The Politics of a Cybernetic World. Exploring today’s digital world through the historical lens of cybernetics

*** This event is now fully booked, if you want to reserve a seat on the waiting list, you can email ***

What: A creative and engaging event exploring the politics of cybernetics with Katherine Hayles, Luc Steels, Andrew Pickering, and Ricarda Franzen
When: March 23, 4-7 PM
Where: Crea Muziekzaal, Nieuwe Achtergracht 170, Amsterdam
Entrance: free, registration required
Funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) as part of the research project Safeguarding long-term equal stakeholdership in the Smart City & the Center for Urban Studies of the University of Amsterdam as part of a collaboration with the Sheffield Urban Automation Institute

This is the concluding event of the two-day seminar The State of Cybernetics. The digitization of cities, bodies and communities. Click here for more information about this seminar.

What do cities, robots, corporations, political organizations, human bodies and the ecological environment have in common? For the scientists involved in the development of cybernetics in the 1940s, this was all but an awkward question. In seminars organized across the world, the cyberneticians came to think of humans, machines and the social and natural world as identical in their informational essence. In their intellectual and hands-on experimentations, they called forth a world in which machines, bodies and nature are entangled as complex, permanently evolving systems. As they theorized information to flow ever more effortlessly within and between these systems, they conceived new modes of social organization and political subjectivity. Humans no longer appeared as sovereign and bounded individuals but as circuits of polymorphous informational systems.

The purpose of this afternoon is to revisit the legacy of cybernetics to shed light on contemporary digital politics. Many of the fundamental questions asked by cyberneticians regain salience today. What remains of liberal individualism when the boundaries between humans, machines and nature are blurred? What are the systemic properties and operating routines of democracy in a world in which machines and humans are increasingly entangled?


4-4.30 PM performative reading directed by Ricarda Franzen

“Cybernetics Performed”
A theatrical reading of the Macy Conferences, directed by Ricarda Franzen (University of Amsterdam)

This six week long theatrical research was motivated by an interest in the content and form of the Macy conferences on cybernetics (1946-1953) — the latter described as “a moment when a new set of ideas impinged on the human sciences and began to transform some traditional fields of inquiry.” (Heims 1991). Together with the four performers, counseled by Dorien Zandbergen, and based on an initial idea of David Gauthier’s, Ricarda Franzen directed the actors in exploring the performative potential of a text that she composed entirely out of the original transcripts of the Macy conferences. While the performance features a number of noted cyberneticians, conceptually it centers on the figure of Gregory Bateson as observed through the eyes of his daughter who would go on to write an ethnography of a 1968 conference.

Performed by Jono Freeman, Kaylee Spivey Good, Merel Eigenhuis and Alzbeta Tuckova

4.30-5.30 PM lecture Katherine Hayles and short Q&A

“Does a Computer Have an Umwelt? An Exploration of Meaning-making Beyond the Human”
Keynote lecture professor Katherine Hayles (Duke University)

This talk explores the possibility of meaning-making beyond the human and beyond the biological into artificial forms of cognition. Many of our environmental crises today can be understood as an over-emphasis on humans as the most important species on the planet and an under-recognition of meaning-making among nonhuman animals and plants. Exploring that possibility opens up in a new way how meaning-making occurs, and thus sheds new light on cognitive assemblages, where humans and computational media interact. Jakob von Uexküll’s “umwelt” theory, which he articulated in the 1920s and 1930s, proposes that biological lifeforms construct subjective worlds for themselves based on the kinds of sensory systems they have and their environmental interactions. In addition, von Uexküll was an early cybernetician, proposing feedback mechanisms for many biological systems. Although von Uexküll’s work remains central to biosemiotics, the cybernetic aspect is little known or cited. This nearly-forgotten thread suggests the possibility for an expansion of the umwelt beyond the biological. Computers, like biological organisms, know the world through the data available to them, which may be limited to their programs or may extend into the world through sensors and actuators. The crucial element that the umwelt idea adds to existing discourse is the link between sign and meaning, potentially casting new light on the ways in which computational media construct meanings for themselves as subjects. This talk will explore that possibility, comparing contemporary media archeology with the umwelt and outlining the implications for a theory of meaning for networked and programmable machines.

5.30-6.30 PM lecture Luc Steels and short Q&A

“Cybernetics, Artificial Intelligence, and Artificial Life. Past interactions and future prospects.”
Keynote lecture professor Luc Steels

In the late eighties and nineties I was a core participant – and hence privileged observer – of the rise of Artificial Life, working and interacting intensely with Chris Langton, Rodney Brooks, Francesco Varela and other key players in the field. What were the movitations of this research field and what has come of it?
Artificial Intelligence (AI) had sprung up in the late nineteen fifties out of the earlier work on cybernetics, focusing on similar issues as cybernetics, namely the nature of intelligence and how it could be captured in artifacts, but bringing a new powerful toolkit from the then emerging field of computer science to the table. Computer Science goes beyond electrical engineering by being able to represent and process hugely complex data structures at high speeds, so that it becomes possible to seriously start modeling human language processing, problem solving, logical reasoning, and expert decision-making. By the early nineteen eighties symbolic processing technologies had reached maturity and AI had become a field with industrial applications and a growing impact on information technology. By comparison cybernetics became almost exclusively restricted to the construction of adaptive controllers for autonomous systems.

But by the late eighties there was a kind of revival of cybernetics. Several of the early cybernetic experiments (such as Grey Walter’s Elmer and Elsie) were reconstructed, although now with more solid mechanical and computational technologies. New types of conferences sprung up (such as the Simulation of Adaptive Behavior series with the first one in 1990 (Steels, 1990)), a few seminal workshops (in particular the Corsendonck workshop in 1991 (Steels and Brooks, 1994)), advanced schools (the most famous one being the Trento springschool in 1994 (Steels, 1995)) and new journals (such as the journal of Adaptive Behavior). What was going on? I believe the key objective of this new wave was to address two critical issues that AI had (and still has) trouble with, namely meaning and origins. We argued that a proper handling of meaning required agency, autonomy, embodiment, and an ecological setting, all topics that cybernetics had also integrated. And to understand the origins of intelligence we needed to adapt concepts from evolutionary biology and complex systems science, such as self-organisation, selection, level-formation, a.o. Many ideas and fascinating experiments came out of all this and I will give a short overview and how these ideas spilled over into language and concept formation.

The Alife approach to AI ran its course and is no longer in the spotlight. Instead, during the past decade AI has become dominated by statistical machine learning techniques, generating a tsunami of new technologies and applications thanks to the availability of Big Data and the massive increase in computing power. This has almost swept away both the sophisticated research on knowledge representation and reasoning (although this research has its own huge impact today in the semantic web or expert decision-making systems) and the biologically inspired research that powered the temporary interaction between AI and AL in the nineties. I believe however that in the near future we will see a resurgence of the issues that were raised by Alife-AI, as AI systems become more ubiquitous and widespread.

The recent perception that AI has reached a new peak of achievement, coupled to the development of other digital technologies, such as virtual reality, cloud computing, social media, digital self-monitoring, brain-computer interfaces, etc., has recently given rise to a curious fascinating new set of narratives about the future of humankind. There seems to be a new kind of religion taking shape, centered around digital immortality, which is thought to be achievable through sophisticated virtual AI agents and technologies of mind-uploading based on digital traces of human activity. I will briefly report on an artistic project that explores these issues using the medium of opera.

6.30-7PM Panel and discussion

Panel with Andrew Pickering, Luc Steels and Katherine Hayles

About the contributors

Katherine Hayles is Professor and Director of Graduate Studies in the Program in Literature at Duke University, and Distinguished Professor Emerita at the University of California, Los Angeles. She teaches and writes on the relations of literature, science and technology in the 20th and 21st centuries. Amongst her distinguished works are How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis; How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, and Writing Machines.

Luc Steels is professor of computer science at the University of Brussels (VUB), co-founder and chairman (from 1990 until 1995) of the VUB Computer Science Department (Faculty of Sciences) and founder and first-director of the Sony Computer Science Laboratory in Paris. His main research field is Artificial Intelligence covering a wide range of intelligent abilities, including vision, robotic behavior, conceptual representations and language.

Andrew Pickering is an emeritus professor at the University of Exeter. He is internationally known as a leader in the field of science and technology studies. He is the author of Constructing Quarks: A Sociological History of Particle Physics, The Mangle of Practice: Time, Agency and Science and Kybernetik und Neue Ontologien. In his book The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future, he analyses cybernetics as a distinctive form of life spanning brain science, psychiatry, robotics, the theory of complex systems, management, politics, the arts, education, spirituality and the 1960s counterculture, and argues that cybernetics offers a promising alternative to currently hegemonic cultural formations.

Ricarda Franzen works as a dra­maturg, sound artist and researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Coinciding with her interests in art practice, she is interested in aspects of sound in relation to its environment but also as being used in theatre and radio dramas. For the Rotterdam-based laboratory for Unstable Media she co-produced a performance based on the ideas of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. For the theatrical performance she developed for ‘the State of cybernetics,’ she similarly draws inspiration from a group of historical cutting-edge thinkers and tinkerers.

The performers:
Jono Freeman studied as an actor in Sydney Australia, before obtaining a Bachelor in Performance Studies and a DipEd in Drama Method (USYD and UNSW), and becoming a high school Drama teacher.
Kaylee Spivey Good is an American actor working to obtain her MA in Theatre Studies from Universiteit van Amsterdam focusing on the theatricality of antiquites in the early 19th century.
Merel Eigenhuis is -besides an enthusiastic drama teacher- a MA student Theatre Studies. She’s currently most interested in the crossover between digital technologies and contemporary theatre.
Alzbeta Tuckova is a theatre maker and performer studying MA Theatre Studies in UvA.  She has a practical background in performance art and theatre and is passionate about the power of art to express politics.

The organizers

Dorien Zandbergen is an anthropologist of digital culture and politics, currently working as a postdoc researcher at the Sociology Department of the University of Amsterdam. Her current work critically explores the politics of urban digitization. In the documentary In search of the Smart Citizen, which she co-produced with Sara Blom (Creative Commons 2015), she interrogates the vision of the “smart city.” She co-founded Stichting Gr1p  to support artistic and literary interventions that help make complex technological themes, visible, debatable and tangible for a broad audience. Her recent academic publications include “From data fetishism to quantifying selves” (with Tamar Sharon, New Media & Society, 2016) and “We Are Sensemakers.” The (Anti-)politics of Smart City Co-creation” (Public Culture, 2017).

Justus Uitermark is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Amsterdam. He is affiliated with the Center for Urban Studies and the Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research. Uitermark’s research uses relational theorizing and network analysis to examine self-organization, political conflict, and the social organization of the city. With colleagues at the University of Amsterdam, he is currently researching the online/offline interface, utilizing data sourced from Twitter and Instagram to analyze subcultures and social movements. Recent publications include “Longing for Wikitopia. The study and politics of self-organization” (in Urban Studies) and Cities and Social Movements (co-authored with Walter J. Nicholls, Wiley).

The State of Cybernetics. The digitization of cities, bodies and communities. Seminar. Amsterdam. March 22-23

On March 22 and 23, Dorien Zandbergen and Justus Uitermark, based at the University of Amsterdam, organize a seminar entitled “The State of Cybernetics. The digitization of cities, bodies and communities.”

The purpose of the seminar is to revisit the legacy of cybernetics to shed light on contemporary digital politics. Many of the fundamental questions asked by cyberneticians regain salience today. What remains of liberal individualism when the boundaries between humans, machines and nature are blurred? What are the systemic properties and operating routines of democracy in a world in which machines and humans are increasingly entangled?

Scholars from fields as diverse as Philosophy, Anthropology, and Artificial Intelligence will give presentations. The speakers include Simon Marvin, Noortje Marres, Andrew Pickering, Willem Schinkel, Linnet Taylor and Tsjalling Swierstra. 

To allow for an in-depth discussion, there is a limit to the number of participants. Are you interested in taking part? Please inquire with Anne Hovingh:

After you register you will receive a more detailed program with abstracts, locations and times.

The overarching vision for this seminar is to build and strengthen a network of thinkers and practitioners interested in developing critical perspectives regarding digital politics and digital urbanism in particular. This network stretches beyond academia and crosses over to multiple disciplines and fields of practice. Starting September 2018, the aim is to work towards joint research proposals, publications, and events.

The seminar will be concluded by a public event on Friday March 23 at 4PM with lectures by Luc Steels and Katherine Hayles, a theatrical performance prepared by Ricarda Franzen and a discussion between the speakers joined by Andrew Pickering. 

The seminar is funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) as part of the research project “Safeguarding long-term stakeholdership in Smart Cities” and by the Center for Urban Studies of the University of Amsterdam as part of a collaboration with the Sheffield Urban Automation Institute.

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:

Mensen, Data & Macht workshop


What: workshop People, Data and Power
When: Monday March 21st, 9 AM- 6 PM
Where: Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS), Mauritskade 62, Amsterdam Click here for directions.
Register: Places have almost filled up, please write to if you are interested in joining.

Many cities in the world are currently ‘upgrading’ into Smart Cities: cities made more sustainable and efficient by means of smart technologies and that will be most of all participatory. Yet, which responsibilities can citizens, municipalities and corporations effectively take in the mutual shaping of these cities? And what types of organizations and technologies should play a role?

On March 21st 2016 the University of Amsterdam, the Centre for Urban Studies, Maastricht University and the Gr1p Foundation (John Boy, Merel Noorman, Carmen Pérez del Pulgar, Karin Pfeffer, Christine Richter, Linnet Taylor and Dorien Zandbergen) will organize a day of discussions, round-table sessions and keynote presentations on these questions.


Keynote speakers will be Adam Greenfield and Yan Zhu. ag_heathrow Adam Greenfield is a London-based writer and urbanist, currently a teaching fellow at the Bartlett School of Architecture. His books include Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing (2006), “Against the smart city” (2013), and a title forthcoming from Verso in 2016. In his keynote, taking a very critical look at the term ‘Smart City’, Greenfield establishes some basis for meaningful commoning work in, with and around networked information technologies.



Yan ZhuYan Zhu is a security researcher and Technology Fellow at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, working on Let’s Encrypt, HTTPS Everywhere, and other projects for encrypting the web. She is also a Software Engineer at Brave Software, a developer of SecureDrop, and a former member of the W3C Technical Architecture Group. In her keynote, Zhu will introduce the audience to threat modelling and invites them to collaboratively come up with a threat model for smart cities. She will then reflect on ways that engineers, government officials, and city residents can help avert these threats, mostly using lessons she has learned from cyberspace and the growing Internet of Things.

Round-table sessions

In thematic round-table sessions we will look at concrete cases and possible future scenarios around Smart City innovation. The overarching question of each of the roundtables is: Given the ideal of equal stakeholdership in the Smart City, what should be the respective roles of citizens, municipalities, firms and civic organizations in its creation and what types of technological arrangements can best safeguard this equal stakeholdership? How does this ideal relate to what happens now in practice? What needs to change? Each round will discuss these questions with participants from various backgrounds. The round-table sessions are organized in three themes looking at Smart City projects from the perspective of citizens, municipalities and firms.

Smart Citizens

Policy-makers, citizen groups and corporate representatives the world over tout the promise of Smart Cities shaped by active, involved citizens, operating at equal footing with corporations and governments. But what are the possibilities for citizens to actually get involved in the creation of Smart Cities? Smart Cities also gather large amounts of data on them without their knowledge, and not many people feel invited to be involved in the design of their digital surroundings. What forms of debate, types of technological infrastructures, accountability platforms and interventions are required to involve citizens in the mutual shaping of their city?

Smart Municipalities

As cities collaborate with private firms and academic researchers on data-driven projects, city governments are continuously challenged to decide how to balance the public and the personal: on what basis should they make these decisions, and how collaborative should they be?

Smart Firms

Corporations that develop and implement Smart City services and products are increasingly challenged to become trusted parties regarding data collection, storage and analysis and to better involve citizens into their innovation processes. The sessions in this theme discuss the various ways in which companies balance these demands with other interests such as the need to make a profit, to be fast and flexible and to honor existing agreements with their business partners.


9.00-9.30 Walk-in & coffee/tea

9.30-10.00 Welcome, introduction and presentation of the NWO research project on Equal Stakeholdership in the Smart City  by Dorien Zandbergen; Presentation of the Maps4Society research project From data subjects to data producers: negotiating the role of the public in urban geo-information data by Linnet Taylor.

10.00-10.30 Keynote Yan Zhu: a security researcher and Technology Fellow at the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, working on Let’s Encrypt, HTTPS Everywhere, and other projects for encrypting the web. She is also a Software Engineer at Brave Software, a developer of SecureDrop, and a former member of the W3C Technical Architecture Group. In her talk, Zhu will introduce the audience to threat modelling and invites them to collaboratively come up with a threat model for smart cities. She will then reflect on ways that engineers, government officials, and city residents can help avert these threats, mostly using lessons she has learned from cyberspace and the growing Internet of Things. 10.30-10.45 Q&A

10.45-11.00 coffee/tea

11.00 – 11.45 Parallel sessions round 1

Platform City (Smart Citizens): Government bodies both local and national are currently experimenting with digital infrastructures such as online citizen platforms. Austerity measures, decentralisation policies and the growing importance of civic self-organization are important motivational factors therein. Yet, how can governments, involved corporations and users collaboratively assure that these digital networks aren’t dominated by top-down interests and technology-push? How can these networks continue to profit from already existing, non-digital, initiatives that have proven to be successful and smart in connecting demand and offer, for instance in the realm of care.

Case presenter: Wanda Huinink (Burennetwerk) Discussants: Justus Uitermark (Universiteit van Amsterdam) and Mieke van Heesewijk (Netwerk Democratie)

Smartening-up public infrastructures (Smart Municipalities): Public-private consortia in many cities in the Netherlands are currently experimenting with embedding ‘smartness’ into existing public infrastructures.  Sensors and/or camera’s placed in roads, sewage pipes, energy-grids, traffic lights or lampposts can contribute to a more efficient orchestration of urban life. Yet, they also alter public spaces in ways that are as yet unknown and collect data on domains previously non-existent. For most citizens it is unclear how to have a say in these developments. How can we involve citizens more actively in the interrogation and co-construction of these smart infrastructures? We will address this question by looking more closely at the case of the Smart Lampposts in Amsterdam Zuidoost. Case presenters: Ger Baron (CTO Amsterdam Municipality) and Pepijn Nabbe (KPN) Discussants: Jan Duffhues (Amsterdam Municipality), Holly Robbins (TU Delft) and Arnan Obserski (Amsterdam Municipality)

The ‘googlization of health’ (Smart Firms): Much of the enthusiasm surrounding research using data generated from social media and mobile technology stems from the easy access to large data sets. But if for-profit companies become mediators, gatekeepers, or proprietors of data sets that are to some extent considered a public good, the question of who gets access, for what purposes and at what cost needs to be considered. In the current situation, we see a growing digital divide between big data “haves” and “have-nots,” based on access to and control over new technological infrastructures, databases, and forms of expertise. How can companies, health-researchers, users of health-apps and regulators come to agreements that can establish more equal relationships between all these stakeholders involved? These questions will be introduced by a presentation of research findings by technology-philosopher dr. Tamar Sharon on the ‘googlization of health’. Case presenter: Tamar Sharon (Maastricht University) Discussants: Joost Plattel ( and Ingrid Geesink/Marjolijn Heerings (Rathenau Institute)

12.00-13.00 lunch

13.00-13.45  Parallel sessions round 2

Smart Activism (Smart Citizens): Is the smart city a rebel city? Digital networks are making it possible for urban social movements to scale up in ways that until the very recent past were unimaginable. At the same time, these same digital networks can also work against the power these movements build up and they can also extend the reach of state power through dataveillance and data-driven policing. How do movements and activists deal with this double-edged weapon? What technological, political and cultural resources can or should they mobilize? We will open up a discussion on these questions with a presentation by Simone Zeefuik, involved in decolonization initiatives and digital archiving projects documenting the black diaspora in Europe. Case presenter: Simone Zeefuik Discussants: Dan Hassler-Forest (Utrecht University) and Juan-Carlos Goilo (Amsterdam Municipality)

Rotterdam Smart City (Smart Municipalities): Based on an overview of Rotterdam-based Smart City practices, we will discuss how municipalities can make a difference in defining the extent to which data-gathering projects are open to democratic values and stakeholder involvement vis-a-vis them serving as surveillant apparatuses. In particular we will look at the differentiating role that can be played by technological design decisions. Case presenter: Liesbet van Zoonen (Erasmus University Rotterdam) Discussants: Willem Schinkel (Erasmus University Rotterdam) and Michiel de Lange (Utrecht University)

Privacy-friendly data sharing (Smart Firms): Many Smart City technologies are based on the collection, analysis, use and distribution of large amounts of data about and from people. One of the parties within the Smart City landscape is Tippiq, an R&D initiative of grid operator Alliander. Tippiq is currently developing 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. In this session, the initiators of this project will give their view on transparant data sharing where users and providers collaboratively organise data-sharing services. Their question for this table is what it would require to make such a data-sharing system – focused on privacy, safety, and user control – viable in the long run. Which roles and responsibilities can and should different stakeholders, such as service providers, users, and other organisations, take on? What kinds of governance mechanisms can guarantee the lasting reliability and trustworthiness of this system? Case presenter: Bob Kronenburg (Tippiq) Discussants: Scott Smith (Changeist) and Jaya Baloo (Chief Information Security Officer KPN)

14.00- 14.45 Parallel sessions round 3

Building an alternative Smart City (Smart Citizens): In the past decades several networks of hackers, engineers, activists, designers, entrepreneurs and citizen organisations across the world have actively explored ways in which to give more interventionist power to citizens living in a digital society – whether focusing on public debate and awareness or the design of alternative technological infrastructures. Yet, what needs to be done for such initiatives to mature into viable, bottom-up, peer-to-peer Smart City infrastructures? This question will be kicked off by a presentation of  Jaromil who is playing an important role in many of these developments, amongst others through his Dowse project. Case presenter: Jaromil (Dyne) Discussant: Frank Kresin (Waag Society) and Tsjalling Swierstra (Maastricht University)

Sensing Cities (Smart Municipalities): As cities collaborate with private firms and academic researchers on data-driven projects, technologies and practices emerge that make citizens more visible through their data and challenge the boundary between private and public. In this session we will highlight the challenges involved and suggest ways of responsible decision-making through a discussion of several urban projects based on the private collecting of sensor-based data in public spaces. Case presenter: Alison Powell (London School of Economics and Political Science) Discussants: Marjolein Lanzing (3TU Centre for Ethics and Technology) and Karin Pfeffer (University of Amsterdam).

The public use of mobile phone data (Smart Firms):Mobile phone data is being used and sought by city governments around the world as a source of information on the dynamics of human activities, behaviour and mobility. However, these data, even in aggregated and deidentified form, are some of the most sensitive available and have implications both for the city’s ability to measure its functioning and for its data management and governance practices. What kind of collaborations are emerging between city governments, researchers and telecoms firms, and how is access to and the use of this type of data being negotiated? In this session Jaya Baloo will present the considerations that mobile phone operators need to make when thinking about how to make mobile phone data available for city applications. Case presenter: Jaya Baloo (Chief Information Security Officer KPN) Discussants: Paul Suijkerbuijk (Open Overheid, ICTU) and Linnet Taylor (University of Amsterdam)

15.00 – 15.30  drinks & snacks break

15.30 – 15.45 concluding session based on round-table discussions

15.45 – 17.00 keynote Adam Greenfield, followed by discussion In this talk, taking a very critical look at the term ‘Smart City’, Greenfield establishes some basis for meaningful commoning work in, with and around networked information technologies.

17:00 – 18:00 drinks & snacks