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Eindhoven aims to be many things – a smart, healthy, caring, innovative and, most of all, adaptive city. It is an ambitious and, above all, a proud place, thanks to the rapid progress it achieved after the disastrous years of the 1990s. Like many other Dutch cities, Eindhoven is facing a number of shifts that have been discussed at length: the welfare state is making way for the participatory society, and at the same time, the power of the state is shifting to the cities, which, with more than 60 per cent of the Dutch population, are the premier sites of innovation and economic power.

Linda Vlassenrood, programme leader The State of Eindhoven

These transitions call for administrative renewal: essentially, what is needed is a reinvention of democracy. To an increasing degree, after all, the government shares its responsibilities with business, knowledge institutions and, most of all, citizens, and it prefers to view the organisational structure in this context as horizontal. Eindhoven is facing this transition in a highly self-assured and positive way. The conditions for a horizontal form of collaboration appear firmly entrenched in the city's current DNA: the lauded triple helix concept, introduced in the early 1990s as a model of equal partnership between businesses, knowledge institutions and governments, has helped Eindhoven to build a flourishing knowledge economy. In fact, Eindhoven was named Intelligent Community of the Year by the Intelligent Community Forum, an independent US think tank, in 2011. That can only be encouraging for local citizens.

In theory, anyway. Questioning reveals that in fact, citizens are barely connected to Eindhoven’s smart city. The triple helix strategy actually excludes citizens, and the majority of Eindhovenaars have never heard of it. The same is true of Eindhoven’s overall branding as a city of technology, design and knowledge (“TDK”). The branding strategy may attract new residents, but it is not aimed at people who already live in the city. Much work is being done on the technological front, but it is often happening in out-of-the-way places, such as the High Tech Campus, or invisibly, on behalf of specific online user groups, and it is therefore insufficiently embedded in local life. Likewise, design and knowledge are developing in parallel, with little cross-pollination. In short, in spite of outstanding growth figures, unbridled enthusiasm and impressive international scores, there is a gap between the city’s ambition and its reality. Eindhoven is doing well, but it could do better. Mayor Van Gijzel has said as much publicly, and officials confirm that the current administration (despite a thoroughgoing internal reorganisation and progressive developments such as WIJeindhoven) is innovating too slowly to sufficiently facilitate the aforementioned transitions, on the one hand, and on the other, it has not yet put in place the overarching, motivating and inspiring narrative needed to truly mobilise citizens. What does a citizen contribute to – the smart city, or the healthy, caring, innovative or adaptive one? What does “adaptive” even mean? Where is the personal motivation?

What is Eindhoven's overarching narrative?

Every administrator in the Netherlands has plenty to say about the growing numbers of enterprising citizens and citizen initiatives, but in reality, they are talking about a small group. In addition, research shows that the number of volunteers in the Netherlands has not risen in recent years. We can expect that the situation in Eindhoven will not be much different. In short, if Eindhoven wishes to close the gap between its citizens on the one hand and local government and business on the other, creating a motivating narrative and communicating urgency will be unmissable prerequisites for mobilising citizens. Where are citizens, government, knowledge institutions and businesses getting involved in Eindhoven? And where is their common ground within that engagement?

From a historical point of view, we can identify certain periods when all-encompassing arguments were put forward for the great social and planning tasks of the day, such as the hygiene movement in the late 19th century and modernism, with its functional cities, in the early 20th century. In the 21st century, the smart city has emerged as the answer to all our sustainability and security problems. The narrative of the smart city is still in its infancy, however. Though a great many cities in the world want to be smart cities, no one quite knows exactly what the term means. Provisionally, it can be defined as a set of technocratic solutions to a series of urban problems (which often remain to be described in detail). Smart cities are primarily seen as safe, clean and efficient. To that end, sophisticated technological infrastructures are installed and cities filled with cameras and sensors for collecting data. The new South Korean smart city of Songdo is an extreme example. The city is marketed as a desirable product; the development of high-tech applications is seen as a goal in itself. Citizens play no meaningful active role. They are primarily seen as providers of data and supply few or no applications.

Eindhoven aspires to become a smart city but struggles with creating an inspiring narrative – or, to put it differently, intrinsic motivation. The city recognises that technology should not be seen as a goal in itself but deployed to solve local social problems. A city like Eindhoven, in whose profile technology plays a key role, now finds itself in a position to define or redefine the meaning of the smart city in its broadest sense, and to ascribe new values to the word “smart”, working with citizens, businesses and knowledge institutions. One thinks of creating a “smart society” and intelligent forms of governance, mobility, housing, care and economics. But the idea extends much further. New technologies with a social impact are all around us: the smart city, the Internet of things, learning algorithms, robotics. Yet we lack the knowledge and vocabulary to truly fathom and interpret how they are interlinked and what their implications are, or could be, for urban, social and political life at the local, national and international levels.

A smart city in a participatory society

Eindhoven’s twofold ambition to be a smart city in a participatory society will lead to an exciting range of conflicts and yet-to-be-named values. In relation to creating an “intelligent community”, the city council, in its 2016 policy framework (published on 23 April 2015), rightly speaks of a paradigm shift in its own role – from deciding to facilitating, from control to trust, and from competition to cooperation – and poses numerous associated questions. For instance, to what degree will citizens truly use and embrace innovations? And more importantly, how can they be motivated to get actively involved at the leading edge of developments and innovations? It is striking and perhaps illustrative of the government’s pragmatic inclination that a fundamental question remains unasked: Why would citizens want to get actively involved? Where is the added value for them? What is the inspiring narrative that goes beyond city branding (priority number one, according to the smart city project team) aimed at the outside world?

Het Nieuwe Instituut's role: a mental 'free port'

“It is through acting that we find solutions,” says alderman Mary-Ann Schreurs. In various conversations with officials on implementing innovation in local democracy and in city council agreements with external parties, the concept of action was frequently mentioned. In addition, the policy framework explicitly states that 2016 is the year when plans and ambitions must be realised. After a wholesale reorganisation in 2014 and planning in 2015, 2016 has been designated a “working year”. At the Redesign Government Now! meeting ( during Dutch Design Week 2014, the need to act was a frequent topic of discussion. At the meeting, Mayor Van Gijzel argued that the government's stance needed to change on many fronts and to move from being ideology-based to being rooted in pragmatism. Action is a key means and process. The council's willingness to act is commendable, but more clarity on the overarching narrative and shared values appear necessary before a transition toward effective action can truly be possible.

In examining Eindhoven’s many ambitions, it quickly becomes apparent that reflection and exchange are underdeveloped. There is no common forum; conversations take place in an incidental rather than a thorough manner; important substantive and ethical questions receive little or no public discussion; and conversation is merely the result of an arbitrary collection of initiatives. Numerous parties in Eindhoven require a forum facilitating increased exchange. A number of concrete ideas are currently circulating for bringing together, connecting and motivating creatives and techies, in particular. Yet these programmes lack a clear focus in terms of content. Essentially, the conversation is not receiving substantive guidance, and it is certainly not meant for everyone. In addition, there is as yet no overview or subsequent knowledge sharing with respect to the projects, living labs and neighbourhood initiatives being organised in numerous areas by the city council, neighbourhoods, welfare organisations, knowledge institutions and individuals. There is enormous scope for gaining more insight in this area.

Long-term reflection: thinking is acting

The added value of Het Nieuwe Instituut will lie, in the first place, not in organising exhibitions or initiating more neighbourhood projects but rather in facilitating long-term reflection and posing critical questions at the appropriate moments. For this purpose, Het Nieuwe Instituut will mobilise its national and international network and draw on its arsenal of discursive formats to bring together the relevant parties in order to facilitate and open a conversation and develop the necessary knowledge. Het Nieuwe Instituut will also gather information and relevant points of view and make them accessible in an interactive manner. Scholars, thinkers, designers, administrators and citizens will together develop the shared knowledge Eindhoven needs, with the entire city serving as a playing field. Het Nieuwe Instituut does not need a physical address to be present. The institute will play the role of critical outsider yet be thoroughly embedded in the discussion at all times. Het Nieuwe Instituut will work with traditional partners such as the Eindhoven city council, Eindhoven University of Technology and the Design Academy Eindhoven but will expressly fulfil its own unique reflective and cultural role.


In a booklet published last March with BrabantKennis, Jan Mengelers, the chairman of the executive board of Eindhoven University of Technology, writes about the ideal of a region in which innovation is a process that enjoys broad social support. He expresses the wish to go beyond the triple helix and involve and mobilise citizens. He aptly formulates the transition Eindhoven is facing: “Changes are under way in the existing eco-innovation systems that Brabant and Brainport support. We find ourselves on a search for a new, more values-driven and democratic innovation model with an accompanying knowledge infrastructure – a model in which it will not be science and industry but social issues that will drive the research and innovation agenda.”
Het Nieuwe Instituut will indeed facilitate a search for new values and pose a fundamental question that is simple in essence yet complex in practice: why, how and with whom will the citizens of Eindhoven contribute to the smart city? For Het Nieuwe Instituut, this question automatically has to do with various assumptions about the participatory society, with new forms of innovation and collaboration, with conflictual shifts in administrative and financial authority, with different conceptions of the role of technology, with alternative organisational forms, and with concepts like trust, transparency, exclusion, and concentration of power, and the role of design therein.

Eindhoven will emphatically be the sphere of action. It is precisely through local engagement, access to detailed information and the addressing of concrete issues that the reflection generated by Het Nieuwe Instituut will lead to a broader debate in the Netherlands. Key questions, however, include: how do we start a conversation, and how will it take place? How can we subsequently keep a dialogue going, and how can we involve people beyond the usual suspects? How do we go beyond the approach of just another participatory project, and above all, how do we start a movement that will have a lasting effect? It is not only in people's heads that change must occur; behaviour, too, must change over the long term. How can we prevent participants from reverting to business as usual afterwards?

The process will be an extremely complex one, given the many different stakeholders and their even more numerous interests and priorities. Het Nieuwe Instituut’s interventions cannot be all-encompassing or serve everyone at the same time. Above all, the purpose is to generate a process in time, based on an ability to learn, with an outcome that cannot yet be defined in concrete terms.


The State of Eindhoven
Linda Vlassenrood

This project is part of the programme track Partner projects and the folder Research.

The multiyear cultural programme The State of Eindhoven)looks at the changing relationship between government and citizens and, specifically, Eindhoven’s twofold ambition of being a “smart city” in a participatory society.