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Frank Catalano

Amsterdam has a lot that can appeal to a Seattleite. Both cities are of similar size, value walkability and bicycles, have strong cultural institutions and a clear affinity for coffee shops. (Though in Amsterdam, what’s served may be somewhat more bold and smoky.)

Yet after a week’s vacation in the Netherlands’ largest, and Europe’s most dense, city, what struck me was the technology. Not the local tech industry – Adobe, for one, has major offices in both locations. Rather, the cities’ approach to technology in public spaces.

While Seattle has an intense focus on carrying one’s enveloping personal tech bubble everywhere, like a kind of geek force field, Amsterdam appears better at integrating technology into everyday public life. It’s an approach less for the benefit of the individual who happens to own the coolest new devices and more for the benefit of everyone.

Let me draw a handful of day-to-day public tech comparisons in this admittedly surface-level, anecdotal, I-don’t-speak-Dutch-worth-a-damn Amsterdam-Seattle tech smackdown:

Amsterdam parking sign with mobile device payment icon.

Parking meters. The last time I did a similar cross-pond public tech evaluation, more than a dozen years ago, major European cities were way ahead in parking technology. Urban streets had, and still have, automated machines on each block that make individual meters moot and spit out a parking sticker in return for payment.

Seattle has caught up with its own automated, credit-card accepting monoliths (if for no other reason to make it easier to selectively raise and extend rates). Still, in Amsterdam signs above the meter stations indicate you can now pay for parking with your mobile phone too. That’s an advance Seattle has yet to emulate.

Advantage: Amsterdam, slightly.

Public transit. Mike McGinn, take note: Not only is there a three-story, block-long bicycle-only parking garage at Amsterdam’s central train station, but in the outskirts you can pre-arrange a fully automated bike rental that’s waiting when you get off that train or bus.

Netherlands OV-Bicycle automated bike rental station.

Using a standard Netherlands OV-Chipkaart (a smart, stored-value transit card similar to Seattle’s ORCA card), you subscribe to the OV-Bicycle service for ten Euros (about $14) a year. Then, at more than 225 locations near train, bus, and subway stations, in urban centers and at park-and-ride lots, you scan your card to open the door to an unmanned bicycle pavilion, unlock a bicycle and ride it away.

When you do a return scan, the system knows how long you’ve had the bike and charges you three Euros a day. Even buses that head to the bicycles (and elsewhere) have cool tech touches, such as a screen showing the next several destinations and arrival estimates updated in real time.

Advantage: Amsterdam.

Automated weighing and pricing sticker scale in an Amsterdam grocery store.

Grocery scales. Sure, over the past few years self-checkout lines at Seattle supermarkets have made it possible to look up a faded photo of a fruit or vegetable and punch in a code as you weigh the flora to get the weight and price. But in Amsterdam stores, there’s no need to wait for checkout or even look up a code.

The scale in Amsterdam produce departments just display an image of the fruit or veggie. Punch the button, the scale weighs it, prices it, and creates a self-adhesive label for the checker. There are, admittedly, fewer selections than at a Seattle grocer, but at least there are no line-slowing “was that a Granny Smith or a Red Delicious?” memory moments.

Advantage: Amsterdam, slightly.

WiFi access. Similar to Seattle, Amsterdam has no-charge WiFi hotspots at cafes and the non-smoking coffee shops. Some, including my personal favorite, CoffeeCompany (there are many Starbucks, but I tell Europeans that’s our export brand) require a receipt with an access code, as Peet’s does in the U.S.

Despite rumors otherwise, there is no pervasive, citywide WiFi network in Amsterdam – at least none that ever was discovered by my ever-vigilant Android mobile phone. And the Amsterdam central public library, architecturally nearly as daring as Seattle’s, does have free WiFi, but requires signing up for an account.

Advantage: A draw.

Social isolation. In parks, cafes and in stores, groups in Amsterdam sat together and appeared to interact much more with each other than with their devices. It was less common than in Seattle to see the earbud-plugged, laptop-opened, slack-faced and self-absorbed coffee shop customer subtly giving off vibes that they’d really enjoy their web and beverage more if everyone else would just leave.

I was also far less likely to see pedestrians walking down streets texting while ignoring their surroundings. But this might be less due to any cultural difference and more because of the large number of fast-moving – and nearly silent – bicycles and trams that can perform effective natural selection. (It does not, however, explain the few Amsterdammers I saw texting and bicycling, unless that reflects an evolutionary branch.)

Amsterdam hacking signs in a canal-front window.

Advantage: Seattle, if it can be called that.

On balance, it doesn’t seem that Seattle is that far behind Amsterdam in most public uses of tech, especially if you ignore how far ahead some European cities were more than a dozen years ago when I did my first comparison. I mean, in 1998, Paris had automated stand-alone toilets on its streets – and, unlike Seattle’s subsequent and now-flushed models, its were considered a success.

But if you think Seattle and Amsterdam are relatively evenly matched now, it begs the question on who will pull ahead next. Will the surviving model be Seattle’s, of tech-augmented personal bubbles expanding to fill all public space and replacing shared experience? Or will it be more like Amsterdam’s, where an integrated and pervasive public tech infrastructure provides a common platform for everyone, including entrepreneurs, to build upon? Or some happy hybrid?

I suspect the answer depends on whether you believe only the techno-savvy deserve the bright shiny objects. Or if, as we learned in kindergarten, we should share, and then maintain and improve them, for everyone’s benefit.

Previously on GeekWire: McGinn: UW, Seattle want great ideas for unused fiber

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