Long read – Beyond the smart city: Challenges for a humane city

To me, the ambition of a town to be a smart evokes conflicting feelings. It invokes aversion, if major technology companies consider cities as outlets for sensors and other hardware, operating systems and an inexhaustible source of data. It also invokes consent, as long as technology is deployed carefully for the well-being of citizens.

In earlier publications, I have demonstrated not to care much about cities that prominently present themselves as smart. Instead, I introduced the perspective of a humane (or an inclusive) city. To become humane, cities have to balance four core values. These core values ​​are:

Sustainable prosperity

Almost all people enjoy work and sufficient income until they realize that this income goes hand in hand with the exploitation of the earth and fellow human beings.


  • Growing prosperity within a circular and solidarity-oriented economy.
  • Focusing on the production of meaningful goods and services.

Justice and democracy

A sense of justice has to be inextricably linked to the way we live together with others and as free citizens are able to influence our community.


  • Equivalent reward depending on commitment and performance.
  • Participation in the creation of the living and working environment.
  • Living in and protection of freedom.

In addition to work and income, a range of facilities such as housing, education, care, shopping and transport facilities are indispensable. But at the end, these and other facilities have to contribute to our wellbeing and happiness.


  • A livable environment for all citizens.
  • Provisions that contribute to material and non-material needs as well.
  • Safe and stress-free transportation options.

Digital technology
Basically, digital (communication) technology has to be available to all residents. But more than that, this technology will have to serve the interests of citizens in the first place.


  • A safe and fast internet.
  • Services and data that facilitate all people and deepen their participation in society.
  • Control over the dissemination of personal data.

Urban challenges

The main question is how these four core values ​​can be realized in a mutual cohesive way. The figure below shows the essence. The four core values inspire activities that urban government, together with companies, institutions and citizens could carry out. This results in 20 clusters (A – T), which I call urban challenges.

In each of these challenges one core value ​​plays a dominant but not exclusive role. Therefore, in the overview below the challenges are placed in the field between the core values.

Every challenge consists of a certain number of activities, which are the main content of this essay. Every now and then, I give examples of how digital technology might support an activity.

I hope that the overview below will convince readers to shift from a focus on smart towards humane cities, which offer room to be smart as well.

Some sources

A large number of sources have been used to document the urban challenges below. The most relevant ones are mentioned below:

Core value 1: Sustainable prosperity

Below, I will elaborate on five challenges that focus on sustainable prosperity in the first place:

(A) Economic activities benefit all residents and are not at the expense of the prosperity of future generations and of people elsewhere in the world.

(B) The development of entrepreneurship in connection with of innovative and ‘benefit companies’.

(C) The termination of CO2 emissions at short notice.

(D) Reuse of all raw materials.

(E) Preparing and protecting residents for (natural) disasters.

Each challenge is specified with a number of activities. Where possible, these activities are provided with examples of digital tools.

The United Nations Global Goals are an exhaustive summary of the conditions for responsible growth. Source: UN (public domain)


A. Economic activities benefit all residents and are not at the expense of the prosperity of future generations and of people elsewhere in the world.

1. Ambition of full and decent employment by companies and institutions and a wage level that enables full-fledged participation in society.

2. Provision of a wide range of educational and training opportunities in co-operation with knowledge institutes and companies to enable cognitive, professional and developmental skills.

Personalized education based on personal learning objectives
and preferences and past progress.
– College for America
 of the Southern New Hampshire
University (60.000 students)
– Westnern Governors University(70.000 students)
– More information

3. Offering high quality and sustainable products and services. This also applies to the municipal government itself.

Digital tools for administrative processes.

B. The development of entrepreneurship in connection with innovative and ‘benefit companies’.

1. Making room available for startups, including incubators and other forms of support.

2. Providing facilities with respect to housing, energy, personnel and government contracts to companies that choose the status of benefit or social enterprise.

Overview of companies that already have chosen to be a benefit company. Source: B-company website

3. Engaging in mutual cooperation with companies and (knowledge) institutions.

Local platforms supporting collaboration between
companies and institutions.

– New Makeit 

C. The termination of CO2 emissions at short notice

1. Switching as quickly as possible to safe alternatives for carbon-based fuels and raw materials by municipal authorities, companies and institutions. This applies to the entire supply chain.

2. Building or retrofitting energy-neutral houses and buildings.

3. Insist on an effective tax on CO2 emissions.

Dutch electric bus: No CO2-emission, given use of ‘green’ electricity. Photo: VDL

4. Construction of smart grids for a smooth alignment of large-scale and small-scale energy supply.

Software supporting smart grid technology.
– Envelio Intelligent Grid Platform (IGP) 
Automated adaptation of electricity prices to equalize variations
in demand and supply.

– City-zen: smart grid in Amsterdam Nieuw West

Waste processing plant in Oberhausen (Germany). Photo: Michiel Verkeek (licensed under Creative Commons)


D. Reuse of all raw materials

1. High-quality reuse of all (building) materials This has far-reaching consequences for logistics (storage of components to be reused) and for architecture as well.

2. Encouraging small-scale facilities for sharing and selling used items, partly by repairing and cleaning them.

3. Reducing significantly the quantity of waste by the circular use of materials and products and the sharing of goods. The fact that more and more goods are offered as a service contributes to this goal.

Digital pricing of waste removal, feedback to users included.
SmartUp Cities 
Sensors measure if waste containers are full and subsequently
optimize the route for collecting garbage.

– GreenQ’s  

E. Preparing and protecting residents for (natural) disasters.

1. Ensuring the quality of dams, dykes, flood defenses and bridges.

2. Reducing the negative influence of activities within the municipal boundaries on the surrounding (vulnerable) nature.

3. Limitation of nuisance and risks arising from aviation, industrial activities, roads and railways, together with other authorities

Decreasing the time emergency services need to arrive at
places of incidents.

Fire plan

4. Use of sensors and artificial intelligence to anticipate the threat of natural disasters.

Early warning systems for natural hazards, like hurricanes,
earthquakes, floods and wildfires.
– Smart Rainfall System 

5. Being prepared for occasional hazards, both from the citizen side as the aid and recovery side.

The role of the army in case of hazards. Photo: US marine corps (public domain)


Core value 2: Justice and equality

Below five challenges are elaborated that focus on justice and equality in the first place:

(F) Simultaneously strengthening of social cohesion and diversity.

(G) Foundation of the legitimacy of city government on support of the citizens.

(H) Enabling direct participation of large groups of citizens in decision-making.

(I) Residents play an important role in the creation of the living space.

(J) The city is in every respect a safe place to live and work.

Each challenge is described on the basis of a number of tasks. Where possible, these assignments are provided with examples of digital tools.

Human beings: autonomy and cohesion. Picture: Pixabay

F. Simultaneously strengthening social cohesion and diversity.

1. Ensuring the desired degree of autonomy for citizens and protecting diversity, as long as it does not threaten the coexistence of all those involved.

2. To use self-sufficiency and take responsibility by all citizens as a starting point and to enable them to do so. At the same time there is ‘assistance’ for those who are (temporarily) unable to do so.

Online platform for resolving small conflicts without intervention
of a lawyer.
– Matterhorn

G. Fostering the legitimacy of governance on support of the citizens.

1. Concretizing policy in a limited number of coherent plans. These indicate the direction for the long term, result in short-term actions and are adjusted annually.

2. Establishing close cooperation between municipal employees and external parties in the implementation and, if necessary, further detailing of plans.

H. Enabling direct participation of large groups of citizens in decision-making.

1. Taking into consideration views in society, political parties and among employees of the municipality in the development of plans.

Direct participation in local decision making. Photo: Appenzeller Landsgemeinde (licensed under Creative Commons)

2. Enabling social groups and neighborhood residents to carry out relevant activities in order to realize partial decentralization of policy making and implementation. Support for this type of activity is usually a condition for its success.

Local civic engagement applications, including reporting
nonemergency maintenance needs and giving input on
policy decisions, among others with respect to the municipal
– Mi Ciudad 

3. Application of methods as participatory budgeting (voting on spending of a part of the budget) and deliberative polling (having a voice in policy)

4. Use of digital tools to hear a large group of citizens.

Digital simulation of real-world events, based on actual and
historical data in order to get realistic responses
– The Digital Twin 

I. Residents play an important role in the creation of the living space.

1. Assigning an important role to (future) residents in the creation of new neighborhoods.

Commoning. Photo: Kathryn Greenhil (licensed under Creative Commons)


2. Facilitating community activities in all neighborhoods and districts, even if this is accompanied by a certain ‘messiness’.

Local platforms that help people connect with and potentially
meet others in their community.
– Mijnbuur
– Eventz.today City Platform 

3. Collaboration of residents within an energy cooperative. The government promotes the emergence of initiatives in this area and provides support for them.

Traditionally, the fire brigade has an important role in protecting safety. Photo Amsterdam fire brigade in 1908 (public domain)

J. The city is in all respects a safe place to live and work.

1. Creation of prerequisites for citizens to feel safe and secure, regardless of their age, ethnic and religious background and sexual orientation.

2. Safety as the most important starting point for traffic policy. This includes responsible road use, separation of traffic types and speed adjustment.

3. Use of state-of-the-art digital tools, data and artificial intelligence by enforcement authorities in compliance with privacy legislation.

Predictive policing:
The use of big data and analytics (including social media
monitoring) to predict where and when crimes are likely to
happen with greater precision.
– CrimeRadar 

Core value 3: Well-being and quality of life

Below six challenges are elaborated that contribute to happiness and well-being in the first place.

(K) Cities are healthy places to live.

(L) Supply of affordable housing options over the entire urban area.

(M) Mixed land use across the entire urban area.

(N) The attractiveness of centers and subcenters for living, shopping, working and recreation.

(O) Development of urban transport in connection with improving livability.

(P) Availability of attractive transport solutions as an alternative to using private cars.

Each challenge is specified with a number of activities. Where possible, these activities are provided with examples of digital tools.

K. Cities are healthy places to live.

1. Providing lots of green, divided over large and small parks, but also through trees along streets and ‘tiny woods’.

2. Measuring, limiting and eliminating the emission of fine dust by plants and car traffic.

Sensors to detect the presence of air pollution. Individuals can
view the information online a hyper-localized map.
– Polisensio 

3. Ensuring the availability of high-quality health care facilities consisting of self-care, first and second-line provisions.

Remote patient monitoring and data-based public health
Personal Health Record OS (phrOS) 

4. Ensuring good quality drinking water and separated delivery of water for other applications

Remote monitoring of pipe conditions using sensors, and
control of pump pressure to reduce or prevent water leakage.

5. Recovery of chemicals from sewerage.

Sanitation system where wastewater is processed locally to
recover energy and minerals.
Neighborhood bio refinery project

6. Acquiring more insight into the direct relationship between the characteristics of the living environment and welfare and happiness of citizens.

Review of citizens
Review of the current happiness level and create an action plan
to improve individual happiness based on data about the citizens’
daily measured happiness in each impact in life such as family
and friends, home, health, leisure, professional development, love
and money.

– HappinessPlay 

Construction of affordable housing in UK. Photo Sebastian Ballard (licenced under Creative Commons)

M. Supply of affordable housing options over the entire urban area.

1. Mandatory use of living space throughout the year by the owner or tenant to promote affordability and prevent speculation.

2. Making binding agreements as part of granting a building permit on the bandwidth within which rent and the selling price may rise within the next years.

3. Creation of an attractive living environment for all houses to be built or renovated (playgrounds and green space within walking distance and shopping facilities within walking or cycling distance).

4. Prevention of dominance of one specific type of housing at neighborhood level, neither in building method (high-versus low-rise) nor in social stratification.

5. Stimulating architectural innovations like sustainable timber construction, flexible modular buildings and construction of underground tunnels for the collection of garbage.

6. Requiring certain levels of isolation, low energy use and sustainability in new construction and renovation.

N. Mixed land use across the entire urban area.

1. Concentrating urban growth within the space that is currently available in order to protect non-urbanized areas.

2. Avoidance of concentration of stores, which generate more influx of cars than the existing road network can deal with.

3. Strengthen ties with the surrounding countryside by involving it in the supply of food and energy.

Las Vegas: Single land use is a main restriction of livability. Photo Pixabay

N. The attractiveness of centers and subcenters for living, shopping, working and recreation.

1. Shift from the primacy of car traffic to a dominant role for pedestrians, bicycles, public and other forms of shared transport.

2. Strengthening high-quality public space by collaboration between architects, artists and citizens.

3. Preserving heritage, and making place for art, parks and eye-catching architecture.

4. Avoiding annoying dominance of activities such as tourism and large-scale events.

5. Strengthening the residential function, in particular through affordable housing opportunities.

6. Avoidance of speculative construction activities.

7. Adjustment of the acreage and the rent of shopping facilities in connection with the growth of ‘Internet shopping’.

Impression of a mixed-function central street. Quayside Toronto. Picture Sidewalk Labs (public domain)

O. Development of urban transport as part of a livable urban environment

1. Use of price incentives to stimulate or restrict the choice of means of transport.

2. Reducing the availability of parking in front of the door, especially in urban areas with dense occupation.

3. Separating types of traffic. Where that is not possible, faster road users adapt their speed to those who move slower.

4. Dynamic traffic regulation system to increase safety and reduce noise and CO2 emissions.

Traffic flow
– Improvement of overall traffic flow through dynamic optimization
of traffic lights and speed limits, leading to less frequent stop-and
-go conditions. Includes traffic light preemption technology, which
gives priority to emergency vehicles, public buses, or both. 

– Lublin Traffic Management System 

Navigation tools
– Real-time navigation tools for choosing driving routes, with alerts
for construction, detours, congestion, and accidents and also guide
drivers directly to available parking spaces.
– Waze 

P. Availability of attractive transport solutions as an alternative to using private cars

1. Visualizing all available transport options between two points using a real-time information system, including departure times and duration of the journey and options for reserving and paying.

Travel information systems
Real-time information about price, time, and availability of transportation
options that bundles various types of public transportation, such as buses
and subway, car sharing, bike sharing, and ride hailing and ride on
demand services. Users book and pay all for services using an integrated

– Citymapper

2. Providing comfortable, clean, affordable and safe mass transport to efficiently accommodate large passenger flows.

Driverless micro-transit in Stockholm. Photo Per-Olof Forsberg (licensed under Creative Commons)


3. Providing micro-transit options in less crowded parts of the urban area and the adjacent countryside.

Micro transit
Demand-based micro transit: Ride-sharing services with fixed
routes, fixed stops, or both, or community driven carpool
solutions often supplementing existing public transit routes.

4. Enabling (shared) transport to any destination at any time.

Real-time ordering of point-to-point transportation through a
mobile device. Pooled e-hailing involves matching separately
called rides with compatible routes dynamically to increase
vehicle utilization.

5. Regulating and facilitating bicycle and e-steps.

Bike sharing
Facilitator of public-use bicycles, either in docking hubs or
free-floating with smart locks and software solutions to empower
any entrepreneur or municipality to run their own, safe bike share

Core value 4: Digital technology

Below, four challenges are elaborated in which digital technology plays a dominant role.

(Q) Enabling digital communication and technology or all citizens.

(R) Ensure safe Internet.

(S) Data management.

(T) Protection of privacy.

Each challenge is specified with a number of activities. Where possible, these activities are provided with examples of digital tools.

The young ones are richly enabled to communicate, at least digitally. Photo by author


Q. Enabling digital communication and technology for all citizens.

1. The (cable) facilities required for high-speed internet are part of public infrastructure and are available to various providers.

2. Cities have a ‘chief technology officer’ who is acting from the interests and well-being of citizens in the first place and operates as an ‘interface’ between the municipal administration and technology companies.

3. The promotion of meaningful digitization, artificial intelligence and automation coupled with the expansion of personal services in order preserve varied and challenging employment opportunities.

4. The admission of autonomous vehicles has to be matched with the creation of meaningful jobs for former professional drivers. In this respect, companies have own responsibility.

R. Ensuring safe Internet

1. All equipment connected to the Internet will be obliged to have a special cyber quality certificate.

2. Providers of (public) Wi-Fi are responsible for the safety of its use.

3. Companies and organizations that neglect the protection of their hardware, software and data can be held liable for the damage that cyber criminals cause to third parties.

4. Fighting and preventing cybercrime is a first priority.

S. Data management

1. Use of open source software to prevent ‘lock in’ as a result of dependence on suppliers.

2. Ending cooperation with companies that do not subscribe to the rules on data usage and transparency of software.

Rules concerning the collection, storage and management of data.
TADA, declaration for the use of data 

Software for operation of smart cities
Integrative software to coordinate the operation of smart city
software and hardware.
The Living PlanIT UOS

Facial recognition: the dark side of privacy protection. Photo Pixabay

T. Privacy protection

1. Citizens will not be ‘spied’ unnecessarily and their privacy will be respected (‘privacy by default’), apart from legal interventions.

Safe-guarding use of software
Safe-guarding the proper use of software, protection against
intruders and guaranteeing privacy.

2. Citizens decide about the availability of their own data to third parties and unsolicited collection (‘mining’) of data is prohibited.

3. Data collected by sensors in the public space are made available.

The collection and disclosing of sensor data to cities, organizations
and entrepreneurs.

4. Access for all citizens to the data that governments, companies and institutions collect about them, as far as this collection is legal at all.

The availability of data about public space

5. Unauthorized data use about citizens and businesses is illegal, insofar as the law does not regulate this otherwise.


*) Header: Copenhagen: citizens at the center. Photo: Christiane Jodi (licensed under Creative Commons).

**) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

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