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Valuable Digitalisation

26 June 2018
How local government can play the ‘technology game’ in the public’s interest
Innovation case studies municipality
The way in which Dutch municipal authorities innovate digitally has an impact on local democracy, the economy, work, social life and the physical environment. In this report, local administrators identify ten perspectives for socially responsible digitalisation.




This essay looks at digitalisation in various ways from the perspective of local politicians and policy makers. We describe the need to guide technical innovation in a socially responsible manner and the role that politicians and policy makers play in this regard; we discuss how digital technology can and cannot bolster local democracy; we show how local authorities increasingly present themselves as a platform for innovation; and we address the use of digital technology to improve municipal services.

Our approach to digital innovation and the associated use of technologies has an impact on the economy, government, people’s work and social lives, and the physical environment. In short, it is shaping the society of the future. At the same time, digitalisation processes are difficult to predict and to control. Politicians and policy makers, including local ones, can neither slow the pace of digitalisation nor ignore it. Its impact is simply too immense. Randomly encouraging digitalisation is also ill-advised, however. Government is there to serve the general interest and politicians and policy makers must therefore let public values (ranging from efficiency to privacy and control over technology) inform this process and transform digitalisation.

The ideas presented in this essay can be traced back to five crucial processes in what we refer to here as the ‘innovative technology game’:

  1. assessing public values
  2. experimenting
  3. seizing opportunities
  4. mitigating risks
  5. working and learning together.

We have distilled ten perspectives, or ‘sightlines’, from these processes to guide the actions of local politicians and policy makers in this domain.

These ten perspectives are explained under the tab 'Recommendations'.

Preferred citation: 
Est, R. van, E. de Bakker, J. van den Broek, J. Deuten, P. Diederen, I. van Keulen, I. Korthagen & H. Voncken (2018). Valuable digitalisation – How local government can play the ‘technology game’ in the public’s interest. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut.


Below we expand on our five main innovation processes  assessing public values, experimenting, seizing opportunities, mitigating risks, and working and learning together – by offering two different recommendations per process. 


1. Clarify the usefulness and limits of digitalisation when informed by public values

Digitalisation can be used to improve public services, increase citizen participation and stimulate economic innovation and knowledge-building. At the same time, it can also put pressure on fundamental public values such as privacy, autonomy, equity and equality. Politicians and policy makers must make clear in such cases why or when digitalisation is desirable, and where boundaries or constraints are required.

2. Let public values inform the approach to technological and social innovation

A naïve optimism about technology has often caused advocates to be blind to its consequences. Whereas technology is quickly hailed as the next best thing, criticism is rarely welcomed with open arms. To reap the benefits of technology, however, both are needed. In addition to new technology, innovation also requires social renewal, and politicians and policy makers play a crucial double role in this context, by letting public values inform the support and guidance that they provide. This makes it possible to seize social and economic opportunities and prevent or mitigate negative effects.


3. Experiment locally in public spaces

Until recently, innovation policy was aimed primarily at boosting the technology pipeline and improving the innovation ecosystem. One promising type of experiment that supports innovation in response to societal challenges is the ‘living lab’, where researchers, entrepreneurs, professionals, users, policymakers and/or the general public experiment and co-create solutions to difficult societal problems in a real-life experimental environment.

4. Establish ethical standards for living labs

Experiments carried out in old-fashioned laboratories take place in the confined space of a building. In the living lab, however, they are conducted in public spaces. This means that people are part of the experiment, whether consciously or not. It is therefore important to establish ethical rules for responsible experimentation in living labs. One way would be for the VNG (Association of Netherlands Municipalities) to set up an ethical review committee for research conducted in public spaces.


5. Recognise the potential of digitalisation

From biometrics, robots, artificial intelligence and persuasive technology to big data, algorithms and digital platforms, digital technologies have given us countless new technological tools. Thanks to the Internet of Things, they can greatly improve our capacity to think and to observe and act remotely. To seize the opportunities that digitalisation offers local government, it is important for politicians and policy makers to recognise the potential of technology.

6. Innovate with a view to societal transition

Digitalisation gives us new ways to address today’s societal challenges. Local experiments in living labs are needed to collaborate with users on developing innovative solutions that work in everyday life and in the short term. However, to address the grand challenges that transcend municipal boundaries, such as climate change and organised crime, and their corrosive impact on society, local authorities need to join up their local experiments. Applicable knowledge will be shared more broadly in this way, and local authorities can build on their shared knowledge.


7. Be mindful of the risks of digitalisation throughout the data value chain

Data value chains are the fundamental building blocks of the data economy and data society. They collect and analyse the data that is used as a basis for intervention in our living environment (increasingly in real time). As a result, digitalisation not only affects privacy and security, but also other public values and fundamental rights, such as equity and equality, human dignity, autonomy and, last but not least, control and power over technology.

8. Use debate, policy, technological and organisational tools to protect public values

A healthy data economy and an inclusive data society require transparent and honest data management. Three traditional processes play a role in the protection of public values. The first is democratic debate and political decision-making on numerous digital issues. Second, innovation can be driven by various policy instruments: regulatory measures, financial policy and communication with/participation by the public. Third, digitalisation requires technological and organisational tools that guarantee that the data and algorithms used are transparent.


9. Co-innovate and learn lessons from IT-related experience

Local government should have an overview of the various experiments that are taking place in its community. It is through the sum total of these experiments or living labs that the community is working on its future and revealing how it envisages that future. Coordination and cross-project learning (at local, regional, national or European level) are of crucial importance. This also applies to standardisation and the need for government expertise in IT. In infrastructure matters, for example the development of ‘smart’ street lighting, the national government should take the lead.

10. Involve the public in digitalisation and be clear about the limits of citizen participation

Since digitalisation is such an important factor in shaping the future, the public should be involved both at project level and in a wider debate about the digital future. Government can engage the public in traditional ways but can also do so through digital channels. It is the responsibility of public authorities to listen seriously to the views of society and to respond to those views. Government must be clear about the limits to citizen participation in the decision-making process.