We reviewed four adverts for German public transport systems

A screenshot from Waiting for Godot’s Tram, a film promoting Dresden’s tram system. Seriously. Image: DVB.

In February this year, the German government announced it would begin trials in five cities offering citizens free public transport. Faced with the threat of lawsuits for having air toxicity levels higher than EU limits, it’s an attempt to entice more people onto public transport in a country where the car is often still seen as king.

Though the image of the chino-sporting Spießer in Stuttgart constantly buffing and rebuffing his Wagen probably pushes it too far, there’s some truth behind the stereotype. While overall use of public transport has risen, cars still dominate the daily commute. Since 2000, the proportion of commuters using public transport has barely changed, rising just 1 per cent to 14 per cent in 16 years. Over two thirds still get to work by car.

For Germany’s regional public transport operators this isn’t for want of effort. In cities across the country, communications teams have been inventive in their attempts to swing the needle in the other direction. After happening upon some of their adverts towards the bottom of a late night YouTube clickhole, I’ve become an aficionado. Some of them are inspired, many mundane, and others profoundly weird. So here’s a selection, for your pleasure.

Dresden

This is an odd one. Waiting for Godot’s Tram shows two washed-out middle-aged men doing just that in the middle of Dresden, all the while holding a conversation modelled on Beckett’s script, but with some ill-fitting public transport references hammered in.

“Have you let slip the plan?” asks one, when an old woman joins them at the tram stop. “It’s on to the internet,” replies the other. He’s referring to the new timetable.

Clearly the comms team’s frustrated arts graduate decided Dresden needed to know what he wrote his dissertation on. A real hidden gem. Savour it.

Munich

Meat and potatoes stuff from the world capital of meat and potatoes: it’s a ten-minute long day-in-the-life video on what it’s like to drive the bus.

Sometimes the presenters wear fancy dress, though it’s not always clear why. Otherwise the running time is crammed full of enough mindless fridge-magnet banter to get the writers a One Show job. One for the purists.

North Rhine Westphalia

Peter Thorwarth is Germany’s answer to Guy Ritchie. He’s well-known for a trilogy of cult films released in the late nineties and early noughties about the capers of oddball provincial losers, all set in a dead-end town near Dortmund.

In 2015 he was commissioned by North-Rhine Westphalia’s public transport operator to film a promotional series. The result was Commuters and Other Heroes – eighteen short videos depicting the mishaps of a set of easily-recognisable stereotypes as they travel around the region. A David Brent-alike is forced to take the train by a driving ban; an affable and streetwise Turkish-German fights off a hen-do; and a feminist/vegetarian student nags on at everyone.

Interspersing the dialogue is some fairly unsubtle promotion for various ticket options.

Berlin

The daddy. Earlier this year, Berlin’s operator, the BVG, released a pair of trainers that also counted as an annual season ticket for its network. Only 500 pairs were released, and they sold out almost immediately – Berliners queued for hours in sleet to get their hands on them.

It was a knowing and self-consciously cool marketing ploy from Germany’s most self-regarding city, but without a doubt bang on the money. It’s just the latest in a long line of hits from BVG’s renowned comms team.

Though one of their homemade songs went viral, the standout stunt was convincing U2 to perform on the city’s U2 U-Bahn line. At one point, Bono turns to a train as it pulls into the platform to sing directly at a bemused woman and a man, who seems to swear at him. It’s about as good a metaphor for the time they automatically downloaded their new album onto unwitting users’ iTunes accounts as you’re likely to get.


 

 
 
 
 

In many ways, smart cities are really very dumb

Rio de Janeiro’s control centre. Image: Getty.

It’s not news that anything and everything is increasingly being prefaced with “smart”: phones, watches, homes, fridges, and even water (yes, smartwater exists). And it’s not unintentional either. 

Marketeers know that we, the public, are often stupid enough to believe that thanks to their technology, life is better now than it was way back in, say, the primitive Nineties. Imagine having to, like a Neanderthal, remember how to spell words without an autocorrecting algorithm, or open the fridge door to check if you’d run out of milk, or, worse still, interact with actual people.

So it’s hardly surprising that we’re now also witnessing the rise of the so-called “smart cities”; a concept which presupposes that cities that are not technologically  “smart” are dumb, which, as anyone interested in the millennia-old history of cities — from the crypto-currency grain storage algorythms of ancient Mesopotamia to the complex waste infrastructure of ancient Rome, to London’s public transport infrastructure — will know, is not true.

Deployed in these smart cities are cameras and other networked information-gathering devices, load cells and other “sensing devices” detecting passing pedestrians and vehicles, audio surveillance devices listening for gunshots – and even vending machines equipped with biometric sensors to recognise your face. This is not to mention beacon technology — tiny anonymous looking black boxes hidden in trees and on lampposts — which transmits advertising, offers and other information directly to smart phones in the vicinity. 

If that doesn’t seem sinister enough, take, for example, Rio de Janeiro, where, in 2014, the International Business Machines Corporation designed a mammoth “control centre” that integrates data from 30 agencies for the city’s police. 

Described by the Guardian as having “the functionality of a Bond villian’s techno lair”, the then local mayor, Eduardo Paes, claimed the centre was making the city safer while using technology to deploy its “special” police unit to carry out the state’s “pacification programme”. Launched in 2008, the programme, which aims to push out drug gangs from Rio’s favelas, has been criticised by Amnesty International: “in January and February 2017 in Rio de Janeiro alone, at least 182 people were killed during police operations in marginalized neighbourhoods (favelas) – a 78 per cent increase in comparison to the same period in 2016”.

Sinister or not, as smart cities grow, they create new problems. For example, as urbanist Adam Greenfield writes in Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life, neither the algorithms nor their designers are subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability – a problem that international academics are currently attempting to tackle.  


“We need to understand that the authorship of an algorithm intended to guide the distribution of civic resources is itself an inherently political act,” writes Greenfield. “The architects of the smart city have utterly failed to reckon with the reality of power.”

The Real Smart Cities project, founded by Dr Gerald Moore, Dr Noel Fitzpatrick and Professor Bernard Stiegler, is investigating the ways in which so-called “smart city” technologies present a threat to democracy and citizenship, and how digital tools might be used create new forms of community participation.

Fitzpatrick is critical of current discourses around smart cities, which he says “tend to be technical fixes, where technology is presented as a means to solve the problems of the city.” The philosophy underpinning the project is “that technologies function as forms of pharmacology”, he adds, meaning that they can be both positive and negative. “The addictive negative effects are being felt at an individual and collective level.” 

An example of this lies in the way that many of these smart cities replace human workers with disembodied voices — “Alexa we need more toilet roll” — like those used to control the Amazon Echo listening device — the high priestess of smart home. These disembodied voices travel at the speed of light to cavernous, so-called “fulfilment centres”, where an invisible workforce are called into action by our buy-it-now, one-click impulse commands; moving robotically down seemingly endless aisles of algorithmically organised products arranged according to purchase preferences the like of which we never knew we had — someone who buys a crime novel might be more likely to go on and buy cat food, a wireless router, a teapot and a screwdriver. 

Oh to be the archeologists of the future who while digging through mounds of silicon dust happen upon these vast repositories of disembodies voices. That the digital is inherently material and the binary of virtual/real does not hold — there is no cyberspace, just space. Space that is being increasingly populated by technologies that want to watch you, listen to you, get to know you and sense your presence.

One project looking to solve some of the problems of smart cities is that of the development of a “clinic of contribution” within Pleine Commune in greater Paris (an area where one in three live in poverty).This attempts to deal with issues of communication between parents and children where the widespread use of smartphones as parental devices from infancy is having effects on the attention of young children and on the communicative abilities between parents and children. 

This in turn forms part of a wider project in the area that Stiegler describes as “installing a true urban intelligence”, which moves beyond what he sees as the bankrupt idea of smart cities. The aim is to create a “contributory income” in the area that responds to the loss of salaried jobs due to automation and the growth and spread of digitisation. 

The idea being that an income could be paid to residents, on the condition that they perform a service to society. This, if you are unemployed, living in poverty and urban deprivation, sounds like quite a simple and smart idea to try and solve some of the dumb effcts of the digital technology that's implemented in cities under the ideology of being “smart”.