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.
I hope this finds you well, in whichever socially distant place you’ve built your nest this past winter.
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 co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit that explores responsible tech. To support my independent research & advocacy, why not join the SPECIAL PROJECTS membership? On Twitter, I’m @peterbihr. If you’d like to work with me or bounce ideas, let’s have a chat.
Updates from the engine room
Getting Tech Right
My independent research project about thinking better about tech & society, Getting Tech Right is coming together nicely.
I’ve been talking to a super nice independent publisher who might pick up the book — if it ends up being a good shape for a book, that is. Maybe it should be a heavily internally linked website instead? I’m not sure yet. Maybe it should be both! But yeah, I’d love to be able to put books in people’s hands. It’s really nice.
Part of the research for GTR is a podcast launched earlier this year, which is available on my website and wherever you find your podcasts (Apple, Spotify, etc.).
Since the last newsletter, 3 episodes have come out: With Simon Höher, I discussed smart cities. With Di Luong, we spoke about algorithmic bias. And with Iskander Smit, we talked about how to design the public technology stack. Next week, if everything goes according to plan, there’ll be a real blockbuster of an episode.
Also, I’m very, very happy that a good friend and collaborator will be joining as a co-host for the podcast soon. More on that later.
The ThingsCon handover (I stepped down from the board) is progressing smoothly, within the confines of German bureaucracy which makes even this relatively trivial things the stuff of (minor) nightmares in terms of forms to be filled out, notary appointments to arrange during a pandemic, etc. etc.
Digital research agenda
CAIS, the Center for Advanced Internet Studies, kindly invited me to be part of a small sounding board of experts to help set the agenda for their future research. It was a great round of folks in that workshop, and the moderation was top-notch: Everything smoothly run, on time, etc. That’s as it should be.
Recently on the blog
- Public Interest Independent Research Labs
- Cognitive Cities, 10 Years Later
- On Controlling “Your Data”
- Digital Transformation, German Government Edition
- Changes on the ThingsCon board of directors
Public Interest Independent Research Labs
I don’t usually copy & paste whole blog posts in here, but this one seems relevant enough to do so as it focuses on a key area of my work.
Tom Critchlow pulled together some approaches for how to think about funding independent research labs.
In his post he gathers inputs from a range of smart people, many of which you’ve encountered in quotes in my blog and newsletter before, like Matt Webb, Andy Matuschak and others.
Reading Tom’s post reminds me just how deeply I’m convinced that some of these (hypothetical, potential, as they don’t yet exist) independent research labs should be funded inside the market logic, others should exist very explicitly outside the market logic.
For some contexts, researching with an eye towards commercial applicability is a natural fit. For others, there simply is no “market” demand, but a very real “societal” demand. Trying to shoehorn these types of research projects into a commercially funded structure necessarily leads to subpar outcomes. It would be setting the labs and their projects up for failure.
Different contexts need different types of funding
Funding can come from many places, and certain types of funding are a great fit for certain kinds of research.
For example, there is a place for commercial, enterprise-level R&D departments that lead to marketable innovations or products. There are independent funding structures for individual researchers or artists, which is basically a fan-based approach. There’s academic research, of course. And there is publicly funded basic research, as well as applied research for certain applied areas like space exploration.
Personally, I’ve tried a few of these approaches. I’ve run a Kickstarter to develop a product (now on hiatus), for the fan-based approach. I’ve been part of an EU-funded PhD program as a supervisor. I’ve been involved in any number of research-y initiatives that my collaborators and I cross-subsidized through our client work, from publications to research trips to exhibitions. I’ve authored or co-authored any number of research reports exploring things for (both political and charitable) foundations. I’m currently running a self-initiated (member-supported) research project about how to think better about technology’s impact on society called Getting Tech Right.
In other words, I have some experience with the pros and cons of each of these approaches, and I can confirm the obvious: Depending on what you set out to do, some of these work better than others. There’s no silver bullet for funding. What works depends entirely on the context.
That said, there are areas, some maybe a little abstract, that I believe should be publicly funded. (If public funding is too tricky, foundations might be able to step up to get the ball rolling.) Anything to do with Public Interest Technology falls squarely in that category. A lot of work examining potential or real impact of technology on society belongs there. A lot of work on governance and consent in real-life context regarding data needs this.
If you attempt to approach an area of research with the wrong type of funding, it will invariably fail. Any money isn’t necessarily better than no money. What it takes is the right type of money.
In other words:
I think there’s a real and important role to play for publicly funded, but largely independent research labs.
These independent, publicly funded research labs could come with various focus areas (design, governance, public interest tech…), with different mission statements. They should probably be staunchly interdisciplinary. And they should share their research and results openly.
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. 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. Peter was a Mozilla Fellow (2018-19) and an Edgeryders Fellow (2019). Based in Berlin, he tweets at @peterbihr and blogs at thewavingcat.com. Interested in working together? Let’s have a chat.
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