Civic Technology: empower citizens through innovative technology

What will become the “new normal” after the COVID-19 pandemic is over? It’s an exciting question for many. China has proposed the idea of giving all world citizens a health passport. A QR code would allow officials to check whether someone is healthy. Technically it's possible, but is that what we really want? That is exactly the question which also hangs over Jos van Leeuwen's research area. On 4 November he held his digital inaugural lecture as professor of Civic Technology. Here, a discussion about three fascinating lines of research.

‘I look back on 4 November with great fondness. The many responses confirm the social impact of civic technology. Especially in this pandemic. If I had said last year that technology can lead to real innovation, people would have taken it as an empty phrase by a professor of Civic Technology. Now people are personally experiencing the important role technology plays in keeping in touch with each other.’ 

Strengthening citizenship 

The Civic Technology research group at The Hague University of Applied Sciences is part of the IT & Design faculty and the Governance of Urban Transitions Centre of Expertise. In his inaugural lecture, Jos van Leeuwen reveals the research which his research group will be conducting in the coming years. Summarised in a few words, he will focus on technology for citizenship. Technology-driven and citizen-centred. With the aim of strengthening people's citizenship through (new) technology. 

People are often guided by technological innovation. ‘For example, Silicon Valley has determined that we should all be using social media. Let's turn it around: how do we ourselves want to use technology in the public domain?’ 

Lines of research 

From that perspective, the research group focuses on three lines of research: 1) Smart Technology in Public Spaces, 2) Socio-technical Transitions and 3) Deliberative Media. In the first line, the research group experiments with a talking lamppost. In the second line, the research group critically and creatively studies the impact of interactive innovations on society. And in the last line of research, the research group studies how digital technology can enable citizen participation, beyond what is already happening physically. 

The talking lamppost 

A talking lamppost to promote interaction between citizens and government? Isn't the neighbourhood police officer still a better option? Jos van Leeuwen: ‘Of course, but that neighbourhood police officer can't be everywhere at the same time. The lamppost is always there, as a representative of the municipality or the neighbourhood council. We want to create this thing and experiment with it. On the basis of the reactions, we will assess which technology we can design for it.’ 

The research line Deliberative Media is the most urgent of the three. This line wants to strengthen people in democratic processes. ‘Deliberative democracy is increasingly seen as a serious renewal of our local and national governance model, a more direct form of participation. If, before participating in a poll, people first deliberate with each other, discuss, and exchange arguments and opinions, then that poll will give a much more accurate picture of what they really want. We research the application of existing technologies and the development of new technology to make that discussion, that deliberation possible online.’ 

Public Values 

The bigger question that hangs over these three lines of research is to what extent the pursued objective is in line with public values. ‘That's a difficult question. Because our public values are constantly changing. When it comes to technological innovations, we often think only from the point of view of possibilities. But it's not that simple. That health passport proposed by China is possible. But do we want it?’

‘Researching civic technology means looking at how we can use technology to bring together people who don't know where to find each other right now. How can they communicate better? How do you really bring them together? What do they really need to better understand each other? As a research group, we want to make great strides here.’ 

Dreaming, thinking and building 

Jos van Leeuwen was trained as an architect. He sees similarities between his research group and an architect. ‘The latter stands in a field and envisions the building that isn't there yet. He then goes through a process with all sorts of people to realise his dream. In my research group there are designers, technicians, sociologists, administrators, and a philosopher. They all dream with me to shape a project.’ 

‘Civic technology is a complex field in which many disciplines come together. I invite everyone, especially students from across the entire university of applied sciences, to dream, think and create civic technology from within their own discipline.’ 

Do you want to watch Jos van Leeuwen's inaugural lecture? Go to: https://civictechnology.nl/