A roughly 30-minute subway ride away from Vienna’s inner core is Aspern, an emerging neighborhood that is home to one of Europe’s most-ambitious smart city projects. Launched in 2009, the project is intended to be a test lab for urban energy use, as well as to showcase a smart city initiative that points the way forward for other similarly-minded, technology-oriented urban planners.
“We are working on solutions for a really renewable energy future,” said Georg Pammer, manager of Aspern Smart City Research. “The aim is to develop solutions for a renewable energy world in the urban area.”
The Aspern smart city project, like many others, also provides a vehicle for its brainchild — a consortium consisting of five public and private entities — to reimagine urban living. The Viennese suburb also serves as a reminder of the sheer difficulty of executing an ambitious smart city project from scratch, and the confrontation of idealism with reality that invariably accompanies such projects. On the one hand, the site, much of it located on an abandoned airfield, provides the consortium of members a nearly blank canvas to create a sustainable urban community within the city limits of greater Vienna. But on the other, it can be difficult to convince residents and business leaders to relocate to the neighborhood, which still remains in an early phase of development.
An idea to have TU Wien, a major university in Vienna, to move to Aspern and become an economic anchor ultimately fizzled. The move would have brought thousands of employees and students to the area. Ultimately, however, the consortium expects the area to attract thousands of residents and become a significant job center. “The [initial] idea was to have 20,000 workplaces and 20,000 residents,” Pammer said. “Now, because of the growing population, it has been revised to 25,000 residents and I think it will ultimately be 30,000 residents.”
Another challenge in building a smart city project designed to further an environmentally friendly smart grid and smart building research is the environmental considerations of building a motorway designed to serve the community. While the Swedish architectural firm Tovatt created an ambitious master plan for the project in 2006. The completion of the master plan, however, depends on the extension of the A23 freeway — the “Stadtstraße Aspern.” Although the regional government approved the extension in May 2018, opponents could continue to delay construction with legal measures. The freeway extension is controversial because it would require digging a tunnel beneath a section of a national park, a floodplain near the Danube river.
Once the extension of the motorway is complete, the neighborhood will become more popular for business professionals as it will be well-connected to Vienna’s airport, Pammer said.
But the project has the support of Siemens, grid operator Wiener Netze, the utility Wien Energie, Vienna’s business agency and the developer Wien 3420 AG. From the beginning, the consortium didn’t assume the construction of the smart city project would be quick. Its targeted completion date is 2028.
The consortium behind the smart city project has a clear short-term focus on smart buildings and smart grids. The initiative links buildings, the grid, users and IT technology to enable efficient energy use while also aligning energy production with consumption while allowing energy to be stored in the grid. Presently, a dormitory, an apartment and a school building are actively involved in the smart energy research project.
In that regard, it serves as a counterpoint to Vienna’s more generic smart city strategy. In 2016, the focus on energy sustainability helped the Aspern smart city project win a world smart city award against more than 250 projects from 45 countries. In 2018, the project won the “Smart Energy Systems Award” in the category “Tech Solution” during the Smart Energy Systems Week Austria event.
The energy focus of the Aspern Smart City Research officially began in 2013 with the infusion of nearly 40 million Euros. Late last year, the consortium was able to secure an additional 45 million Euros to continue their energy research until 2023.
The consortium plans to extend the research project to include additional buildings. In addition to deepening the research on smart buildings and smart grids, the next phase of research will increase its focus on the digitalization of the overall energy system of the area. In addition, sustainable transportation, which is already an area of focus of the Aspern smart city project, will receive renewed attention. The specific emphases of the next phase of the research, however, will be revealed on Jan. 11.
Already though, key pieces of the project have fallen into place. Apartment dwellers have an app that gives them information on energy use. “Simply by informing them, they also change their behavior,” Pammer said. “We can compare them with people who don’t have the app. It is a noticeable reduction — about 10 to 15 percent.” But the point of the app wasn’t to interfere with residents’ lives, but to simply understand their needs and energy usage patterns better, Pammer said. “We are not trying to get people to shower at a lower temperature.”
The area is benefitting from a growing array of transportation options. Aspern has two subway stations and is served by seven bus lines. In addition, a rail connection between Aspern and Bratislava was recently opened.
Ultimately, however, the experience of the Aspern project underscores the fact that while smart city initiatives need clear goals, smart cities are always evolving to accommodate emerging demands and unforeseen challenges. As a 2014 European Union Mapping Smart Cities in the EU document titled “Mapping Smart Cities in the EU” points out: “As distinct from ideal Smart Cities, actual Smart Cities are more process than outcome.”