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Report (part 3) of workshop “Data Commons for smart cities”

[this report is also published on https://www.bijt.org/wordpress/tag/workshop-report-data-commons/]

This is the first part of a 3-part report of a workshop held on 6 October 2022 about the data commons and the smart city, which I co-organized. Links to part 1 >>, and to part 2 >>.

Background of the workshop

In our datafied smart cities, the creation of value out of data lies mostly in the hands of companies and governments. As data is considered to be a new type of resource, questions arise around for instance the governance of this resource but also its potential for citizen agency. These two approaches to the data commons  – as on the one hand a matter of governance and regulation, and on the other hand its promise of increasing democratic civic participation and inclusion – were central to the one-day workshop Data Commons and the Smart City, which was organized by Utrecht University and the Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society (HIIG).

The data commons are one of the models advanced in academic literature and political practice to restructure our economies and societies in more bottom-up inclusive, and democratic ways. During this workshop, the promises and pitfalls were discussed with experts from a variety of backgrounds.

In the morning session we laid the groundwork for speaking about data commons in relation to smart cities. Workshop participants were asked to show an exemplary case and make an opening statement about what the data commons means for them. Guiding questions were: What is the concrete problem or case your contribution deals with, and how can your example of a data-commons from your own research or practice shed new light on what works, what does not, and why? What makes it a data/digital commons? What kind of (digital) resource does it revolve around: data, access, infrastructures, etc.? What kind of community are we seeing? What are the two most important challenges or problems your concrete case draws attention to?

The workshop was organized by Gijs van Maanen & Nadya Purtova (EU funded INFO-LEG project), Michiel de Lange (focus area “Governing the Digital Society” GDS), and Jörg Pohle (Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society HIIG). This workshop is part of a seminar and workshop series on the data commons.

Participants: Anna Artyushina, Tommaso Fia, Alexander Mörelius-Wulff & Emeline Banzuzi, Tasniem Anwar & Berna Keskindemir, Martijn de Waal, Jiska Engelbert, Gijs van Maanen, Nadya Purtova, Michiel de Lange, Jörg Pohle. 

6 Oct 2022, Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society, Französische Straße 9 Berlin.

Image credit: Alexander von Humboldt Institute for Internet and Society


After the lunch break, I (Michiel de Lange) continued the round of presentations by talking about the Snuffelfiets case as an example of commoning data. Snuffelfiets is a project started by a public-private consortium in Utrecht Province, mobilizing cyclists to install a small sensing device to their bicycle steer in order to measure air quality.

What I am interested in is the role of socio-technical controversies in relation to datafied smart cities and citizen engagement and inclusion. For the workshop, I wanted to explore the connection between controversies and the commons. In my view, research and designing for the data commons needs to give central stage to frictions and contestations. Of course classical commons scholars like Ostrom too looked at frictions and tensions. Governing the commons requires institutions: accepted ways to settle disputes and punish breaches. Still, frictions and tensions tend to be seen as exceptions to be overcome. They are conceptually framed as obstacles, not vehicles for empowerment and agency. Why the need for this controversies approach? Classical commons are mostly about fairly tight-knit communities around localized, finite and walled resources. In the context of an increasingly urban planet in general, and datafied smart cities in particular, this no longer holds.

         There is no agreement on how to understand the term ‘data commons’: from commoning data as a way to govern it in a more democratic way, to considering data as part of commoning practices in order to increase people’s engagement with smart cities and socio-technical issues. My interest is with the second. The term ’commons’ is commonly understood along 3 dimensions: 1. as a resource, a collectively shared and managed good; 2. as a collective: a more or less well-defined and delineated group of people responsible for governing shared resources; 3. as a praxis: commoning as doing the everyday management and stewardship, governance in practice.

         For each of these 3 levels, I raised a number of thorny questions that highlight frictions in collaborative sensing and collective data producing projects like Snuffelfiets, like:

  1. Commons as resource: What do we actually consider to be the ‘resource’? Perhaps it is not the data as such, but the way data may contribute to the articulation of the issue via frictions and controversies around public values, that makes data into a resource? Can we understand data in a material sense as ‘talking matter’ for the common good?
  2. Commons as collective: Who can actually be part of collectives governing the data commons, who have a voice? Can we reconceptualize the commons as ‘collectives-in-difference’? And can we understand data as a ‘social glue’ that helps to forge sticky bonds between different people?
  3. Commons as praxis: How can data commoning contribute to repoliticizing the smart city? The commons is frequently pitted against relentless value extraction from citizens by big tech companies. Commoning is seen as a more inclusive and just mode of regulating and governing collective and public issues. But it isn’t so by nature, by any inherently better principle. Can it function within current ‘surveillance capitalism’ or is it indeed a way to break out or go beyond it? Smart city governance through data, with urban interfaces like dashboard, apps, screens, encapsulates a vision of friction-free management, instead of an agonistic smart city politics rife with tensions and conflict. Can we understand data commoning as a form of ‘controversing’: a continual process of making controversial how datafication shapes urban life and culture?

Finally, at the end of the day, Gijs van Maanen (like Tasniem) walked us through what’s happening at urban testbed Marineterrein. His main question is how this might contribute to the establishment of a ‘fair data economy’.


Gijs spoke about different notions of the ‘data commons’, and which one might be most applicable when it comes to addressing questions like: “What is being governed? By whom, who are the actors involved in governance? What kind of relationships are being established through the socio-technical setup of the commons?” In relation to the idea of a fair data economy, important issues include: what kind of moral logics are at play (e.g. compared to the free market logics), what does it mean in a smart city context, and what are implications for privacy and data protection?



To conclude, the workshop brought together a very diverse group of scholars who each approach the data commons from a particular disciplinary angle (governance, media, urban). These different frames and perspectives lead to a fruitful dialogue between the disciplines. It became clear that the notion of the data commons is not to be considered a catch-all proposed solution for questions concerning the just governance of smart cities. As a framing notion however it may help to advance our thinking about more inclusive datafied cities. Attempts at defining what the data commons is or should be are perhaps less fruitful than using the term as a ‘sensitizing notion’ that allows us to zoom in on aspects of today’s datafied cities that might otherwise be overlooked: issue articulation and controversies arising from it, collective agency and potential for joint action, shifting power dynamics between stakeholders like government, businesses, knowledge institutions and citizens, public values and collective governance/the governance of collectives in the context of datafied smart cities.

This report started with part 1 >>

And here is part 2  >>


License: Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International