Demystifying the smart city



Over the last decade developments in digital culture have radically transformed the practice of design. We have witnessed how data has become the oil for knowledge production, how algorithms and platforms have changed the consumption of culture, and how everyday objects have become connected to the internet. While there has been much speculation about how these developments will change design and subsequently society, we currently live in a time where these developments not only talk the talk; they walk the walk! 

With these developments, culture and technology are fused in hybrid constellations. As such, the types of know-how and skills needed to influence this movement have expanded and include a variety of disciplines. Sensor Lab aims to bring together this variety of actors (human and non-human) to instigate a more open attitude towards how we can develop and use solutions created in this new era, especially in relationship to the 'smart technologies’ development.

About Sensor Lab

Everyday objects that have traditionally occupied the offline / non-digital world are rapidly becoming incorporated into the online / digital space. Integrating sensors to collect data, a network connection and intelligent algorithms, has created so called ‘Smart Technology’, which promises to optimise processes and improve our lives. 

Smart technology has since become ubiquitous and is increasingly shaping our experiences with the new opportunities it offers. However, creating flawless solutions can be complicated. Many lack a clear added value and longevity, do not work seamlessly, and do not have a sustainable strategy to deal with privacy and security issues. On a more fundamental level of automatisation and governance there are many questions about what is being automated and by whom? What skills and knowledge do you need to obtain to engage in meaningful discussions with smart technology?

To successfully tackle these challenges, a holistic approach is needed to obtain a broad perspective in this fledgling sector. Multi-disciplinary teams and an open attitude towards design, technology, values and policies are required to be able to implement ethical design strategies, and create valuable and sustainable solutions in this innovative sector.

Founded in mid-2017, Sensor Lab provides a space where (digitally-focused) designers, artists, developers and students can meet, discover, experiment and create new solutions focused on data, hardware and sensors. We organise public events and workshops to actively share knowledge with the community and where industry specialists can network and exchange ideas and opinions. 

Our mission:

  • To bring together the smart technology community in the Netherlands. 

  • To learn about, experiment with, and design valuable Smart Technology solutions.

  • To create, test and validate Proof of Concept for smart technology solutions.

  • To discuss, create and provide guidelines for the successful creation of smart technology solutions.

  • To be a place where digitally-oriented professionals in Utrecht and the surroundings can meet and collaborate. 

Still in the early start-up stage, we have focused on setting-up our lab, growing a community, building our online presence, organising multiple, themed meet-ups and workshops, and developing several experiments.

The Smart City

A popular subset of smart technology, the “Smart City”, is expected to empower us with better insights and more efficient use of our cities. What that entails exactly and how it will evolve, however, is not entirely clear. 

Many cities in the Netherlands have experimented with the concept of the smart city. In most cases, this involves research into the potential added value that can be attained, how cities will have to regulate the Smart City, and what is needed to support a fully functional Smart City. More often than not, these projects are initiated unbeknownst to, and without the active participation of the residents, despite the impact the consequences would have on them and the liveability of their city.

With smart technology continuing to permeate more aspects of our lives, the Smart City presents a new stream of data collection in the physical world, a domain that has not yet received much attention. As we become more aware of the influence of data and the disastrous repercussions of its misuse,
it is more relevant than ever to understand how we are monitored in public spaces, who monitors us and how that data is used. Sensor Lab aims with this program to develop methods and solutions that empower citizens to choose how they want to relate to the Smart City.



In just a few decades, we have seen technology proliferate and penetrate sectors and industries like never before. With the miniaturisation of sensors in technology, we are gifted with a new way of perceiving the world around us, and given new opportunities to act upon these insights to change our experiences and optimise processes.

However, with these advancements in technology and surveillance, come concerns for our individual freedoms and privacy. While the recent exposure of the mismanagement and misuse of personal data has raised awareness of the risks and violations to our privacy that we are exposed to online, little thought and attention is paid to our vulnerability in the physical, offline world.

Also the discussions about smart technologies in the media tend to represent cultural anxieties based on wild speculative terminator-style scenarios rather than what is currently possible and practised within the field. We would rather talk about rogue robots than discrimination in automated governance systems due to biased or incomplete data sets. 

A sense of the city

Integrating sensor technologies into cities, to monitor such things as traffic flow, air quality, light pollution etc., is nothing new. However, by combining data sets, applying algorithms and networking devices to work together, the city acquires a new sense. As we gain new and better insights into our cities, we are promised wholly new solutions to making our cities more pleasant, healthier and greener, more efficient and cleaner.

At present, Smart City projects are often initiated by the municipality, government and / or large corporations. Such projects allow corporations to develop their technology for wider application, while gathering an invaluable amount of data from residents. The municipality and government in turn receive investment towards the development of infrastructure and social benefits from such projects. Residents on the other hand, often remain oblivious, and have little say or influence in the projects that will potentially have a great impact on their everyday lives and the city they reside in.

Sidewalk Labs, is developing an area in Toronto as the global hub for urban innovation and an exemplary Smart City. Sensors and cameras will record everything possible, including all the actions of its residents. While they may be aware of the surveillance, they may not know about all the information gathered on them or what it will ultimately be used for.

The above raises some concerns. The first being the involvement and contribution of the residents, and how aware they are about the projects and the information collected. The second concerns that of privacy, which is being called into question as institutes do not always have the expertise or capability of managing information privacy. 

When considering the number of ongoing and planned projects for the region, solutions are especially needed to address these issues sooner rather than later.

These concerns are widely discussed in the more critical academic and artistic discourses and are slowly influencing the more technical and business oriented stakeholders. Sensor Lab aims to dive into these topics and investigate how design can meaningfully contribute to it.

Creating tangible solutions

We want to approach the challenge by engaging professionals and students from different disciplines, public offices, organisations, and the community, in order to obtain different perspectives and insights.

Can we increase the transparency of the practices of organisations and municipalities in the smart city? How can residents be made aware of the data collected, and its ownership? How can we not only provide that information, but also visually represent it in a tangible and engaging way? Can we provide residents with the tools and means by which they can be involved in and act upon the development of their smart city? 

Our focus is on experimenting with what is possible; producing proof of concepts, methods, protocols and guidelines that can inform and ignite future developments within the field, whilst uncovering what is currently happening in the Smart City so that citizens are enabled to form opinions about it.

In this project we propose three research tracks in which we will collaborate with the following confirmed partners; students and researchers of Utrecht University (Datafied Society), HRO (School of Communication, Media and Information Technology), policy makers of the Utrecht Municipality, creative Industry professionals from Tech Solidarity NL, Creative Coding Utrecht and CLEVERºFRANKE.