Technology and the City: Will New Light Technologies Produce Safe Entertainment Districts?

By Albert Meijer (Utrecht School of Governance) and Marcel Thaens (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

How can we make our cities safe? Entertainment areas in big cities are places of fun but also of trouble. Thefts and fights frequently occur on these areas when people gather in masses and drink large amounts of alcohol. Police presence may help to enhance safety but is costly and may even have adverse effects. A large police presence may give people the impression that there are problems! For these reasons, cities are looking for innovative ways to enhance the safety of entertainment areas.

The entertainment area of Stratumseind in the City of Eindhoven in the Netherlands was no different from similar areas around the world. Until recently, the entertainment area was weighed down by different forms of crime such as theft, vandalism and violence. And this was not the only problem. At the same time the economic viability of this entertainment area was at risk with a declining number of visitors. In 2012 the Mayor of Eindhoven decided that action was needed and started bi-weekly consultations. A key idea that resulted from these consultations was the improvement of Stratumseind with light technology. Light technology means that the colors of light are used to influence how people feel and their behavior. Earlier research has shown that inmates behave better when light is used to influence their mood. The value in public spaces has not yet been demonstrated but intelligent use of new light technology may also be used to produce a safer and economically more viable entertainment area.

The choice for light technology was rather obvious because Eindhoven is the home town of Philips which is one of the major lighting companies in the world. The Eindhoven University of Technology is also a center of expertise in this technological domain. For testing and implementing the ideas about lighting interventions, the university’s Intelligent Lighting Institute needed a testing area. Stratumseind could provide such a testing area: it would be a testbed for new technology. A grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) was allocated and with the co-financing of Philips, the municipality of Eindhoven and some other partners, the technological project – the Living Lab Stratumseind – that aimed to make the entertainment area safer with new light technology took off in January 2014. This Living Lab is an urban laboratory in for social learning in relation to the new technology.

Is the use of light technology a success? The answer to this question is not straightforward since it depends on the question how you measure success and what value you expect since technology has different roles in the innovation process. Firstly, and most obviously, the technology has instrumental value when it helps the participants to realize their specific objectives such as a safer street but also scientific success and a commercial valuable product. Secondly, the technology has technological value: the acceptance, adoption and use of technology in itself is often seen as valuable. The enormous use of smart phones and tablets, for example, is seen as a success in itself. Other forms of the success are less obvious. Thirdly, technology has collaborative value: the technology as such does not matter but only forms a ‘pretext’ to meet other actors and develop collaborations. Technological collaboration can result in ‘spill over effects’ when trust and mutual appreciation have been created and new forms of innovation may develop when different actors have learned to collaborate. Finally, technology has symbolic value: the technology provides legitimacy to the process of innovation because people attribute success to the technology. The symbolic perspective stresses that the social construction of success – do we see the technology as a success? – is key to support for the innovation process.

We evaluated the use of light technology in Eindhoven on the basis of these four different forms of success and produced some interesting insights into the dynamics of urban technological innovation. A first conclusion was that early technical and symbolic value were key to the continuation of the process. Technological and symbolic value are more easily produced than instrumental and collaborative value. Introducing a trendy and modern technology into issues of street safety raises interest, support and the willingness to collaborate. The ‘wow factor’ of new technologies is of more importance than sometimes acknowledged. A second conclusion was that too much emphasis on technological and symbolic value may undermine collaborative value in the long run. In this case, a conflict seemed be emerging on the question who is the owner of the technological solution. A third conclusion is that long term success will also depend on the instrumental value of the technology. Negative assessments of the use of the technology for producing a safer street could endanger long-term support.

This case highlights that managing urban technological innovation requires an understanding of the social construction of technologies as an interplay between technological features, individual objectives, collaborative capital and symbolic value. The analysis shows that symbolic value may be beneficial to the dynamics in the early phases and that a goal-searching approach proved beneficial to the development of collaborative value. The management of urban technological innovation is initially not only about achieving instrumental value through collaborative action but, to a large extent, about generating the shared imagination that is needed to drive the process forward. At the same time, long-term institutionalization of the collaboration and a focus on the realization of instrumental goals is needed. At a later stage, initial enthusiasm needs to be linked in a timely manner to the long-term dynamics of institutionalized collaboration and embedding of techno-practices in organizational routines. In sum, a trendy new urban technology may be seen as successful in the short term but when it fails to produce long-term collaboration and desirable outcomes it may be discarded. Light technology as a new method for making a street safer helps to generate energy for innovative collaborations but positive effects in the long-term are needed to ensure long-term support for its use in the public space.

Read the full article here.

Albert Meijer is a professor of public innovation at the Utrecht School of Governance in the Netherlands. His research focuses on smart cities, urban innovation, open government, citizen participation, e-government, and coproduction.

Marcel Thaens is a professor of public administration at Erasmus University Rotterdam in the Netherlands and a senior consultant at the Dutch non-profit consultancy firm (PBLQ). His research interests are strategy and innovation.

 

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