Documentary Smart City. In search of the Smart Citizen

Background

The documentary Smart City. In Search of the Smart Citizen is a collaboration between filmmaker Sara Blom and researcher Dorien Zandbergen. The film is part of a larger project that begin in May 2013 and that has been supported by the Creative Industries Fund and the Democracy and Media Foundation. The project was the direct impetus for the founding of Gr1p.

Complex technology

This project started with Zandbergen’s exploration in 2011, as a researcher of digital culture at Leiden University, to find out how to involve a broader group of people in a discussion that is generally regarded as abstract and complex: the fast pace at which our lives are rapidly being digitized. These explorations centered on one paradox in particular: while people are being told, on the one hand, that smart technologies turn us into smarter, more autonomous human beings, most people have no idea how these technologies themselves work. And, invisible to most people, there are many organizations who know more about us than we know about ourselves through the data we habitually produce in our day-to-day digital lives.

Network

The  Last Resort brainstorm groups and the  Forms of Todays Futures program that Zandbergen organized together with Waag Society and Netwerk Democratie provided a space to explore this paradox. Participants were journalists, artists, activists, researchers and entrepreneurs – connected to organizations such as Bits of Freedom, the hackerspace TechInc, the Universities of Leiden and Amsterdam, and the Veenfabriek in Leiden- using photo’s, story-telling, music, debate and technical workshops.

Anthropological film

In 2013, Zandbergen saw Sara Blom’s film about the occupation of the Amsterdam Beursplein. Sara had also subscribed to some of the brainstorm meetings mentioned above, regarding the politics of ICT. The idea arose to start a collaboration, aimed at the production of a documentary that would give further impetus to the discussion about power and disempowerment in the information society.

Both Blom and Zandbergen are anthropologists, a field of study specialized in connecting global, complex themes with everyday experiences in small, local settings. In the film that resulted from this collaboration, the anthropological perspective can be recognized in the exploration of the Smart Citizen Kit project conducted in 2013 in Amsterdam.

The Smart Citizen Kit is a small computer that was offered to Amsterdams citizens with the promise that it would map the ‘air quality’ around their homes more accurately than ever before. The idea was, in addition, that these citizens could use this data, that got shared online, to empower themselves to take action against air pollution.

In this film, the Kit is a symbol of the aspiration of international governments, corporations and citizen groups to turn cities into Smart Cities; cities in which smart technologies will make it sustainable, safe and comfortable and that will enable citizens to have more control over their surroundings.

By following this Kit inside the homes of Amsterdam citizens, asking questions about privacy, the role played in digital society by ‘digital illiterates’, by showing the difficulties with installing the Kit and zooming in on technical problems with the sensors, Blom and Zandbergen explore the relationship between the dream of the smart citizen and the dilemma’s posed by the urban society of Amsterdam against it. In this way, the film calls for a broad discussion regarding power and disempowerment in the digital society. 

The Gr1p Foundation

Besides producing a film, the second goal of the project was to create a platform inviting more artists, filmmakers, writers, thinkers and doers to explore ways to grasp and re-think our digital environments in a way that is comprehensive to a broad audience. To this end, Gr1p has been founded. The film Smart City. In search of the Smart Citizen is Gr1p’s first project, and will continue to be available on this website.