Reclaiming the Smart City: Personal Data, Trust and the New Commons

Report by Theo Bass, Emma Sutherland and Tom Symons: “Cities are becoming a major focal point in the personal data economy. In city governments, there is a clamour for data-informed approaches to everything from waste management and public transport through to policing and emergency response

This is a triumph for advocates of the better use of data in how we run cities. After years of making the case, there is now a general acceptance that social, economic and environmental pressures can be better responded to by harnessing data.

But as that argument is won, a fresh debate is bubbling up under the surface of the glossy prospectus of the smart city: who decides what we do with all this data, and how do we ensure that its generation and use does not result in discrimination, exclusion and the erosion of privacy for citizens?

This report brings together a range of case studies featuring cities which have pioneered innovative practices and policies around the responsible use of data about people. Our methods combined desk research and over 20 interviews with city administrators in a number of cities across the world.


Based on our case studies, we also compile a range of lessons that policymakers can use to build an alternative version to the smart city – one which promotes ethical data collection practices and responsible innovation with new technologies:

  1. Build consensus around clear ethical principles, and translate them into practical policies.
  2. Train public sector staff in how to assess the benefits and risks of smart technologies.
  3. Look outside the council for expertise and partnerships, including with other city governments.
  4. Find and articulate the benefits of privacy and digital ethics to multiple stakeholders
  5. Become a test-bed for new services that give people more privacy and control.
  6. Make time and resources available for genuine public engagement on the use of surveillance technologies.
  7. Build digital literacy and make complex or opaque systems more understandable and accountable.
  8. Find opportunities to involve citizens in the process of data collection and analysis from start to finish….(More)”.