Herman van den Bosch


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Herman van den Bosch, professor in management development , posted

Beyond the smart city: Digital innovation for the Good of citizens

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About ten years ago, technology companies started to provide cities with technology, luring them with the predicate ‘smart(er)’, a registered trademark of IBM.  At that time Cisco's vice-president of strategy Inder Sidhudescribed the company’s ‘smart city play’ as its biggest opportunity, a 39,5 billion dollar-market. During the years, that followed, the prospects rocketed: The consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimated the global smart city technology market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020.

The persistent policy of technology companies to suggest a tight link between technology and the wellbeing of the citizens, angers me. Every euro these companies are chasing at, is citizens’ tax money. What has been accomplished until now is disappointing, as I documented in the IET Journal.  According to The Economist it is not surprising that a ‘techlash’ is underway: Many have had it with the monopolistic dominance of behemoths like Google, Amazon, Facebook and the like, because of their treatment of sensitive data, the lack of transparency and accountability of algorithm-based decision making and the huge profits they make from it.

Regaining public control

However, let's not throw out the baby with the bathwater and see how digital innovation can be harnessed for the Good of all citizens. Regaining public control demands four institutional actions at city level.

1. Practicing governance
Before even thinking about digitalization, a city must convert into best practices of governance. Governance goes beyond elections and enforcing the law. An essential characteristic is that all citizens can trust that government represents their will and protects their interests. Therefore, it is necessary to go beyond formal democratic procedures and contact stakeholders directly, enable forms of participatory budgeting and deploy deliberative polling.
Aligning views of political parties and needs and wants of citizens takes time and a lot of effort. The outcome might be a common vision on the solution of a city’s problems and the realisation of its ambitions, and a consecutive political agenda including the use of tools, digital ones included.

2. Strengthening executive governmental power
Lack of cooperation within the departmental urban organizations prevents not only an adequate diagnosis of urban problems but also the establishment of a comprehensive package of policy instruments, including legislation, infrastructure, communication, finance and technology. Instead, decisions are made from within individual silos, resulting in fragmented and ineffective policies. Required is a problem-oriented organization instead of a departmental one and a mayor that oversees the internal coherence of the policy.

3. Level playing field with technology companies
Cities must increase their knowledge in the field of digitization, artificial intelligence in particular. Besides,  but they should only work with companies that comply with ethical codes as formulated in the comprehensivemanual, Ethically Aligned Design: A Vision for Prioritizing Human Well-being with Autonomous and Intelligent Systems, drafted by the influential Institute of Electric and Electronic Engineers (IEEE)
Expertise at city level must come from a Chief Technology Officer who aligns technological knowledge with insight in urban problems and will discuss with company representatives on equal foot. Digitalisation must be part of all policy areas, therefore delegating responsibility to one alderman is a bad idea. Moreover, an alderman is not an adequate discussion partner for tech companies.

4. Approving and supporting local initiatives
Decentralization of decision-making and delegating responsibility for the execution of parts of the policy to citizen’s groups or other stakeholders helps to become a thriving city. Groups of citizens, start-ups or other local companies can invoke the right of challenge and might compete with established companies or organizations.

In summary: steps towards seamless integration of digitalization in citizen-orientated policy

1.     Define together with citizens a vision on the development of the city, based on a few central goals such as sustainable prosperity, inclusive growth, humanity or - simply - happiness.
2.     Make an inventory of what citizens and other stakeholders feel as the most urgent issues (problems and ambitions).
3.     Find out how these issues are related and rephrase them if desirable.
4.     Deepen insight in these issues, based on available data and data to be collected by experts or citizens themselves.
5.     Assess ways to address these issues, their pros and cons and how they align with the already formulated vision.
6.     Make sure that digital technology has been explored as part of the collected solutions.
7.     Investigate which legal, organizational, personnel and financial barriers may arise in the application of potential solutions and how to address them.
8.     Investigate undesired effects of digital techniques, in particular long-term dependence ('lock-in') on commercial parties.
9.     Formulate clear actions within the defined directions for dealing with the issues to be addressed. Involve as many expert fellow citizens as possible in this.
10.  Make a timetable, calculate costs, and indicate when realization of the stated goals should be observable.
11.  Involve citizens, non-governmental and other organizations in the implementation of the actions and make agreements about this.
12.  At all stages of the process, seek support from those who are directly involved and the elected democratic bodies.
13.  Act with full openness to all citizens.

I can't agree more than with the words of Léan Doody (smart city expert Arup Group): I don't necessarily think 'smart' is something to strive for in itself. Unlike sustainability or resilience, 'smart' is not a normative concept…. The technology must be a tool to deliver a sustainable city. As a result, you can only talk about technological solutions if you understand which problems must be solved, whether these problems are rooted in the perceptions of stakeholders and how they relate to other policy instruments.

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Herman van den Bosch, professor in management development , posted

How plastics became a perfect example of the take-make-waste economy

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Every year, more than 300 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide, half of which are for single use. Only 10% of all plastics are made from recycled material. Their production contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and plastic waste threats our health.

It could have been otherwise, and it still can as plastics are versatile materials which can be valuable parts of a circular economy.

Unilever leads the way in integrating plastics in a circular economy. Better late than never. The company currently produces 700,000 tons of plastic packaging and it intends reducing this massive quantity by a not-very impressive 100,000 tons in 2025. Moreover, the company wants that all its plastic packaging becomes recyclable, compostable of reusable, and that at least 25% recycled plastic is used in the production of new plastic.

Easier said than done

Recycling is easier said than done. Preventing plastics from entering nature requires a labor-intensive and costly system for collecting and separating waste and technology for high-quality recycling of the collected plastic waste. New machines limit this unattractive work thanks to artificial intelligence. They are able to separate 20 different types of plastics. But consumers must be willing to collect used plastics first.

One of the biggest hurdles in recycling plastics is its pollution, for instance because of added dyes. The Dutch company Ioniqa (now part of Unilever) can chemically reduce PET waste to virgin PET. Large plastic users like Coca-Cola intent to co-operate with Ioniqa. This video shows how chemical recycling works.

Reusable high-quality products

If plastic had been designed for a circular economy from the start, the emphasis would undoubtedly have been on reusable high-quality products, in combination with substantial deposits. Together with Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble, Nestlé, Unilever has joined Loop, a platform that develops refillable packaging. Supermarkets that deliver products at home can easily include them in their range. This video shows how the system works.

The ultimate solution

What about using sustainable raw materials like biomass? Unfortunately, biomass from reliable sources is becoming increasingly scarce. Moreover, most bio-based plastics are not biodegradable. If they end up in litter, the effects are as harmful as those of other plastics. Some types of biobased plastics are compostable and might be thrown in the green waste. However, expecting consumers to be able to discern which are and which are not is too much to ask.

Biologically degradable plastics are the ultimate solution. These are biobased materials, which are safely broken down in nature in short time. PHA for example. Unfortunately, years of research have not yet resulted in any viable application.

Ban some types of plastic

A recently opened pilot factory in Almere that cycles plastic waste that otherwise would be burned is a promising step. However, the collection of plastic waste is still inadequate, and a large proportion ends up in nature as visual litter and returns to our food chain as toxic plastic soup. This applies in particular to plastic bags, cups, trays for snacks and soft drinks bottles without a deposit. A ban seems to be the only way-out awaiting a solid system of reuse based on substantial deposits and an advanced system of waste collection and separation and subsequent high-level reuse.

I will regularly share with you ‘snapshots’ of the challenges of us, earthlings, to bring social and ecological cities closer using technology if helpful. These posts represent findings, updates, and supplements of my e-book Humane cities. Always humane. Smart if helpful. The English version of this book can be downloaded for free below.

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Herman van den Bosch, professor in management development , posted

11 building blocks for the transition to sustainable energy

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In five consecutive blog posts, I have explored the opportunities and risks in the energy transition of carbon capturing and storage (CCS), biomass, geothermal energy, hydrogen, and nuclear energy, in addition to solar and wind. Find my conclusions below:

1. Sun and wind energy
I will feel most comfortable in a world deploying energy provided by sun and wind to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This implies a huge transition, which, also brings significant benefits for an emerging sustainable economy.

2. Nuclear energy plants
Instead of opting for an expensive third-generation nuclear power plants, we better invest in the development of fourth generation nuclear energy plants, such as Thorium, or molten salt reactors. Their waste is limited, and they are inherently safe. These reactors could potentially replace outdated wind turbines and solar panels from 2040.

3. Using less
We must also continue using less energy, without undue expectations. After all, clean energy can potentially be abundantly available in the long term, although this is particularly relevant for developing countries.

4. Hydrogen energy
In addition to the use of solar and wind energy, I am opting for hydrogen. It will be used for heavy industry, to level discrepancies in the supply and demand of energy and as an additional provision for heating buildings and houses. The presence of a high-quality gas network is easing this choice. In addition, we use residual heat, biomass of reliable origin and we exploit geothermal energy where its long-term availability is assured.

5. Energy from the desert
By no means we are producing all necessary hydrogen gas ourselves. The expectation is realistic that after 2030 it will be produced in deserts and transported from there at a competitive price.

6. Wind turbines and solar panels
The North Sea and the IJsselmeer will become the most important places for the extraction of wind energy. Besides, solar panels are installed on roofs wherever possible. We care for our landscape and therefore critically consider places where ground-based solar panels can be installed and where wind turbines are not disturbing. Part of the wind energy is converted into hydrogen on site.

7. Capture and store CO2
It could easily last until 2040 before the import and production of hydrogen meets our needs. Therefore, we must continue to use (imported) gas for quite some time.  To prevent greenhouse gas emission, significant capacity to capture and store CO2 must be in place.

8. Gas and coal
Given the availability of temporary underground storage of CO2, premature shutting down our super-efficient gas and coal-fired power stations it is unnecessary capital destruction. They can remain in operation until the facilities for solar and wind energy generation are at the desired level and sufficient hydrogen gas is available.

9. Local energy
Energy co-operations facilitate the local use of locally produced energy, thus enabling lower prices, and limiting the expansion of the electricity grid. To this end, private and neighborhood storage of electricity is provided.

10. Biomass
Reliably collected biomass is deployed as raw material for the biochemical industry in the first place and can further be used for additional fueling of coal and gas-powered stations (with CO2 capture) and as local energy source for medium temperature district heating networks.

11. Take some time
Finally, we must take enough time to choose the best way to heat buildings and houses at neighborhood level. Getting off gas prematurely can induce wrong choices in the longer term. A gradual phasing out of gas heating will enable us to wait longer for the moment when hydrogen (gas) is available to replace the natural gas in neighborhoods where it is the best solution.

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Herman van den Bosch, professor in management development , posted

Meet the five stepdaughters of the energy transition

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Last months, I wrote short essays about controversial aspects of the energy transition: geo-engineering (CCS included), biomass, geothermal energy, hydrogen and nuclear power (in Dutch). With these articles I tried to clarify my thoughts and to share my conclusions with others.  At the end of the fifth article, I arrived at a - provisional - conclusion in 11 short phrases.  I wonder whether you agree....

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Herman van den Bosch, professor in management development , posted

A comprehensive introduction into a human-centric approach of the smart city

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Recently, the peer-reviewed Journal of the Engineering and ˜Technology published an overview of the emergence of a human-centric approach into smart cities in contrast to the techno-centric approach. In this article I give many examples how technology can be applied as an enabler tp improve social and ecological sustainable city actions, starting from the principles of the donut-economy

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Herman van den Bosch, professor in management development , posted

Want a printed version of my free e-book Cities of the Future?

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Recently, I published my new e-book: Cities of the Future. Always Humane. Smart if Helpful.
You can download this book for free here:
Dutch version
English version

In case you prefer a compact printed version in Dutch (180 pages), transfer €20,00 to IBAN NL35 INGB 000 167 55 50 on behalf of H. van den Bosch, mention your address and you will receive your copy in a few days

Herman van den Bosch's picture #Citizens&Living