Workshop Report - People, Data and Power: a critical interrogation of smart city infrastructures

Funded by the Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam, Maastricht Universiteit and NWO

25 April 2017

The People, Data and Power workshop funded by a.o. a seed grant from the Centre for Urban Studies led to a report reflecting the (im)possibilities of discussing digital politics across disciplinary and institutional boundaries.

The workshop

On March 21, 2016,  the University of Amsterdam, the Centre for Urban Studies, Maastricht University and the Gr1p Foundation organized the People, Data and Power workshop. Over eighty participants – academics, policy makers, technologists, activists, corporate representatives and civil society organisers  – were invited to join 9 round-table sessions to look at the power relations between citizens, firms and municipalities as shaped by digital infrastructures. The aim of this workshop day was to explore the paradox within the ambition to empower citizens through building ever complex, large-scale and opaque smart systems. Due to the variety in background and starting-positions of participants, at the heart of the discussions were different understandings of the role that is and should be played in future urban contexts by digital corporations, algorithms and individual citizens; and the question if, and to what extent, cities can be perceived of as laboratories for innovation and problem-solving.

Other questions that were explored concerned: ‘Why is the municipality of Amsterdam, along with KPN, CISCO, KPN and Philips, putting sensors into lampposts? And why is Alliander, an energy utility provider, involving itself in the creation of a data-sharing platform?’

Some tentative conclusions

Although one workshop day can’t possibly address these questions to full extent, some tentative conclusions might be drawn regarding the difficulty of conducting cross-disciplinary, cross-domain discussions on smart city infrastructures:

  • Usually, discussions on the smart city tend to be futuristic: smart city infrastructures are often staged as ‘experimental’ and hence not yet ready for evaluation;
  • Stakeholders are often on different ‘wavelengths’. They have different vocabularies, starting points and assumptions. We saw, for example, that critical questions about the purpose of projects often ‘missed the point’ from the perspective of project leaders. Whereas these questions tend to relate to the here and now, several project leaders argued that they were thinking much further ahead and were responding to larger global trends;
  • Participants in discussions hold very different positions on the role of democracy in the development of future cities. Critical interrogators often want democratization to take place before the development stage of technologies; whereas the typical smart city vision brings democratization through digital technologies (such as minute-by minute voting);
  • There are many aspects to smart city development that escape the boundaries of reflexive debate: such as utopian visions of the technological singularity.

All invited participants shared a concern with creating urban environments that allowed for a more equal distribution of power.

Published by  CUS