Creating Smarter Government

How can governments lead the way into the future?

Smart government is the impetus for any truly smart city. Citizen bottom-up initiatives to make cities smarter cannot easily occur if government is not also involved through top-down policies and through financially supporting bottom-up initiatives. The most significant problem with creating smart cities and addressing climate change in the United States is the rampant idea that government should take a completely hands-off approach. But a hands-off approach does not constitute a government, and it’s certainly not what constitutes a forward-looking society. A smart government looks to the future, embracing new ideas and technologies that will be considered essential in twenty years, rather than relying on the status quo. A smart government works to increase overall economic growth and individual economic opportunity through investment in innovation. Smart governments, especially at the local level, exist all across Germany and the Netherlands and have many lessons for cities in the United States.

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The Reichstag government building is an excellent example of government setting an example in order to achieve a goal. The Reichstag runs completely carbon-neutral, which is impressive considering some of its older architecture and how often it is used.

When we learned at the beginning of our Study Abroad about Freiburg’s strong climate initiatives and their success, it quickly became clear that a smart government can have a positive impact in several ways. First of all, when a government takes initiative on a project, it sets a positive example for individuals and private businesses. Freiburg’s city government has done this through pledging to be a climate-neutral region by 2050 and already reducing their carbon footprint significantly more than Germany as a whole. Freiburg’s city government has set an example for its citizens and businesses through installing rooftop solar on government buildings, increasing recycling in the city from 25% to 69%, and through extensions of the reliable and impressive public transport network. When a government sets ambitious goals like Freiburg’s goal of a climate-neutral region by 2050, it is essential that those words are backed up by meaningful actions; otherwise, citizens and businesses begin to think that said goal is not realistic and is therefore not worth supporting. Freiburg’s commitment to creating a green city is backed up by the government’s actions, leading private industry to create similar commitments.

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The Schwarzwald-Stadion in Freiburg is outfitted with solar panels bought by citizens, encouraging social capital, social entrepreneurship, and personal and economic investment in environmental initiatives.

When a smart government is working towards a goal, it recognizes that it must bring in the voices of as many citizens as possible to determine specific actions to be taken. Citizen-financed renewable energy projects can be the key to achieving Freiburg’s 2050 carbon-neutral goal while doing two things: increasing citizen involvement and giving citizens an economic incentive for being more involved. One of the best examples of this is the Freiburg football stadium, Schwarzwald-Stadion, being outfitted with solar panels. Citizens also voted for a new stadium to be built in 2018. The new stadium will be outfitted with solar panels, and when citizens purchase tickets, they will also pay for the solar panels. This takes social interaction to a new level, likely encouraging those who purchase tickets to support the goal of carbon neutrality and gain a greater appreciation for those around them. A lack of social capital amongst communities can promote extreme political movements, so projects like these can achieve even more beyond carbon-neutrality.

Smart government can encourage alternative forms of energy, like wind. This allows initiatives like creating a climate-neutral region to be done much more quickly and easily.

Throughout Germany and the Netherlands, public-private partnerships promote innovation and creativity. These partnerships often involve financial support from governments, especially in the first several years of the partnership. In exchange, governments impose regulations on private industry in terms of what they innovate and the overall economy gains from private innovations. If risks are not taken, innovation cannot occur; therefore, shared risk between the government and private industry encourages innovation. Public-private partnerships also help create clusters in regions and cities (such as Freiburg being a cluster for clean technology). It is very possible that clusters will be the basis for the economy of the future. Right now, European governments and especially the European Union, are using public-private partnerships to create clusters, ensuring Europe is on the cutting edge.

Small, incremental steps towards goals can work in some instances, but bold and forward-thinking action towards a goal is something a smart government must embrace. Freiburg’s government has been a force for bold change in the past, from its implementation of a pedestrian area in the city center in the 1970’s to the transformation of a car bridge to a bike bridge in the 1990’s. Both of these actions, especially the change in the 1970’s, went radically against the trend of that time, which was to form cities around cars rather than people. Now, Freiburg is seen as a green, smart city that invested in the future. That’s what a forward-looking city is – a city that will be hailed twenty or forty years from now as smart and innovative despite not always following present trends. Freiburg got where it is by focusing on people and sacrificing temporary comfort for long-term sustainability. Those may not make for the most popular political decisions, but if U.S. city governments are to be smarter, they must consider the city’s needs past their four-year term. Bold governmental action can equate with political unpopularity, especially in the United States, so in some cases electoral reform is necessary to allow for more forward-thinking, bold politicians. There are many ways to create smarter government, all through government anticipating needs and leading – something municipalities and states in the United States could learn from.

-Joseph Womble