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Just enough City

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In this piece, I’m advocating for a Smart City model based on restraint, and focused first and foremost on citizen needs and rights.

A little while ago, the ever-brilliant and eloquent Rachel Coldicutt wrote a piece on the role of public service internet, and why it should be a model of restraint. It’s titled Just enough Internet, and it resonated deeply with me. It was her article that inspired not just this piece’s title but also its theme: Thank you, Rachel!

Rachel argues that public service internet (broadcasters, government services) shouldn’t compete with commercial competitors by commercial metrics, but rather use approaches better suited to their mandate: Not engagement and more data, but providing the important basics while collecting as little as possible. (This summary doesn’t do Rachel’s text justice, she makes more, and more nuanced points there, so please read her piece, it’s time well spent.)

I’ll argue that Smart Cities, too, should use an approach better suited to their mandate?—?an approach based on (data) restraint, and on citizens’ needs & rights.

This restraint and reframing is important because it prevents mission creep; it also alleviates the carbon footprint of all those services.

Enter the Smart City

Wherever we look on the globe, we see so-called Smart City projects popping up. Some are incremental, and add just some sensors. Others are blank slate, building whole connected cities or neighborhoods from scratch. What they have in commons is that they mostly are built around a logic of data-driven management and optimization. You can’t manage what you can’t measure, management consultant Peter Drucker famously said, and so Smart Cities tend to measure… everything. Or so they try.

Of course, sensors only measure so many things, like physical movement (of people, or goods, or vehicles) through space, or the consumption and creation of energy. But thriving urban life is made up of many more things, and many of those cannot be measured as easily: Try measuring opportunity or intention or quality of life, and most Smart City management dashboards will throw an error: File not found.

The narrative of the Smart City is based fundamentally that of optimizing a machine to run as efficiently as possible. It’s neoliberal market thinking in its purest form. (Greenfield and Townsend and Morozov and many other Smart City critics have made those points much more eloquently before.) But that doesn’t reflect urban life. The human side of it is missing, a glaring hole right in the center of that particular vision.

Instead of putting citizens in that spot in the center, the “traditional” Smart City model aims to build better (meaning: more efficient, lower cost) services to citizens by collecting, collating, analyzing data. It’s the logic of global supply chains and predictive maintenance and telecommunications networks and data analytics applied to the public space. (It’s no coincidence of the large tech vendors in that space come from either one of those backgrounds.)

The city, however, is no machine to be run at maximum efficiency. It’s a messy agora, with competing and often conflicting interests, and it needs slack in the system: Slack and friction all increase resilience in the face of larger challenges, as do empowered citizens and municipal administrations. The last thing any city needs is to be fully algorithmically managed at maximum efficiency just to come to a grinding halt when — not if! — the first technical glitch happens, or some company ceases their business.

Most importantly, I’m convinced that depending on context, collecting data in public space can be a fundamental risk to a free society?—?and that it’s made even worse if the data collection regime is outside of the public’s control.

The option of anonymity plays a crucial role for the freedom of assembly, of organizing, of expressing thoughts and political speech. If sensitive data is collected in public space (even if it’s not necessarily personably identifiable information!) then the trust in the collecting entity needs to be absolute. But as we know from political science, the good king is just another straw man, and that given the circumstance even the best government can turn bad quickly. History has taught us the crucial importance of checks & balances, and of data avoidance.

We need a Smart City model of restraint

Discussing publicly owned media, Rachel argues:

It’s time to renegotiate the tacit agreement between the people, the market and the state to take account of the ways that data and technology have nudged behaviours and norms and changed the underlying infrastructure of everyday life.

This holds true for the (Smart) City, too: The tacit agreement between the people, the market and the state is that, roughly stated, the government provides essential services to its citizens, often with the help of the market, and with the citizens’ interest at the core. However, when we see technology companies lobby governments to green-light data-collecting pilot projects with little accountability in public space, that tacit agreement is violated. Not the citizens’ interests but those multinationals’ business models move into the center of these considerations.

There is no opt-out in public space. So when collecting meaningful consent to the collection of data about citizens is hard or impossible, that data must not be collected, period. Surveillance in public space is more often detrimental to free societies than not. You know this! We all know this!

Less data collected, and more options of anonymity in public space, make for a more resilient public sphere. And what data is collected should be made available to the public at little or no cost, and to commercial interests only within a framework of ethical use (and probably for a fee).

What are better metrics for living in a (Smart) City?

In order to get to better Smart Cities, we need to think about better, more complete metrics than efficiency & cost savings, and we need to determine those (and all other big decisions about public space) through a strong commitment to participation: From external experts to citizens panels to digital participation platforms, there are many tools at our disposal to make better, more democratically legitimized decisions.

In that sense I cannot offer a final set of metrics to use. However, I can offer some potential starting points for a debate. I believe that every Smart City projects should be evaluated against the following aspects:

  • Would this substantially improve sustainability as laid out in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) framework?
  • Is meaningful participation built into the process at every step from framing to early feedback to planning to governance? Are the implications clear, and laid out in an accessible, non-jargony way?
  • Are there safeguards in place to prevent things from getting worse than before if something doesn’t work as planed?
  • Will it solve a real issue and improve the life of citizens? If in doubt, cut it out.
  • Will participation, accountability, resilience, trust and security (P.A.R.T.S.) all improve through this project?

Obviously those can only be starting points.

The point I’m making is this: In the Smart City, less is more.

City administrations should optimize for thriving urban live and democracy; for citizens and digital rights — which also happen to be human rights; for resilience and opportunity rather than efficiency. That way we can create a canvas to be painted by citizens, administration and — yes! — the market, too.

We can only manage what we can measure? Not necessarily. Neither the population or the urban organism need to be managed; just given a robust framework to thrive within. We don’t always need real time data for every decision — we can also make good decision based on values and trust in democratic processes, and by giving a voice to all impacted communities. We have a vast body of knowledge from decades of research around urban planning and sociology, and many other areas: Often enough we know the best decisions and it’s only politics that keeps us from enacting them.

We can change that, and build the best public space we know to build. Our cities will be better off for it.

About the author

Just for completeness’ sake so you can see where I’m coming from, I’m basing this on years of working at least occasionally on Smart City projects. My thinking is informed by work around emerging tech and its impact on society, and a strong focus on responsible technology that puts people first. Among other things I’ve co-founded ThingsCon, a non-profit community that promotes responsible tech, and led the development of the Trustable Technology Mark. I was a Mozilla Fellow in 2018-19 and am an Edgeryders Fellow in 2019-20. You can find my bio here.

Monthnotes for November 2019

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November to January have essentially been blocked out for research and writing.

ONGOING WORK

My work with a Brussels-based foundation is in the final stages of editing. I expect the final report to be published within the month. Expect lots of smart city / digital agenda thinking there.

With a Berlin-based think tank, we’ve had another workshop on Europe’s capacity for developing ethical/responsible AI. This brings the research phase slowly to its end and now it’s time to synthesize and write up the findings. Probably to be published in January, or February at the latest.

A new project is ramping up with a global labor group to explore the intersection of smart cities and labor rights.

EVENTS

I was kindly invited to participate in Forum Offene Stadt, an event jointly hosted by Körber Stiftung and Open Knowledge Foundation. The event brings together civil society, government & administration, and the private sector. It’s good to see these gatherings as there’s still nowhere near enough exchange at those intersections, especially where topics around the impact of emerging technologies are discussed.

WRITING

Most of my writing these next couple of months goes into reports. But occasionally I whip up a blog post like The Tragedy of Future Commons, and also I think out loud over in my weekly newsletter, Connection Problem, as well as of course on Twitter.

MEDIA

Kompakt Magazin (by IG BCE) did a longer interview with me to talk about technology and how we must ensure it doesn’t discriminate against people, and shouldn’t be treated as if it’s pre-determined. The interview is in German: Technologie darf Menschen nicht diskriminieren (online, e-paper).

WHAT’S NEXT?

Lots of research and writing this month and next. But I’ll be more than happy to take a quick break from it all to head on over to Rotterdam (12/13 Dec) for ThingsCon, my all time favorite community event. Learn more about ThingsCon here and join us!

The Tragedy of Future Commons

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I can’t help but thinking that so many of today’s debates – from climate change to smart city governance and AI ethics – are so much more connected than we give them credit for. I might be projecting, but in my mind they’re just variations of one simple theme:

Do we narrow or broaden the future options space? In others words, will we leave the next generation, the public sector, or the other people around us more options or less options? Do we give them agency or take it away? And how can it ever be ok to act in a way that takes away future generations’ options? That strips governments of their chances to deliver services to their citizens?

It’s essentially the Tragedy of the Commons as applied to the time axis: The Tragedy of Future Commons. And we can choose very deliberately to strengthen the commons (now and for the future), to strengthen future generations in the face of climate change (where we might have hit another tipping point), to strengthen city governments in their ability to govern and deliver services by not hollowing them out, etc. etc. etc..

What actions that requires of us depends heavily on context of course: AI to be made with more participation and civil society involved so as to mitigate risks. Smart cities to prioritize public ownership and accountability so the city doesn’t lose its influence to the private sector. Climate change to be at the top of all our priority lists in order to give our future selves and future generations more and better options to shape their world and thrive in it.

Too often we’re stuck in debates that are based, essentially, in yesterday’s world. We need to realize the situation we’re in so as to avoid false choices. It’s not “climate or business”, it’s “climate or no business”. It’s not “climate or civil rights”, but “climate or no civil rights”. Radical changes are coming our way, and I’d rather shape them with intention and some buffer to spare rather than see them imposed on us like gravity imposed on Newton’s fabled apple.

So let’s aim for the opposite of the Tragedy of the Commons, whatever that might be called. The Thriving of the Commons?

And if you need a framework that’s decidedly not made for this purpose but has been holding up nicely for me, look to the Vision for a Shared Digital Europe (SDE) for inspiration. It lays out 4 pillars that I find pretty appealing: Cultivate the Commons; Decentralize Infrastructure; Enable Self-Determination; Empower Public Institutions. The authors drafted it with the EU’s digital agenda in mind (I was a very minor contributor, joining at a later stage). But I think it can apply meaningfully to smart cities just as much as it does to AI development and climate change and other areas. (Feel free to hit up the team to see how they might apply to your context, or reach out to me and I’ll be happy to put you in touch.) Those are good principles!

Note: This piece is cross-posted from my weekly newsletter Connection Problem, to which you can sign up here.

Data about me in my city

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This article is a few months old (and in German), but two points of view that I’ll just offer side by side as they pretty much sum up the state of play in smart cities these days.

For context, this is about a smart city partnership in which Huawei implement their technologies in Duisburg, a mid-sized German city with a population of about 0.5 million. The (apparently non-binding) partnership agreement includes Smart Government (administration), Smart Port Logistics, Smart Education (education & schools), Smart Infrastructure, 5G and broadband, Smart Home, and the urban internet of things.

Note: The quotes and paraphrases are roughly translated from the original German article.

Jan Weidenfeld from the Marcator Institute for China Studies:

“As a city administration, I’d be extremely cautious here.” China has a fundamentally different societal system, and a legal framework that means that every Chinese company, including Huawei, is required to open data streams to the communist party. (…)

Weidenfeld points out that 5 years ago, when deliberations about the project began, China was a different country than it is today. At both federal and state levels, the thinking about China has evolved. (…)

“Huawei Smart City is a large-scale societal surveillance system, out of which Duisburg buys the parts that are legally fitting – but this context mustn’t be left out when assessing the risks.”

Anja Kopka, media spokesperson for the city of Duisburg:

The city of Duisburg doesn’t see “conclusive evidence” regarding these security concerns.The data center meets all security requirements for Germany, and is certified as such. “Also, as a municipal administration we don’t have the capacity to reliably assess claims of this nature.” Should federal authorities whose competencies include assessing such issues provide clear action guidelines for dealing with Chinese partners in IT, then Duisburg will adapt accordingly.

The translation is a bit rough around the edges, but I think you’ll get the idea.

With infrastructure, when we see the damage it’s already too late

We have experts warning, but the warnings are of such a structural nature that they’re kinda of to big and obvious to prove. Predators will kill other animals to eat. ????

By the time abuse or any real issue can be proven, it’d be inherently to late to do anything about it. We have a small-ish city administration that knows perfectly well that they don’t have the capacity to do their due diligence, so they just take their partners’ word for it.

The third party here, of course, being a global enterprise with an operating base in a country that has a unique political and legal system that in many ways isn’t compatible with any notion of human rights, let alone data rights, that otherwise would be required in the European Union.

The asymetries in size and speed are vast

And it’s along multiple axes — imbalance of size and speed, and incompatibility of culture — that I think we see the most interesting, and most potentially devastating conflicts:

  • A giant corporation runs circles around a small-to-mid sized city. I think it’s fair to assume that only because of Chinese business etiquette was the CFO of one of Huawei’s business units even flown out to Duisburg to sign the initial memorandum of understanding with Duisburg’s mayor Sören Link. The size and power differential is so ridiculous that it might just as well have been the Head of Sales EMEA or some other mid-level manager that took that meeting. After all, for Chinese standards, a city of a population of a half-million wouldn’t even considered a third tier city. Talk about an uneven playing field.
  • The vast differences of (for lack of a better word, and broadly interpreted) culture in the sense of business realities and legal framework and strategic thinking between a large corporation with global ambitions and backed by a highly centralized authoritarian state on one side, and the day-to-day of a German town are overwhelming. So much so, that I don’t think that the mayor of Duisburg and his team are even aware of all the implicit assumptions and biases they bring to the table.

And it’s not an easy choice at some level: Someone comes in and offers much needed resources that you need and don’t have any chance to get, desperation might force you to make some sub-prime decisions. But this comes at a price — the question is just how bad that price will be over the long term.

I’m not convinced that any smart city of this traditional approach is worth implementing, or even might be worth implementing; probably not. But of all the players, the one backed by a non-democratic regime with a track record of mass surveillance and human rights violations is surely at the bottom of the list.

It’s all about the process

That’s why whenever I speak about smart cities (which I do quite frequently these days), I focus on laying better foundations: We can’t always start from scratch when considering a smart city project. We need a framework as a point of reference, and as a guideline, and it has to make sure to keep us aligned with our values.

Some aspects to take into account here are transparency, accountability, privacy and security (my mnemonic device is TAPS); a foundation based on human and digital rights; and participatory processes from day one.

And just to be very clear: Transparency is not enough. Transparency without accountability is nothing.

Please note that this blog post is based on a previously published item in my newsletter Connection Problem, to which you can sign up here.

Announcing ThingsCon Rotterdam (12-13 December)

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I’m more than happy to give this a shout-out:

ThingsCon, or rather our annual ThingsCon conference, is coming up (Rotterdam, 12-13 December) and I think it’ll be a real blast.

Just a few of the speakers and workshop hosts of a true killer line-up: Marleen Stikker, Tracy Rolling, Alexandra Deschamp-Sonsino, Klasien van de Zandschulp, Mirena Papadimitriou, Cayla Key, Namrata Primlani, Tijmen Schep, Geke van Dijk, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Rob van Kranenburg, Lorenzo Romagnoli, Davide Gomba, Jeroen Barendse, Cristina Zaga, Heather Wiltse will all be there, and many more.

If you’re considering to join, earlier ticket sales help us a lot with our planning.

So if you’re planning to participate, the right moment to buy a ticket is TODAY.

Monthnotes for October 2019

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October was busy, heads-down. Also, a number of events I had planned to attend and had to miss on short notice — most notably, Mozfest, which I had attended almost uninterruptedly since its first prototype event, Drumbeat, 10 years ago. I was really bummed to have missed that one, but such is life.

That said, lots happening:

  • A longer project around a progressive digital agenda and especially smart cities / citizens rights with a Brussels foundation is slowly moving into the final round of edits and workshops. The final results should go public soon(ish). Certainly before the end of the year.
  • Research into the ecosystems supporting the development of ethical/ responsible/ trustworthy AI in Europe together with a think tank is moving along nicely. Here, we still have some work to do. There are workshops to host, writing waiting to happen. So there, the results will probably be published either just before the end of the year, or first thing in the new year.
  • The Edgeryders community, where I’m currently a fellow as part of the Internet of Humans program, is going red-hot prepping for a distributed festival this November. I’ll be contributing something as part of this day of workshops & talks (link goes to Facebook. Details TBA.)
  • I had the immense pleasure to speak at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung event Digital Capitalism about smart cities and how to make them work better for citizens rather than vendors. It was an honor and a delight so share this panel with Elvan Korkmaz (member of parliament, SPD), Katharina Meyer (Prototype Fund) and Hans-Martin Neumann (Austrian Institute of Technology).

In largely unrelated news, a quick reminder: If you’ve shared sensitive data about you with a startup about you, take a moment to see if you still want that data there? Fitbit just made a splash with the announcement that Alphabet acquired them (and the data along with the company). When I recently, on a whim, checked out 23andMe I realized they had started aggressively integrating partnership offerings (“Explore your ancestry through Airbnb” and other non-sense that could hardly be more absurd). To me this is a big red flag that they’re likely to fold. So I pulled a copy of my data and requested data and account deletion, which feels like the right thing to do once things change in that direction.

In parallel, btw, I continue to write a newsletter pretty actively. Not sure if/how this should be integrated more closely in this blog. For the time being, the newsletter format works pretty well for me (and I need to find out why that is, but here you to). It’s about tech & society, business & culture, plus an eclectic mix of updates on projects. Besides Twitter, that’s also where a lot of my thinking-out-loud happens: Early ideas taking shape, trying on new arguments, that kind of thing. You can sign up to that here.