Liesbet van Zoonen is a Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Erasmus Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities. In addition, she is the Scientific Director of the Centre for BOLD Cities, which conducts research on big, open and linked data in an urban environment. On 29 May 2017, she will give the annual mRotterdam Lecture in the Arminius conference centre, entitled “Citizens and Administrators in a Smart City”.
What is a smart city, anyway?
“It is a city full of digital sensors, designed to make the city safer, healthier and more liveable. On the one hand, such sensors are inside things: bridges, traffic lights, electrical enclosures. And then there are the people living in the cities, working, studying, going out, creating data all the time. In a smart city, all these data are collected and linked in such a way that processes go off without a hitch. For instance, the liveability of a neighbourhood can be improved if you relate air quality to health. Or you can find lonely people by keeping track of vulnerable citizens. And when a marathon is held, crowd flows can be analysed and steered in a particular direction, in such a way that traffic congestion is minimised.”
Can we see this smart city when we go outside?
“Most of it is invisible. Sensors are hidden underground and data are floating in the ether. This is why we regularly organise data walks, during which we tell people to point out whereabouts in the streets they can spot data. Naturally, they will point at security cameras, check-in gates granting access to public transport, WiFi hotspots or traffic lights that turn green more quickly for cyclists whenever it is raining. And at some point, someone will hit on the idea of whipping his smartphone from his pocket, which obviously constantly collects and sends data. However, it doesn’t get really interesting until you come across sensors whose function is not the slightest bit clear. For instance, at Kop van Zuid there is a mast with some seven antennae on top of it. And no matter whom you ask – we do these walks with regular people, but also with civil servants representing the Rotterdam municipal government – no one has the foggiest what is going on there.”
Is it bad that we do not know where and by whom
we are being watched?
“I think so. Let me give you an example. All university staff members have a drop-shaped object attached to their key rings – an electronic sensor that you need to get coffee and print documents. Essentially, this allows my boss to follow my behaviour every waking second. This probably doesn’t happen, and I probably needn’t worry about that sort of thing. But I don’t know. The problem is that such smart solutions are often implemented by management teams, without any form of discussion about the politics or ethics behind the idea. In order to be able to have that discussion, we must have greater data wisdom. This is true for both the public at large and administrators.”
How does this control play out in Dutch cities?
“Nearly all Dutch cities are replacing their streetlights with smart streetlights that respond to changing light levels, meaning they will not be on unnecessarily. These will become a global market worth billions. However, these masts can also be equipped with cameras and other sensors, so that they can gauge the atmosphere around them. The lights around the Amsterdam ArenA are soft and attractive when the area is used only for shopping, but they shine bright if there is a grim atmosphere following a football match. The weird thing is that there is generally just one civil servant who is responsible for these streetlights. That’s really not much for something that may have a huge impact.”
According to the well-known technology critic
Evgeny Morozov, smart cities represent a transformation
from public cities into cities in which major
tech companies are in charge. Do you share his
“Municipal authorities must be watchful. These days, every major tech company has a smart-city programme, and companies are dead keen to roll these programmes out in cities. Even I, a scholar, receive daily e-mails from companies telling me that their technology will solve all my problems. However, it is useless branding these kinds of companies a major force of evil. I often collaborate with the Rotterdam municipal authorities, and I can assure you that there is no one there who is intending to sell the city to the highest bidder. People seek to make their cities liveable, and that requires this type of company. As far as that is concerned, the situation rather resembles that of the development of the railways in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time, too, we had empty land and a government that joined forces with the business community. That was a successful collaboration, as well.”
The difference is that in this case we are also talking
about enforcement in public spaces. For instance,
in the smart city a company’s algorithm
may decide that a staggering, loud-talking student
constitutes a menace to public order.
“Public spaces must be controlled by the public, which means they must be controlled by the government. These types of tasks will never be privatised. This does not alter the fact that you can use tools that were developed by companies. However, sometimes I have greater faith in algorithms than in human beings with all their prejudices and instinctive considerations.”
Companies develop their self-learning algorithms
through our input and then ask us to pay for them.
Don’t you think that is questionable?
“My e-reader records where I stop reading, and thanks to facial recognition it knows what makes me laugh. It then suggests other books to me that I may like, as well. Even the butcher around the corner uses me as a source of input. If I take an interest in the things he is offering at a discount on his Facebook page – I have a thoroughly modern butcher – he knows what I like. And he will use this knowledge to try and sell me something next time round. I don’t think any of this constitutes a problem, as long as I know it’s happening and can decide for myself whether I’ll go along with it or not.”
The Rotterdam Court of Audits published an
alarming report this spring that showed that the
municipal information systems were far from secure.
Are public organisations actually capable of
guaranteeing a safe smart city?
“My own university is not particularly doing well in that regard, either. We have recently been hacked and have lost financial and medical details of both students and employees. These are the most sensitive data people have. So, yes, a lot of things will have to be improved. It is not just public organisations that lose things – it happens to companies, as well – but generally, they have less money and expertise in this field. Moreover, they are engaged in a kind of permanent arms race with criminal and state-sponsored hackers.”
“In this way, we are all together in a whitewater course, and no one really knows where it is going and what the consequences will be. Neither companies nor scholars have a clue. But at least they think about it. The public at large and administrators have not really joined in the debate yet. We must all have a discussion together about how to design systems in such a way that cities become more liveable, without getting rid of democratic achievements such as equality and inclusivity. It is really not necessary to closely monitor every public facility in a smart city. But we will have to have that discussion in order to determine what we want and what we don’t want. Which starts with an awareness of what is going on.”