Technology and the City


How do we ensure quality of life in the city? How can we achieve that the environment will not suffer any damage? And that we can grow old as healthy as possible? In the year 2018, digitization can give an unprecedented dimension to the answers to these questions. Elphi Nelissen and Frans Vogelaar explore the possibilities of the digital technology for the future of the city.

June 2018

@ bpd magazine

When Joseph Ratzinger was inaugurated in April 2005 as Pope Benedict XVI, an enthusiastic crowd cheered at St. Peter’s Square in Rome. Like a crowd that until that time always did. Eight years later, at the inauguration of his successor Francis, the square was one swirling sea of upset smartphones.

It shows what happens with new technologies: they often lead a dormant existence before they show themselves to their full extent. Then it takes a while before we realize how much they change the world. So it went with the printing press, the steam engine, the internet and the smartphone, and so it will be with the self-driving car and the blockchain.

It is perhaps the most difficult task: to appreciate what the impact of a technological development really is. What are the consequences of the self-driving car for the way we design our cities? Can the Internet really provide ‘smart cities’ in which the quality of life improves substantially? It is not clear yet. We are in the middle of it.

However, the uncertainty about the future can not dispense with the attempt to formulate an answer. We do that in the Dutch city, which according to many is a hotspot of innovative top technology: Eindhoven. Cradle of successes such as Philips and ASML, but now also praised for its leading position in revolutionary design, innovative research and young entrepreneurship. Here, Elphi Nelissen, dean of the Technical University in 2016, took the initiative to realize a Smart Neighborhood within five years. A neighborhood where digital technology is used to improve sustainability and quality of life, thanks to new construction methods, new forms of energy generation and storage, new transport concepts and a different view on safety and health. This new district, the Brainport Smart District, is being raised in neighboring municipality Helmond. 85 hectares are reserved for approximately 1,500 homes, shops and offices in a completely innovative setting.

We request a commentary from Frans Vogelaar, Dutch designer and architect. He has been living in Germany for 25 years and draws attention there with his equally idiosyncratic and controversial designs, including a planned green transformation of the much-discussed Stadtschloss in Berlin, his residence. Vogelaar specializes in design research into hybrid spaces, places where the physical world interacts with the world of internet, images, communication.

Technology for a better life in the city

Is there actually something worthwhile to say about the impact of digitization on the urban environment? Or can that only be done in a long time?

Frans Vogelaar: “No, we can already see a lot. Look, my smartphone is here. What I already know is that this thing will only be an intermediate step. The technology is developing very fast. Technical development always takes place in cycles, at an ever-increasing pace. There was a lot to do about Virtual Reality, where you end up as a user in a virtual digital world, and Augmented Reality, where your physical environment is mixed with digital information. These are promising developments that are becoming more and more applicable. For me it is certain that the digital world is changing the city more and faster. The most important thing is that you develop a vision to deal with that acceleration. If you do not do that, you will be lost. ”

Elphi Nelissen: “A formulation such as the ‘impact of digitalisation’ is actually too passive to me. As if digitalisation happens to you. The point is precisely that you yourself are at the wheel. That you steer developments in a certain direction, from the thought: what is there for beautiful things so that we can make our lives better and more beautiful? A change is also only viable if we actively accept that change. That’s how it went with the mobile phone, and that’s how it will go with every new technological development. “

In Helmond you are now trying to get a ‘Smart District’ off the ground. Is life in that neighborhood really better and better due to digital applications?

E.N.: “Of course we will see if this is true. We want to set up a living lab there, in which we will apply all available knowledge from Eindhoven University of Technology and other parties to learn from it. In that Brainport Smart District, autonomous vehicles will drive. There is room for local energy generation and for new types of buildings, which meet the need for communal areas. But we also try to create a healthy environment: by encouraging people to exercise and to monitor that. That will reduce loneliness, improve health, make life easier and perhaps even lead to a more inclusive society in which people develop less distance from the labor market. “

That sounds like a utopia. It reminds in the distance of the engineers who designed large flat areas in the 1950s with the best intentions, but forgot people.

E.N. : “No, it’s all about people, not about technology. We do not impose this as engineers from above. We do respond to needs that people often can not explicitly express themselves. We show what is possible. Compare it to the iPad: it has also come without being asked for it. Key point: technology must always be of service to the quality of life. We want to improve that quality. And in the long run – if the experiment succeeds – we might even want to export the instruments developed for that purpose. Because we can not continue like this. If the city in emerging countries in the rest of the world is organized in the same way as we have done in the past hundred years, without respect for the environment, it is completely unsettled on this planet. “

What do you actually think about ‘serviceable digital technology in the city?

E.N.: “One example: a simple app with which people in the neighborhood can exchange or borrow things – at the neighborhood level. With such an app you immediately get to know your neighbors and neighbors. Many options will also be presented by the residents themselves. They are therefore closely involved in this area of development. They come partly from Brandevoort, a neighboring neighborhood with many people involved. And even before the first stone is laid, new techniques will emerge that we will also apply. ”

F.V.: “I find that very interesting. Especially the combination of the physical and digital world appeals to the imagination. If people get to know each other better through digital applications, that will have a positive influence on mutual trust and cohesion in the neighborhood. “

Critics will say: this is a utopia that can degenerate into a dystopia. Smart toothbrushes that collect data about your teeth and pass them on to the health insurer. Apps that locate you and see if you are moving enough. A little bit apart from the vulnerability of the internet of things: security is often as leaky as a basket.

F.V.: “Certainly, you have to factor this into account. But at the same time there is the need to develop yourself, so as not to remain passive. Experimenting is the best route for this. Experimenting is, incidentally a typical Dutch quality. Such a living lab in Helmond will be tackled integrally, in good cooperation between all kinds of disciplines: government, industry, science and, above all, in collaboration with the residents. That is characteristic of the Netherlands, with its fairly flat society. In Germany, which is much more hierarchically structured, one would first study this very long and thoroughly. And then perhaps develop the best smart city district ever, with the very best digital technology. But we do not have that time, as I said. The developments are going too fast for that. “

Mobility and urban planning will change through digitization and robotization. Cars become autonomous, electric, divisible. However, the derived impact of these changes will be even greater. Shift centers. Streets change. Cities become greener.

In the new neighborhood in Helmond, self-driving cars will soon be driving around. What can we say about the consequences for the urban environment of this kind of new forms of mobility?

F.V.: “I am convinced that self-driving cars and e-mobility will bring major changes. To begin with in the streets. Continuous traffic axes in the cities change character. They become less dirty, less noisy so that houses can be oriented differently, especially in the new building, but also in existing neighborhoods. Parking spaces can be removed in a shrinking car city. Garages are not really necessary anymore. The street becomes healthier, safer, more lively, greener. I expect self-driving cars to be the norm within a  maximum of twenty-five years. That is promising when you consider that this development runs parallel to the aging population in the Netherlands and Germany. ”

E.N.: “In the new neighborhood, we want to experiment with shared electric transport as quickly as possible. Your car is then no longer your property. Indeed, that is useful when you get older: you no longer need your own car if necessary, you do not have to drive yourself anymore in the long run, you can always be transported to size. That is something completely different from conventional public transport, which will therefore change dramatically, I expect. ”

F.V.: “It is clear to me that mobility will really change through digitization and robotization. Cars become autonomous, electric, divisible. The derived impact of those changes will be even greater. You get other driving routes, other city centers through other transport movements and other hierarchies in the city region. This can also have consequences for real estate prices. “

A self-driving car is also an inexhaustible source of data. Whose data are actually in a digital urban world? And what happens to it?

E.N.: ‘We have a clear position in this: the data will soon be the property of the residents. They know what they can share later – or rather, have to share – to make the system work. For example, in order to get energy delivered, you will have to relinquish certain data. For example about your energy use and need. In addition, residents can make other data available voluntarily, in exchange for better service, financial benefits, or some kind of bonus points. Anyone who helps his old neighbor may get rental discounts, or chips for a free car or bicycle. “

And what happens with those who do not join? Do they get penalty points?

E.N.: “No, no! But you also get no benefit. Note: this is a laboratory, a test set-up. We’re going to look at how many people want to make their data available: is that 10 or 90 percent? And let’s be honest: the differences are gradual. We are already giving an incredible amount of data via our smartphone. Your telecom provider knows where you are. Google bases its traffic reports and traffic information on data from our smartphones. ”

F.V.: “In Germany, this element would be very sensitive. That is because of the historical background. Germany today really has a different culture on this point. This is also reflected in young people and students: they are politically much more critical than Dutch students. I think that’s great for Germany, for German education. Which does not mean that the world does not stand still. And that you have to think about the future. What is privacy in a digital world? The concept was once invented in England in the seventeenth century, where private space was created with the invention of the corridor. That was the very first private space. Privacy is a cultural concept, it is a luxury that we have made our own. But such a concept is not eternal. Something else will come in its place. For example, a family-based private environment, with the classic privacy, and the public environment, where you knowingly share certain data anonymously and where you retain the ownership of your data. ”

E.N.: ‘The data do not just go to companies. We first bring them to a platform and only then – obviously encrypted and impersonal – we make them available to companies that develop new insights based on the data. “

Privacy is a cultural concept, it is a luxury that we have made our own.

Which insights do we have to think about?

E.N.: “Take autonomous driving. If that breaks, you may wonder: how many cars are actually needed? Can we classify the space in the district differently? Then digitization immediately touches your urban design. In this way we want to learn a lot and make all collected knowledge accessible to everyone. Another example: do new building typologies really work? Suppose nine of the ten concepts are successful, then we can still learn from the tenth that does not work. That way we could look different and better at the city. “

Are architects, developers, construction companies actually ready for this experimental way of thinking and working?

E.N.: “It is a very fragmented professional field, with very different attitudes and positions in relation to innovation. As with most innovations, we have to start with the most innovative forerunners, after which the rest will undoubtedly follow. Or must follow. ”

F.V.: “I’m not sure if they are ready for it. But this initiative, I suspect, can clearly show what can and can not be done. I do know that the Netherlands is at the forefront with this type of experiment. It really belongs to the most advanced countries in the world on this point. And the Netherlands is also very good at publicizing it. Germany certainly does not lag behind, but it develops and works more thoroughly – and therefore more slowly.
In the light of the permanent digital revolution that we are dealing with, it would be an extremely interesting and strong combination: the Netherlands-Germany. The Netherlands: land of lightness, innovation and communication. Germany: country of solidity and organizing ability. “


Elphi Nelissen
“The City Deal Circular City, in which the Dutch government implements the Circular Economy program. Cities, the national government, the European Commission, social partners and the business community are working together to strengthen growth, quality of life and innovation in the Dutch and European city network.“

Frans Vogelaar
“The books by Yuval Noah Harari, historian, philosopher, futurologist and transhumanist. And especially Homo Deus, about what awaits us in the technological revolution, and Sapiens, a small history of mankind from the Stone Age to the present. ”


Elphi Nelissen
is Dean of the Faculty of Architecture and Professor of Building Sustainability at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU / e). Nelissen graduated from the TU / e in 1983 in the direction of building physics. In 1991 she founded Nelissen Ingenieursbureau, specialized in building physics, acoustics, sustainability and installation technology. Nelissen (MKB female entrepreneur of the year 2010) is currently the leader of the transition team Circular Bouw Nederland and a member of the Taskforce Bouwagenda. Within the TU / e she introduced the Smart Cities program, with the ambition to apply the theory in practice.

Frans Vogelaar
is Professor of Hybrid Space at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne since 1998, an art and design institute at university level that connects technology, science and the arts. He is the founder of the Hybrid Space Lab, an exploratory design agency that focuses on the challenges that the digital world poses to designers of the physical space. Vogelaar studied Industrial Design at the Design Academy Eindhoven and architecture at the Architectural Association School of Architecture (AA) in London. He previously worked at the Studio Alchymia (Allessandro Mendini) in Milan and the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in Rotterdam.