The city that doesn’t exist, and when Angela Merkel made a joke – the story of Bielefeld

Ich hätte irgendwas hier schreiben gekonnt und Sie würden keine Idee haben was ich gemeintet könnte. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Do you know anybody from Bielefeld? Have you ever been to Bielefeld? Do you know anybody who has ever been to Bielefeld?

If the answers to those three questions were all “no” – as is extraordinarily likely – I’ll spare you a Google.

Bielefeld is a city in north-western Germany, with a population of about 323,000. It’s in the state of North-Rhine-Westphalia, and is the 18th largest city in Germany, with a large university and hospital, a historic castle, and a fairly typically Germanic-looking church.

Or at least that’s what they want you to think. The evil, conniving, manipulating, Machiavellian elites of the Illuminati.

Because the truth – the shocking truth, the red-pill MSM-defying truth – is that Bielefeld doesn’t exist.

"Hello", said the castle. "I am not real". Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It is in fact a mirage cooked up by those who would wish to keep us – the people – shackled up in our chains. An elaborate exercise in mass psychological and evidential fabrication and manipulation that serves as an experiment into the limits of control that the mighty can exert over the masses.

You’re Googling it now, aren’t you?

Those maps? Doctored. Photographs?  Videos? CGI.

I mean even Google's in on this come on. Image: Google Maps

And if you’re one of the few people who believes they’ve been to Bielefeld – congratulations. You’ve been selected to be subjected to some very nifty hypnosis, or a ground-breaking psychosomatic drug administered discreetly in gas form. Forget Hillary’s emails, this – THIS – is the exposé of the century.

Phew. Ok. I give up. That was exhausting. All of this is, obviously, a load of nonsense. 

This is actual Bielefeld. For real. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

At this point I was going to include a terrible photo of me in Bielefeld in 2010, but despite extensive image research of my ten days there I realise not a single photo was taken in anywhere recognisably Biefeld-ish. Suspicious. 

But it Biele-feld like I was there

Anyway. In 1994, some university students joked on an online forum that: “Bielefeld gibt es nicht”. The slight problem – that phrase means both “there’s nothing there”, implying the city might be an empty, barren, or pointless place, and “it doesn’t exist” – as in, it literally is not real.

And so the line stuck, and spread; perhaps the first piece of fake news.

Despite the internet still being in its infancy pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, and pre-meme, the idea raced around the web, and by 1999 Bielefeld was driven to put out a press release with the headline: “Bielefeld gibt es doch” – or, “Bielefeld is real”. Only problem with that was the date of publication – 1 April.

Since then, it’s become something of a national joke. There’s no direct British equivalent, which makes its prevalence hard to explain, but it’s a bit like how saying “Slough” to anyone who listens to Radios 3 and 4 will earn the response “Come, friendly bombs”, while other breeds of radio listeners will think of Ricky Gervais and The Office.

To be fair if this was your university you'd do anything to make it not exist. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The joke and its origin story comes in many different forms. There’s a version whereby a sinister secretive organisation known only by the name “SIE” – meaning “they” – works behind the scenes to perpetuate the myth of Bielefeld; another maintains that the German government is controlled by secret society which orchestrates the gambit.

The Illuminati theory comes with all kinds of strands and attachments. Bielefeld is around 257.9 square kilometres, and the sum of those individual digits is 23. The area telephone code is 05711000 – add those digits and you get 23. The city’s administration is at 23 Niederwall. The population is 323,000 – or at least, was in 2002 – which has the number 23 slap bang in the middle. The number 23 is supposedly a particularly unlucky number for the Illuminati. If you’re into that sort of thing. In a perverse and really try-hard way, it all adds up.

A North-Rhine-West-phalia of imagination 

And then some of it’s rather confusingly tied up with the psychological research of Henri Tajfel, a Polish immigrant to France turned French army soldier turned POW in Nazi Germany turned British psychology professor at Oxford University. He studied the roots of prejudice, and tried to find out what could trigger one group of people to turn against another; the minimum stimulus or reason required to create an us versus them psychological framework. He called it the minimal group paradigm, and his verdict? Pretty much anything.

Die Matrix in action. Image: Wikimedia Commons. 

From in-jokes to cultural references to ethnic nationalism, humans quickly divide the world into people like us’, and the rest – and the Bielefeld conspiracy (or Bielefeld Verschwörung as it’s known in German) is like a light-hearted national experiment into that phenomenon.

But aside from whatever pidgin psychology might be at play here, the joke kept on spreading. In 2010, a group of students at Bielefeld University made a film, financed by the university and local private sponsors, called Die Bielefeld Verschwörung, and published the novel of the filmas a book.

In 2014, the city’s mayor Pit Clausen optimistically took up the mantle of the conspiracy and tried to use it in tourist marketing for the 800th anniversary of Bielefeld’s foundation. 

He said:

“Bielefeld es gibt’s doch gar nicht sein ein Super-Opener für ein Gespräch dabei ist mir die Möglichkeit gibt darauf zu beschreiben wie schön, wie großartig unsere Stadt ist, daß was hier loß ist und natürlich ein bisschen die Werbetrommel für die Stadt so gehören und so für wenn diesen Opener noch nicht der Wirt doch da müssten wir mehr finden.”

For those who don’t speak German:

“‘Bielefeld doesn’t exist’ is a great opener for a conversation. It gives me the opportunity to talk about how beautiful, how wonderful our city is; about what’s going on here and naturally beat the drum for our city so people can here, and if this opener didn’t exist we’d have to come up with one ourselves.”

Or something like that.

Don't Merkel me laugh

Perhaps most bizarrely of all, Angela Merkel once made a joke. Honestly, she did.

Bundersanzlerin des Bantersrepublik Deutschland. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Making reference to a Bürgersprach – the equivalent of a US town hall meeting – she had attended in Bielefeld, she said: “...so es denn existiert” – “if it even exists”. “Ich hatte den Eindruck, ich war da”, she said – “I had the impression I was there. I hope I can go back”; “Ich hoffe, ich darf wieder hinfahren”.


So there it is. A snippet of fake news so incredible it made Angela Merkel do a funny about a city that doesn’t exist.

Shame, really. I hear the metro’s good. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

What Citymapper’s business plan tells us about the future of Smart Cities

Some buses. Image: David Howard/Wikimedia Commons.

In late September, transport planning app Citymapper announced that it had accumulated £22m in losses, nearly doubling its total loss since the start of 2019. 

Like Uber and Lyft, Citymapper survives on investment funding rounds, hoping to stay around long enough to secure a monopoly. Since the start of 2019, the firm’s main tool for establishing that monopoly has been the “Citymapper Pass”, an attempt to undercut Transport for London’s Oyster Card. 

The Pass was teased early in the year and then rolled out in the spring, promising unlimited travel in zones 1-2 for £31 a week – cheaper than the TfL rate of £35.10. In effect, that means Citymapper itself is paying the difference for users to ride in zones 1-2. The firm is basically subsidising its customers’ travel on TfL in the hopes of getting people hooked on its app. 

So what's the company’s gameplan? After a painful, two-year long attempt at a joint minibus and taxi service – known variously as Smartbus, SmartRide, and Ride – Citymapper killed off its plans at a bus fleet in July. Instead of brick and mortar, it’s taken a gamble on their mobile mapping service with Pass. It operates as a subscription-based prepaid mobile wallet, which is used in the app (or as a contactless card) and operates as a financial service through MasterCard. Crucially, the service offers fully integrated, unlimited travel, which gives the company vital information about how people are actually moving and travelling in the city.

“What Citymapper is doing is offering a door-to-door view of commuter journeys,” says King’s College London lecturer Jonathan Reades, who researches smart cities and the Oyster card. 

TfL can only glean so much data from your taps in and out, a fact which has been frustrating for smart city researchers studying transit data, as well as companies trying to make use of that data. “Neither Uber nor TfL know what you do once you leave their system. But Citymapper does, because it’s not tied to any one system and – because of geolocation and your search – it knows your real origin and destination.” 

In other words, linking ticketing directly with a mapping service means the company can get data not only about where riders hop on and off the tube, but also how they're planning their route, whether they follow that plan, and what their final destination is. The app is paying to discount users’ fares in order to gain more data.

Door-to-door destinations gives a lot more detailed information about a rider’s profile as well: “Citymapper can see that you’re also looking at high-profile restaurant as destinations, live in an address on a swanky street in Hammersmith, and regularly travel to the City.” Citymapper can gain insights into what kind of people are travelling, where they hang out, and how they cluster in transit systems. 

And on top of finding out data about how users move in a city, Citymapper is also gaining financial data about users through ticketing, which reflects a wider trend of tech companies entering into the financial services market – like Apple’s recent foray into the credit card business with Apple Card. Citymapper is willing to take a massive hit because the data related to how people actually travel, and how they spend their money, can do a lot more for them than help the company run a minibus service: by financialising its mapping service, it’s getting actual ticketing data that Google Maps doesn’t have, while simultaneously helping to build a routing platform that users never really have to leave


The integrated transit app, complete with ticket data, lets Citymapper get a sense of flows and transit corridors. As the Guardian points out, this gives Citymapper a lot of leverage to negotiate with smaller transit providers – scooter services, for example – who want to partner with it down the line. 

“You can start to look at ‘up-sell’ and ‘cross-sell’ opportunities,” explain Reades. “If they see that a particular journey or modal mix is attractive then they are in a position to act on that with their various mobility offerings or to sell that knowledge to others. 

“They might sell locational insights to retailers or network operators,” he goes on. “If you put a scooter bay here then we think that will be well-used since our data indicates X; or if you put a store here then you’ll be capturing more of that desirable scooter demographic.” With the rise of electric rideables, Citymapper can position itself as a platform operator that holds the key to user data – acting a lot like TfL, but for startup scooter companies and car-sharing companies.

The app’s origins tell us a lot about the direction of its monetisation strategy. Originally conceived as “Busmapper”, the app used publicly available transit data as the base for its own datasets, privileging transit data over Google Maps’ focus on walking and driving.  From there it was able to hone in on user data and extract that information to build a more efficient picture of the transit system. By collecting more data, it has better grounds for selling that for urban planning purposes, whether to government or elsewhere.

This kind of data-centred planning is what makes smart cities possible. It’s only become appealing to civic governments, Reades explains, since civic government has become more constrained by funding. “The reason its gaining traction with policy-makers is because the constraints of austerity mean that they’re trying to do more with less. They use data to measure more efficient services.”  

The question now is whether Citymapper’s plan to lure riders away from the Oyster card will be successful in the long term. Consolidated routing and ticketing data is likely only the first step. It may be too early to tell how it will affect public agencies like TfL – but right now Citymapper is establishing itself as a ticketing service - gaining valuable urban data, financialising its app, and running up those losses in the process.

When approached for comment, Citymapper claimed that Pass is not losing money but that it is a “growth startup which is developing its revenue streams”. The company stated that they have never sold data, but “regularly engage with transport authorities around the world to help improve open data and their systems”

Josh Gabert-Doyon tweets as @JoshGD.