The City of Linz Pioneers a Regional Information Commons

The City of Linz in Austria has long been in the forefront of civic-minded uses of the Internet and digital technologies.  In 1979, it started the Ars Electronica festival, a showcase for cutting-edge experiments in digital and media arts, which was followed in 1987 with the Prix Ars Electronica, a prestigious international award for the most exemplary, pioneering websites and computer art.  In 2005 the city built 118 wifi hotspots in public squares so that citizens could have free access to the Internet.  Through the Public Space Server project, Linz began to provide personal e-mail inboxs on the city’s servers and to host non-commercial content on the Internet.

So it is exciting to learn that the City of Linz is now trying to take the free culture/open platform sensibility to a whole new level.  It wants to use the Internet to transform city politics, governance and culture into a vast ecosystem of commons.  Last July city officials announced that it would launch Open Commons Region Linz, a series of region-wide initiatives that aspires to make local information and creativity as open, accessible and shareable as possible.  The Green Party and politically minded digital leaders believe that by making it easy for citizens to access and share knowledge on a local basis, it will stimulate digital innovators to produce locally useful information tools while encouraging greater civic engagement and more robust economic development.

Blogger Thomas Gegenhuber has a nice account of how the whole idea evolved:

The question for city councillor Christian Forsterleitner was how to transfer the knowledge and ideas of the Ars Electronica to city politics. In a session of the city council in October 2008, Forsterleitner put forward a motion that the City of Linz should conduct a study on how to support digital culture and the principles of openness via public policy initiatives. The study was presented to the public in 2010, and introduced the “Open Commons Region Linz.” Johann Mayr, a member of the local government, summarized in a press conference the potential of a thriving public-private ecosystem driven by the initiative: “This project does not only serve the interest of the public and society. The Open Commons Region Linz will boost the economic development of our city.”

Building on the success of the free wifi hotspots, Public Space Server projects and its other media initiatives, Linz politicians and constituency groups wanted to explore how “to develop a sustainable process for integrating the web as part of local public policy initiatives.”  The Open Commons Region Linz is an attempt to build a technological and policy framework to do just that. 

The idea, explained city councillor Forsterleitner, is to foster the use of open source software, Creative Commons licenses, open data platforms, open street maps, open educational resources, and freely accessible creative works in the areas of film, music, and photography.  The goal is not to build a repository for government information, he clarified, but rather to build a platform that supports a vibrant public-private ecosystem.

Again, Gegenhuber's account:

Leonhard Dobusch, editor of the German-language book “Free Networks. Free Knowledge,” emphasizes again the significance of the local level:  “Free knowledge depends on individuals and organizations sharing their works with others. Ironically, it is precisely the global architecture of the world wide web which pushes the importance of local initiatives to contribute to an every growing commons of knowledge. So much valuable knowledge is locally produced but underutilized because it is not freely shared. Local governments should thus contribute to this digital knowledge commons simply because it is the right thing to do. Not only will others reciprocate, but along the way, pioneering regions will profit from greater visibility and innovation.”

While there are a handful of regions in Germany and Austria that have made open source software a civic priority – Berlin, Nuremberg, Vienna and Stuttgart, among them – the Linz initiative goes a step further by framing the challenge as the building of commons on a regional basis.  This is not some ideologically driven crusade, but rather an eminently practical one.  The Linz organizers believe that a shared community information infrastructure will “reduce costs, avoid dependency, promote local initiatives, strengthen the economy, create value, establish transparency and legal certainty.”

It’s still too early to tell how the Linz initiative will evolve, but it is clearly an exciting vision that leapfrogs well ahead of most other cities and regions of the world.  A recent account of the Linz initiative was made by Laurent Straskraba (April 11, 2011).  The city’s official website for the initiative (in German) is Linz Open Commons. 

Photo by Ars Electronica licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, No Derivatives license.