This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:11.
After working in this space for years, I’m convinced that smart cities are a key battleground in the fight for civil rights in the 21st century. I don’t say this lightly, either: I truly believe that smart cities — cities infused with data-driven infrastructure — are focal points where a range of technologies and issues manifest very concretely.
Why we need the Berlin Institute
Cities around the globe are exploring smart city initiatives in order to deliver better services to their citizens, and to manage resources most efficiently. However, city governments operate within a network of competing pressures and pain points. The Berlin Institute aims to help relieve those pressures and pain points by providing tools and expertise that put citizens and their rights front and center.
Together with my collaborator, former German human rights commissioner Markus Löning and his extremely capable team, we are setting out to realize the positive potential of smart cities while avoiding potential harms — by putting civil rights first.
With our combined expertise — Markus around human rights, mine around smart cities — we hope that we can make a valuable contribution to the smart city debate.
So today, as a soft launch, I’m happy to point towards our new website for the Berlin Institute for Smart Cities and Civil Rights (BISC). Lots there is still going to change as we keep refining. In the meantime, I’d love to learn more about how we can best help you and your city navigate this space.
This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:06.
Berlin, like many cities, is somewhat crippled by cars in the city. Less so than, say, New York, London, or Los Angeles, historically. But there are too many cars, and too many cars blocking the bike lanes, where those meaningfully exist. There’s not a week where on my way to work I don’t get almost run over by a car because the bike lanes are crap, and usually serve primarily as illegal-but-unenforced car parking. But I digress.
Over the last year or so, we’ve seen a refreshing, delightful surge of experiments with car-free streets or neighborhoods.
Berlin, of course, hasn’t even started that conversation, so I’ll keep passing ghost bikes in our neighborhood with a dramatic frequency. Accidents involving bikes have gone up dramatically for the last 20 years in Berlin (here’s the official statistic in a basically unreadable PDF) but this number doesn’t even tell half the story: Most accidents are just barely avoided, and hence never show up in those statistics. My personal weekly near-death experience biking to work? Never going to show up there as long as it stays “near-death”.
By the way, since I work a lot in the area of Smart Cities: I think Smart Cities have a lot to contribute to urban mobility — but if I’m totally honest, probably a lot less than good old-fashioned intelligent urban planning. We have decades of scientific research in this field, plus thousands of years of history to look at. Yet, somehow we built everything as if the early 20th century model is the default for urban living rather than the total exception that it will likely turn out to be. So let’s get that low-hanging fruit first, and learn to walk before we run.
This article is part of 20in20, a series of 20 blog posts in 20 days to kick off the blogging year 2020. This is 20in20:04.
It’s a common approach for making (business, policy…) decision by performing a cost-benefit analysis of some sort. Sometimes this is done via a rigorous process, sometimes it’s ballparked — and depending on the context, that’s OK.
One thing is pretty constant: In a cost-benefit analysis you traditionally work on the basis of reasonably expected costs and reasonably expected benefits. If the benefits outweigh the costs, green light.
Now, I’d argue that for data-driven infrastructure(-ish) projects, we need to set a higher bar.
By data-driven infrastructure I mean infrastructure(ish) things like digital platforms, smart city projects, etc. that collect data, process data, feed into or serve as AI or algorithmic decision-making (ADM) systems, etc. This may increasingly include what’s traditionally included under the umbrella of critical infrastructure but extends well beyond.
For this type of data-driven infrastructure (DDI), we need a different balance. Or, maybe even better, we need a more thorough understanding of what can be reasonably expected.
I argue that for DDI, guaranteed improvement must outweigh the worst case scenario risks.
If the last decade has shown us anything, it’s that data-driven infrastructure will be abused to its full potential.
From criminals to commercial and governmental actors, from legitimate and rogue, if there is valuable data then we’ll see strong interests in this honey pot of data. Hence, we need to assume at least some of those actors will get access to it. So whatever could happen when they do — which would differ dramatically depending on which types or which combination of types of actors does, obviously — is what we have to factor in. Also, the opportunity cost and expertise drain and newly introduced dependencies that come with vendor lock-in.
All of this — that level of failure — should be the new “reasonable” expectation on the cost side.
But in order to make semantic capture of the term “reasonable” a little bit harder, I’m proposing to be very explicit about what we mean by this:
So instead of “Let’s compare what happens if things go kinda-sorta OK on the benefit side and only go kinda-sorta wrong on the cost side”, let’s say “the absolutely guaranteed improvements on the benefit side must significantly outweigh the worst case failure modes on the costs side.”
For DDI, let’s work with aggressive-pessimistic scenarios for the costs/risk side, and conservative scenarios for the benefit side. The more critical the infrastructure, the more thorough we need to be.
That should make for a much more interesting debate, and certainly for more insightful scenario planning.
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:
The UN Human Rights principles are a rock-solid base line, especially the way they are referenced in the SDGs.
Like I wrote in the last monthnotes, November to January are blocked out for research and writing. That said, there was a bit of other stuff going on outside heads-down writing, most notably the annual ThingsCon conference.
I also wrapped up my Edgeryders fellowship. I’m grateful for the opportunity to pursue independent research into how we can make smart cities work better for citizens.
I’ve submitted the final pieces of writing for a Brussels-based foundation. The final report should be out soon. This is roughly in the area of European digital agenda & smart city policy.
With a Berlin-based think tank, a research project is in the phase of final write-up of results and conclusions. This will likely take us well into January, then on to collect some more feedback on the final drafts. More updates when I have them. This is in the area of responsible AI development.
A more recent project around impact of smart cities on labor rights has kicked off in December. Lots of research and writing to do there well into January.
Earlier this year, Nadia E. kindly invited me to join Edgeryders (ER) as a fellow to do independent research as part of their Internet of Humans program. From June to December 2019 I was an ER fellow and had the opportunity to work with the lovely John Coate & Nadia, and the fantastic team and community there at ER.
On the ER platform, there’s a very active community of people who’re willing to invest time and energy in debate. It allowed me to gather a bunch of valuable feedback on early ideas and thoughts.
As part of my fellowship, I also had the opportunity to do a number of interviews. John interviewed me to kick things off on the Edgeryders platform, and I interviewed a few smart folks like Jon Rogers, Ester Fritsch, Marcel Schouwenaar and Michelle Thorne (disclosure: my partner), all of whom do interesting and highly relevant work around responsible emerging tech: In many ways, their work helps me frame my own thinking, and the way it’s adjacent to my work helps me find the boundaries of what I focus on. If this list seems like it’s a list of long-time collaborators, that’s no coincidence but by design: Part of how ER works is by integrating existing networks and amplifying them. So fellows are encouraged to bring in their existing networks.
Some of these interviews are online already, as are some reflections on them:
It was another intense year, but nothing compared to 2018. Just the new reality of having a kid combined with the old reality of two partners working in demanding and interesting jobs: There’s bound to be some friction, and so there is, and everyone in that boat knows how that can feel. That said, we’re lucky and privileged and so there’s really no reason to complain. If the world wasn’t literally burning right now there wouldn’t be any reason to worry.
The theme for 2019
Last year I wrote:
the theme was first and foremost impact. Impact through large partners, through policy work, through investments into research.
This essentially has stayed true for the third year in a row. I spent more time still on policy-related work — in fact I’d say my work has continued a pretty sharp turn upstream towards policy.
The space of emerging tech, responsible tech, and public policy has been maturing a lot, and those are all areas I’ve been working in for a long time. To see these three previously separate circles move closer together into a neat Venn diagram, so to speak, has been amazing. And it’s also given me a point of leverage for putting my expertise and experiencing to work, which I’m grateful for.
Friends & Family
A few close friends got married, some babies were born: In terms of friends and family it’s been a pretty good year. I’m ever grateful for the support of a handful of very close friends who’re there whenever I needed them; thank you, you know who you are. Now if only there was a little more time to spend with friends and family. Making that extra time goes straight on the priority list for 2020.
For a few years now, I’ve been trying to cut down on travel, specifically on flights. It’s been working so-so: As best as I can figure out from Tripit and my calendar, I’ve gone on 17 trips for a total of 85 days of travel, which is about par for the course. Around 20 cities in 8 countries. It was still 20 flights. However — small victories! — only about 30,000 km total. Which sounds… a lot less? The year before it was more like 90,000 km. Either my accounting is way off, or it was the fact that I didn’t go to the West Coast a few times this year. Either way, I’ll take it.
Speaking & Media
Punditry time! There was a bit of that. The website has lists of talks and media mentions; the top-level stats are: 12 talks & panels (including the occasional chairing/hosting) and 16 media mentions, contributions, or profiles about me. An interesting mix of publications, too, including Fast Company, a WEF publication, CHI, and Tagesspiegel.
What’s been interesting for me is that a lot of my talks and panels were at policy events. So that’s a bit of a new world for me, in a sense.
Been trying to get back to a more healthy routing of regular workouts, with mixed success. Tried my hand at CrossFit, which I’ll revisit eventually but have shelved for now, and Pilates, which seems pretty promising to ease back into it. Otherwise all good. Especially, we’re back to eating healthier after the hectic & chaos that was 2018.
Lots of reading and writing, lots of working at the intersection with the public policy work. I’ve been working with multiple foundations and think tanks on issues surrounding smart cities, AI, governance, tech policy. Some of this happens at the German level, much at the European or global level.
I’ve started my role as an industry supervisor in the OpenDoTT PhD program for responsible tech, and was a fellow at Edgeryders, where my research focused on smart city governance. Also, I went back on the jury for Prototype Fund.
ThingsCon is still going strong, we just had our 6th anniversary. As is my semi-personal newsletter Connection Problem, which I’ve been enjoying writing a lot.
29 books on my list, including some contemporary sci-fi (Kim Stanley Robinson, Eliot Pepper, Tim Maughan) but also classics like Vernor Vinge. Some fiction, like Ted Chiang’s Exhalations and John Hodgman’s Medallion Status. Some more random stuff like So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid, Lost Japan by Alex Kerr, A Pattern Language, Fewer better things by Glenn Adamson and some Dalai Lama; How to do Nothing by Jenny Odell, essay collections like McSweeny’s The End of Trust and — a bit surprising to me! — I found myself ripping through the full 8 book arch of The Expanse. Overall a quiet enjoyable mix.
Also, still lots of unfinished ones in the “ongoing” folder that might or might not ever be finished.
Firsts & some things I learned along the way
Firsts: Indoor Skydiving. Waterball (Water zorb?). Learned some Ukulele basics. Baked a bread. First time in Valencia. Took a boat to travel for business. Reconciled an old awkwardness. Applied for a job I was genuinely interested in. Looked at 20,000 year old cave paintings. Rode in two autonomous buses.
Learned: Prioritizing a lot more harshly. Identifying opportunities for leverage/impact better (I think).
So what’s next?
2020 will start with wrapping up a number of ongoing projects, and a new collaboration which feels pretty exciting. I look forward to continuing my work at the intersection of responsible tech & public policy, and finding the most effective points of leverage to really make sure my expertise can be meaningfully applied.