Collect meaningful data and stay away from dataism.

I am a happy user of a Sonos sound system. Nevertheless, the helpdesk must be involved occasionally. Recently, it knew within five minutes that my problem was the result of a faulty connection cable between the modem and the amplifier. As it turned out, the helpdesk was able to remotely generate a digital image of the components of my sound system and their connections and saw that the cable in question was not transmitting any signal. A simple example of a digital twin. I was happy with it. But where is the line between the sense and nonsense of collecting masses of data?

What is a digital twin

A digital twin is a digital model of an object, product, or process. In my training as a social geographer, I had a lot to do with maps, the oldest form of ‘twinning’. Maps have laid the foundation for GIS technology, which in turn is the foundation of digital twins. Geographical information systems relate data based on geographical location and provide insight into their coherence in the form of a model. If this model is permanently connected to reality with the help of sensors, then the dynamics in the real world and those in the model correspond and we speak of a ‘digital twin’. Such a dynamic model can be used for simulation purposes, monitoring and maintenance of machines, processes, buildings, but also for much larger-scale entities, for example the electricity grid.

From data to insight

Every scientist knows that data is indispensable, but also that there is a long way to go before data leads to knowledge and insight. That road starts even before data is collected. The first step is assumptions about the essence of reality and thus the possibility of knowing it. There has been a lot of discussion about this within the philosophy of science, from which two points of view have been briefly crystallized, a systems approach and a complexity approach.

The systems approach assumes that reality consists of a stable series of actions and reactions in which law-like connections can be sought. Today, almost everyone assumes that this only applies to physical and biological phenomena. Yet there is also talk of social systems. This is not a question of law-like relationships, but of generalizing assumptions about human behavior at a high level of aggregation. The homo economicus is a good example. Based on such assumptions, conclusions can be drawn about how behavior can be influenced.

The complexity approach sees (social) reality as the result of a complex adaptive process that arises from countless interactions, which – when it comes to human actions – are fed by diverse motives. In that case it will be much more difficult to make generic statements at a high level of aggregation and interventions will have a less predictable result.

Traffic models

Traffic policy is a good example to illustrate the distinction between a process and a complexity approach. Simulation using a digital twin in Chattanooga of the use of flexible lane assignment and traffic light phasing showed that congestion could be reduced by 30%. Had this experiment been carried out, the result would probably have been very different. Traffic experts note time and again that every newly opened road becomes full after a short time, while the traffic picture on other roads hardly changes. In econometrics this phenomenon is called induced demand. In a study of urban traffic patterns between 1983 and 2003, economists Gilles Duranton and Matthew Turner found that car use increases proportionally with the growth of road capacity. The cause only becomes visible to those who use a complexity approach: Every road user reacts differently to the opening or closing of a road. That reaction can be to move the ride to another time, to use a different road, to ride with someone else, to use public transport or to cancel the ride.

Carlos Gershenson, a Mexican computer specialist, has examined traffic behavior from a complexity approach and he concludes that self-regulation is the best way to tackle congestion and to maximize the capacity of roads. If the simulated traffic changes in Chattanooga had taken place in the real world, thousands of travelers would have changed their driving behavior in a short time. They had started trying out the smart highway, and due to induced demand, congestion there would increase to old levels in no time. Someone who wants to make the effect of traffic measures visible with a digital twin should feed it with results of research into the induced demand effect, instead of just manipulating historical traffic data.

The value of digital twins

Digital twins prove their worth when simulating physical systems, i.e. processes with a parametric progression. This concerns, for example, the operation of a machine, or in an urban context, the relationship between the amount of UV light, the temperature, the wind (speed) and the number of trees per unit area. In Singapore, for example, digital twins are being used to investigate how heat islands arise in the city and how their effect can be reduced. Schiphol Airporthas a digital twin that shows all moving parts at the airport, such as roller conveyors and stairs. This enables technicians to get to work immediately in the event of a malfunction. It is impossible to say in advance whether the costs of building such a model outweigh the benefits. Digital twins often develop from small to large, driven by proven needs.

Boston also developed a digital twin of part of the city in 2017, with technical support from Esri. A limited number of processes have been merged into a virtual 3D model. One is the shadowing caused by the height of buildings. One of the much-loved green spaces in the city is the Boston Common. For decades, it has been possible to limit the development of high-rise buildings along the edges of the park and thus to limit shade. Time and again, project developers came up with new proposals for high-rise buildings. With the digital twin, the effect of the shadowing of these buildings can be simulated in different weather conditions and in different seasons (see title image). The digital twin can be consulted online, so that everyone can view these and other effects of urban planning interventions at home.

Questions in advance

Three questions precede the construction of a digital twin. In the first place, what the user wants to achieve with it, then which processes will be involved and thirdly, which knowledge is available of these processes and their impact. Chris Andrews, an urban planner working on the ESRI ArcGIS platform, emphasizes the need to limit the number of elements in a digital twin and to pre-calculate the relationship between them: To help limit complexity, the number of systems modeled in a digital twin should likely be focused on the problems the twin will be used to solve.

Both the example of traffic forecasts in Chattanooga, the formation of heat islands in Singapore and the shadowing of the Boston Common show that raw data is insufficient to feed a digital twin. Instead, data are used that are the result of scientific research, after the researcher has decided whether a systems approach or a complexity approach is appropriate. In the words of Nigel Jacob, former Chief Technology Officer in Boston: For many years now, we’ve been talking about the need to become data-driven… But there’s a step beyond that. We need to make the transition to being science-driven in …… It’s not enough to be data mining to look for patterns. We need to understand root causes of issues and develop policies to address these issues.

Digital twins are valuable tools. But if they are fed with raw data, they provide at best insight into statistical connections and every scientist knows how dangerous it is to draw conclusions from that: Trash in, trash out.

3. Ten years of smart city technology marketing

This post is the third episode in the series Better cities: The contribution of digital technologies. It deals with the rise of the smart city movement, the different forms it has taken and what its future can be.

The term smart cities shows up in the last decade of the 20th century. Most definitions  refer to the use of (digital) technology as a tool for empowering cities and citizens, and a key to fuel economic growth and to attract investments. Some observants will add as an instrument to generate large profits.

Barcelona, Ottawa, Brisbane, Amsterdam, Kyoto, and Bangalore belong to the forerunners of cities that flagged themselves as ‘smart’. In 2013 approximately 143 ‘self-appointed’ smart cities existed worldwide. To date, this number has exploded over more than 1000.

Five smart city tales

In their article Smart Cities as Company Story telling Ola Söderström et al. document how technology companies crafted the smart city as a fictional story that framed the problems of world cities in a way these companies can offer to solve. Over time, the story has multiplied, resulting in what I have called the Smart city tales, a series of narratives used by companies and city representatives. I will address with five dominant ones below: The connected city, the entrepreneurial city, the data-driven city, the digital services city and the consumers’ city. 

The connected city

On November 4th 2011, the trademark smarter cities was officially registered as belonging to IBM. It marked a period in which the company became the leader of the smart city technology market. Other companies followed fast, attracted by an expected growth of this market by 20% per year from over $300bn in 2015 to over $750bn to date.  In the IBM vision cities are systems of systems: Planning and management services, infrastructural services and human services, each to be differentiated further, to be oversighted and controlled from one cenral point, such as the iconic control center that IBM has build in Rio de Janeiro.  All systems can be characterized by three ‘I’s, which are the hard core of any smart city: Being instrumented, interconnected and intelligent.

The corporate smart city

In many cities in the world, emerging and developing countries in the first place, administrators were dreaming about building smart towns from scratch.  They envisioned being ‘connected’ as a major marketing tool for new business development. 

Cisco and Gale, an international property development company, became the developers of New Songdo in South Korea. New Songdo was in the first place meant to become a giant business park and it is set out to enable a decent corporate lifestyle and business experience for people from abroad, offering houses full of technical gadgets, attractive parks, full-featured office space, outstanding connectivity and accessibility. 

Quite some other countries took comparable initiatives in order to attract foreign capital and experts to boost economic growth. For example, India, that has planned to build 100 smart cities.

The data driven city

The third narrative is fueled by the collection and refined analyses of data that technology companies ‘tap’ for commercial reasons from citizens’ Internet and mobile phones communication. Google was the first to discover the unlimited opportunities of integrating its huge knowledge of consumer behavior with city data. 

Sidewalk Labs – legally operating under the umbrella of Alphabet – responded to an open call for a proposal for redevelopment of Quayside, brownfield land around Toronto’s old port, and  won the competition. Its plans were on par with contemporary urbanist thinking. However, that was not Sidewalk Labs’ first motive. Instead, its interest was ‘ubiquitous sensing’ of city life’, to expand Google’s already massive collection of personalized profiles with real-time geotagged knowledge of where people are, what they are whishing or doing in order to provide them with commercial information. 

As could be expected, privacy issues dominated the discussion over the urbanist merits of the plan and most observers believe that therefore the company put the plug out of the project in May 2020. The official reason was investors’ restraint, due to Covid-19.

The consumers’ smart city

The fourth narrative is focusing on rise of urban tech targeted on consumers. Amazon, Uber and Airbnb are forerunners disrupting traditional sectors like retail, taxi and hotel business. They introduced a platform approach that decimated the middleclass in in the US. Others followed, such as bike- and scooter-sharing companies Bird and Lyme, co-working companies like We Work and meal delivery services like Delivero.

City tech embodies the influence of entrepreneurship backed by venture capitalists and at the same time the necessity for city governments to establish a democratic legitimized framework to manage these initiatives.

The smart services city

Thanks to numerous ‘apps’, cities started to offer a wealth of information and services to citizens concerning employment, housing, administration, mobility, health, security and utilities. These apps enable city administrators, transit authorities, utility services and many others to inform citizens better than before. With these apps, citizens also can raise questions or make a request to repair broken street furniture.

Some cities, for instance Barcelona and Madrid, started to use digital technologies to increase public engagement, or to give people a voice in decision making or budgeting. 

All aforementioned narratives suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of citizens, symbolizing a new kind of technology-led urban utopia. In essence, each narrative puts available technology in the center and looks for a good-looking rationale to put it into the market. Probably, the fifth one witnesses an upcoming change into a more human-centric direction.

An upcoming techlash or a second wave of smart cities

It is unmistakably that business leaders, having in mind a multi-billion smart city technologies market overstate the proven benefits of technology. Garbage containers with built-in sensors and adaptive street lighting are not that great after all, and the sensors appearing everywhere raise many questions. According to The Economist, it is not surprising that a techlash is underway. As I accentuated in last week’s post, politicians are becoming more critical regarding behemoths like Google, Amazon and Facebook, because of their treatment of sensitive data, their lack of transparency of algorithm-based decision making, their profits and tax evasion and the gig economy in general. Skepticism within the general public is increasing too. 

Nevertheless, a second wave of smart cities is upcoming. The first wave lacked openess for the ethics of urban technology and the governance of urban development. The second wave excels in ethical considerations and intentions to preserve privacy. Intentions alone are insufficient, politics will also have to break the monopolies of Big Tech

Besides, in order to gain trust in the general public, city governors must discuss the city’s real challenges with residents, (knowledge) institutions, and other stakeholder before praising the role of technologies of all kind.  Governance comes prior to technology. As Francesca Bria, former chief technology officer of Barcelona said: We are reversing the smart city paradigm. Instead of starting from technology and extracting all the data we can before thinking about how to use it, we started aligning the tech agenda with the agenda of the city

Apart from Barcelona, this also happens in cities such as Amsterdam, Boston, Portland and the Polish city of Lublin. The question is no longer which problems technology is going to solve, but which exactly are these problems, who is trusted to define them, which are their causes, whose intersts are involved, who is most affected, and which ones must be solved most urgently. Only after answering these questions, the discussion can be extended to the contribution of (digital) technology. In a next contribution, I explore digital social innovation, as a contribution to a revised smart city concept.

This post is a brief summary of my article Humane by choice. Smart by default: 39 building blocks for cities in the future. Published in the Journal of the American Institution of Engineers and Technology, June 2020. You will fine a copy of this article below:

https://www.dropbox.com/s/3rmrwnzdoph114w/SMC-2020-0030-FINAL.pdf?dl=1

Beyond smart cities: Digital innovation for the Good of citizens[1]

Next months, these posts focus on the challenges of Earthlings of to bring humane cities closer. These posts represent the main findings of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful, updates and supplements included. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free here and the Dutch version here.

Citizens involved in a participative policy formulation process

About ten years ago, technology companies started to provide cities with technological tools, luring them with the predicate ‘smart(er)’, now a registered trademark of IBM.  At that time Cisco’s vice-president of strategy Inder Sidhu described the company’s ‘smart city play’ as its biggest opportunity, a 39,5 billion dollar-market. During the years, that followed, the prospects rocketed: The consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimated the global smart city technology market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020. 

The persistent policy of technology companies to suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of the citizens, angers me. Every euro these companies are chasing at, is citizens’ tax money. What has been accomplished until now is disappointing, as I documented in the IET Journal.  According to The Economist it is not surprising that a ‘techlash’ is underway: Many have had it with the monopolistic dominance of behemoths like Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like, because of their treatment of sensitive data, the lack of transparency and accountability of algorithm-based decision making and the huge profits they make from it. 

Regaining public control

However, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater and see how digital innovation can be harnessed for the Good of all citizens. Regaining public control demands four institutional actions at city level.

1. Practicing governance

Before even thinking about digitalization, a city must convert into best practices of governance. Governance goes beyond elections and enforcing the law. An essential characteristic is that all citizens can trust that government represents their will and protects their interests. Therefore, it is necessary to go beyond formal democratic procedures and contact stakeholders directly, enable forms of participatory budgeting and deploy deliberative polling. 

Aligning views of political parties and needs and wants of citizens takes time and a lot of effort. The outcome might be a common vision on the solution of a city’s problems and the realisation of its ambitions, and a consecutive political agenda including the use of tools, digital ones included. 

2. Strengthening executive governmental power

Lack of cooperation within the departmental urban organizations prevents not only an adequate diagnosis of urban problems but also the establishment of a comprehensive package of policy instruments, including legislation, infrastructure, communication, finance and technology. Instead, decisions are made from within individual silos, resulting in fragmented and ineffective policies. Required is a problem-oriented organization instead of a departmental one and a mayor that oversees the internal coherence of the policy.

3. Level playing field with technology companies

Cities must increase their knowledge in the field of digitization, artificial intelligence in particular. Besides,  but they should only work with companies that comply with ethical codes as formulated in the comprehensivemanual, Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, drafted by the influential Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)

Expertise at city level must come from a Chief Technology Officer who aligns technological knowledge with insight in urban problems and will discuss with company representatives on equal foot. Digitalisation must be part of all policy areas, therefore delegating responsibility to one alderman is a bad idea. Moreover, an alderman is not an adequate discussion partner for tech companies.

4. Approving and supporting local initiatives

Decentralization of decision-making and delegating responsibility for the execution of parts of the policy to citizen’s groups or other stakeholders helps to become a thriving city. Groups of citizens, start-ups or other local companies can invoke the right of challenge and might compete with established companies or organizations.

Steps towards seamless integration of digitalization in citizen-orientated policy

  1. Define together with citizens a vision on the development of the city, based on a few central goals such as sustainable prosperity, inclusive growth, humanity or – simply – happiness.
  2. Make an inventory of what citizens and other stakeholders feel as the most urgent issues (problems and ambitions).
  3. Find out how these issues are related and rephrase them if desirable.
  4. Deepen insight in these issues, based on available data and data to be collected by experts or citizens themselves.
  5. Assess ways to address these issues, their pros and cons and how they align with the already formulated vision.
  6. Make sure that digital technology has been explored as part of the collected solutions.
  7. Investigate which legal, organizational, personnel and financial barriers may arise in the application of potential solutions and how to address them.
  8. Investigate undesired effects of digital techniques, in particular long-term dependence (‘lock-in’) on commercial parties.
  9. Formulate clear actions within the defined directions for dealing with the issues to be addressed. Involve as many expert fellow citizens as possible in this.
  10. Make a timetable, calculate costs, and indicate when realization of the stated goals should be observable.
  11. Involve citizens, non-governmental and other organizations in the implementation of the actions and make agreements about this.
  12. At all stages of the process, seek support from those who are directly involved and the elected democratic bodies.
  13. Act with full openness to all citizens.

I can’t agree more than with the words of Léan Doody (smart city expert Arup Group): I don’t necessarily think ‘smart’ is something to strive for in itself. Unlike sustainability or resilience, ‘smart’ is not a normative concept…. The technology must be a tool to deliver a sustainable city. As a result, you can only talk about technological solutions if you understand which problems must be solved, whether these problems are rooted in the perceptions of stakeholders and how they relate to other policy instruments.


[1] This article was posted before at the Amsterdam Smart City website

Amsterdam: Heading for a circular economy

Demolition waste – Photo Jim Henderson Licensed under Creative Commons

Possibly, in 2050 the word wastecan be removed from our dictionaries. At that time, the Dutch economy will be circular according to the government. Meaning in essence, that all raw materials are reused infinitely. In order to reach this goal, an agreement with respect to the use of raw materials has been concluded between 325 parties. Its first milestone is halving the use of primary raw materials before 2030[1].

Many are skeptical of the outcomes of this agreements. Admittedly, 38.7% of the Dutch population feels that we are on the right track, although progress is slow. Jan Jonker[2], professor of business administration at Radboud University, is more pessimistic:  We do not think circular yet. Institutions, from legal to fiscal, are fully geared to the linear economy.

Amsterdam is making progress. In 2015, the municipality explored opportunities for a circular economy, which have been published in Amsterdam Circular: Vision and roadmap for city and region[3]. Dozens of projects have been started, albeit mostly on a small scale and starting from a learning-by-doing perspective.

The report Amsterdam circular; evaluation and action perspectives[4](2017) is an account of the evaluation of these projects. It concludes that a circular economy is realistic.  The city has also won the World Smart City Award for Circular Economy for its approach – facilitating small-scaled initiatives directed at metropolitan goals. Nevertheless, a substantial upscaling must take place in the shortest possible time.

Below, I focus on the construction sector, which includes all activities related to demolition, renovation, transformation and building. Its impact is large; buildings account for more than 50% of the total use of materials on earth, including valuable ones such as steel, copper, aluminum and zinc. In the Netherlands, 25% of CO2 emissions and 40% of the energy use comes from the built environment.

By circular construction we mean design, construction, and demolition of houses and buildings focused on high-quality use and reuse of materials and sustainability ambitions in the field of energy, water, biodiversity, and ecosystems as well. For example, the Bullitt Centerin Seattle, sometimes called the greenest commercial building in the world, is fully circular[5]

Photo: James Provost licensed under Creative Commons

The construction sector is not a forerunner in innovation, but of great importance with respect to circularity goals. The Amsterdam metropolitan region is planning to build 250,000 new homes deploying circular principles before 2050.

The evaluation of the projects that have been set up in response to the Amsterdam Circular Planhas yielded a number of insights that are important for upscaling: The most important is making circularity one of the key criteria in granting building permits. The others are the role of urban planning and the contribution of urban mining, which will be dealt with first.

The role of urban planning

Urban planning plays a crucial role in the promotion of circularity. It is mandatory that all new plans depart from circular construction; only then a 100% reuse of components after 2050 is possible. The renovation of existing houses and buildings is even more challenging than the construction of new ones. Therefore, circular targets must also apply here. Dialogue with the residents, and securing their long-term perspective is essential. The transformation of the office of Alliander in Duiven into an energy neutral and circular building is exemplary (photo below).

Photo: VolkerWessels Vastgoed 

The contribution of urban mining

Existing buildings include countless valuable materials. The non-circular way of building in the past impedes securing these materials in a useful form during the demolition process. Deploying dedicated procedures enables the salvation of a large percentage of expensive materials. In this case we speak of urban mining. Unfortunately, at this time re-used materials are often more expensive than new ones. Therefore, a circular economy will benefit with a shift from taxes on labor to taxes on raw materials.

Issuing building permits

The municipality of Amsterdam made a leap forwards with respect to issuing building permits to enable circularity[6]. Based on the above-mentioned definition of circular building, five themes are addressed in the assessment of new building projects: Use of materials, water, energy, ecosystems as well as resilience and adaptivity. Each of these themes can scrutinized from four angles:

  • The reduction of the use of materials, water and energy
  • The degree of reuse and the way in which reuse is guaranteed.
  • The sustainable production and purchase of all necessary materials.
  • Sensible management, for example a full registration of all components used.

Application of these angles to the five themes yields 32 criteria. A selection of these criteria is made in each project, depending from whether the issuing of building permits or renovation is concerned, and also from where the building takes place. For instance, a greenfield site versus a central location in a monumental environment. 

One of the projects

In recent years, the municipality of Amsterdam has included circular criteria in four tenders: Buiksloterham, Centrumeiland, the Zuidas (all residential buildings) and Sloterdijk (retail and trade). On the Zuidas, the first circular building permit was granted in December 2017. 30% of the final judgment were based on circularity criteria.

The winner is AM, in collaboration with Team V Architects. In their project Cross over, they combined more than 250 homes with offices, work space for small businesses and a place for creative start-ups. The project doesn’t have a fixed division between homes and offices. Reuse in future demolition is facilitated by a materials passport and by building with dry connections, enabling easy dismantling. 

Crossover – photo Zwartlicht 

Need to organize learning

The detailed elaboration of the 32 criteria for circularity to be applied in tenders, covers more than 40 densely printed pages. One cannot expect from potential candidates to meet the requirements routinely. It would therefore be welcomed if the municipality of Amsterdam shared its knowledge with applicants collectively during the submission process.

I also would welcome ‘pre-competitive’ cooperation by communities with manufacturers, knowledge institutions, clients and construction partners with the aim to develop circular building. This involves for instance standardization of the dimensioning of components (windows, frames, floorboards) and the ‘rehabilitation’ of ‘demolished’ components while maintaining the highest possible value. This might be combined with a database in which developers can search for available components. 

In Zwolle, another strategy is followed: the municipality, housing corporations and construction companies have formed a Concilium[7], which aims to significantly expand the already planned construction of houses, using circular principles.

Circularity requires closing circles. Collaboration within the supply-chain is one of these.


[1]https://www.rijksoverheid.nl/documenten/rapporten/2016/09/14/bijlage-1-nederland-circulair-in-20

[2]https://www.duurzaambedrijfsleven.nl/circulaire-economie/27945/de-stand-in-het-land-zijn-we-al-een-beetje-circulair

[3]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-0/

[4]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[5]http://www.bullittcenter.org

[6]https://www.amsterdam.nl/wonen-leefomgeving/duurzaam-amsterdam/publicaties-duurzaam/amsterdam-circulair-1/

[7]https://www.weblogzwolle.nl/nieuws/61325/ambitieus-plan-voor-zwolse-woningmarkt.html

Digital technology eats politics for breakfast.

This short essay is looking for an answer to the question “Does technology develop autonomously or can society be in control?

This issue takes a central position in two thought-provoking books to be discussed below [1].

The first book is Radical Technologies, written by Adam Greenfield (Verso, 2017). The second one is A New Digital Dealby Bas Boorsma (Rainmaking Publications, 2017). Both authors have been involved in the development of smart cities for many years. Bas Boorsma among others in various global and regional roles in Cisco. Adam Greenfield – also author of Against the Smart City[2]has been working among others as an information architect for Nokia. Nowadays he is teaching at London School of Economics. Both books go beyond smart cities and focus on the role of digitalization in society.

Setting the stage

Bas Boorsma has a strong belief in the – until now only partially realized – potential of digital technology. Adam Greenfield refuses to discuss any such hypothetical value. He refers at Stafford Beer’s famous phrase The purpose of a system is what it doesand that is the colonization of the daily life by technology giants and near-monopolists like Google, Apple, Amazon, and Facebook, called ‘the Stacks’ and other big technology companies.

Digitalization

The essence of digitalization is restructuring economy and society with digital communication and infrastructures. According to Bas Boorsma, the network paradigm will replace centralist thinking by the development of many connected nodes, in society and in the digital world as well. The organisation of society and the principles behind the Internet will reinforce each other. 

Many expected digitalization to facilitate the emergence of a ‘true’ free market, i.e. an economy based on peer-to-peer principles, collaboration, with small enterprises relying of the network effect and digital tools to conduct business in ways previously reserved for large corporations (New Digital Deal, p.52). This is what initially happened indeed: The development of platforms empowered start-ups, small companies and professionals. Many network utopians believed the era of ‘creative commons’ had arrived and with it, a non-centralized and highly digital form of ‘free market egalitarianism’(New Digital Deal, p.52).

Some already predicted the decline of capitalism.

Bas Boorsma

However, the network paradigm and the platform economy have been appropriated to a large extend by ‘the Stacks’ and other big companies. As a consequence, the workings of capitalism, revitalizing monopolism and oligarchy have been amplified. Digitalization-powered capitalism now possesses a speed, agility and rawness that is unprecedented(New Digital Deal, p.54). In this respect Bas Boorsma’s en Adam Greenfield’s visions do not divert much. 

A New Digital Deal

According to Bas Boorsma digitalization cannot be countered, but steering is needed and feasible. He applies the analogy of a skillfully steered canoe sailing an incredible fast-flowing river, harvesting its energy. A New Digital deal must steer the further development and impact of digitalization to deliver on its promise in full, and we have to do this in a moral context… (New Digital Deal, p.42). In order to deploy digitalization and to manage platforms for the greater good of the individual and society as a whole, new regulatory approaches will be required… (New Digital Deal, p.46). This has to enable us to manage technological growth, regulate platforms, celebrate recalibrated free market principles, prepare for the emergence of new and better jobs, harvest digitalization generated wealth… and to tax wealth and platform rather than labor(New Digital Deal, p.65).

Thus the New Digital Deal requires strong regulatory power to bridge the tension between at one side the initial expectations and hopes for a post-capitalist society, dominated by many connected small actors and at the other side the appropriation of the digitalization and the platform-economy by ‘the Stacks’ and other companies. The question is what does this regulatory power include. 

Bas Boorsma deals in depth with the societal impact of digitalization in domains like healthcare, education, transport, and energy. In each case he explores the content of the New Digital Deal. In the meantime I searched in vain for the answer to the question about the regulation of free markets and growing monopolism of ‘the Stacks’. The answer to this question is particularly important because it is exactly the unrestricted growth of monopolism that feeds Adam Greenfield’s deep pessimism with respect to the societal benefits of digitalisation. Adam Greenfield does not answer this question either, presumably because there is no answer. Still, I think there is one.

The vanity of a digital paradise

Adam Greenfield

Before returning to the New Digital Deal, I go deeper into the reason of Adam Greenfield’s pessimism. In consecutive chapters of his book he unveils how big companies – sometimes in cooperation with the state – have taken possession of digital technologies: Where previously everything that transpired in the fold of the great city evaporated in the moment it happened, all of these rhythms and processes are captured by the network and retained for inspection (Radical Technologies, p.5). This because of the combined effect of smartphones, sensors, security cameras, ‘wearables’ – like Hitatchi’s Business Microscope – and the fast increasing capabilities of the algorithmic production of knowledge. 

Was blockchain technology intended as the foundation for newly to develop decentralized peer-to peer distributed organizations, is it actually captured by large companies. They embrace it as a fundamentally improved entrusted framework for identity and data sharing (contracts and databases). 

However truly transformative circumstances will arise not from any one technology standing alone, but from multiple technical capabilities woven together in combination (Radical technologies, p.273). Again ‘the Stacks’ will benefit most. Their innovation capacity is larger than any other company and their cash is unlimited. They are turning the entire planetary-scale entrepreneurial community into a vast distributive R&D lab… At any given moment there are thousands of startups busily exploring the edges of technological possibility, and shouldering all the risk of involved in doing so. (Radical Technologies, p.281) By focusing on the development of ‘minimum viable products’ they anticipate to be taken over by one of ‘the Stacks’ or other technology companies and cash the millions these companies offer. The start-up community is more vital than ever before but is nothing like the decentralized occupants of the nodes of the network on the eve of a new liberalized order. In stead they support the dominance of ‘the Stacks’. 

The failing of politics

The influence of politics – other then incidental support – in western countries with respect to the growing power of ‘the Stacks’ is negligible. Maybe with the exception of the European Union that is entangled in rearguard actions by fining some eye-catching forms of monopolism. In contrast, the Chinese gouvernment is molding technology to its own aims, albeit not in an exemplary way. Supported by China’s own ‘Stacks’ – among them Alibaba and Baihe – the government is integrating smartphones, wearables and social networking services to establish the degree of ‘social credit’ of all of its citizens.

I expect a negative answer from Adam Greenfield to the question whether technological development is an autonomous force like the fast-floating river in Bas Boorsma’s analogy. In the USA large-scale scientific programs supervised by state-institutions like the legendary DARPA enabled major technological development. This carefully planned process resulted not only in the nuclear bomb but also in the discovery of all components of the later iPhone, which initial development – by the way – has been subsidized by the state too, as has been disclosed in detail by Mariana Mazzocato[3].Nowadays the development of technology and its impact on employment is predominantly instigated by strategic choices made by ‘the Stacks’ and other technological companies.

As a consequence, any ‘deal’ regarding steering technological development or safeguarding the interest of citizens and society at large will have to target ‘the Stacks’.

The New Digital Deal revisited

This brings us back to the New Digital Deal. Targeting ‘the Stacks’ has to be preceded by decisive lawmaking at national or supranational level with respect to the aim and the conditions of digitalization for the purpose of society at large. Referring at Bas Boorsma the aim is enabling a networked and connected society with thriving activity in all nodes and free markets in between. A far from complete – list of conditions includes:

  • A strong and enforced anti-trust policy.
  • The discouragement of acquisitions in favor of collaboration within networks.
  • Unbundling heterogeneous conglomerates of companies (‘to big to fail’).  
  • Governance guidelines discouraging short-termism, the stock markets included.
  • Considerable taxes on profits, which might be released by participation in state-coordinated research programs together with universities and other stakeholders.
  • A basic-income combined with the right at paid work for adult citizens.

An emerging digital community

I seriously doubt the ability of the bitterly divided European states to settle conditions as mentioned above in the near future. Meanwhile my expectations of lower level governments – cities in particular – are higher. At this level, high and low tech digital tools might be applied and enabled to prove their value in relation to challenges as traffic, healthy air, sustainable energy and safety. Bas Boorsma’s 20 building blocks of community digitalization will prove their value here. Each of these building blocks is actionable. The ‘community digitalization’ approach puts citizen’s needs and wants in the center and their fulfillment will come from a network of stakeholders. The local government can be held responsible for robust connectivity and digital safety and also for interoperability and the deployment of non-proprietary protocols. 

Somewhere at an undetermined but eagerly awaited moment in the future a world of collaborating cities might force states to take their responsibility and issue the laws that are necessary to establish a New Digital Deal. 

Did your appetite grown?

Start reading both books! Those who are attuned to practical solutions better start with Adam Greenfield’s because his well-documented approach to technology definitely will put practice in a new light. Also his way of phrasing is excellent. Readers with a more academic mind-set are advised to start with Boorsma’s book, because his life-long experience will be helpful in making theory actionable. And that is where many of us are waiting for.


[1] The title of this short essay is inspired by the phrase ‘Culture eats strategy for breakfast’ attributed to management guru Peter Drucker. This post has been published before at Smart City Hub.

[2]https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/18626431-against-the-smart-city

[3]https://wp.me/p32hqY-6p

Swap smart city for inclusive city

Last year I wrote 24 short essays about smart cities. They are collected in an e-book, that can be downloaded for free here. What to expect?

Smart city tales

For more than 10 years, ‘smart’ has been a ‘leitmotif’ for tackling urban problems. Companies such as IBM and Cisco, and later also Apple, Amazon and Google all emphasised that technology is the key to their solution. Many city administrators, entrepreneurs and young starters felt attracted to this idea.

But why these blinkers? Anyone who focuses blindly on technology as the solution to contemporary problems will quickly lose sight of the problems themselves. They underrate the problems caused by technology itself and also that for many problems other solutions than technological ones are indispensable.

Some examples of problems that make people worried

  • Will I come around with my income?
  • Do I find an affordable house?
  • Is there still work for the children?
  • Is the air that I breathe healthy?
  • Why is my manager so unreasonable?
  • How secure is the internet?
  • Who will take care of my mother later?
  • Can I trust what I eat?
  • Developments are all going too fast for me
  • Who is actually in charge
  • Does a world war will break out?
  • Does my child like to go to school
  • Who can I still trust?
  • Can I still say what I think?
  • Is my country still my country?
  • Why do top managers earn so much money?

Core values

Reducing these problems to four categories proved to be helpful:

  • Threat to basic needs
  • Pillage of the earth
  • Injustice
  • Abuse of technology and data

Each of these categories also refers to core values ​​that in mutual connection will improve the quality of life in a country and the happiness of its inhabitants.

Inclusive growth

 Well-being

The satisfaction of our basic needs such as livelihood, housing, education, health care, social contacts and personal growth. There is still a lot to improve here.

 Sustainable prosperity

The earth has all the ingredients for a healthy and even prosperous life for us and our offspring. This requires a circular economy based on reuse of resources, the elimination of CO2 emissions, and a less materialistic attitude. The awareness is growing, there is still a lot to do.

Justice

The fact that we live together with others is of vital importance, whether it is a partner, family, the street, the city or the country. The quality of our social life depends on the mutual acceptance of equality and diversity and the balance between give and take. Here too, humanity still has a lot to learn.

Digital connectivity

Just like all forms of technology, computerization is able to support the other core values, but is also a value in itself. ICT adds a new dimension to human creativity and inventiveness and can improve the quality of our lives. However, the virtues of digital connectivity ought not to be appropriated by certain groups. Interoperability, ‘edgeless computing’, ‘blockchain’ and the use of open software standards and open data can contribute to prevent this.

The four core values ​​can be at odds with each other, but also reinforce each other. In the latter case, I refer to inclusiveness.

In each of the 24 short essays the ‘smart city idea’ as a starting point. Sometimes politicizing, for example when it comes to the way the big technology companies take control of society, but also anecdotal, for instance in the smart cities cases like PlanIT Valley near Porto, but also very practical, for example in introductions to circular construction, electricity-generating windows and the storage of energy.

In the final essay I propose to replace the idea smart with inclusive growth. To become more concrete about what that means, I have drawn up a charter that every city or region in the world can use. I already recognize the quest for inclusiveness of a number of cities such as Barcelona, ​​Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Melbourne and Seoul. However, these and all others ones still have a long way to go.

India’s 100 Smart Cities Mission is flawed

Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing compete with London, Paris and New York for the top of the global city ranking. Do not take rankings like these too serious but the absence of Indian cities in the higher tiers is not startling. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) India releases the fourth largest amount of CO2 emissions in the world and Delhi is the world’s most polluted city. Air pollution is the direct cause of 627.000 deaths annually. The dysfunctionality of the infrastructure is not limited to transport: An official study of 1,405 cities revealed that only 50% of urban areas have water supply connections and that water is supplied on an average for only three hours a day. Waste disposal and sewage treatment plants are missing in most Indian cities, 30 per cent of the households have no toilets, the coverage of the sewage network is merely 12 per cent while the treatment of sewage is even lower at 3 per cent. Most of the untreated sewage is discharged into rivers, ponds or lakes, which by-the-way are the main source of potable water.

Without mayor changes the problem will worsen every year because of the unprecedented growth of the urban population. Between 2010 and 2050 about 500 million inhabitants must be added to the urban population of 377 million nowadays.

In the meantime, India’s economy is expanding rapidly. By 2030 it is expected to have grown by five times, buoyed largely by the country’s urban centres and resulting in a growth of its labour force by 200 million workers. India’s energy demand is expected to increase three times in the coming 10 years.

The Mission

Against the background of these challenges, prime minister Modi presented a ‘Mission’ in 2015 named “Digital India” announcing the foundation of 100 smart cities across the country. This plan is envisaging making India a leader in digitally delivering a broad array of services:

  • Adequate water supply
  • Assured (green) electricity supply
  • Sanitation, including solid waste management
  • Efficient urban mobility and public transport
  • Affordable housing, especially for the poor
  • Robust IT connectivity and digitalisation
  • Good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation
  • Sustainable environment
  • Safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly
  • Health
  • Education

The Mission is definitely not lacking in ambition!

Project management

A competition that took two years resulted in the selection of 107 areas where the new cities are supposed to appear. Each project is funded with $150 million spread over five consecutive years. Hiring foreign project management is mandatory. For instance, the city of Kota is collaborating with the Dutch HaskoningDHV.

Artist impression of the World trade Centre of Dholera Special Investment Region.

Taking into account the total costs of the realization of each plan, the available funds are peanuts, which necessitates the acquisition of additional sources. Options are public private partnerships, commercial bank’s lending, take out financing, infrastructure financing institutions, external commercial borrowing, and foreign direct investments.

The competence of the incumbent administrative bodies was judged to be inadequate to lead the projects. Therefore, Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV), acting under company law and headed by a CEO have evoked. The private sector might even become the biggest single shareholder of an SPV, so long as the combined shareholding of the state and local government is bigger. All rights and obligations of the municipal council with respect to the smart city project will be delegated to the SVP, including the power to collect taxes!

Artist impression of Gujarat International Financial Tech-City

A strategic turn

At first the ‘Mission’ had two strategic equally weighted components: Area-based developments and pan-city initiatives. The former are aimed at transforming existing precincts through retrofitting and renewal, and to develop new extensions to cities through greenfield developments. The latter envisage the application of appropriate smart solutions to existing city-wide infrastructure.

Reviewing the proposals which have been accepted, contrary to the original requirements, 71% of the funding will be spend on area-based development, the beneficiaries of which are about 4% of the city’s population on average and it involves less then 3% of the total area.

Under area-based development, plans have proposed redevelopment of old and creation of new central business districts, retrofitting infrastructure within these districts such as water supply, sewerage, and creation of public spaces. The proposals for the entire city, however, are limited to IT-based services like a CCTV-monitored central command system, “smart” education portals and “intelligent” water and traffic management systems and do not include investment in the infrastructure itself.

Artist impression of Vijayawada Smart City

So you’re not even going to have 100 smart cities. You’re going to have 100 smart enclaves within cities around the country, predicts Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the The Housing and Land Rights Network

The interests behind IT-centred thinking

The direction in which the plans have evolved is unmistakably orchestrated by the bunch of IT-companies that is involved in the development of smart cities world-wide from 2006 on, when IBM started its ‘Smarter Planet’ campaign, Cisco followed with its Smart+Connected Communities initiative, Siemens launched its CityCockpit, and Microsoft presented its CityNext programme. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews expressed this perfectly in his speech at the Smart Cities Summit in Mumbai: I am joined today by representatives from 18 leading American environmental technology companies, all of whom are looking for new business opportunities in India’s growing infrastructure market. Indeed, business opportunities seem abundant: The consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimates the global smart city market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020.

Cultural awareness instead of indifference

The pictures in this post are taken from glossy brochures and video’s of the plan. They reveal the direction in which the wannabe smart cities in India are supposed to develop. Let yourself be impressed for a while by the animation of Dholera Special Investment Region.

You will see fascinating architecture, futuristic transportation systems and multi-lane express ways. Not to forget, the air is blue and fresh.

Indian master architect Doshi warns that the urban vision behind the smart city proposals will destroy the informality and diversity that is the cornerstone of the country’s rural and urban society. In his view people do not have to live in multi-story towers in the age of the internet, and he rejects the necessity of expanding cities as long as adequate choices and opportunities can be generated in rural areas. I think the land pressure is actually an illusion. Why should you be close-by all the time to a million people? he asks.

Artist impression of smart Bhopal

Urban designer Rajeev Kathpalia suggests that India needs to build smart cities which respond specifically to its culture and rural networks. We have to rethink the concept of cities as centralized entities. In stead he advocates the conception of independent and self-supporting settlements at different scales, each one complete by itself or moving towards completion.

Mumbai-based urbanist Rahul Mehrotra agrees: The problem with the notion of ‘smart cities’ is that it sets up the environment to be fashioned in a single image, it’s not about cultural specificity.

Whatever problems the Mission will solve, these are not the dismal services nor the on-going growth of the population. We have to deal with the basics first, Shivani Chaudhry said. The basics are housing, employment and infrastructure and not technology as such. The Mission will not provide big public investment in expanding urban infrastructure except for enclaves where businesses and prosperous citizens are welcomed. She accentuates that Instead of trying to mitigate the effects of urbanization, the government should aim to address its causes -the agrarian crisis, rural distress, failed land reform, and forced migration.

Indian papers are critical too. They question the role of SPV’s and the curtailing of democratic control. The ‘Mission’ is a flight ahead, not only leaving the already mentioned problems unsolved, but it is unrealistic itself, as the lion’s share of the investment capital is still missing.

Artist impression of Amaravati Smart City

What would a better Mission have looked like?

Personally I believe that – in contrast to what actually happens – a pan-city approach, including a whole city and its rural fringes should have been be prioritized. The competition could have focussed better on master plans for the development of territories of let’s say 1000 – 5000 km2. These plans should have taken into account all aspects of the existing infrastructure, the expected population growth in the next decades, the options for sustainable growth and development and the cultural identity of the region. Within this master plan a handful of pilot projects could have been selected, offering a spectrum from a down-town business centres – if necessary – with 21th century high-rise buildings, to industrial areas where clean industry and housing are realized within walking distance and to small rural towns surrounded by agriculture. Delegation of power to a centralized body is probably wise, but not at cost of democratic participation. And without realistic funding any plan is a pie in the sky.

An initial experiment in ten regions might have increased the credibility of the Mission. I would have selected proposals that equally address economic challenges, infrastructural problems, and a decent life for all inhabitants as well. My winning plans will unlock the potential of the whole rural – urban continuum, promise to spread the prospective growth of the population, realize sustainable solutions, preserve environment and culture and have been developed in dialogue with inhabitants. And not to forget, they deploy the enabling potential of ITC.