Tagconnected city

Smart cities in the 21c: “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities”


Last year, Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I were kindly asked to contribute some research and policy recommendations for a larger report for the German federal government around the role of cities and urbanization in the 21st century. The report is called “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities” (Der Umzug der Menschheit: Die transformative Kraft der Städte) and published through WBGU, the German Advisory Council on Global Change.

The report was officially released this morning.

Background, summaries and supporting documents are available online (English, German) The research paper Prof. Dr. Bieber and I contributed is available in full here (PDF in German).

Please note that this is just a rough translation of excerpts from the German original report. The language might be a little rough around the edges in some places, but it should suffice to outline the gist of our arguments. If you would like to volunteer a full translation, please get in touch.


“My name is whm@mit.edu (though I have many aliases), and I am an electronic flâneur. I hang out on the network.”

This is the beginning of the chapter “Electronic Agoras” of the late William J. Mitchell’s book “city of Bits”. In 1995 the architecture professor at the MIT explored the interplay of “Space, Place and the Infobahn”, so the subtitle of his study. 20 years ago Mitchell outlined the consequences of digitalization for core elements of urban living spaces. In short sketches he described potential mediated transformations of market places, office spaces, schools, museums and retail spaces.

“Within bitsphere communities, there will be subnetworks at a smaller scale still – that of architecture. Increasingly, computers will meld seamlessly into the fabric of buildings and buildings themselves will become computers – the outcome of a long evolution.” (Mitchell 1995: 171)

Even 20 years later the text is worth revisiting and the reader could get the impression that a large part of the discourse around “digital cities” has hardly progressed beyond Mitchell’s thinking.

And yet, of course the situation today is very different. Digitalization of our everyday lives has progressed and isn’t just about the creation of network infrastructure, stationary and mobile access, secury data exchange and open content anymore. The Internet of Things (IoT) has turned many urban structures into interfaces. In many optimistic concepts the smart city even almost resembles an actor in its own right.

What does digitalization mean for the urban context today? What happens to cities when infrastructure, public space and citizens are becoming increasingly technologically networked, tracked by sensor networks, and part of a rich data ecosystem?

How can digitalization be used and fostered apart from specialized B2B solutions, general effects of social media, and in the spirit of a humane urbanity?

Taking these questions as a starting point this study for the German Advisory Council on Global Change (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat Globale Umweltveränderung, WBGU) explores the implications of so-called smart city. Starting with a basic introduction of key tecnological development perspectives, the study focuses on two main themes: What role can sustainable development play in concepts for the digital networking of the urban space, and what consequences are to be expected for participation in the political process?

Executive Summary

The concept of the smart city is highly relevant for the future of urban spaces, but the discourse currently heavily dominated by technology vendors and focused purely on efficiency gains. We see implicitly conflicting incentives and goals between commercial interest of technology vendors and regulatory steering goals of the administration, especially in the relation with infrastructure companies.

Besides perspectives for interconnectivity, product development, as well as regional and technological development, aspects of citizen-centric and sustainability are particularly relevant in urban planning. This also applies regarding data sustainability of software solutions. The various elements of a data-smart city and its integration into urban culture are to be recognized as a part of urban governance structures. Aspects such as sustainable development, education, inclusion, transparency and openness deserve attention accordingly.

The path to increased security and resilience of the smart city must include transparency and the principles of open source.

Strong data sovereignty of citizens is the basis for participation and problem solving competence – especially when facing possible technological problems of digital urban infrastructure.

A city that is measured and sensed through sensors, cameras and other survey systems is always a city under surveillance that could discipline its citizens. This means a conflict between problematic surveillance and control on one side positive knowledge and data based opportunities on the other. The ambivalence of the potentials that threaten democracy and those that foster it need to be reevaluated constantly.

The smart city can be shaped politically. The actors involved in smart city governance should not reduce themselves to administrational service providers but work explicitly towards unlocking room for political maneuvering and interventions.

It is essential to take into account impulses from citizens that aim to make use of the city as a platform. Fostering innovation and regional development, scaling of digital infrastructure, creation of spaces for participation as well as coordination the various institutional, individual and technological subsystems requires open, modular political impulses.

Important hints for the development and implementation of smart city governance can be drawn from guiding principles such as decentralization, openness and robustness that emerged successively throughout the development of computer networks and that made the internet to the global innovation platform we know today.

Smart city governance requires collaboration and cooperation models that draw on the skills not just of urban planners, architects and the administration but also of younger professions such as data scientists, interaction designers as well as translators between industry, administration and the public.

Representative of civil society and NGOs like Open Knowledge, Code for Germany or Wikimedia could serve in the role of ombudsman that support the administration with building and maintaining data structures as well as the shaping of digital citizens rights.

This means relying on a multi-stakeholder model that brings together public and civil society, science, industry and administration to shape the city as a platform collaboratively. A special role belongs to the smart citizen as a manifestation of the well-informed citizen – currently this explicitly political figure hardly is represented in most smart city concepts.

During the orientation towards the smart city as a guiding model for urban transformation, the (still young) civic tech movement could potentially serve as the context for further discourse of smart city.

The many facets of civic tech (digitization, open data, urban planning and development, social networks, community organizing) offers a wide reach of potential touch points for the smart city discourse.

Summary and recommendations

It is safe to assume that it is generally possible to adopt the smart city as a guiding approach for tech-positive urban planning: We already see projects developed in close coordination between technology vendors and local administrations or within the framework of national and supra-national initiatives. In this process political actors must not limit their role to that of a pure administrational service provider. Rather they need to defend the necessary freedom to shape – and intervene in – the overall process. It is essential to take into account bottom-up input from the citizenry wherever possible.

We tentatively identified several guidelines for a guiding principle that can help restructure participatory smart city concepts and place them within the framing of the civic tech movement. The keywords we propose are independence, security, decentralization, openness, citizen-centricity and empowerment.

Independence: Fostering and development of basic connectivity infrastructure play a central role in the development of a smart city: “Community[owned broadband is one of the best investments a smart city can make. (…) More importantly, it puts the city in control of its own nervous system, gving it tremendous bargaining power over any private company that wants to sell smart services to the city government or its businesses and residents.“ (Townsend 2014: 288) Note: The more independence from large technology vendors and integrated centralized smart systems can be secured, the more resilient, innovation friendly, and open for the needs of citizens the smart city is likely to develop.

Security: Transparency and open source are the best garantors of sustainable security of a smart city. All smart city software should conform to open source standards. Hardware and infrastructure should equally be as open source as possible. Additionally, planned and installed hardware and software infrastructure should be open to regular audits by experts and technologically skilled citizens, civil society, and civic tech groups.

Decentralization: Decentralization of infrastructure is to be prefered to centralized infrastructure. Concretely, technology subsystems should be loosely joined rather than fully integrated (rough consensus running code / small pieces loosely joined)

Openness: The guiding principle should be openness in the sense of open source, fostering of open access, and data ownership by the citizens. Furthermore, the smart city should be understood as a platform for citizens, private sector, science and administration.

Citizen-centricity: To strictly follow citizen needs and requirements in questions of data and media literacy, transparency and data souvereignity can avoid, and help solve, many problems. In particular, the exchange with citizens and civil society groups should be encouraged and supported by the administration: “(C)ivic hall should work as a platform to connect communities to each other, giving residents a way to partner with neighbors to prevent some problems and solve others. In the future, advanced systems might even combine official information with data supplied by residents acting as sensors through the various ways they might collect and transmit information.” (Goldsmith/Crawford 2014: 67)

Empowerment: The holistic perspective of data smart cities and in particular of civic tech as a new social movement should be taken seriously. The increasing levels of technology in the city should not be understood solely as a modernization process driven by commerce or technology. Rather, it is a process based on a much wider foundation of societal concerns. The emergence of a civic tech movement based on various factors and groups gains more relevance as local urban administrational structures gain more relevance. This can be interpreted in light of the sustainability discourse and its connection to the societal dimenstions of climate change, where we saw collaboration of comparatively delineated niche interests from various previously disconnected societal groups lead to an active, civil society led power for innovative governance structures. We see the same happen around civic tech and smart cities.

TL;DR: Connected cities offer great opportunities abd great risks. As guidelines for how to approach the complex and long-term process of turning a city into a connected/smart city we recommend the principles the early open web was built on: open source, openness, decentralization, bottom-up innovation.

Follow the tags below for some more thoughts around related topics.

Smart Cities: The next frontier for IoT


Note: This text was written and planned for publication in September 2015. While it wasn’t published at the time and some bits and pieces seem a little dated by now, I felt there’s still enough relevance here to publish it now. Enjoy!

As the Internet of Things (IoT) expands into more and more parts of our lives, one big focal point for IoT is the smart city. Since the majority of the population lives in cities and we cannot opt out of our urban environments, this makes it the next frontier for IoT, digital rights and innovation.

Understanding the connected city

What makes a smart city? What’s the smartest city in the world? The connected city is a surprisingly hard-to-define construct: There is a very small number of “pure play” smart cities – planned cities built from scratch – that everyone would agree are smart, like Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. But do they count as real cities if they have no history and hardly a population? There are smart city services, like real-time public transport data: How many of these does it take to make a city officially “smart”? How does the population factor into it?

I believe that the current focus on the city-level might counter-intuively get in the way of our thinking. So let’s step away from the implementation level of a city wide integrated sensor network with a connected city data dashboard. I’m increasingly convinced that the trick is to tackle the understanding of connected cities from two sides:

  1. Zoom in to a more granular level where instead of looking at the city-level we can focus on individual projects, initiatives and programs that work with city data of any sort. This more open approach means we can count and analyze a wider range of projects from real-time public transport to networks of DIY air quality sensors or open source smart meters. Based on this we could rank cities based on their smartness, or maybe smart-readiness. Some not-yet-public research I’ve been involved in shows promising results: Imagine a large catalog of smart city(ish) projects that can be sliced and diced based on region, scale, funding sources, or impact.

  2. Then zoom out to the systemic level that doesn’t just consider the physical manifestation of the city, but it’s governance, administration, and citizenry. A large part of what makes a city smart isn’t its infrastructure (the strong focus on the technology angle is misleading), it’s the social impact of how we make that infrastructure work for its citizens. This means we need to look at how to prepare local governments and administrations, an area where NGOs like Code for America have been doing great work, and it means making sure that citizens know how to participate. After all, the overarching goal of a connected city should be to empower its citizens – so smart citizens are the true key to a smart city.

Smart cities need citizen-centric design

The way we discuss connected cities today is heavily framed through the lens of efficiency based on gathering data. This is no coincidence: The main drivers of the debate today are technology vendors who have been selling solutions for the industrial context like smart factories and connected logistics chain. It is only natural that the same vendors would try to solve urban challenges through large-scale implementations of their sensors, networks and infrastructure: If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

However, for the context of a heavily urbanized society this model might not be the best. Smart cities researcher and critic Adam Greenfield goes even further, calling the efficiency-focused model of the connected city “the least interesting and the most problematic” given that rich urban live depends on serendipity as much as efficient delivery of services. Algorithms should augment, not replace political processes like resource allocation.

Maybe even more importantly, history has shown that complex, massively integrated computational systems are fraught with issues. If we turn a city into a giant centralized computer, we might create infrastructure that is brittle rather than resilient: “Smart cities are almost guaranteed to be chock full of bugs, from smart toilets and faucets that won’t operate to public screens sporting Microsoft’s ominous Blue Screen of Death”, fears smart city advocate Anthony Townsend.

These doomsday scenarios are easily avoided, though, if we focus on how to put humans in the center. The open data/open government and civic tech movements advocate for urban services that are citizen-centric and focus on real-world needs. This allows to build resilient cities. In their academic and policy research, Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith speak of the responsive city: A city that focuses on its citizens needs and molds itself based on changing needs through technology and data. In other words, the city is a platform for its stakeholders – citizens and businesses alike.

Shaping the connected city

As Lawrence Lessig famously stated, code is law. The code we run our smart city on governs urban life. So it’s crucial to ensure that this code isn’t just fit for prime time in the sense of quality control, but also that we make the right choice for how and what kind of code is implemented in the first place. This is less of a technical than a policy question, and governments around the world are thinking hard about it.

Recently I co-authored a report on connected cities my colleague and ethics professor Dr. Christoph Bieber for the German government. The question: How to think smart cities with a strong focus on the citizens’ perspective. We found we have great historic precedence to inform solutions for the challenges ahead: The key to unlocking connected cities are the design principles – the protocols – that helped build the internet in its early days: Openness, decentralized architecture, bottom-up innovation, and Postel’s law (the so-called robustness principle).

In other words, we can build the city as a platform that is decentralized, open source, and hackable; That empowers citizens and enables private enterprises to innovate; And that is especially responsive and resilient through inclusivity, diversity, peer-review, and human-centric design.

The key to a truly smart city is decentralization


Earlier this year, as preparation for some research & policy input for the German government, we dug into the current state of research around connected cities.

The lense we applied was that of how a smart city would impact societal life, responsive government, and of course the power balance between citizenry, administration, large companies and the infrastructure itself.

While our report is yet to be released, I just read a piece by Paul Mason in The Guardian where he takes a critical stance on smart cities and identifies some major changes we can expect when heading for a smart city (emphasis mine):

The privacy issues [with smartphones that by design are also tracking devices] are dealt with by limiting the flow of data between public and private sectors, and by making the individual the centre of the information flow. But in a smart city, you need data to flow freely across sectors that, in the commercial world, would normally be separate. The energy system needs to know what the transport system is doing. And the whole thing needs to be run like a “God game”: the city government, not the individual, must exercise control.

This idea of the need for (and opportunity inherent in) a central control instance certainly is an inherent premise of the vision that smart city vendors often try to push. (Why Mason seems to buy this I cannot tell – otherwise his piece is very critical and thorough.) It’s not a premise we need to accept and in fact I think we mustn’t accept.

A truly smart city for me requires decentralization, openness, democratic oversight, and the ability for bottom-up innovation.

A centralized coordinating and controlling instance – the central instance of a “God game” – is the opposite and as such a barrier to, rather than a requirement for, the smart city.

Current “pure play” smart cities like Masdar or Songdo may be “smart” in the sense that they use lots of data and adapt to it – thriving cities they are not.

And (again quoting Paul Mason) Madrid is going exactly that hopeful road:

Manuela Carmena asked advisers: what are the social problems we want technology to solve? The result was the vision of a “non-neoliberal smart city”, incorporating three principles not welcome in the world of high-profit tech companies: openness, democratic participation and a clear policy that data generated from public services should be publicly owned. “Rather than keep funding proprietary systems with public money, support open-source collaborative technologies,” Carmena was advised. Instead of beginning with the transport system, the first deployment of new technology should allow citizens to “raise issues of corruption, equity in the distribution of resources and open the question of access to power”.

This is pretty much what I’d also recommended.

Concretely, I’d recommend to build the Connected City Policy after the principles that governed the early days of the open internet: Openness, decentralized architecture, bottom-up innovation, and Postel’s law (the so-called robustness principle).

Then we can build the city as a platform that is decentralized, open source, and hackable; That empowers citizens and enables private enterprises to innovate; And that is especially responsive and resilient through inclusivity, diversity, peer-review, and human-centric design.