From Steel Town To Digital Powerhouse
or over a century, Linz has had a reputation as a center of industry. Today, though, Austria’s third-largest city is just as likely to be known for its digital enterprises as for its steel mills and manufacturing plants. Here on the banks of the Danube, a thriving startup scene blurs the borders between tech and culture – with the help of plentiful space, a committed local government and an enthusiastic public.
“Hardly any other city has undergone such an impressive transformation from steel to digital culture capital in the last twenty-five years,” says Kathrin Obernhumer, Head of Department for Innovation of the city of Linz. Also known as the Innovationshauptplatz or “innovation main square”, her department facilitates connection and exchange between founders, investors and policy makers but also as a one-stop shop for open innovation and participation. It’s the first point of contact for citizens and entrepreneurial newcomers who are looking to get their bearings, and for established local ventures looking to take their business to the next level.
A catalyst for Linz’s transformation, Kathrin says, was Ars Electronica. Founded as an electronic music festival in 1979, the city-wide event quickly evolved to embrace the intersection of culture, technology and society. “From the beginning, the Ars Electronica Festival was always asking critical questions,” says Kathrin, supported by a city leadership that was “committed to opening up the city to new technology and radical innovations.”
Today, the Ars Electronica Festival is an annual destination for luminaries across the tech, art and media spheres, with past guests including Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales and Julian Assange. It mirrors an innovation scene that, in Kathrin’s words, is “characterized by free and open collaborative spaces where creativity, diverse perspectives, research, ambition and entrepreneurship interact organically.”
Hardly any other city has undergone such an impressive transformation from steel to digital culture capital in the last twenty-five years
One of those spaces is the Johannes Kepler University (named after the famous astronomer who spent the last years of his life in Linz), where researchers were pursuing cutting-edge studies in AI and robot psychology long before the topic was a billion-euro buzzword. One alumnus from that program created Dynatrace, the software intelligence platform that became Austria’s first tech unicorn in 2019. With their “Manifesto Innovation through Universitas” the JKU committed itself to an institutional innovation alliance between Art and Science to successfully master the challenges of our times.
Software and IT companies, AI-based or otherwise, do particularly well in Linz. As do those focused on IoT, education or sustainability. Especially for companies at the nexus of science, technology and art, Linz offers the perfect environment and a great ecosystem. Examples for this is qapture, a startup that creates “digital twins” of building interiors with the help of scanners mounted to robot dogs, or the new Faculty of Medicine where the students have their lectures in a virtual 3D anatomy hall.
When you come to Linz, you can just pop in, tell our team what you need help with – whether it’s a place to live, an accelerator program or a coworking space – and we’ll get you in contact with each player
Nestled in a metropolitan area of nearly half a million inhabitants, Linz itself is still small enough that connections are easy to make. In fact, many of the city’s most exciting innovators are located within a mile (1.6 km) of each other – in the DIGITAL MILE, known as “mile of digitalization”, which harbors over 110 enterprises and 3,000 employees. At its western end is the new Tabakfabrik, a massive former cigarette factory that has been bought by the city and renovated into a creative hub for designers, architects and a vibrant startup community working in technology and digitalization.
One can easily reach all of the spaces in the Mile of Digitalization in half an hour or less; but proximity alone doesn’t suffice, the Innovationshauptplatz is happy to play matchmaker. “When you come to Linz, you can just pop in, tell our team what you need help with – whether it’s a place to live, an accelerator program or a coworking space – and we’ll get you in contact with each player,” says Kathrin. The Innovationshauptplatz also steers newcomers towards funding opportunities: new startups can get their coworking space fees partially reimbursed by the city, for example. And sustainability ventures can apply for access to Linz’s Klimafonds, a yearly reserve of €1 million exclusively dedicated to climate-related projects that can have an impact on the city of Linz.
It’s not just about providing funds or accelerators here. It’s about knowledge transfer and a commitment to the values of humanity
Other resources include the Innovation Office's Pop-Up Store in the city center, where a public vote decides which project, company or institution can use the Pop-Up-Store for free for a month. “We already had a start up with a device you could install in your shower to save water, or a founder providing frozen fresh meat menus for dogs, but also a second hand shop. It’s nice that citizens know that the store’s always changing, so some people will just come by to see what’s going on.” As Kathrin points out, one of the most interesting aspects of Linz’s innovation scene is the low barrier for participation. Any resident is welcome to post an idea on the city’s online platform – if it gets at least fifty votes within sixty days, the Innovation Office will help that person develop their project further. “It’s not just about providing funds or accelerators here. It’s about knowledge transfer and a commitment to the values of humanity.” Another special feature of the city of Linz is the openness of the city to see itself as a testbed for pilot projects. In this way, new projects and technologies can be implemented and applied directly in the city.
The city's mission statement has come a long way from the mentality of the industrial giants that first put it on the map – but that may be the point. “Linz was just a dirty steel city, that it was free to reinvent itself. This spirit of reinvention, reaching out and bringing together different disciplines and the political commitment to allow and foster it – this is what makes Linz so unique.”