How smart is Vienna? Four pioneers of building a smart city share a sense of how far we’ve come, and how far we still have to go
Geraldine Fitzpatrick, Esther Blaimschein, & Oliver Frey
Organizers of “Smart Cities16 Designing Places & Urban Mentalities”
Smart? – We’re smart people living in a city that enables our participation in ways that fit with the values of the community. That’s what’s really important.
The organizers of the new summer school for urbanistas in Vienna, Smart Cities – Designing Places and Urban Mentalities, were not too fussed about being assigned a not-so-smart meeting room. One year, remembers Technical University (TU) professor Geraldine Fitzpatrick: “We had to regularly get up and wave our hands to turn the lights back on. It was a lovely room, but totally dumb!”
Director of the TU’s Institute of Design and Assessment of Technology, Fitzpatrick heads a study group at the TU Informatics, where they explore “how technology can be designed in ways that respect people.” One of the goals of the summer school is to bring the human element into the concept of a smart city.
“Smart city is trendy at the moment,” she pointed out, “but mostly from technological viewpoints with utopian visions. This is a long way from the reality of living in a city day-to-day.”
This is where the unique interdisciplinary approach of the program will prove useful. According to University Assistant Esther Blaimschein, also a co-organizer, the term “smart city” is undergoing a transformation. “There’s not one ‘smart city’ stamp you can put on every city in the world. Cultures, identities, attitudes and needs are all different.”
The third co-organizer, Dr. Oliver Frey, of the TU’s Department of Spatial Planning, sees the sociological challenges. Although he is impressed by Vienna’s smart city framework, he thinks Vienna could still learn from other countries such as Finland, where, he suggests, its affinity for heavy metal music had something to do with its well-reputed governance.
“Maybe we need to be more easygoing, in order to work better together. Here, it’s hard to change the traditional cultures of administration.”
Administration is not an end in itself. The needs of the people should be determined first and services then adapted to best fit them.
Sitting opposite Peter Kustor in his sunny, spare office, I looked across at the pleasingly geeky Beamter (civil servant), whose enthusiasm was barely contained by a sober black suit. No question who he was. Nor who I was.
“In our normal lives, we know who our counterpart is,” explained Kustor, one of the masterminds of Austria’s widely praised eGovernment digitalized administrative processes. “We see the other person, we know whom we are dealing with.” We feel secure.
To bring this same sense of security into the digital world, the Austrian government has developed the chip-based Bürgerkarte (Citizen Card) and the hardware-independent Handy-Signatur (Mobile Phone Signature), digital IDs that can be used to verify one’s identity electronically and legally sign documents online.
Dealing digitally with bureaucracy, without ever having to wait in line, sounds tempting. Can it be real? According to Kustor, the fusty image of government institutions in Vienna as dingy back offices with green-visored old men in sleeve garters is a relic.
“We stopped using paper documents years ago,” he said. “A federal document is [now] an electronic document.”
For ordinary citizens, though, there’s still a way to go. To date, the Mobile Phone Signature has about 680,000 active users, plus another 120,000, if one counts the chip-based Citizen Card. For Kustor, a smart city serves the people first and foremost.
“Technology is constantly developing and life transforms itself around it. Our services need to keep pace.” A perfect example: The upcoming Presidential election rerun in October, when any registered voter can order an absentee ballot with a Mobile Phone Signature.
Cross-checked, we hope, with new arrivals at the morgue.
If it were up to the big corporations, our cities would become a huge laboratory. Technology can be helpful, but as a tool, not as a fundamental solution.
Dérive editor Elke Rauth suggested we meet in the pleasant open courtyard in front of her office. Shared with all the residents of the building, it struck me as a metaphor for her ideas of what a city should be, of shared space in a mixed-use world. As if on cue, a woman came out and started hanging up the wash right beside us as we spoke.
As editor of Dérive, the Technical University’s quarterly journal of urban strategies and planning, Rauth is also host of the annual Urbanize! Festival (Oct. 12-16) of “hands-on urban explorations,” where last year, the role of shared space took center stage. With Vienna’s sudden role as the linchpin in the refugee migration to Europe last autumn, the festival converted its main building to a makeshift shelter.
It was theory put into practice in a way the planners could never have imagined – a successful cooperation between the Red Cross, the refugees and the festival participants. “The lives of everyone involved were changed for the better, and the effects were sustainable and lasted well beyond the event,” Rauth said, with understandable pride.
Growing up in a small village in Vorarlberg, Rauth (48) was inspired by the possibilities of life in Vienna. “The city was a place where one could become active and discover oneself, that offered opportunities to have, or to create, a good life.”
She is skeptical, however, of the promises of “smart cities.” The original concept didn’t emerge from the traditions of urban planning. Instead, she says, “it was the brainchild of IT corporations hoping to develop a new market for their gadgets. They tell us that technology is the solution to everything,” she teases before turning serious. “Cities have to be very careful about this.”
Founder of Freewave
When I was outfitting Café Central for Wi-Fi, I had access to the cellar, where the bakery is located – now I know where the cakes come from!
Like many inspired business ideas, Wolfgang Krivanek first established his company to fulfill a dream – free internet access in public places. A backpacking trip in Taiwan, where this had been around for 15 years, motivated him to push Vienna into the age of free WiFi. The result: Freewave was born.
Initial resistance came from coffeehouse owners, who feared a “laptop-zombie” culture, and guests who would order a glass of water and hang out the whole day. Hardly a new thing in Vienna, admittedly. But Krivanek’s persistence eventually paid off: In 2015, about 3.8 million users enjoyed free internet access at more than 650 Freewave locations across Austria.
The bigger obstacles have often been posed by the locations themselves. Installing 21st century technology in a city full of venerable protected sites adds a further layer of complexity. Freewave collaborates with electricians, technicians and builders who must handle the elaborate installations required to set up WiFi access.
Krivanek, an energetic 44-year-old native Wiener, does not hesitate to get his own hands dirty. “Though I’m the boss, I have to be on site a lot. It’s not unusual to see me standing on a ladder, using a drill.” Among his biggest challenges: Schönbrunn Palace, where the transmitters had to remain fully out of sight; and the Hotel Imperial, where he literally had to crawl into a ceiling. For Krivanek, an adventure: “I got to see the original construction of the buildings I wouldn’t normally get a chance
Despite these hurdles, Krivanek thinks other countries could learn from Austria’s “optimal” cooperative and legal environment for internet access. “In comparison, Germany is a wasteland when it comes to WiFi services.”