The Cooperative City

Smart cities need smart citizens. A growing movement of initiatives and startups, harnessing social media and using top-notch technology, aims to give city residents a voice at City Hall

Technology entrepreneurs don’t normally have much patience for government bureaucracy. Nor do the venture capitalists who fund them. The layers of decision-makers, politically driven procurement and unpredictable budgets have all been -antithetical to the startup gestalt, which thrives on fast-paced, adaptive development and lean management.

But governments are trying to change that. In an effort to make themselves more “smart” and transparent, many federal, provincial and local officials have latched onto “Govtech” initiatives from the private sector. And investors are watching the trend closely. The San Francisco based Govtech Fund invested $45 million into seven startups in 2015 and plans to double that in 2016, with the market potential of some $400 billion.

Another emerging movement gaining attention from nonprofit organizations and governments is Civictech, whose initiatives are aimed at enabling citizens to better engage with their governments through state-of-the-art technology and the widespread growth of social media platforms.

Bottom-up, top-down & sideways

One reason for Vienna’s consistent top rankings in global quality-of-life surveys is that residents enjoy (relatively) easy and open access to services provided by the city government. The City of Vienna’s website, wien.at, offers a vast amount of information and services to help citizens navigate through bureaucracy, research data, discover recreational and cultural activities, or deliver documents electronically. Vienna’s open-government initiative also supported the development of urban navigation apps, such as Qando and Wave.

The information flow, however, has so far been largely one way – from the city to the citizens – and not only in Vienna. The traditional ways citizens use to influence urban planning and policy – by voting, lobbying and petitioning –  have changed little. While social media has certainly enhanced peer-to-peer communication and disrupted the top-down mainstream media, bottom-up civic communication remains mired in the past. The Civictech movement promises to change that.

Urban civic participation

One of the ironies of urban life is that, despite close physical proximity, residents are often more socially isolated than in small villages, where the local store, the town-hall meeting and even the gossip “grapevine” grease the wheels of info-sharing and local governance. Larger cities regularly invite the public to civic roundtables, lectures, forums. But is a broad consensus truly represented? Or are attendees mainly the chronic complainers, or, perhaps worse, those with hidden agendas and profit motives?

Several recent Viennese urban-planning initiatives have been criticized as faits accomplis. The renovations of Mariahilfer Straße and Ottakringer Straße, as well as the development of a “digital city” in the remote outpost of Seestadt Aspern, were attacked as non-transparent and politically motivated. A 2012 forum on the Ottakringer Straße project drew a meagre 60 concerned citizens. Could earlier civic engagement through technology help make such projects unfold more smoothly and be more responsive to community needs?

Co-founders of Urban Sync: David Calas and Marko Haschej
Co-founders David Calas (above), an architect ­specialized in urban planning, and Marko Haschej, a media and marketing expert who has initiated several “projects/companies,” including TEDxKlagenfurt. // © Urban Sync

Syncing the future

A new Civictech app called Urban Sync, designed by local architect David Calas and media marketing expert Marko Haschej and scheduled to launch in October, may make this a reality.

It began with a competition, Superscape 2014, on how public and private space should interact in the urban future.

“We lost the competition,” admitted Calas, “but not our emotional attachment to it, so we kept on going.” Later, the startup won pre-seed financing and consulting support through Vienna’s Innovation into Business (INiTS) startup incubator.

“The rest has been boot-strapped,” said Haschej. “In Austria, it’s very hard to get investment without a prototype app. We want to launch first and then show our product to investors.”

A three-part solution

The Urban Sync smartphone app and web-based platform approaches the problem in three ways.

“The first part is civic participation,” explained Haschej. When a user enters an area that the city wants to develop, “you can participate in a survey, answer a few quick questions about your opinions for that area, what you would like to see here, and so on.”

The second function is designed for feedback and community building: “As you walk around and see something that has to be fixed or something you like, you can take a picture that is geo-tagged, describe the situation and the city gets the notification. Also other people can join the conversation, they can agree, disagree – basically start a dialogue.”

The app’s third purpose is to facilitate a two-way information flow between residents and their government. “Just type in what you need – obtaining a passport, for example,” claimed Calas, “and the app tells you what to do or it forwards your request to the right part of the city administration.” It will also allow the city to spread information efficiently to groups of citizens based on geographic and demographic profiles and behavior.

Herding data

Haschej believes it is essential for cities to better understand their citizens. “Twenty or thirty years ago, businesses made generic assumptions about what the market wanted, but today every company in the world tries to understand their customers by analyzing market data in order to efficiently develop products for the market.”

Both urban planners and real estate developers have lagged behind. “Municipalities aim to create a livable environment, but investors typically just have their mid-term return on investment in mind. But buildings last longer than 20 years,” Calas points out. “Developers are not thinking ahead to what the building will do for the urban fabric of the city.”

In the trend towards making cities “smart,” Calas and Haschej already see a shift and hope, through their app, to help city governments and developers be better informed about citizens’ needs and wants. It’s the next logical evolutionary step in urban governance toward a “cooperative city.”

With Urban Sync’s launch in October, the founders plan two pilot projects, one in Vienna and a second in a smaller city or town. “A lot of cities across Europe are developing digital agendas and are very interested in our offer,” claimed Haschej. “First, we launch, then we will work with cities to co-market the app to its citizenry – or else we can appeal directly to the people first, create a community and put pressure on the cities to adopt it after it gains traction.”

Michael Bernstein
American expat Michael Bernstein moved to Vienna in 2001, abandoning his previous career in arts administration. He is now a freelance writer, editor, translator and Internet Marketing consultant. He was a regular contributor to inventures.eu — an E-zine about the Austrian/CEE startup scene — and was Lead Editor for its 2015 Ventures Almanach. Photo: Visual Hub

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