Just enough City


In this piece, I’m advocating for a Smart City model based on restraint, and focused first and foremost on citizen needs and rights.

A little while ago, the ever-brilliant and eloquent Rachel Coldicutt wrote a piece on the role of public service internet, and why it should be a model of restraint. It’s titled Just enough Internet, and it resonated deeply with me. It was her article that inspired not just this piece’s title but also its theme: Thank you, Rachel!

Rachel argues that public service internet (broadcasters, government services) shouldn’t compete with commercial competitors by commercial metrics, but rather use approaches better suited to their mandate: Not engagement and more data, but providing the important basics while collecting as little as possible. (This summary doesn’t do Rachel’s text justice, she makes more, and more nuanced points there, so please read her piece, it’s time well spent.)

I’ll argue that Smart Cities, too, should use an approach better suited to their mandate—an approach based on (data) restraint, and on citizens’ needs & rights.

This restraint and reframing is important because it prevents mission creep; it also alleviates the carbon footprint of all those services.

Enter the Smart City

Wherever we look on the globe, we see so-called Smart City projects popping up. Some are incremental, and add just some sensors. Others are blank slate, building whole connected cities or neighborhoods from scratch. What they have in commons is that they mostly are built around a logic of data-driven management and optimization. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, management consultant Peter Drucker famously said, and so Smart Cities tend to measure… everything. Or so they try.

Of course, sensors only measure so many things, like physical movement (of people, or goods, or vehicles) through space, or the consumption and creation of energy. But thriving urban life is made up of many more things, and many of those cannot be measured as easily: Try measuring opportunity or intention or quality of life, and most Smart City management dashboards will throw an error: File not found.

The narrative of the Smart City is based fundamentally that of optimizing a machine to run as efficiently as possible. It’s neoliberal market thinking in its purest form. (Greenfield and Townsend and Morozov and many other Smart City critics have made those points much more eloquently before.) But that doesn’t reflect urban life. The human side of it is missing, a glaring hole right in the center of that particular vision.

Instead of putting citizens in that spot in the center, the “traditional” Smart City model aims to build better (meaning: more efficient, lower cost) services to citizens by collecting, collating, analyzing data. It’s the logic of global supply chains and predictive maintenance and telecommunications networks and data analytics applied to the public space. (It’s no coincidence of the large tech vendors in that space come from either one of those backgrounds.)

The city, however, is no machine to be run at maximum efficiency. It’s a messy agora, with competing and often conflicting interests, and it needs slack in the system: Slack and friction all increase resilience in the face of larger challenges, as do empowered citizens and municipal administrations. The last thing any city needs is to be fully algorithmically managed at maximum efficiency just to come to a grinding halt when — not if! — the first technical glitch happens, or some company ceases their business.

Most importantly, I’m convinced that depending on context, collecting data in public space can be a fundamental risk to a free society—and that it’s made even worse if the data collection regime is outside of the public’s control.

The option of anonymity plays a crucial role for the freedom of assembly, of organizing, of expressing thoughts and political speech. If sensitive data is collected in public space (even if it’s not necessarily personably identifiable information!) then the trust in the collecting entity needs to be absolute. But as we know from political science, the good king is just another straw man, and that given the circumstance even the best government can turn bad quickly. History has taught us the crucial importance of checks & balances, and of data avoidance.

We need a Smart City model of restraint

Discussing publicly owned media, Rachel argues:

It’s time to renegotiate the tacit agreement between the people, the market and the state to take account of the ways that data and technology have nudged behaviours and norms and changed the underlying infrastructure of everyday life.

This holds true for the (Smart) City, too: The tacit agreement between the people, the market and the state is that, roughly stated, the government provides essential services to its citizens, often with the help of the market, and with the citizens’ interest at the core. However, when we see technology companies lobby governments to green-light data-collecting pilot projects with little accountability in public space, that tacit agreement is violated. Not the citizens’ interests but those multinationals’ business models move into the center of these considerations.

There is no opt-out in public space. So when collecting meaningful consent to the collection of data about citizens is hard or impossible, that data must not be collected, period. Surveillance in public space is more often detrimental to free societies than not. You know this! We all know this!

Less data collected, and more options of anonymity in public space, make for a more resilient public sphere. And what data is collected should be made available to the public at little or no cost, and to commercial interests only within a framework of ethical use (and probably for a fee).

What are better metrics for living in a (Smart) City?

In order to get to better Smart Cities, we need to think about better, more complete metrics than efficiency & cost savings, and we need to determine those (and all other big decisions about public space) through a strong commitment to participation: From external experts to citizens panels to digital participation platforms, there are many tools at our disposal to make better, more democratically legitimized decisions.

In that sense I cannot offer a final set of metrics to use. However, I can offer some potential starting points for a debate. I believe that every Smart City projects should be evaluated against the following aspects:

  • Would this substantially improve sustainability as laid out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) framework?
  • Is meaningful participation built into the process at every step from framing to early feedback to planning to governance? Are the implications clear, and laid out in an accessible, non-jargony way?
  • Are there safeguards in place to prevent things from getting worse than before if something doesn’t work as planed?
  • Will it solve a real issue and improve the life of citizens? If in doubt, cut it out.
  • Will participation, accountability, resilience, trust and security (P.A.R.T.S.) all improve through this project?

Obviously those can only be starting points.

The point I’m making is this: In the Smart City, less is more.

City administrations should optimize for thriving urban live and democracy; for citizens and digital rights — which also happen to be human rights; for resilience and opportunity rather than efficiency. That way we can create a canvas to be painted by citizens, administration and — yes! — the market, too.

We can only manage what we can measure? Not necessarily. Neither the population or the urban organism need to be managed; just given a robust framework to thrive within. We don’t always need real time data for every decision — we can also make good decision based on values and trust in democratic processes, and by giving a voice to all impacted communities. We have a vast body of knowledge from decades of research around urban planning and sociology, and many other areas: Often enough we know the best decisions and it’s only politics that keeps us from enacting them.

We can change that, and build the best public space we know to build. Our cities will be better off for it.

About the author

Just for completeness’ sake so you can see where I’m coming from, I’m basing this on years of working at least occasionally on Smart City projects. My thinking is informed by work around emerging tech and its impact on society, and a strong focus on responsible technology that puts people first. Among other things I’ve co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit community that promotes responsible tech, and led the development of the Trustable Technology Mark. I was a Mozilla Fellow in 2018-19 and am an Edgeryders Fellow in 2019-20. You can find my bio here.

Data about me in my city


This article is a few months old (and in German), but two points of view that I’ll just offer side by side as they pretty much sum up the state of play in smart cities these days.

For context, this is about a smart city partnership in which Huawei implement their technologies in Duisburg, a mid-sized German city with a population of about 0.5 million. The (apparently non-binding) partnership agreement includes Smart Government (administration), Smart Port Logistics, Smart Education (education & schools), Smart Infrastructure, 5G and broadband, Smart Home, and the urban internet of things.

Note: The quotes and paraphrases are roughly translated from the original German article.

Jan Weidenfeld from the Marcator Institute for China Studies:

“As a city administration, I’d be extremely cautious here.” China has a fundamentally different societal system, and a legal framework that means that every Chinese company, including Huawei, is required to open data streams to the communist party. (…)

Weidenfeld points out that 5 years ago, when deliberations about the project began, China was a different country than it is today. At both federal and state levels, the thinking about China has evolved. (…)

“Huawei Smart City is a large-scale societal surveillance system, out of which Duisburg buys the parts that are legally fitting – but this context mustn’t be left out when assessing the risks.”

Anja Kopka, media spokesperson for the city of Duisburg:

The city of Duisburg doesn’t see “conclusive evidence” regarding these security concerns.The data center meets all security requirements for Germany, and is certified as such. “Also, as a municipal administration we don’t have the capacity to reliably assess claims of this nature.” Should federal authorities whose competencies include assessing such issues provide clear action guidelines for dealing with Chinese partners in IT, then Duisburg will adapt accordingly.

The translation is a bit rough around the edges, but I think you’ll get the idea.

With infrastructure, when we see the damage it’s already too late

We have experts warning, but the warnings are of such a structural nature that they’re kinda of to big and obvious to prove. Predators will kill other animals to eat. ????

By the time abuse or any real issue can be proven, it’d be inherently to late to do anything about it. We have a small-ish city administration that knows perfectly well that they don’t have the capacity to do their due diligence, so they just take their partners’ word for it.

The third party here, of course, being a global enterprise with an operating base in a country that has a unique political and legal system that in many ways isn’t compatible with any notion of human rights, let alone data rights, that otherwise would be required in the European Union.

The asymetries in size and speed are vast

And it’s along multiple axes — imbalance of size and speed, and incompatibility of culture — that I think we see the most interesting, and most potentially devastating conflicts:

  • A giant corporation runs circles around a small-to-mid sized city. I think it’s fair to assume that only because of Chinese business etiquette was the CFO of one of Huawei’s business units even flown out to Duisburg to sign the initial memorandum of understanding with Duisburg’s mayor Sören Link. The size and power differential is so ridiculous that it might just as well have been the Head of Sales EMEA or some other mid-level manager that took that meeting. After all, for Chinese standards, a city of a population of a half-million wouldn’t even considered a third tier city. Talk about an uneven playing field.
  • The vast differences of (for lack of a better word, and broadly interpreted) culture in the sense of business realities and legal framework and strategic thinking between a large corporation with global ambitions and backed by a highly centralized authoritarian state on one side, and the day-to-day of a German town are overwhelming. So much so, that I don’t think that the mayor of Duisburg and his team are even aware of all the implicit assumptions and biases they bring to the table.

And it’s not an easy choice at some level: Someone comes in and offers much needed resources that you need and don’t have any chance to get, desperation might force you to make some sub-prime decisions. But this comes at a price — the question is just how bad that price will be over the long term.

I’m not convinced that any smart city of this traditional approach is worth implementing, or even might be worth implementing; probably not. But of all the players, the one backed by a non-democratic regime with a track record of mass surveillance and human rights violations is surely at the bottom of the list.

It’s all about the process

That’s why whenever I speak about smart cities (which I do quite frequently these days), I focus on laying better foundations: We can’t always start from scratch when considering a smart city project. We need a framework as a point of reference, and as a guideline, and it has to make sure to keep us aligned with our values.

Some aspects to take into account here are transparency, accountability, privacy and security (my mnemonic device is TAPS); a foundation based on human and digital rights; and participatory processes from day one.

And just to be very clear: Transparency is not enough. Transparency without accountability is nothing.

Please note that this blog post is based on a previously published item in my newsletter Connection Problem, to which you can sign up here.

Announcing ThingsCon Rotterdam (12-13 December)


I’m more than happy to give this a shout-out:

ThingsCon, or rather our annual ThingsCon conference, is coming up (Rotterdam, 12-13 December) and I think it’ll be a real blast.

Just a few of the speakers and workshop hosts of a true killer line-up: Marleen Stikker, Tracy Rolling, Alexandra Deschamp-Sonsino, Klasien van de Zandschulp, Mirena Papadimitriou, Cayla Key, Namrata Primlani, Tijmen Schep, Geke van Dijk, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Rob van Kranenburg, Lorenzo Romagnoli, Davide Gomba, Jeroen Barendse, Cristina Zaga, Heather Wiltse will all be there, and many more.

If you’re considering to join, earlier ticket sales help us a lot with our planning.

So if you’re planning to participate, the right moment to buy a ticket is TODAY.

What type of smart city do we want to live in?


Warning: Trick question! The right questions should of course be: What type of city do we want to live in? What parts of our cities do we want to be smart, and in what ways?

That said, this is the talk of my talk for NEXT Conference 2019 in which I explore some basic principles for making sure that if we add so-called smart city technology to our public spaces, we’ll end up with desirable results.

What I learned from launching a consumer trustmark for IoT


Throughout 2018, we developed the Trustable Technology Mark, a consumer trustmark for IoT, that our non-profit ThingsCon administers. As the project lead on this Trustmark, I spent countless hours in discussions and meetings, at workshops and conferences, and doing research about other relevant consumer labels, trustmarks and certifications that might offer us some useful paths forward. I thought it might be interesting to share what I’ve learned along the way.

(Please note that this is also the reason this blog post appears first on my website; it’s because if there’s anything problematic here, it’s my fault and doesn’t reflect ThingsCon positions.)

1) The label is the least important thing

Launching a Trustmark is not about the label but about everything else. I’ve encountered probably dozens of cool label concepts, like “nutritional” labels for tech, “fair trade” style privacy labels, and many more. While there were many really neat approaches, the challenges lie elsewhere entirely. Concretely, the main challenges I see are the following:

  • What goes into the label, i.e. where and how do you source the data? (Sources)
  • Who analyzes the data and decides? (Governance)
  • Who benefits from the Trustmark? (Stakeholders and possible conflicts of interest)
  • How to get to traction? (Reach & relevance)

We’ve solved some of these challenges, but not all. Our data sourcing has been working well. We’re doing well with our stakeholders and possible conflicts of interest (nobody gets paid, we don’t charge for applications/licenses, and it’s all open sourced: In other words, no conflicts of interest and very transparent stakeholders, but this raises sustainability challenges). We don’t yet have robust governance structures, need a bigger pool of experts for reviews, and haven’t built the reach and relevance yet that we’ll need eventually if this is to be a long term success.

2) Sometimes you need to re-invent the wheel

Going into the project, I naively thought there must be existing models we could just adapt. But turns out, new problem spaces don’t always work that way. The nature of Internet of Things (IoT) and connected devices meant we faced a set of fairly new and unique challenges, and nobody had solved this issue. (For example, how to deal with ongoing software updates that could change the nature of a device multiple times without introducing a verification mechanism like reverse engineering that would be too cost intensive to be realistic.)

So we had to go back to the drawing board, and came out with a solution that I would say is far from perfect but better than anything else I’ve seen to date: Our human experts review applications that are based on information provided by the manufacturer/maker of the product, and this information is based on a fairly extensive & holistic questionnaire that includes aspects from feature level to general business practices to guarantees that the company makes on the record by using our Trustmark.

Based on that, our Trustmark offers a carrot; we leave it to others to be the stick.

That said, we did learn a lot from the good folks at the Open Source Hardware Association. (Thanks, OSHWA!)

3) Collaborate where possible

We tried to collaborate as closely as possible with a number of friendly organizations (shout-out to Better IoT & Consumers International!) but also had to concede that in a project as fast moving and iterative it’s tough to coordinate as closely as we would have liked to have. That’s on us — by which I mean, it’s mostly on me personally, and I’m sorry I didn’t do a better job aligning this even better.

For example, while I did manage to have regular backchannel exchanges with collaborators, more formal partnerships are a whole different beast. I had less than a year to get this out the door, so anything involving formalizing was tricky. I was all the happier that a bunch of the partners in the Network of Centres and some other academic organizations decided to take the leap and set up lightweight partnerships with us. This allows a global footprint with partners in Brazil, United States, United Kingdom, Germany, Poland, Turkey, India and China. Thank you!

4) Take a stand

One of the most important take aways for me, however, was this: You can’t please everyone, or solve every problem.

For every aspect we would include, we’d exclude a dozen others. Every method (assessment, enforcement, etc.) used means another not used. Certification or license? Carrot or stick? Third party verification or rely on provided data? Incorporate life cycle analysis or focus on privacy? Include cloud service providers for IoT, or autonomous vehicles, or drones? These are just a tiny, tiny fraction of the set of questions we needed to decide. In the end, I believe that in order to have a chance at succeeding means cutting out many if not most aspects in order to have as clear a focus as possible.

And it means making a stand: Choose the problem space, and your approach to solving it, so you can be proud of it and stand behind it.

For the Trustable Technology Mark that meant: We prioritized a certain purity of mission over watering down our criteria, while choosing pragmatic processes and mechanisms over those we thought would be more robust but unrealistic. In the words of our slide deck, the Trustmark should hard to earn, but easy to document. That way we figured we could find those gems of products that try out truly novel approaches that are more respectful of consumers rights than the broad majority of the field.

Is this for everyone, or for everything? Certainly not. But that’s ok: We can stand behind it. And should we learn we’re wrong about something then we’ll know we tried our best, and can own those mistakes, too. We’ve planted a flag, a goal post that we hope will shift the conversation by setting a higher goal than most others.

It’s an ongoing project

The Trustable Technology Mark is a project under active development, and we’ll be happy sharing our learnings as things develop. In the meantime, I hope this has been helpful.

If you’ve got anything to share, please send it to me personally ( or to

The Trustable Technology Mark was developed under the ThingsCon umbrella with support from the Mozilla Foundation.

Monthnotes for November 2018


This month: Trustable Technology Mark, ThingsCon Rotterdam, a progressive European digital agenda.

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat. I’m currently doing the planning for Q2 2019.

Trustable Technology Mark

ThingsCon’s trustmark for IoT, the Trustable Technology Mark now has a website. We’ll be soft-launching it with a small invite-only group of launch partners next week at ThingsCon Rotterdam. Over on I wrote up some pre-launch notes on where we stand. Can’t wait!

ThingsCon Rotterdam

ThingsCon is turning 5! This thought still blows my mind. We’ll be celebrating at ThingsCon Rotterdam (also with a new website) where we’ll also be launching the Trustmark (as mentioned above). This week is for tying up all the loose ends so that we can then open applications to the public.

A Progressive European Digital Agenda

Last month I mentioned that I was humbled (and delighted!) to be part of a Digital Rights Cities Coalition at the invitation of fellow Mozilla Fellow Meghan McDermott (see her Mozilla Fellows profile here). This is one of several threads where I’m trying to extend the thinking and principles behind the Trustable Technology Mark beyond the consumer space, notably into policy—with a focus on smart city policy.

Besides the Digital Rights Cities Coalition and some upcoming work in NYC around similar issues, I was kindly invited by the Foundation for Progressive European Studies (FEPS) to help outline the scope of a progressive European digital agenda. I was more than a little happy to see that this conversation will continue moving forward, and hope I can contribute some value to it. Personally I see smart cities as a focal point of many threads of emerging tech, policy, and the way we define democratic participation in the urban space.

What’s next?

Trips to Rotterdam (ThingsCon & Trustmark), NYC (smart cities), Oslo (smart cities & digital agenda).

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat. I’m currently doing the planning for Q2 2019.

Yours truly, P.