Urban Transformation Conference - opening panel
Centre for BOLD Cities launches successfully at UTC

"With big data comes great power"

The Centre for BOLD Cities made its first public appearance at the annual Urban Transformation Conference in Rotterdam. The overarching ‘Vital Cities’ theme provided an excellent opportunity to present the BOLD Cities approach to a broader audience.

Liesbet van Zoonen, the Centre’s academic director, took part in the opening panel discussion. She grasped the moment to introduce the Centre for BOLD Cities and its particular approach. “We notice an increasing emphasis on data in different domains, including city governance,” she said. “Creative use of city data, especially when linked, can be very interesting, but comes with a great number of ethical issues. We look at these issues from the citizen’s perspective.” The Centre for BOLD Cities, she explained, will focus on citizen experience in the (smart) city, along with issues of privacy, data ownership and data literacy.

When asked to come up with a one-liner on smart cities, Van Zoonen improvised a crowd-pleasing ‘Keep calm and make it happen’, combining a popular British phrase with Rotterdam’s current city slogan, and kicking off the event in style.

3D City

In a session on the 3D city, the ‘digital city of the future’, Jantien Stoter (TU Delft) presented her views on the potential of this topic, together with Ronald van der Heijden (City of Rotterdam), who is already engaged in bringing the 3D city to the general public.

Stoter envisions the 3D city as a platform that can be continuously updated by companies, citizens and governments alike – providing a clear image of the city’s “current reality”, or even showing the forecasted impact of a proposed change in the city’s outlook. “Reality is often converted into 2D,” said Stoter. “The challenge is to embrace the technology and make sure that 3D serves a purpose for the city’s development.”

Meet BOLD minds

During the ‘Meet BOLD minds for future smart and social cities’ session, six of our researchers offered a sneak peek at their research on the citizen perspective in the smart city. Their presentations ranged from the redefinition and reinvention of self-sufficiency (Rebecca Moody, Erasmus University) to predictions of citizen participation through use of linked data (Gijs Custers, Erasmus University) and an exploration of how cities are not yet using big data in their carbon emission reduction policies (Sarah Giest, Leiden University).

Whatever buzzword we use, there are real people involved

Moderated by science journalist Geert Maarse, the session’s attendees shared their insights and concerns. The relevance of the BOLD Cities scope was further shown by presentations on open data – on safeguarding data protection in an open data world (Bastiaan van Loenen, TU Delft) and smart urban governance (Reinout Kleinhans, TU Delft) – as well as during the final presentation, on using data to examine the effect of financial incentives on single moms on welfare finding a job (Marike Knoef, Leiden University).

During her presentation, Moody raised the question of ‘empirical reality’: what should we do when citizens have not explicitly approved the use of their data? Her remark fell in line with Giest’s observation that “we have to determine what we want to share.” Van Loenen, in turn, mentioned the possible mosaic effect of linked open data – making even open data more personal than one might think. While the presented research showed a wide variety in topic and approach, one main conclusion could therefore well be expressed: “Whatever buzzword we use, there are real people involved.”

An impression of the research projects can be found at the end of this article.


The ‘BOLD Cities route’ concluded with a talk on Nervousnet - a large-scale distributed research platform that will provide real-time social mining services as a public good. Nervousnet is an open and participatory platform which will protect personal privacy and is designed to be collectively built by citizens, for citizens. Ulrich Mans (Centre for Innovation, Leiden University) introduced Dirk Helbing (TU Delft), who is involved in the Nervousnet project, by paraphrasing a well-known Spiderman quote: “With big data comes great power”.

Indeed, Helbing echoed this aphorism and shared his concern: what do we do if data control is with those in possession of data? The digital revolution is transforming our societies, he said, with big data having been labelled ‘the new oil’. The Nervousnet project focuses on the citizen perspective in this transforming society, contributing to a form of digital democracy. “We need collective intelligence to map our future,” Helbing said, showing various examples of Nervousnet’s wide-ranging potential.

Voicing both his concerns and elaborate plans to actively engage in finding solutions for the citizens involved, the German academic proved a worthy closing act for the successful public introduction of the BOLD Cities research perspective.

Overview of the BOLD Cities presentations at the Urban Transformation Conference (8.6 MB)