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How top-ranked cities are creating blueprints for a rosy future

Got any bright ideas on building a smart city? For Zurich and Vienna, getting smart is the way to go. And they should know—they’ve been acting smart for years, and today they’re top of the world as places to live. That’s according to Mercer’s Quality of Living Ranking 2018. The two cities are creating their business card of the future.

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This year, 2018, Zurich can call itself the city with the second highest quality of life worldwide — second only to Vienna, which has occupied the top slot in the Mercer Quality of Living rankings for nine years running. The city of pastries and waltzes is followed by Auckland and Munich in joint third place, Vancouver (5), Dusseldorf (6), Frankfurt (7), Geneva (8), Copenhagen (9) and Basel (10). No question, rankings reflect the zeitgeist. But what about our future happiness? Isn’t quality of life a very subjective concept, one that’s constantly changing? Would it be possible, we wondered, to correlate quality of life with the Smart City ethos?

Rethinking the city
As more and more people live in the world’s cities, urban challenges increase. Our cities are currently defining the way we will live in the future, and smart cities — with their combination of innovation, new technologies, sustainable mobility and energy efficiency — appear to be leading the way in addressing our current global challenges. Cities like Vienna and Zurich are rethinking themselves in their efforts to lay the foundations for the future—a task that demands a reliable set of guidelines.

A common urban task
The highest quality of life and safety for all, with decreasing consumption of resources—these are all part of the Austrian capital’s is commitment to its “Smart City Vienna 2050” strategy, launched in 2013, which sees it as the smartest of smart cities; a city that belongs to everyone, women and men. In the meantime, urban development in Zurich is expected to adopt a cross-disciplinary “Smart City-Strategy Zurich” by the end of 2018. Broad, holistic concepts, will be complemented by topic-specific approaches such as “City Traffic 2025”, the “Open Data Strategy” and the “2000 Watt Society” — an ambitious plan to reduce the city’s energy consumption to 2000 watts per person, reduce annual CO2 emission to one tonne per person by 2050 and promote the use of renewable energy.

Building for the people
SwissEnergy’s “Greencity” project is a prime example of how to create a sustainable piece of city development. On the site of the former Sihl AG paper mill, Switzerland’s first ever large-scale “2000 watt site” welcomed its first residents in 2017. Lack of space along with climate change, not to mention the cost of accommodation, call for innovative solutions. Greencity’s concept of holistic sustainability aims to guarantee long-term quality of life, also one of the central goals of Vienna’s “SMART Housing Program”, which is characterized by optimal land use at low cost. But whether such housing models can be used by the masses, remains to be seen. It’s more a question of our individual values: What’s important to us? What do we mean by quality of life?

Fit for the future
A question for which there is no answer today. “It would be presumptuous to predict future value systems. For example, how openly we deal with our personal data in the future,” emphasizes Benno Seiler, Head of Business Development Zurich. And yet, a smart city makes the city of today fit for the future. “Various technological developments and the products or business models developed from them (e.g., sharing economy) have tremendous potential to overcome urban challenges,” argues Seiler. However, as with a number of other future issues, mobility should be placed in context. Gil Georges from the Centre for Efficient Technologies and Systems in Mobility (SCCER mobility) at ETH Zurich sees the challenge, especially with regard to a focus on just one solution. “This,” says Georges, “is more complex than it may seem at first glance, as the underlying industry and infrastructure are also in a state of constant change, and in some cases do not yet exist.” Sustainable urban mobility was also a topic of discussion at the eDays symposium in Zurich this June (part of the supporting program for the ePrix, the first race of the Formula E electric car racing series to take place in Switzerland).

Blueprint for future happiness
Innovation is key to improving the quality of life. And the conditions needed to nurture innovation can be found in collaboration. A key feature of coworking spaces like Impact Hub, including those in Zurich and Vienna (one of Forbes Magazine’s Top 20 accelerators worldwide), or Kickstart Accelerator (an Impact Hub initiative) is that they help startups and companies around the world take their innovative ideas from concept to reality. More than 100 Impact Hubs are currently coming up with creative ideas on topics ranging from digital transformation to sustainable quality of life. At the same time, coworking spaces exemplify our changing needs. The increased need for flexibility and self-realization, both private and professional, creates new forms of work, which in turn create new needs.

The only constant
Ultimately, it seems that these constantly changing needs will shift our subjective perception of quality of life. Smartness makes cities more efficient, more technologically advanced, greener and more social—and more liveable, too. But can a smart city change with the changes? “In Zurich, we do not see the Smart City-Strategy as a goal, but as a continuous process, which should always include a constant dialogue with all local stakeholder groups,” argues Seiler. Cities have always been the engines of progress in society—sources of innovation, inspiration and development, for people of all types with their many and varied needs. So to prototype future happiness, Smart Cities must be willing to adapt. Zurich and Vienna are striving to meet the challenge. Ultimately, change is the only constant.

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