Vienna: Traditionally Smarter Than the Rest

The Austrian capital has come tops in a global ranking of technology savvy cities. How an old city can reinvent itself

St. Stephan’s future? Its roof could supply the energy for 200 homes | Photo: P. Wilson/APA/R. Hackl

Several inches of snow have fallen during the night and the 48er crew in their bright orange overalls is out in force clearing the streets. No robots, despite the biting cold. In the 1st District café where I am meeting an expert to discuss the latest World Cities Survey, there isn’t a laptop in sight. My Mélange is brought swiftly by a waiter in formal attire; no automat, no conveyor belt. Can I really be in the most technology-savvy city on the planet?

Yet, in a ranking of the world’s top ten “smart” cities published by the U.S. business magazine Fast Company in January, Vienna takes first place, beating such techno-hubs as Tokyo, Toronto, or Copenhagen. “This came as a bit of a surprise to me,” writes Boyd Cohen, the “climate strategist” behind the listing. But a look behind Vienna’s fin-de-siècle façade reveals not only one of Europe’s highest rates of internet connectivity but also a fine blend of old and new.

Defining “smart”

Narrowly defined, smart cities harness information and communication technologies (ICTs) to deliver services to their citizens. But Cohen uses a broader definition: his picks employ ICTs to be more efficient in their use of resources, thus achieving both cost and energy savings, while also improving service delivery and quality of life. They are enjoyable, functional cities with a small environmental footprint.

The Fast Company listing is not rocket science. It simply weighs existing rankings, adding a subjective assessment of on-going smart initiatives. Vienna grabs the brass ring because it is the only city to show up in the top ten in each of the studies Cohen assesses: quality of life (ranked 1st), regional green city (4th), innovation city (5th), and digital governance (8th). Cohen admits that his methodology can only give a rough indication, since he compiled the listing based on secondary data. So, what do
local urban researchers think? Does the city deserve to be called the “smartest” on earth?

Daniela Patti, an urban planner from the Central European Institute of Technology (CEIT) in Schwechat isn’t surprised about the top score. “Vienna has invested a lot in technology in the past 15 years,” she says. In turn, the public funding has attracted researchers and entrepreneurs from across the world. She herself is from Rome, and her team is no less international.

Successful smart technologies build on the city’s existing infrastructure.Vienna’s tram system was steam powered by 1883 and electrified as a city service by the late 1890s | Photo: Wiener Linien

One resulting private-public partnership is the aptly named “Smart City Wien”. A large-scale joint programme of the City of Vienna, Vienna Public Utilities, research institutions, and local businesses, it seeks to advance innovation in, among other things, smart energy grids and energy-efficient transport systems.

At the heart of the funding for smart technologies lies the city administration’s “very clear objective to take international leadership in this field,” says Thomas Madreiter, head of Vienna’s Office for Development and Planning (MA18).

Of course, Vienna is not alone: smart-city projects are mushrooming all over the world, as cities compete with each other as business locations. In Europe, though, Patti believes that Vienna really is ahead.

For instance, the city administration invested heavily in three-dimensional mapping, with the result that Vienna has one of the most detailed “Geo Information Systems” (GIS) on the continent. The possible applications are endless, as GIS is the essential basis for spatial planning and navigation. One example is the solar city map, which shows a building’s suitability for solar panels, based on the angle of their roofing and the corresponding exposure to the sun.

A middle-class concept

Today’s smart city projects include calculating the potential solar energy gains for each roof in Vienna based on advanced 3-D mapping. | Photo: Vienna GIS

The ranking is “fair enough”, agrees Ronald Pohoryles, director of the ICCR Foundation, a think tank based in Vienna and Paris. But he is wary of social polarisation, of smart infrastructures catering to the corporate and creative classes.

The Stephansdom roof is ideal | Photo: Vienna GIS

If you’re from a deprived background, “you won’t enjoy Vienna’s smartness as much,” Pohoryles says wryly. “The smart city concept is an ideological one… and strongly associated with middle class values.” For instance, the Mercer Quality of Living Survey – one of the studies underlying Cohen’s ranking – is addressed specifically to expatriates. Income inequality within cities only figures in relation to their “personal safety”. Assessing a city’s smartness, Pohoryles warns, heavily “depends on the parameters used.”

Yet, Madreiter argues that the Vienna’s government is taking a socially-holistic approach: “We are on the way to a decarbonised city with the people,” he says. Hereby, “intensive communication with the population” is a priority. For example, in 2011 the joint project Smart City Wien held three “stakeholder forums” to solicit the views of representatives of civil society.

Patti points out that city dwellers may reject unfamiliar technologies unless they have been involved in their development. Currently, she is working closely with visually impaired people to design a city map for the blind. Based on a programme called i-SCOPE, the three-dimensional map will enable users to navigate obstacles in the street based solely on auditory information. Crucially, Patti has to learn how the device can avoid interfering with listening cues from the environment that visually impaired people rely on.

Out with the old?

Patti’s experience highlights that “smart” technologies succeed when they build on familiar ways of living in a city. Especially in old cities like Vienna, new technologies must “work on the existing tissue,” as Patti puts it. Enhancing existing technologies can make a greater difference to people’s lives than creating new ones.

Hence, Pohoryles questions whether “ICTs are really the thing that defines ‘smart’.” He points out that what really astonishes visitors from Paris or London is that most of Vienna’s underground stations have lifts – a technology dating from the 19th century.

Building on existing technologies does not exclude going digital: Public transport has become easier thanks to online route planners and smart phone applications such as Qando, which relays actual tram or underground arrival times.

Moreover, the Internet already enjoys great acceptance in Austria, particularly in Vienna, where 77% of households connected compared to the EU average of 61%, according to the European Digital Competitiveness Report.

As I linger over newspapers at Café Markusplatz after my interview with Patti, I sense that there may be no contradiction between Vienna’s conservatism and its “smartness” after all. If Vienna has become a model for smart cities across the world, it is precisely because it has embraced digital technologies without displacing the traditions and architecture that make the city worth living in. As such, the well-worn fabric of old Vienna is being re-spun into a powerful, fibreglass yarn.

 

The “solar city map” is available at
www.wien.gv.at/umweltgut/public

See also “Back to the Future: Technology and the Writing Life,” by Dardis McNamee, VR Feb 2012

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