Picture of lord mayor of Bonn, GER sitting on a sofa during a talk

“We’re doing this for the people”

Interview with the former Lord Mayor of Bonn Ashok Sridharan

In the 2019 Smart City Index rankings published by Bitkom, Germany’s digital association, the city of Bonn claimed seventh place nationwide – and top spot in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. However, for Ashok Sridharan, Lord Mayor of the city until October 2020, this success is just the beginning.

Mr. Sridharan, until the very last day of your term as Lord Mayor of Bonn, digital development was high on the city's agenda., digital development has been a top priority for the city. Why is this issue so important to you?

We are living in an age of digital transformation with impacts on people and the economy, but also on administrative processes. Cities must face up to this challenge. Our citizens are not the only ones who want to reap the benefits of digitization; every stakeholder in our city wants to see changes. Whether we’re talking about administration, everyday life, traffic and transport or sustainability issues, digitization offers opportunities for improvements – and we wanted to seize these chances whenever we can.

The issue of ‘smart cities’ is often considered from a technological perspective. Smart traffic-light systems, intelligent street lighting and connected trash cans are celebrated as examples of digital innovations. What do you think makes a city ‘smart’?

We need to position ourselves as ‘smart’ in every regard. This isn’t just about digitization projects or individual solutions, although those obviously form part of the picture. A city is only ‘smart’ if the people who live there or visit it feel well informed and in good hands – and can quickly and easily find out more about things that interest them. In that sense, becoming a ‘smart city’ demands a holistic approach – and our city government must act accordingly. We need to take our citizens with us on this journey and shape our thoughts in a smart way by taking a look at the bigger picture around us. We must think more in terms of processes and inter-disciplinary ways of working. As a city, we can only make these changes with the help of our stakeholders. Otherwise, we will be left with stand-alone, non-integrated solutions.

How close have you come to the ambitious digitization goals you set in 2015?

Picture of lord mayor of Bonn next to a golden statue of Beethoven.

Ashok Sridharan has been the mayor of the city of Bonn since 2015.

The 54-year-old lawyer graduated from the Aloisiuskolleg in Bonn’s Bad Godesberg district in 1985, before going on to study law at the University of Bonn. After holding various professional positions, he served as deputy mayor of Königswinter from 2002 to 2015, also serving as head of finance, human resources, organization, IT and controlling. Internationally, he is the president of the ICLEI (Local Governments for Sustainability) city network. In September 2020, Ashok Sridharan will once again run to become mayor of Bonn.  

We took an important step shortly after my election when, as promised, we launched the ‘Digital Bonn’ initiative together with Axxessio, a partner of Deutsche Telekom, plus the local council for economic development (Wirtschaftsförderung) and the Chamber of Industry and Commerce (IHK). Led by Axxessio’s Goodarz Mahbobi, we very quickly secured the support of 70 businesses to jointly develop a digitization strategy for Bonn – on a pro-bono basis, I should add. Together, we generated over 300 project ideas that we are now executing step by step. We are following a clustered approach so that we avoid running in too many directions at once, as this would lead to non-integrated solutions. In 2017, we pledged to become the smartest city in North Rhine-Westphalia by 2025 – and we’ve already achieved this goal, five years ahead of schedule. But we’re far from satisfied with this achievement; we want to secure our position – or even better, to strengthen it further. Bitkom’s Smart City Index makes it very easy to see where we need to improve or become more active.

The Bitkom rankings suggest that your city hall is particularly well set up for the digital age – with only Berlin ahead of you in the national table. How important is digital administration to you?

It is a very important building block for digitization. The administration is very close to our citizens and has many touchpoints with the people of Bonn. Our top priority is to offer improvements and simplifications at these points of contact. It should no longer be necessary for people to come to the city hall to complete even minor administrative tasks. That’s why we wanted to offer a quarter of our services digitally by 2025. This is a realistic objective; in 2018, we introduced around 180 new online offerings. These included the first steps towards digital applications for building permits. We want to fully digitize this process – from initial application, to processing, to the final decision. There will no longer be a need for physical paperwork to be moved from desk to desk.

Public administration is often seen as quite reluctant to innovate. Why has Bonn been such a success in this regard?

I cannot judge whether your assessment is true on such a broad basis – but in Bonn, it is certainly working. Over 90 percent of the managers in our administration support the digitization process. We owe this to the fact that we brought them on board at an early stage and incorporated their ideas into the process. Also, we could see that digitization in some parts of the administration was already very advanced. For example, we have a geographic information system that provides valuable, location-based information to many departments. However, we hadn’t yet exploited the potential of this system. Our CDO helped us to see where we could use the data if we connected the system across multiple departments.

It is relatively rare for a city to have its own Chief Digital Officer. What can a CDO do to help you with digitization?

The German cities of Lubeck, Kiel, Dusseldorf and Aachen all have a CDO, so it’s not really unusual any more. What is unusual, though, is that we deliberately hired an external CDO who was not previously part of our administration. He is not a government employee, either; he has a consultancy agreement with us. Why do we believe that this is better for our ‘smart city’ plans? An external CDO with no prior experience of municipal administration considers the issue from a completely different perspective. He can identify opportunities that those of us on the ‘inside’ might miss. The geographic information system is a good example; the CDO noticed that we had a valuable source of data that we could use for a broad range of purposes, but we on the administration team had not yet spotted this opportunity ourselves.

So the CDO launches these digitization projects?

It isn’t even about the individual digitization projects themselves; we’re in a very strong position there thanks to the involvement of so many businesses. Rather, the CDO brings ideas that inspire us to consider new approaches within the administration. He offers advice and pushes us forward. Today, it is far less common for us to think in silos and the whole administration has become far more transparent. For example, we hold a digitization conference four times a year with all of our managers. Everyone is fully on board, everyone plays an active part, and everyone knows where we stand and what we plan to do next.

Would it be fair to say that transparency is a very important to you?

Absolutely. We must be transparent with the things that we plan and implement. Everyone should feel like they’re part of the process and nobody can accuse the city of taking all of its decisions behind closed doors at the city hall. In that sense, I believe that the topic of ‘open data’ is very important for us as representatives of the city. We are currently uploading around 500 electronic data files from the public administration to the platform. These files include hotly debated projects in the city such as the renovation of Bonn’s Beethovenhalle concert hall. Anyone who wants to find out about the project’s progress can do so via the open data system – and the same is true for all the other large construction projects across the city. A lot of things are discussed and misrepresented regarding these topics, so our task is to share our own information with the public. 

Is there another project particularly important to you?

Traffic and mobility is certainly a major issue for the city of Bonn. It is not always a pleasure to come into the city to work. There is still a huge need for optimization in this area, and the opportunities are there for this. We’re not just thinking about driving, though. We’re building traffic and transport systems that are not specifically built for cars, bicycles or buses, but for people who need to get from A to B. This means we need smart solutions. One of these would be a cable car from the right bank of the river Rhine up to the city’s Venusberg district. The existing road is heavily congested and a cable car could help with this. First, it can be built relatively quickly. And second, it would offer an additional attraction value for the city.   

How are the people of Bonn responding to the plans for a smart city? 

In principle, we are digitizing only for the people. These projects are not an end in themselves because it’s all the rage right now to be ‘smart’. That’s why we involve the people of Bonn in our plans. They can actively participate in our ‘city labs’ – a concept that has been very well received. That said, there are still people who are fundamentally against digitization. We will continue to work to convince these people of the value of our ideas. However, digitization must not exclude these citizens. 

The full ranking is available at www.smart-city-index.de (in German). 

Author: Roger Homrich
Photos: Oliver Krato

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