Categoryconnected world

App In, Driver Out: Why Digital Concierge Services aren’t Quite the Future

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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 20in20:07.

Two things, side by side, in friction:

(1) App In, Driver Out

One of the most dominant business models of the last 5-10 years has been what I think of as app in, driver out: All kinds of services re-packaged to accept orders via an app, and deliver the service through a driver.

Uber may be the most prominent but certainly isn’t alone. We’ve seen the same for food delivery, for laundry pick-up and delivery, for really all kinds of things.

It’s essentially a concierge service, and hence a pure luxury offering. Offered, in this context, with a digital component and offered extremely cheaply.

(2) Innovation trickle-down from elites

The Varian Rule (2011) states that “A simple way to forecast the future is to look at what rich people have today; middle-income people will have something equivalent in 10 years, and poor people will have it in an additional decade.” Which is, by the way, just a way to rephrase William Gibson’s famous line “The future is already here — it’s just unevenly distributed”, in which he’s been exploring the ways that elites have access to innovation before the mainstream does. (Since William Gibson has been quoted saying this since the early 1990s and I like him better than Varian, I’ll stay loyal to his version.)

But there’s definitively something there, to a degree. Elites — financial or technological — have early access to things that aren’t yet available or affordable to the mainstream but might be soon. In fact, not just elites. As Alipasha rightfully points out, it’s not just elites where innovation manifests, but the edges of society more generally: subcultures, special needs, street fashion, you name it.

What shape that mainstreaming might take, if it’s the real thing or some watered-down version, is always hard to predict. Commercial air travel was certainly only affordable to elites first, then later to everybody — in this case, the essential product was the same even though the experience differed along a spectrum of convenience. Personal assistants are available to elites, yet their mainstream versions — digital assistants — are nowhere near the real deal: They’re totally different in nature and deliver a completely different value, if any.

What type of future do we want?

So where does that leave us? Turns out that this type of trickle down only works if there are products that can get cheaper because of production, or through automation. This is, surprisingly, exactly what you’d think intuitively. There’s no surprise here at all! So that’s great.

Unless those services are fully digitized or automated through things like autonomous delivery vehicles, these on-demand services simply cannot reproduce this level of concierge service.

We can digitally model the input side: app-based input can be made convenient and powerful enough. But we can’t lower the costs on the output side enough, without massively externalizing costs to the environment: Automating delivery through, say, drones, might theoretically work but at scale would unleash its own special kind of hell into the urban landscape. And unless we want to go the route of exploitation, humans need to get paid a living wage, so there are no savings to be had there, either.

Extra services cost extra money, which is why these app in, driver out services crumble all over.

So if personalized, cheap laundry delivery might sound too good to be true, that might be because it is. While I’d enjoy the service, I don’t think I’m willing to pay these externalized costs. This wouldn’t be a future I want.

Smart Cities & Human 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 20in20:02.

If you’ve followed this blog or my work at all, you’ll know that I’ve been doing a fair bit of work around Smart Cities and what they mean from a citizens and rights perspective, and how you can analyze Smart City projects through a lens of responsible technology (which of course has also been the main mission of our non-profit org, ThingsCon).

For years, I’ve argued that we need to not use tech goggles to look at how we can and should connect public space but rather a rights-based perspective. It’s not about what we can do but what we should do, after all.

But while I’m convinced that’s the right approach, it’s been non-trivial to figure out what to base the argument on: What’s the most appropriate foundation to build a “Smart City Rights” perspective on?

A recent conversation led me to sketch out this rough outline which I believe points in the right direction:

Image: A sketch for a basis for a Smart City and Human Rights analytical framework

There are adjacent initiatives and frameworks that can complement and flank anything based on these three (like the Vision for a Shared Digital Europe and its commons-focused approach), and of course this also goes well with the EU’s Horizon 2020 City Mission for Climate-neutral and smart cities. So this is something I’m confident can be fleshed out into something solid.

Are there any other key documents I’m missing that absolutely should be incorporated 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.

What type of smart city do we want to live in?

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Warning: Trick question! The right questions should of course be: What type of city do we want to live in? What parts of our cities do we want to be smart, and in what ways?

That said, this is the talk of my talk for NEXT Conference 2019 in which I explore some basic principles for making sure that if we add so-called smart city technology to our public spaces, we’ll end up with desirable results.

What happens when one product in a family of connected products fails?

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About a year ago, we changed our home audio setup to “smart” speakers: We wanted to be able to stream directly from Spotify, as well we from our phones. We also wanted to avoid introducing yet another microphone into our living room. (The kitchen is, hands down, the only place where a voice assistant makes real sense to me personally. Your mileage may vary.) Preferably, there should be a line-in as well; I’m old school that way.

During my research I learned that the overlap of circles in this Venn diagram of speakers that are (a) connected (“smart”) for streaming, (b) have good sound and (c) don’t have a microphone is… very thin indeed.

The Venn diagram of speakers that are connected (“smart”), good and have no microphone

The Sonos range looked best to me; except for those pesky microphones. Our household is largely voice assistant free, minus the phones, where we just deactivated the assistants to whatever degree we could.

In the end, we settled for a set of Bang & Olufsen Beoplay speakers for living room and kitchen: Solid brand, good reputation. High end. Should do just fine — and it better, given the price tag!

This is just for context. I don’t want to turn this into a product review. But let’s just say that we ran into some issues with one of the speakers. These issues appeared to be software related. And while from the outside they looked like they should be easy to fix, it turned out the mechanisms to deliver the fixes were somewhat broken themselves.

Long story short: I’m now trying to return the speakers. Which made me realize that completely different rules apply than I’m used to. In Germany, where we are based, consumer protection laws are reasonably strong, so if something doesn’t work you can usually return it without too much hassle.

But with a set of connected speakers, we have an edge case. Or more accurately, a whole stack of edge cases.

  • The product still fulfills the basic function, just in a way that is so diminished and awkward to get to work because of a software issue that it’s too much to do on a daily basis, meaning the speakers simply stay off. It kinda works, kinda doesn’t. Certainly doesn’t work as advertised.
  • If one of these gets returned and I wanted to switch to a different brand, then I’d be stuck with the other speakers in the set, which are now expensive paperweights: Connected products work in families, or so-called platform ecosystems. One without the other just doesn’t make sense. It’s like the chain that breaks as soon as the weakest link breaks. So can I return all of them because there is a software issue with one of them?

This is going to be an interesting process, I’m afraid. Can we return the whole family and switch on over to a different make of speakers? Or are we stuck with an expensive set of speakers that while not quite broken, is very much unusable in our context?

If so, then at least I know never to buy connected speakers again. Rather, then I guess I’d recycle these and instead go back to a high end analog speaker set with some external streaming connector – knowing full well that that connector will be useless in a few years time but that the speakers and amp would be around and working flawlessly for 15-20 years, like my old ones did.

And that is the key insight here for our peers in the industry: If your product in this nascent field fails because of lacking quality management, then you leave scorched earth. Consumers aren’t going to trust your products any more, sure. But they are unlikely to trust anyone else’s, either.

The falling tide lowers all boats.

So let’s get not just the products right: In consumer IoT, all too often we think in families/ecosystems. So we have to consider long-term software updates (and mechanisms to deliver them, and fall-backs to those mechanisms…) as well as return policies in case something goes wrong with one of the products. And while we’re at it, we need to equally upgrade consumer protection regulation to deal with these issues of ecosystems and software updates.

This is the only way to ensure consumer trust. So we can reap the benefits of innovation without suffering all the externalized costs as well as unintended consequences of a job sloppily done.

(See also the ThingsCon Trustable Technology Mark, Better IoT, Tech Transformed.)

Update (Oct 2019): Turns out other companies also start recognizing that there’s a demand for mic-free speakers: Sonos just launched a speaker that they market specifically for it being mic-free, and it’s otherwise identical to one of their staples. (It’s called the One SL; I imagine the “SL” stands for “streamlined” or “stop listening” but I might be projecting.)

Developing better urban metrics for Smart Cities

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When we embed connected technologies — sensors, networks, etc. — into the public space*, we create connected public space. In industry parlance, this is called a Smart City. (I prefer “connected city”, but let’s put the terminology discussion on the back burner for now.) And data networks change the way we live.

* Note: Increasingly, the term “public space” has itself come under attack. In many cities, formerly public (as in publicly owned & governed) has been privatized, even if it’s still accessibly by the public, more or less. Think of a shopping mall, or the plazas that are sometimes attached to a shopping mall: You can walk in, but a mall cop might enforce some house rules that were written not by citizens but the corporation that owns the land. I find this not just highly problematic, I also recommend flat out rejecting that logic as a good way forward. Urban space — anything outside closed buildings, really — should, for the most part, be owned by the public, and even where for historical reasons it can’t be owned, it should at least be governed by the public. This means the rules should be the same in a park, a shopping mall-adjacent plaza, and the street; they should be enforced by (publicly employed) police rather than (privately employed) mall cops. Otherwise there’s no meaningful recourse for mistreatment, there’s no ownership, citizens are relegated from stakeholders to props/consumers.

Networks and data tend not to ease but to reinforce power dynamics, so we need to think hard about what type of Smart City we want to live in:

  • Do we want to allow people to get faster service for a fee (“Skip the line for $5”), or prefer everyone to enjoy the same level of service, independent of their income?
  • Do we want to increase the efficiency for 90% of the population through highly centralized services even if it means making the life of the other 10% much harder, or do we plan for a more resilient service delivery for all, even if it means the overall service delivery is a tad slower?
  • Do we want to cut short-term spending through privatization even if it means giving up control over infrastructure, or do we prioritize key infrastructure in our budgeting process so that the government can ensure quality control and service delivery in the long term, even if it costs more in the short term?

These are blunt examples, but I reckon you can tell where I’m going with this: I think democratic life requires public space and urban infrastructure to be available to all citizens and stakeholders, and to work well for all citizens. Pay for play should only apply for added non-essential services.

“Don’t confuse the data you can capture with the things you need to know!

In order to shape policies in this space meaningfully, we need to think about what the things are that we prioritize. Here, a brief warning is in place: the old management adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure” is problematic to say the least. All too often we see organizations act on the things they can measure, even if these things are not necessarily meaningful but just easy to measure. Don’t confuse the data you can capture with the things you need to know!

What do we want to prioritize, and maybe even measure?

That said, what are the things we want to prioritize? And might it even be possible to measure them?

Here I don’t have final answers, just some pointers that I hope might lead us into the right direction. These are angles to be explored whenever we consider a new smart city project, at any scale — even, and maybe especially, for pilot projects! Let’s consider them promising starting points:

Participation
Has there been meaningful participation in the early feedback, framing, planning, governance processes? If feedback has been very limited and slow, what might the reasons be? Is it really lack of interest, or maybe the barrier to engagement was just too high? Were the documents to long, too full of jargon, to hard to access? (See Bianca Wylie’s thread on Sidewalk Labs’ 1.500+ page development plan.) Were the implications, the pros and cons, not laid out in an accessible way? For example, in Switzerland there’s a system in place that makes sure that in a referendum both sides have to agree on the language that explains pros and cons, so as to make sure both sides’ ideas are represented fairly and accessibly.

Sustainability
Would these changes significantly improve sustainability? The UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SGD) framework might offer a robust starting point, even though we should probably aim higher given the political (and real!) climate.

Will it solve a real issue, improve the life for citizens?
Is this initiative going to solve a real issue and improve lives meaningfully? This is often going to be tricky to answer, but if there’s no really good reason to believe it’s going to make a meaningful positive impact then it’s probably not a good idea to pursue. The old editors’ mantra might come in handy: If in doubt, cut it out. There are obvious edge cases here: Sometimes, a pilot project is necessary to explore something truly new; in those cases, there must be a plausible, credible, convincing hypothesis in place that can be tested.

Are there safeguards in place to prevent things from getting worse than before if something doesn’t work as planned?
Unintended consequences are unavoidable in complex systems. But there are ways to mitigate risks, and to make sure that the fallback for a failed systems are not worse then the original status. If any project would be better while working perfectly but worse while failing, then that deserves some extra thought. If it works better for some groups but not for others, that’s usually a red flag, too.

When these basic goals are met, and only then, should we move on to more traditional measurements, the type that dominates the discourse today, like:

  • Will this save taxpayers’ money, and lead to more cost-effective service delivery?
  • Will this lead to more efficient service delivery?
  • Will this make urban management easier or more efficient for the administration?
  • Will this pave the way for future innovation?

These success factors / analytical lenses are not grand, impressive ideas: They are the bare minimum we should secure before engaging in anything more ambitious. Think of them as the plumbing infrastructure of the city: Largely unnoticed while everything works, but if it ever has hiccups, it’s really bad.

We should stick to basic procedural and impact driven questions first. We should incorporate the huge body of research findings from urban planners, sociologists, and political scientists rather than reinvent the wheel. And we should never, ever be just blinded by a shiny new technological solution to a complex social or societal issue.

Let’s learn to walk before we try to run.

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.