CategorySmart Cities

New Report: “Smart Cities: A Key to a Progressive Europe”

N

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!

Introducing the Berlin Institute for Smart Cities and Civil Rights

I

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.

Berlin Institute header over a backdrop of the Berlin skyline with the TV tower front and center

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.

Car-free cities

C

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.

Oslo banned private cars from parts of the inner city and “closed off certain streets in the centre to cars entirely. They have also removed almost all parking spots and replaced them with cycling lanes, benches and miniature parks.”

San Francisco has closed Market Street for private cars: “Only buses, streetcars, traditional taxis, ambulances, and freight drop-offs are still allowed.”

And even in Manhattan, 14th street is blocked now for cars. The NYC rule applies – if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.

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”.

Most of this would be completely avoidable: Less cars, better bike and pedestrian infrastructure, better public transport. Instead, Berlin is building a highway into the city like it was 1950. We truly have the least progressive leftist government of all times here.

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.

CityLab argues that car-free cities will soon be the norm. I tend to agree. And I hope we get there sooner rather than later.

Cost-benefit analysis, Data-Driven Infrastructure edition

C

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.

Smart Cities & Human Rights

S

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?

Monthnotes for December 2019

M

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.

ONGOING WORK

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.

EVENTS

We held the annual ThingsCon conference in Rotterdam. There we also launched our report on the State of Responsible IoT (RIoT). The keynotes are available online, too. This event is one of my dearest; it’s a fantastic community. Thanks so much to our local team who makes this possible year after year.

WRITING & MEDIA

I’m mostly focused on writing my contributions to the research reports mentioned above. In the meantime, I was happy that Bruce Sterling mentioned the RIoT report on his blog, and Coda Story interviewed me for their list of Authoritarian Tech Trends 2020.

WHAT’S NEXT?

Lots of research and writing this month and next, so that means heads-down focus time for a little bit, splitting my time between writing and meetings to finalize those reports.

Edgeryders: My fellowship is a wrap

E

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.

This fellowship gave me that little extra wriggle room and a mandate to do independent research into smart cities and policy — read: how to approach smart city policy so that it works better for citizens. This allowed me to do a lot of extra reading, writing (for example, about smart city governance and a smart city model founded on restraint) and speaking, and it informed my work with foundations, think tanks, and policy makers during that time, too.

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:

The others will be cleaned up and online soon.

My fellowship technically ended a couple of days ago, but I’m planning to stay part of the ER community. Huge thanks to the whole community there, to the team, and especially to Nadia and John.