by Valentin Schipfer
Each week another one million reasons arise which ultimately consolidate cities as the main sceneries of the 21st century’s world population. One million – that’s the number of people moving from rural to urban areas every seven days. At this breakthrough pace eight new cities of the size of New York are born each year. This is accompanied by challenges like growing amounts of garbage, shortage of space, too many citizens and last but not least empty treasuries of the municipalities. The start-up Citymart.com and Vienna’s public portal Wienwin.at want to offer solutions to a world of upheaval.
More and more cities are under strain of congested streets, waste disposal, raising energy-costs, climate change and shortage of space. They also have to tackle challenges of an ageing as well as an increasingly obese society and its influence on mobility. Cities are forced to prove their mettle and to react on these trends. On their ways to solve these issues, one question becomes more and more important to cities: Who offers the most innovative solutions and how do we get to them? Public procurement has the power to foster innovation and shape it to meet the needs and challenges of public services.
Citymart.com and Wienwin.at offer hope – the latter on a local scale for Austria’s capital Vienna and the first on a global scale. Since 2008 Citymart.com, based in Barcelona and Copenhagen, has been seeing itself as a global marketplace for the current existing 557.000 cities and communities. Wienwin.at keeps the City of Vienna, the municipality of Vienna, posted about urban solutions coming from regional companies. Both consider municipalities as the key market and both break new ground with their services for public procurement.
The challenges of one city often resemble challenges of other cities, yet not even one percent of municipalities worldwide make their problems public. Citymart.com knows well about this fact and has already sparked a shift in attitude of 82 cities by offering existing (prototype) solutions of 1200 companies worldwide.
For instance, why invent a new bicycle-system for Berlin with expensive, external experts and local companies, if London has already successfully implemented a very similar model? Or take San Francisco for example, where a call for tenders had been open for three years without success. After all the city did not manage to find a company with a solution for a wireless control system for street lighting. Exasperated with this state of affairs the municipality approached Citymart.com.
“Within a few months, more than 59 companies knocked at our doors with expedient solutions. At the end a SME won the call. Specialised on oil refinery and based in the tiny country of Switzerland, San Francisco would have had troubles routing out this company. On the other hand the Swiss would not have found out about the call in California.” explains Citymart.com CEO Sascha Haselmayer in this inspiring and helpful article. His start-up proves popular: Over the last three years 45 cities have found solutions to 72 problems. Instead of having launched expensive calls, costs for taxpayers have thus been decreased 20 to 40 times.
Two simple rules apply to those who want to make use of the Citymart-network: Firstly, the partner-cities oblige themselves to announce their calls and requests on the portal. Secondly, the member-companies provide the cities with their prototypes for free. By testing prototypes and systems respectively potential products, municipalities save money and time. On the other hand the companies spare themselves the troubles of applying at hundreds of cities over the course of years.
In contrast to the private start-up Citymart.com, the portal Wienwien.at is publicly funded. It considers itself as a data base for innovative products and services – yet it is restricted to companies based in Vienna only. It offers sheaves of urban solutions (often still prototypes) to project managers of the city of Vienna and to other companies. Examples range from energy-efficient buildings and smart traffic control to advanced medical infrastructures.
One of the latest inventions, the prototype “Kibitzer” takes mobile augmented reality apps (e.g. Wikitude or Layar) a step further. It combines a standard eyetracking-system and a smartphone with GPS, compass and acceleration software. By simply looking at a building or a sight, the user gets adequate information about his surrounding. Like a sixth sense, a voice in the background whispers the information.
Just recently Stockholm, one of Citymart’s partner cities, introduced a GPS-guidance system with smart phones for blind people. They are now able to move freely and easily through the city. Even though it cost almost 350.000 Euros, the additional value is much higher due to the superfluous assistance for the blind. At this point one question from my side: Why do this Swedish product and the Austrian “Kibitzer” prototype not know about and learn from each other? And why does Vienna or any other city than Stockholm not use this technology?
The answer is simple: Wienwin.at does not intend to draw international attention. It fears that foreign innovative technologies could have a negative impact on local jobs. Its promised short-term benefit of supporting Vienna’s regional economy is seen as a long-term problem by Citymart’s CEO Haselmayer. The citizens will have to pay the price for the wish to keep control and to defend the local economy’s interest. He is convinced that the local level does not always provide the best solution.
However, it is vital for me to point out that the best solution does not always have to be a technology. The smart city is not only about festooning our urban environment with sensors and cutting-edge technologies. In fact we, as citizens, have to be careful about not being “constructed as someone without agency; merely as passive consumers of municipal services – at best, perhaps, generators of data that can later be aggregated, mined for relevant inference, and acted upon”, like stated in this article. While this furious wave of innovation is breaking across our cities, us citizens will have to find new, participatory ways of using these networked technologies. Our ingenuity will again be put to the test and hopefully strengthen our cities’ social fabric.