S07E16 of Connection Problem: Philanthropy, Responsible Tech & Smart Cities

Note: This is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter in an attempt to both to make it easier to read this via RSS feed and to have this in my own independent archives. You can subscribe here to get it delivered to your inbox.


A big hello, wherever this finds you.

I hope you and yours are doing well, the plague passing outside the window but not interfering too much. We certainly have settled into a certain cozy home office routine and I’m ready to face another strange season full of long walks, books and podcasts, and face-to-face conversations conducted in small windows on laptops, phones or tablets.

If you want to chat, the easiest way is to hit reply to this email. But I’m also keeping open the line for video calls any Tuesday (just grab a slot of these Unoffice Hours here); these have become one of my favorite time slots in the week, full of great conversations. Or get in touch to discuss your ideas (all contact details here).

Yours truly,


You’re receiving this because you signed up for this newsletter on tinyletter.com/pbihr or through my company’s website, thewavingcat.com. The Waving Cat is a boutique research and strategic advisory firm; I also co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores responsible tech. On Twitter, I’m @peterbihr. If you’d like to work with me or bounce ideas, let’s have a chat.


Brief updates from the engine room

I’m happy to join a group that supports the most excellent org Simply Secure on their journey towards a new identity. They’ve been producing consistently outstanding work that I keep coming back to in the realm of UX and security for a long time. I’m a real fan.

Over at ThingsCon, we’re getting to a working plan for hosting our annual event with slightly different formatting. We’re of course going all-remote; we’ll spread things out over a week (the second week of December) to make it easier to dip in and out; and we’ll play with different formats from maker sessions to an education day to deep dive sessions. We think of it as a cozy festival that fosters community more than a traditional conference, and I’m very much looking forward to it. Updates soon over at thingscon.org.

Trustmarks are bringing all the big orgs to the table, it seems. Been jumping in and out of calls with the WEF and a Swiss foundation and a few others who have all stumbled over the work we’ve been doing at ThingsCon, specifically with the Trustable Technology Mark (which is on hiatus). Maybe there’s finally some movement in that space, with larger orgs stepping up to get something to market. If that’s the case, I really hope it’ll be meaningful and not too watered down. This is a space that without civil society will be just industry astroturfing; and civil society funding in that space is rare.

I joined a (semi-public?) call with some folks from the European Commission; essentially an interview and AMA with European Commission VP for All Things Digital Margrethe Vestager. (The real title of her VP role is “VP for A Europe Fit for the Digital Age” by the way.) Replying to a questions I submitted, she confirmed trustmark efforts for AI at the European level, though I understood there not to be legislation yet. Alas, the moderator alas left out the other areas I had asked about: Trustmark efforts for other emerging tech like IoT and Smart Cities specifically – and I don’t believe there’s much there yet. (The moderator did skip that part, but took the time to announce my company name “funny” before catching himself; some pro behavior right there. Ah well.) So let’s hope we get some meaningful Smart City trustworthiness certification that’s more than rock bottom; currently it doesn’t really look like it. (But we’ll come back to smart cities below.)

I’m considering a larger writing project, an exploration around responsible tech. The working title I have in mind is “Responsible Tech: A Pragmatic Guide” or something along those lines. It’d be aimed at both those working in tech, developing products; and at those working at the meta level of tech, from researchers to foundations to policy makers. Both need a certain toolkit to think about how to make tech responsibly.
It’s extremely early stage — barely more than an idea and a drafted Table of Contents. So I’m not sure if this will happen at all and how. A book, a series of blog posts, something else entirely? Part of that will certainly also depend on how much time I can justify spending on it. So I’m looking into experimenting with independent funding, something along the lines of a crowd-funding or pre-order system that would allow me to sit down and produce this in a way that would also make it possible to share everything online later under the Unlocked Commons. Unless a published happens to approach me (I wouldn’t know where to start, or where to find the time to reach out to potential ones) that’s the likeliest route.

If there’s a thread connecting all the dots in this issue, it’s this: We can’t expect the tech that shapes our society to be responsible and citizen/society first if the funding is all from the private sector. Policy makers need to step up, sure. CSR programs are great, sure. But mostly we need philanthropy to help build capacity across civil society, by providing funding and also operational support.


Is your Smart City ready for Civil Rights?

We see city administrations around the world engage in “smart city projects”. (I’m using quotes because it’s a relatively ill-defined area that covers a wide range of project types.) But what are the capacities accessible to those administrations, in-house or through partners like civil society, to make sure civil rights are protected — or even strengthened — on that journey towards a smart city? We want to find out!

Over at the Berlin Institute for Smart Cities & Civil Rights, we started a Smart City & Civil Readiness Survey (in English, in German). If you work in a city administration, or somehow adjacent to that, it’d be fantastic if you could fill out this survey. We’ll share the results (anonymized, of course) online later.


Philanthropy, revisited

Interesting piece on MacKenzie Scott, the philanthropist formerly (alas) best known as “Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife”, and how she’s showing a new — and frankly, most likely better — way of giving philanthropically than many of her peers. Specifically, by giving to existing organizations with minimal demands of her own. By removing the donor’s ego and vanity from the equation, grants can go where organizations know how to bring them to bear — without the bureaucracy and politics of the donor getting in the way:

Scott gave 116 grants, all at once, with very few strings attached, to mostly small organizations. They didn’t have to hit metrics she named; they didn’t have to create programs she favored. She even refused thank you notes when nonprofits asked how they could show their gratitude. And she specifically chose organizations led by people with “lived experience,” as Scott put it: women leading women’s groups, people of color leading racial equity groups.


rewrote the typical playbook for high-profile tech philanthropists — who often operate as if they know best not just in business, but in solving societal problems, too. “Their engineering or technocratic orientation to their business, their wealth creation, transfers over to their philanthropic practices,” says Rob Reich, a Stanford political science professor, referring to tech superstars like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. “To put it really crudely, technocratic philanthropy is philanthropy that is done to people rather than with people.””

Last bit, because this sums it up:

That she gave mostly unrestricted gifts to existing groups meant huge flexibility for the nonprofits: no grants to apply for, no multiyear metrics to hit, no pet projects of hers the groups would need to pursue. That draws accolades from nonprofit experts. It was “a huge shift in how philanthropy is done,” says Elizabeth J. Dale, an assistant professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University.”

Let’s hope we’ll see more of that around the globe.


Blunt instruments & counter-surveillance

This piece on Uighurs in exile who are both trying to figure out what’s going on in their old homes — what’s happening to their families and friends, really — is also a story of surveillance technology and the agenda it pushes:

“What they see is often horrifying. Although it is frequently portrayed as an all-knowing, all-seeing panopticon, the techno-state in Xinjiang is either deeply flawed or deliberately genocidal. Rather than functioning as a highly sophisticated system of predictive policing, the technology that has been deployed in Xinjiang is, in practice, a blunt instrument. It has internalized the government’s long-standing suspicion of its ethnic and religious minorities, interpreting normal behaviors as suspicious. It has automated and accelerated repression and funneled people into internment camps and crowded prisons — mass incarceration by database.”

My knowledge of China and the role of Uighurs is pretty much limited to the general talking points known in the West; but the dynamic regarding surveillance tech (and how it is used to reiterate and enforce pre-existing discriminatory practices) certainly matches the larger patterns around the world.


Small bits and pieces

The Internet of Natural Things (2018) / With ‘nutrition labels’ and an anthropologist’s eye, Duke pioneers a new approach to AI in medicine (file under: trustmark, technology, label) / brutal visualization of what a 2°C increase in temperature will mean / Inside the strange new world of being a deepfake actor / Blush.design, a little online tool to create lovely-looking illustrations / Design Justice Network Principles / This video of Horsetail Fall in Yosemite National Park illuminated by the sun to look like it’s on fire is quite something / Oldie (2017) but goodie: Exploring what “responsible technology” means / Eliot Peper interviews Kim Stanley Robinson / I love a good walk’n-talk but haven’t done a multiple day one yet. So doing this once the plague has passed


Currently reading: The Uncertainty Mindset, Vaughn Tan. The 99% Invisible City, Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. Ministry for the Future, Kim Stanley Robinson


If you’d like to work with me or have a chat to explore collaborations, let’s chat! 


Who writes here? Peter Bihr explores how emerging technologies can have a positive social impact. At the core of his work is the mission to align emerging technologies and citizen empowerment. To do this, he works at the intersection of technology, governance, policy and social impact — with foundations, public and private sector. He is the founder of The Waving Cat, a boutique research and strategic advisory firm. He co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores fair, responsible, and human-centric technologies for IoT and beyond. Peter was a Mozilla Fellow (2018-19) and an Edgeryders Fellow (2019). He tweets at @peterbihr and blogs at thewavingcat.com. Interested in working together? Let’s have a chat.

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