When Dorothee Bär, Germany’s new minister of state for digitization, recently thought out loud about digital infrastructure and flight taxis, her comments were met with incredulity and even mockery.
Still on the starting blocks
The criticism seemed reasonable: companies that are still struggling to get a solid internet connection prefer to talk about broadband expansion, rather than entertain visions of the distant future. The fact that Germany's digital progress is developing at a pace that would make a three-toed sloth scoff is unfortunately a truism.
But given the pace of global technological innovation, and the challenges of urbanization, globalization and environment protection, thinking beyond your immediate infrastructure woes is fast becoming critical.
Air taxis: by no means made up
It is our politicians’ job to build an infrastructure that enables continuous integration of forward-looking innovation, instead of limiting it. And they are not on their own. Mobility providers, city planners and technology companies are all feverishly thinking about the future of our cities and concepts for networked mobility. Nowhere is off limits, especially the airspace.
Air taxi startups like Lilium and Kitty Hawk have already started to conquer the heavens. The first autonomous flight taxi started its maiden flight in Dubai just one year ago. The vision: to transport passengers by air traffic through the urban jungle.
The assumption that flying taxis, just like autonomous driving cars, might soon shape Smart City transportation, is therefore not as farfetched as you might think.
More than Singapore: Smart Cities work
"The internet of things means that our cities are going online," said MIT researcher Carlo Ratti two years ago at the Teradata Universe conference. The first cities are already becoming smarter. And these aren’t just the flagship megacities such as Dubai, Singapore or Hong Kong:
In the Serbian cities of Belgrade and Panceyo, public transport buses are now equipped with smart sensors to detect concentrations of pollutants as they drive through the streets.
In Seestadt Aspern near Vienna, sensors collect data on power consumption, air quality and room temperatures of individual houses, and this data is linked to other sources, such as the power grid. Analytics on these data helps save energy and reduce emissions. It also provides clues for the construction and renovation of other neighbourhoods. In this way, metropolises are becoming smarter house by house – and ultimately more liveable. The combination of traffic data and other information, such as survey results on driving habits, makes traffic flow more smoothly, facilitates rescue operations and avoids accidents.
In the northern Spanish port city of Santander, residents can submit complaints about garbage or construction sites to the city administration via the "Smartsantander" app. By reading out the place and time from the smartphone, the city can react faster and more effectively, and recognize hot spots more quickly.
There are many other exciting examples of cities that tackle digitization properly. Because they have understood that it is a proven way to better serve their citizens and visitors. There is more smartness in cities today than one would commonly assume, but whether we are going to use air taxis or autonomous cars to drive to the bakery or to the office, remains another question.
Learning from the "air taxi affair" means investing in progress
Yes, it is perfectly true that Germany must fight hard to make broadband expansion a reality. It is also true that GDPR provides us with a legal update for the digital age in which data is the epicentre of business and society. We also need to equip everybody with the necessary digital know-how to become an active member of the digital world. In fact, the vast majority of Germans said in a recent survey that they would welcome the opportunity to become more digital savvy, for example by the introduction of compulsory computer science courses in schools. In this context, the “air taxi affair” showed, that it is extremely important, that Germany finally has to invest in progress and dare to think big.
Moving forward, step by step
Progress does not work without big ideas and vision. If they're good, it's worth translating those ideas into reality and moving forward step by step – preferably with up to 300 Mbps.