Tagsustainability

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.

ThingsCon Amsterdam 2016 Keynote: A responsible IoT

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ThingsCon: Peter Bihr (The Waving Cat) from ThingsConAMS on Vimeo.

This week I’m in the Netherlands for ThingsCon Amsterdam, the largest ThingsCon event this year (and one of an ever-growing number, see the event list <3).

The local team around Monique, Marcel & Iskander kindly asked me to give the keynote. I was honored and psyched obviously – here’s my slide deck for now.

Here are my slides:

The super short executive summary: – We need to build IoT in a responsible & human-centric way, and we founded ThingsCon to promote this goal. – It’s hard to get right because HARDWARE IS HARD, NETWORKED SYSTEMS INTRODUCE DYNAMICS OF POWER & CONTROL, and WE DON’T HAVE GOOD LANGUAGE TO DISCUSS IoT. – The ThingsCon community tries to tackle this, and we think it’s both a duty and a privilege to do so. In fact, this is our chance to have a massive positive impact.

A proper write-up will (hopefully) follow later!

Bruce Sterling at Reboot11 (some belated quotes)

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Earlier this summer I went to Reboot11 (and loved it). Sadly, I never really got around to write down all the stuff we talked about there. But here’s a few quotes from the particularly great Bruce Sterling talk.

The quotes are actually not from the talk itself but from David Weinberger’s live blogging summary:

Sterling on geeks and favela chic in the context of different “quadrants of the future”:

The other side of Reboot in power is low-end: Favela chic. You’ve lost everything but you’re wired to the gill and still big on Facebook. Everything you believe as geeks is Favela thinking. This venue is itself a stuffed animal. The unsustainable is the only frontier you are. You’re old in old-new structure, a steam punk appropriation.

What can I say? He’s spot on. I’m writing this from our coworking space Studio70, a lofty, industrial-style Berlin backyard office, where we all sit on table differently arranged every day, working from our laptops, shoving data and information back and forth. We’re sharing desks and meeting room, improvising with every new gadget and feature we build in here, in the room next door a makerbot is being assembled. In other words: it’s a steam punk appropriation.

And on sustainable lifestyle in a geek context:

You’re going to be dead much longer than you’re alive. So you need to do stuff that you can do better than your dead great grandfather. How can you do this, he asks. A geek-friendly approach to consumption. For people of your generation, objects are print-outs. They’re frozen social relationships. Think of objects in terms of hours of time and volumes of space. It’s a good design approach. Because if you’re picking these things up — washing it, storing it, curating it — these possessions are really embodied social relationships: made by peole, designed by people, sold by people, etc. Relationships that happen to have material form. You might argue that you ought to buy cheap things or organic. That’s not the way forward. Economizing is not social. If you economize, you’re starving someone else. You need to reassess the objects in your space and time.

Also, here’s the whole talk, and so worth watching: