Cybertown: Villena’s Virtual Town-Hall

European Magazine  London, 1996, 900 words; extracts  

In the mid-1990s I read about a "virtual" town-hall in Villena, a small town in Alicante province where the distant past and the future rubbed shoulders. I wanted to find out what that meant on the ground. Twenty years later the project has moved forward – see the update.

Most visitors come to Villena, just half an hour's drive inland from Alicante, for a rare glimpse of the past: a priceless Iberian gold treasure-trove, 50,000 years old, dug up from a river bed by a post-office worker back in the 1950s.

Today it is kept in a fairy-tale cabinet in a museum on the ground floor of the Renaissance town-hall. But climb the stairs instead to the third floor and you will find yourself looking to the future instead. Here you will find the think-tank of one of Europe’s first virtual town-halls.

Townspeople were offered a bargain desktop computer complete with connection, software, training and a three-year maintenance contract for half the usual price.

At first glance, the office looks no different from any other in Mediterranean Spain. There are a handful of desks, a counter where staff deal with queries and a botijo or earthenware water-jar for anyone who wants to quench their thirst. Only when you walk to the far end of the office do you see the glassed-in systems-room bulging with computer hardware.

Villena's 350 million Pta cyberproject was launched in 1995. Townspeople were offered a bargain desktop computer complete with connection, software, training and a three-year maintenance contract for half the usual retail price. Special credit terms were arranged with local savings banks.

GOING DIGITAL

What, then, does Villena's virtual town-hall offer its cyber-citizens? After logging on with a code number they can choose between local intranet services - which include teleshopping and banking - or the internet's e-mail and web.

On the intranet they can book an appointment at the health clinic, apply for a building permit, order a novel from a local bookshop, locate a late-night chemist, flick through events listings, browse through half a dozen European newspapers or check school dates and exam results. New services are being added all the time.

"What does today's citizen need to live in the global village?" asks José Emilio Cervera, who masterminded the scheme to see how to set up a pilot cybertown. "That is one question we are asking here - the other is how do we make sure people want to log on."

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