Tagsmart city

Data about me in my city

D

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.

Monthnotes for November 2018

M

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.

Monthnotes for October 2018

M

This month: Mozfest, a Digital Rights Cities Coalition, Trustable Technology Mark updates, ThingsCon Rotterdam.

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.

Mozfest

Mozfest came and went, and was lovely as always. It was the 9th Mozfest, 8 or so of which I participated in — all the way back to the proto (or prototyping?) Mozfest event called Drumbeat in Barcelona in, what, 2010? But no time for nostalgia, it was bustling as always. The two things that were different for me that one, I participated as a Mozilla Fellow, which means a different quality of engagement and two, M and I brought the little one, so we had a toddler in tow. Which I’m delighted to say worked a charm!

A Digital Rights Cities Coalition

At Mozfest, the smart and ever lovely Meghan McDermott (see her Mozilla Fellows profile here) hosted a small invite-only workshop to formalize a Digital Rights Cities Coalition — a coalition of cities and civil society to protect, foster, promote digital rights in cities. I was both delighted and honored to be part of this space, and we’ll continue working together on related issues. The hope is that my work with ThingsCon and the Trustable Technology Mark can inform and contribute value to that conversation.

Trustable Technology Mark

The Trustable Technology Mark is hurtling towards the official launch at a good clip. After last month’s workshop weekend at Casa Jasmina, I just hosted a Trustmark session at Mozfest. It was a good opportunity to have new folks take a look at the concept with fresh eyes. I’m happy to report that I walked away with some new contacts and leads, some solid feedback, and an overall sense that at least for the obvious points of potential criticism that present themselves at first glance there are solid answers now as to why this way and not that, etc etc.

Courtesy Dietrich, a photo of me just before kicking off the session wearing a neighboring privacy booth’s stick-on mustache.

Also, more policy and academic partners signing on, which is a great sign, and more leads to companies coming in who want to apply for the Trustmark.

Next steps for the coming weeks: Finalize and freeze the assessment form, launch a website, line up more academic and commercial partners, reach out to other initiatives in the space, finalize trademarks (all ongoing), reach out to press, plan launch (starting to prep these two).

The current assessment form asks a total of 48 questions over 5 dimensions, with a total of 29 required YES’s. Here’s the most up-to-date presentation:


ThingsCon Rotterdam

Our annual ThingsCon conference is coming up: Join us in Rotterdam Dec 6-7!

Early bird is just about to end (?), and we’re about to finalize the program. It’s going to be an absolute blast. I’ll arrive happily (if probably somewhat bleary eyed after a 4am start that day) in Rotterdam to talk Trustable Technology and ethical tech, we’ll have a Trustmark launch party of some sort, we’ll launch a new website (before or right there and then), and we’ve been lining up a group of speakers so amazing I’m humbled even just listing it:

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Cennydd Bowles, Eric Bezzem, Laura James, Lorenzo Romanoli, Nathalie Kane, Peter Bihr, Afzal Mangal, Albrecht Kurze, Andrea Krajewski, Anthony Liekens, Chris Adams, Danielle Roberts, Dries De Roeck, Elisa Giaccardi, Ellis Bartholomeus, Gaspard Bos, Gerd Kortuem, Holly Robbins, Isabel Ordonez, Kars Alfrink, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, Janjoost Jullens, Ko Nakatsu, Leonardo Amico, Maaike Harbers, Maria Luce Lupetti, Martijn de Waal, Martina Huynh, Max Krüger, Nazli Cila, Pieter Diepenmaat, Ron Evans, Sami Niemelä, Simon Höher, Sjef van Gaalen.

That’s only the beginning!

Here’s part of the official blurb, and more soon on thingscon.com and thingscon.nl/conference-2018

Now, 5 years into ThingsCon, the need for responsible technology has entered the mainstream debate. We need ethical technology, but how? With the lines between IoT, AI, machine learning and algorithmic decision-making increasingly blurring it’s time to offer better approaches to the challenges of the 21st century: Don’t complain, suggest what’s better! In this spirit, going forward we will focus on exploring how connected devices can be made better, more responsible and more respectful of fundamental human rights. At ThingsCon, we gather the finest practitioners; thinkers & tinkerers, thought leaders & researchers, designers & developers to discuss and show how we can make IoT work for everyone rather than a few, and build trustable and responsible connected technology.

Media, etc.

In the UK magazine NET I wrote an op-ed about Restoring Trust in Emerging Tech. It’s in the November 2018 issue, out now – alas, I believe, print only.

Reminder: Our annual ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is out.

What’s next?

Trips to Brussels, Rotterdam, NYC to discuss a European digital agenda, launch a Trustmark, co-host ThingsCon, translate Trustmark principles for the smart city context, prep a US-based ThingsCon conference.

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.

German federal government adopts an action plan on automated driving

G

For a while we’ve been debating the ethics of algorithms, especially in the context of autonomous vehicles: What should happen, when something goes wrong? Who/what does the robo car protect? Who’s liable for damage if a crash occurs?

Germany, which has a strategy in place to become not just a world-leading manufacturer of autonomous vehicles but also a world-leading consumer market, just announced how to deal with these questions.

Based on the findings of an ethics commission, Germany’s federal government just adopted an action plan on automated driving (here quoted in full:

The Ethics Commission’s report comprises 20 propositions. The key elements are:

  • Automated and connected driving is an ethical imperative if the systems cause fewer accidents than human drivers (positive balance of risk).
  • Damage to property must take precedence over personal injury. In hazardous situations, the protection of human life must always have top priority.
  • In the event of unavoidable accident situations, any distinction between individuals based on personal features (age, gender, physical or mental constitution) is impermissible.
  • In every driving situation, it must be clearly regulated and apparent who is responsible for the driving task: the human or the computer.
  • It must be documented and stored who is driving (to resolve possible issues of liability, among other things).
  • Drivers must always be able to decide themselves whether their vehicle data are to be forwarded and used (data sovereignty).
  • The Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure’s Ethics Commission comprised 14 academics and experts from the disciplines of ethics, law and technology. Among these were transport experts, legal experts, information scientists, engineers, philosophers, theologians, consumer protection representatives as well as representatives of associations and companies.

///

Reading this, I have to say I’m relieved and impressed: These guidelines seem entirely reasonable, common sense, and practical. Especially the non-discrimination clause and the principle of data sovereignty is good to see included in this. Well done!

This bodes well for other areas where we haven’t seen this level of consideration from the German government yet, like smart cities and the super-set of #iot. I hope we’ll see similar findings and action plans in those areas soon, too.

Internet of Things as a range of arenas

I

The term Internet of Things (IoT) is so large, so almost all-emcompassing, that it can get in the way of conversations: Just like the internet itself has become a horizontal technology that has touchpoints across (almost) all industries and (almost) all parts of (almost) all organizations, IoT is on the way to also cut across industries and organizational boundaries.

It can help to break it down into fields; they’re verticals of sort, but not quite: More like contexts in which IoT manifests. I like to think of them as arenas of IoT:

IoT Arenas IoT arenas. Image by Peter Bihr/The Waving Cat. Licensed under Creative Commons (CC by)

(more…)

Smart Cities: The next frontier for IoT

S

Note: This text was written and planned for publication in September 2015. While it wasn’t published at the time and some bits and pieces seem a little dated by now, I felt there’s still enough relevance here to publish it now. Enjoy!

As the Internet of Things (IoT) expands into more and more parts of our lives, one big focal point for IoT is the smart city. Since the majority of the population lives in cities and we cannot opt out of our urban environments, this makes it the next frontier for IoT, digital rights and innovation.

Understanding the connected city

What makes a smart city? What’s the smartest city in the world? The connected city is a surprisingly hard-to-define construct: There is a very small number of “pure play” smart cities – planned cities built from scratch – that everyone would agree are smart, like Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. But do they count as real cities if they have no history and hardly a population? There are smart city services, like real-time public transport data: How many of these does it take to make a city officially “smart”? How does the population factor into it?

I believe that the current focus on the city-level might counter-intuively get in the way of our thinking. So let’s step away from the implementation level of a city wide integrated sensor network with a connected city data dashboard. I’m increasingly convinced that the trick is to tackle the understanding of connected cities from two sides:

  1. Zoom in to a more granular level where instead of looking at the city-level we can focus on individual projects, initiatives and programs that work with city data of any sort. This more open approach means we can count and analyze a wider range of projects from real-time public transport to networks of DIY air quality sensors or open source smart meters. Based on this we could rank cities based on their smartness, or maybe smart-readiness. Some not-yet-public research I’ve been involved in shows promising results: Imagine a large catalog of smart city(ish) projects that can be sliced and diced based on region, scale, funding sources, or impact.

  2. Then zoom out to the systemic level that doesn’t just consider the physical manifestation of the city, but it’s governance, administration, and citizenry. A large part of what makes a city smart isn’t its infrastructure (the strong focus on the technology angle is misleading), it’s the social impact of how we make that infrastructure work for its citizens. This means we need to look at how to prepare local governments and administrations, an area where NGOs like Code for America have been doing great work, and it means making sure that citizens know how to participate. After all, the overarching goal of a connected city should be to empower its citizens – so smart citizens are the true key to a smart city.

Smart cities need citizen-centric design

The way we discuss connected cities today is heavily framed through the lens of efficiency based on gathering data. This is no coincidence: The main drivers of the debate today are technology vendors who have been selling solutions for the industrial context like smart factories and connected logistics chain. It is only natural that the same vendors would try to solve urban challenges through large-scale implementations of their sensors, networks and infrastructure: If you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

However, for the context of a heavily urbanized society this model might not be the best. Smart cities researcher and critic Adam Greenfield goes even further, calling the efficiency-focused model of the connected city “the least interesting and the most problematic” given that rich urban live depends on serendipity as much as efficient delivery of services. Algorithms should augment, not replace political processes like resource allocation.

Maybe even more importantly, history has shown that complex, massively integrated computational systems are fraught with issues. If we turn a city into a giant centralized computer, we might create infrastructure that is brittle rather than resilient: “Smart cities are almost guaranteed to be chock full of bugs, from smart toilets and faucets that won’t operate to public screens sporting Microsoft’s ominous Blue Screen of Death”, fears smart city advocate Anthony Townsend.

These doomsday scenarios are easily avoided, though, if we focus on how to put humans in the center. The open data/open government and civic tech movements advocate for urban services that are citizen-centric and focus on real-world needs. This allows to build resilient cities. In their academic and policy research, Susan Crawford and Stephen Goldsmith speak of the responsive city: A city that focuses on its citizens needs and molds itself based on changing needs through technology and data. In other words, the city is a platform for its stakeholders – citizens and businesses alike.

Shaping the connected city

As Lawrence Lessig famously stated, code is law. The code we run our smart city on governs urban life. So it’s crucial to ensure that this code isn’t just fit for prime time in the sense of quality control, but also that we make the right choice for how and what kind of code is implemented in the first place. This is less of a technical than a policy question, and governments around the world are thinking hard about it.

Recently I co-authored a report on connected cities my colleague and ethics professor Dr. Christoph Bieber for the German government. The question: How to think smart cities with a strong focus on the citizens’ perspective. We found we have great historic precedence to inform solutions for the challenges ahead: The key to unlocking connected cities are the design principles – the protocols – that helped build the internet in its early days: Openness, decentralized architecture, bottom-up innovation, and Postel’s law (the so-called robustness principle).

In other words, we can build the city as a platform that is decentralized, open source, and hackable; That empowers citizens and enables private enterprises to innovate; And that is especially responsive and resilient through inclusivity, diversity, peer-review, and human-centric design.

The key to a truly smart city is decentralization

T

Earlier this year, as preparation for some research & policy input for the German government, we dug into the current state of research around connected cities.

The lense we applied was that of how a smart city would impact societal life, responsive government, and of course the power balance between citizenry, administration, large companies and the infrastructure itself.

While our report is yet to be released, I just read a piece by Paul Mason in The Guardian where he takes a critical stance on smart cities and identifies some major changes we can expect when heading for a smart city (emphasis mine):

The privacy issues [with smartphones that by design are also tracking devices] are dealt with by limiting the flow of data between public and private sectors, and by making the individual the centre of the information flow. But in a smart city, you need data to flow freely across sectors that, in the commercial world, would normally be separate. The energy system needs to know what the transport system is doing. And the whole thing needs to be run like a “God game”: the city government, not the individual, must exercise control.

This idea of the need for (and opportunity inherent in) a central control instance certainly is an inherent premise of the vision that smart city vendors often try to push. (Why Mason seems to buy this I cannot tell – otherwise his piece is very critical and thorough.) It’s not a premise we need to accept and in fact I think we mustn’t accept.

A truly smart city for me requires decentralization, openness, democratic oversight, and the ability for bottom-up innovation.

A centralized coordinating and controlling instance – the central instance of a “God game” – is the opposite and as such a barrier to, rather than a requirement for, the smart city.

Current “pure play” smart cities like Masdar or Songdo may be “smart” in the sense that they use lots of data and adapt to it – thriving cities they are not.

And (again quoting Paul Mason) Madrid is going exactly that hopeful road:

Manuela Carmena asked advisers: what are the social problems we want technology to solve? The result was the vision of a “non-neoliberal smart city”, incorporating three principles not welcome in the world of high-profit tech companies: openness, democratic participation and a clear policy that data generated from public services should be publicly owned. “Rather than keep funding proprietary systems with public money, support open-source collaborative technologies,” Carmena was advised. Instead of beginning with the transport system, the first deployment of new technology should allow citizens to “raise issues of corruption, equity in the distribution of resources and open the question of access to power”.

This is pretty much what I’d also recommended.

Concretely, I’d recommend to build the Connected City Policy after the principles that governed the early days of the open internet: Openness, decentralized architecture, bottom-up innovation, and Postel’s law (the so-called robustness principle).

Then we can build the city as a platform that is decentralized, open source, and hackable; That empowers citizens and enables private enterprises to innovate; And that is especially responsive and resilient through inclusivity, diversity, peer-review, and human-centric design.