A. Democratising the development of technology
Technology is political. Technology influences who we are and how we live together. Urban technological innovations thus require that we ask what kind of citizens – as well as consumers, neighbours, and parents – we want to be, and what kind of city we want to live in. What values do we uphold, and to this end what problems need to be addressed, with or without the use of new technology?
Technology can serve our values or undermine them. When values clash, so do people’s opinions. This is why public debate about technological innovation is needed. Smart city projects require transparent, inclusive, and gender-sensitive dialogue with and between citizens as a step towards informed political decision-making, whereby the trade-off between values is made explicit. The chip on the keycard to a waste container, for example, can tell a municipality which households do not separate their waste. Is it acceptable for a municipality to ring their doorbell and address their behaviour? Or is that too serious an invasion of their private lives? What weighs heavier, sustainability or privacy?
In the design stage of technology, certain values are already built in. Is an algorithm capable of explaining its decisions, for instance, thus enabling a government to fulfil its duty to state reasons? A municipality that opts for a new technology should communicate its design requirements to developers and suppliers at an early stage. Open source, interoperability, security, privacy, user-friendliness, accountability, energy efficiency, and circularity are important design requirements.
A question not to be overlooked is: do we really need new technology? The high-tech solution to a problem is not always the best one. Some low-tech inventions are almost unbeatable; think of the bicycle as a means of urban transport. Sometimes nature offers solutions; trees, for example, are the city's air conditioners. Social innovations can be more effective than technological innovations. For instance, communal housing arrangements where people of different generations and abilities live together may better meet the needs of elderly and disabled people than social and care robots. Often, technological and social innovations go hand in hand.
Vegetable, fruit, and garden waste can only be recycled into compost for new crops if households separate it from other waste. This requires a change in behaviour from citizens, especially in cities. A technofix, as yet, does not exist: organic waste sorted from residual waste by machines is too contaminated to re-enter the food chain. However, technology can help control the quality of organic waste separated by households. In the German town of Euskirchen, waste collection trucks are equipped with a sensor that checks the contents of organic waste bins. Bins that contain too much metal are not emptied. This helps reduce the contamination of the organic matter with plastics as well, because citizens take greater care in separating their waste materials. In short, closing organic loops demands both social and technological innovations.