffic, when looking for a parking space or the tree in front of their own front door. Here, Heidelberg is currently working with soil moisture sensors that measure when the city's plants need to be watered. "This way, plants survive better in the heat and help cool the city climate and increase air quality," Markus says. This is a climate change adaptation project.

Robot icon of Lumi, the AI-based virtual assistant on the website of the city of Heidelberg, on a wine-red background.

Lumi is a virtual AI-based assistant on the website of the city of Heidelberg.

"Lumi" is one of the latest projects in Heidelberg. This is an AI-based virtual assistant on the city of Heidelberg's website that can provide information on various topics in the city, such as when the trash will be picked up or what to look out for when going to the next government office. Lumi can process queries in ordinary language and assign them to specific topics. Lumi is currently still in the test phase and therefore does not yet know the answer to every question. However, the tool is constantly being developed further.

In addition, Heidelberg, like many other smart cities, is also working with a digital defect reporter, a virtual citizens' office or its own city app, the "my Heidelberg app," in which citizens but also tourists have everything they need to know about the city in their pocket - from citizen services to information on events or even locations of public toilets, breastfeeding and baby-changing points. "Everyone must have open, transparent and understandable access to information and technology wherever possible," Markus emphasizes.

The urban data platform is therefore the central tool of the Smart City Heidelberg: "Various data sources converge on it. These can then be made available in a federated manner, linked with each other and reused for applications. Part of the Urban Data Platform is also the Open Data Portal, on which open data will be available in the future for science, business and citizens."

In the field of smart metering and sensor technology, Heidelberg is working primarily with the LoRaWAN network, which is being continuously expanded in the city.

Smart urban development for smart people

That's why older people in Heidelberg, or those who don't have a good connection to the digital, are also given special support on their way to becoming a smart city: "With the so-called 'Silberdraht' (silver wire), the Office for Family and Senior Citizens makes website information available as audio files. This is a good way for people of advanced age or with visual impairments in particular to keep up to date. At various locations in the city, there are courses and activities where new technologies are explained in an understandable way and seniors are supported in their use." Digital offerings are seen as complementary to analog formats. For example, a person can re-register online at the citizens' registration office, but can also continue to drop by in person - no one should be excluded, even if the city becomes more digital.

Courageous pioneering work instead of hurdles for innovations

Implementing innovative ideas in administration is not always easy, Markus admits: "Due to individual concerns and legal hurdles, few cities are willing to pioneer, but want to deploy a ready-made solution." Because that's not always possible, she advocates moving forward boldly and trying out technologies, "Even though there will be ideas or projects that don't work as well as hoped, it's an important learning experience. And in the cases where it does work, we create tangible innovation. This then benefits the people in the city, but also other municipalities that can build on this experience."

Anna Markus doesn't see the smart city as something that can be achieved - and therefore not something that can be completed at some point. Rather, she says, it is a way of working and thinking that must always be continued in order to improve the lives of everyone.

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