AuthorPeter Bihr

Which type of Smart City do we want to live in?

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Connectivity changes the nature of things. It quite literally changes what a thing is.

By adding connectivity to, say, the proverbial internet fridge it stops being just an appliance that chills food. It becomes a device that senses; captures, processes and shares information; acts on this processed information. The thing-formerly-known-as-fridge becomes an extension of the network. It makes the boundaries of the apartment more permeable.

So connectivity changes the fridge. It adds features and capabilities. It adds vulnerabilities. At the same time, it also adds a whole new layer of politics to the fridge.

Power dynamics

Why do I keep rambling on about fridges? Because once we add connectivity — or rather: data-driven decision making of any kind — we need to consider power dynamics.

If you’ve seen me speak at any time throughout the last year, chances are you’ve encountered this slide that I use to illustrate this point:

The connected home and the smart city are two areas where the changing power dynamics of IoT (in the larger sense) and data-driven decision making manifest most clearly: The connected home, because it challenges our notions of privacy (in the last 150 years, in the global West). And the smart city, because there is no opting out of public space. Any sensor, any algorithm involved in governing public space impacts all citizens.

That’s what connects the fridge (or home) and the city: Both change fundamentally by adding a data layer. Both acquire a new kind of agenda.

3 potential cities of 2030

So as a thought experiment, let’s project three potential cities in the year 2030 — just over a decade from now. Which of these would you like to live in, which would you like to prevent?

In CITY A, a pedestrian crossing a red light is captured by facial recognition cameras and publicly shamed. Their CitizenRank is downgraded to IRRESPONSIBLE, their health insurance price goes up, they lose the permission to travel abroad.

In CITY B, wait times at the subway lines are enormous. Luckily, your Amazon Prime membership has expended to cover priority access to this formerly public infrastructure, and now includes dedicated quick access lines to the subway. With Amazon Prime, you are guaranteed Same Minute Access.

In CITY C, most government services are coordinated through a centralized government database that identifies all citizens by their fingerprints. This isn’t restricted to digital government services, but also covers credit card applications or buying a SIM card. However, the official fingerprint scanners often fail to scan manual laborers’ fingerprints correctly. The backup system (iris scans) don’t work on too well on those with eye conditions like cataract. Whenever these ID scans don’t work, the government service requests are denied.

Now, as you may have recognized, this is of course a trick question. (Apologies.) Two of these cities more or less exist today:

  • CITY A represents the Chinese smart city model based on surveillance and control, as piloted in Shenzhen or Beijing.
  • CITY C is based on India’s centralized government identification database, Aadhaar.
  • Only CITY B is truly, fully fictional (for now).

What model of Smart City to optimize for?

We need to decide what characteristics of a Smart City we’d like to optimize for. Do we want to optimize for efficiency, resource control, and data-driven management? Or do we want to optimize for participation & opportunity, digital citizens rights, equality and sustainability?

There are no right or wrong answers (even though I’d clearly prefer a focus on the second set of characteristics), but it’s a decision we should make deliberately. One leads to favoring monolithic centralized control structures, black box algorithms and top-down governance. The other leads to decentralized and participatory structures, openness and transparency, and more bottom-up governance built in.

Whichever we build, these are the kinds of dependencies we should keep in mind. I’d rather have an intense, participatory deliberation process that involves all stakeholders than just quickly throwing a bunch of Smart City tech into the urban fabric.

After all, this isn’t just about technology choices: It’s the question what kind of society we want to live in.

The 3 I’s: Incentives, Interests, Implications

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When discussing how to make sure that tech works to enrich society — rather than extract value from many for the benefit of a few — we often see a focus on incentives. I argue that that’s not enough: We need to consider and align incentives, interests, and implications.

Incentives

Incentives are, of course, mostly thought of as an economic motivator for companies: Maximize profit by lowering costs or offsetting or externalizing it, or charging more (more per unit, more per customer, or simply charging more customers). Sometimes incentives can be non-economic, too, like in the case of positive PR. For individuals, it’s conventionally thought of in the context of consumers trying to get their products as cheaply as possible.

All this of course is based on what in economics is called rational choice theory, a framework for understanding social and economic behavior: “The rational agent is assumed to take account of available information, probabilities of events, and potential costs and benefits in determining preferences, and to act consistently in choosing the self-determined best choice of action.” (Wikipedia) Rational choice theory isn’t complete, though, and might simply be wrong; we know, for example, that all kinds of cognitive biases are also at play in decision-making. The latter is for individuals, of course. But organizations inherently have their own blind spots and biases, too.

So this focus on incentives, while near-ubiquitous, is myopic: While incentives certainly play a role in decision making, they are not the only factor at play. Neither do companies only work towards maximizing profits (I know my own doesn’t, and I daresay many take other interests into account, too). Nor do consumers only optimize their behavior towards saving money (at the expense, say, of secure connected products). So we shouldn’t over-index on getting the incentives right and instead take other aspects into account, too.

Interests

When designing frameworks that aim at a better interplay of technology, society and individual, we should look beyond incentives. Interests, however vaguely we might define those, can clearly impact decision making. For example, if a company (large or small, doesn’t matter) wants to innovate in a certain area, they might willingly forgo large profits and instead invest in R&D or multi-stakeholder dialog. This could help them in their long term prospects through either new, better products (linking back to economic incentives) or by building more resilient relationships with their stakeholders (and hence reducing potential friction with external stakeholders).

Other organizations might simply be mission driven and focus on impact rather than profit, or at least balance both differently. Becoming a B-Corp for example has positive economic side effects (higher chance of retaining talent, positive PR) but more than that it allows the org to align its own interests with those of key stakeholder groups, namely not just investors but also customers and staff.

Consumers, equally, are not unlikely by any means to prioritize price over other characteristics: Organic and Fairtrade food or connected products with quality seals (like our own Trustable Technology Mark) might cost more but offer benefits that others don’t. Interests, rational or not, influence behavior.

And, just as an aside, there are plenty of cases where “irrationally” responsible behavior by an organization (like investing more than legally required in data protection, or protecting privacy better than industry best practice) can offer a real advantage in the market if the regulatory framework changes. I know at least one Machine Learning startup that had a party when GDPR came into effect since all of a sudden, their extraordinary focus on privacy meant they where ahead of the pack while the rest of the industry was in catch-up mode.

Implications

Finally, we should consider the implications of the products coming onto the market as well as the regulatory framework they live under. What might this thing/product/policy/program do to all the stakeholders — not just the customers who pay for the product? How might it impact a vulnerable group? How will it pay dividends in the future, and for whom?

It is especially this last part that I’m interested in: The dividends something will pay in the future. Zooming in even more, the dividends that infrastructure thinking will pay in the future.

Take Ramez Naam’s take on decarbonization — he makes a strong point that early solar energy subsidies (first in Germany, then China and the US) helped drive development of this new technology, which in turn drove the price down and so started a virtuous circle of lower price > more uptake > more innovation > lower price > etc. etc.

We all know what happened next (still from Ramez):

“Electricity from solar power, meanwhile, drops in cost by 25-30% for every doubling in scale. Battery costs drop around 20-30% per doubling of scale. Wind power costs drop by 15-20% for every doubling. Scale leads to learning, and learning leads to lower costs. … By scaling the clean energy industries, Germany lowered the price of solar and wind for everyone, worldwide, forever.”

Now, solar energy is not just competitive. In some parts of the world it is the cheapest, period.

This type of investment in what is essentially infrastructure — or at least infrastructure-like! — pays dividends not just to the directly subsidized but to the whole larger ecosystem. This means significantly, disproportionately bigger impact. It creates and adds value rather than extracting it.

We need more infrastructure thinking, even for areas that are, like solar energy and the tech we need to harvest it, not technically infrastructure. It needs a bit of creative thinking, but it’s not rocket science.

We just need to consider and align the 3 I’s: incentives, interests, and implications.

Monthnotes for January 2019

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January was a month for admin, planning, and generally getting sorted. There was lots of admin, taxes, year planning, to take care of. I also tried to get my hands dirty by digging into machine learning some more and ran some experiments with deep fake generation (the non-sleazy kind, obviously); so far with little success, but some learning nonetheless. And the WEF featured ThingsCon and the Trustable Technology Mark!

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat. I’m currently doing the planning for Q2 and Q3 2019.

Trustable Technology Mark

The Trustable Technology Mark launched to lots of media attention. But still it was a pleasant surprise when the WEF called about an interview as part of a new program about the role of Civil Society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. ThingsCon and the Trustable Technology Mark featured in the report by WEF (deep link to the PDF) that was just released in Davos and that kicks off that program. Thanks for featuring us! This blog post has all the links in an overview.

Throughout the month also lots of chats about the Trustmark and how it might be relevant for other areas. This month including AI, too!

ThingsCon

As we continue to further integrate the existing teams and infrastructures between Germany, Netherlands and Belgium into a larger European operation, we had some fiddling to do with the ThingsCon website. Going forward, thingscon.org is the place to follow.

Tender

I put together a small team and a tender for a super interesting public administration bid that my company was specifically invited to participate in. ?

The Next generation

Was happy to hosted a student group of IT security and entrepreneurship to give them a deep dive into trustable tech, tech ethics, and alternative business models (there’s not just the VC/hyper-growth model!)

PhD in Responsible Tech

OpenDott.org is a paid PhD program in responsible tech that is hosted by University of Dundee in collaboration with Mozilla and a host of smaller orgs including ThingsCon, so I’m involved in this, which is a true joy. This week we’re running a workshop to plan out the details and logistics of the program, and to help select the 5 PhDs from the pool of applications.

A Newsletter Experiment

Over in my personal(ish) newsletter Connection Problem I started an experiment with memberships. It’s all happening under the principle of “unlocked commons”, meaning members support writing that will be available in the commons, for free, continuously. You can learn more in the newsletter archive or on this page. The gist of it is: I publish about 100K words a year, most of which are critical-but-constructive takes about tech industry and how we can maximize responsible tech rather than exploitation. By joining the membership you can support this independent writing.

A huge thank you to those who signed up right away and for all the kind words of support. It’s been humbling in the best possible ways.

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat. I’m currently doing the planning for Q2 and Q3 2019.

That’s it for January – have a great February!

Yours truly,
P.

WEF report features ThingsCon & the Trustable Technology Mark

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I was super happy to be interviewed about ThingsCon and the Trustable Technology Mark for a report by the World Economic Forum (WEF) for their newly launched initiative Civil Society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. You can download the full report here:

Civil Society in the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Preparation and Response (PDF)

The report was just published at the WEF in Davos and it touches on a lot of areas that I think are highly relevant:

Grasping the opportunities and managing the challenges of the Fourth Industrial Revolution require a thriving civil society deeply engaged with the development, use, and governance of emerging technologies. However, how have organizations in civil society been responding to the opportunities and challenges of digital and emerging technologies in society? What is the role of civil society in using these new powerful tools or responding to Fourth Industrial Revolution challenges to accountability, transparency, and fairness?
Following interviews, workshops, and consultations with civil society leaders from humanitarian, development, advocacy and labor organizations, the white paper addresses:
— How civil society has begun using digital and emerging technologies
— How civil society has demonstrated and advocated for responsible use of technology
— How civil society can participate and lead in a time of technological change
— How industry, philanthropy, the public sector and civil society can join together and invest in addressing new societal challenges in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Thanks for featuring our work so prominently in the report. You’ll find our bit as part of the section Cross-cutting considerations for civil society in an emerging Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Living in the New New Normal

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Image: Unsplash (derveit)

Please note: This post veers a bit outside my usual topics for this blog, so you can read the post in full on Medium.

It’s the year 2019. What’s it like to live in the New New Normal, in a world where the once-disruptive Silicon Valley tech companies (GAFAM) have become the richest, most powerful companies in the world?

In a world in which Chinese tech giants (BAT), too, have reached a level of maturity, and scale, to equal those Silicon Valley companies and are starting to push outside of China and onto the world stage? In which these companies represent not change, innovation and improvement (of the world, or at least the online experience) but the status quo; where they are the entrenched powers defending their positions? In a world that has left the utopian ideas of the early open web (especially openness and decentralization) in the dust, and instead we see an internet that has been consolidated and centralized more than ever?

In other words, what’s it like to live between increasingly restrictive “ecosystems” of vendor lock-in, and the main choice is between the Silicon Valley model and the Chinese model?

Read the full post on Medium.

Monthnotes for December 2018

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Featuring the Trustable Technology Mark, ThingsCon Rotterdam, Smart Cities, and a Nordic Progressive Tech Agenda.

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat. I’m currently doing the planning for Q2 and Q3 2019.

Trustable Technology Mark

The Trustable Technology Mark launched to great media reports. Now on to sign up companies!

I was incredibly psyched when I received my VaiKai Companion doll and it already shipped with the Trustmark!

The VaiKai Companion is one of the first products to carry the Trustable Technology Mark.

ThingsCon Rotterdam

In Rotterdam, we celebrated 5 years of our annual ThingsCon conference, and oh boy it was a blast. Videos forthcoming; in the meantime, here are some photos. We also have a new website at thingscon.org.

Smart Cities

Thanks to fellow Mozfellow Meghan McDermott and Aspen Institute I got to spend a few days in NYC discussing if and how the principles underlying the Trustable Technology Mark might be useful for the Smart City context. Namely, could they be applied to Smart City procurement or some other mechanism that provides leverage for quality control and for defending citizens’ rights?

A Nordic Progressive Tech Agenda

As part of some work with the good folks at FEPS, I headed on up to Oslo for a workshop with SAMAK and their Nordic allies to discuss what a Nordic agenda for tech and society might look like. So many things to explore there, I’m grateful to be part of this larger conversation.

What’s next?

A hopefully largely flight free Q1 as part of an experiment on more sustainable habits; lots of planning around ThingsCon and the Trustmark; more conversations around a European digital agenda and Smart Cities.

If you’d like to work with me in the upcoming months, I have very limited availability but am always happy to have a chat. I’m currently doing the planning for Q2 and Q3 2019.

Yours truly,
P.

Thanks and Happy Holidays: That was 2018

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This is end-of-year post #11 (all prior ones here). That’s right, I’ve been writing this post every year for over a decade now. Who would have thought?

What happened in 2018? It was an intense year on many levels, so let’s dive right in.

The TL&DR; version of 2018 from my perspective: Experienced life with a baby, discovered the limits of doing so with two working parents and no family around. It’s been intense, in both good and less good ways. I pretty much lived with a constant feeling of not delivering adequately or up to my own standards, yet also extremely happy with a healthy little kid. From conversations with other parents I learned that this seems to be par for the course. To be honest, I feel a little ashamed of how ignorant I was of this seemingly widespread issue. That said, it was a really rewarding year as well.

Launched a trustmark, spent time in policy meetings, and had a year attached to a larger org as a fellow for the first time in quite some time. Read too little, but managed to write a fair bit. Felt a lot: exhausted, grateful, tired, happy—often all at the same time.

On a purely personal note, this might be the first time I’m not writing this in transit to my family or M’s, where we traditionally have taken turns spending the holidays. Having just come off a long series of travels both individually and with our now 1-year-old, we decided to host the first Christmas at home. But that doesn’t mean I’m not writing this in transit – I’m on a one day express return trip to Oslo for a workshop, the last trip before the holidays.

The theme for 2018

Last year I wrote:

the theme was first and foremost impact. Impact through large partners, through policy work, through investments into research.

For the first time since I can remember writing these, this has pretty much stayed the same. Working within the time constraints of having a baby at home and no daycare for the first year on one hand, and the opportunity afforded by a Mozilla Fellowship that allowed me to focus primarily on one project (the Trustable Technology Mark), the work on impact through partners and policy work has remained and seems to be working well.

In fact, since before we even publicly launched the Trustable Technology Mark in early Dec, I’ve been invited to a whole bunch of conversations that look like they’ll allow us to expand the underlying principles of the Trustmark beyond the consumer space — to larger societal issues, especially Smart City policy. This I find particularly exciting.

I hope to continue this work in 2019 and beyond, in whatever capacity seems most promising then.

Family & friends

After adding a new family member late last year, we lost another. Rest in peace, E. We miss you.

Among our friends, some new babies and some health issues. I guess it’s within the normal distribution at our age group. We’re lucky to have so many good friends around the globe, but also and especially nearby.

Travel

I set out to radically reduce my travel for the year and failed spectacularly. My travel stats: 14 trips, 36 flights, 9 countries (I think — this year has seen a lot more short term flight changes than any before, so the count might be a little out of whack). According to Tripit this added up to 91,625km of travel (likely more, since that only counts planes and trains, not driving etc.) and 104 days away from home. That’s almost a third of a year.

I am considering imposing a stricter travel ban on myself, or rather: a stricter limit on flights. The environmental impact is just too disastrous, plus life spent on planes is meh. Maybe I’ll start with trying not to fly (or at least flying as little as possible without losing my work) in Q1, and then see how that goes.

Conferences

I didn’t do a whole lot of conferences or events this year, but I did thoroughly enjoy the few I went to. It was mostly either ThingsCon events, or invite-only affairs, like the excellent Museum of the Future, some Aspen Institute events, and a handful more. Also, a bunch of workshops. And, of course, Dundee Design Festival and Mozfest.

Health

But of a mixed bag, this one. The big picture is, it’s all good, and I’m very healthy. Zoomed in, it was a terribly unhealthy year, or at least a year of terribly unhealthy habits. A good chunk came from having a baby while the two of us were both working, which put us in a constant extreme time crunch. Visits to the gym and slowly eaten meals both went right out the window, to be replaced with no breaks and inhaled food, sometimes while walking to the office. This has been changing again now that daycare started for little K; I can’t wait to get back to a regular gym routine. Back pain be gone!

Work

As mentioned above, there’s been a lot more focus this year, a lot less spread than the years before, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Between ThingsCon (where we just celebrated the fifth anniversary at Rotterdam and the Trustable Technology Mark, I’ve been heads down researching, designing, reaching out more than ever around these projects, and the number of presentations for anything else in between has been minimal.

I wrote a lot less, but am happy to say that—despite a somewhat less regular schedule—my newsletter Connection Problem is in Season 4.

I wouldn’t mind continuing along similar lines, with a strong focus, for a little longer.

Very Fun Side Projects

ThingsCon is still going strong, maybe stronger than ever. It’s well on its way to outgrow side project status.

Zephyr Berlin has been cooking on the slow burner for some time but still is up and running, even though we haven’t been able to give it as much attention in 2018 as I had hoped, for all the reasons above. However, our Ulimate Travel Pants are for the first time available in store (yes, physical retail!) as a test for us. Head on over to Kreuzberg’s 360 Outdoor to try them on, or jump to our website to order. Both at 360 and on our website we have a travel season sale on.

Speaking

As per usual, I gave a few talks. Many around ThingsCon, many around the Trustmark. Maybe more than ever in closed-door workshop settings.

Media

It was a pretty good year for media, especially once I could publicly talk about the Trustable Technology Mark. Some mentions I enjoyed: Stacey on IoT, Fast Company, BoingBoing, NET Magazine, WIRED.com, Brand Eins, Offscreen Magazine, Netzpiloten.de, Wall Street Journal, Internet Health Report, The Craftsman, and Brazil’s National IoT Plan.

Things started and discontinued

Started:

  • Being a parent
  • A Trustmark for IoT

Continued:

  • Zephyr Berlin, to make pants that travel well.
  • ThingsCon as an event platform, and growing it beyond that into other areas of engagement.

Discontinued:

  • My Facebook account has now been inactive for over a year and I trigged the full deletion at long last. Be gone!
  • Healthy routines. Those I hope to get back now that the situation at home relaxes with little K’s day care and a little more experience.

Books read

Depressingly few books I actually read. I kinda skimmed, kinda leafed through Vacation Land by John Hodgman, New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson, Smarter Homes by Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Future Ethics by Cennydd Bowles, and a handful others. So I fell way short on my reading.

Firsts & some things I learned along the way

Firsts: Flew with a baby. Applied for parental leave. Canceled parental leave. Booked and rebooked the same leg of a trip for a total of 3 (?) times. Merged two organizations, to a degree. (Will have) hosted Christmas eve at our home.

Learned: Shift work kills you. Lower your standards in the first year of having a kid. Make sure to take some time for yourself, even if it’s super hard.

So what’s next?

2019 is wide open at this point – I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to really plan much beyond the first couple of months. Some things I know: My Mozilla Fellowship is scheduled to run out in March. I’d like to do more work around policy and smart cities. I want to turn the Trustable Technology Mark into something more sustainable and with a strong governance model (read: where the bus factor isn’t 1). The same goes for ThingsCon: There’s a lot happening there, and we’re at a stage where we can “grow up” and make it sustainable, I think. So I’d like to work on making that happen. Also, lots of writing and research. That’s all I got at this point – lots of things I would like to do. Now on to making sure I get to actually do them! Also, if possible, I’d like to once more spend a month or two working from someplace else, if only to prove to myself that that’s doable with a kid.

I’m always up for discussing interesting new projects. If you’re pondering one, get in touch.

For now, I hope you get to relax and enjoy the holidays.