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Considering Germany is the biggest economy in Europe and a variable bibliotheca of social policy that other nations look to when they are forming their own political agendas, you may be surprised to learn they are slightly lacking behind in regards to digital innovation. Nathan Coyle FRSA explores the reasons why.

Citizen-driven community innovation is constantly evolving but it is important that it stays person-centric in order for it to move with the times. Technologies, ideologies, and politics will always be subject to modulation through the years but we will always have humans living in our neighbourhoods. In order to create social progress community developers need tools to assist them, from tiny hyper-local initiatives, to large organisations influencing policy change on a national level. One of those tools is open data, which is becoming increasingly valuable in providing evidence, holding decision-makers accountable and creating digital applications that can impact on social trends.

According to the Open Knowledge Foundation's Global Open Data Index the UK is the leading European nation in regards to releasing accessible data to activists and we have a large cohort of civic technology-minded individuals who are passionate about collaborating and having a hand in directing the government's path. But if you look further down the same report you'll see a surprising placement; Germany ranks at joint 24th place alongside Hong Kong and Romania. So why does Germany lag behind when it comes to digitisation?

I recently spent a week with the Bertelsmann Stiftung in Gütersloh to exchange knowledge on a range of projects I am working on in the UK, exploring some of their digitisation work. This included Smart Country, a study on how Germany can use smart city thinking learning from case studies across the European continent, and Wegweiser Kommune, a portal that signposts municipalities to policy areas of demographic change, finance, education, social inclusion and integration. Between researching where to find the local Brauhaus, eating Frikadellen and trying to resist supermarket Weissbier I was learning more about the state of open data in the country.

When I arrived, the project team were brainstorming the next phase of their digitisation project, heeding learning from their Smart Country – Connected. Intelligent. Digital report, which also looked at what was happening in Austria, Estonia, Sweden and Israel in order to gain insight. We discussed how the German population remains fairly sceptical about the power of digital transformation.

In June, Nicolas Zimmer of the Federation of German Startups told Deutsche Welle that “Digital competence is lacking" and even digital natives struggle to think digitally away from social media. Meanwhile, a sample taken from IMD Business School's "World Competitive Ranking" centre in Switzerland landed Germany in 17th place for digitisation and a survey conducted by the World Economic Forum states that only 24% of Germans agreed with the statement that digital media had improved their quality of life, either socially or professionally.

The prospect of not embracing the digital age is keeping industry leaders and politicians in Germany awake at night with Angela Merkel acknowledging at the 2017 CeBIT Trade Fair that many people are uncertain in the pace of digital change. So what may lie behind this?

Privacy is a massive issue for Germans and it may be that there is a general distrust in data. For example, head to Google Street View and you will notice the nation is mostly missing from its road networks. Google has been diplomatic in releasing a statement suggesting, "priorities have simply shifted" in regards to carrying on with populating the site. But the delay could be explained by fact that, on the back of a local resident filing legal complaints that the company's Street View cars were violating their privacy rights, that the Berlin State Supreme Court took so long to rule Google's project legal in Germany. In addition, Street View gave Germans an opt-out option that 244,000 households duly signed up for. The result is, a lot of blurry buildings. Microsoft Streetside has also pulled their initiative in the country due to these issues.

Despite this, I still think that taking a more organic approach to growing trust within digitisation will reap rewards. This means simplifying how we all talk about civic technology and giving citizens a stake in moulding the digitisation agenda through physical interaction and citizen-led campaigns. Because there is a genuine suspicion of digital in Germany a governmental top-down approach will struggle to work and relying on digital startups to have a wider impact on the local populous digital competency is optimistic. Trust needs to be bred through community development and accountability, which may mean starting small and simple.

The digital inclusion agenda in Germany is unique but it is also an opportunity for a community-led digital revolution. If Germany can get this right by using a community developer approach to digital they can set a different bar to smart city pioneering countries such as South Korea and USA, but just as innovative. A person centric consultative narrative has to be carefully crafted if they plan to dispel mistrust in digital but if that is done correctly, it could be really special and a blueprint for other nations.

Considering Germany has such industrial and economic clout on a global scale, their digital transformation story is curious but with a country that has bred some of history’s greatest thinkers, you can suggest their citizens are in good hands.


Nathan Coyle is a West Midlands based social activist and Director of civic innovation organisation New Union. An organisation that works closely with national and local government to develop digital solutions that are collaboratory built by the community and person-centric. He writes for The Huffington Post and he is the founder of two open source platforms, young persons campaigning platform Civify and Data Brew, a project that helps activists to learn about open data.

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