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Rob van Gijzel Interview
Lily Maxwell10. June 201913 min read

Rob van Gijzel on the Importance of Smart Cities & Smart Citizens

Rob van Gijzel, the former Mayor of Eindhoven and current Chairman of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF) Foundation in New York and National Ambassador for the Blockchain Cities Coalition speaks about the importance of smart cities and smart citizens.

Tell me a bit about your background - how did you first get into urban issues/smart cities?

Rob van Gijzel, former Mayor of Eindhoven and Chairman of the ICF
My entire life has been centered around cities and city development. I was born in a city - Eindhoven - and later in life I became the city renewal coordinator in Amsterdam. I was a member of the lower houses of the Dutch National parliament, representing the constituency of Amsterdam for a while, and then, once I had left, I started my own business in cooperation between government, business/entrepreneurs and knowledge institutions. 
Cooperation within cities became my thing and eventually, as you know, I became the Mayor of Eindhoven, where I had the opportunity to facilitate greater cooperation between different city stakeholders all day long, bringing together different partners for new urban developments.

What do you think of the term smart city?

As the ICF chairman, for me it’s more about intelligent communities: it’s more about the whole texture of society than about cities themselves as abstract things. It’s about all the parties in the city who continuously create society together, because it’s so important to work across society and include everyone.

Technology offers us amazing things - it is allowing people to live longer for cheaper, giving us the chance to create and implement advanced mobility, energy etc. solutions - but it also has its downsides and we need to remain critical. A lot of the silicon valley types are claiming that we can solve a lot of the world’s grand challenges with technology, but that we are being prevented from doing this by governments. They say that governments and their legislation lack speed or any proper understanding of tech, blocking new technologies without fully comprehending how great or powerful they could be. 

This is true in some ways (I will touch on this more later) but many of these tech entrepreneurs say that we should have a society without a government. But, to me at least, this doesn’t translate into “power to the people”, rather it means living in a world where google makes all the decisions. 

The USA is the society of money - it has a commercial-driven economy, and the companies from there are thus generally also commercially - rather than socially - driven. If you look at how apple treats their employees - there is a strike almost every day somewhere - it is worrying to think that they think they should control the future. Even more so when you consider that they have all our data. If you have an apple watch or a google watch, for example, you can see everything about your body - your blood pressure, sleep patterns, etc. but it’s easy to forget that the tech company who operates the product can see them too! All of these figures are being sent 24/7 to silicon valley to the commercial desk or research desk of that company. They can see exactly how much alcohol you drink, how many cigarettes you smoke, if you run - everything. Effectively, there is no privacy: they have all our data. 

So what do you suggest that we do about the risks that new technology poses?

Some governments are implementing measures to control the advancement of new technologies and protect users’ data. Germany is moving to block developments that have potentially negative impacts, for example regulating Uber, or prohibiting anyone from having an apple/google watch until they’re 18. 

If I was still Mayor, I would invite Google and Apple to come and discuss how we can marry commercial, public and private interests to create outcomes that benefit everyone. Because what they have is useful to me: as Mayor, I may not be interested in an individual person’s data, but that of the crowd could be incredibly informative for me, for instance for pinpointing in which neighborhoods heart failure is most prevalent in my city. They want to sell watches and do research and I want to protect my constituents and access certain data sets to make their lives better. If we came together, we could discuss these matters and come to an agreement, eventually bringing about a win-win situation for all. Because, in the end, technology should help us to make society better.

Why work on society’s big problems at the city-level? Why not at the national or supranational level?

I was in the houses of parliament in the Netherlands for 13 years, I worked on many different bits of legislation. But the problem with a lot of national legislation is that it protects the past and blocks the future. No one knows what will happen tomorrow, which means that legislation - fixed in the present with no knowledge of the future - can’t keep up with changing times.

When you look at international developments - you see generation after generation moving into the cities - global urbanization is happening almost everywhere. In the Netherlands alone, 80% of people now live in cities. This wasn’t always the way: in Europe, this huge urban demographic shift has happened in one generation: worldwide it will happen in two generations. 

Cities are therefore where most people live now and will live in future. As I mentioned before, the central point for creating change at a societal level is understanding that no one knows what the future will look like - in one year, two years or ten years. It is important to understand that the future does not develop from a to b: it is instead a process, a continuous cycle of failure and success. This cycle is crucial to real, long-term beneficial development, and can only happen at the city-level. I’ll explain why: 

What we are seeing in most cities is that growing populations are highlighting the obsolescence of key public systems and services - mobility, water, education, energy, food processing, supply, housing etc - at the local level. These systems are not only largely outdated, but they do not have the capacity for the increasing numbers of people using them.

When we then consider how we have exhausted the planet’s resources, we can see that this is the grand challenge that we are facing: how to capitalize on the few resources we have left to give everyone a minimum quality of life, without damaging mother nature more. And fundamentally, we have to use technology to help solve these grand challenges, and we have to do it at the local level, where most people live, i.e. in cities, and where we can go through the cycle of failure and success. Legislation at the state and interstate levels is blocking our ability to find a new way at the speed that we need to: national governments are not able to experiment, but cities are, through cooperating and working with all the different stakeholders across society. 

So it’s about recognizing the power of the city and the local, and focusing on creating benefits for everyone. Caution, as I mentioned above, is needed when it comes to technology, but fundamentally we need to leverage new technologies to solve the great challenges facing us. 

The last century was the century of the supranational institutions and relations between the different states: this century is the century of the city, of very fast technological and demographic developments - essentially, of enormous changes. We have to solve the problems facing us, and it is impossible to do it on a global or national scale.

Ok, and where do smart cities fit into all of this? What, to you, is the future of smart cities?

At the beginning of the ‘smart city’ concept, Cisco came along wanting to sell new technologies. They told city councils: “we can do this and that, but you have to pay for everything fully and do the implementation”. This happened in Amsterdam, Barcelona etc. but when the budget was gone, Cisco was gone. Different places are also using tech in different ways: culture is an important influence in this regard. In the USA, they are using tech for commercial purposes; in Asia, for example in China, they are using tech and data to control the population. My vision for future smart cities is instead for us to use data and technology to ‘humanize’ society more - but this first requires us to ‘humanize’ technology. 

This implies a completely different system, one that no longer centers around technology companies and the notion of the ‘smart city’, but instead on how we establish a “smart society”. We need to decide which people we should be working with and for, how we improve the housing situation and make energy systems etc. more sustainable. In other words, the new smart city should be about making society better, not just about using technology.

Fundamental to the development of smart cities are two things: imagination and the ability to fail. Countries and cities across the world, regardless of their national/local culture, will have to make sure that these two things are allowed to flourish if they are going to implement successful and socially beneficial smart city strategies. 

Can you give me an example of a smart city initiative that you think is particularly successful that you implemented in Eindhoven?

As Mayor, I started my role by hosting forum discussions on the big challenges facing us as a community. One of these discussions was on health, and involved local government, entrepreneurs, knowledge institutions, hospital staff, doctors, nurses, patients, insurance companies - everyone, including end-users of all ages. Around eighty people and institutions came together for a meeting, which made it hard to actually decide what we needed, and how we could achieve it. These discussions always ended with one question - “is there someone with an idea that they believe in who is not able to realize it?” This time, Phillips put up their finger and said “we have a device, but we cannot get it to the market - it works as such: you put your hand down onto it, and within 30 seconds, you can measure all your essential vitamins, blood pressure, etc. through the skin with no need to take blood or anything”. 

Then someone came up with a solution: to use the device for elderly people in rural areas who live at home. So we put the idea into practice: with the aid of designers, hospitals, local government, and the people themselves, we made a couple of devices and put them into peoples’ homes. During the first week and a half, they were very satisfied with it: they knew exactly what was going on in their bodies. However, after a few weeks, they started to say that they didn’t like it at all. Why? Well it turned out that they were missing the company of the nurse. In the old system, a nurse came by two-three times a week, took their blood pressure etc., and, crucially, had a chat with them. So the designers said “okay, we are going to think about it” and they came up with solution: a kind of Skype. Only the people next door, nurses, relatives or friends in the surrounding area would be able to Skype the elderly person, but it would help them to contact people, who might do some shopping for them now and again, or bring them ready-made food, or even just come by for a cup of tea. It would give them access to their network of family and friends through the click of a button in a safe and private way. 

The elderly patients were very satisfied with this solution, but then, all of a sudden, it was flagged up and prohibited because of the insurance system. In the legislation there is a list of everything we as governments pay for and this new device wasn’t on the list so it was not allowed, meaning that elderly people would have to pay for everything on their own, which they obviously could not do. Anyway, after a lot of toing and froing, we have decided that we see this as so promising that we are going to have a debate with the national government in order to get it verified and on the list. In any case, my central answer to your question was that I see this kind of smart city initiative as very successful because it helps real people and promotes inclusivity; it involves carrying out experiments with and for local people, working with different stakeholders, finding out together that some things don’t work but others do. It fits into my idea of giving new power to a city and its communities.

What is the role of Blockchain in smart cities do you think?

I am the National Ambassador for the Dutch Blockchain Coalition, which already has five universities, banks, and quite a lot of other stakeholders involved, so I am obviously an advocate of the power of blockchain for smart cities. But I think we are expecting too much from blockchain right now: of course blockchain offers great things, but it will take time and there are some things we still need to figure out. We have a right to be forgotten at the moment, for instance, but in blockchain being ‘forgotten’ is difficult because everything is recorded, even if it’s anonymous. On the other hand, guaranteeing who you are doing transactions with is still difficult: if I want to sell Rob my house, for example, and I am carrying out the transaction through blockchain, then I do not know if Rob is actually Rob who is sitting there behind the screen, or if he actually has the money, and Rob also cannot guarantee that the house is actually under my ownership. So we need a system to identify everyone and identify their assets that also allows for anonymity.

We are working on solving this through a biometric identification model, and trying to see if we can create a system where you can be simultaneously anonymous but also be sure that the person you think is on the other side of the transaction is genuinely that person - in other words, guaranteeing genuine e-signatures/identities.

Blockchain brings many potential benefits: it is very efficient, especially in countries where reliable third-parties are sparse. In the Netherlands, our system of reliable third parties is huge, but in countries like Sri Lanka, when you buy a house, for instance, you sometimes don’t know if you own it or not, and nothing is registered. Blockchain can really help with this. The ability to tokenize systems through blockchain is also very useful; in the North of the Netherlands, in the old system, poorer parents receive welfare money for sick children, and governments just have to hope that the parents are using money for the children themselves. Now, with blockchain, we give them tokens that can only be used at relevant retailers and services that are really focused on improving quality of life for children. 

We still need to improve all of these blockchain systems - it will be at least two years before we have proper running systems that have smoothed out the kinks. Blockchain has a potential to bring huge benefits in smart cities, but this will probably happen in the future as the technology becomes more advanced and we figure out ways to scale pilot projects across whole cities. 

As a final question, who have you been inspired by most in your work in (smart) cities?

I have been very inspired by Benjamin Barber, originally an advisor to Bill Clinton, who wrote the now well-known book If Mayors Ruled the World. His way of thinking has inspired me a lot and I try to implement it wherever I can in my work.

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Image Sources:
Banner Image: iStock ID: 924065366 / Credit: MarsYu
Portrait Image: Gemeente Eindhoven, Boudewijn van Lieshout [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons,


Lily Maxwell

Lily is a freelance writer, translator and content-creator, specialised in smart cities and urbanism. After studying at the University of Cambridge, she moved to Barcelona and is now based between Spain and England, working with several different urban-focused European organisations. She speaks French, Spanish and English, and aims to tackle German and Italian next!