AMS BLOG: Why the Netherlands needs a Minister for Understandability to Save us from the Smart Toilet

Thijs Turèl – Program Manager Urban Data & Intelligence

In September 2017, the Dutch National Ombudsman issued a warning. A large part of the Dutch population could not keep up with the speed of digitization of society. Especially, the Ombudsman warning focused on the tendency of various government agencies to replace postal communication by digital communication called ‘de Berichtenbox’, whilst large parts of the Dutch do not feel capable or comfortable dealing with this. The warning was repeated more strongly this year by the Raad van State, the highest advisory council to the government.

Brace for the rise of the Smart City
The problem is only going to get worse in the coming years. Objects in public space and public infrastructures, such as the electricity grid, are being enhanced by digital means. These means imply that public space is becoming adaptive and personalized. Examples are abundant, from smart pedestrian crossings to smart charging for electric vehicles or smart selective access for cities for vehicles.

In each case, a particular part of the government is optimizing for its assigned task. Some departments have to improve the flow of traffic, some need to optimize the use of the electricity grid, some need to improve accessibility for the elderly. The means at their disposal are similar and involve some sort of clever digitization. The city of Tilburg caters towards the needs of its elderly by allotting them longer crossing times, In Nijmegen-Noord, grid operator Liander is experimenting with a complex mechanism that allows domestic appliances to switch on and off depending on grid capacity. The municipality of Deventer is using smart traffic lights to improve the flow of traffic.

Seen from the perspective of each government branch, all these projects are defined as successes, as they improve the efficiency or usability of a system. But from a citizen perspective, gradually, step by step, society is becoming more complex. And we have to ask how the benefits weigh in versus the costs.

Give us Time to Embrace Change
Of course change is the only known in the unknown. But how can we expect people to cope with these changes, if they are not able to open their Berichtenbox? Surely society will benefit from these new uses, and anyway, it is an illusion that we can stop these developments from happening. But the pace at which society is confronted with these changes can be managed. From a citizens perspective, we have but just grudgingly accepted the OV-chipkaart, and are cleary not yet at ease with the Berichtenbox. Is it too much to ask to give us a bit more time to adjust before implementing the new traffic lights and smart energy grid and embrace the pace in which the intelligent city is rapidly evolving?

Protecting Understandability as a Public Interest in the Smart Society
Society needs time to digest these new digital possibilities. Yet nobody is stepping up to defend this particular public interest. If the Ombudsman has to get involved, this should be seen as a measure of last resort for a problem that should have been solved in some other branch of government. So I would like to suggest a solution. The problem at hand is both substantial and generic. Substantial because the government is failing at its core task – servicing its citizens. Generic because it occurs across the board, from Electronic Patientendossiers to the Railway system, and from electricity grids to the algorithms that decide which kid gets assigned to which High School.

My advice: we are in need for a Minister of Understandability for the Digitizing Society
This Minister would be an embodiment of the public interest that dealing with government and public services and infrastructures remains understandable. She/he would be responsible for the user experience of citizens and companies. She/he should have the power to pace the rate of implementation of new technologies in public space and infrastructures. She/he should make the case that in some instances, it might simply not be worth it to save the taxpayer 1mln euro in sewer maintenance costs, if this would require the same taxpayer to deal with added daily hassle of a (yet to be invented) ‘smart toilet’.

Thijs Turèl
Program Manager Urban Data & Intelligence