From San Diego to Copenhagen, From Vienna to Singapore, everybody wants to become a smart city. But how do you upgrade the world’s most livable city?

As he carefully takes the slat out of the hive, the solar panels in the background begin to gleam again in the sun. Not bothered at all by the swarm of bees whirring around him, city beekeeper Felix Munk is happy to chat: “The area’s flora is perfect for our honey bees,” he said, “and not just for them. Wild bees and butterflies have a home here, too. They harvest nectar and pollen, we harness energy – both driven by the power of the sun. It’s a perfect fit.”

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One million bees living on the grounds of the citizens’ solar power plant in Wien Liesing produce more than 100kg of high-quality honey per year. // © Wien Energie / Martin Hofer

The recently opened citizens’ solar power plant in Wien Liesing produces solar energy for 400 households and gives home to more than one million bees. It is a prime example of the city’s effort to introduce new technologies with citizen participation, while taking the environment seriously. It is projects such as these that make Vienna “smart,” say staffers at TINA, the city’s agency tasked with implementing the “Smart City Wien” strategy. But they are only the beginning.

Where the “smart” comes from

Back in the early and mid-2000s, cities everywhere wanted to turn “digital” or “intelligent.” Especially in Western Europe and North America, municipal governments drafted strategies to keep up with modern technology, digitalize communication with their citizens and introduce high-tech information exchange. The advent of smartphones and near-universal WiFi connections scuppered many of these traditionally top-down approaches, but also opened up new avenues.

“The definition of smart cities was initially driven by the big technology companies such as IBM, Cisco and Philips,” noted Ayal Zaum, a top branding and smart city consultant for Vienna and Tel Aviv. Digital innovation was to be linked with “intelligent” urban projects. A key challenge from the outset was to persuade multinational corporations to develop projects jointly with the public sector.

So Vienna and other cites like Barcelona and Copenhagen began cultivating a different approach to urban development, using technology as a tool rather than an end in itself – to create an interconnected and user-friendly urban life.

To date, there is no internationally recognized definition of a smart city. The U.S. consulting firm Frost & Sullivan describes it as a combination of “smart” and “intelligent” solutions and technologies – a well-meant tautology that doesn’t get us very far.  The central tenets are clear though: using technology to “smarten up” a city’s energy supply, buildings, mobility options, healthcare, governance and education into a more efficient and better integrated infrastructure system. Although these parameters are often used by international rankings to measure a municipality’s progress towards greater “smartness,” the cities themselves often view the concept differently.

Barcelona’s smart city strategy, for instance, focuses on opening up technology to the citizen and investing in innovation and business, whereas Rio de Janeiro is bidding to become a smart city through a focus on security. “There is no single, all-encompassing definition,” said Birgit Ginzler, Head of Communications at TINA Vienna. “Every city is different and needs to rely on its individual strengths and tackle the weaknesses.”

Vienna’s angle

Vienna, the second largest city in the German speaking world and seventh largest in the EU, is projected to reach a population of two million by 2029. This presents an siginificant challenge for urban planners and policymakers.

In 2014, the Vienna City Council adopted the Smart City Wien Framework Strategy, a long-term plan and vision to “smarten up” by 2050. Front and center is quality of life: Social housing, public transport, waste management and green spaces are all key areas, coupled with innovative energy-efficiency programs.

“Optimizing the transport structure, by building the new U5 metro line for example, is crucial,” explained Christof Schremmer, urban and regional development planner at the Austrian Institute for Regional Studies and Spatial Planning (ÖIR). “Providing energy in new ways – for instance with citizens’ power plants – and reducing resource consumption are also essential steps. To do that, we need modern IT and innovative technological systems.”

Enter open data. “When we publish information about services provided by the city, we engage in a conversation with all of the city’s users,” explained Ginzler. Since 2011 the city of Vienna has collected and published data on its website (open.wien.gv.at), that has since been used for a wide variety of purposes, in particular by startups and entrepreneurs.

The Viennese smartphone application Wave, for instance, gives users real-time information about the fastest and most efficient route from one place to another, including by Citybike Wien, Wiener Linien and SCO2T (Scooter Sharing Service). Integrating the city’s mobility data, the app facilitates urban transport.

Startup products, such as the Zoomsquare Wohnpreisrechner (rent calculator) offer an interactive map of the city, showing rental prices of property in each neighborhood and aggregating apartment offers from all established apartment-hunting webpages.

Recently, the city also launched its own application, wien.at Live-App, which allows smartphone users to notify the city about broken signs and other traffic hazards, upload pictures, post reviews of WiFi hotspots, and access an interactive city map locating nearby public toilets, bathing spots and short-term parking areas.

“Every physical activity on the streets is now part of an interconnected process,” Schremmer said, “enabling us to measure things like daily traffic congestion and weekly energy consumption by neighborhood. When this data is published, companies can use it to come up with innovative solutions to improve the quality of life of Vienna’s citizens.”

Vienna’s strategy also focuses on the -infrastructure itself with guidelines for improving household energy efficiency, subsidies for energy-friendly home improvements, investments in urban mobility and a pledge to maintain more than 50% of the urban area as green space (accessible within 250 meters of every home).

Local does it

One of Vienna’s latest projects counts as one of Europe’s largest urban development initiatives, the Seestadt Aspern. Located in the northeastern part of the city, the Seestadt (lake town) serves as an example of Vienna’s approach to energy optimization. Headed by Christof Schremmer in cooperation with the Vienna City Council, the project TransformPlus was drawn up to illustrate individual energy consumption. A “Smart Citizen Assistant” bundles the data of specially designed electric meters and shows every apartment owner his personal energy consumption levels.

Another project, Smarter Together, based in the working-class 11th district of Simmering, focuses on improving energy efficiency in existing urban structures. Renovations using solar thermal panels and energy–saving lighting systems are helping to renew a part of the city in the early stages of urban decay. “These kinds of projects are the often overlooked backbone of a smart city,” Ginzler believes.

Getting around

Vienna’s public transportation, good as it is, is also scheduled for improvement. One smart city goal is thus to further reduce the use of cars within the city. At the moment, 39 percent of all inner-city trips are on public transport. To increase this figure, a change of attitude may be necessary.

“We are trying to change the status and meaning of cars,” says Thomas Madreiter, Vienna’s director of urban planning. “Instead of owning a car, people should only use them when they are really needed,” Currently, about 70 percent of commuters from outside the city come to work in Vienna by car. Madreiter’s team is exploring the possibilities for improving mobility within the city. Car sharing as offered by Car2Go or new taxi hailing apps such as Uber are one approach.

Another way is Vienna’s famed Parkraumbewirtschaftung (parking-space management). In order to be allowed to park your car indefinitely in high-traffic inner-city Viennese districts, a Parkpickerl (residential parking permit) is required. Startups such as Parkbob or Sofortparken developed apps to find empty parking spaces and make life easier for the stressed-out driver.

Keeping and expanding the green space – currently 50% of the city’s area – is another priority. The recently launched project Life+ Alte Donau was initiated by the city council and is designed to ecologically improve the area along the Old Danube. Tree trunks will be turned into fish sanctuaries, shore areas replanted and beaches expanded.  Several new large lawn areas with access to the water, such as the Strombucht, were opened to the public just last year.

Vienna, Copenhagen, Barcelona

“Vienna is a global leader in quality of life and investment in culture and urban space,” Matti Bunzl, Director of the Wien Museum told Metropole. “But a few improvements, such as city-wide WiFi, would definitely enhance daily efficiency for many residents.” Indeed, connectivity has been a key measure taken by cities when becoming smart.  For example, Tel Aviv, the economic heart of Israel and winner of the World Smart City Award at the 2014 Smart City Expo World Congress, is a global hub for high-tech startups and IT multinationals. Throughout the city, anyone with a smartphone, notebook or tablet can connect to free Wi-Fi. And with a citizen-centered app, all registered residents can interact with the city’s services.

“All in a single place,” said Zohar Sharon, Tel Aviv’s Chief Knowledge Officer. Through the app, Tel Avivans can pay their utility bills or parking tickets, and alert the authorities of damaged street facilities. The DigiTel resident card also offers discounts on cultural events across town.

Although Vienna’s city app is similar, it reflects citizens’ greater concerns for privacy, which limits user engagement. “In Israel people are more willing to provide private data and information to benefit from better security,” argued Zaum. “In Copenhagen or Vienna, on the other hand, the threat of terrorism is not that high. Geopolitics definitely influences public opinion on data privacy.”

Ginzler agrees, and promises that “any smart city initiative [in Vienna] will abide by data privacy law. No citizen is ever going to be required to give away personal information in exchange for benefits.”

The U5, Vienna’s first self-driving subway, will open in 2023 and run from Karlsplatz to Elterleinplatz. This rendering shows the Frankhplatz station. Rendering: Wiener Linien / Arch Mossburger / oln
The U5, Vienna’s first self-driving subway, will open in 2023 and run from Karlsplatz to Elterleinplatz. This rendering shows the Frankhplatz station. // © Rendering: Wiener Linien / Arch Mossburger / oln

This is a challenge for Vienna, as open data and the Internet of Things (IoT) are often crucial to enabling smart city projects. In Barcelona for instance, the irrigation of the municipal parks is being optimized by water use through an IoT communication system. “Smart-water” sensors are utilized to measure and analyze humidity levels with weather data and passed on to municipal gardeners, reducing water consumption and saving public money. Sensors in municipal garbage cans alert garbage collectors as to when to empty the cans.

Riding into a smart sunset

Experts agree that increased investment in smart city projects will attract creative minds and bring economic advantages. The question though is whether every citizen will benefit equally.

“Getting to the smartphone of a person is easy. But how do you get to everybody else?” asks Zaum. Citizens who are not technologically savvy, especially older and less affluent residents, could well lose out, creating a “digital gap” that has the potential to divide the society.

Vienna smart city applications such as Bikemap or Qando for public transport information are easily accessible for digital natives, but it is not a given that an aging population and newcomers such as refugees and non-German speakers will be aware of the services and how to access them.

“The people who need a smart city more than anybody are those who don’t have access to the information,” asserted Zaum. “They are the ones who need the innovation, no matter what city you live in.”

While digital and mobile channels are crucial for a smart city, Ginzler reports that staffers at TINA are aware that they do not suffice for reaching all Viennese residents. “We cannot focus entirely on mobile connectivity and innovative smartphone applications. So the concept of social smartness is at the forefront of our smart city strategy.” This means that resource efficiency projects and other initiatives to improve quality of life require an analog, as well as a digital approach, accessible and understandable to every citizen.

“Vienna is lucky to be challenged by a growing population,” Bunzl said. “This not only makes room for improvements in infrastructure, but also requires innovation in logistics, transportation, education and particularly important for Vienna, cultural innovation.”

These types of challenges are what keep cities striving for new and better solutions.  “A high ranking does not necessarily stimulate innovation, because innovation tends to occur where it is needed,” Ginzler cautioned. For her, making a city sustainable and thinking of future generations is key for a smart environment. The bees whirring around the citizens’ solar plant in Wien Liesing might well agree.