How can we put humans/citizens first in our smart city policies?

As co-founder of the ThingsCon community ( that advocates for a responsible and human-centric approach to Internet of Things (IoT), smart cities have become an important focal point for my work: While the term “Smart City” itself is a little vague and ill-defined, smart cities are where the digital and the physical world meet, and where algorithms actively impact our daily lives.

The more cities are being connected and thus turned into Smart Cities, the more our society faces complex issues around power dynamics, control, and access. In other words, where machine decision making (artificial intelligence, machine learning; take your pick) starts impacting and shaping our public space, every single citizen is impacted by technological systems that are largely black boxes.

Today, the discourse around Smart Cities is largely dominated by the vendors of smart city tech: The debate is using their language, the framing of possible solutions matches their products. There isn’t anything malign going on, either - but the arguments are one-sided and myopic: They are selling technical “solutions” to complex societal challenges. This can never work, and is problematic in a myriad of ways.

I propose to re-frame the Smart City discourse away from a technology focus and towards a focus on societal impact and ask a different set of questions than the tech vendors’ solutions are trying to answer - like the following:

What are the potential impacts we can have when introducing a data layer and machine decision making into public space? What are the desirable consequences, what are the damages we need to avoid? What are the intended vs unintended potential consequences, and what are the known unknowns? How can we design a city to be resilient and worth living in, instead of just a little more efficient?

In other words: What are better urban metrics in cities increasingly governed or shaped by algorithms? How can we put people first and make sure that their cities, their public spaces and agoras work for all of them and not just for the companies that sell some of the infrastructure?

Working out these metrics, an analytical framework for assessing what’s desirable in a Smart City, is the key to unlocking a real, meaningful debate. It’s the basis on which policy makers, using participatory processes and involving all stakeholder groups, get empowered to start drafting meaningful Smart City policies and procurement guidelines. It’s an important building block in allowing us to move society forward, one city at a time.

At this point, I’m convinced we need to build all Smart City policies around citizens/digital/human rights first, and with a strong priority on participatory processes, transparency, and accountability.

Beyond that, these metrics need fleshing out. It’s this project that I’m proposing to tackle together with the Edgeryders community.

For some background on me, some links:


Hello @pbihr, I am Alberto and have had the opportunity to do a bit of thinking around Smart Cities. I think you are spot on. Like all tech, but in a more direct way, the suites of solutions that make up the smart city encode values and power relationships. Building the smart city is not conceptually far from building the Next Generation Internet: it demands technical choices that encode values. For now, in both cases, the values have been those of vendors and business.

If you de-emphasize them, you can go quite some way towards “smart”. I used to talk of “Type 1-” and “Type 2 smart cities”. Type 2 are non-vendor dominated, and so they can do some smart things that imply the destruction of GDP. They can do repair cafés, and car bans, and community welfare, and mesh networks. They can be cheap and resilient and inclusive.

But even these things are not “smart” for everybody. They encode my values, and those of my tribe. And these are great, but in any healthy city there must be people who steer by other stars, who care about different things. Cities are ambiguous, because their social engine is diversity. Diversity fuels exchange, personal growth and prosperity, but also conflict and uneasiness. A stronger police present makes the parent of young children feel safer, but makes life miserable for African- and Arab-looking teenagers. A late night bar can be a place of joy for the younger citizens in the neighborhood, but a source of nuisance for the older folks that live upstairs from it. For this reason, I am unconvinced that you can find “metrics”. Whose metrics are we talking about?

In his 2013 pamphlet, Adam Greenfield makes a convincing case that there can be no unambiguous, value-neutral metrics to maximize. Cities have to be regulated by endless dialogue and debate, right out in the agora. In other words, though the notion is unpopular, by politics. I am afraid he is right. If by some miracle you could steer a city by keeping metrics at nominal value, you would have reduced its complexity to the point where it is no longer a city, but something like a jail, or an amusement attraction like Disneyland.

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Smart cities to me imply that there will be a tight grid of 5G or stronger transmitters densely packed in cities. Does human centered also include studying and adjusting for health effects? So far it seems that it has hardly been studied. And all I hear is the inevitability of it.

And a human centered city would allow users to have pretty sophisticated awareness and control over the date gathered about them. I know that in public places one has greatly reduced expectations of privacy, but the data still goes someplace.

You and @alberto are both raising excellent points. I think the only way to approach this is to start at the very foundational level, which is to organize this part of our lives exactly like all the other big societal areas: By moderating and navigating the various (and often conflicting) interests through democratic means - in other words: introducing transparency, accountability and democratic oversight. Currently, smart city projects are often ushered in through the back door of public procurement in processes so obscure and opaque as to be essentially free from meaningful oversight.

This is where the question of metrics later should be decided (but currently we don’t have the policies in place to make that possible) and where we can decided collectively which aspects of health impact should be studied…

I brought up health effects because in an embedded video in another topic it was admitted by an industry person that although deployment is planned and being carried out initially there have been no studies. It could be that it is all fine, and I for one hope it is. But this is part of the tech Kool-Aid where the benefits always outweigh the risk.
That said, I am also quite wary of wanting to slow down or prevent technological progress because there must surely be some unknown long term bad effect.

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Fun: Canadian newspaper The Star has picked up a thread of mine on Sidewalk Labs’ big smart city proposal for Toronto where I’m grateful to be in good company when I discuss the governance issues with that proposal (and similar ones like it around the globe):

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Here is a case where “smart” means “the state controls everything” including your phone should you choose to visit…AKA the Internet of Inhumanity:

This is the same region where they use facial recognition to track everyone. For those folks, “1984” has been in place for some time now.

If you’re looking for a fresh perspective on the Smart City concept, I can serve with an inspiration :slight_smile: A few months back I developed a solarpunk-y vision for a long-term sustainable, autarkic and anarchist city:

It indeed needs a data layer for many of its processes, and that would be the inspiration for “how else could we do Smart City”. Esp. relevant are these parts:

The proposal is admittedly quite “out there” as it will have severe lifestyle impacts, while still keeping up all modern comforts. But, unlike many of the geoengineering and carbon removal proposals floated for achieving sustainability while keeping current lifestyle largely unchanged, it does not rely on any non-existent or unproven technology. It’s just a tech-positive way to use what we have much more efficiently, esp. via the use of IT for local self-administration. (And as such might also be of interest for @RobvanKranenburg.)

Oh, I know at least one off the top of my head: Maximizing the probability that human civilization can go on on this very planet for the next 4 billion years, which is as long as the sun will shine. Right now, this is rather systematically minimized …


That’s not computable, Matt. Come on. :slight_smile:

For starters, it implies that no resource must be used up whatsoever, forever. Circular economy down to the last atom. Everything else is just not a sustainable civilization, or sustainable city.

Hi Mathias, looks very good, can just skim it now, I will come back got this later. A quick glance shows that a lot of the things you aim for relate very well to the three topics Christian Nold and I have outlined: Proximity, System Thinking and Affect:

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Nerdy reply alert! Does not affect the main thrust of the argument, it’s more about @matthias and I educating each other, as we have been doing for six years now

Greenfield is an urban planner. I think his focus is on what makes a city a city. The criterion of circularity is great, but it can be applied to a single company, or household, or even a single activity, a single machine. Scholars or cities are looking in a different direction: they want metrics that you can apply to the interactions that happen in a city. For example, Le Corbusier seems to have believed that traffic speed was an unambiguously positive thing: faster is better, and so he imagined large, straight, multilane boulevards. Greenfield is saying, no. There is no metric x such that, if W denotes welfare (however you would measure that):

∂W/∂x > 0 forall x 

And yes, you can say circularity is unambiguously positive, but that pertains to a different level of analysis.

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@matthias looking forward to your feedback on our text and the three categories we propose.

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Here is a somewhat lengthy and random commentary on the 2011 pamphlet by Rob van Kranenburg and Christian Nold, to which Rob referred me above:The Internet of People for a Post-Oil World”. It would deserve its own topic, but as the title of this topic fits very well, I just leave this here (we can still split threads later if there is a need).

All quotes from the above pamphlet are used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.

The authors suggest an IoT as a non-commercial refuge, as an umbrella of emerging technologies that do not only serve capital but also facilitate grassroots survival networks in a world faced with ecological and social devastation. (p. 5)

We feel that unless we redirect our societal energies, we will be driving ourselves into a concrete wall of ecological, economic and social crisis. (p. 11)

Today, commandos are directed through the battlefield with the help of real time camera feedback. Tomorrow, consumers will be steered through smart shopping malls based on their status updates and spending profiles. (p. 15)

That’s quite a good illustration of the very different scenarios that can be supported by IoT technology. The first is empowering (though only in support of current elites). The other is disempowering (as consumers are force-fed avoidable consumption goods by exploiting human psychological weaknesses with micro-targeted ads). At least in online shopping, the second scenario is reality already.

I suppose what you’re heading for is realizing an empowering scenario for “ordinary citizens” using IoT and IT technology. And I very much agree that there is a huge unexplored potential for that. To this date, I don’t know of any existing system that would provide military-style “jointness” capabilities to citizens. If we had that around, and it would be in widespread use, it’s hard to imagine the power that citizens would have with that. Perhaps the closest real-life demonstration was the Spanish Indignados movement and the Arab Spring, both largely organized via Twitter messages. But what a poor substitute microblogging is for a military-style jointness system. It’s like I’ve heard once: “You can use a word processor software for everything, including writing a newspaper and organizing a revolution, but for most things there are much better tools for the job.”

While not the IoT angle directly, I have my own long-term interest in jointness software for civilians, including for grassroots movements and social organizing. (In my final thesis when studying computer science, I tried my hand at designing such a system. Not sure what value that thesis has in 2019, but yes, I have a history of interest in this stuff. :slight_smile: )

[M]ost people reading this pamphlet will see dramatic changes within their own lifetime [due to climate breakdown]. This gives us a short time frame to build novel types of technology that will support strong local relationships that make areas resilient in the face of impending global failure. […] It seems clear that the present centralized system will break down. We will have to build a post-oil network composed of Islands of Things, […] made up of local units of organization and production. (p. 20)

It’s amazing how similar that sounds to my vision of the Autarkic City :slight_smile:

There are moments when society is ready to act on a specific issue. (p. 21)

Totally agreed. With @natalia_skoczylas we witnessed this first-hand when we happened to be in Nepal during and right after the 2015 earthquakes. We even have a small research paper about volunteer disaster response from that time. But we also saw the limits of that grassroots action: it can get exhausted quickly (within weeks) by fulltime action because there is no external funder and people have to go back to their jobs. And it cannot adequately deal with problems that require large investments and infrastructure.

So if we want a successful grassroots response to climate breakdown, we need one that takes these limits into account. I am not too sure yet, but I think that action on the demand side will be more effective than directly fighting against greenhouse gas emitting big industries. Think a grassroots movement converting society towards being carbon negative, one house at a time.

What I have not (yet) found in your paper is a concrete vision of how a self-governed Internet of People society would look like. What tech, what software, what forms of social organization might it use? It’s still a bit of an abstract vision to me. (Admittedly I am going into the other extreme … my visions tend to take the form of lists of equipment, and of course society won’t implement it like that …)

Extending this Cuban example, the Russian anarchist Kropotkin offers a powerful vision of production through small-scale physical workshops, which in the Internet of People brings together low and high-tech bike repair and sensor networks. […]

This model of local workshops allows people to do a variety of work, some manual, some intellectual, some exciting and some less so. If we produce things in our local area, we get fulfillment from our multiple roles of manual work as well as empowering brainwork and will not need “hobbies” anymore. The Internet of People enables a vision of globally interconnected workshops that change the type of things we produce, as well as our social and cultural relations in which we do so. (p. 26)

I think this is such a 2011 thing to say :slight_smile: 2011 was prime time for low-cost FDM 3D printers, for Open Source Ecology with their vision of an open source civilization, and so on. It felt hopeful, and I like the memory. And whil I still stick to that vision of an open source and collaborative world – the local manufacturing revolution turned out to be way more difficult to start than we imagined in 2011 …

In my view of today, that is largely because people are locked into the mainstream economy of with its price competition and the resulting winner-takes-all mass production by the current money system and by the huge needs for money that are not simple to replace with “local production” in the sense of self-supply, as it needs economic exchange. For the urban population, that is mostly rent. And as and while (1) money is scarce for much of the population and (2) prices of non-locally-produced item (read: from China) are cheaper, people are locked into the mainstream economy for the time being.

Recognizing this resulted (for me and a co-founder) into another startup called PayCoupons that aims to replace money in the local economy with algorithmic network bartering, to unlock local production in a space protected from global competition over price alone. More about that here.

But starting that kind of marketplace in Europe while the economy is officially “well” is difficult. As dark as that sounds, we’ll need another economic crisis before a tool like that will get the attention it deserves.

In the coming years, […] [the IoT Council] can advise governments and institutions on how to transform into interconnected workshops. (p. 30)

I like that vision of interconnected workshops :slight_smile: Has there been practical progress on proposed standards for distributed manufacturing in the years since the publication of the 2011 pamphlet?

In particular, I am interested in standards for versioned, collaborative development of designs for physical items, including dependency management between them. It would be “like Git for physical products” and “like a software package management system for installing designs of products”.

With that in place, it’s not far fetched to automatically or semi-automatically feed this into CNC machines or a flexible manufacturing system like CubeSpawn.

But so far, I don’t know of any practical standard for this kind of data exchange. There has been SKDB, VOICED and now Wikifactory, but none of it is usable for its stated purpose so far. I am always tempted to just create that standard myself, package the first 100 existing open hardware projects in the format, and see if it will catch on …

We exist in complex relationships with our environment simply by living our everyday lives. If we would get feedback on how we feel and how we might feel better, how our talents could get recognized, how we could relate better to our neighbors, then having sensors and actuators make sense. (p. 37)

I guess is this is where our visions for the future start to differ. My vision, with its focus on autarky-enhancing technology, is to reduce the complexity of the modern environment to something manageable. Complexity to be managed by an end user will actually rise as people will have to learn a lot of new and strange tech. But most of the hidden and uncontrollable dependencies from external entities of a mass society will vanish, this way putting citizens back in control of their lives and wellbeing.

Proximity […] In the future Internet of People, we will have to rely much more on our immediate environment for support. We are already linked to our neighbors with power and water but in the future we may have to rely on them for growing food and making things. What we are really talking about is a kind of mutual responsibility that we might call solidarity. (p. 42)

I read this as a high-tech reincarnation of the village-based economies that existed in central Europe until about 1960, and that still exist in many parts of the world, including villages in Nepal that I visited. Good solutions come back when unsustainable forms of social organization end :slight_smile:

If only there was a way to persuade villagers in Nepal that the system they have is good to begin with and that they just need to add some tech to make everything more efficient, safe and comfortable. No need to break the whole structure of society down in the name of “progress”, just to come back to the same roots decades later.

This will leave our environment and us with an amorphous mass of data to make sense of. It’ll also bring about new identities for things. What are our tools for sense making at the moment? […] We want everybody to be able to draw on the largest and most available amount of data. [I]t will also create new forms of decision making for large groups of people and small communities on the basis of newly available data. (p. 47)

While I don’t have much of an opinion about big data, other than that it’s useful for scientists and others with the time and skills to analyze it adequately, here’s a complementary perspective that needs IoT devices as well, and right now.

Let’s call it “tiny data”. In the highly resilient society of the future, we’ll have to rely on local resources much more than now. This can be a city-level or neighborhood-level micro-grid or an off-grid house, or probably all of these to have multiple levels of redundancy. I am personally living off-grid and from that experience I can tell that good monitoring of ones energy, water, wastewater, heating and cooling systems is essential for wise resource use and proper functioning. For example, I know that I need 500-700 Wh of photovoltaics energy a day, and that I can cope with at most 10 days of gray sky in winter. That’s where IoT comes in. Network-connected sensors and an evaluation software would combine local consumption data and weather forecasts into behavior recommendations.

For an energy system using this kind of technology for monitoring, demand management, “energy solidarity” and other purposes, I published some notes in an earlier treat we were having here in the IoH forum. No such thing exists on the market today.

The total overview is impossible. […] It is the communal and participatory uncovering of the machinery that administers “area construction,” which creates what I call system thinking. System thinking is the personal and communal awareness that all things are connected in multiple networks of agency. It thus creates a space for multiple intelligences to form new kinds of awareness. (p. 48)

Again, let me introduce a complementary perspective: systems engineering. Indeed, we may not be able to ever uncover or understand in whole how our world or local environment works. But instead of accepting this as “a feature and not a bug”, the other option is to reconstruct the world, including the technosphere and social relations, to conform to principles of good systems engineering (hiding of complexity, public and private interfaces, reusability, redundancy and so on). A too complex world is an engineering failure – because too much social complexity is the main risk for societal collapse in the face of an arising resource shortage (as per Joseph A. Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies).

What I have discovered in my various explorations of and experiments with autarky-enhancing technology is that this is a largely unexplored area with a high potential for creating a resilient and sustainable civilization with modern comforts and only the essential complexity. This is certainly no silver bullet as there will not be total autarky on the household or city level in the foreseeable future. I’m mentioning it as a complementary approach to the problem of complexity: instead of only using better mental models to understand it and deal with it, we can also discard it and “start from scratch”.

Summary: the last part of the book, “Sociability Standards for the Internet of People”, is a good summary of the design guidelines developed throughout that document (also good for everyone interested to join the discussion but needing a tl;dr). Summing up my comments by going along that list:

  • Proximity: I see that as an essential property of resilience and economic fairness in a future society, and it fits right in with my own notion of local autarky and PayCoupons, our innovation for local economic exchange. Proximity and local production should not be confused with anti-globalization: all knowledge should be globalized, for proper global collaboration. So it’s rather in the realm of alter-globalization.

  • System Thinking: Above, I proposed systems engineering as a complementary approach to system complexity, and a local and fully circular economy (“autarky”) as a possible outcome. I like the practical proposals though, esp. “Systems that automatically generate a fixed, public discussion url for each item.”. That would be a good entry point to share user-generated knowledge about using an item / type of product, to report issues and contribute to its development in an open source manner, and to interface with a lending system, second hand offers of the product etc…

  • Affect: That’s really interesting to me as it shows a gap in my designs for local autarky so far. I have no idea though what kind of changes could incorporate a space for emotions and conflict into local autarky tech – I might not be the right person to have that idea, but then somebody else will be.




We are in London now with Alberto and marina and I am fully in meetings until Sunday. Next week I am on this, great that you took the time to dive deep into this, really appreciated and productive!

Greetings, Rob


I would love to see an annotated version of this where various IOT products either real or imagined could illustrate some of these various points. Much of what you say resonates with the good old phrase think globally act locally.

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Where are you based? Was it Berlin? I suggest this: we set up a monthly reading club, I will be there each time, and discuss this in a structure tired way and read a few texts together. As the first I suggest Marge Pierce, Woman at the edge of time, a novel. ›e start end of August. If we combine face to face reading sessions with the online commentary ‹e can build coherence for a view on this techno political with a new language. What do you think?

Greetings, Rob


I fully agree

“My vision, with its focus on autarky-enhancing technology, is to reducethe complexity of the modern environment to something manageable. Complexity to be managed by an end user will actually rise as people will have to learn a lot of new and strange tech. But most of the hidden and uncontrollable dependencies from external entities of a mass society will vanish, this way putting citizens back in control of their lives and wellbeing.”

With we set up for which I was project lead.

This is a device/soiftware everyone can download and install. It takes over the router and gives full insight in the LAN.

Also I would like to revive in the context of the autarky vision you have open source application projects like open source washing machine:

Let’s do the reading club! :slight_smile:

Salut, Rob


@matthias, what a post! Great, great work.

This looks close to the solarpunk vision promoted by people like @richdecibels, @zelf, and many others. It has a key advantage: it does not depend (completely) on system change to be deployed. In fact, it might even cause (some) system change. There are quite some doers out there that will not be happy campaigning for governments or EU institutions to take steps, and prefer to actually get in and build things, even on a small scale.

It seems to me that local, but deep deployments could be a nice addition to EU policies in this direction. Because:

  1. Scientifically, they allow to observe the co-evolution of technical and social change “in the wild”.
  2. Politically, it gives people (including decision makers) powerful metaphors for how things could work if you let them.
  3. They would be inclusive of the (highly skilled) hacker/solarpunk communities, who – frankly – do not care about the next directive, and do not think high level policy make much positive impact anyway.
  4. (On the other hand, there is always the risk of making Potemkin villages, it the Powers That Be become invested in them.)

Makes sense? Should we (NGI Forward) consider proposing something around these lines?


I think it makes sense. Not for all possible applications of a future Internet of course, because local deep deployments necessarily omit the aspects of global connectivity.

But for a lot of future applications of information technology, a local well-developed demo project is both locally useful and empowering (which is what will involve the hackers) and politically a model of what can be done.

Example: power demand management

Let’s take an example, again one that is a rich field for IoT application. Right now there are zero incentives for adjusting electricity demand to available renewable electricity supply. Electricity prices can go negative at times on wholesale markets (happens in Germany when there’s a lot of sun and wind at the same time). But consumers always pay the same per kWh. And so there is no demand for products that control loads based on the supply of electricity – and also, no such products are on offer, and I think not even technical standards exist for this yet. Instead what we have is offer management: large photovoltaics plants are required to throttle down when the grid receives too much electricity input, and there are standards for this kind of artificial scarcity.

However, if one town or city would decide, as one of the local deep deployments you propose, to invest into a cooperatively owned photovoltaics plant, actual electricity consumption will be free as long as consumption stays within the limits of the available power. And for that, there would be a new kind of device that is added to a dishwasher, washing machine, charger for an electrical car or even a deep freezer (within more tight limits) and communicates with the grid and the user to schedule operation according to both the available renewable energy supply and user demand.