Mayor Claus Madsen at the city hall in Rostock
Smart Cities

Smart Cities

With a smile

When it comes to digitalisation, Rostock looks to Scandinavia and the Baltic States as its role models and is investing in smart apps, public spaces and digital civic participation. This has led to it become one of the winners of the Smart Cities Pilot Projects competition. A visit to the city.

Smartphone and Smile City App at the City Port in Rostock

The Smile City platform is used for dialogue with citizens.

Among the worldwide smart city concepts, there is what is known as the US approach, which is geared towards commercial goals. There is also the Asian approach, which is based on state control. And the Scandinavian approach, which centres around its citizens. If you know the mayor of Rostock, you know which concept he embraced for his city. The mayor’s name is Claus Ruhe Madsen (pronounced Maysen, but no one in Germany says it correctly) and he is Danish. Since autumn 2019, the furniture seller and former president of the Chamber of Industry and Commerce of the Hanseatic City of Rostock has been the only head of a major German city not to hold a German passport. Made possible by the EU.

Rostock’s smart city approach is called “Smile City”; this is also the name of the platform currently being developed that is to become the virtual information and meeting place for municipal digitalisation in the largest city in the federal state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. The ideas are based on this year’s motto “Public welfare and network city/city network” of the Smart Cities model projects. Rostock, together with 31 other cities and inter-municipal partnerships, is one of the selected projects in the second round of this competition through which the Federal Ministry of the Interior (BMI) and KfW will be providing funding for model digitalisation projects in cities and municipalities in the amount of EUR 820 million until 2021.

Scandinavia and the Baltic States as role models

Kay Pöhler, KfW authorised signatory for municipal infrastructure and responsible for smart cities, highlights that Rostock in its application “places the citizens at the centre of its digital strategy” and also mentions the view across the border as a special feature of Rostock: “The city takes Scandinavia and the Baltic States as its model.”

In the EU’s digitalisation ranking, Finland is ahead of Sweden and Denmark; Estonia (7th) is also ahead of Germany (12th). The fact that the 21 partner and sister cities of Rostock include Turku (Finland) and Aarhus (Denmark) is an advantage.

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“It took Aarhus ten years to become a digital city,” says Madsen, who looked at the results of this process in Denmark’s second largest city this spring. “If we adopt everything they did, we can do it in five.” Which would be the year 2025, which is the year when Rostock hosts the Federal Garden Show (BUGA). The BUGA is of particular importance in the Smart City concept because there are plans to revitalise the oval-shaped Rostock inner-city district next to the city harbour, as Johannes Wolff, project developer of the mayor’s office, explains. This could show how digitisation and urban development can be combined.

Smart Cities

20 cities and municipalities and 12 inter-municipal partnerships and administrative districts are being supported in the second round of the Smart Cities model projects by the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building and Community (BMI) and KfW with a total of EUR 350 million. In the first round last year, ten cities and municipalities and three partnerships and districts had already benefited from a grant from the BMI and KfW. There will be a third round in 2021. The BMI and KfW are providing EUR 820 million for all three rounds in total.

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Community digitalisation

There is no lack of vision from this unconventional mayor, who – as is customary in Denmark – is on a first-name basis with everyone, wears trainers to work and has reduced the amount of time spent in meetings to a minimum The 48-year-old’s enthusiasm is immediately obvious when he outlines Smile City goals: an administration with fast, straightforward public services; public meeting rooms that can be booked via app; consolidation of the customer centres of the many municipal companies (tram, theatre, port, public utilities, for example) grouped together under the umbrella of RVV Holding.

But Madsen doesn’t hesitate – he never does – to express his scepticism when he talks about his experiences with German authorities, which he had as a citizen and as a businessman. Madsen has lived in Germany since 1992, in Rostock since 1998 and is now as the boss of some 2,300 employees. The administration just administers and doesn’t look to the future, he says. You get sent from one office to the next without rhyme or reason, and everything has to be planned 100% from start to finish instead of just going ahead with a plan that is 80% complete.

“When people talk about digitalisation, the first thing you hear is fear,” says Madsen, who believes that is the wrong approach. He has never met anyone who thought that digitalisation was not on the horizon. But when it does come, “we should be in the driver’s seat”. Madsen also reports that changes in the town hall caused by the pandemic, such as working from home on a laptop, have gone much better than expected.

Of course, digitalisation was not unheard of in Rostock before the unaffiliated businessman was elected mayor to the surprise of everyone in the run-off vote. On the Klarschiff.HRO portal, the people of Rostock can report problems and nuisances in public spaces to the administration. For years now, the Geoport.HRO portal has provided publicly accessible data on urban structure and urban life. And the municipal housing association WIRO offers its tenants an app where they can enter meter readings and request repairs, for example.

Meeting at the software development company Altow in Rostock

Digitalisation means connection: Johannes Wolff (centre), a project manager at the mayor’s office, in conversation with Johannes Karow (left) and Andreas Ludwig from Rostock-based IT start-up Altow.

Promotional funds for more civic participation

What Rostock will do with the 8 million euros in grants, which the city is augmenting with its own funds to 12 million euros, is not yet clearly defined. A Smile City team will first be set up at the mayor’s office and a strategy will be drawn up by the end of 2021. Implementation of the projects will then get under way.

“Citizen empowerment is very important in this process,” says Wolff. Stakeholders groups with specific roles in urban society are meant to contribute to the decision-making process: students, volunteers, senior citizens, children and their families, entrepreneurs, policymakers, public administrators. As for Madsen’s feelings about civic participation: you have to accept decisions by majority vote and not pay special attention to the person who is shouting the loudest.

“Happy citizens” is one of the four pillars of the Smile City concept. The aim is for “Happiness in life” to become the model for the entire Rostock region. “Designing a city to be people-friendly” is how Mayor Madsen imagines the Smart City model project. Just like in Scandinavia.


On 29 June 2022, Claus Ruhe Madsen was sworn in as the new Minister of Economic Affairs of the State of Schleswig-Holstein.

Published on KfW Stories: 12 November 2020, updated 1 July 2022.