(re)think the role of smart sensors in the digital age


In 2021, the Network Institute published an open call “Use me!” aimed at funding thought-provoking art installations on any aspect at the intersection of technology and society. The winning creative applications were displayed on a 65-inches screen in the VU campus for a whole academic year on a rotating basis. Our jury consisted of a pool of active international artists, creative technologists, and scientists. We funded the best three creative art installations and “(re)think the role of smart sensors in the digital age” was one of the winning ones.

The project

There are smart cameras all around us in the public space. From the police, the city government, big and small companies, and from residents. We may have become used to them by now and feel safe because of them. But these camera’s analyse us with artificial intelligence. And they store these analyses somewhere with a specific purpose. ‘(re)think the role of smart sensors in the digital age’ questions this development. The video installation explores the space between what smart cameras currently do and what they might do in the near future. By doing so we encourage ongoing conversations. How do we want these smart technologies to evolve? Immerse yourself in the installation, talk about it with fellow students and university staff, and let your voice be heard! (See full description below)

The work is created by Marjoleine van der Meij (Athena) and Marco Schürmann (Marcosch Media), inspired by the CATALYST project (NWO:CISC.CC.007) and funded by the VU Network Institute.

Video installation in the NU-VU building, 1st floor.

Full description

The seed for the video installation ‘(re)think the role of smart sensors in the digital age’ was planted during the CATALYST project (NWO:CISC.CC.007), which was a collaborative project of AMS, TUDelft, VU and NEMO Kennislink. CATALYST focused on arts-based dialogue between residents and professionals about smart technologies in the city of Amsterdam. The forms of dialogue in the project varied from physical art installations on the street, to a co-creation board game in community centres, and a facilitated theatrical debate.

The city of Amsterdam is, like many cities, full of cameras with all sorts of functionalities. The list of these often so-called ‘smart sensors’ is becoming longer and longer every year: smart waste bins, smart lamp posts, smart traffic lights, smart surveillance cameras, smart crowd control, smart bill boards, and so on. Both the municipality as well as companies, but also residents are using these sensors. And although they ought to be registered, many of them are not. And although the term ‘smart sensors’ is often applied to these systems, they are cameras with a filter and they use artificial intelligence to analyse the filtered (audio and/or visual) materials that they capture. These filters are mandatory in case the law prescribes this. But what happens if the situation as it is suddenly changes, for example due to an emergency? Before the COVID pandemic, nobody could have ever thought that a Corona App would be developed, right?

In the city of Amsterdam, quite a few pioneering activities emerged in the last decenium, in terms of smart technology-related innovation. On the one hand, the municipality had founded a privacy committee, to bow over moral-ethical issues related to technology in the city. On the other hand, a smart city innovation accelerator was founded, Amsterdam Smart City, which, amongst others, functions as a connector for many smart technology-related start-ups, scale-ups, more established companies, municipality data-processing departments, and various other parties. While the smart innovation momentum hence seems to be there in Amsterdam, we also noted that little residents are included in this, while they are the people that smart technologies are, one could say, ‘applied to’.

CATALYST was a project that tried to open up the smart city innovation in Amsterdam, by facilitating dialogue between residents and professionals on public values. At the same time, the project functioned as an experiment for a science museum, namely NEMO, to become a platform for such dialogue. For the project, we chose to focus on residents that are not the ‘usual suspects’ of citizen engagement: residents of Amsterdam Noord. With both professionals as well as with residents, the dialogue was carefully built-up. We first did activities with residents in a shopping centre and in community houses. We also had numerous conversations with professionals that associated themselves to Amsterdam Smart City. These residents and professionals were then invited to NEMO for a facilitated dialogue with one another.

After these efforts, we analysed the conversations that were held with the residents and professionals.

Many professionals spoke of residents as ‘users’ of their technology, which we as researchers see as only one of the roles that residents can have in innovation. Residents of a city are also citizens, with their own stakes and values. Earlier research into public values of the Rathenau Institute, had highlighted that the smart city is potentially threatening privacy, safety and security, control over technology, human dignity, justice and equality, autonomy, and balance of power.

When we conversed with professionals about these public values, they rather easily seemed to say that for example privacy would be assured in their technology, but on the other hand, they were also skeptic themselves about the existence of privacy these days (“anonymity does not exist anymore if you know geo-data”), or the need of privacy (“what we see as normal to share is shifting anyways”). They also acknowledged that while users of their technology would feel as if they have autonomy in choices that the technology would ask them to make, their real freedom in choice would diminish since the technology would only show a few options. Human dignity, justice and equality, and balance of power, were public values that they had hardly spoken about before in the context of their smart technology development.

On the side of the residents, we noted that in first instance, they would not object smart technologies in the street. However, when engaging in longer conversation, they came up with numerous comparable developments that did make them worried as a citizen. And when we asked them to redesign smart technologies that are currently being developed (see the list above) they would often come up with solutions to hack or ‘re-humanize’ the technologies, such as a traffic light to make you wait longer (instead of shorter) and engage in a conversation with your fellow cyclists, or crowd control systems that would make you get lost to see the city in new ways again (and not only to direct you as efficiently as possible from A to B).

Then when analysing the conversations between professionals and citizens that took place in CATALYST, we commonly saw a dominance of the professionals’ framings of smart technologies. When citizens would raise questions about privacy, for example, professionals could easily downplay such concerns by claiming “but it is for your safety, right?”, despite strong facilitation to get the citizens equally heard. And such dominant frames would then lead the conversation to a dead end.

The dominance of a tech-industry driven framing of smart technologies in society, as well as in the CATALYST project (despite our many efforts to open that up), is exactly what triggered us to make this video installation. We conclude, namely, that as citizens, we should keep thinking about what role we want smart sensors to have in our cities. And for VU students and employees, the most tangible ‘case’ for such reflection is the city of Amsterdam. We hope to trigger thoughts and conversations amongst and between students, employees and other visitors of the NU VU building about how they see these technologies, and how they want them to be in the future. Although one might have quite fatalist ideas on the degree to which we can still shape smart technologies on a global scale, we believe that such reflection can have a ripple effect and may eventually reach those that do have the ‘shaping power’ in this.


  • Fraaije, A., van der Meij, M.G., Broerse, J.E.W., and Kupper, F. (Accepted). Arts-based smart city dialogue. Research for All.
  • Fraaije, A, van der Meij, M.G., Kupper F., & Broerse J.E.W. (2022). Art for public engagement on emerging and controversial technologies: A literature review. Public Understanding of Science. May, 1-17.
  • Kool, L., Timmer, J., Royakkers, L., & van Est, R. (2017). Opwaarderen – borgen van publieke waarden in de digitale samenleving. Rathenau Instituut.