AuthorPeter Bihr

Resilience, resilience, resilience

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If we’ve learned anything over the past few months of lockdowns and the global corona-pandemic related slowing down of everything it’s this: Efficiency is brittle. Resilience is key.

For decades now — really at least since the first industrial revolution — the world has optimized for efficiency. Efficiency was the key to growth, which was the measure of societal success. Growth, after all, was pretty much considered the key proxy for wealth.

Now it’s become blatantly obvious that that was nonsense. Even if — and that’s a big if — it might have made more sense in the past.

(By the way, everything I’m writing here applies, I think, equally to politics and individual organizations. Just zoom in and out appropriately.)

As global economic activity and supply chains collapsed in tandem, we’ve seen that efficiency only leads to growth (and wealth) when things work very smoothly. And even then, this approach has been so exploitative of natural resources that we’ve pulled the existential rug out under our own feet by putting the world on a trajectory towards climate change and mass extinction so great as to completely screw up our future.

Increasingly, humans weren’t doing much better: The type of labor exploitation that powered this vast efficiency machine was working ever better for an ever smaller group of people (mostly along socio-economic lines, i.e. well-off to rich people) and ever worse for ever larger groups (the people doing the underlying physical work).

Clearly, something had to give. And the Covid-19 pandemic brought this out in a spotlight that was only possible because it all collapsed simultaneously around the globe.

So what now? Resilience and sustainability.

Decades of optimizing for efficiency and globalization have put us in a dead end. We know it simply cannot go on the way it has. If we rebuilt now as it was before, we’d be doing ourselves (and following generations) a huge disservice. We’d literally be rebuilding a broken machine rather than fixing it.

Instead, it’s become obvious that resilience and sustainability are the key aspects to optimize for.

Resilience introduces safeguards and buffers to respond to crises. Sustainability allows for things to go on indefinitely.

After all, that’s the core meaning of sustainability: Something that can be sustained for a long time, as opposed something that cannot. Growth as we know it can most definitively not.

Economist Vaclav Smil talks a lot about how much slack there is in the system, how much freedom we have to de-grow parts of our societies and economies without actually having to give up much of anything (if we do it quickly enough).

It is critical to realize and internalize:

  • There is slack in the system, we just need to not optimize it out of the system to squeeze a tiny bit more efficiency out of the system.
  • Efficiency is a dead end now: We’ve pushed past our available resources chasing it, now we need to course correct hard. We need to drop growth as a key metric to chase, and instead focus everything around resilience and sustainability.
  • We are currently still racing a metaphorical car into a metaphorical wall, and accelerating. There is only one possible outcome if we keep going, and it’s not desirable. (If you think in a Futures Cone, our probable outcomes are decidedly not our preferred outcomes.)

If we restructure — and I mean, fundamentally and completely restructure our economic models and societal definitions of value — around resilience and sustainability, there’s a change we can find our way to a world worth living in. If we do not, the only possible outcome is to crash & burn, and that is exactly where we’re headed.

If resilience & sustainability are the guiding principles, then the next crisis could be very bad, but the systems would have more slack, be more resilient: We’d all get better through any crisis than now, because we’d have optimized for that scenario.

Change is always easier to affect when things are in flux, during liminal states. The current phase of turmoil around Covid-19 is very much in flux, we’re in an extremely liminal state.

Let’s not waste this opportunity. It might just be the last chance we have.

The Trustable Technology Mark is wrapping up, Trustable Technology lives on

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We’ll be wrapping up the Trustable Technology Mark prototype. We want to use this opportunity to reflect, share what we learned, and look ahead to new opportunities around Trustable Technology.

Note: This is cross-posted from the Trustable Technology site.

What’s happening?

After about two years, we’ll be wrapping up the Trustable Technology Mark: This prototype officially comes to an end, and we will not be developing it further under the trustmark model. We closed the application form and won’t be issuing any further licenses. So at this point we’d like to share some of the things we learned along the way, and look at what’s next: We’ll keep exploring Trustable Technology in other formats going forward.

For context, just the quickest of history: In 2017, we did a deep dive into trust and technology and trustmarks which culminated in the report A Trustmark for IoT. Building on that report, and with support from Mozilla Foundation, we developed and launched as a the Trustable Technology Mark, a prototype trustmark scheme for consumer IoT. With the Trustable Technology Mark we aimed to offer an alternative to baseline certification schemes (that weed out the really bad) and demonstrate that there’s a wider spectrum here by highlighting excellence instead.

Why is this wrapping up, and who’s impacted?

We’re wrapping up for multiple reasons: We didn’t reach the critical mass to support the project long-term; we couldn’t find an appropriate way to financially support the project in a sustainable way in the long run; and as a volunteer project we lack the people power to grow and review the project. Still, we learned a lot, which makes this time extremely well spent — and the environment has evolved in ways that leave us very hopeful for the future of consumer IoT.

We do not expect that any of our licensees will be negatively impacted, but have reached out to them to make sure we can make sure it’s all smooth sailing.

Some impacts of the Trustable Technology Mark

The most important bit is, of course, the impact this project has generated.

While there’s always a somber component to wrapping up a project, we’re happy with how the Trustable Technology Mark has been having impact in many areas beyond the Trustmark itself.

Just after launch, I wrote that “I’m convinced the underlying principles of the Trustmark can be adapted for other contexts and have meaningful impact. After all, the Trustmark is a means to an end: It’s a way to make technology more trustworthy?-?one product or policy at a time.” It has done that, in many ways.

For example: Snips, one of our initial proof-of-concept Trustmark licensees, are no longer in business because they were acquired by Sonos. Through this acquisition, though, Snips’ privacy-first approach to digital voice control now informs Sonos, a major player in the world of smart speakers. The Trustmark license does not transfer from one legal entity to the other, but to see the importance of a privacy-first approach recognized by these much larger companies is great and gives me hope for the future.

This is also reflective of the evolving landscape in which consumers (and lawmakers!) have been demanding better protection of their rights. The baseline of what’s been happening in that regard has been rising — even though there’s still plenty of room to grow and improve.

This shift in interest is also mirrored in the immense media attention the Trustmark got throughout its lifetime from media outlets around the globe.

Finally, the spirit of our Trustmark lives on in a range of places, sometimes through formal collaborations or inputs, sometimes through informal conversations in backchannels or at workshops, and sometimes purely through parallel evolution. To name just a few: Mozilla have their Minimum Security Guidelines for IoT; we’ve been asked for input and collaboration by a number of organizations that work with smart city policy, where procurement guidelines turn out to offer promising leverage to enforce trustworthiness, which is where our trust indicators have been turning out useful; there are now a number of excellent design guidelines and frameworks for better and more trustworthy consumer IoT products such as the ones by long-time friends and collaborators Doteveryone and BetterIoT (formerly known as #iotmark, which was a continuation of the 2012 Open Internet of Things Assembly event), both of which also started out as research into trustmark or certification schemes and went this more actionable route instead.

The OpenDoTT PhD project will continue their academic research into the potential and role of trustmarks for IoT.

And, maybe most importantly, we see a much higher awareness of digital rights — as well as technology’s potential impact on civil and human rights.

To us, this makes for a thorough win.

Some things we learned

The second-most important thing for us is what we learned over the last couple of years, and are happy to share for whomever it might be useful for.

So what did we learn? A lot of things, some of which we expected going in and some more surprising. In no particular order:

  1. As a general note, we found that the trustmark model can be strong and appropriate for the context of consumer IoT, even though there are many complexities and challenges. Consumers are still looking for guidance of which products respect their rights and which don’t.
  2. There is widespread interest in the trustmark approach at the political level, and experts across the board see its potential. As recently as early 2020, Nesta published a report (that also references our Trustmark work) and that “the creation of a digital trustmark is a vacuum waiting to be filled – and that, if a trusted institution acting for the public good doesn’t introduce one soon, the gap would likely be filled by commercially-driven and less accountable certification initiatives.” That report focuses on the digital space more generally, and also highlights the importance of having specific trustmarks (like for IoT) as building blocks for a more comprehensive “umbrella” trustmark that covers the full digital experience.
  3. Organizational and financial sustainability is a real challenge. We started the trustmark as a volunteer effort (the development was graciously supported by Mozilla Foundation). There are hard time constraints if your volunteer pool consists of leading experts and tasks cover a range as wide as outreach, fundraising, reviewing applications, evolving the application process, and handling licensing questions (to name just a few). We simply couldn’t sustain the level of time commitment this would have required going forward. To scale up, a trustmark efforts requires long-term backing by an organization either by becoming part of their work or through a long-term financial commitment — preferably both.
  4. A project like this needs a tight governance structure. As a prototype, a lot of the decision-making power sat with me as the project lead. For a prototype, that’s ok. But to run and evolve this over time, this needs a broader perspective and governance safeguards. Which in turn means more volunteer people power. We weren’t able to set up these structures and networks in a way that seemed sustainable to us as we wanted to be very respectful of our volunteer experts’ time: As project lead, one of the key responsibilities is to protect volunteer team members by not asking for commitments beyond their capabilities.
  5. In the application pool, small as it was in total, we saw a staggering breadth of quality in our applications. Even though we tried to focus the Trustmark to consumer products (meaning that we already excluded a huge range of possible applications) we still saw so many edge cases. Does it have to be a commercial product? What about open source? What about this component, or this backend product? Also, the quality of the applications was hugely diverse, ranging from very promising (but maybe out of scope for our purposes) to individual examples that couldn’t have been more problematic if we had set up a honeypot. It was enlightening, and showed just how relevant this approach could be if it reached a certain scale.
  6. Critical mass is key. A trustmark is only truly impactful if consumers rely on it; consumers will only be familiar enough with a trustmark to rely on it if it covers a big part of the market. It’s a catch-22: Without applications, the trustmark cannot gain the necessary traction. Without traction, the trustmark won’t be relevant enough for companies to apply with their products.
  7. The framing of the evaluation criteria is tricky, and needs to be designed to evolve. Even the best products and applications can fulfill all conditions we asked for but still be incomplete under certain circumstances: One of the proof of concept licensed products we launched with was Snips, a privacy-first digital voice assistant. When they were acquired by Sonos, they shut down the DIY component of their product. The core product still worked as promised, but this non-core offering was switched off: Yet another edge case. The only way to handle these things is to keep evolving the catalog of evaluation criteria.
  8. Our list of trust indicators held up well. The five categories we highlighted in our research included Privacy & Data Practices; Transparency; Security; Stability; and Openness. These categories have proven useful here and in many other context beyond the Trustmark.

What’s next?

We’re starting an internal process to explore what the next opportunities are, and we’ll share more once we’re further in our deliberations. Here’s what we’re currently thinking about:

First of all, we want to ensure that our work around the Trustmark — i.e. the review & license part —  can be as useful going forward as possible. Concretely, we’ll continue to take our findings and apply them to other areas such as smart city procurement and policy (if and where it makes sense). We’ll continue to support the OpenDoTT project (for which I’m also an industry PhD supervisor). Of course we’ll archive our findings, the questionnaire, and as much of the website, etc., as possible.

Also, we’ll continue to share our learnings with consumer protection and research organizations wherever it makes sense. If you think you might know a way to evolve the Trustmark itself in its original spirit, and would like for your organization to become its steward going forward, please get in touch so we can discuss options.

Second, we believe that even without the Trustmark, there are great opportunities around Trustable Technology. We’ll be exploring those over the coming months with the ThingsCon community and see what shape(s) this might take. There are many potential formats that could be useful, many directions worth exploring. We’ll share more once we know more, including how to get involved.

And of course we’ll be keeping all lines of communication open so that others can reach out easily. If you have any idea or feedback, please let us know (email: info@thingscon.org; @thingscon on Twitter).

Thank you

Last but not least, thank you’s are in order: There are many people and organizations without whom this project could have never come together. Thank you to my collaborators Jason Schultz for providing the legal foundation for everything we did, to Pete Thomas for the ace brand and design work, and to Ame Elliott for all her input to security and UX questions. Thank you to the ThingsCon team and community who didn’t just indulge this project but shaped it into what it is, and kept it honest through tireless input, feedback and shared insight. Thank you to the good folks at Mozilla Foundation who kindly and graciously supported the Trustmark by inviting me to become a Mozilla Fellow and through countless other ways. Thank you to Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino and Dr. Laura James for the countless times they shared their insights, and their encouraging words along the way. We’re especially grateful to Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino’s and Usman Haque’s work with Better IoT and the Open IoT Assembly event it built on as both formed the basis for most of our work on the Trustmark. Thank you to Jan-Peter Kleinhans for brainstorming governance models and improved review processes, and tons of input on IoT security questions. And finally, thank you to the companies who took a chance on our fledgling initiative, and the countless others for their input, feedback and support.

Thank you.

New Series: Corona Crisis — Lessons for the Future of Cities

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I’m excited to pull back the curtain on a brand new project that I’m doing with Körber Stiftung, specifically with their democracy program.

We’ve started producing a series of video conversations called Corona Crisis — Lessons for the Future of Cities which is about… you guessed it: How different cities respond to the coronavirus crisis.

We’ll talk to local leaders about their specific, local challenges, opportunities and strategies: While some strategies are universal, like washing hands and keeping a safe distance, others are more tailored to the local context. And those strategies are what we want to learn about, so others can learn from them, too.

And while overall we’re pretty broad with our interest in this, there are two focus areas that we’ll be emphasizing: The use of digital tools (and the trade-offs that inform the decisions around them) as well as how engagement with civil society works.

While every city and administration has to find their own way, I’m convinced there are lessons to be learned from others. Over time, a picture should emerge: Patterns of approaches that seem more promising than others, best practices, and maybe some surprising insights.

I expect we’ll start sharing the videos within a week or two. When we do, I’ll update this post to include links.

I hope you’ll enjoy the show. Let me know what you think!

News: Teaching at Darmstadt once more

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Just the quickest of updates: I’m super happy that I’ll be back at University of Applied Sciences Darmstadt to teach another class there, a block seminar on tech ethics and trustable technology.

At Prof. Andrea Krajewski‘s kind invitation I’d done a similar thing last year and am very much looking forward to doing it again — and this year, we get to experiment with the format, so it’s going to be video-based. Should be good!

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!