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Jonas Onland, in collaboration with Andy Lürling, founder and CEO of LUMO Labs, is advising governments on how digital innovation can help cities become more sustainable. With the use of the right technology, citizens see improved access to their cities’ services.

The current global health crisis and related lockdown accelerated online access to information and  services, which in turn have been critical to the transparency and trust in a society. Onland is developing a Digital Toolkit to realize digital twins of organizations, campuses, and cities. He believes soon we will have a digital twin communicating and collaborating with replicas of physical entities.


You were with the city of Eindhoven [in the Netherlands] and witnessed siloed parts of a city come together by realizing better human experiences through digital innovation. Tell me about what that entailed?

Yes, that’s correct. The last two years, I worked on digital transformation, which is a big topic. Everybody treats it as a IT project—5G, for example, is the latest buzzword. However, if you work for a city, you need to understand how new technology improves the quality of life and the sustainability of the city.

I say digital transformation is a process of culture. It is changing patterns and behavior within the city. With people adopting solutions that are focused on the ethical parts of digitalization.

An example of the opposite of that is when you look at Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft. All the data gathered is geared to get more people to use their products.

How do smaller cities have an influence on the larger sustainability debate? 

The city of Eindhoven, known as a design and technology hub, is the fifth largest city of the Netherlands. We built up a network that has an influence on a national level. Together we are working on the Urban Agenda which is a big program by the European Commission

The assumption is that in 2050, close to 70 percent of all people in the world will be living in cities. That’s based on an assumption. The digital transformation is going to change our lives in ways we don’t know yet. 

I work together with Estonia and other countries and cities in the world. What occurred to me is that everybody is facing the same challenge. Whether you’re in the South of the Netherlands or whether you’re in Paris or Lisbon.

I think that new technologies are possibilities to really improve the quality of life. One big question is how technology can help people’s lives in cities become more sustainable. It is really important to re-look at the framework of our capitalist system.

Could you give me an example of how digital innovation would add to an improved livability in an urban setting?

The greatest example is a floating neighborhoods development in Amsterdam. Marjan de Blok founded Schoonschip in 2008. De Blok and her collaborators developed, visualized, brought it onto a platform. They asked people living in the community to participate in redesigning complete office buildings.

This is still on a small scale, but you could see the future: smart grids with electricity and a plumbing system. The cool part was that they co-created the neighborhood with the community. It’s using technology, but with the voice of the community. 

How does a community make decisions when often you don’t even have the basic information about what people need. In the U.S., as you mentioned, corporations own our data. In China, it is the government. What have you seen in Europe that offers a different approach?

One of the greatest examples of a big startup is actually the country of Estonia. They started with the core identity—based on the principle that people should be owners of their data—and reinvented the system.

The national government organized the core identity for every single group in society. You use one identification card for different services and can start doing transactions. One million people use the tax system [today 98% of the population use e-taxes] and so the government started there. The banks followed—the second biggest motivation for people to use this ID card. 

Most importantly, people can’t just look into your data. And if people, such as doctors, have access to your personal data, you can see who has looked at it. 

Last year, the government said, provide us with your DNA data. Within a year, they collected 100,000 samples. [The data will be linked with the national health information system.]

That’s amazing. How did they manage to get the trust of the citizens?

You have to be really reliable with the system and technology; they have one system that works. There is an independent authority that manages it.

I understand the benefits and Estonians seem to be fine with the government owning their personal data. However, this does not seem to give citizens much choice if they want to pay taxes and use the banking system.

Everybody is using Amazon or Google even though we all know the unethical part of what’s happening with our data. The simple reason: it is making their lives more convenient. Is there a better alternative for Google Maps? No.

I was in Estonia two years ago for a speaking engagement and started chatting with the cab driver. He took his wallet and showed me his ID card. He said, there is a chip on this card. I can pay everywhere with this; you don’t need any other cards. I’m getting offers from businesses and discounts on my groceries. They constantly add value to the card and to their identity.

However, the political situation in Estonia has changed dramatically. A year ago there was a possibility of a female prime minister. Estonia’s parliament rejected the leader of the center-right Reform Party, Kaja Kallas. [Current Prime Minister Jüri Ratas blocked Reform’s path to power by agreeing to a coalition between his left-leaning Center, the conservative Fatherland party and the far-right EKRE group, giving the three parties a majority in parliament.] It was like a [political tv series] House of Cards situation. Now the government include a far-right party. When I was in Estonia last June, there were a lot of patrols. So in one year everything can change. It raises the question, can you trust the [next] government?

What’s different about that and China?

True, I was always negative about China’s crediting systemThere are a lot of examples on how China wants to be a world leader. Someone gave me another perspective on China’s culture and values. The internal Chinese market has 1 million people looking for jobs. They scan people on biometrics and other data. They also use it to find out if a cleaner has the potential to be a surgeon. The government understands that it is not healthy to have a million people without fitting jobs. They see people as resources. So that’s a really different perspective.

We need to start looking at things differently, otherwise we will destroy this planet. We need to have an alternative.

What would a sustainable city look like?

It would be a combination of an organic feeling of what you want to be, while enjoying nature in combination with extremely effective technology. You are part of different small, well-organized hubs. For example, in [the capital of Estonia] Tallinn, instead of encouraging ownership of cars, the public transport is free. Things in the future will be more seamless and demand-driven. In Eindhoven, you already see farmers plant based on need. Grow only what people want to eat in the upcoming months, so that you don’t have any waste.

If we have shared e-vehicles, optimal digital access and inclusivity, wouldn’t the surrounding rural area become more attractive and we have a lower pressure to reside in the city?

If the infrastructure is efficient, then more people will move out of the city. The new ways for digital transformation is interesting. Andy [Lürling] is investing in a virtual reality game, for example, in which you have a full body suit and act in virtual reality. You’re basically in a different reality with holograms and augmented reality. Interaction between people is perceived more intense and real than this Skype meeting.

Do we all need to be in cities? Have you seen anything that contradicts the numbers given of an increased population in cities?

In the Netherlands, this is already happening, where we see cities expanding into the villages around them. In Eindhoven, we are working on 5G Sustainable City. If you look at worldwide infrastructures and outside of the city 20 kilometers, you’ll have 3G and that will slow down development outside of the city. The infrastructure is based in the city, and investments are done there. Getting connectivity all over the world is what we need. Google and Facebook are working on connectivity balloons in Africa.

Two of my students are looking into how technology has allowed digital nomads. Have you looked into this phenomenon of migration where gig-workers, freelancers move to less expensive places while keeping clients in the places they left?

One of the changes that I’m part of is that I can work from anywhere on this European project. I really like this movement, to be honest—this minimalistic movement of not wanting to own too much and only needing a laptop to work with. But it’s not for all jobs. Again, a lot of people—cultural prisoners—need the security and the feeling to be at one place.

Once a week, I was in a different city in Europe. Until two years ago, when I broke my ankle. I had a long time to think and asked myself if waking up the exact same time every morning is what I wanted.

Breaking the ankle caused you to become an entrepreneur?

Yes! [Laughs.] During the first week you have a lot of visitors. After that, you are lonely on your bed and you have time for reflection and looking to the future. At that point, I was not sure what I wanted.

This has been two years plus, how does it feel? You took a big step: quit a stable job and started your own business. That’s not easy either.

It feels like a roller coaster. Having worked for Eindhoven city for seven years, thinking of the public values. Now, I need to think commercial, get my earnings. There is also a world that’s opening up. Before, I focused on one city. Now if you want to do business in another country, there are no boundaries.

There are always challenges when the government collaborates with private entities. What are some of the big learnings? Do you have some key ingredients on how to collaborate cross-sector?

You need to understand what you’re good at. Government is good at public interest and influence on a national level. The power of the business is execution. If they don’t deliver, they are dead. Institutes are providing knowledge and an ability to look ahead. The City of Eindhoven worked together with Vodafone, Sigo, Erickson, and Eindhoven Campus on 5G.

Everybody said 5G is going to be important. We took a lot of time so people understood their roles. I always say, I want to have the crap in the beginning instead of during the process.

We asked Erickson, how do you see yourself? “We see ourselves as an enabler.” Vodafone said, “No, we’re an operator and we deliver content.” Getting those roles clear and what you want, that is number one.

We went to the CEO of Vodafone for approval of the project. He said, “No, I am not going to sign up. I want to see use cases and the impact of 5G.” That was an important lesson. We went to all the partners in the ecosystem. Soccer team PSV, HGTV, Effenaar, Philips, and asked, “What would you do with 5G?”

I remember the first meeting with Philips Stadium, they have a stadium for 35,000 people. It can’t get any bigger. We said, the NBA has 360-degree cameras and charge $1 for every camera. If you have a Mexican player, you can have the audience pay to follow him. Now you have a potential of two million Mexicans additional audience.

We were imagining other possibilities in the future of sport and entertainment. Now we have a common purpose. Next step is getting things operational. Everybody here is looking at the business side of it. How much does everyone invest? You’ll need to have independent leadership.

Then you have to work out who owns the Intellectual Property (IP). If one of the partners earns a million, how much goes back to the infrastructure? Back into investing in the city of Eindhoven? You’ll have to build a solid business model that is sustainable. That’s really important, because otherwise that will be the bottleneck at the end of the process.

What’s next for you?

I want to buy some land in Portugal to start a community for surfers and to share the sport. Then, I’m setting up a company with Andy and a few others, Serendipity, where we want to help corporations and the government with digital transformation. We’d like a fund for sustainable ecosystems and cities with new technology in a humanistic way. 


impactmania’s past interviews and programs have been featured in international media, a number of universities, the UN, U.S. Consulates, and have been cited by Harvard Business School, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, and Duke University Press. impactmania’s Women of Impact program was awarded the U.S. Embassy Public Diplomacy grant (2019).