Promises, Promises – part 2

The city of Amsterdam’s first CTO, Ger Baron, has suggested a checklist of public interest tests for smart cities and the IoT.

Speaking at the European chapter of Silicon Valley’s Singularity University recently, Ger Baron spoke with rare candour on the challenge of harnessing smart city applications 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, with entrepreneurs and innovators creating a global mesh network to enable new use cases.

This is a huge opportunity to re-invent the social contracts, often unwritten, which govern the relationships between technology, business and people.

The trend to Distributed Services, enabled by the Cloud, is re-writing these often unwritten rules of engagement. As the pace of innovation increases, every industry needs to think again about social contracts as a key element of their response to disruption.

More industries will follow the trajectory seen in energy and utilities. First, centralised suppliers are disrupted by a decentralised model, then a new industry structure emerges made up of dozens or even hundreds of distributed suppliers.

How can this process be regulated in the best interests of citizens, if at all?

Mr Baron suggested a broad range of threshold tests as the first criteria for public policy. According to this view, citizens can make the following demands of any new platform. Is it: Democratic? Inclusive? An Honest Market? Safe and Secure? Transparent and Open? Sustainable?

At the heart of these concerns is a litmus test: What is the effect of any new technology on all the others? This is crucial to the economic health of the larger ecosystem.

For politicians especially, these are tough calls.

Take Amsterdam. Under the auspices of a city partnership with TomTom, Amsterdam is already advising the city-state of Singapore on the harvesting of data for traffic management. Cool. But not a single elected official in Amsterdam has a considered position on how we can – or should – govern algorithms in the public interest.

Today’s ongoing and huge gains in computing power are an agent of exponential change. But exponential or not, these changes co-exist with rules and expectations whose evolution is strictly linear.

Already, today’s internet giants are too big to fail. A more competitive landscape will require the co-existence and interoperability of myriad platforms.

According to the old trope of science fiction: Artificial Intelligence is a contest of unequals, the exponential Superbrain against more limited and linear human brains.

Today, exponential power is no longer in the realm of imagination.

Like the biggest global banks in recent financial crises, unregulated technology has fostered huge concentrations of power in today’s internet giants. They are the mega-IoT players now driving the transformation in smart cities. They bring great promise to improve the lives of their citizens.

At the same time, the mega-IoT has evolved at a pace far beyond the capacity of today’s systems of governance. That’s true at every level: global, regional, national and municipal. This gulf is a real and present danger to democrats and regulators in our linear world.

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