Smart Cities? Public Code!

About this project

Mission of this project

Public Code is an early stage concept for a type of code developed with the public interest in mind. Point of departure is that in our emerging platform society, «Code == Code»: Software and policy are both code. The former executed by machines and the latter by humans. This means we need to look differently at the software developed for public tasks than we do for private tasks. The software is held to standards to guarantee that it is inclusive, usable, adaptive, open and sustainable.

This project aims to further develop the concept of Public Code. How should we understand Public Code, and how can we create it? What kind of technological and institutional arrangements are needed to shift towards the production of Public Code?

In a series of workshops, we want to build a network of collaborators to identify directions for the development of public code and set up research & development projects and grant applications.


«Smart Cities? Public Code!» is a collaboration between the City of Amsterdam, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS) and Vurb.Agency.

This project aims to contribute to the transition from proprietary smart city software to the design and employment of ‘public software’ that can be deployed by cities in their operational and policy processes in order to better safeguard public values.

With the advance of smart city technologies, software deployed by municipalities can no longer be understood as just a productivity tool. The mechanics and algorithms operative in the software and the data it collects have become key elements in the execution of urban policy and have started to become a resource for decision-making processes. That means that transparency and data-ownership are becoming important public values in software deployment. Most proprietary software systems that cities are currently using in their operations do not fulfill these requirements. Therefore a transition is needed to the deployment of what we call public software.

To bring this transition about, municipal governments want to learn more about the process in which public software can be procured, deployed and shared between cities. For creative industries players such as developers and creative agencies, it is important to gain further insight in the role they can play in this process and for them to learn more about the possible business models to sustain the production and upkeep of public software.

This project addresses these knowledge gaps through three workshops in which the most important issues for this transition will be identified, leading to a Guide for the Deployment of Public Software as well as a research agenda and an international network of stakeholders.

Public software

Public software is type of software built to operate with and as public infrastructure. It is designed to be as transparent, legible, and accessible as possible within its operating regulatory framework.

Public software is almost always developed using open source methodologies, where all the code is freely human readable and not under restrictive licensing. Decisions made by heuristics, algorithms or machine learning within the code can be explored and understood by anyone.

Any output is available as open data or public domain content whenever possible within privacy constraints. Public software is meant to be freely available to download and run in any municipality around the globe.

Cities, NGOs, and private agencies can create new business models by charging fees to help develop, install, configure and maintain running versions of Public Software, but they cannot charge for the software itself which is free and openly available.

This project

The model of the smart city has dominated the discourse around municipal engagement with digital infrastructure for over a decade, but we are approaching a larger shift in the relation between software code and policy code. As more cities deploy software to manage their core functions, the difference between binary code and policy code begins to disappear.

Currently, software procurement and development is mostly still approached like one might order some custom furniture for a municipal building. As a result, the initial round of engagements with digital infrastructure, contracted under the rubric of Smart Cities, were often onerous relationships with enterprise software corporations.

These contracts often locked cities into long-term, expensive software systems which controlled access to the cities’ own data and decision-making processes. Often the very function of governance was outsourced to 3rd party providers, and city governments learned hard lessons about losing control of operations and knowledge that they thought was firmly under their own oversight.

Increasingly, cities are learning that commissioning the software that runs their internal functions is more like making decisions about zoning or taxation, some of the most political and important decisions a city can make. We propose that this type of software be thought of similarly to other infrastructure that falls squarely in the remit of the city to produce and maintain: public software.

Cities like Amsterdam and Barcelona have already dedicated large budgets to tools, platforms, and policies around digital services for citizens and municipal governments. Now, cities are entering a new wave of procurement of these core functional digital infrastructures. Many of the major cities in the Netherlands and across Europe have decided to build internal groups working on digital infrastructure projects.

However, these cities are not yet leveraging the power of open development through collaboration and sharing of their products across municipalities. There is still a lack of knowledge on how cities can organize a process of public software development. Specifically, cities lack the insights on how they can best learn from each other in this process as well as how they can best share codebases. Simultaneously, both cities and creative industries professionals wonder how they can build business models around public software development.

This project aims to address these issues. We want to form a network of stakeholders involved in the creation of public software. With them we want to identify the main issues, opportunities and challenges for the deployment of public code.

We want to do this by compiling a first edition of a Guide for the Deployment of Public Software that documents steps and issues involved in the deployment of public software. This guide will be produced in co-creation sessions in three international workshop. The discussions about the creation of this guide will also be used to draft a research agenda. What steps need to be taken next in terms of research and development for the further propagation of public software?

Through these workshops and its subsequent publication of the Guide and the Research Agenda we aim to connect research institutions, municipalities and higher level government policy makers and creative industry companies around this important theme and stimulate further cooperation in this field.

As such, the scope of this project is mainly an agenda-building one, that aims to identify main stakeholders, list the most important issues, build a research agenda and set up a practical guide based on our knowledge so far.

Relevance in relation to the Dutch national research agenda

This topic is relevant for various aspects of both the research and innovation agenda, as well as the smart culture roadmap.

Roadmap and agenda goals

Design for change - towards transition

This project creates a knowledge network, a set of practical guidelines and a research agenda to bring about a transition from proprietary city software to public software. How can we migrate from the old system in which governments use proprietary software to a new system in which government software is developed in a public way? What would a process for the development and deployment of public software entail? The proposed ‘Guide for the Deployment of Public Software’ gives a first answer to these questions, while the knowledge network will address broader themes and research questions for follow-up research and development.

Value creation - business models for creative professionals

One aspect of the shift from proprietary to public software is that new business models need to be developed around the development and deployment of public software. This will be one of the central issues to be discussed at the workshops. In a broader sense, this project is about the organization of public value creation through new practices of public software deployment, looking for alternatives to existing proprietary systems.

Roadmap smart culture - smart cities and societies

In the roadmap smart culture, the theme of smart cities is addressed in relation to the development of digital platforms. This project addresses the question of how public values can be safeguarded in the deployment of city software and platforms, through a public software approach.

Network, relevant questions and knowledge gaps

The underlying questions and knowledge gaps for this project have been identified by various parties that are part of this consortium as well as actors in their networks. In the first place, there are the forerunner cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona.

Over the last few years they have invested a lot of energy and resources in public software creation, either directly or through their engagement in research projects such as those funded by Horizon2020. They have by now developed a number of projects, and are interested in the question how these can be made productive beyond their initial state. For example, what would it take for other cities to use some of the public software that they have been developing?

Other cities have only recently discovered (or are still to discover) the importance of public software deployment. They are looking for practical angles. What would a successful trajectory for the deployment of public software look like? These municipalities need guidance on development of continuously delivered software products. The cities need product validation guides and design pattern languages. Smaller cities need ‘unboxing’ guides as consumers/deployers of these productized public platforms.

Research institutions have also been involved in the production of public software, for instance through H2020 grants. Their main issue is the question of how they can develop their software from a ‘project’ to a ‘product’ that can be deployed in other contexts beyond the original test cases.

Lastly, there are creative industry companies (as well as foundations and NGOs) who are active in this field and who are looking for a role as ‘orchestrators’ for the development of public software. There is a need for marketplaces, consultancy on productization, as well as guidance of continuous development of public software, and business models to sustain this practice.

Questions that need to be addressed are: How can cities collaboratively build digital infrastructure using agile continuous delivery techniques that have enabled massive software products in major cloud software enterprises? How can smaller municipalities most easily deploy software developed by this network? How can third parties, such as companies and public agencies, participate most productively in this development effort, both as producers and implementers of larger municipal public digital projects?

In this project, Vurb, City of Amsterdam and AUAS are working to identify the friction points in both the development of these large projects and their deployment across smaller municipalities.

We are seeing this shift from proprietary to public development, but what do the business models look like and how do municipalities begin or grow these ecosystems? As a larger collection of public digital infrastructural tools is developed, creative and technical industries will need guidance on how to participate in new business models around providing value as implementers of instances of these tools and platforms as services.

How does it contribute to the Dutch creative industries topsector

This project will feature creative industries based in Amsterdam at the center of an international movement in which cities around the world are starting to consider a public software approach.

It will explore both the design and deployment process of public software as well as business models to support this development.

As such, it will lay out a new direction for creative industries as well as new relations between governments, citizens and creative industries to develop city software from a public interest perspective.

Role and participation of partners

The consortium has three core partners.

Internationally, the City of Amsterdam is a forerunner in the deployment of public software. It is looking for ways to further develop this model of software deployment. How can cities collaborate on the further development and deployment of public software? In this project, it will contribute its experiences so far, and help in the setting of the framework and agenda for the workshops. Their involvement also means that the learnings from this project are directly looped back to the local government of Amsterdam.

Vurb BV is a design and strategic consulting agency focused on creating a viable future for cities and civic operating systems that are highly participatory and drive societal engagement. They communicate, prototype and implement this future by researching and developing applications, technologies and policy. Vurb is in the process of launching a foundation to serve as a resource and nexus for public software development. This project will serve to provide context and focus to their initial efforts there. In this project they will be responsible for the production of the Guide.

The Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences will connect the consortium with international (academic) research networks on public values and urban infrastructure. In the past few years, it has been part of a number of research projects that explore public values in relation to urban infrastructure development. This project takes that research one step further and makes it concrete by zooming in to the case of public software deployment.


The project is innovative as it aims to contribute to the development of a new model for the deployment of public software for cities, taking a pubic values angle. This is an emerging approach that has recently gained international recognition by cities such as Amsterdam and Barcelona, yet many questions still remain open as to how to further this approach.

Improving the position of Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

This project connects the AUAS with some leading actors in the field of public software development such as the Amsterdam and Barcelona CTO offices, and will strengthen its position in international networks such as the Open and Agile Smart Cities programme.

Contacts with organizations and stakeholders in Barcelona and Brussels will be beneficial for its position in future international research grant applications, and being one of the initiators of the research agenda will further acknowledge its position as a leading research institute in the domain of the creative industries.

Improving position network partners

For Vurb and the City of Amsterdam, this project will lead to similar effects.

Vurb can establish itself as a leading company in the internationally emerging field, and help set the agenda for the further development of public software.

The city of Amsterdam can learn from international stakeholders and also present itself as one of the leading cities in Europe in this field.

Deliverables and activities

Deliverable Partners Timeframe  
Partner meeting, setting the stage AUAS, VURB and City of Amsterdam    
Workshop 1 Code4All summit in Bucharest AUAS, VURB and City of Amsterdam 8 October 2018  
Report Workshop 1 AUAS and VURB    
Workshop 2 Smart City World Expo in Barcelona AUAS and VURB 16 November 2018  
Report Workshop 2 AUAS and VURB    
Workshop 3 at the City of Amsterdam AUAS and VURB 19-20 November 2018  
Report Workshop 3 AUAS and VURB    
Guide for the Deployment of Public Software VURB    
Network Overview (index of relevant parties) VURB    
Research agenda AUAS   July 2019
Final Presentation Public Event AUAS and VURB 18 April 2019  

Research plan

The project will run from February 2018 until February 2019. The project is organized around three (international) workshops/network meetings, each lasting two days. During these workshops, parties involved in the deployment of public software will be invited to share their learnings, discuss their issues, and develop an agenda for the further development of public software. A framework for these meetings will be developed by the project partners in the first month of the project, following desk research and internal meetings.

Contributors to these workshops will come from municipalities, national and European regulatory agencies, software developers, think tanks and consultancies, NGOs and researchers. Examples are representatives from the Barcelona and Amsterdam CTO offices, researchers from the Organicity H2020 research project, representatives from the Open and Agile Smart Cities Foundation, Delta10 open source software development for cities, Kennisland etc. The exact parties will be identified in the first month of the project.

The workshops will take place in Amsterdam, Barcelona and Brussels. The movement for public software is an international one, and it is therefore important to involve international stakeholders in this process. Barcelona has been chosen as a site because the city is known as a forerunner in this field, with a very active CTO office. Brussels is an interesting place as it is the home of many international and European organizations active in this field, such as the Open and Agile Smart Cities programme.

After each workshop, a report with the main findings will be distributed. After the workshops, a first edition of the Guide for the Deployment of Public Software will be compiled and an agenda for further research will be drafted.

The Guide and the Agenda will be presented at a public event at the end of the project.


Gemeente Amsterdam, Office of CTO

Client and developer of software; looking for ways to further develop models for inter-city collaboration in development of public software.

Contributes to agenda setting for network meetings/workshops.

Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (AUAS), Faculty of Digital Media and Creative Industries, Lectorate of Play and Civic Media

Knowledge partner, wants to further the research and knowledge on public values and urban infrastructure.

Does project management. Sets the agenda for network meetings. Reports on network meetings. Contributes to Guides. Develops the Research Agenda.

Vurb BV

Design and development partner, wants to concretize the formation of our public service foundation around this process, looking for models and processes for the deployment of public software.

Identifies stakeholders. Invites stakeholders to workshops. Develops Guides. Contributes to the Research Agenda.