The combination of smart technology and participation may sound promising, but the reality is fraught with perils. In this essay Evelien Tonkens, Professor of Citizenship and Humanization of the Public Sector at the University of Humanistic Studies, Utrecht, and member of the State of Eindhoven advisory board, explains why.
A participatory society is an ambitious aim. In a participatory society, after all, everyone is able to take part on equal terms. Everybody counts. Anyone can contribute to public goals, can exert influence on those goals and on the conditions under which people are able and willing to take part in society. Policy is no longer made over the heads of the citizens but in partnership with them.
In this scenario, “smart” technology should be part of the aforementioned conditions. It goes without saying that technology is part of a participatory society, and that such a society will thus allow citizens to participate in the design and use of technologies that enable participation. This does not often happen, however. Strangely enough, when we hear the term “participatory society”, we don’t often think of technology. This is strange, since participation is as valuable in the realm of technology as it is anywhere. New technologies (about which citizens are given a say) can help citizens to have more equal, dialogic relationships with each other, with government, and with business. So combining smart technology and participation seems to be a good idea.
That combination is not without its hazards, however, as we see in the example of Eindhoven’s municipal smart lighting programme. The project is often held up as an example of Eindhoven’s efforts to become a smart city. Simply by walking down the street, citizens provide information on how they use that street. It's highly likely that this goes on without their realising it. And even if they are aware, most continue to play a passive role. It is true that the goal of smart lighting is not participation but crowd control. So how can a participatory use of technology be deployed in this context? Citizens’ input is currently limited. In addition, there is a danger that their privacy will be violated. Who knows what people might want to do on the street in the dark without peeping Toms looking on – kiss a secret love, perhaps? The first danger, then, is that citizens are allowed only a passive role, as providers of information.
Once data are available and local government has ascertained that, for example, green light makes citizens calmer and red makes them wilder, it has an opportunity to nudge people toward certain behaviour. Without knowing it, citizens can be spurred to act in certain ways. If the city wants things calmer, for instance, it can switch on a green light. This may not be harmful, but it has little to do with participation.
Although publications on the smart city make much of the active efforts of citizens – this is repeatedly mentioned in Eindhoven’s urban lighting plan, for example (Den Ouden and Valkenburg, 2012) – it's unclear where and how people can actually exert influence. How, and about what, can a broad group of representative citizens have an active voice? And how do we make sure the input they are given aligns with the way they wish to take part in the conversation?
“The community” does not exist
A second hazard is that many citizens will be unintentionally excluded because “the community” is treated as a uniform mass. We often ask, “What does the community think?” It is supposed that if we involve an arbitrary group of self-selected volunteers in something, that means we have involved “the community” – that the small group that gave input on the subject automatically represented everybody else. We assume we automatically know what “the people” are thinking.
This is the assumption being made in Eindhoven’s smart lighting programme. The lighting will be planned so as to make citizens behave properly and feel comfortable. Look at this frequently used illustration from the city’s urban lighting plan:
People are performing very different actions here. Two of them, one with a briefcase, are having a meeting on the street. Others are playing hopscotch, riding a Segway, strolling, and covertly spraying graffiti on a wall. All these activities call for different lighting. Good light is suitable for doing business; for strolling, pleasant light is preferable. But what is good or pleasant lighting? One person’s pleasant light may seem unsafe to someone else; light that appears cold to one person might be useful to someone else. Whose wishes determine how a public space such as this one is lit?
The answer is usually “Let’s ask the citizens what they think.” We announce a public comment period and set up a web page or Twitter account. And once people go there and give their opinions, then we think we know what “the citizens” think. Unfortunately, this is nonsense. Citizens do not spontaneously form into a unit. The countless differences between people are the reason we invented politics. Parties represent the differences between us. We use politics – a controlled conversation between people who differ enormously – to put varying interests and opinions on the table and let them fight it out. Through peaceful argument, acceptable compromise is forged. “The citizens” exist only in dictatorships – or at least dictatorships would like us to believe that they do.
The participatory elite
Most citizens do not take part in public comment processes or in web or Twitter discussions (Bovens, 2008). Active citizens are not representative of “the community”: on average, they’re more highly educated, healthier, more competent (Skocpol, 2002; Bovens and Wille, 2010; Jones, 2003; Walzer, 2004) and undoubtedly also more technically literate than most people. Education, in particular, makes a big difference. Its impact on political participation can be seen in the following graphic (Van Houwelingen et al., 2015, p. 54):
The well educated are in every respect more politically active. The biggest differences are seen with regard to public consultation evenings, protests, contacting politicians and officials, and using the Internet and text messages for political purposes. This does not bode well for participation in the smart city.
People who are politically active also think differently in certain ways about economics and finance, income, work, health care, crime and minorities than those who do not participate. The graph below shows differences in opinion between people who are and are not politically active (Van Houwelingen et al 2015, p. 63):
How accessible is the smart city?
One thing not currently helping to equalise access to participation in the smart city is the fact that communications about it are still relatively inaccessible to those without much education. The majority of information about the smart city, even where it concerns Eindhoven specifically, is in English. It also contains various kinds of impressive flow charts that undoubtedly go over many people’s heads. In addition, the term “smart city” is not inviting to those with little education. After all, a great many such people have been told all their lives that they are not smart. It is likely that they will assume in advance that the smart city is not for them.
Policymakers will probably reply that of course they know not all citizens are smart or curious enough to engage with new technology. But what are the consequences of this? And let’s turn things around for a minute: imagine you’re aiming at people with low IQs who struggled in vocational secondary school. How would you organise the smart city then? After all, if something is tailored for people with low IQs, then others can follow it too. Unfortunately, the reverse is not the case.
To genuinely link participation with the smart city and thus involve different kinds of citizens, more must be done. Different groups need to be identified, depending on the topic, and specifically invited to provide input. They must be truly given a voice, and the participatory process must take account of their capabilities and wishes. In addition, it is important to think about how their input relates to what the city council is discussing and deciding, to prevent the council (perhaps inadvertently) nullifying it.
A third hazard in combining participation with the smart city is wrong-headed policies based on naïve or one-sided assumptions about what most citizens want. In some smart-city energy-saving projects, for example, it is assumed that people enjoy openly competing with others in their neighbourhood, and that they will be motivated to save energy only if they are pitted against each other and can publicly see who is saving the most.
This is a highly questionable supposition. It’s far from certain that people really want to know about each other's energy consumption, let alone details such as when they're using it. And do we want neighbours gossiping in the street about why Nadine uses so much electricity at night? What's she up to? And isn't it mostly on nights when her husband’s working the late shift?
At any rate, it’s far from certain that citizens are really so keen to compete with one another. This view of humanity may mesh with the neoliberalism of recent decades, but there are plenty of signs that what many people want is not still more competition but rather friendly communities and a sense of belonging and familiarity.
Policies that aim to involve citizens in technology should align with what people genuinely want and who they truly are. Do people really like the idea of openly competing to save the most energy, or do they experience this as an assault on their privacy and connectedness? If they do like the idea, under what conditions would they want to compete? Perhaps, for example, they would prefer group contests (one street versus another) over individual striving. It would be just as dubious to take for granted that everyone is looking for community. It is crucial to avoid uncritically building into a design one’s own suppositions about what people want and who they are; these beliefs should be tested in advance, just as one would test technical aspects before building them in.
In sum, involving citizens in the smart city is worthwhile provided three conditions are met:
- Genuine influence. Citizens should have a real influence on shaping the smart city; it should be clear where they can have an impact and where they cannot.
- Recognition that “the community” does not exist and citizens have different views and interests. This necessitates involving different groups of citizens and actively inviting non-active citizens to participate, possibly in combination with a lottery procedure. It means making the extra effort to break up the one-sided involvement of the participatory elite.
- Not allowing one’s beliefs about humanity to creep into a design but acknowledging and testing them. We should not assume citizens are all individualists or lovers of competition and build this view into the technology; rather, the question of who people are and what they want should be part of the design process.
How can we involve citizens in the smart city in such a way that these three conditions can be met? I would like to place this question at the heart of The State of Eindhoven.
Bovens, M. (2008). “De diplomademocratie.” In Swierstra, T., and E. Tonkens (eds.), De beste de baas? Verdienste, respect en solidariteit in een meritocratie. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 101–117.
Bovens, M., and Wille, A. (2014), Diplomademocratie: Over de spanning tussen meritocratie en democratie. Prometheus.
Den Ouden, E., and Valkenburg, R. (2012). “Vision and Roadmap Urban Lighting Eindhoven 2030.” Eindhoven: Eindhoven University of Technology.
Houwelingen, P. van, Boele, A., and Dekker, P. (2014). Burgermacht op eigen kracht?: Een brede verkenning van ontwikkelingen in burgerparticipatie (Vol. 2014). Netherlands Institute for Social Research.
Jones, P.S. (2003). “Urban Regeneration’s Poisoned Chalice: Is There an Impasse in (Community) Participation-based Policy?” Urban Studies Vol. 40 (3), pp. 581–601.
Skocpol, Theda (2002). “United States: From Membership to Advocacy.” In Robert D. Putnam (ed.), Democracies in Flux: The Evolution of Social Capital in Contemporary Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 103–136.
Walzer, M. (2004). Politics and Passion: Toward a More Egalitarian Liberalism. New Haven/London: Yale University Press.