We sat down with members of The Digital Society School, a branch of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences Faculty of Digital Media & Creative Industries. The centre conducts research projects focused on the digital transformation of societies, examining how cities can be shaped by the new needs of what they call “digital citizens”.
Do you think that the concept of “citizen” is different today than it was before the digital revolution?
We don’t think that the idea of citizen has changed much: what has been evolving, due to the digital revolution, is the concept of “accessibility”. In particular, accessibility to knowledge and services. Going forward, the main challenge is to provide everyone with a way to easily use all of the tools and services a smart city has to offer. As educators, we have to make sure that we not only train people but also that, along with our students, we develop tools that any citizens can have access to. This is the only way in which we can eventually give shape to an inclusive and fully digital society.
Is an inclusive society more possible now than before, thanks to the digital services made available by the development of technology?
It is, but there are some downsides. Today people experience a feeling known as “digital fatigue”, caused by the overload of information we face every day on our devices together with tech corporations who, to a very large extent, constantly invade our privacy. Citizens don’t want to lose complete control of their lives and will eventually reject or stop using some of this technology due to a lack of trust towards multinational companies, governments and any third parties which have access to their personal information. This will happen despite clear benefits some of these tools are bringing into our life. There’s also another phenomenon, triggered by a lack of understanding – people rejecting change because they are not able to understand it, or at least not yet.
Is it just a natural human behaviour, or is there something else behind it?
There’s a saying that goes: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.” I think it suits perfectly those individuals who are unable to handle the amount of information we’re constantly exposed to. We are now more aware, as educators, that we need to teach our students how to select and assess the information they receive. We will still have in a way “a lost generation” that doesn’t really know how to process data and still bases their judgments on a piece of information without verifying if it is fake or reliable.
Regarding polarization, in the Netherlands we are currently in the middle of a debate: there’s a concern about the role of the elites and most people say that it would be proper if they took a step back. However, there’s a reason why elites – whether they’re cultural, economic or intellectual – have always existed. Lately, they have become less and less accepted because the accessibility to knowledge (both real and fake) has seemingly dismantled their elite status. It is a strange time for societies going through such rapid change.
Your work at the The Digital Society School includes a lot of emphasis on design as a tool and as a way to share knowledge — what is the key to a good design method?
There no such thing as a good or bad design method. Tools and methods can be both good and bad, depending on the context they are applied to. At the The Digital Society School, we offer a huge variety of methods that are meant to be accessible. You could say that one could start using a method of ours without understanding exactly what they’re doing, as learning comes just by using it. At the same time, in order to be accessible and replicable, a method has to be extremely structured. Methodology for us is a language: what matters is that the services and results we create work well with individuals from different cultures and backgrounds.
How do you overcome cultural differences in your work? Does this “one-size-fits-all“ approach mean that cultural differences are disappearing?
We do accept cultural differences and take advantage of them, but we rely on cultural similarities as well. We apply different toolkits which we develop with different contexts in mind as they’re designed for communities rather than for a specific person. We accept that cultural differences and clashes exist, what we try to do is use that tension to generate something positive.
Will a smart city ever be perfect for everyone who lives in it?
It will never be possible to please everyone, but the benefits of public technologies are huge. Here at the Digital Society School we’re using non-malicious and novel innovation technologies to tap into the needs of the individual at different levels. We’re moving from individualized ownership to the individualized use of a particular resource. Here, technology can really be beneficial — just think of all the car-sharing apps that now populate the market, and how public technologies help individuals to connect and build social systems or digital communities. Technology can play a huge role in making our cities more habitable and communal, but it clearly can’t solve all of our problems. Thinking that a smart city can at some point be “perfect” is probably a paradox: the needs of people will change constantly and we will more often than not be working in response to new needs rather than in anticipation of them. I don’t think the aim is to perfect cities, either. The aim is to make an impact and create a positive change. And let’s not forget the cost of this process: to move closer to perfection, we’ll have to share a lot of our personal data. To what extent do we want this?
Yes, the use of data is an issue, both for today and tomorrow. Do you think that we can hope to have a fairer economy in 20 years from now?
We have to step back here and think about what happened during the Industrial Revolution. Back then, the capitalists that founded new factories were taking advantage of manual labour. The same thing is happening now, with tech giants taking advantage of the users’ data. After the industrial revolution, it took about half a century to figure out how to deal with the unfair competition that was happening. I think that a similar transition will happen with the digital revolution. It is therefore our duty as designers to extend “activists” to facilitate citizen empowerment in a digital society.