How to organize our city, buildings and things?

Iskander Smit has been involved in the Internet of Things from its origins. With his recent move from Amsterdam to Rotterdam, the city gained an expert in the field of connected hardware and design ethics. ‘It is important to involve residents at an early stage in blockchain, algorithms and humanizing smart.’

A glance at the LinkedIn profile page of Smit (50) shows he is a busy man. He has seven active roles, varying from innovation director at internet agency to a PhD candidacy at Delft University of Technology. The Internet of Things (IoT) and smart cities are the common denominators. For several years Smit has been actively stimulating the debate about design ethics, for example as co-organizer of the Dutch edition of the ThingsCon conference.

After four Amsterdam editions, ThingsCon NL was held in Rotterdam for the first time last december. Approximately three hundred designers, makers and students gathered in BlueCity, a former subtropical swimming paradise. They participated in numerous IoT-related workshops, lectures, debates and a hackathon. Smit speaks of a successful event. ‘ThingsCon fits well in Rotterdam because of the active makers-culture. The city also has an attractive, direct way of doing business.’

Digital track record

The conference, which originated in Berlin in 2014, revolved around the supposed necessity of a system reboot. Smit: ‘There is a lot of talk going on about the ethics behind technology. Take, for instance, all the data discussions concerning Facebook or the improper influencing of national elections.’ From now on, real action is needed, he argues. ‘The intentions of tech companies are not always beneficial to the population.’

Smit knows what he’s talking about. He has a long digital track record. At Amsterdam-based internet agency, where he has been working for almost twenty years, he has been through most of the ranks. When he first started, he was hired as a designer. Nowadays he is leading LABS. This R&D section conducts research on the internet and the interaction beyond the screen. Smit and his colleagues pay close attention to new developments and emerging connected technologies. It also involves close collaboration with different research institutes and universities, including TU Delft.

ThingsCon Rotterdam

Hi, delivery pod

As of 2017, Smit is a visiting professor in Delft. He’s coordinating the research program Partnerships in Cities of Things at the Connected Everyday Lab of professor Elisa Giaccardi. The interaction between humans and autonomous things and systems has his special interest. The latter are more and more becoming part of the city. This raises all kinds of questions about responsibilities, rights and privacy, Smit argues. ‘Do we, for example, give autonomous delivery pods the same rights as pedestrians, like Arizona  (a US state) did in 2018?’

The way we are going to live alongside technology is the subject of the PhD research project he started last spring. ‘One of the smart city paradigms is the gathering of vast amounts of data. The city becomes a platform for building applications with all of this information’, he says. ‘The next step is to determine how to deal with this.’ In order to formulate an answer, Smit will be examining the interaction between people and autonomous objects. In the coming years he will have a close look at what it means when objects take the initiative. ‘I assume this will have implications for the way we design. That is why I want to propose methods or insights for designers to use.’

Designers take action

Not wanting to wait for big tech companies to bring about change, is a widely supported view within the IoT community. It is assumed that guiding principles and real action must come from designers and makers themselves. Smit therefore welcomes the fact that cities are increasingly thinking about the implications of a rapidly digitizing future. He mentions DECODE, a European project involving, among others, De Waag. With various pilots in Amsterdam and Barcelona, the participants want to demonstrate that decentralized, online solutions based on blockchain, openness and accessibility can provide an alternative for existing platforms.

Whereas some cities approach smart rather technically, Smit notices that there is a growing awareness in Rotterdam for human-centred solutions. A recent step is the Smart for Good agenda. The first draft is based on the input gained at ThingsCon and current activities of various Rotterdam parties, like V2_Lab, Rotterdam School of Management, Livework, BlockLab and Studio Wolfpack. The agenda calls on parties to engage in discussions and to get going with matters of privacy, control, profits, people and interaction.

ThingsCon Rotterdam

Form follows code

According to Smit, it is crucial to involve city residents at an early stage in experiments with blockchain, AI and algorithms. Participation is highly valuable, he says. ‘The redevelopment of a neighborhood must always be done in consultation with its residents.’ Mainly because technology is becoming more and more interwoven with our lives. The dynamics of a city are changing with the rise of digital platforms. Smit: ‘A home is no longer just a home. Due to AirBnB it can also function as a hotel.’ The saying ‘form follows function’ is running out of favor. Instead, the functions of the city are increasingly determined by digital systems: form follows code.

This means the constructed environment is also subject to change. A city becomes much more than a collection of buildings that will last several decades, Smit argues. ‘Both new and existing structures are given new functions instead of a single-purpose destination. The amount of information and data they store, is ever increasing, which causes all kinds of challenges. How to handle these, is currently unknown territory for many architects.’ He wants them to get involved.

Inside buildings

Despite all developments mentioned, the physical appearance of the city won’t change that rapidly, Smit predicts. According to him, it will, for example, take many years before the first self-driving car – the smart city symbol – is admitted within a Dutch municipality border. The biggest changes will occur inside of buildings. A process that is happening very stealthily, he says. ‘So it is important that we start to think about how we want to organize our city, buildings and things. We also need to decide who is responsible for what. Because only in 20 years we will see how big the changes have actually been.’

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