Promises, Promises

The city of Amsterdam’s first CTO cut a maverick figure at the European chapter of Silicon Valley’s Singularity University recently.

Discussing the future of cities, Ger Baron joined a panel of technology enthusiasts who reported on an array of civic-minded smart city applications. Mr Baron is a true believer in their potential to engage citizens and improve quality of life, but he spoke with rare candour on the difficulty in harnessing technology to serve public policy goals.

A former IT consultant with Accenture, Mr Baron is the first person to take up his role in the Amsterdam administration. He sees the whole world becoming a platform. He sees entrepreneurs and innovators creating a global mesh network to enable new use cases. And he knows it is in cities that the big governance issues will emerge, as we have seen already in controversies sparked by Uber and AirBnB.

Mr Baron believes the answers (such as they are) will be decided in cities too.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the audience gathered at the Amsterdam chapter of Singularity University seemed to agree that this will happen sooner than we expect. Across the globe, new social contracts are taking shape on public concerns from air quality to climate change and traffic congestion.

Some examples:

  • Shenghen has piloted a carbon trading platform for commuters
  • Singapore has introduced a gaming app developed by Fujitsu to reward citizens for travelling outside rush hour
  • Barcelona and Paris and Stockholm have become less accommodating for cars.

So what’s not to like? If smart cities are the laboratories of our future, they are also a crucible where today’s policy dilemmas grow into tomorrow’s social contracts.

Mr Baron sounded a note of caution for his audience. While recognizing the promise of technology to improve lives on an unprecedented scale, he warned that the promises to date often have been out of step with reality.

In public policy terms, his check list of concerns was well-rehearsed:

  • Inclusivity. The promise of the internet was for universal connectedness. That is, a unifying force and a shared space. For everyone. In reality, the internet breeds mono-cultures. It is a space of tribes and phobias.
  • Cost. Bandwidth is cheap, but not affordable. This conundrum is reflected in the spiralling global tally of debts owed by citizens to telcos. While the Cloud has created prodigious concentrations of wealth, it levies a hefty price for consumers.
  • Job Creation. A Cloud-based economy brings immense potential to create new and highly skilled employment, but the reality of the Gig economy is low wages and insecurity for the new web proletariat.

Not that Mr Baron is against promises. Technology means structural changes in our cities and way of life. He wants more of that. The problems begin when technology gets political — when it brings too much concentration of power.

See my next post: Promises Promises – Part II, for a summary of Mr Baron’s recommendations.


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