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Eindhoven wants to become a smart society. But how is that going? What’s happening already? And what examples can we learn something from? The Datastudio is researching the transition that the city needs to make to become such a smart society. E52 features a new contribution every Friday. This week: What did cities learn about smart societies? Read all of the submissions here.

A City as Smart as her Citizens is the title of a series of lectures-with discussions organised by DATAstudio Eindhoven about best practices for a smart society. On Wednesday, May 24th, digital urban planner Dietmar Ofenhuber, researcher at the MIT SENSEable City Lab, assistant professor at Northeastern University and co-author of Decoding the City, will be speaking in this series.

Klaas Kuitenbrouwer spoke with him in the run-up to his lecture.

Smart societies vragen om improviserend besturen
Een paar jaar geleden zag je in steden veel privatisering rondom bijvoorbeeld stadsverlichting of afvalverwerking. Data viel hierbij in handen van bedrijven als onderdeel van de contracten voor nieuwe diensten en technologieën. Steden hadden nog niet goed door wat ze eigenlijk weggaven. Ook was er vaak sprake van teveel specificatie van de nieuwe technologie, waardoor die niet flexibel was in te zetten bij nieuwe ontwikkelingen.

Inmiddels begrijpen steden dit veel beter. Centraal staat de waarde van data. De kunst van de ontwikkeling van een smart society is dan ook het improviserend besturen – een continu vraag-en-antwoord spel tussen overheid, bedrijven, burgers, rondom de vraag hoe je het meeste kan maken van de huidige situatie. Het gaat niet meer om ontwikkelen from scratch, het gaat veel meer om het slim werken met wat er al is. Data is in deze ontwikkeling de voornaamste handelswaar.

De technologie die nodig is om burgers toegang te geven tot smart city-achtige toepassingen en -platforms is inmiddels wijd verspreid geraakt en behoorlijk toegankelijk geworden. Het is geen rocket science meer. Dat betekent ook dat er niet per se grote bedrijven als IBM meer nodig zijn om de smart city of society tot ontwikkeling te brengen. Ook de Silicon Valley platforms hebben niet de sleutel.

“Ook de Silicon Valley platforms hebben niet de sleutel.”Dietmar Ofenhuber,

Smart societies call for improvisational governance
A few years ago, there was a lot of privatization in cities around city lighting and waste disposal, for instance. Data then fell into the hands of companies as a part of the contracts for new services and technologies. Cities weren’t very well aware of what they were giving away. There was also often too much specification of the new technology, making it not flexible for new developments.

Cities understand this much better now. The value of data is central. The art of the development of a smart society is therefore improvisational governance – a continuous question-and-answer game between government, companies, citizens, about how you can make the most of the current situation. It’s not about developing from scratch anymore, it’s more about working smart with what’s already there. Data is the main merchandise in this development.

The technology needed to give citizens access to smart city-like applications and platforms has now become widespread and quite accessible. It is no longer rocket science. That also means that big companies like IBM aren’t necessarily needed anymore to develop the smart city or society. The SiliconValley platforms don’t have the key either.


But central planning is still necessary
A smart society is about a game between many networks with different agendas, responsibilities and knowledge. Urban authorities, of all concerned, have the best opportunities to form these networks and to change less desirable situations.

Take the example of Uber, which is a struggle for many cities. Uber runs on valuable data. That data is the only real asset of Uber – the same thing goes for other SiliconValley platform services.
More and more cities want data from the public space – for example about road use – to be published as open data. But Uber obviously doesn’t want to give away that data.

Cities can exert several sorts of influence to enforce the openness of data: they can enter regulations. The difficulty in that is that they also have maintain them. Openness could be arranged through the use of smart contracts, an advanced technical solution. But cities also have a lot of soft power – they have a lot of influence on their citizens, so that way they can also create several other incentives for private data collectors to collaborate with the municipalities and other parties.

Cities are starting to realise more what they actually have in their hands and how that may also be interesting for external parties. Street lighting, for example, was long only considered an item of expense for municipalities. But street lights and parking meters, for instance, also offer a very useful infrastructure for data collection and can thus provide support for many other services.

Common criticism on the smart city is that it merely focuses on efficiency. 

That criticism isn’t really unjustified – you can’t perceive a city as a machine, but don’t be mistaken: efficiency also represents real value. Cities have meaningful optimization questions in which large companies can play an important role. Take waste disposal. In the 80’s there was one large waste processing company in San Francisco, and in New York there was an endless amount of local family businesses. Guess which city was cleaner and where the waste was processed in a cheaper way.

Urban governance and taking care of the public good is becoming more of a matter of dealing with complex networks, but central planning is also still necessary. Although it is often not immediately clear at what level it can be organized the most conveniently. When it comes to data, it’s about regulating access to data, protecting citizens against abuse of data and maintaining technical standards.


Citizens as expert amateurs
Citizens can take a new role in the developing smart society – that of expert amateurs, more or less complementary to the classical roles of NGOs. It is often about citizens who are influenced by specific circumstances. That can be personal limitations, but also things like broken roads, or disappearing shops in the neighbourhood. Citizens are experts concerning their own circumstances.

The dynamics you see here, it works as follows: something happens which influences a group of citizens. They come together, identify the problem, they try to figure out what sort of data exists with regard to that problem and then try to put together a prototype for a solution.

Residents of Fukushima have built their own cheap Geiger counters after the nuclear disaster which now provide the most reliable data on radioactivity in the city. (Neighbourhood prevention through Whatsapp is also a good example – red.)

It is certainly not the case that all citizens become involved in controlling the city in that way. There are no generic ways or technologies for the participation in controlling the city. It is important for cities to acknowledge and provide a variety of ways and technologies of access, in different languages and vocabularies.

New citizens’ initiatives do not cover the whole population, but they do show which citizens want to be active.
The dynamics begin with the urgency that citizens themselves experience. These days, there are many accessible tools or parts of tools that can be combined, even if you’re not a programmer.

It has long been thought that social media would greatly widen access to democratic governance. That didn’t happen, but social media have given possibilities for citizen participation to new groups, including young people. That is also a big win for democracy.

Interested in this topic? Come to the lecture of Dietmar Ofenhuber on May 24th in the Eindhoven Library. Sign up here.