‘Fearless’ Amsterdam government: digital city goes social

Digital cities with a conscience — What does a new government mean for Amsterdam?

Was it because of the ‘fake news’ epidemic that blew over the Atlantic in 2016? The steady conquest of urban life by platform powers like Airbnb and Uber? Or did the shocking news about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica tilt the debate? We can’t be sure — but Amsterdam’s radically different tone of voice on the issue of technology is crystal clear. The coalition agreement signed by Amsterdam’s new governing parties demands a digital economy that is social, privacy-assuring and supportive of urban commons.

In March, Dutch citizens elected new city councils across the country. In Amsterdam, a progressive council was elected, with the green party GroenLinks leading negotiations. After two months of consultations, a leftist four-party coalition presented their vision and programme for the city.

Waag president Marleen Stikker’s smile widens when she scans the document for her cherished topics — digital development and civic agency. The city is learning to recognise the value of ‘city makers’, she concludes. The tech-driven ‘smart city’, on the other hand, is regarded with increasing suspicion in the new proposal. Why should large corporations like Cisco and Google be allowed to turn Amsterdam’s data into a money machine without even lending an ear to the preferences and concerns of its citizens? The new coalition programme’s approach to addressing some of these issues is a welcome turn for the better. As just one token of change, the city officially joins the band of ‘Fearless cities’ spearheaded by Barcelona that by and large seeks to obliterate neoliberalism from public office.

Photo: City of Amsterdam (Amsterdam.nl), public domain.

Let’s take a closer look at the new coalition’s programme, “A New Spring and a New Sound” (highlights here, full version here).

Firstly, the city’s digital plans begin with instating a Digital City Agenda, setting out Amsterdam’s vision on cyber security, data sovereignty, digital participation and digital services, complex topics that cannot be solved overnight. Outlining the principles of ‘privacy by design’ and ‘data minimisation’, the programme is both digitally ambitious and insightful. It warrants optimism for Amsterdam as a DECODE pilot city and as a test site for digital identity and data innovation work. Moreover, the city also expresses determination to implement the Tada manifesto, a clear-cut guide for responsible data and technology management.

Secondly, the programme sets out to define the purpose of digital technologies: these should be designed and implemented around the needs of the city, as expressed by its citizens (rather than its ‘consumers’). Thus, the coalition supports the development of platform cooperatives that provide alternatives to platform monopolists like Uber, and steps up its efforts to open up city data in ways that allow for active participation. The coalition also reworks the Amsterdam Economic Board into the “Amsterdam Social and Economic Board”, and vastly expands its digital re-schooling programme aimed at skilling the workforce for the digital (and sustainable) age. The “smart city”, the old tech-driven approach favoured by urban digital policy makers, is nowhere to be found.

On the theme of citizen participation, the programme’s proposals are equally ambitious. Of particular interest is the coalition’s promise to actively support the establishment of new commons (resources that are controlled and managed by the community, for individual and collective benefit) in the areas of ‘energy transition, healthcare, and neighbourhood activities’. (I have discussed the commons in relation to digital social innovation earlier here.) Politically, the idea of the commons has not had much traction until now, but Amsterdam’s support for establishing new commons is a sign of a shift in political discourse. The city of Amsterdam isn’t alone in this: the Belgian city of Ghent recently completed an extensive mapping of commons in 2017, and Barcelona’s minority government led by Barcelona en Comù is working with projects such as D-CENT, Procomuns, DECODE and DSI4EU.

Not coincidentally, the topics of ‘Democratisation’ and the ‘Digital City’ are merged together under one heading in the programme. If we want to prevent the smart city from becoming a digital dystopia, a diversified and intensified urban democratic practice is key. Citizens and communities need to have control of how measuring, tracking and profiling is being done and by who. By developing the democratic or participatory toolbox — including public debate, voting systems, having rights to ‘challenge’ and suggest self-managed alternatives — many digital ills can be avoided. Already the city has reached out to many Amsterdam initiatives that work on democratisation, participation and stronger neighbourhoods to start working on this agenda together. Rutger Groot-Wassink, the responsible Alderman, has also pledged to arrange budgets for communities, commons and intermediaries so that they can share in the design, implementation and execution of these practices, instead of having the administration lead on everything itself.

Of course, all of this will prove quite challenging. I expect it will take certainly a year before this new way of working will really emerge, and some years of teething problems after that. The same goes for the digital agenda itself. Whereas the coalition agreement discusses digital rights and digital participation in detail, the crossover between digital technologies and other themes is considerably less developed. The city’s vision on digitalisation in issues such as logistics, mobility, crowd management, environmental management, healthcare, and internet infrastructure is yet to be confirmed. However, for the moment we can be pleased with Amsterdam’s progress, and hopeful for the future.

This blog was originally published in June 2018 on Waag.org and updated on November 25.