The notion of building “Smart Cities” has been the darling of city planners, developers and officials since 2005 when the Clinton Foundation prodded Cisco to make cities more sustainable. Recent frightening breaches of personal privacy call into question the ethics underpinning “smart” technology. A digitalswitzerland Smart City roundtable wants to debate digital ethics, but is struggling to attract support.
Innovation Challenge bet Captain Mario Fachinetti led an early charge to raise awareness of the growing divide between hyperconnected smart cities and the technology making “smart” decisions for us. Twenty-two months later, Mario is facing the prospect that he is leading a cavalry troop with only one horse.
In April 2017, the Smart City roundtable Digital Ethics Council optimistically bet:
“that by Q3 2018 it will have set up a think-tank to promote the exchange between society and business on ethical aspects of a smart city and offer solutions to concrete problems.”
The property developers and young tech companies that Mario connects through the innovation network, SwissPropTech, knew that debating tech used in cities was a tough sell.Sensitive to their commercial interests, the original round table described the problem as, “Technological progress and its networking enable a form of data exchange that affects society, business, politics and science as a whole in a still unknown form, and thus creates uncertainty and fear.”
What Mario’s team did not foresee was how little interest developers and city officials would have to help organize a think tank promoting debate around digital ethics. I know you’re asking, ‘Assemble a think tank? How hard can that be?’
No pain no problem
On an unseasonably warm February afternoon, I drove to Kyburg to ask Mario that very question. Having earlier visited the futuristic offices in trendy Zurich West of Raumgleiter, champions of another Smart City bet, I had to double check my bearings when Google Maps led me to a +200-year-old Riegalhaus in the shadow of Kyburg’s famous medieval castle. It was as incongruous a setting as you could imagine to interview a tech-savvy millennial about the ethics of tech in the city.
He placed a laptop between us, queued the bet’s slide deck and immediately leaned into why the bet has not (yet) attracted more interest. “I think one of the reasons is we don’t suffer from it, or we don’t feel what we are missing. The pain is not big enough. That’s human nature. You just know that you should have done something when you feel that pain,and right now we don’t feel it.”
Digital horror story
Only later, after I began looking for painful examples involving digital ethics did I learn of an unbelievable data privacy rupturelast year by Amazon. It was a blunder, Amazon admits, caused by human error, but a breach of digital trust that cannot fail to generate uncertainty and fear – exactly what this bet hopes to head off by debating smart cities’ ethics. Here’s a recap:
Late summer 2018, a German man asked Amazon.de under terms of GDPR, for a copy of all his personal data they had on file for him. What he got was a download link to a 500 MB Zip file containing hours and hours of Alexaaudio recordings. Most shocking, since he didn’t own an Echo Dotor any “smart home” voice-assisted devices, the audio files were someone else’s! What has to rank as disturbing for anyone – and really painful for Mr. X, were besides his wake-word commands (“Alexa, play some Toten Hosenmusic”), the WAV files contained weeks of his home’s background sound!The German magazine, c’t, who obtained copies of the recordings, listened to Mr. X’s home life: in the shower, in conversations with a woman, his TV shows, chatting to friends, even pillow talk in the bedroom.
For a true digital horror story, read the full c’t news accountby Holger Bleich. If it doesn’t create uncertainty or fear, then check out an analysisby Jason Voiovich, what this use case reveals of the brave new digital world we already inhabit with Siri, Alexa and growing multitudes of anonymous “smart” machines.
Mario is all in
With or without the impetus a challenge bet affords, Mario isn’t giving up his quest for meaningful debate. He retorted to my query, ‘what if this bet doesn’t go forward?’ saying, “For me, it’s clear. I’m still running with this topic.”In Mario’s vision, the biggest impact will be achieved from academics, politicians and businesses participating in a digital ethics council. He even foresees it scaling since a pilot can be done in in one specific area like Zurich or Luzern, “and when we see it’s working there, expand the concept to all different areas.”
Mario pointed to another reason he faces an uphill battle in his struggle to convene a council. He said, “I don’t think we are alone with the topic, but it’s hard to find people and companies who are willing to put in resources.”Ironically the scarce resource is time, the same resource digitalization promises to make more plentiful.
What are the (wrong) questions
He continued, “We found in our team, among ourselves, we have it (ethics) in mind, and we want to do something, but it’s not like we already know the solution. It’s kind of like being a pioneer with this project.How to convince people about something you don’t 100 percent understand. I mean, there’s no right and no wrong.”
The next morning, Mario informed early bet supporters Tom Kleiber, Managing Partner Zetamind AG,and Enzo Moliterni, CEO of Bouygues Energies & Services(CH) of our interview. In his email (cc’d to me), he encouraged them, “to also have your vision included in the story.” Having not heard from either of them since last year, he refused to take no news as bad news, and made a last appeal. “Personally, I will continue to pursue(with SwissPropTech) the issue of ethics in smart cities regardless of our bet.Support is still welcome. vg Mario.”
With a Masters in Applied Ethics from UZH, former BoD Microsoft (CH) and participant in “PolitTalk Digital Zurich,” Tom was an ideal source to ask why this bet has stalled. Emailing me while on ski holiday in Lenzerheide, he echoed Mario’s sentiment, “Because the discussion around digitalization is quite young, we still struggle to even understand what the questions are. Secondly, not many political leaders are aware of the fundamental changes already going on. They think it’s about regulations and maybe some new laws to protect privacy.”
Digitalizing our society
Tom’s sees more at stake than a standard business case, “The discussion around digitalization in Switzerland is too often about economics and less around a more holistic view – including society. Maybe there are too few expertsable to bring together technology, society, culture, etc. to find the right questions?”Calling attention to St. Gallen’s CHF 75M programto prepare its economy and population for the digital future, he challenged, “Where else do we have such serious discussions?”
Curious if there was support for discussing digital ethics outside Mario’s network, I asked 23-year old Zurich ETH mechanical engineer, Yvan Monneron, for comment. The young founder of SnowHaze,a privacy-focused browser & VPN, referred me to his 2018 Ignite Zurich talkabout the conflict of interest confronting Internet companies to keep our data private while needing to use our data to make money and train smart systems.
We all have a lot to learn
Can this roundtable rally enough support to assemble a digital ethics think tank by April 15?From where I’m sitting, this bet is a long-shot. A bet we all want competing in the race, but are reluctant to commit our own time or money. Which means we all have a lot to learn regardless of this bet’s outcome debating the ethics programmed into our “Smart Cities.”