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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.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.



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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.

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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.