Technology should not dominate, but inspire

"Technology should not dominate, but inspire"

Interview with Jan Adriaenssens, Director of Public Technology at imec

To achieve future-proof living, technology is indispensable. The Flemish research centre imec is a forerunner in this process. With the City of Things project, imec is investigating every day how sensors and new technologies can make our cities better.

How does Jan Adriaenssens, Director of Public Technology at imec, see the role of technology in the evolution towards smart and sustainable living?

Read all about it in this interview, where not only data, smart trash cans and digital twins are featured, but also philosophers such as Kant, Rousseau and Aristotle.

Jan Adriaenssens, imec

The importance of balance

Adriaenssens begins the interview with a side note. "When we look at the role of technology in the public domain, it is important to find a good balance: a balance between realising what technology can do and what the policy objectives are. We need to avoid getting into a so-called "tech push story" where technology overwhelms us and the government rushes after it with reactive legislation rather than proactive rules. This was the case, for example, with some global apps - I won't name names - that forced legislators to adjust regulations on hotels and cabs. Technology should not dominate, but inspire. Technology can be a lever to achieve major societal transitions. But that change must happen simultaneously through other levers, such as behavioural change, regulation, and the design of the public domain.

As a government, your target must be a technologically mature society, especially when it comes to smart and sustainable living, where investments must last many decades. Making all stakeholders - public sector, companies and citizens - technologically mature is our role at imec as a research centre. That's why we started City of Things, to assist the government in that process.

That process revolves around Smart and Sustainable Living in various ways. Take for example the total energy consumption in a country. Some 20% of it is residential. Of that 20%, an average of 75% goes to heating homes. That's a crucial share, hence the importance the government puts on isolating your home. And when we talk about isolation, we're talking about the construction industry. Technology plays an important role in this, which is why at imec we attach great importance to local energy networks, demand-response systems and to developing the next generation of solar cells that can be integrated into facades or windows, for example.

As a government, your target must be a technologically mature society.

Data exchange is crucial

Let me give another illustration of the importance of technology in the development towards smart and sustainable living. A study by the University of Antwerp mapped out the logistics flows in a city. What was the outcome? Of all the logistic kilometres driven in a city, barely 2% comes from couriers delivering mail packages. The largest logistics flow is the construction sector, with 36% of all kilometres. So you're back at the table with the same partner if you want to make urban logistics more sustainable. This can be done in various ways, for example by developing other business models, working with window times for the logistics flows or by making micro deliveries of building materials. But to organize that, you need a lot of data. And thus technology. Because you need to collect information to be able to make data-driven decisions, necessary to make our inhabited world future-proof."

In 2019, imec published a vision paper mapping the needs of an open smart city. In that paper, imec stated that a smart city should become more than the sum of its smart parts. What Jan Adriaenssens means by that, he illustrates with an example.

"Not so long ago, a Flemish city organized an experiment. In a particular neighbourhood it put smart garbage cans on the street, with sensors that collected data to better organize waste collection and prevent fly-tipping. The pilot project was successful and the city issued a call for tenders to equip the other districts with the smart garbage cans as well.

But what happened? That tender was won by another company, whose system was not compatible with that of the pilot district. Consequently, the city now has two dashboards: for the original pilot district and for the other districts of the city. This makes optimization difficult, as no data exchange is possible.

A smart city is more than the sum of its smart parts.

In another city, they wanted to make traffic lights smarter. For example, when it rains, traffic lights can give priority to pedestrians and cyclists faster. These road users then cross less often at red lights, which increases traffic safety. The logical step, therefore, seemed to be to install pluviometers on the traffic lights. But that was not necessary, because there are apps with precipitation radars, whose data could be made available. So you don't have to start collecting that data again.

That's what I mean by "a smart city is more than the sum of its smart parts." Data exchange is crucial.

In a smart city, data, services and sensors are inter-operable. Each application should be able to be plugged into some sort of "data socket," so to speak, to immediately extract the necessary data and plug in new data. Garbage can filling rates, rainfall, logistics flows, air quality, demographics, health, water quality - it's all connected. If you want to solve a policy issue, you can ask a discipline-related question, but the answer is always interdisciplinary: it always relates to multiple policy domains and policy levels. Technology is then crucial to make the data interdisciplinary interoperable. It should be possible to standardize data flows so that we can exchange data uniformly - and with respect for privacy - between the public and private sectors."

The potential of digital twins

To create the smart city, the government needs to make smart decisions. These decisions must be based as much as possible on objective data and criteria. That's where Adriaenssens sees a lot of potential in setting up digital twins.

"A digital twin is a so-called "cross-domain decision support system" which helps to support policy decisions. It is "cross-domain," because it encompasses multiple policy domains, policy levels, and geographic locations.

Such a digital twin is thus eminently inter-operable. It links together data on e.g. traffic, air quality, noise pollution, economic activity, weather and energy in order to solve particular policy questions. This data can originate from real-time information, but the system can also be fed with historical information in order to identify trends.

That data makes cross-domain prediction and simulation possible. You can then start doing short-term forecasting, or even nowcasting. What will happen in the coming hours just before, during and after a rain shower? Simulation is also possible in the long term. What is the effect of putting an apartment building or a bus station in a certain place? What is its effect on traffic, air and water quality, logistics and even climate objectives? You can check all scenarios with a digital twin, combining data and technology from different policy levels and domains."

How would Aristotle think about nuclear power?

How philosophy helps

The Director of Public Technology at imec has two degrees under his belt: a master's degree in mathematics and another one in philosophy. That first degree undoubtedly helps when deploying data and technology. But how is the second degree useful for answering policy questions? Jan Adriaenssens:

"I studied "Philosophy and Public Policy" at the London School of Economics. This looks at major policy questions from the perspective of philosophical currents. How would Kant view this issue of road safety? What would be Rousseau's view on euthanasia? How would Aristotle think about nuclear power or healthcare costs? This theoretical exercise helps to think analytically about policy questions and to unravel them to their essence. In that fine-grained analysis lies the foundation for compromise and solution. Philosophy helps me think about questions differently and unravel them even further than I used to."

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