Report (part 2) of workshop “Data Commons for smart cities”

This is the second part of a 3-part report of a workshop held on 6 October 2022 about the data commons and the smart city, which I co-organized.  Links to part 1 >>, and to part 3 >>.

Background of the workshop

In our datafied smart cities, the creation of value out of data lies mostly in the hands of companies and governments. As data is considered to be a new type of resource, questions arise around for instance the governance of this resource but also its potential for citizen agency. These two approaches to the data commons  – as on the one hand a matter of governance and regulation, and on the other hand its promise of increasing democratic civic participation and inclusion – were central to the one-day workshop Data Commons and the Smart City, which was organized by Utrecht University and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG).

The data commons are one of the models advanced in academic literature and political practice to restructure our economies and societies in more bottom-up inclusive, and democratic ways. During this workshop, the promises and pitfalls were discussed with experts from a variety of backgrounds.

In the morning session we laid the groundwork for speaking about data commons in relation to smart cities. Workshop participants were asked to show an exemplary case and make an opening statement about what the data commons means for them. Guiding questions were: What is the concrete problem or case your contribution deals with, and how can your example of a data-commons from your own research or practice shed new light on what works, what does not, and why? What makes it a data/digital commons? What kind of (digital) resource does it revolve around: data, access, infrastructures, etc.? What kind of community are we seeing? What are the two most important challenges or problems your concrete case draws attention to?

The workshop was organized by Gijs van Maanen & Nadya Purtova (EU funded INFO-LEG project), Michiel de Lange (focus area “Governing the Digital Society” GDS), and Jörg Pohle (Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society HIIG). This workshop is part of a seminar and workshop series on the data commons.

Participants: Anna Artyushina, Tommaso Fia, Alexander Mörelius-Wulff & Emeline Banzuzi, Tasniem Anwar & Berna Keskindemir, Martijn de Waal, Jiska Engelbert, Gijs van Maanen, Nadya Purtova, Michiel de Lange, Jörg Pohle. 

6 Oct 2022, Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Französische Straße 9 Berlin.

Image credit: Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society


Tasniem Anwar (also on behalf of Berna Keskindemir) gave a talk called “Inclusion in the city, smart city technologies and an inclusive ‘common’?”. The question addressed was how various communities are involved in participatory initiatives around ‘living labs’, and what can be done to increase the participation of marginalized communities? In smart city literature, there is a generic idea of the common and citizenship, which – as critical data studies have already shown – is a neoliberal, tech-savvy, male, western perception of the citizen.

Anwar & Keskindemir are following these pointers by Sasha Costanza-Chock about inclusive design: 1) For whom is the technology designed? 2) Who gets paid? 3) What are the stories that we tell about the design? and 4) What methods can we use to teach and learn about design? Through participant observation in Amsterdam’s living labs and community events, and via interviews, they disseminate their findings to activist organizations and representatives of marginalized neighborhoods. Some of their provisional findings so far:

What helps inclusion:

  • Connection with local urgency
  • Active cooperation with key figures from the community
  • Temporality & spatiality

* Breaking up in different skill sets

What doesn’t help inclusion:

  • Formulation of technological solutions and harms unclear
  • Generic and open approaches such as ‘living labs’ or ‘input gatherings’
  • Single moment of participation

In the Q&A various issues were touched upon, such as the presumption of genericness for citizen engagement, the importance of issue articulation by urban inhabitants themselves (what do people consider a problem in their neighborhood?), how we might move from civic participation to representation and recognition; and in relation to the earlier observation, it was suggested that at Amsterdam’s Marineterrein, citizens are not really actors, they are not owners of the data. It is more about a ‘public demonstration’ of smart tech perhaps, rather than civic participation?

Jiska Engelbert showed the provocative public design intervention “Donate Your Data” in Afrikaanderwijk, Rotterdam, which was created by two colleagues from the Centre of Bold Cities. This project set up a public stand in a lower income neighborhood, where people were asked to become ‘data donors’. The aim was to investigate how data donorship could foster public health and wellbeing, and how citizens can become more empowered when it comes to urban data-related issues.

The project attempts to include marginalized groups in discussing data practices by using the recognizable analogy of blood donorship. While most health and sensor data are produced by individuals, the benefits are reaped by companies. Through the practice of what Jiska and her colleagues call ‘data poaching’ an attempt is made to restore this disbalance, by appropriating privately owned data and sharing it with the public as a commons. The metaphor of ‘donating’ resonates with this attempt to use data beyond individual private benefits. Furthermore, just like the donation of organs is controversial but also well-established, data donations too may seem a provocation but could become a common practice. Jiska takes further inspiration from the British Digital Cooperative, an initiative that attempts to forge new digital platforms and infrastructures that is collectively owned by the public, as an alternative to Big Tech platforms.

      In the Q&A, a range of topics were touched upon. It was noted that the “Donate Your Data” project was a design provocation that could trigger public debates, help in issue articulation, and the formation of collectives. As such, it is not about data as commons but about commoning the issue of datafication. Furthermore, in discussing the notion of ’digital socialism’ we wondered whether this would require us to get rid of private ownership altogether, or whether it is about a democratization of data ownership? Or, as was suggested, can it be many entities at the same time, just like the cow is for the farmer (productive unit, an individual, with rights)? To me, this idea of poaching back data from the clasp of Big Tech data enclosures has this Robin Hood-like rebellious ring to it that may be less about providing any realistic alternative and more about creating imaginative and inspiring critical viewpoints that have the power to make people think differently, and in the end also act accordingly.

Martijn de Waal presented ongoing work on ’resource communities’ as an urban commons, in the context of Amsterdam (project Circulate). Resource communities are groups of people who collaboratively produce, manage, consume & govern a (set of) resources, usually with the aim to produce collective benefits, and to promote the social and ecological wellbeing of the community. The case used is Schoonschip, which is a collective of people who jointly built a floating neighborhood based on sustainability principles. The question is whether they truly are a commons, and if so what are the boundaries? Hence, Martijn prefers the use of the term ‘resource community’. One area where resources are shared and collectively governed is energy. The inhabitants created a smart grid and a governance system to manage energy sharing (solar, heat pumps, heat recovery systems). The 46 households have just one connection to the national energy grid. Schoonschip uses data to gauge this exchange in realtime but they also encoded the rules about fair exchange into the VVE regulations (home owner’s association).

Martijn introduced a new term, ‘becommoning’, to speak about how commons come into being, and how publics are formed. Especially in the early stages, the application of Eleanor Ostrom’s well-known design principles for governing the commons are of paramount importance.

Initiating a collective governance structure comes with a variety of design dilemmas about underlying economic and social values, and about making these explicit and transparent. These dilemmas include: transparency vs. privacy (to what extent are inhabitants willing to share personal information with the community?); economic vs. social value (which value sets can be tokenized as economic or social values?); quantified vs. qualified values (what kind of actions should be tokenized and which should be left in the domain of informal sociality?); incentivisation vs. manipulation (when does benevolent nudging become manipulation and deceit?); private vs. collective interests (what is the trade-off between personal gains and for the greater good?); human vs. algorithmic governance (what should the balance be, who is allowed to decide?). In the Circulate project, the role of design is central as a way to tease out such dilemmas. Tara Karpinski created a water fountain based on data as input, the Ener-Geyser. This design intervention is not so much a way of visualizing of data as a resource, but more a provocation about datafication itself as an issue, a thing to publicly debate.

         In the ensuing discussion, a number of interesting points were touched upon, most of them having to do with the role of design. One issue is that design interventions create the risk of depoliticizing specific issues: is it actually a design problem, or rather a political problem? Design can be a way of ‘provotyping’ but can also be proposed solutions to existing problems. And to what extent can design ‘scale up’, from being this bottom-up interventionist way of bringing issues to light to a way of shaping legal policy? Can you design policy regulations? Another idea that I had is that a new term for the formation of a commons, becommoning, begs for another new term to describe the termination of a commons, whether through peaceful means or conflict. ‘Uncommoning’ perhaps, or ‘decommoning’? In any case, terms like these could be useful to understand the processual (and often frictional and controversial) nature of the commons, rather than treating it as a given, more or less stable entity. Particularly in more dynamic, sometimes fleeting urban and media contexts, this seems important.

Proceed to part 3  >>

This report started with part 1 >>

License: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International

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