AMS Democracy by Design

Safeguarding democratic values in smart cities


Our world is digitizing and new systems are emerging. Across the globe, public and private parties are building the smart cities and smart infrastructures of tomorrow. They strive to improve the efficiency of systems, reduce costs, improve reliability and offer better services by implementing information technology in our public spaces and infrastructures.

These developments will play an important role in the way we will shape our future lives and society. Information technologies will be delegated decisions that affect our economic, social, personal and physical environment.

Amidst new possibilities, we need continue to ask ourselves ethical questions on the functioning of our infrastructures and cities. For example, when an energy system’s malfunction leads to temporary scarcity, who will enjoy uninterrupted energy supply? And who will have priority on the congested roads when a road accident has happened? Increasingly, information technology systems will decide how we are treated and who gets prioritized. Yet, whose technology makes decisions and based on which principles? And do these choices take into account the interests of all concerned?

We urgently need to start the discussion how our decision makers and citizens can make the right choices, as the pace of the developments is rapidly increasing.

How to include democratic values in smart decision making processes?

The growing pervasiveness of digital technologies in our cities raises the question of how they relate or should relate to democracy. To what extent do they enhance or subvert democratic values and how do they shape democratic decision-making processes? Digital technologies have been touted as facilitating, enabling and even enhancing democratic processes. The Internet has been heralded as a democratizing technology that opens up decision-making processes and information flows. At the same time, digital technologies can pose a threat to democratic processes and public values. The complexity of algorithms, for example, can make it difficult to hold decision-makers accountable and the automation of decision-making processes can disadvantage less tech-savvy citizens and reduce their ability to participate in society.

Municipalities, public infrastructure providers, civil society organizations and others that are concerned with issues of common concern, such as improving the air quality, the sustainability of a city transport system or the facilitation of the energy transition, look to digital technologies for solutions. As such they are faced with the question of how to develop, implement and maintain technologies to solve particular problems, while safeguarding democratic values and the democratic process.

Project goals
In the project Democracy by Design we aim to develop a framework that will support policy makers, technologists, project managers, civil servants, and other relevant parties in safeguarding democratic values “by design”. The framework will allow them to ask the right questions and identify possible challenges and solutions. We do this by organizing a series of round-tables and workshops to explore what designing for democracy means and to develop concepts, tools and methods for practitioners to work with.

An other important project delivery is the development of a platform for knowledge sharing with stakeholders and the industry to further set the agenda for this topic, create awareness and provide concrete recommendations. We will be using case studies to investigate real-life smart city cases in detail. We focus on innovative smart projects which aim to develop new smart city solutions. These case studies will be in the field of energy, electric mobility, public lighting and traffic management.

Use case: transparent charging station

Based on which principles does the new technology make decisions? If you can’t see what choices are being made or why, you might feel you’re at the mercy of technology and algorithms. Consumers who use smart technologies want to see and understand the applied transparency principles. A transparent charging station – a project of ElaadAlliander, designed by The Incredible Machine – is a response to the growing importance of algorithms in our daily lives, making visible the invisible logic when charging an electric vehical. The display shows how the electricity is allocated between the cars being charged. In the program Democracy by Design we use the transparent charging station as a use case to research the way democratic values are applied in smart decision-making processes.

Read more about this use case in the white paper Designing a Transparent Charging Point and the press release by Elaad & Alliander (28-09-2017)

Background info
More background information on the topic ‘Democracy by Design’ can be read in this discussion paper (July 2016).


Partnerships & community building
We would like to extend an open invitation to other organizations to actively contribute to the platform or join the community. For more information, please contact:
Marcel van Hest – Alliander
Ebru Isgüzarer-Önder – AMS Institute

Framework development    
Merel Noorman – Maastricht University

Case studies
Thijs Turel – Alliander
Maartje Meesterberends – AMS Institute