Prof. Jochen Rabe, Smart City Berlin

© ECDF/PR/Felix Noak

Prof Jochen Rabe of the Berlin Centre of Competence for Water

Prof Jochen Rabe is the Managing Director of the Berlin Centre of Competence for Water (Kompetenzzentrum Wasser Berlin, KWB) – and therefore an expert in water matters. As a member of the Smart City dialogue platform in the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community (BMI) and a member of several expert juries, he is really well acquainted with the Smart City topic. Since September 2020, Jochen Rabe has also been a member in the Smart City Berlin strategy advisory board. And since 2016 he has been teaching at the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) as a professor at the Einstein Center Digital Future (ECDF) in the subject of “Urban resilience and digitalization.” We spoke with him about smart water management, the participation of citizens in the development of digital cities and the city of the future.

Prof Rabe, this year you have become managing director of the Berlin Centre of Competence for Water.  What exactly does the KWB do? And what are its objectives?

The KWB is primarily a non-university research center. We work – roughly speaking – in science along the water cycle. As we all know, water is everywhere. Additionally, as a charitable limited company with the partners Berlinwasser Holding, Technologiestiftung Berlin and Berliner Wasserbetriebe, it has the mandate to function as a hinge in the diverse stakeholder landscape of Berlin-Brandenburg and beyond. This means primarily, to link the players among each other along the road of innovation. In newspeak this is also called a “think tank”.

What’s the significance of water for a city like Berlin?

A vital one! Without water, almost all life and business would not exist. One of the most heated debates around the construction of the Tesla works in Grünheide is about how and in what quantity water will be extracted there. Another example: Berlin’s city trees have suffered enormously in the draught of the last few years. This in turn has a direct impact on the well-being of the city. Vegetation reduces the urban heat island effect – and therefore the significantly higher average temperatures in comparison to the urban fringe.

Which are the biggest challenges that urban centres like Berlin are facing when it comes to water supply? 

One of our priorities is to better understand the hydrologic cycle. We know basically how it works. But to model it – and therefore to consider the effects of climate change such as heavy rain incidents or the already mentioned draught periods, that is not very easy. In this regard, the digitalisation is getting more important. Sensors that keep getting cheaper and better, have now also created a high-resolution database in the water sector. We are starting to improve our understanding of the hydrologic cycle. Not just on the superordinate, conceptual level, but also broken down into the regions and neighbourhoods. This enables us to react better to the impact of climate change and develop targeted measures.

A research focus of KWB is “intelligent water management”. What is that?

As an example, I would talk about a project which we at KWB coordinate as part of the EU-wide scheme for digital-water.city. One sub-project is dealing with the detection and prospective reduction of environmentally harmful emissions from the sewerage system using novel monitoring methods. Temperature sensors detect sewage water spillovers at rivers. Our best-known project in Berlin is probably the Flusshygiene (river hygiene) project. We have developed an early-warning system based on measurement and weather data that can predict sudden contamination, such as sewer overspills during heavy rainfalls. On www.badegewaesser-berlin.de, Berliners can always find information about the current water quality in the lakes in Berlin.    

And what about the topics of drinking water and sewage?

In these areas we are conducting research into a more energy-friendly utilisation of the sewage treatment plants. As part of the Berlin programme for sustainable development (Nachhaltige Entwicklung, BENE) we started a project last summer, in which we try to use biomethane and hydrogen from sewage treatment plants as “Green Gas”. In the area of drinking water, it is exciting to understand, how households use water. Drinking water is an important resource that we must use responsibly. Here we use data that was not available ten years ago. Data that gives new insights into how Berliners use water and how the use of this resource can be managed more sustainably. 

Since September of this year you are a member of the strategy advisory board of Smart City Berlin. What will your content integration look like?

As a member of the body of experts at the BMI dialogue platform Smart Cities, I have already been able to join the debate during the development of the nationwide promotion programme “Modellprojekte Smart Cities 2020” (Model Projects Smart Cities 2020). The main objective of the programme is to make communities future-proof. But I was also allowed to co-write the Berlin funding application and am now involved as an expert for urban digitisation, for sustainable and resilient urban development and for governance in strategy development. And of course, I have used the opportunity to bring more of the subject of water into the discussion. Among the five implementation projects that have so far only been very roughly outlined in the Berlin concept is one that focuses explicitly on water. It deals with the prediction of heavy rain incidents and their impact on the city. In this context, the transferability of solutions is of central importance. Because other cities and municipalities should be able to learn from the model projects implemented within the Smart City Berlin strategy. 

What role does networking play in building smart cities – nationally and internationally?

Networking is extremely important. Urban development is a municipal task in Germany, digitalisation by contrast is global. Not every municipality has the resources to deal decidedly with digitalisation. This makes it all the more important for municipal interests to join forces in order to meet the global challenge. As part of “Modellprojekte Smart Cities 2020” the BMI is therefore inviting tenders for a coordination and transfer centre with a significant budget. The participating municipalities are to be connected with each other, but also with the many municipalities that cannot participate in the programme.

How can citizens be more actively involved in the development of Smart Cities? And what is the KWB's approach in this respect? 

Here too, digitalisation is offering new opportunities. Just to give you one example: At the ECDF I am leading the research project BBBlockchain together with my colleague Prof. Dr. Florian Tschorsch. The central tool is an online participation platform supported by the six municipal housing associations. We are examining how the blockchain technology can contribute to increase transparency, and also the co-decision power of citizens in urban development procedures. In that sense, there are certainly many new ways of involving civil society better, more diversely and more inclusively. But this won’t fundamentally change the relationship between representative and direct democracy – even if the line in between will probably shift.  

What does the city of the future look like to you?

When you are looking ahead for the next ten or twenty years: Not much different than today – probably with a few new buildings in it. But it will be used differently. The Smart City affects primarily the operation of cities and only indirectly the urban form. The speed alone in which the digitalisation is progressing means that it is not possible to build for it as quickly as necessary.

What do you think characterises the Smart City Berlin?

Berlin is a metropolis with a strong civil society, a strong start-up community, and also some larger technology firms. Its size and the many magnificent players offer Berlin the opportunity to make a model contribution to the Federal Republic. However, “black-and-white-debates” can also be observed in Berlin – especially between the civil society and the economy. It is absolutely essential that civil society must have a strong voice when it comes to the use of data, for example. But we should talk to each other and also strive to agree on a relationship and rules that work for all sides for the common good. The digitalisation is unstoppable. Now we just have to make it sustainable and democratic. (vdo)