Smart City

As far as I remember when growing up, the word “smart” meant two things: in a sartorial sense as in “you look smart”; and second, cool, as in “that is a smart toy”. Nowadays the word is ubiquitous in the tortuous guise of the “smartphone” deriving as it does from one of the other assorted definitions of the word – clever.

I mention this not out of any intellectual longing to impress you with my etymological knowledge (remember, you are reading the words of a man that failed O/level English the first time round) or indeed because it is my job, more or less, to cogitate about language and how we use it. No, the reason is more prosaic; Vienna wants to be THE Smart City. The reason I know this is that everywhere I look it seems I am serenaded by this:


Because I am an abstract thinker fuelled by Stiegl, my translation of the slogan would be: “Vienna has 1.7 million brains. Let’s use them.” This is part of a project to make Vienna fit for the future and is driven linguistically by sentiments of Heute für Morgen (Today, for tomorrow), Gemeinsam machen wir Wien smart (Making Vienna smarter together) and Was macht Stadtentwicklung “smart”? (The city has run out of ideas, please help so we can blame you when they don’t work).

A number I keep reading is 2025 (Step 2025: Ideas for the Future). I am not sure of the significance of this date but there is some reference to STEP 2005 in the literature so I can only assume it is part of some Stalinist inspired 20 year plan hatched by the city government, you remember them, our unyielding friends the Socialist party and their gimp, the Greens. (For the purist STEP stands for Stadtenwicklungsprojekt – or for the Google-less, City Development Project.)

What I can discern is that the initiative is an attempt, presumably emanating from the spirit which gave us the referendum in March, to engage and coalesce citizen opinion in decisions which will have a direct impact on the Vienna of the next few decades. Indeed, speaking in vernacular of prestige based leadership, deputy mayor Maria Vassilakou makes this enticing offer: “I invite the people of Vienna to work with us for the future of the city.”

Indubitably, it is a risky strategy in the sense that simply asking and then not reacting is always worse than never asking (a tactic I learned as a teenager and being rejected by girls). Moreover, skittish as my research often is, I am sensing again that some people are not entirely enamoured by the prospect of doing the donkey-work for idea bereft politicians. It is an archetypal feature of high-end civilizations that we accept paying a lot of tax to maintain our freedom (freedom from making quasi macro decisions about our existence and freedom from having to intermingle with our neighbours, the interfering, annoying, curtain caressing freaks). If we have to come up with all the ideas, Maria, then why do we have a state?

But what is a smart city? Thomas Madreiter, dubiously entitled Director of Planning for Vienna, provides illumination: it is the “safeguarding and enhancing of life quality, through innovation, with a nod to the environment and resources” (I paraphrase). Yes, yes, yes, all very nice but what is the aim of an intelligent city? “To strengthen competitiveness and safeguard the future ability of a location, for everyone, everyday” he says.


In short, life quality and sustainability are the central aims and is a reassuring indication to me that although Vienna is forward looking, it is a greedy cat. Not content with topping the global life quality list – for the last 4 years – it now seems it wants to be the number one in the “smart city” ranking (based on high-technology, innovation and sustainability). Oh hang, on, apparently it already is, nudging out Toronto, Paris and New York (see here: smart city ranking)

Now either the city has the best public relations department since O.J. Simpson, or there is something else afoot. Naturally, it is not in my nature to speculate/pontificate about the motivations of our elected brethren, at least not today. But it does remind me of the interview with politician Heinz Christian Strache (oily leader of the rapidly dwindling Freedom party) on the Austrian spoof TV chatshow Wir sind Kaiser (We are Emperor) during campaigning for city elections a couple of years ago.

The Freedom Party is quite infamous for its no punches pulled advertising (and criticism of Vienna and the Red-Green coalition) so the Kaiser (played by comedian and actor Robert Palfrader) makes the point to Strache that Vienna is once again (again being the operative word) the number one city for global life quality. Strache, expecting the chance to outline his plans for Vienna and his manifesto if elected, his bleached smile emanating from his perma-tanned visage like a piece of shit in snow, is then completely bamboozled by the Kaiser’s beautifully measured and timed follow up: “And what is it exactly you want to change?

I have extensively read the bumpf about smart city Wien and these are the main points for your delectation and delight. It’s about:

  1. making life easier
  2. innovative solutions (investment in research – better help for English trainers).
  3. resources and the environment.
  4. enhancing public transport.
  5. building jobs.
  6. maintaining open, green spaces.
  7. greater input from the Viennese.
  8. “apps” for local government (79 to date).
  9. “virtual” Amts (public offices) – Vienna leads the way.
  10. IT for schools (31 million Euro investment this year).
  11. gardens not parking spaces.
  12. being mobile for the future (one ticket solution for public transport, bikes and car-sharing).
  13. urban gardening – more than 20 projects with free compost from Vienna “dumps”.
  14. dialogue.

Dialogue, you say? You mean little me? You want to know what I think? As I mentioned earlier, the naysayers are sharpening their tongues, ready to complain that by devolving our will through universal suffrage and taxation (they don’t say this) we – the oppressed masses – should not then be expected to calibrate the work of politicians who are, let’s face it, too lazy or lacking in creative spirit to get off the Heuriger bench.

But one thing you can never accuse Vienna of is being complacent, except on Friday afternoons and most of Monday, and we should not be disillusioned if the city decision makers feel compelled to make the best (notionally speaking) even better for our children (like they deserve it). Michael Häupl, the red-flag waving and tram loving mayor (when he is not being ferried about in the Green Party limo) sums it thus:

“The fantastic work from every employee and every citizen has made Vienna what it is today: a metropolis with the highest living standard in the world. This means that for future generations to benefit, we must also work today to use our know-how from different public domains to guarantee sustainable economic growth and social justice.”

This is a noble declaration, improved by my translation, but noble nonetheless. But the last word I shall leave to Harvard economist, Ed Glaeser who contends that the city is mankind’s greatest invention, reflecting our ability to learn from each other, making us smarter, richer, greener, healthier and happier. Clearly the man is overdue a trip to Vienna.

Anyway, you make up your own mind. A video here (in German) tells the story for our beautiful home. Although at the moment everywhere is a bit dusty; all those life-enhancing trees.

© R. J. Barratt 2013

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