Imagine being at the hairdresser – how would you explain what your research is about?

“I usually say that I do research into citizens’ experiences of safety in the smart city. To which they often respond: what is a smart city? Well, it’s a city in which digital technology and data are used to tackle a whole range of urban issues, such as mobility, sustainability, as well as safety, like using CCTV. These days, CCTV not only records images but is equipped with motion sensors, audio sensors and software to recognise activity patterns. The question is how people feel about that and whether they are aware of it.”

Why is how people feel about it important?

“Because it’s something that gets experimented with, and it’s something that goes beyond safety alone. When something breaks down in the city and builders repair it, that’s immediately visible. Digital technology, on the other hand, is invisible – but it has a major impact on our lives. Are you aware that walking behaviour and sound are being used to identify suspicious behaviour? Do you realise that an increase in police or enforcement officers in your neighbourhood might be the result of these types of measurements and analyses? If not, then you won’t be able to make your voice heard about these issues.”

So by asking about it, you’re creating awareness?

“My research accomplishes two things, which almost makes it a type of action research: I have to find or create opportunities to discuss the issue, which is how I encourage awareness – and that allows me to elicit responses. I can’t just go out onto the street to ask people what they think of smart cities if people don’t know what that means and if many aspects are invisible to them – which is why I organised a series of walks and interview sessions.”

What were the main conclusions?

“Because my research deliberately goes beyond a simple a cost-benefit assessment, I’d get appropriate responses, such as: “I don’t really know what’s happening or what these types of technology actually do, but I do see them around.” And in order to form an idea about the issue, people start speculating, which is when they start citing metaphors like Big Brother. And some people suggested that a lamppost could also be used for data collection.”

So you were actually making people paranoid?

“People have at times accused me of doing that – but I really only focus on what’s actually there. And, in fact, these people don’t just step into the study without any prior knowledge, since they have experiences that they project onto the technology. So I’ve also observed that, where there is no transparency about technology, people rely on their own frame of reference.”

Any other interesting conclusions?

“I was struck by the fact that a lot of people have vicarious experiences with the surveillance society, which is when they start worrying: not about themselves, but about other people – vulnerable people. Their reasoning is: I’ll be fine if they introduce more ‘smart’ surveillance. However, for minority groups and residents of districts with a lot of cultural and ethnic diversity, this is a greater risk because they are often the target of surveillance monitoring. A lot of people have told me: just go and walk around in Rotterdam Zuid, that’s where you’ll hear more personal concerns about the surveillance society. But I did that in Rotterdam West, and there too, I got to hear that participants were mainly concerned about others. Only in a few cases did participants project personal experiences with the surveillance society onto the technology they had seen or onto the scenarios I presented to them. Other responses I got were feelings of individual powerlessness and scepticism about whether safety could be improved using technology.”

From what you’ve told me: making people more aware means making them more critical.

“When people speculate about the applications of technology, that can equally extend to the extremely positive end of the spectrum – although that group represented a minority of respondents. However, people would talk about things that were not legally and technically possible, but which they thought were a good idea – like surveillance extending to within the home. By contrast, I did notice during the walks that people were pretty dismayed about the surveillance tech they encountered, but by sharing their experiences, they were able to put their fears to rest afterwards.”

How did you end up doing your PhD?

“After my Bachelor’s degree, I initially took a job, because it was 2012 and there was a financial crisis going on. A lot of people who graduated couldn’t find a job, so I thought: why would I do a Master’s? I did logistics and e-commerce at a small European head office for design radios. The economy shifted again after four years and I’d saved up some money, so then I went and did a Master’s degree. To an extent, I ended up doing my PhD simply because I got the opportunity to do so, because, as a more mature student, I was slightly more committed and a lecturer approached me for this position.”

And did you enjoy it?

“You get a lot of freedom to develop your own ideas and do research, but that also makes it a very individual endeavour. So I think I’ve experienced all the tough aspects of getting a PhD – like loneliness and imposter syndrome. However, it was equally a good working environment that was extremely stimulating – and I had some great colleagues.”

In your acknowledgement, somewhat contrary to tradition, you thank your best friend last instead of your girlfriend – was that a conscious choice?

“Haha. Well, he designed the cover and the inside work of the thesis, and that was the final step in the process.”

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