'Don’t let the smart city promise blind us’

Interview with Michel van Dartel, Director of V2_ and Research Professor at CARADT

What will our future city look like? While looking for answers, we should not let ourselves be blinded by the potential of new technology, Michel van Dartel from V2_Lab argues. ‘It’s very important to first decide what societal issues we would like them to solve.’

‘I hope I didn’t sound too negative’, Van Dartel says near the end of the interview. For the past hour and a half he has commented on the promise of the smart city and its significance to Rotterdam. The director of V2_Lab for the Unstable Media has – indeed – expressed his concerns. About technology reducing privacy, the decline of public services caused by tech and the presumed dissatisfaction with the present state of our city that is inherent to the desire of making it “smarter”. Yet, what he says fits the organization he has been leading since last summer.

V2_ has an impressive track record. The lab is internationally recognized and was, for example, among the first in the city to experiment with augmented and virtual reality. It also instigated the debate on blockchain technology, long before companies caught on. The organization acted as a stepping stone for artists such as Daan Roosegaarde and Anouk Wipprecht.

Until a few years ago, V2_ primarily enabled artists to test the possibilities of new technology. The organization had the necessary technical expertise to do this in house. That role has changed. Exploring future tech nowadays is the core business to startups and incubators. According to Van Dartel, V2_’s expertise mainly lies in how to critically reflect on the cultural and societal significance of today’s technology. It empowers media artists to artistically reflect on such matters. For this, V2_ partners with universities, colleges, tech freaks, philosophers, cultural organizations and numerous artists. One of Van Dartel’s ambitions is to let the latter get in touch with citizens more often.

Ghosted Views / Marnix de Nijs / Produced by V2_

Why is this so important?

‘The artists who we work with reflect on the meaning and implications of technology. I would like to see makers and thinkers coming out of their workspaces and laboratories more often, so that they interact with people who live where certain technologies will have an impact. By means of a social debate we can still determine what future technologies will look like.’

New tech will play a vital role in the smart city. What’s your opinion on how Rotterdam deals with that?
‘People who are involved have a strong tendency to think that technology is the best possible answer. The notion of “smartness” itself is for instance built on the assumption that when a city becomes smarter, it becomes better. It promotes the idea that our current city is not good enough and that we need technology to improve it.’

Do we?
‘We know that places where smart products are introduced do not necessarily improve.’

What do you think is necessary to prepare the city for the future?

‘First of all, we must decide in which direction we want to develop it. Only then should we consider whether or not this can be achieved with the help of technology.’

Where do we start?
‘Currently, a consortium of over twenty Dutch organizations, including the Erasmus University and V2_, is setting up an nation-wide center of expertise for the smart city. The question we have revolves around: how do we keep such a city livable? Six principles were derived from preliminary research: sustainability, harmonious living, effectiveness, relevance, empowerment and diversity. Our aim is to ensure that cities are being developed according to these fundamental principles.’

What’s the role of V2_ in this?
‘In the past, artists and cultural organizations were often invited to aesthetically brighten up spots. Currently, I notice there is much more serious interest in contributions that art can make. Some things can only be investigated through experience. Art is a great way to develop experiences and make sense of things. The use of objective, scientific facts isn’t enough for that. You need artistic and design research to include subjective experiences and soft values. We have also learned that technologies will only become the technologies as we know them once they are unleashed into society. That’s why we conduct research, provide opportunities to artists, publish books and articles, and organize debate and exhibitions.’

Sun Tracing (Kunstavond XL)

How do you see cities are handling the smart city concept?

‘My fear is that municipalities will see it primarily as the automatization of urban facilities. A lamp post switching on, a door swinging open, automated surveillance. Let’s say, a slight enhancement of our daily lives by a quick technology fix. The question is whether these small conveniences outweigh the greater, long-term consequence.’

Which are?
‘If you want to automate all sorts of things in public space, you will constantly have to monitor people. You may ask yourself if this makes a city more pleasant. If you keep an eye on citizens all the time, this will affect the possibility of spontaneous behavior or illegal activities. While both may sound undesirable, they are incredibly important for the cultural and economic livelihood of a city like Rotterdam. Such technological interventions are generally designed with the very best intentions, but without much insight into the consequences beyond their immediate gain.’

Why do so many cities want to be ‘smart’?
‘Because they are increasingly being forced to behave as a company. Other cities become competitors instead of colleagues in the race towards smartness. Being the smartest is a city’s development strategy or goal, since the promise is that this profile will attract all kinds of business activity and people. I’m doubtful whether this will even become reality for cities playing this game at their best, like Eindhoven. In any case, this ideal image is in many ways pushing aside the fact that a livable city is much more attractive to people. Strangely, the latter is a much more difficult view to sell.’

‘Closely connected to this is the trend that in a city on the hunt for smart applications, public functions are often mindlessly transferred to the private sector. Tech companies are eager to facilitate all kinds of services. Their proposals for smart solutions are tempting, as they offer to solve problems the public sector has been battling for years. However, this always comes at the cost of transferring the service to private hands. A company becomes the owner or keeper of the data that the application requires. It raises questions about governmental responsibility with respect to public services like mobility, education or health. Who should be held accountable when a service is outsourced to a tech company?’

Sensory Augmentation for Public Space

What other dilemmas do you see?

‘When translating technological possibilities to the city, you also incorporate the business logic behind it. That is not always positive. Take, for example, the business model many online companies have. It is common for them to first gather as many users as possible by pushing similar companies out of the market at the expense of great financial losses. If they make it, they’ll begin to introduce advertisements and fees. Right now, you see this happening in the bike sharing domain. After years of competing far under market price, many of these companies go bankrupt. Their bicycles are discarded in our public space. Visiting Beijing I noticed endless piles of rental bikes, blocking access to many of the popular metro stations. The original idea was to make the city greener by letting people share bikes, right?’

‘I believe that we should weigh the impact of technology a lot better, by looking far beyond their direct gains. As I mentioned before, I see the positive effects of technology often being formulated in small everyday conveniences, while the wider consequences are often very dramatic. Not every technologically-enabled convenience is a smart move to make.’

Sensors are often spoken about in relation to our future city and port. How can we give them real added value?
‘As a research professor at the Avans Centre of Applied Research for Art, Design and Technology, I’m running a long term research project together with Tilburg University on how we can use sensory augmentation to improve public spaces and services. For years, all sorts of new techniques have emerged based on new insights into how perception works. While anyone can see the innovation potential some of these techniques have, they somehow never leave the domain of experimental psychology. We are trying to change this, using art and culture as a mode of research.’

Do you have some last advice for Rotterdam?
‘Be sure to know to which urban problem the technology you are looking at is an answer. Also, make sure you understand its wider, long term implications before adopting it. Don’t be blinded by the promise of the smart city. It may not be such a good ideal after all. Along the way you might be criticizing the values that are currently present in the city for not being “smart”, hence good, enough.’

Embassy of Data installation/ Studio Richard Vijgen.

Upcoming V2_ event

A special edition of the Hands-on AI Meetup series, focused on the Smart City

14 MAR 2019 / 19:30 TO 21:30

The city is a vast source of data, and the Smart City promises to unlock potentially valuable applications such as greater efficiency of public services, highly engaged citizen participation, and a cleaner environment. Machine Learning plays a pivotal role in these developments because only when using techniques like neural networks it becomes feasible to discern patterns and perhaps meaning in the statistically unstable and error-prone data stream ‘from the streets’.

However very quickly the utopian promises become muddy, and questions arise: Should all data be made freely available, to whom? Can business claim ownership of data that is gathered from sensors they sold? To what level of detail (neighborhood, street, address, person) is it ethically acceptable to collect and aggregate data and make inferences? How can we gain insight in the inner workings of algorithms that are trained with public data, and who should (or shouldn’t) be able to monetize this data?

In this special edition of the Hands-on AI Meetup series we aim to tackle these issues head-on and hands-on in a workshop setting led by Roy Bendor and Richard Vijgen.

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