The ‘smart city’ is not a campaign theme
«Municipalities with well-meaning ambitions to become ‘smart’ are surrendering to technology firms and violating privacy laws,» investigative journalist Saskia Naafs recently concluded. Amsterdam would like to be a smart city, but this is hardly a theme in the campaign for the local election on 21 March.
On Wednesday, a debate was held on technology and the city. Marleen Stikker of Waag Society reviewed the election platforms and had trouble finding any references to data or technology. The Pirate Party was the exception. For example, this party wants to introduce an Amsterdam Cloud, to end dependency on Microsoft.
The debate with politicians wasn’t a big success. They emphasised their limited expertise on the topic. A discussion on privacy yielded little more than the assertion that citizens have a responsibility too: they shouldn’t set their PIN code to 0000 or 1234.
Jelle de Graaf of the Pirate Party did make an attempt to steer the debate in a different direction: «It’s about companies from Silicon Valley and companies from China taking over the digital infrastructure of the city at this moment.»
Journalist Saskia Naafs of platform Investico has investigated ten ‘smart municipalities’ and was surprised to find that no one knows exactly which projects are being carried out and how the use of data is regulated. Refering to trade secrets, municipalities refuse to disclose their contracts with technology firms.
Frequently, projects are at odds with privacy legislation. The smart city manager of The Hague doesn’t think it’s problematic that the rules occasionally violated. In his view, regulations are a barrier to innovation: «Think of Airbnb, Booking.com or Uber - if these companies would have played by the rules they’d never have become as big as they are now.»
Naafs’ investigation doesn’t mention Amsterdam, but there’s no shortage of topics for debate here. Think of the cameras and wifi sensors the city uses to track people for crowd management. Or its smart mobility policy, implemented in collaboration with companies like Tom Tom and Google. Or the new bike share programme, in which cyclists will be precisely tracked but no open data will be made available.
The debate was concluded by researcher Evgeny Morozov. He warned that the smart city is a forerunner of a city in which crucial public services - from traffic management to health care - are controlled by tech companies.
This review is based on the video recording of the debate.