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On the right side of the game: how open source is making digital laggards catch up

A “system of systems” approach is starting to unlock closed networks

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"When it comes to the digitisation of public processes and services, and smart cities is part of that, Germany is at least five years behind the rest of Europe." That is the FIWARE Foundation CEO’s Ulrich Ahle’s blunt assessment of his native country’s standing in the smart cities market, despite its engineering heritage.

 

He points to the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Social Index, which ranked Germany 21st when it came to digital public services provision last year. "And you can imagine there are not too many countries after that," he adds drily.

 

He says it’s a conundrum for the country to solve and is something that puzzles even him. "In the manufacturing industry, Germany is leading in Europe, if not even globally, when it comes to the digitisation of manufacturing processes. Industry 4.0 was invented in Germany. But it is really difficult to understand why Germans are so good at the digitisation of manufacturing processes and still behind when it comes to digitising public processes."

 

This in part explains FIWARE’s involvement in the Smart Cities: Made in Germany project. The government programme has supported 45 smart city projects across the country with €800 million of public funding. The third "season" of the project has recently been completed, with cities vying to receive their share of €300 million of earmarked cash.

It is difficult to understand why Germans are so good at the digitisation of manufacturing processes and still behind when it comes to digitising public processes

Ahle’s involvement has led to the government accepting a "clear preference" for open-source solutions. However, he says Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Home Affairs, which runs the project, is not yet amenable to adopting open standards for interfaces or data models, which would further support the replicability of solutions.

 

He suggests some countries need to go through a "learning curve" before returning to open-source solutions. He cites the case of India and its 100 Smart Cities programme, which launched almost a decade ago. Despite its ambitions, the country came to a realisation two years ago that each city has built its own silos. Ahle says: "That wheel has been invented several times and there were only limited synergies between the 100 selected cities. The public funding which was provided for this could have been spent more efficiently."

 

This initial stumbling block has led to a partnership between the country and the FIWARE Foundation where the latter helped create a standardised smart city platform, built with open source, open APIs and standard data models in mind.

Germany is behind its European counterparts when it comes to digitising public services
Germany is behind its European counterparts when it comes to digitising public services

Follow the leader

 

He says Germany has much to learn from the leaders in public service digitisation - Finland, Estonia, Denmark and the Netherlands. The first is a lack of digital know-how in public administrations. The second is cultural, with citizens in more advanced countries more willing to use digital solutions.

 

He says: "The absolute benchmark in Europe is Estonia. It managed to create 20 years ago a standard platform for its country where all digital processes are managed. And there’s a clear rule; the owner of the data is a citizen. And the citizen always has transparency on what’s happening to his or her data. This is something we are lacking here in Germany."

 

Ahle is enthused by the German cities which are more accepting of open, inoperable technology. He cites Wolfsburg, home to Volkswagen and a city selected in the first wave of the Smart Cities: Made in Germany programme. "It has been putting more and more services onto this [FIWARE-based smart city platform]: smart lighting, smart parking, and so on; different services for the citizens."

 

He deflects lighthearted accusations of bias but he also describes his native Paderborn as a "digital model city". It implemented a smart city platform built on open-source technology and using open APIs and provided it to other cities at the end of 2020. "[Around seven] other cities out of this programme have already decided to reuse it and to join forces," he says. "And this is in my perspective the perfect way to efficiently use public money because this funding is public money, it’s taxpayers’ money which is spent there. This is a very efficient way to join forces and to avoid to build silos and to avoid reinventing the wheel again."

The absolute benchmark in Europe is Estonia

Joining forces is how he sees the open-source community, describing FIWARE’s own in the same breath as Linux or Wikipedia. "There are really big communities behind this software. This provides trust and a high innovation potential. We are talking about a community of roughly 10,000 developers, which are maintaining, further developing and using these software building blocks to create solutions. And in this combination, it is possible to create the lowest cost of ownership for digital solutions.”

 

He cites an example in Italy during the initial stages of the coronavirus pandemic of how open-source can work for all our benefit. "When the first Covid-19 infected people were there nearly exactly a year ago, one of our partners, Engineering Informatica, designed on flip charts a solution to bring together all the relevant Covid-19 information.

 

"This solution was built within five days based on the FIWARE platform they have in place. In the meantime, thousands of doctors, hospitals and test centres are connected to this platform and all Covid-19 relevant information is available in real time, not using faxes anymore."

 

When I laugh at his mention of faxes, he says a lot of health authorities in Germany are still using those as their main means of real-time communication, again showing how far it must go with digitisation. But he says the Smart Cities: Made in Germany programme is cause for optimism: it shows the battle in the public market for open-source technology is being won.

 

System of systems

 

In the private market, it is a little behind although again, he is pleased with the direction it is heading. He gives the example of a smart waste project in Heidelberg, where waste containers are equipped with sensors that are then in turn connected to the city’s fibre network. This fixed line network uses SAP’s Leonardo Internet of Things platform.

 

However, even though the platform is SAP technology, it can plug into a wider "system of systems", as Ahle puts it. "It is necessary that different systems or different platforms are able to work together to bring the data they are managing and the contextual information they are managing together and use this joint data for smart solutions."

 

A system of systems approach could be seen as a concession; that not everything will be opened. Ahle accepts that will likely be the case for the next decade but says that it does not necessarily matter. He says: "What’s important is to have open interfaces to use the same data models and can be implemented using open source or closed source. It requires the openness and the willingness of the different players to open the interfaces and not to have a complete closed system.

 

"Here the market is thriving because it is demanding open systems and wanting to avoid so-called vendor lock-in situations. We are on the right side of the game."

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