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Design Rules for Smarter Cities
Cities are the dominant and most successful
organisations of human endeavour. This intense
form of cohabitation has developed over thousands
of years, attracting an increasingly larger part of
the human population. While they have vibrantly
developed in terms of size, density and quality
of life, technology has sped up, leading to
problems and possibilities that we still have to fully
To many contemporary government ofcials, there
is no more silver-lined allure than the mantra of the
“Smart City”. Smart Cities are essentially networks
of sensors strewn across the city, connected to
computers managing vast ows of data, optimising
urban ows like mobility, waste, crime and money.
They promise to make governance more efcient,
and turn cities into safer, cleaner and more
enjoyable places. This technocratic rhetoric, that
stresses efciency and control over serendipity and
dialogue, might well do more harm than good, since
it takes humans out of the loop and turns them into
passive rather than active agents.
Citizens, on the other hand, have become smarter
than ever; appropriating new technology at an
incredible pace. In just over a decade, they have
embraced mobile phones and social media, repair
cafés and maker spaces, crowd funding and crowd
sourcing. The power individuals have to inuence
others, even on a large distance, is unprecedented
in history. While citizens became self-directed,
funded and employed, governments often still
regard them as customers, or even nuisances in
the way of progress.
However, the power balance has changed and
it is clear that citizens need their governments
and governments need the intelligence and the
cooperation of their citizens to function well. This
demands a change in how cities are governed.
Cities need to (re-)design and implement
procedures, services and (technological) systems
in ways that acknowledge the new role citizens
take. No longer should they be designed top-down,
and then poured over citizens without them having
an active role in their conception, development and
Experience in participatory platform design
suggests that to guide the design process certain
principles are needed. City ofcials should
implement them whenever they devise a new
policy, rule or project:
Your citizens know more than you. Don’t
coerce or just pretend to listen, but engage in
a dialogue about what should be done, and
how. Employ violently neutral facilitators that
will take power out of the equation.
Don’t separate the design and development
process: they are one. Prototypes will make
design issues tangible and understandable
to the people that participate. Prototype early
and fast, engage the stakeholders, iterate
quickly and be prepared to start all over.
Embrace self-organisation and civic initiative,
but help to make the results sustainable and
scalable. Bureaucracies can never muster the
passion and energy that citizens have to start
new ventures, but do play an important role
in further implementation and scaling. Where
possible, become a launching customer.
Know what you are talking about in the face
of technology. If you procure a platform,
product or service, have people that built
them in the procurement team in leading
positions. Never rely on consultants that will
sell you more consultancy, not solutions.
Have binding decisions made at the lowest
level possible and actively preach self-
governance. No good system was ever
built by committee, and no committee ever
improved a decision that was made by the
people who have to use it.
Favour loosely coupled, smaller systems
over monoliths and mastodons, and use
peer-dened standards to glue together the
parts. Small systems tend to fail sometimes;
large systems fail for sure. Furthermore it
enables small, local companies to do the
work: they work twice as hard for half the
To raise and deserve trust, build systems
based on data reciprocity and transparency.
People want to know as much of the system
as the system knows about them. Be open of
what it captures and who has access, and let
the people be in control of their data.
Reuse existing parts and design your
additions for reuse, adding to the public
domain and thereby strengthening its
capacity to act and learn. Open content,
open source and open data will be benecial
to all and “make all bugs shallow”.
The successful application of some of these design
rules to governance can, for example, be seen in
participatory budgeting, collaborative urban planning
and distributed energy production initiatives. Hard
evidence is as yet limited. However, experience
Frank Kresin is Research Director for Waag Society, institute
for Arts, Science and Technology, based in Amsterdam. His
background is in Artificial Intelligence and film making, and his
interest is in developing technology for societal goals. He was
involved at the start of many innovation programmes, amongst
them Apps for Europe, City SDK, CineGrid Amsterdam and
Code 4 Europe. Frank has spoken, written and lectured on Open
Innovation, Open Data & Open Design, Users-as-Designers,
Living Labs and Fablabs. He is a regular moderator at the
PICNIC Festival, as well as at design and innovation workshops
in the Netherlands and abroad.
indicates that systems, thus designed, will add to
the complex city dynamic instead of stiing it. They
will help to re-establish agency and trust between
the ones who live, work, and raise their children
in these cities, and the ones that are assigned to
govern and manage them.
Any help on furthering these proposed design
rules is highly appreciated – please get in contact.
Smart Citizens abound; now it takes Smarter
Cities to grasp their potential and build the
systems that the 21st Century needs.