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Living with Alexa

February 23, 2017 | By | One Comment

I’d like to make a case for being careful with spreading second- or third-hand stories and rather on gathering first-hand experience of interesting products and services. I believe it’s the best way to feel our way into a future shaped by emerging technologies, and to make informed decisions about them. So in the name of science, I lived with Amazon Echo/Alexa for a week. Here’s my experience.


We talk a lot about smart homes, about connected domestic devices, about conversational interfaces and artificial intelligence. A surprising amount of what’s talked about and what’s reported on is word of mouth: I heard somewhere that Amazon Echo ordered a thousand doll houses and boxes of cookies after someone mentioned it on TV! The makers of the doll houses couldn’t believe their luck, and consumers are screwed!

(For the record: In reality, it was likely “a handful” of dollhouse orders; it’s not trivially simple to order—let alone unknowingly—via the device; and Amazon has a full refund policy for physical products ordered this way.)

Word-of-mouth information is bad for all kinds of reasons

This word-of-mouth information is bad for all kinds of reasons. (One could cynically argue that it perfectly fits our times of so-called “post-factual” news and politics.) I believe there’s plenty of reason to be critical of connected services, and even more convinced consumers of (or everyone exposed to) connected services should be able to make informed decisions about their use.

For that reason, I think we should expect from both journalists and everyone in the tech scene (expert peer group!) to be careful about what information and narrative we spread: Instead of rumors we should focus on facts and first-hand experience.

I make a point of frequently testing emerging technologies even when I’m not convinced they’ll be a good fit for my life

This is why I make a point of frequently testing emerging technologies even when I’m not convinced they’ll be a good fit for my life, but that are misunderstood or discussed heavily but with little informational basis. This way I’ve kickstarted smart watches, worn fitness trackers, spit in tubes to have my DNA analyzed. None of it killed me; a lot of it was bland and boring; every time I learned a lot, even if it was only that these technologies offered a lot less risk & reward than the hype suggested.

So we lived for a week with an Amazon Echo and it’s voice-controlled assistant Alexa.

First, for clarification: Amazon Echo is the physical full-size device; Dot is a smaller version; Alexa is the software backend that’s also available as a platform to build apps (in Amazon speak, skills) on through an API.

Second, I’d like to acknowledge that this isn’t exactly pioneering work: the Echo has been available in the US since mid-2015; only in Germany it didn’t come out until fall of last year (Wikipedia). I’d had the chance to learn a bit of its design process and decision making earlier at conference (like Interaction15), so I had a fairly good idea what to expect.

Now, what’s it like to live with a device that aims to be a smart home hub, that is often said to listen in on you permanently (partially true, but likely not in the creepy way often suggested), and that might follow you around on the web: More than once in conversations about Alexa people mentioned that other people had experienced online ads after mentioning a product in front of Alexa. This latter was always related in a friend-of-a-friend context: Nobody could point to a source or documentation, it was all hearsay. Case in point.

So from experience I can say that yes, Alexa might respond to things on TV, but it’s very rare. In an interview I recently gave for RBB Kulturradio (DE) on smart homes and their implications, the host half-joked on the air that ordering Alexa to play their channel during his show might boost their listenership stats; alas he failed to get the syntax right. (I tried to replicate it later by playing his recording to Alexa. Nothing happened.)

Much more annoyingly, it often responds to mentions of similar-sounding names, like Alex. But what might be the most frustrating is that fairly frequently it simply wouldn’t respond when I addressed it, because I wouldn’t stick to the exact tonality of the voice training I had done during setup. And if it did, it often would misunderstand—this may be partially because I mumbled or got caught up mid-sentence while trying to get the syntax right, or because I wasn’t familiar with what orders were OK to give and what was out of scope. I imagine this is part of a learning curve; a week in I could play most music without a hitch (except M.I.A., see below).

It got really, really bad once we switched Alexa to German. Playing music got really tricky. The music streaming service default I had set up before in the English-language interface (in this case Spotify) had to be set up once more. English band names would have to be pronounced in English (they’re names after all), but often would be misinterpreted. Trying to play M.I.A., Alexa would always, 100 percent of the time, play German band Mia. (If you compare the two, you’ll agree this isn’t a mixup you’re likely to enjoy.) It’s perfectly understandable this is a tough nut to crack, but hey, it really shouldn’t be the users’ problem.

How seamlessly the voice and screen control go hand-in-hand is really a thing of beauty: If it works, this is a glimpse into a near future that I’d kinda like.

That said, in English playing music was quite pleasant. The interface is OK enough to make it work. If there’s a mix-up, it’s easy to correct or change course through the Spotify app on your phone. How seamlessly the voice and screen control go hand-in-hand is really a thing of beauty: If it works, this is a glimpse into a near future that I’d kinda like.

But beyond playing music, we couldn’t find any real use case for Alexa. Our house doesn’t have many smart home appliances, and none of the ones we do can interact through Alexa—as far as we know, that is. Alexa apps (“skills”) are legion, but not discovered easily.

Setting a timer is also easy, so in the kitchen these two things alone—playing music and setting timers hands-free—might make for an appealing use case. Almost anything else I found a little disappointing: “How long to get to Hot Spot Restaurant?” failed to produce a result because there’s no routing or mapping services available by default. (Or if there is, I couldn’t find out how to find it.) Online searches for anything are likely to return sub-par results as they’re not powered by Google but Bing, and I still find the difference enormous.

If you’re after dad jokes, you’re in luck.

Alexa is choke-full of easter eggs, like “Alexa, tell me a joke.” So if you’re after dad jokes, you’re in luck.

Otherwise, I noted that most people who hadn’t spent any time with an Echo were a little cautious (“Is it safe to speak in front of it?”) or curious to test the interface (“Alexa, what’s the weather?”, “Alexa, how are you?”, “Alexa, buy a doll house and some cookies, haha!”). This kind of breaks the fourth wall, but of course only highlights how much of a learned behavior it is to interact with a voice-controlled digital assistant. A voice controlled digital assistant is very emphatically not an intuitive interface because we don’t usually talk to our appliances.

A voice controlled digital assistant is very emphatically not an intuitive interface because we don’t usually talk to our appliances.

This is a point that Alexander Aciman makes very clear in a rough take-down of Alexa on Quartz. There he argues that the current manifestation of Alexa isn’t the future of AI, it’s a glorified radio clock, and I tend to agree. Partly it’s that there are some essential default apps missing, including a better search engine integration (where Google obviously has a huge advantage, but competition between the what Bruce Sterling calls the Stacks means Amazon won’t use Google’s search): “Her response to 95% of basic search queries is ‘I can’t find the answer to the question I heard.'” But even once a skill is activated, describes Alexander point-on, “You can’t say ‘Alexa, find my phone,’ but instead must ask say ‘Alexa, ask TrackR to find my phone.’ And God forbid you should accidentally forget the name TrackR, you’ll need your phone to look it up.”

This makes for a rougher-than-necessary user experience. The Alexa companion app tries to make up for this by constantly surfacing new skills and tutorials. This is necessary for sure, but also total kludge.

In short, I found myself using Alexa only to play music—an activity we were set up for perfectly before Alexa. Despite the maybe rough criticism above, there’s something interesting there. It’s important to look at this as an early technology. Things will likely improve and start working just a little better. Interesting use cases might emerge over time.

Alexa is a little too much like simply having a physical token of Amazon, the company, in your living room, like having a print-out of a corporate powerpoint framed on your wall.

As things are today, Alexa doesn’t feel particularly smart, or threatening. Instead Alexa is a little too much like simply having a physical token of Amazon, the company, in your living room, like having a print-out of a corporate powerpoint framed on your wall. What it’s not is a solution to any problem, or a great convener of convenience. Instead it feels very explicitly like it’s the stacks, manifested.

Founding ThingsCon e.V.

February 19, 2017 | By | No Comments

Note: Cross-posting from the ThingsCon blog.

We’re happy to announce that we’re setting up ThingsCon e.V.—a Germany-based membership association—to further promote ThingsCon’s mission: To foster the creation of a human-centric & responsible IoT.

It’s a not-for-profit structure with 7 founding members (as German regulations require) and will be open for new members once the registration process is completed, most likely in April 2017.

A few days ago, we gathered the founding members to kick off the official process (in alphabetical order):

Having this not-for-profit structure will help us interface with other organizations more easily in terms of both advocacy and funding. After all, it’s easier for any organization to interface with another organization rather than a lose network of collaborators backed by a small company as has been the case before.

Simultaneously, our friends in the Netherlands have also set up a foundation for ThingsCon Amsterdam. So we’re very happy that our little rebel alliance for responsible IoT keeps growing and maturing.

It now includes a “core” ThingsCon group made up one association in Germany and the Netherlands plus local organizers, plus (helping out wherever needed) the founders’ companies (The Waving Cat in Germany and The Incredible Machine & in the Netherlands). And we work very closely and side-by-side with a number of other organizations with aligned values and mission statements including the Just Things Foundation, Mozilla’s Open IoT Studio and others.

With this organically grown, trust-based setup and two associations that make it even easier to join and support our shared cause and mission, we’re in a great position to do what we set out to do: Promote a responsible IoT and make sure that IoT works well for everyone.

Interview: ThingsCon & responsible IoT on RBB

February 16, 2017 | By | No Comments

RBB Kulturradio RBB, a public broadcast radio in Berlin, invited me to chat about smart homes and responsible IoT. So I put my ThingsCon hat on and headed over to their studio earlier today. You can listed to the stream (in German) over on their website:

RBB Kulturradio Tagesthema: Wie intelligent sollen unsere Geräte werden?

A few things were noteworthy to me.

  • Of course a short show like this (with two interview partners and call-in listeners) can only ever scratch the surface.
  • IoT in general and smart homes are areas both simultaneously so vague and concrete that everybody has an opinion and projects all kinds of hopes and fears. (Which is why I advocate breaking IoT discussions down into the most concrete areas—or arenas—possible.)
  • Lots of fears are of course proxies in which one particular technology or feature stand in for a larger personal or societal fear, like unemployment through automation, loss of control, or invasions of privacy.
  • Somewhat unexpectedly to me, Roombas featured prominently. The show’s host, at least one caller, and I all have a Roomba at home and it seems it’s one of the most relatable, most universally considered “useful” appliances in the connected home. That is, if you want to include a Roomba as part of the connected home suite – after all, most models aren’t connected to anything. However in conversations before, during, and after the show people mentioned the issues with the complexity of formerly extremely easy-to-use appliances like connected TVs or radios.

This show is as consumer-oriented a show as there could be rather, so listeners are unlikely to be involved in shaping IoT as practitioners. So we didn’t get to talk much about ethical or responsible IoT as much as I’d hoped to. But it’s also very clear that the topics we’ve been tackling with ThingsCon are arriving in the most mainstream circles, and that there’s a lot of work to do.

Users/consumers/citizens don’t really trust connected systems, and maybe they shouldn’t. Or rather, they shouldn’t unless they know these systems have been designed deliberately to be responsible, ethical, and built for humans. Which is exactly what the ThingsCon community works towards.

During the interview I also mentioned labels or trust marks for connected products/services/systems. A consumer-readable, simple labeling systems to allow for better informed decisions is, in my mind, essential going forward. I’ll certainly try to poke at this and see if we can make something happen, one way or another. I think this won’t be easy, but is far from impossible given the right partners—and I’m confident we can find them.

Top Projects of 2016

February 13, 2017 | By | No Comments

2016 was a tremendously productive year. It’s particularly great to see the range of projects The Waving Cat was involved in. Here are projects that I’d like to highlight.

ThingsCon global

For ThingsCon it was a big year. When I co-founded ThingsCon none of us had any idea about how big this project might grow within just years. From a single conference in Berlin, ThingsCon has grown into a global community (and dare-I-say, a movement?) of practitioners with the mission to foster the creation of a responsible & human-centric Internet of Things. It’s also spread to 20 or so events around the globe, from small meetups to full-blown multi-day conferences. Going forward we’re working on expanding beyond events and into knowledge sharing (our LABS program), advocacy (figuring out how to work with policy makers and consumer protection organizations) and lean into other opportunities as they present themselves. And the global event footprint keeps growing, too! On top of local meetups we’ll see ThingsCon conferences in Amsterdam, London and Shenzhen. <3

Smart Cities & the German federal government

One of the most fascinating client engagement of the last few years was to provide research and policy recommendations to the Federal German Government on how to think about smart cities from a perspective of citizen-empowerment. So Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I co-authored a report as part of a big government publication on urbanization in the 21st century. (Details and an executive summary in this blog post.)

Understanding the Connected Home

Understanding the Connected Home

Together with Michelle Thorne, head of Mozilla’s Open IoT Studio (and full disclosure, my wife) I co-wrote a second, fully revised edition of our ebook Understanding the Connected Home—Thoughts on living in tomorrow’s connected home.

The Good Home

Teaming up with long-time collaborator and good friend Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino of Designswarm and Good Night Lamp we explored ideas for 21st century home living in The Good Home project in a series of workshops and exhibitions. I was very happy (and more than a little proud) that we got to exhibit as part of Fuori Salone in Milan, London Design Festival & the V&A, as well as Mozfest. Alongside the many collaborator projects we featured, I was personally most closely involved in one piece I helped put together: The Privacy Machines Project.

Google IoT Policy

Fascinating work for both the content and the scale of its potential impact: I helped Google HQ draft a global policy around IoT. Like much of the work here at TWC, details are confidential as the work is of an internal nature. Suffice it to say I’m quite proud of the final results and am looking forward to see the results roll out globally.

Co-chaired Interaction16 conference

Interaction, IxDA’s annual interaction design conference, is maybe the most relevant event in that space. I was honored (and very, very happy) to be invited to co-chair it along with Sami Niemelä, and run it together with the fantastic whole gang of the Helsinki chapter of IxDA. (For details see this blog post.)

View Source: Shenzhen

The majority of electronics and connected products (IoT!) are made in Shenzhen, China. So we wondered if it’s possible to leverage Shenzhen’s hardware ecosystem for ThingsCon’s mission—to foster the creation of a responsible & human-centric IoT. A fact-finding and relationship-building expedition was in order! So we got together a merry group of allies from that space: Our long-time collaborators and friends of the Dutch Just Things Foundation and Mozilla’s Open IoT Studio and went to visit Shenzhen. Thanks to our local contact (and now also host of ThingsCon Shenzhen) David Li of the Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (SZOIL) we had the opportunity to see and learn a lot, and get a great first-hand experience of how stuff gets done (and made) in Shenzhen.

View Source: Things in Shenzhen (beta) from The Incredible Machine on Vimeo.

This short video shares some of our impressions. More importantly, we’ll be back in April to also show around a delegation of another 20 or so European IoT practitioners, participate in the ThingsCon Shenzhen conference, and document at much greater depth what we learn there in order to keep building relations between the European and Shenzhen IoT scenes and promote a responsible IoT.


The company’s first official spin-off, travel and souvenir magazine Dearsouvenir is a joint venture between The Waving Cat, Netzpiloten, and Carry-On Publishing.

Zephyr Berlin

A bit of an outlier project at first glance, Zephyr Berlin is also a deep dive into learning about manufacturing and distribution of physical products. In a (very part-time) team effort, between three friends we designed, crowdfunded, manufactured, and delivered a small batch production of premium pants that are versatile, highly functional and stylish, and travel extremely well. If this was a one-off or if there’s more to come isn’t decided yet, but it was the best first-hand lesson about physical manufacturing we could have wished for.

And to top it all off, I was…

Listed as Top 100 Influencer in IoT

Postscapes included me in their list of Top 100 Influencers in IoT. (Thank you!)

There was plenty more going on, including roles on juries or as a reviewer; some smaller events I helped put together; and other, more low-key collaborations. But the projects above were real highlights for both the company and me personally. I’m incredibly grateful and happy for the opportunity to work on such a wide range of projects and with so many smart, dedicated, interesting people on things that matter.

If you think my perspective can help your organization, ping me. 2017 is shaping up to be a great and interesting year, and I will continue to promote the ideas of a responsible IoT as well as the notion that good ethics and good business go hand in hand.

How to get started on your IoT strategy

February 13, 2017 | By | No Comments

So you finally want to put that Internet of Things (IoT) strategy that you’ve been talking about for years into place in your company. Excellent! The first step to an IoT strategy is to acknowledge the kind of framework to allow for innovation in IoT, and to create the necessary conditions for success.

Over on Designswarm, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino provides some highly relevant pointers to get started:

  1. Think about legacy
  2. Know your history and your landscape
  3. Help users get literate
  4. Be patient

Given I come in less from a product design & development background and rather from a business/product/innovation strategy angle, I’d add some additional aspects:

Think long-term and big picture

It’s important to understand that innovation isn’t a goal but a journey. The most interesting—and potentially most groundbreaking and lucrative—things might very well be those that happen as a side effect. They’re unexpected, projects that bubble up as the mindset and mental focus of product teams, researchers, and management starts to shift. Give it the necessary space, budget, and time to breath unfold. It’ll be worth it.

Top-down support to empower bottom-up innovation

The single biggest point of failure in trying to transform a company towards more innovation—or innovative thinking and practices— is the right mix of top-down and bottom-up. The key is to empower small teams to experiment and learn by giving them strong support from the very top. This, and only this, can ensure that these teams have the resources as well as the mandate to invest into experiments, learning, and exploration. It also is the only way to allow for them to fail: Where there are experiments, there is failure. This needs to be ok.

Change culture to allow for experimentation

Especially in larger companies there is a culture of deliver against very strict KPIs of some sort or another. Yet, often this leads to sub-optimum outcomes. Everybody has seen (or even worked at) an organization where there was a strong culture of looking busy and productive rather than being productive. A lot of the experimentation and learning that lead to great innovation in IoT, and that in fact lead to innovative thinking, practices and culture, doesn’t necessarily look particularly productive. You might see people reading from all kinds of sources, having chats, tinker with wood blocks or Lego, or write bots that generate poems, or whatever: This is a necessary part of the journey. Not from every action there’s an easy-to-spot line to draw to that final new product. Only if the culture allows for this without anyone giving these teams a hard time about this can they deliver.

Also, openness fosters innovation. Encourage researchers and tinkerers to publicly share their research journey, their experiments, their thinking. This allows for an easier exchange with external folks and will make it easier for other in-house teams to be aware what’s going on across the company. The upside will almost invariably outweigh potential downsides.

Allow for external input

A lot of times, internal teams will be guided strongly by the in-house thinking. Nothing wrong with that! However, it can help to get in external input, inspiration, help. Conferences and meetups allow in-house team members to swap ideas with others. Inviting collaborators in—through workshops, talks, long-term collaborations—brings in fresh perspectives.

These rules of thumb can help you get started. When you’re ready to move to the next level and start identifying opportunities around IoT, feel free to ping me. Good luck!

03 Feb


What connects the Golem, the Royal Society, and ThingsCon?

February 3, 2017 | By |

The Golem Legend

A golem is an assistant or helper on a specific mission—often that mission was protection—brought to life by magic. Creating a golem was a way for medieval Jewish mystics to come closer to god. It quickly also became a metaphor for creating an artificial helper outside of Jewish culture and religion.

In the legends, there is a catch: The golem usually ends up getting out of control, it runs amok. It becomes a danger to its creator. The golem was artificial, soulless, and it wasn’t understood how it worked.

Rabi Loew and Golem, 1899, by Mikoláš Aleš. Source Wikipedia (PD)HAL9000Senora REEM, source Jewish Museum Berlin Rabi Loew creating the Golem (1899 by Mikoláš Aleš, source Wikipedia). HAL9000. Senora REEM (source Jewish Museum Berlin).

Similar narratives play out across different cultures under different names, right up to science fiction and contemporary scientific and philosophic debate. Just think of HAL9000, the Singularity, etc.

As a footnote, historically most golems are thought of as genderless but commonly referred to as male. For example, the maybe most famous of golems, created by Rabbi Loew in Prague in the 1600s was called Josef. Today’s robots and AIs tend to get female personas and voices—playing horribly into gender stereotypes of assistant-type jobs. Gender and bots is tricky business. We should—and can—do better!

The Royal Society

This is Isaac Newton. He’s one of the most influential scientists of all time. Among other things he laid the foundations of classical mechanics. This was groundbreaking, important, fancy new stuff in the 17th century.

Isaac Newton. Source: WikipediaRoyal Society coat of arms. Source: Wikipedia Isaac Newton and the coat of arms of the Royal Society. Source: Wikipedia (Public Domain).

Newton was also one of the first fellows of the Royal Society, a ragtag group of curious tinkerers and knowledge seekers across basements, labs and the “maker spaces” of the time. They were promotors of a shared, enlightened cause: Natural science and the scientific method. Their motto was (and still is) “nullius in verba”: Take nobody’s word for it.

This was in many ways a ragtag group of people (within a very privileged class of course) working on topics no one else was yet investigating. Yet, they essentially laid the foundation for science itself. Their impact on the world is immeasurable. Today, the Royal Society is one of the world’s leading promotors of science.


The ThingsCon community is also a ragtag group of curious tinkerers and knowledge seekers across basements, labs, and maker spaces. We also promote a shared, enlightened cause: The creation of a responsible & human-centric Internet of Things.

ThingsCon communityMembers of the ThingsCon community adopting our mission statement

Today it’s not mystics summoning golems, it’s the tech industry. We see assistants and helpers for every thinkable purpose: To regulate the temperatures in our houses, make ordering groceries easier, measure our steps or let us remotely check who’s at our doorstep. Yet, how these golem-systems work, and especially how they work together and change our lives over the longer term, isn’t well understood. It’s not magic, of course, but as science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke famously stated: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

I believe that, collectively, we can do better than that. We can learn from past mistakes and build a better future—one where our innovations take into account their impact on people, the environment, and society. One that’s focused on improving people’s lives, on inclusivity and diversity, and on empowering communities.

Today, the ThingsCon community—and our ever growing network of allies—is one of the top promoters of a responsible & human-centric IoT. Just imagine what we can do together tomorrow.

02 Feb


A few thoughts on smart cities today

February 2, 2017 | By |

A recent UK survey shows that large parts of the (UK) public are sceptic over smart cities. Concretely, the 2.300 participant survey indicates that “two thirds of the public are unconvinced of the case for spending public money on smart city technology, and they are worried about the implications for their personal data”.

Smart cities are complex and tricky to discuss

Surveys about large-scale technological and administrational projects (read: infrastructure) tend to be oversimplified. Smart cities as a topic are by any standard complex and tricky to discuss. Still, these results seem plausible to me. Well thought out, too, to be honest.

I’m deeply interested in the role emerging technologies can play in improving people’s lives. That’s why I co-founded ThingsCon and ran The Good Home with Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, and it’s what I try to focus on with my work here at my company The Waving Cat in every strategy, policy, or transformation project I’m hired for. And I believe technology is essential in tackling a large range of issues our society faces.

Yet, the smart city space in particular seems to be in an awkward phase: Huge potential, but few really great implementations. If done right, smart cities hold the promise of citizen empowerment galore; often we see solutions looking for problems instead.

And maybe most importantly, just under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances and power dynamics being reinforced in a bad way rather than upended.

Under the surface of many smart city arguments we see a real danger of unhealthy power imbalances

Last year, Prof. Dr. Christoph Bieber and I were kindly asked to contribute some research and policy recommendations for a larger report for the German federal government around the role of cities and urbanization in the 21st century. The report is called “Humanity on the move: The transformative power of cities” (Der Umzug der Menschheit: Die transformative Kraft der Städte) and published through WBGU, the German Advisory Council for Global Change. Some background, an English-language executive summary and links to all the full (mostly DE) documents are available in this blog post.

Also in 2016, Nominet R&D hired Designswarm to map out the smart city landscapes. (I contributed a little bit of research to the project through Designswarm.)

From that work, through lots of reading and conversations with people in the smart city space, all the way back to Cognitive Cities Conference (which I co-organized back in 2011) there are a few themes that regularly and frequently come up and don’t seem to be going away:

  • Smart city projects are often based on a false premise that an algorithm, given enough and the right kinds of data, could neutrally and perfectly balance the competing needs in an urban society. (It could never, because an algorithm is not biased and it can only act on measurable input, and many legitimate actions, intents, needs, etc. are immaterial and not measurable).
  • The strongest proponents of smart city projects are companies with a background in technology, process optimization, networking, logistics. Think big networking technology and global supply chain management. Why is this relevant? Because in their world, their background, their company culture and thinking efficiency is at the very heart of things. In the context of a sensor-equipped, self-adjusting, smart production pipeline or global cargo tracking system there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. But transferring the same approaches to urban public space creates more problems than it solves. The strength of cities is (usually) not efficiency but other characteristics like opportunity, inclusion, serendipity. The current top crop of smart city vendors is (in terms of culture, thinking, offering) not well-equipped to serve and improve citizens by fostering these characteristics.
  • In large-scale smart city projects we see a tendency towards a centralized top-down approach rather than the much more needed focus on bottom-up innovation and citizen empowerment, of which we generally see a lack. Smart city technologies can only unfold their real potential (ie. anything beyond mere efficiency gains) if they empower communities to creatively solve their challenges, if they are open source (and hence can be audited), and decentralized (and hence more resilient).
  • Smart cities and the underlying assumption of unbiased, data-driven management inherently lacks accountability and oversight. (Did someone just say dashboard?) Smart city projects are often provided as a technological turnkey solution to the city administration. Proprietary code means lackluster audits and potentially biased algorithms and data handling, centralization means centralized points of failure rather than resilience.
  • And overall, smart cities are (not always, but often) very pure expressions of market liberal approaches. I don’t say this to make a philosophical argument but rather a very concrete point about the day-to-day of citizens. Smart cities tend to be built in a way that’s very transactional: On demand you can rent a car, switch on the street lights, control that public screen. It’s all very pay-as-you-go. This is great to finance infrastructure through Private-Public Partnerships. However, the flip side of that coin is that those who cannot pay for a transaction do not get to participate in public space. The function of these transactional public (or formerly public) spaces and infrastructures is off limits to the most vulnerable parts of society.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first.

So how to do it better? Put citizens first. Involve citizens decision making around the technologies that they may or may not see impacting their lives. And follow some simple, straightforward guidelines. The de-facto principles that governed and shaped the open web of the early days can serve as an inspiration: decentralization, open source, openness, and a focus on bottom-up innovation.