Categorypolicy

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.

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.

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.

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 November 2018

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This month: Trustable Technology Mark, ThingsCon Rotterdam, a progressive European digital 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 2019.

Trustable Technology Mark

ThingsCon’s trustmark for IoT, the Trustable Technology Mark now has a website. We’ll be soft-launching it with a small invite-only group of launch partners next week at ThingsCon Rotterdam. Over on trustabletech.org I wrote up some pre-launch notes on where we stand. Can’t wait!

ThingsCon Rotterdam

ThingsCon is turning 5! This thought still blows my mind. We’ll be celebrating at ThingsCon Rotterdam (also with a new website) where we’ll also be launching the Trustmark (as mentioned above). This week is for tying up all the loose ends so that we can then open applications to the public.

A Progressive European Digital Agenda

Last month I mentioned that I was humbled (and delighted!) to be part of a Digital Rights Cities Coalition at the invitation of fellow Mozilla Fellow Meghan McDermott (see her Mozilla Fellows profile here). This is one of several threads where I’m trying to extend the thinking and principles behind the Trustable Technology Mark beyond the consumer space, notably into policy—with a focus on smart city policy.

Besides the Digital Rights Cities Coalition and some upcoming work in NYC around similar issues, I was kindly invited by the Foundation for Progressive European Studies (FEPS) to help outline the scope of a progressive European digital agenda. I was more than a little happy to see that this conversation will continue moving forward, and hope I can contribute some value to it. Personally I see smart cities as a focal point of many threads of emerging tech, policy, and the way we define democratic participation in the urban space.

What’s next?

Trips to Rotterdam (ThingsCon & Trustmark), NYC (smart cities), Oslo (smart cities & digital 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 2019.

Yours truly, P.