Skip links

How A ‘Smart’ Dutch Neighbourhood Went From ‘Pay Your Rent With Data’ to What Looks Like Ethics – But Questions Remain

Impression by UNSense

In a town in the southern part of the Netherlands a futuristic neighbourhood is about to be built. ‘BrainPort SmartDistrict’ will be a neighbourhood for citizens of the future. In this analysis I explain how the project was criticized for not embedding privacy and putting the residents at the center – and then how the project changed focus. But  despite a new focus, there are still many ethical questions to be asked and discussed – the most important being: It is desired?

In the Spring of 2019 the City of Helmond and UNSense (a sister from UNStudio, led by the Dutch Architect Ben van Berkel) announced a collaboration for a new smart part of the city, the 100 Homes project, part of the ‘BrainPort Smart District’. It’s announcement didn’t go unnoticed by the Dutch media and politicians.

A Dutch Newspaper (FD) used the headline ‘Live without housing costs. If you’re willing to share your bedroom secrets’. And a Dutch tech websites such as Tweakers stated ‘Helmond is testing a discount on rent, trading in your data’. A Dutch politician asked questions to the Minister of Interior and Kingdom Relations mostly out of privacy concerns for the citizens who will be living in this futuristic neighbourhood. The Minister answered that she was glad that innovative projects were explored, as long as they are compliant with the GDPR. After this approval from the minister, it was quiet for a while, because the media exposure had led to internal doubts, and UNSense had to do a feasibility study on the project.

The 100 Homes Project

Brainport SmartDistrict captures a whole new to be build neighbourhood (approx 1500 houses) that will be a Living Lab. In public spaces sensor hotels will be placed in order to monitor behaviour of the citizens outdoors, for example wifi-trackers give information of the preferred routes across the neighbourhoods, air quality is measured and so is noise. A small section of this neighbourhood will be more pervasively monitored. That is The 100 Homes Project.

Residents in the 100 Homes Project will live in so-called smart homes. They can monitor basically everything they do – from excrement to the smart watches – and the performance of their devices – from fridge to solar panels. But what will be shared of this data will be up to the residents themselves. And with no rental discount, if you ‘pay’ with your data, so I learned.

The objective of the project “is to validate the hypothesis that smart city technology in combination with a platform for equal exchange of value (data) between residents and service providers, will ultimately improve residents’ quality of life. Sensors, distributed throughout the neighborhood, can – with consent – gather data related to the functioning of the built environment and the living habits of residents.”

Feasibility study

The feasibility study of UNSense was published by the end of December 2019 and during that time I had the possibility to speak to some people involved by the project. A lot of the conversations were about damage control. The project has had bad press and now was time to tell what was really going on. So here’s what I learned:

Of course people wouldn’t be living in this neighbourhood for free, because we shouldn’t see data as a currency. Yes, the residents will be able to use their data for services, but it will all be about equal exchange. Each resident will have a digital identity, that he or she can manage. In the feasibility study the comparison with an avatar is made. The resident will decide what of his or her data will be attributed to the avatar. What follows is the possibility of sharing this data in three ways. The first possibility is sharing your data with a service provider. Secondly, you can choose to let the data be shared between service providers of your choice (within the project) and thirdly, the data can be shared amongst the residents of the neighbourhood. This digital identity empowers the resident, so is the idea, because the resident will have ownership over his or her data.

Data ownership – or data control – is thus a key element in the conversations I’ve had, and also it is also repeated in the study. The data will be owned by the people who live in the smart district and only with their approval will it be seen or used by third parties.

The idea is that the people living in this neighbourhood should profit from their data sharing. No rental discount, but due to data sharing the living costs could be reduced. Or they could get more out of their time, because the data sharing leads to efficiency, for example.

Ethical Feasibility

The uproar in 2019 was mostly about privacy concerns and although the political discussions where focused on compliancy with the GDPR, in the media (especially in the tech website Tweakers) there was also focus on the ethical implications of this project. In my conversations with the people involved, ethical concerns were addressed shortly. The reason: The whole project is still in development and once ethical dilemmas would rise, an ethical board mentioned in the feasibility study will be addressing these issues. In the feasibility study itself, ethical feasibility is mentioned once in the in total 90 pages. The legal possibility and feasibility of this project holds 23 pages. But I wouldn’t know exactly the details of that part, because the version that was handed to me was in parts censored because of ‘the competitive value of such information’.

Toronto Sidewalk Labs: Quayside

In Toronto, Sidewalk Labs had taken over a neighbourhood, Quayside –  at first with approval of the Canadian prime minister Trudeau. But what followed was leaking information on the real intentions of Sidewalk Labs, who is part of Alphabet – the parent company of Google.

The main problem with Sidewalk Labs’ project was lack of transparency about the conditions of the contract between government and Sidewalk.

Artist's impression of Sidewalk Labs' Quayside development
Artist’s impression of Sidewalk Labs’ Quayside development

Nowadays Sidewalk Labs only works with 12 acres at Quayside to experiment, and the reins are back with the government after a lot of protests. In the original contract, Sidewalk Lab had a much larger area and would be in control of the space, with almost no limitations on their experiment. The new agreement between the government and Sidewalk Labs states that the project will have to put the citizens in the center and recognize privacy as a fundamental human right.

Interestingly enough, the goal of Sidewalk Labs is exactly the same as in Helmond: to improve urban infrastructure through technological solutions and thus also cost of living, efficient transportation and energy usage. Helmond wanted to learn from Toronto. They decided that not one party was in charge and would benefit of all the data in this project, thus a Foundation was formed where all the stakeholders would equally participate. Next to that, they’ve written a Data Manifest. Unfortunately I have not been able to get access to the manifest.


The 100 Homes Project gives rise to hundreds of questions. Here are some of the most prominent:

  1. Is the Ethical Question Put in The Center of The Project?

In my search of the how, what and why of this project, I found that a very important step seems to be not in the center whole process and that is ‘is this a good idea?’. In the feasibility study two questions are answered: Is this a technical possibility? And, is this according to the law? Both questions are answered with ‘Yes!’. But a third and most valuable question is not even asked, let alone being answered in the report: Is this desirable?

In the feasibility study it’s stated that if ethical questions will arise, an independent Ethics Board will discuss these issues. The board should consist of 4 members and a chairman with 4 meetings a year. Ethics need to be embedded from the very beginning. An Ethics Board could then be a good idea to follow up. I would suggest something else. Create awareness with everyone involved, and support them starting the conversation on this subject and train them in acting according to certain values. I would not advice to give the responsibility to an independent Board. Because then, you’re pretty much outsourcing your moral conscious.

  1. Is Data Material Property?

The reasoning of UNSense is as follows: Data is being used for lots of services, and most people are unaware that they are trading their data for a service (e.g. for ‘free’ services as Google and Facebook). In this project, citizens will make a conscious decisions for what services their data is being used. And no matter whom I spoke to, they seem to think that the awareness is making a big difference. There is, though, a fundamental belief in the business model that data corresponds a certain value and that you should be able to trade that value.

So the good news is: Residents can control their data and decide with whom and to what extent their data is shared. If I follow the line of arguments from UNSense it’s all for the greater good. But they’re not in this for fun of it: They could use these findings as a blueprint for projects elsewhere.

The bad news: Data is a reflection of behaviour, not a material good. One could say that there is a huge difference between data from solar panels and data from wearables. But, data gives insight into human lives. For a wearable, this is pretty clear. A solar panel does not only give information on the amount of energy it produces, the solar panel also indirectly reveals information on the resident’s financial situation, it says something on how much energy they use, how many people are they, when do they shower and how often, et cetera.

In other words, data reveals something about the individual and his or her behaviour and that data could be used to ‘nudge’ their behaviour. So, they might not only trading their data for services, but optionally also their free will. They call it ‘equal exchange’? I wouldn’t.

  1. Are the Residents Really In The Center?

Cathelijne Dortmans, Deputy Mayor of the City of Helmond, explains in this video that the smart district will be developed according to the quadruple helix model. This means that next to the city, universities and entrepeneurs, citizens will be involved in the process of development.

Sounds good. Now, let’s look at how this seem to work out in reality:

Brainport Smart District is a Foundation who initiated this project. The participants are the City of Helmond, Technical University Eindhoven, the University of Tilburg and UNSense. The Foundation sets up challenges for companies to write their proposal to bring services to the homes. This whole constructions is pretty much a top-down approach. The Foundation decides which entrepeneurs can participate in this experiment. The only involvement the residents seem to have is saying YES or NO to this proposal of the already selected commercial parties.

There is room for initiative among the residents themselves within this project, but after they’ve committed themselves to live following the concepts of the project. The development is as said structured according to the quadruple helix, but the fourth party (residents) joins last. In my ideal situation the project wouldn’t even be started by a Foundation, but by residents who think this way of handling data could benefit their lives. Only then, the whole project would be fully organised around the needs of the residents.

The project is referred to as a Living Lab. And that’s indeed what it is: this is not only a technological experiment, it also seems to be a social experiment. There are idealistic ideas that residents of The 100 Homes Project will choose collectively for services. But how this would work in reality, didn’t become clear to me during my search. UNSense says there are scientific theories how collectives can decide, but also that in this project they want to learn from how collectives like this work in reality. Remember, it’s a living lab.

I think psychological mechanism will come into play, when a collective like this will have to decide on goods as a collective. What if a couple of the homes don’t want to share their data and the rest do? Are they then the free-riders? Will they be out-grouped? Are there psychologists involved guiding people through these processes?

  1. Who Owns the Outcomes of the Project?

According to my information, the residents themselves will be the owners of their data. But, that’s not exactly in line with the GDPR-view on ownership of the data. As an ethicist I would say, indeed, they are the owners. But when data is shared, its copied and the copy is then owned by the third party.

And then, on a meta-level: this project will have certain outcomes. Who owns those insights?

  1. Is it Possible to give up Fundamental Human Rights?

Privacy is a human right. And this project asks permission of the residents to share their intimate data with neighbours, services and let services combine data-sets.

One could say: Yes, but with permission, that is according to the law. Just look at the GDPR!

And this is a flaw, maybe, or at least something that in my opinion needs to be discussed. The problem with privacy is, just as with climate disaster (Kenis and Lievens, De mythe van de Groene Economie, 2012), that the focus is on people as consumers and not so much as citizens. As a consumer you can share and reveal information about yourself when using a service. But,… one could question if that’s desirable as a citizen. And residents in one of the 100 Homes will be living there both as consumers and as citizens. Their fundamental human rights and privacy as value to all needs to be protected, not by addressing them as potential consumers of services. But only as citizens.

  1. Who Owns the Public Space?

Brainport SmartDistrict is part of a city. And the people living in The 100 Homes Project or in the other homes in the Smart District (with ‘only’ public sensors) are willing to share their data and the data of their public domain. But, the question is more philosophical: Who owns the public space? In this project it is repeatedly said that the residents choose to live there and are aware of what they are about to do. But, those residents have friends and family, who will be crossing that public space in order to see their loved ones. What about their autonomy? And the autonomy of others passing this district?

In a reaction to these questions UNSense says this was part of their feasibility study and that the data processing activities will be, as much as possible, be tied to the residents and third persons will be excluded. They said they will be making use of immediate anonymization of third parties. I couldn’t check this in the feasibility report, because it was not in my censored version. The ‘as much as possible’ promises no full protection of the visitor. And, as I understood, it’s still debated if real anonymization exists.

The public space in this project will be technically colonised by the BSD Foundation. The City of Helmond really should make sure that all their citizens and the ones passing or visiting the neighbourhood could walk around freely and I am glad that they told me they take this task seriously. But my worry is: how can The City of Helmond make sure the public space stays public with at the same time being part of the BSD Foundation?

  1. Are the Residents really able to make a Conscious Choice to live in a Living Lab?

Some facts:

Almost 2,5 million people in the Netherlands older than 16 years are having trouble with reading.

A part of the inhabitants of the Netherlands are ‘wilsonbekwaam’ (incompetent of making certain autonomous, such as legal or medical, choices) due to their age (children) or as a result of certain diseases (e.g. Alzheimer) or disabilities.

In conversations that I had it was repeatedly mentioned the a cross section of the society will be living in the 100 Homes. I think only people interested in data and with an infallible believe in data and technology will choose to live there. And then, there is a chance illiterate people want to be living in this project. How can they make an informed choice?

Are children protected? It’s also their behaviour that’s being monitored. And following the habit to just put children’s pictures on Facebook and let them use TikTok, can and should we trust the protection of their rights, integrity and future to their parents?

UNSense says that children’s rights are mentioned in the feasibility study and that the Ethical Board will be consulted when project decisions are made that affect the children living there. I couldn’t check this, because it was not in my version of the report. I would strongly advice to learn from the strict conditions under which medical and scientific research is done on children, and even consider not to involve children at all.

And last, freedom of choice: housing shortage is a problem in the Netherlands, especially near big cities (such as Eindhoven, where Helmond is situated). This new neighbourhood brings 1500 extra houses to the people who are in need.

The 100 Homes Project: Is it desired?

Lot’s of ethical questions arise with The 100 Homes Project. And for now, I am not sure whether they are and will be addressed properly. The first question remains as the most important one and should be asked constantly within this project: is this desired? And if so, under what circumstances.

In the conversations I’ve had with UNSense and reading the feasibility report I constantly had the idea that they’re trying to convince me and others they’re doing the right thing. To me, really taking ethics seriously  would mean here (1) not trying to push the limits even though ‘it might be according to the law’; (2) embracing criticism and public outrage; (3) a reflective attitude: constantly reflecting on your concepts and ideas, and last but not least (4) at all times be willing to drop the whole idea and not be led by ones own interests.

Ethics is a careful investigation and an ongoing process. Let’s not be too hasty.

I want to thank to the people who took the time to talk to me: Henri de Bekker of the City of Helmond, Machteld Kors of UNSense and Hans Bouwknegt, data consultant to UNSense.

The two directors of the BrainPort SmartDistrict Foundation didn’t respond to my request to talk to them.

Read more about the author here