People, Data and Power: a critical interrogation of smart city infrastructures

By Dorien Zandbergen and Merel Noorman

in collaboration with  John Boy, Merel Noorman, Carmen Pérez del Pulgar, Karin Pfeffer, Christine Richter and Linnet Taylor
photo’s by Lakshika Thenuwara
notes taken by organizers and Lakshika Thenuwara, Yuki Yamamoto, Paul Berkhout, Laila Wiersma, Jennifer Veldman


In Orbit by Tomas Saraceno, CC-BY-SA

On March 21, 2016,  the University of Amsterdam, the Centre for Urban Studies, Maastricht University and the Gr1p Foundation organized the People, Data and Power workshop, hosted in the building of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions. Over eighty participants – academics, policy makers, technologists, activists, corporate representatives and civil society organisers  – were invited to join 9 round-table sessions to look at the power relations between citizens, firms and municipalities as shaped by digital infrastructures. This report reflects in particular on the (im)possibilities of discussing digital politics across these disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

The following is a summary of the report, the full report can be downloaded here.

Introduction to the workshop day: a history of the smart city vision

The smart city dream – as recent as it may sound – is a continuation of a long-standing vision of societal enhancement by means of computational intelligence. This dream has many legacies, one of which is the work of the American computer scientist Douglas Engelbart. In 1956 Engelbart, feeling urged to do something against a world torn apart by wars and environmental pollution, wrote in a memo: ‘We have built a civilization beyond our understanding and we are finding that it is getting out of hand. Faced with such problems, what are we to do?’


Douglas Engelbart, Atherton 2005. Photo by Dorien Zandbergen

With his Augmentation Research Center at the Stanford Research Institute, Engelbart worked on the development of human-computer interaction hardware and software, which he showcased at a 1968 a demo that has since been called ‘the mother of all demos.’ Here, Engelbart showed a mode of interacting with computers that the default mainframe computers of that period did not facilitate: users could order and visualize their thoughts, multi-task on several screens, collaborate at a distance and draw new connections between different lines of thoughts.

Many technologies that came out of Engelbart’s lab – such as networked computers, hypertext, the mouse and precursors to the Graphic User Interface – are now part of our daily digital infrastructures. While Engelbart is mostly remembered for these, now mundane, technological inventions, his vision was much more exalted. Engelbart wanted to facilitate what he called a symbiogenesis of human intelligence with computer intelligence: to make humans and computers work together as if they are one intelligent system of information flows: so as to come to terms with large amounts of complex social, political and economic data and understand how these complexities could be managed.

The current smart city vision has a similarly utopian aspiration at its heart: that in the merging of human intelligence and artificial intelligence, humanity will be able to come to terms with the complexities of today’s urbanized global societies: to cope with climate change, population growth, air pollution and governance issues associated with these phenomena. Just as Engelbart envisioned human-computer interaction as one cybernetic system, so does the smart city vision approach cities as integrated systems of information flows; systems in which interactive smart technologies facilitate the orchestration of flows of people, energy, opinions and desires, traffic and more, to make urban life more efficient, resilient and enjoyable.

Yet, since Engelbart’s time, digital infrastructures have themselves become implicated in opaque, unaccountable political dynamics. Science fiction writer Bruce Sterling described the paradox emanating from this when he wrote: ‘Just when processes of corporate concentration, institutional harmonization, and economic globalization render the governance of science and technology ever more obscure and inaccessible, so we begin to appreciate the inherent openness to the exercise of human agency and, potentially, to deliberate social choice.’

How to debate the smart city?

The aim of this workshop day was to explore the paradox within the ambition to empower citizens through building ever complex, large-scale and opaque smart systems. All invited participants shared a concern with creating urban environments that allowed for a more equal distribution of power. We had invited, for instance, representatives from Tippiq, an R&D initiative of grid operator Alliander working on a data-sharing platform for services in and around the home. A key focus of Tippiq is to enable people to have control over the type of data they share and the conditions under which this happens. We also invited Denis Roio to talk about Dowse, ‘the Privacy Hub for the Internet of Things’ that enables users to perceive and control all internet traffic leaving and entering their homes. And we asked Ger Baron (CTO Amsterdam Municipality) and Pepijn Nabbe (KPN) to talk about their Smart Light project, a project to equip lampposts with sensors through which a multitude of actors (citizens, entrepreneurs and police) can take fine-grained control over local urban areas.

By also approaching questions of ‘smartness’ through other themes and topics relevant to contemporary urban life – such as solidarity, financial equality and environmental sustainability – we wanted to subvert the often criticised ‘solutionism’ in smart city rhetoric. In this rhetoric, smart city development is often assumed to be a process of ‘disruption’, whereby ‘old’ ways of being and doing get replaced by new, digitally mediated procedures and infrastructures. For this reason, we had also invited representatives of activist communities and bottom-up citizen services, in order to ask the question how existing practices of activism and social care are being transformed and even displaced by digitization.

Due to the variety in background and starting-positions of participants, at the heart of our discussions were different understandings of the role that is and should be played in future urban contexts by digital corporations, algorithms and individual citizens; and the question if, and to what extent, cities can be perceived of as laboratories for innovation and problem-solving.

Triggered by the fact that the workshop was organised in the building of the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions, there were, for instance, some heated discussions regarding the question whether the term ‘solution’ fits the urban context. Keynote speaker Adam Greenfield argued that cities are intrinsically complex, with smart city infrastructures simplifying, accelerating and commodifying these interactions. For strategic director of Alliander Pallas Agterberg however, smart technologies, if built well, are perfectly able to accommodate individual freedom and democratic values.

Other topics that were explored concerned the question of responsibility and accountability for digital infrastructures; the large focus on the issue of privacy in ethical debates of the smart city at the detriment of other values, and the big ‘purpose question’: ‘Why is the municipality of Amsterdam, along with KPN, CISCO, KPN and Philips, putting sensors into lampposts? And why is Alliander, an energy utility provider, involving itself in the creation of a data-sharing platform?’

Some tentative conclusions

One of the main questions we had for this day was whether it would at all be possible to discuss smart city projects with a cross-disciplinary audience invested with many different types of skillsets, vocabularies and interests. What would it entail to make such developments more transparent? How does one engage a wider audience in a discussion and evaluation of, for instance, Smart Lampposts installed by utilities companies? How does one discuss an Open Source bottom-up project built by hackers with an audience that is not well-versed in the ways of code? What are the terms in which initiators present these projects to an external audience and how can this audience talk back? In short: Is genuine dialogue even possible?

Although one workshop day can’t possibly address these questions to full extent, some tentative conclusions might be drawn regarding the difficulty of conducting cross-disciplinary, cross-domain discussions on smart city infrastructures:

  • Usually, discussions on the smart city tend to be futuristic: smart city infrastructures are often staged as ‘experimental’ and hence not yet ready for evaluation;
  • Stakeholders are often on different ‘wavelengths’. They have different vocabularies, starting points and assumptions. We saw, for example, that critical questions about the purpose of projects often ‘missed the point’ from the perspective of project leaders. Whereas these questions tend to relate to the here and now, several project leaders argued that they were thinking much further ahead and were responding to larger global trends;
  • Participants in discussions hold very different positions on the role of democracy in the development of future cities. Critical interrogators often want democratization to take place before the development stage of technologies; whereas the typical smart city vision brings democratization through digital technologies (such as minute-by minute voting);
  • There are many aspects to smart city development that escape the boundaries of reflexive debate: such as utopian visions of the technological singularity.

Such insights can be followed up in two ways:

Our first suggestion is to provide room for critical interrogations of smart city projects at the place where digital developments occur or where they are implemented. This could happen by means of corporations opening up their development processes and premises in an earlier stage to public scrutiny. However, given that corporate settings pose limitations to fundamental questioning of the basic assumptions of the smart city, it is equally important to develop more public awareness and skill in articulating concerns and questions. Following the lessons of the UvA Re-think activists who noticed that public interest in their case was biggest when their protests were physical and not only virtual, this could entail organizing interventions in public spaces around technologies that need more public scrutiny. Such interventions, or a more active public outreach by smart city organizations themselves, as also concluded by the researchers of Maps4Society research project in their report, might mitigate the fact that many citizens, do not feel ‘included in the planning or execution of smart city projects and research in general. They [are] unaware of who [is] organizing smart city projects in Amsterdam, how they might have input, or even how to find out about what was happening.’

However, the exercise of conversation is useful, and in subsequent debates some elements that we had inserted into this day can be explored further:

  • Subsequent debates on smart city infrastructures should more clearly distinguish different understandings of smart city democratization. They should more consciously compare and balance the notion of enabling democracy through digital technologies and enabling democracy by opening up the development process of digital technologies to public involvement;
  • Round-table discussions on the smart city and smart citizenship should also include discussions on ‘non-smart’ citizenship. As it is now, visions about what smart citizenship entails tend to be disjointed from the experiences of those citizens who feel disempowered or displaced by the advent of smart solutions. These discussions and experiences should be connected to one another;
  • As also suggested by Changeist founder Scott Smith, it is important to develop a vocabulary that ‘the average person in the street would make sense of.’ This means, for Smith, drawing attention to practical, nearby urban issues, such as the question why ‘they should want open access to their house, and why their neighbor needs to know if their pipes are leaking.’ To this we would like to add the need to develop a vocabulary that mitigates futurist visions with present and actual concerns. One step towards this direction is to place the focus on concrete projects that have already been developed and on the exploration of their implications in the present, regardless of their experimental status. At the same time, concerns about long-term and less local developments, such as the energy transition, need to be made accessible and comprehensible to a broader range of stakeholders;
  • As suggested also by Adam Greenfield in his keynote: the smart city framework tends to be biased towards digital solutions and has a narrow notion of its stakeholders (i.e. smart citizens, entrepreneurs, digital corporations). In order to include more different stakeholders into its interrogations, smart city discussions should broaden their focus, engaging stakeholders not generally invited for discussions on the smart city, but who nevertheless bring great insight regarding its politics. As we learned at this conference, activists give great insight into the ways in which particular digital formats hinder or allow the free flow of expression; and experienced initiators of informal neighborhood-care platforms have great insight into the effects of digitization for their particular interest groups.
  • [1] Taylor, L., Richter, C., Jameson, S., and Perez del Pulgar, C. (2016) ‘Customers, users or citizens? Inclusion, spatial data and governance in the smart city.’ Maps4Society Final Project Report. Available at SSRN:
Geplaatst in Blog, democratischestad.

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