Once Upon a Time is Now – TEDxVienna City 2.0

Here’s a short story.

In the Wiental of long ago lived der alte Mann Donau. He had made himself lord of all things and to all things he gave order. It was he who decreed that the sun shall rise in the east, that the wolf shall hunt the rabbit, that the seasons shall each take their turn. For a thousand thousand years alte Mann Donau set the world to rights by tying a string to each plant and animal, each sun and star, until all freedom and surprise was gone and he could play them all like puppets. This is perfection, thought alte Mann Donau, to whom nothing now was unknown. The world is complete.

But then one day, from the north, from the east, from the south, and from the west strange beings called humans came over the mountains and across the plains and from out of the great fog and they came to live in the Wiental. These humans could not be controlled and chaos rode before them like smoke before a fire, burning the strings that alte Mann Donau had bound the world with.

© Verkehrsbüro Group/APA-Fotoservice/Haslinger

Horrified, alte Mann Donau fled to the river and slipped beneath its waters. There he waited and watched as the humans baked clay into bricks and shaped the very stones of the mountains into a city. His anger smoldered and made the river boil white and overflow its banks and he thought he would scare the humans into leaving. But when they saw the wild white water they thought it beautiful and so named their city for it.

Alte Mann Donau was appalled by the ever-changing city and by the ever-changing habits and ideas of the humans and he vowed to punish them. He pledged to wait until they had finished their great city. Until they had made it perfect and ordered and unchanging. Then would he set loose the river and flood Vienna and watch its towers crumble like sand castles. On dark nights he comes ashore as an old man, his back bent, and asks the people if Vienna is finished. No, no, they tell him. There is much to do. So alte Mann Donau returns to his watery cave where he waits, legs aching, watching. His anger still smoldering. Soon, he thinks. Soon.

This origin myth is borrowed from the Estonian legend of Ülemiste vanake, in which the old man of the lake threatens to flood Tallinn if it should ever be completed. Humans are cast here as liberators from tyranny, but in reality we have long sought the omniscience and omnipotence, and with them the control, exhibited by alte Mann Donau. In the global West, especially, we have worked tirelessly to untangle the weave of existence, convinced by Cartesian dualism and Newtonian physics that things either are or are not, that complexity can always be reduced to its constituent parts, and that a mastery of rules acquired through the silo-ing of knowledge will lead us to greater heights. We believe in means to an end, rather than in the end being the means. The destination is always prized above the journey.

But the takeaway from this myth is that completion is death to a city, just as it is to all forms of life. Cities are not exactly living organisms, and the oft-made comparison has its flaws, but their behavior and their needs share certain similarities. Like life itself, The City is a process more than a product, forever changing, adapting, and unfinished. The status quo is maintained only in ruins, or in death. The journey is everything.

TEDxVienna City 2.0

On 20 September, 2013, TEDxVienna will host a City2.0 event, the theme of which will be The Unfinished City. But in a city widely praised for its extraordinary quality of life, what more is there to do? What are the most critical areas demanding our attention? What are the risks of ignoring them? And if we say City2.0, what was City1.0? Are we really in the midst of a transition so fundamental as to form a dividing line between the near future and the first 7000 years of urbanism? What are we transitioning from, and what to?

Join us later this month and become part of the discussion. Imagine Vienna 2.0. Help us dream it. Build it. Make it real.

Header Image(s) from Pixabay & Gratisography

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