Urban digitisation and the democratic process

An interview with Jiska Engelbert

In a smart city, digitisation and datafication are being used to make city life more efficient. For example, with the help of sensors, monitors, or cameras, it can be foreseen where it becomes too busy. "My goal is to make it clear that urban digitisation is an a-technological rather than an a-political issue," says Jiska Engelbert, Theme Leader Smart Cities and Communities at Vital Cities and Citizens.

How do tech companies manage to influence us to think of 'smart' as mainly technological applications? What is a smart city anyway? "That is exactly the underlying question of my research at Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens (VCC)," says Engelbert. "In addition, I am not interested in the right answer, but in how certain actors, especially the technology industry, think and communicate. In my research, in which I work closely and very well together with Jan Fransen, Isabel Awad and Mariana Fried, I question the obvious link between 'smartness' and the vision of the city, propagated by the tech world."

Field lab

'Smart' solutions are often invisibly interwoven in a physical environment or object. A well-known example is the fibre optic network or the 'smart lamp post'. The latter provides light and has other functions such as camera surveillance, 5G, weather station, charging station, or CO2 meter. "In Rotterdam Lombardijen, there is an experiment in which the lampposts have several luminaires. This allows them to monitor certain sounds and movements that could be an indicator of theft."

When municipalities talk about the 'smart city', it is not so much a coherent plan with activities, but about the sum of different projects in which a municipality participates. These are often projects that are packaged as field lab or living lab and that are part of a larger project in which a municipality collaborates with knowledge institutions and private parties. "The devil is in the project base and lab status of many smart city applications, because these plans do not have to be approved by the city council or discussed at city level. When it comes to participation or thinking along residents are promised everything. Still, in the beginning they hardly have room to ask questions, neither about the use of technology nor the use of their neighbourhood as a living laboratory." In this way, private companies get easy access to public space, public infrastructures and public funds, Engelbert believes.
But the main point is that digitisation of the city is becoming a kind of technical and technocratic affair. You must have the proper permit or the correct subsidy from the European Union or a large company. "This makes the smart city an issue that seems to have little to do with the politics of the city. This is reflected in the fact that municipal councils do not often deal with this theme, apart from the occasional concerns about privacy. Moreover, the fact that digitisation of the city is very political it is not recognised, while it is actually a conflict of interest. It is often used to allow specific groups, such as tech companies, that do not have a democratic mandate and for whom profit-through-data is the only goal, to have a huge share in the imagination of the city and its inhabitants.

Smart decision-making

"In my column in the online journalistic journal Vers Beton, I have sometimes used the example of the shared electric scooters in Rotterdam. You can also think of shared electric scooters as 'smart' technology because it is a digital technology that produces data. And these data are a profitable product of the digital platform economy, which is seamlessly packaged in a means of transport. They have very easily been given considerable scope, and therefore the opportunity to allow permits for these types of digital platform companies to go through democratic and political decision-making has been missed. In which case we, residents of the city, could have determined much more how those scooters should relate to the public space."

At BOLD Cities, researchers try to make invisible technology visible. They point out, for example, that the Dutch municipal councils are mainly about privacy and the fear of big brother. In the run-up to the municipal elections of 2022, Engelbert is investigating this together with Liesbet van Zoonen and Miyabi Babasaki. "Privacy is of course essential and a very valid concern, but with that, we still question too much the technology itself, instead of the new world (or city) view that is realised with it. It is precisely about the latter that representatives of the people and citizens can claim expertise and authority," says Engelbert. One condition is that citizens are aware of the technology. Therefore, so-called 'datawalks' are offered. During a walk through the city, participants are invited to notice the data technologies in public space. Think of a camera that hangs somewhere, a 5G mast that protrudes above the houses or a sensor built into a traffic light. 

Digitisation as an a-technological issue

"I now mainly focus on how 'the smart city' can become part of the daily political imagination, among representatives and among ordinary citizens. My goal is to make it clear that urban digitisation is an a-technological rather than an a-political issue," Engelbert says. And therefore, it’s an issue for which you do not have to be a technical expert to ask critical questions about it. "We see that in Rotterdam, much more thought is being given to whether and how digital technology can support the lives of all Rotterdammers. It will be more than an instrument whose use is already established in advance and with which mainly economic goals are pursued."

Inspiring example

It can be done differently. For example, in Barcelona. "Not the technology, but the policy around data and technology is extremely smart there. It gives the city council and the city dwellers themselves the means, power and mandate to set conditions for digitisation and technology companies at the front end. With VCC, it is my dream to realise something similar with and for Rotterdammers."


More information

Vital Cities and Citizens 

 With the Erasmus Initiative Vital Cities and Citizens Erasmus University Rotterdam wants to help improve the quality of life in cities. In vital cities, the population can achieve their life goals through education, useful work and participation in public life. The vital city is a platform for creativity and diversity, a safe meeting place for different social groups. The researchers involved focus on one of the four sub-themes: 

  • Inclusive Cities and Diversity 
  • Resilient Cities and People 
  • Smart Cities and Communities  
  • Sustainable and Just Cities 

VCC is a collaboration between Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences (ESSB), Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) and International Institute of Social Studies (ISS). 

Compare @count study programme

  • @title

    • Duration: @duration
Compare study programmes