Author profile picture

Introducing smart technology at the neighbourhood level is a bit like getting married. You have to think about it carefully beforehand, since you’re entering into the relationship for the long haul. In this essay, Tsjalling Swierstra, professor of the philosophy of technology at Maastricht University, describes a few problems to keep in mind as we design new sociotechnological systems. This article is part of a series on “De Staat van Eindhoven”, an initiative by the city of Eindhoven and Het Nieuwe Instituut. It is published simultaneously on E52 and the platform of Het Nieuwe Instituut.

By Tsjalling Swierstra

The word “smart” is often used these days to describe IT-based solutions for problems faced by society. This is unfortunate, because it makes it easy to forget that low-tech solutions can also be smart, or even smarter. Is it really more convenient to have packages delivered by a drone instead of a bicycle courier? Maybe in a US city, but perhaps not in Eindhoven, where the bicycle paths are excellent. So we need to ensure that we don’t let words like “smart” deceive us into thinking that every problem has to be solved with more digitisation. That kind of tunnel vision can only cause problems.

Still, experts generally agree that in the near future our cities will use more and more of what are called cyber-physical systems. Cyber-physical systems combine computers, sensors, and machines such as cars, robots, drones and refrigerators. A good example is a rubbish bin with a sensor that sends a signal to a computer when it’s full. The computer then notifies the bin lorry of the smartest route through the city. Since cities will only keep getting bigger and more complex, without the help of such systems, they will not be able to cope with the increasing streams of energy, people, goods, materials, waste and services. Those streams will have to be organised as efficiently as possible – not only for the sake of convenience and economy but also in order to protect the environment.

In a smart city, IT is used to help organize all kinds of things for citizens. In many cases, the smart solutions are largely invisible. Electricity, sewers, shop-stocking, package delivery, rubbish collection, and maintaining public order and safety are all of crucial importance, but they are usually only noticed when something goes wrong. That may be unfair and ungrateful toward all the people who work hard every day making sure those things run smoothly, but unfortunately that’s the way it is. There are simply fewer people who’ll shake the dustman’s hand in thanks for emptying the bins than there are people who’ll angrily take to their phones and keyboards to complain on the one day he doesn’t. As more and more smart technology is used to run all these systems, all this important work will become completely invisible. We already don’t thank the dustman or the woman who plans his route, let alone sensors or computers.

In a truly smart city, though, citizens won’t merely be looked after; they’ll use smart technologies themselves too – for instance, to solve problems in the neighbourhood or to work together with the municipality more effectively.

In a truly smart city, citizens will put their heads together with businesses and officials to find ways of using IT to improve things like the local voluntary community care system, or safety, or social cohesion. Here are a few ideas to illustrate what I mean. In the future, citizens may be able to control streetlights or security cameras using their smartphones. I’ll type in my route home, and as I walk or cycle, the system will know where I am and will make the lights brighter and point the cameras at me. So the streetlamps won’t have to burn all night for nothing (which is cheaper and more sustainable), and the cameras won’t be looking the other way if anything happens to me. Another example: smart equipment could allow empty car parks to be closed during the daytime and turned into children’s playgrounds until the sensors indicate they’re needed again by parents on their way home from work. Or safe routes through neighbourhoods could be set up for residents with early-stage dementia, with sensors that would notify neighbours or care workers immediately if someone deviates from the route and risks getting lost. Or every house could have a locker that can only be opened by a deliveryperson with the right barcode and will let you know when you have a package so you can bring it inside as soon as possible. Or citizens could come up with a system for looking after each other’s children if a parent has a babysitting crisis. And so on.

Technology enables us to do so much, and its capabilities will continue to increase. The hope is that smart technology will help us to improve various services and also to make them cheaper, not only because it can do some jobs for us but also because it can enable citizens to do a number of things themselves that they couldn’t before. This fits with the trend of government shifting more and more responsibilities onto individuals and communities under the banner of the participatory society.

There are plenty of new opportunities, then, but plenty of new questions and problems too. It makes sense to pay attention to them from the outset in order to prevent rude awakenings later. A lot can go wrong with smart technologies, and it always does. I don’t say this out of a wish to discourage people but out of the hope that we can avert a few of these problems if we keep them in mind as we design new “sociotechnological systems” that not only assign new tasks and responsibilities to technology but also to the people around it. We will only truly be using smart technology in a smart way if we take issues like the following into account.


The smart city can only serve us if it knows a great deal about us. Therefore, in the smart city, information on all our doings will be continuously collected, stored and consulted on a massive scale. Your electricity provider will be able to see exactly what’s going on in your house when and where. The traffic regulators will know whether we’re home, and if not, where in the country we are. This may sound scarier than it is, and we will undoubtedly receive a lot in return, but all these sensors constantly generating new data on us will inevitably bring privacy problems with them. Will I know or have a say in what the power company does with my personal details? Will the data I give up in exchange for traffic guidance also be available to entities that have nothing to do with traffic but do have to do with, say, benefits?

An additional question is whether these systems can truly be protected from criminal hacking. It could be highly useful for a thief to know when I’m sitting in my car stuck in traffic. And what about citizens working together at the neighbourhood level? It will be helpful to be able to see whether the elderly lady down the street is still moving around in her house, but who should have access to that information? The neighbours, perhaps, so they can knock on the door if it’s been too long. But who can guarantee that those neighbours will treat that information with appropriate care? Unless we come up with good technological and legal solutions for such problems, some citizens will be reluctant to part with their data, and many worthy plans will never get off the ground completely, or at all.

Inequality of access

Another recurring problem with smart projects such as these is that not everyone is equally comfortable with all that technology. There still aren’t that many people who can do much more on their computers than type and surf the web. But those who are uncomfortable with technology have less opportunity to join in the conversation, contribute their thoughts, help with design, or participate in general. Even today, people don’t have equal opportunities to contribute to community opinion-forming and decision-making. Not everybody is equally good at expressing themselves. Anyone who goes to neighbourhood meetings knows that it’s often the same people doing the talking and that there are other local residents you never see. So we shouldn’t think this problem will be remedied just by giving people access to a digital platform. On the contrary, inequality is more likely to increase than decrease. People who take part in a digital discussion platform won’t be representative of the rest of the neighbourhood. Technology brings people together, but it can also exclude – and it often does both at once.


Of course, you don’t need technology to exclude people. Human beings have been shutting others out for centuries by ignoring, scolding and threatening them. Ongoing efforts are therefore required to keep discussions from getting out of hand and keep people working together pleasantly. This is becoming increasingly obvious. In the 1980s and 1990s, expectations for the new digital technology were high. People believed the Internet would bring about a new form of direct democracy. After all, everyone had access to this virtual marketplace where you could discuss everything freely and equally. Unfortunately, little of the early enthusiasm remains today. In the eyes of many, the Internet has degenerated into a sewer where you can get the vilest insults hurled at you by people hiding safely behind anonymity. Such abuse is nothing new, to be sure.

But it is increasing, because digital technology enables it and perhaps even encourages it. Since we can’t see each other online, it’s easier for us to go too far there than it would be on the street or at work: we’re protected by our anonymity and can’t see what we’re doing to the other person. When an online abuser is hauled into court for threatening someone, more often than not, it turns out to be a respectable family man who’s duly ashamed of himself and can’t imagine how he could have said such stupid things. If neighbours in the smart city start trying to organise more things together via digital channels, how might it affect the atmosphere in the neighbourhood? If no solution is found for this problem, it could kill people’s enthusiasm for working together for the good of the neighbourhood.

Demanding citizens, forbidding government

Another effect of digital communication is that it seems to make people more impatient and demanding. The unconscious thought process seems to be: it only takes me five minutes to send an email, so why should I have to wait weeks for a reply? And so a slightly angrier email gets sent on top of the first one. Or: I’ve clearly stated what I want; why aren’t they listening? Sitting alone at their computers, citizens can easily lose sight of the fact that politicians have numerous other interests to take into account. Politics and policy are about carefully weighing up interests and making compromises no one is entirely happy with, and the Internet has little time or patience for that. Of course, the Internet has shrunk the distance between citizens and officials, and that’s progress. But that doesn’t alter the fact that the technology is at odds with the slow compromises politics always involves. Before you know it, you end up in a role-playing game, with neighbourhoods repeatedly asking for things and the city repeatedly saying no. This is conducive neither to citizens’ enthusiasm for working on behalf of their neighbourhoods nor for their faith in government.

Unforeseen and unwanted uses

In addition to all this, history teaches us that new technologies are rarely used exactly as predicted. People are creative and will always think up new, unexpected applications. This can sometimes lead to beneficial results, such as the phonograph, which evolved from an office machine into a music player. But I doubt the inventors of the computer foresaw that their calculating machine would be used someday to download movies. It can’t do any harm to think ahead of time about how people might be able to misuse smart technologies being developed at the neighbourhood level – and who should take action if they do. Imagine that a neighbourhood platform is used to carry out some type of illegal trade. Can ordinary citizens be required to intervene?

Liability when things go wrong

When technology is used in unforeseen and unwanted ways, expectations aren’t met. The same is true when it fails. And it always does, sooner or later. Now, it’s not a huge problem if my computer freezes up now and then or a website briefly goes offline. But what if a lady with dementia gets lost because the system breaks down? Who should be held accountable: the producer, the neighbourhood, the municipality? No one? The more we surround ourselves with technologies codeveloped by citizens, cities and businesses, the more often questions around liability will arise.

Maintenance and sustainable involvement

Finally, when something goes wrong, you need people with the knowhow to get things going again. In an office, there are usually such people walking around. But what about in a neighbourhood? Are they on hand in every neighbourhood? If so, are they willing to keep things running for free out of their duty as citizens? For how long? How can a project’s continuity be guaranteed if its leaders move away from the neighbourhood, drop out after a conflict, or simply lose interest? What if the commercial parties involved change their business plans or switch their focus to other technologies? What if a new councilmember enters the picture who isn’t keen on the project? It’s not just the software that needs to be kept up to date but also the hardware and the socioware. Can a neighbourhood take on that responsibility? Will businesses want to do so? Or will every problem ultimately end up on the city’s plate? There are countless examples of citizens, government and business embarking on joint projects with great enthusiasm but dropping away over time, causing the project to die a (usually) quiet death.


New technologies harbour endless potential for making life in the smart city easier, better, more sustainable and safer. Some new systems will be initiated and developed by the city, but others will be set up by citizens at the neighbourhood level. These initiatives deserve support. But support must be given in a smart way. It’s easy to start a project; unfortunately, it’s even easier to let a promising initiative degenerate into disappointment, frustration, anger and mutual recriminations. Therefore, we must think ahead of time about the kinds of questions I have raised here. Introducing smart technology at the neighbourhood level is a bit like getting married. You have to think about it carefully beforehand. You’re entering into the relationship for the long haul. And along the way, significant stamina and maintenance will continuously be required to keep it healthy.