AuthorPeter Bihr

Corona-stranded

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Note: We were traveling in Costa Rica when due to the spread of coronavirus, things around the globe started shutting down. (We had considered not going on the trip in the first place, but when we left our home town was still free of any known infections and we had a reasonably important reason to go that had nothing to do with our vacation. At the time, it seemed like a safe, responsible choice.) We’re on the south-western tip of the Nicoya peninsula, about as far from anything as you could possibly be, and waiting for an evacuation flight out. We’re safe, healthy and in good spirits, and in a relaxed place.

19-23 March: A highly dynamic situation

The last few days were a bit of a blur. Our little hustle before had provided us with everything we’d need — a house, a full fridge and a solid supply of water, and a couple of good bottles of wine. Mobility with out little golf cart, and for entertainment purposes a surfboard and a body board as well as more toys for little K. In the absence of flight options back home, we were ready to settle in.

Then the closures started for real. Schools, bars and clubs had long since been shuttered. Next up were restaurants and cafés. Shops were still allowed to be open, but many closed anyway: the double punch combo of Corona and no tourists was enough reason not to keep going. But again, we now had a kitchen and a fridge, so we’d be ok. Not just survive ok, but actual this could be enjoyable ok.

Then the country started to close of the beaches. Not all, but many. The situation had turned, as they say, highly dynamic.

For us, that meant a new reality. Our trade-offs now were:

  • Costa Rica had low numbers of infections, and good measures in place to slow down the spread of the virus. It was sunny, and food was good. Unlike in Germany, toilet paper and soap supplies were plenty. But we didn’t know how things would escalate here, nor how robust the health system would be if push came to shove. More than that, with the beaches closed, our radius had just shrunk to our little house: Outside it was mostly too hot to do anything outside except very early in the morning. So we’d be entertaining a 2 year old from our rented house — quarantine with a good view, but still quarantine.
  • Berlin is our home, we have plenty of friends there and our own place. It’s a known entity. The health system would be overloaded, no doubt, but presumably at a higher baseline. But it’s an infection hot spot, essential supplies had been running low for some time now, and we’d be stuck in an apartment without a garden, which with a 2 year old can get pretty intense. To be frank, by the news and stories related by friends and family about the situation in Germany and Berlin, I kind of dread going there; but in the end, it’s home for us. So we’re better equipped to weather a storm there than elsewhere.

That’s when Germany’s state department, Auswärtiges Amt, announced an evacuation program to get Germans abroad back home, if they so wish. This program first focused on high-risk areas with a high number of German travelers, but was eventually extended to Costa Rica (low risk, low numbers of Germans).

We decided to go for it, and trade the paradise with an uncertain future for our home with a certainly worrying present and future.

The website that Auswärtiges Amt (AA) uses to register Germans abroad was down, constantly, the servers overloaded with requests. In a surprising act of agility, AA had SAP build a new, dedicated site just for this Corona-specific evac program, rueckholprogramm.de. This site was much more contemporary and also worked on mobile browsers, but it too was overloaded.

In the end, by Friday night we managed to register our family there. (You will not receive a confirmation email, the site warned, and please don’t call us.) It’s now Monday afternoon; we’re waiting for a call from the embassy confirming that we’ve made it onto the evacuation list.

In the meantime, we try to enjoy the last few days of our vacation, at an arms length or two from everyone else. Since the town is mostly empty, that’s not too hard.

I’m reminded of Leo Lionni’s childens’ book Frederick in which a mouse just appears to be lazing around all summer, soaking up the sun. Come winter, food supplies and morale are running low, but at least Frederick can tell stories about the summer, the sun, and the colors of the world. He hadn’t just been lazing: He’d actively engaged with the summer, and now could remember those good times for everyone. In this spirit we try to make the best out of the situation and not to worry too much: We’re actively enjoying the sun, the breeze, the colors of the waves. Those memories will help us get through our upcoming months of indoor isolation.

17-18 March: Settling in for the long haul

As Covid-19 spreads, and with it closures of schools, bars, and airports, we face a simple question: Stay or leave? Evac out on the next plane, into a high-risk region; or settle in and isolate (pardon: socially distance) in Costa Rica.

Here in CR, the situation has been quiet and under control. The government reacted swiftly, right when only 5 cases of infections were known. By now, a few days later, no tourists are aloud to enter the country. Schools are closed, and overall it’s been a lot quieter.

Given the uncertainty back home and the overall guideline to try to stay put rather than travel, we decide to stay – so we had to act quickly as all around, everything was in flux.

Through our surprisingly extensive local network of landlords, restaurant staff and others, we sort out the essentials: a house, mobility (an honest to god all-terrain golf cart), and internet. Everyone has been incredibly helpful and there’s a real sense of community – we’re all in this together. It’s an incredible demonstration of solidarity and the strength of weak ties.

Sat, 15 March: Should I stay or should I go?

Corona impact is growing around the globe. We follow the news of its spreading, of shutdowns, of cancellations.

The wedding we were traveling for is cancelled; sad, but certainly a good call.

Italy is shut down. In France, shops and restaurants are closed. The US banned travel from Europe. Most countries cancelled all events – first of 1000+ participants, now increasingly also sub-50. Berlin just shut down all kitas and schools.

So now we’re looking at options. Stay in Costa Rica and work from here? Go home? Working without daycare is barely realistic. All options are on the table. There’s a distinct feeling that things are going to get worse before they get better. (And that’s a pandemic that isn’t even that aggressive!)

Meanwhile, we’re in vacation mode in relative isolation, in a remote location.

New Report: “Towards a European AI & Society Ecosystem”

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I’m happy to share that a new report I had the joy and privilege to co-author with Leonie Beining and Stefan Heumann (both of Stiftung Neue Verantwortung) just came out. It’s titled:

“Towards a European AI & Society Ecosystem”

I’m including the executive summary below, you can find the full report here. The report is co-produced by Stiftung Neue Verantwortung and ThingsCon.

Here’s the executive summary:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has emerged as a key technology that has gripped the attention of governments around the globe. The European Commission has made AI leadership a top priority. While seeking to strengthen research and commercial deployment of AI, Europe has also embraced the role of a global regulator of technology, and is currently the only region where a regulatory agenda on AI rooted in democratic values – as opposed than purely market or strategic terms – can be credibly formulated. And given the size of the EU’s internal market, this can be done with a reasonable potential for global impact. However, there is a gap between Europe’s lofty ambitions and its actual institutional capacity for research, analysis and policy development to define and shape the European way on AI guided by societal values and the public interest. Currently the debate is mostly driven by industry, where most resources and capacity for technical research are located. European civil society organizations that study and address the social, political and ethical challenges of AI are not sufficiently consulted and struggle to have an impact on the policy debate. Thus, the EU’s regulatory ambition faces a serious problem: If Europe puts societal interests and values at the center of its approach towards AI, it requires robust engagement and relationships between governments and many diverse actors from civil society. Otherwise any claims regarding human-centric and trustworthy AI would come to nothing.

Therefore, EU policy-making capacity must be supported by a broader ecosystem of stakeholders and experts especially from civil society. This AI & Society Ecosystem, a subset of a broader AI Ecosystem that also includes industry actors, is essential in informing policy-making on AI, as well as holding the government to its self-proclaimed standard of promoting AI in the interest of society at large. We propose the ecosystem perspective, originating from biology and already applied in management and innovation studies (also with regard to AI). It captures the need for diversity of actors and expertise, directs the attention to synergies and connections, and puts the focus on the capacity to produce good outcomes over time. We argue that such a holistic perspective is urgently needed if the EU wants to fulfil its ambitions regarding trustworthy AI. The report aims to draw attention to the role of government actors and foundations in strengthening the AI & Society Ecosystem.

The report identifies ten core functions, or areas of expertise, that an AI & Society Ecosystem needs to be able to perform – ten areas of expertise where the ecosystem can contribute meaningfully to the policy debate: Policy, technology, investigation, and watchdog expertise; Expertise in strategic litigation, and in building public interest use cases of AI; Campaign and outreach, and research expertise; Expertise in promoting AI literacy and education; and sector-specific expertise. In a fully flourishing ecosystem these functions need to be connected in order to complement each other and benefit from each other.

The core ingredients needed for a strong AI & Society Ecosystem already exist: Europe can build on strengths like a strong tradition of civil society expertise and advocacy, and has a diverse field of digital rights organizations that are building AI expertise. It has strong public research institutions and academia, and a diverse media system that can engage a wider public in a debate around AI. Furthermore, policy-makers have started to acknowledge the role of civil society for the development of AI, and we see new funding opportunities from foundations and governments that prioritize the intersection of AI and society.

There are also clear weaknesses and challenges that the Ecosystem has to overcome: Many organizations lack the resources to build the necessary capacity, and there is little access to independent funding. Fragmentation across Europe lowers the visibility and impact of individual actors. We see a lack of coordination between civil society organizations weakening the the AI & Society Ecosystem as a whole. In policy-making there is a lack of real multi-stakeholder engagement and civil society actors often do not have sufficient access to the relevant processes. Furthermore, the lack of transparency on where and how AI systems are being used put additional burden on civil society actors engaging in independent research, policy and advocacy work.

Governments and foundations play a strong role for the development of a strong and impactful AI & Society Ecosystem in Europe. They provide not only important sources of funding on which AI & Society organizations depend. They are also themselves important actors within that ecosystem, and hence have other types of non-monetary support to offer. Policy-makers can, for example, lower barriers to participation and engagement for civil society. They can also create new resources for civil society, e.g. by encouraging NGOs to participate in government funded research or by designing grants especially with small organizations in mind. Foundations shape the ecosystem through broader support including aspects such as providing training and professional development. Furthermore, foundations are in the position to act as convener and to build bridges between different actors that are necessary in a healthy ecosystem. They are also needed to fill funding gaps for functions within the ecosystem, especially where government funding is hard or impossible to obtain. Overall, in order to strengthen the ecosystem, two approaches come into focus: managing relationships and managing resources.

New Report: “Smart Cities: A Key to a Progressive Europe”

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I’m happy to share that a report is out today that I had the honor and pleasure to co-author. It’s published jointly by the Foundation for European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and the Cooperation Committee of the Nordic Labour Movement (SAMAK).

The report is called “A Progressive Approach to Digital Tech — Taking Charge of Europe’s Digital Future.”

In FEPS’s words:

This report tries to answer the question how progressives should look at digital technology, at a time when it permeates every aspect of our lives, societies and democracies. (…)
The main message: Europe can achieve a digital transition that is both just and sustainable, but this requires a positive vision and collective action.

At its heart, it’s an attempt to outline a progressive digital agenda for Europe. Not a defensive one, but one that outlines a constructive, desirable approach.

My focus was on smart cities and how a progressive smart city policy could look like. My contribution specifically comes in the form of a stand-alone attachment titled:

“Smart Cities: A Key to a Progressive Europe”

I’d love to hear what you think. For now, enjoy the report!

Europe’s AI Strategy: Give your input today

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This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:12.

The European Commission has just published a White Paper outlining their AI strategy.

Politico has what looks like a solid summary, but I’m still slowly working my way through the documents, so I can’t vouch for it. If you understand German, Netzpolitik has a good one, too.

You can find the overview documents and — just as importantly, if not more so — the so-called consultation here. This is where you can give input and feedback. Please do so!

So far, this White Paper is just a basis for discussion. The real lobbying starts now that it’s published. So any counterweight to industry lobbying is probably healthy. (In fact, in a report out in a few days, we argue that a strong civil society involvement in the AI space is key to a desirable future for AI in Europe; check back on this blog for updates on that paper later this week.)

Since EU surveys are notoriously not the least bit appealing at all, not enough people and organizations give their input here — and hence they yield the floor to those others who might not have their best intentions, or simply have more time.

This consultation here is pretty straightforward, though, and you can reply in a mix of multiple choice, free text input, and/or upload a PDF with your organization’s positions. So really, please take the time.

You’ll need a Europa account to do so, and if you don’t have one, set one up, it’ll come in handy in other places, too. (For example, if you ever apply for EU grants.)

Please note that the consultation survey does, for whatever reason, not pop up when you click on the navigation where it says “Consultations” but when you click “Read full text” on the left:

It’s confusing as hell, so here’s a screenshot to highlight what’s going on. I don’t know what CMS the European Commission uses but it seems like it produces some interesting artifacts.

I’ll try to post some thoughts on the strategy itself soon, too. But in the meantime, go have a look.

Introducing the Berlin Institute for Smart Cities and Civil Rights

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This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:11.

Berlin Institute header over a backdrop of the Berlin skyline with the TV tower front and center

After working in this space for years, I’m convinced that smart cities are a key battleground in the fight for civil rights in the 21st century. I don’t say this lightly, either: I truly believe that smart cities — cities infused with data-driven infrastructure — are focal points where a range of technologies and issues manifest very concretely.

Why we need the Berlin Institute
Cities around the globe are exploring smart city initiatives in order to deliver better services to their citizens, and to manage resources most efficiently. However, city governments operate within a network of competing pressures and pain points. The Berlin Institute aims to help relieve those pressures and pain points by providing tools and expertise that put citizens and their rights front and center.

Together with my collaborator, former German human rights commissioner Markus Löning and his extremely capable team, we are setting out to realize the positive potential of smart cities while avoiding potential harms — by putting civil rights first.

With our combined expertise — Markus around human rights, mine around smart cities — we hope that we can make a valuable contribution to the smart city debate.

So today, as a soft launch, I’m happy to point towards our new website for the Berlin Institute for Smart Cities and Civil Rights (BISC). Lots there is still going to change as we keep refining. In the meantime, I’d love to learn more about how we can best help you and your city navigate this space.

Innovation Rankings

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This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:10.

So Germany was just ranked the world’s most innovative country as per Bloomberg’s Innovation Index. So, all good then, eh?

Somehow this doesn’t sit right with me. It just doesn’t quite seem to… capture what’s going on?

Sure thing, there’s a lot of innovation going on here. The manufacturing sector, the SME’s — Germany’s world-famour Mittelstand— has a lot going on in that sense. The Mittelstand companies in particular with all their so-called hidden champions are often really up to speed, working closely with their clients to deliver best-in-class, high-value products or components. This is great — but I’d file it under lowercase innovation.

Research spending in universities and the big R&D institutes (the Fraunhofer Institutes and their peers) is huge, and they do a lot more basic and applied research, or what seems more worthy of the uppercase Innovation.

So why does it feel a little off? Let’s first take this section in the Bloomberg article (the same as linked at the top of this post):

In the Bloomberg Index, Germany scored three top-five rankings in value-added manufacturing, high-tech density, and patent activity. South Korea lost its crown in part due to a relative slump in productivity, falling to No. 29 from last year’s No. 18 ranking in that category.
“The manufacturing sector is still highly competitive and a source for innovation,” Carsten Brzeski, chief economist at ING Germany, said in an email. “Germany’s performance in such indicators is still strong and much better than the recent economic weakness would suggest.”
Still, Brzeski cited several reasons why Germany shouldn’t be complacent about its innovation standing. Its services innovation is much less impressive, and about a third of research and development spending is in the auto industry, meaning “disruption and longer weakness of this sector could weigh on Germany’s innovative strength,” he said.

This really gets to the core of it. Sure, research spending and patents score high in this ranking — but that tells us about value capture and extracting more than it does about innovation.

The major role that the automobile sector plays here is worrisome because it might pretty much crumble. Germany’s flavor of automobile innovation is innovative within an old-school mindset of one car per person, which I don’t see persist. (I might be wrong, but I don’t think so.) Germany’s car makers had hit the breaks when it came to electric for ages, and still are only learning what to do with data & services. It’s like there’s a ton of brain power sitting there that has to be dragged screaming into the 21st century. I don’t see it leading in anything but efficiency and safety, if that. Not nothing, but not “most innovative country” level innovation.

The education weakness mentioned in the article is extremely worrying, as is Germany’s overall weirdly weak approach to immigration: There’s neither a master plan nor, societally, an agreed end point to when an immigrant has arrived, so to speak: When does an immigrant turn to an accepted citizen? Undefined! So it can’t happen. Yet, without immigration, many societal issues can’t ever be solved; and even if it immigration wasn’t about solving societal issues, it’d still need to happen, and with an approach that had a clear and desirable end point for any immigrating individual as well as society at large. But I digress.

To circle back to the more concrete: Our digital government services — usually a good indicator for innovation, I’d say — lag 10 years behind the state of the art as we see it in the UK or Estonia.

Add to that that patents are a standard but — I’d argue, flawed— indicator of real innovation, and we might just see a lagging indicator of innovation here. Because looking at where I see innovation happening in my professional peer group and looking at cutting edge stuff — literally innovation around the edges — that stuff happens rarely in Germany but also wouldn’t (yet) be measurable by those metrics because it’s too far ahead, too far yet from productization and hence measurable so-called productivity.

So overall, to me this seems like Germany might be leading in the “2 minutes into the future” category of innovation, especially where manufacturing plays a role. But certainly not in the “10+ years into the future” type, which to me is the one that matters.

We might need leading indicators rather than lagging once, to be able to determine who’s on a path to prosperity 10-20 years down the road rather than the next 1-5 years. Only then can we capture the type of innovation that really matters: The one that combines sustainability with productivity, and serves societal interests. The one that creates — positive-sum! — value rather than extracts it. The one that’s expansive in its returns.

Slashing extra curriculars

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This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:09.

For years now — really, throughout my whole career — I’ve always had a whole range of side projects: Sometimes prototypes or experimental explorations, sometimes something akin to professional hobbies.

It’s fair to say that to a degree, I’ve kind of built my career from or around those extra curricular activities. The things I learned through these, the people I’ve had the opportunity to meet — this has been priceless. And mostly a joy, too!

Over the years, many things fell into this category. Some stayed, others emerged and evolved into more serious projects. To name just a few that come to mind:

  • Events, like Atoms&Bits Festival, Cognitive Cities Conference, TEDxKreuzberg, UIKonf, Ignite Berlin, and ThingsCon.
  • Written things, like The Indie Conference Organizer Handbook (with Max Krüger), Understanding the Connected Home (with Michelle Thorne), and View Source: Shenzhen.
  • Research-y things, like The Good Home.
  • Product-ish things, like Zephyr Berlin pants, The Alpine Review, and the Dearsouvenir magazine.

Some of these, I did by myself; others I got involved in after the fact. But really, most were true collaborations that I co-founded, and those are what I tend to enjoy the most. Over the years, I’ve also been on juries and in a number of unpaid advisory situations.

Together, that’s about a decade worth of extra curriculars: Yes, that was my version of the infamous 20% projects, though in reality, probably a much bigger chunk of my time.

I’ve enjoyed every minute of those, and benefitted greatly from most. Some of them are still thriving, with or without my involvement, which makes me very happy indeed.

But every now and then, it’s time for a culling because a day’s only that long. And especially now with a kid that takes up all slack really I prefer spending time with over yet another Slack channel, that time has come. (However rewarding those Slack channels and side projects might be, they don’t hold a candle to this kid of ours, obviously.)

So it’s with a tear and a smile that I’ll be stepping away from a few more extra curriculars. I’ll be stepping back from being involved in Ignite Berlin, our local chapter of Ignite lightning talks (the project had been sitting there idly for a while anyway by now). I’ll be stepping down from my jury duties. Probably more has to go, but what and how exactly I’m still trying to figure out.

Time to reclaim some slack in the system, lest it all break down.

Oh right, I should add that ThingsCon is explicitly not part of that culling: I’ll be as involved in ThingsCon as ever for the foreseeable future.

So onward and upward, light as a feather.