Ethics for smart cities

Cities are rapidly digitalising their operations and are consequently confronted with ethical dilemmas. For municipalities it might be even more important to consider the ethical implications of the smart city. They deal with sensitive topics such as the safety and health of their citizens, but they must also uphold democratic values. Additionally they have the authority to intervene in people’s lives more than private organisations. Municipalities are aware of the exemplary role they play and are keen to maintain trust of citizens. What are ways to ensure that digital innovations are also ethical? Dutch municipalities are looking at the organisational level to build in mechanisms for ethics assessment.

Several organizational mechanisms can support ethics assessment. An (AI) ethics officer can promote ethical awareness in the organisation and advise on ethical practices. Ethical impact assessments (EIA) make an inventory of relevant ethical issues and suggest how to maximize benefit and minimize harm. EIA tools can guide project managers with making an assessment of a specific case. Many ethical impact assessments have been developed that have varying applications, from specifically for data or AI only to all digitisation projects (drones). Many municipalities are experimenting with different methods of ethics assessment to learn what works best for them. Most notably, Dutch municipalities are establishing ethics committees to support them in ethical dilemmas and decision making.

Ethics committees

During the last years a number of municipalities have established ethics committees in support of their smart city strategy. These committees vary widely in purpose, composition and procedures. They are experimenting and innovating. 

Some guidance for the establishment of an ethics committee is available. One of the deliverables of the H2020 project SATORI was a European standard for ethics committees, CWA 17145-1 Ethics Assessment for Research and Innovation – part 1 Ethics Committee. This standard was based on a comparison of best practices of ethics committees for research and innovation from all over Europe and for all sectors. Municipalities were not included in this comparison because at the time of the research they had not yet established any committees. Certain elements of the standard are relevant for municipalities too. Though they have their specific needs too because of the nature of the organisation.


The purpose of the ethics committee guides the practical elaboration of composition and functioning of the committee. Sometimes the initiative for an ethics committee was taken by the local council. In other instances it was the alderman who took the initiative. Reasons for establishing an ethics committee vary. Committees bring in scarce knowledge on digitalisation and the ethical implications. One municipality sees it as a way to include citizens in digitalisation. It is also a way to be transparent about ethical decisions. A side effect is that the municipality is forced to assure that internal procedures for ethics assessment are followed correctly, so that it is well prepared before it is discussed in the ethics committee. 

The chosen purpose has implications for how municipalities shape their ethics committees. Where inclusion of citizens was the purpose, a group of citizens was invited to advise the municipality. Where bringing in scarce knowledge was important, a group of well respected experts was gathered to form a committee.   

Shaping ethics committees

The municipality that decided that the purpose of the committee is to include citizens, has invited a group of citizens to review their projects. This committee functions completely independent from the municipality. Others have established committees with experts to advise the alderman on ethical dilemmas, as a base for a political decision. The competencies in this committee are mostly legal, ethical and IT.

CWA 17145-1 advises to include a broad selection of competencies in the committee. Indeed legal and ethical expertise are important, but also an end-user, and a lay-person for an outsider’s perspective. Equally important to knowledge of the relevant field is expertise from a completely different field. In general it is important that it is representative of the communities affected by the committee’s decisions. Members should have communication and interpersonal skills, a dedication to ethics assessment and they should not have an apparent conflict of interest. An important difference between ethics committees in universities or companies and those in municipalities is the democratic component which ensures that citizens are involved in decision making.

Which principles?

The technologies that municipalities assess are not limited to AI or Smart Information Systems (SIS), but also include e.g. sensors and drones. The identity of the municipalities guides the accents of the ethical principles. The size, demographics, societal challenges and political composition of the council are likely to influence the exact outcomes of the ethics decision making process. But some documents are well on the radar, e.g. reports from the Rathenau Institute and the Code Goed Digitaal Openbaar Bestuur (code for digital governance, link in Dutch). The principles in CWA 17145-1 do not include ethical principles that are specific to democratic institutions. For example, the Code Goed Digital Bestuur uses the languages of democracies and government, such as participation by citizens and quality of government. The CWA is more focussed on research. Nonetheless, the principles for IT are universally relevant. There is a preference for local ethical committees because of the particulars the municipality has but sharing and learning with other local, regional and national public organisations might provide insights to all. 

CWA 7145-1 states that normally 3 kinds of principles are considered: professional principles and codes of conduct, ethical guidelines for institutional responsibility and integrity and ethical guidelines for the conduct of research and innovation. Because of the role and position of the ethics committee in municipalities, it might be concluded that not all three types will be relevant. CWA 17145-1 does offer a list of general criteria for the selection of the principles, such as “based on an international discussion among a variety of stakeholders, with reference to shared values” (p. 18). And it offers sector specific principles that might be helpful. It does not mention principles that are specific for the context of local authorities. 


As these ethics committees are part of an institution with an important role for democratic decision making, it is carefully considered which location in the decision making process this committee has. Does it advise the government or the local council? What does the advice look like? Generally, it’s advice is an inventory of relevant principles and dilemma’s. With this advice, politicians can take a democratic decision.    

The ethical committees with experts are supported by a secretariat of civil servants. The committee that consists of citizens is completely independent. They can use the meeting rooms in the city hall, but that is about it.  

Municipalities are also still in the process of discovering what projects qualify for a discussion in the ethics committee. Internal processes for the selection of projects are under development and most importantly developers of digital products and processes need to become aware of ethics and the ethics committee. CWA 17145-1 can offer some useful advice for procedures before, during and after the assessment. Ethics committees of municipalities would also be wise to think about quality assurance, which are described in clause 6. 

Beyond the ethics committee

And how do we engage developers and users of new technologies to think about ethics?  Including ethics can feel as an extra burden or might simply not be on the radar of developers and users. Ethics must become part of the culture of the organisation and be embedded in existing processes. Within corporate social responsibility you can find similar dilemmas.

Many ethical impact assessment tools have been developed in recent years. These can be useful when projects are developed or when new digital innovations are implemented. Currently Dutch municipalities are experimenting with several tools and methodologies that are available, such as Data Ethics Decision Making (DEDA), Moreel beraad (moral case deliberation, link in Dutch) and Begeleidingsethiek (Guidance ethics approach). 

Some municipalities are also considering hiring an ethics officer who is responsible for this culture of ethics. Another powerful means to promote ethical digitalisation is public procurement. 

City deal Smart Cities

Within the Dutch city deal “Slimme stad, zo doe je dat” a working group for ethics gathers municipalities and other public institutions to discuss and explore how they can embed ethics on an organisational level. It is a place where municipalities can exchange information and explore together what the future of their smart city looks like. One working group is focussed on ethics.

This blog was written by Thamar Zijlstra, NEN