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Eindhoven’s citizens design their IoT digital future

In Eindhoven, the new digital IoT public services made possible through a city-wide grid are being co-designed by citizens. A good example of how cities can keep the driving seat when it comes to Big Data.

Download here the PDF of the article published on D la Repubblica 1033 (foto di Giuliano Koren)

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A few weeks ago life in three districts of Eindhoven became even more high tech. The street lamps brightly illuminate the street and indicate the way home to those who need it – the elderly, children – taking action along predefined paths. In front of the bars, lamps with acoustic detectors emit mood lights that change with the music (and warn the authorities if, at night, they detect suspicious noises). «They are the Living Labs», explains Elke Den Ouden of the Technische Universiteit in Eindhoven, «areas that we have selected to give citizens the chance to test with their own hands what it means to live in digitized public spaces and then give us their opinion. Because our ambition is to become the first connected urban conglomerate of Europe by 2030, and we are already building a huge network throughout the territory, an invisible digital infrastructure that will overlap with the urban one (streets, buildings, lighting). And it will bring the Internet of things everywhere “.

For some, this vision gives a chilling effect. Because it means, in fact, that real life would have a level of privacy similar to that of today’s virtual world, where every gesture, every decision, every movement is potentially first recorded, then communicated and shared.
“The risks are there,” admits Mary Ann Schreurs, vice-mayor, elected among the ranks of the center-left party D66.

«This is why our priority is the involvement of the population in co-designing of services that the implementation of the network will allow to achieve. The digitization of the city we are talking about today is indeed a potentially more pervasive and complex phenomenon than most people think, and it is our duty, as an administration, to explain to everyone what the opportunities are for citizens, as well as the risks. The collection of behavioral data in public spaces – an environment usually free of this kind of investigation – has enormous value for those working on artificial intelligence: it can allow robots to learn and progress in a way that is more and more similar to human beings ».

These are issues that the great digital scholars are well aware of. Speaking of a totally connected society, in fact, Evgeny Morozov concludes that «data are an essential infrastructural asset that should belong to the community».

In Eindhoven, 230,000 inhabitants in the Southern part of the Netherlands, the administration agrees: «We have always been a technological hub, and we can not afford not to be the first to experiment in this sector,» continues the vice-mayor. She added that the advantages of an advanced approach are also concrete in terms of environmental and social sustainability. As long as a condition is met: «Our strategy is: the city creates the digital infrastructure, the companies collaborate and make money. By creating and selling services that are useful to the population, and not by accumulating data without their knowledge».

Becoming a Smart Society, a digital participatory community, coining a 2.0 version of direct democracy and sharing with the inhabitants the decision-making and creative role regarding urban planning and development, is therefore the last bet of this city that has already lived twice. First as No City, the village that grew up around the electronics giant Philips; and then with the transformation in Smart City, almost paradoxically started by a disaster in the early 90s: the progressive relocation of “mother Philips” and the bankruptcy of the other local giant, DAF.

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«Eindhoven has always responded to problems with inclusion, working on the community, creating a system», recalls Naomi Verstraeten of Brainport Development – the reality that helps businesses, municipalities, schools and universities to develop and realize the vision of conglomerate. «When all of a sudden it was clear that the two local giants were leaving, then mayor Rein Welschen, the head of the Chamber of Commerce and the head of the Technische Universiteit invited the 21 municipalities and local companies to contribute to a long-term and flexible development plan, which could be updated every five years. Instead of losing human capital (the engineers and scientists of the two industrial giants), we helped them develop start up and assigned to them a series of projects that we created , then converted the factories into low-cost work spaces to attract inventors and creatives from all over the world, installed facilities for digital entrepreneurship, promoted the “made in Eindhoven” and the positioning of the city as a hi-tech hub ».

It was this winning strategy that has led Eindhoven to become an officially cool city. An agglomeration that calls itself with a seductive name, Brainport, and measures its success in concrete figures: 32 billion turnover, 14 of exports, 2.5 of investment in research and development, an annual number of patents filed that make it the first European center for invention, 4,200 new jobs every year for new graduates. With an outgoing mayor named European Digital Leader from a network that brings together 6,000 digital experts from 24 countries, with the title European City of Urbanism of the Year 2017 awarded by the Academy of Urbanism and a third place in the Financial Times ranking of the cities where investing in technology and creativity. Today, the High Tech campus of Eindhoven (founded by Philips and still present with design studios and innovation center also for exteriors in 2003) is an ecosystem of 140 companies working in the fields of health, energy and smart environments, including giants (Philips Lighting, NXP, IBM, Intel, VDL), avant-garde laboratories (such as the Hoelst Center) and startups for a total of about 10 thousand researchers. While the former Strijp complex (where the first CD was developed) is dedicated to smaller and more agile businesses.

«We have achieved these extraordinary results by involving industry, universities, academies, research institutes and, of course, companies,» says Schreurs. «But now we have realized that this is not enough, that citizens must play an active role in the massive change we are working on. Technology and innovation are elite realities, but our cities are not just made of engineers, designers, entrepreneurs and scientists. Above all in a historical moment like this, it is imperative that nobody feels excluded». Because today’s Holland is no longer the pro-European, welcoming, progressive one that exists in the collective imagination.

«Anger is a virus that after years of austerity we see everywhere, not just among the less affluent,» says Hans Marin Don, Socialist Senator and Director of the Salvation Army. «Today, not only 10% of the Dutch live in poverty, but one in five families has economic problems (private debt is at very high levels) and changes in the welfare system have claimed to be among the weakest victims. The risk of marginalizing parts of the population exists, and it is essential that inclusion is part of the city’s political agenda».

No online surveys or virtual meetups, though. In the city where the buses run on magnetic lanes that recharge electric batteries and where it can happen to be served by a flying waiter at the bar of the Technische Universiteit, dubbed “Drone Café”, inclusion also has an unexpected analogue angle.

«The exchange opportunities we’re looking for are not created online but sitting around a table, in front of a cup of coffee,» says Schreurs. Among the successful initiatives, in addition to the Living Labs started in early January, there is the traveling Data School, where people learn what big data are, how they are collected, why they are tempting for businesses. And in exchange for the lessons (that are free and very popular), citizens lend their creativity to imagine useful services in brainstorming sessions.

The Municipality also works with associations that rent out popular housing: the total investment to create “neighborhood culture” is around one million euros. «On the one hand we offer apartments at bargain prices to university students in exchange for lessons for children (the primary Het Palet, frequented above all by immigrants, is at the top of the national charts after this initiative), on the other we organize informal meeting opportunities, events that invite to the exchange: we entrust ourselves, in this, to the students of the Design Academy, who invent dinners in which to consume the food in a group and helping the inhabitants of the social housing to imagine how to decorate the standardized houses using digital tools ».

It also happens that citizens say no to some technically too daring proposal. In a pilot telemedicine project, for example, the Municipality realized that older people who had been assigned a digital tool to monitor their health – reminding them, for example, to take their pills, or to measure their blood pressure – preferred do not use it. «When they filled out comment forms, they made excuses of all kinds,» says Naomi Verstraeten of Brainport Development. «Speaking with them we realized that the real reason was the fear of having to give up the nurse’s weekly visit, which for them represented a moment of human exchange that they love. It is the contact with people that should drive technology». And that yes, such an approach would indeed be a revolution.

Thanks to Marco Bevolo for the help given to us during the realization of the article



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