Monday, 1 April 2019


Since about “The Limits to Growth” report in the early 70ies, we know that our economy is not sustainable and that societal and economic collapse in the 21st century is a realistic possibility, at least according to a large number of experts (even though the discussion is still on-going and controversial). The proposal of the business world to handle the sustainability problem was largely based on globalization, liberalization, and free global trade. However, those measures have almost reached their limits, and sustainability challenges are still huge, as the debates on climate change and water scarcity show. Moreover, there is a serious distribution problem of resources. Some countries suffer from obesity, while others suffer from hunger. Hence, the United Nations has called for urgent action under labels such as “Agenda 2030” and “Sustainable Development Goals”.

To achieve these goals, many have proposed a data-driven and AI-controlled approach. When resources are expected to fall short, it is proposed that one needs to know exactly where all resources are located and who is using them. Furthermore, one should be able to steer the use of all these resources. The data would be centrally collected and an optimal plan worked out by means of a “world simulator”, which is based on detailed digital doubles of everyone (an example is the “Sentient World” simulation). Moreover, people’s behavior would then be steered by nudging or neural manipulation, and deviations from the desired behavior would be punished, as known from the “Chinese” Social Credit System or Citizen Score. (Note that the British secret services CHGQ has developed a similar program under the name “Karma Police”, an extension of Predictive Policing approaches.)

This approach has been widely criticized as totalitarian. Not only does mass surveillance violate the human rights of privacy and human dignity. Behavioral experiments with humans and social engineering without well-informed consent is as problematic as most digital methods of propaganda and censorship. An AI system that proposedly acts like a “benevolent dictator” and applies predictive policing to punish deviations from imposed conformity shares elements of fascist systems. Moreover, by means of constructed dilemma situations such as “trolley problems”, some experts are trying to establish new ethical principles for “moral machines”, which undermine the equality principle on which many societies are based. Research shows that autonomous systems judging over humans might discriminate certain people (e.g. women or people of color, elderly, poor or ill people), and they may relativize human rights. Some researchers have even started thinking about AI systems for euthanasia in an unsustainable world. In other words, something like a digital holocaust is conceivable, if autonomous systems are used against people.

As an alternative approach, we have recently developed concepts that go beyond open data, open source, open access, open innovation, making, crowd sourcing and citizen science. These concepts include global systems science and a network of digital hubs (“digital lab”), peace rooms, digital empowerment, data platforms enabling informational self-determination, democratic capitalism, digital democracy, City Olympics, participatory resilience, socio-ecological finance, participatory sustainability, and open source urbanism. Here, co-learning, co-ordination, co-operation, and co-evolution are the expected success principles to benefit our economy and society. Unleashing collective intelligence would boost societies, combinatorial innovation would fuel the economy, and digital assistants would empower people. Most of these concepts are shortly described in some detail below, and links to articles are provided.

1. Global Systems Science

Today’s strongly connected, global networks have produced highly interdependent systems that we do not understand and cannot control well. These systems are vulnerable to failure at all scales, posing serious threats to society, even when external shocks are absent. As the complexity and interaction strengths in our networked world increase, man-made systems can become unstable, creating uncontrollable situations even when decision-makers are well-skilled, have all data and technology at their disposal, and do their best. To make these systems manageable, a fundamental redesign is needed. A ‘Global Systems Science’ should create the required knowledge and paradigm shift in thinking.

2. Inspired by the MIT Media Lab, it is suggested to create a European Digital Lab

This was proposed at the SwissCore workshop on October 11, 2019, in Brussels.
In order to prepare the tools to counter our societies’ existential threats, a large-scale initiative, a kind of Apollo project, is urgently needed. We propose to establish a Digital Lab – a European MediaLab, such that a sizeable progress can be made on a short time scale. The Digital Lab could be staffed with leading international experts (many would even return from the USA, if working conditions were competitive). It is a matter of political will and action to kick-start and support the activities that would foster and integrate cutting-edge research in various specialized digital hubs all over Europe and form a scientific collaboration network, the European Digital Lab.

3. Creation of a platform for informational self-determination, which would also promote combinatorial innovation

Informational self-determination should is a human right. The slide below proposes a platform for informational self-determination, which would give control over our digital doubles back to the people. With this, all personalized services and products would be possible, but companies would have to convince us to share some of our data with them for a specific purpose. The resulting competition for consumer trust would eventually promote a trustable digital society.

The platform would also create a level playing field: not only big business, but also SMEs, spinoffs, NGOs, scientific institutions and civil society could work with the data treasure, if they would get data access approved by the people (but many people may actually select this as a default). Overall, such a platform for informational self-determination would promote a thriving information ecosystem.
Data management would be done by means of a personalized AI system running on our own devices, i.e. digital assistants that learn our privacy preferences and the companies and institutions we trust or don’t trust. Our digital assistants would comfortably preconfigure personal data access, and we could always adapt it.
Over time, if implemented well, such an approach could establish a thriving, trustable digital age that empowers people, companies and governments alike, while making quick progress towards a sustainable and peaceful world. The concept fits the concept of a European Science Cloud well.

4. Creation of "Peace Rooms“ to address the world’s grand challenges better

The resurgence of terms such as 'cold war' and 'clash of cultures' in the media reflects a dangerous social dynamic that could drive societies to the brink of recession, civil war and societal collapse. We suggest that a more modern, open and scientific strategy might help to prevent history from repeating itself.
Today's strategic 'war rooms' use big data, artificial intelligence and cognitive environments to manage conflicts and crises or run big business. Recasting them as 'peace rooms' would be better in tomorrow's world — they would then be more democratic and would operate with greater transparency for legitimacy. This would help to build trust and expose flaws in the system.
Peace rooms could be run by interdisciplinary, international scientific teams to integrate the best available knowledge. They would rely on input from multiple stakeholders — including cities, civil society, non-governmental organizations, citizen scientists and crowdsourcing — to find solutions that work for as many people as possible. The rooms would be supervised by ethics experts to ensure that innovative outcomes are used responsibly.
This is in line with approaches such as democratic capitalism and digital democracy. Peace rooms could change how strategic decisions are made in crisis situations, guiding us from uncontrollable conflict to the sustainable development that the world needs now.

5. Creation of a platform for participatory, digital democracy, i.e. a digital upgrade of democracy to foster collective intelligence

Digital democracy is aiming to foster collective intelligence to find solutions to complex societal issues that result in better outcomes by integrating different perspectives and solutions. On a digital platform, the various arguments on the subject would be collected, structured and summarized in different perspectives. After that, the main representatives of the various perspectives would come together at a roundtable and deliberate on innovative, integrated solutions that would work for as many different groups of people as possible. Only then one would vote – namely on the set of best integrated solutions.

6. Development of a "design for values” and “responsible innovation” approach

Responsible innovation is needed to address the grand challenges of the 21st century. It requires pro-actively addressing relevant moral and social values already in the design phase of new technologies, products, services, spaces, systems, and institutions.
There are several reasons for adopting a design for values approach: (1) the avoidance of technology rejection due to a mismatch with the values of users or society, (2) the improvement of technologies/design by better embodying these values, and (3) the generation or stimulation of values in users and society through design.

7. Creation of the framework for a real-time feedback and coordination system for a sustainable management of complex systems (socio-ecological finance system)

Using the Internet of Things, one could now quantify the impact of human action on the environment and others in a multi-dimensional way. Noise, stress, CO2, waste and other effects that one would like to reduce would be measured by various sensors. The same applies to effects one would like to promote, such as the recycling of resources. Such a multi-dimensional real-time measurement and feedback system would be able to incorporate the values ​​and goals of our society. For example, environmental-friendly and social production methods could be made profitable and attractive. In this way, the emergence of a sustainable circular economy and a sharing economy could be promoted by a novel socio-ecological finance system, which one may call “Finance 4.0+”. Such a system would bring the Internet of Things and Blockchain technology together to reach the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Goals more quickly, in a participatory way.

8. Development of a City Olympics concept as participatory format to address global challenges

“City Olympics” or “City Challenges” could boost innovation on a cross-city level involving all stakeholders. They would be national, international or even global competitions to find innovative solutions to important challenges. Competitive disciplines could, for example, be the reduction of climate change, the development of new, energy-efficient systems, sustainability, resilience, social integration, and peace. The solutions would be publicly funded and should be Open Source (for example, under a Creative Commons license) in order to be reused and developed further by a multitude of actors in all cities i.e. by corporations, SMEs and spin-offs, researchers, NGOs and civil society. In this way, the potential of trends such as Open Source Movement, Hackathons, Fablabs, MakerSpaces, Gov Labs and Citizen Science would be raised to an entirely new level, creating the potential for civil society solutions. The new success principles would be collaborative practices such as co-learning, co-creation, combinatorial innovation, co-ordination, co-operation, co-evolution, and collective intelligence.
Increasing the role of cities and regions as drivers of innovation would allow innovative solutions and initiatives to be launched in a bottom-up way. All interested circles could contribute to City Challenges. Scientists and engineers would come up with new solutions and citizens would be invited to participate as well, e.g. through Citizen Science. Media would continuously feature the efforts and progress made in the various projects. Companies could try to sell better products and services. Politicians would mobilize the society. Overall, this would create a positive, playful and forward-looking spirit, which could largely promote the transformation towards a digital and sustainable society. In the short time available, the ecological transformation of our society can only succeed if the majority of our society is taken on board, and if everyone can participate and profit.
Swissnex just organized a meeting in Bangalore, India, on this:

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Using The Wisdom Of Crowds To Make Cities Smarter

How could networks of innovative cities contribute to the solution of humanity’s existential problems?

Given the on-going digital revolution and our present-day sustainability challenges, we have to reinvent the way cities are operated. We propose that the requirement of organizing societies in a more resilient way implies the need for more decentralized solutions, based on digitally assisted self-organization, and that this concept is also compatible with sustainability requirements and stronger democratic participation. 

The project by Prof. Dirk Helbing and his Computational Social Science team will investigate, whether such a decentralized, participatory approach could compete with a fully centralized approach in terms of efficiency and sustainability, or perform even better than that. This requires in particular to figure out, how distributed co-creation processes can be coordinated and lifted to a professional level in a scalable way. 

The main questions of the project are: How could more participatory smart cities work, and how can they meet the requirements of being more efficient, sustainable and resilient? What are their risks and benefits compared with centralized approaches? How could digital societies fitting our culture, for example, based on values such as freedom, equality and solidarity (liberté, égalité, fraternité) look like, and what performance can be expected from them?

The project brings together two research directions: first, the automation of mobility solutions based on the Internet of Things and Machine Learning approaches, as they have been pursued within the “smart cities” paradigm and, second, novel collaborative approaches as they have been recently discussed under labels such as participatory resilience, digital democracy, City Olympics, open source urbanism, and the “socio-ecological finance system”.

In German:

Wie „Smart Cities“ mit Schwarmintelligenz noch besser werden können

Wie können Netzwerke innovativer Städte zur Lösung der existentiellen Menschheitsprobleme beitragen? Angesichts der fortschreitenden digitalen Revolution und unserer heutigen Nachhaltigkeitsherausforderungen müssen wir die Art und Weise, wie Städte organisiert werden, neu erfinden. Wir schlagen vor, dass die Notwendigkeit, die Gesellschaft krisenfester zu gestalten, stärker dezentralisierte Lösungen auf der Grundlage digital unterstützter Selbstorganisation erfordert, und dass dieses Konzept auch mit den Nachhaltigkeitsanforderungen und einer stärkeren demokratischen Beteiligung vereinbar ist. 

Das Projekt von Prof. Dirk Helbing und seinem Computational Social Science Team soll untersuchen, ob ein derart dezentraler, partizipativer Ansatz mit einem vollständig zentralisierten Ansatz in Bezug auf Effizienz und Nachhaltigkeit konkurrieren kann oder sogar noch besser abschneidet. Dies erfordert insbesondere herauszufinden, wie verteilte Prozesse der Ko-Kreation skalierbar koordiniert und auf professionelles Niveau gebracht werden können. 
Die Hauptfragen des Projekts lauten: Wie könnten stärker partizipative Smart Cities funktionieren und wie können sie die Anforderungen erfüllen, effizienter, nachhaltiger und krisenfester zu sein? Welche Risiken und Vorteile bestehen im Vergleich zu zentralisierten Ansätzen? Wie können digitale Gesellschaften aussehen, die zu unserer Kultur passen, also beispielsweise auf Werten wie Freiheit, Gleichheit und Solidarität (liberté, égalité, fraternité) basieren, und welche Leistungsfähigkeit kann von ihnen erwartet werden?

Das Projekt bringt zwei Forschungsrichtungen zusammen: erstens die Automatisierung von Mobilitätslösungen, die auf den Ansätzen des Internets der Dinge und des maschinellen Lernens beruhen, wie sie beim Ansatz von „Smart Cities“ („intelligenten Städte“) zum Einsatz kommen; zweitens neuartige kollaborative Ansätze, wie sie neuerdings unter Stichworten wie partizipative Resilienz, digitale Demokratie, Städte-Olympiaden, Open Source Stadtentwicklung und dem sozio-ökologischen Finanzsystem „Fin4“ diskutiert werden.

Saturday, 16 March 2019

Fixing Over-Connectivity

The functioning of many socio-technical systems depends on the ability of its subcomponents or nodes to communicate or interact via its connections, but high connectivity may imply problems. By removing or deactivating a specific set of nodes, a network structure can be dismantled into isolated subcomponents, thereby disrupting the (mal)functioning of a system or containing the spread of misinformation or an epidemic. The researchers (Ren, Gleinig, Helbing, Antulov-Fantulin) at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich recently proposed and published insights about Generalized Network Dismantling in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS). Link

In a hyper-connected world, systemic instability, based on cascading effects, can seriously undermine the functionality of a network. The quick global spread of rumors and fake news may be seen as recent examples, while the spread of epidemics or failure propagation is a problem that has been around much longer. Many of today’s networks contain highly connected nodes with a much higher frequency than expected according to a normal, bell-shaped distribution. As a consequence, for some of these networks even the variance or mean value of relevant quantities may not anymore be well-defined. This means that unpredictable or uncontrollable behavior may result. For example, it may then be impossible to contain epidemic spreading processes. Similar circumstances may make it impossible to contain the spread of computer viruses or misinformation – a problem that is not only relevant for the quick increase of cyberthreats, but which may also undermine the functionality of markets, societal or political institutions.

For example, finding an optimal subset of nodes in a network that is able to successfully disrupt the functioning of a corrupt or criminal organization is still a great challenge. In principle, the dismantling of a network into isolated subcomponents might stop the (mal)functioning of a system, i.e. the removal or deactivation of even a small set of influential nodes may allow one to fix the problem. However, this problem belongs to the class of computationally hard problems. For these problems, it is numerically demanding to find the best solution efficiently. The publication of Ren et al. presents a new, approximate dismantling solution.

A typical approach to fight organized crime and corruption is to try to identify the underlying organization’s network, and then to remove the leader of the organization. It turns out, however, that it often requires an extremely high effort to remove the higher echelons of such organizations, because of their special protection measures. Removal costs of criminals or corrupt persons largely depend on their position in the network. It has also been found that it is often ineffective to remove the boss of a corruption or criminal network, as someone else will quickly take the leadership position of the organization and continue running the criminal or corruption network; besides, the transition period is often characterized by an increase in the level of crime, until the power struggle is decided. Therefore, the dismantling problem, which has been studied primarily for situations with identical node removal costs before, has been generalized to arbitrary, non-uniform removal costs. This class of problems has different kinds of solutions. Specifically, the dismantling procedure does not go for the big nodes first. It is less costly (i.e. more effective) to dismantle the network by initially removing some medium-sized nodes.

Ren et al. present a new algorithm to solve the generalized network dismantling problem, and apply it to a variety of problems ranging from crime networks over epidemic spreading to corruption networks. The new approach is based on a combination of three sophisticated methods and is applicable to large-scale networks with millions of nodes. Understanding the theory behind (generalized) network dismantling opens up more research directions for all scientists interested in designing more robust and resilient systems in the future. It requires the combination of diverse fundamental insights, for example, from theoretical computer science, mathematics, statistical physics, and even game theory. 

The results of the study are relevant for the robustness and recommended (re)organization of current socio-technical systems for different realistic costs. In particular, the authors point that the method offers a possible solution for emergencies where cutting a dysfunctional network into pieces can restore the functionality. However, they also warn of potential misuses or dual uses. When not applied in appropriate contexts and ways, the use of the dismantling approach may undermine the proper functionality of networks. Therefore, they point out that related ethical issues must be always sufficiently, appropriately, and transparently addressed, when the method is applied. 

Visualization of a strategy to potentially reduce the epidemic spreading of a disease.

Thursday, 7 February 2019

Are upload filters and the EU’s new copyright law misguided? Shouldn’t we instead re-invent innovation?

Compared to material goods, information is a special resource. While material goods are limited, which can lead to resource conflicts, information can be reproduced cheaply and as often as we like. Nevertheless, current intellectual property rights treat digital goods more or less like material goods. I believe, a different kind of intellectual property right (IPR) would dramatically accelerate innovation and create many more jobs. While we have to catch up with the pace at which our world is changing, the current IPR regime creates major obstacles. Therefore, we need a new paradigm which will allow collaborative creation ("co-creation") to flourish.

In fact, we could fundamentally change the way we foster innovation. Currently, many people don't like to share their best ideas, because they don't want other people to become rich on the back of their research, while getting very little compensation. As a result, it often takes years until an idea is shared with the world through a publication or patent. But what if we innovated cooperatively from the very first moment? Let us assume an idea is born in America, and it is shared with others through a public portal such as github. Afterwards, experts from Asia could work on these ideas within hours, then experts from Europe could build on their results, and so on. In this way, we could create a research and development paradigm that never sleeps, that overcomes the limits of a single team, and that embraces "collective intelligence".

Such an approach would produce considerable synergy effects. My colleagues Didier Sornette and Thomas Maillart recently demonstrated that, by collaborating, two people can produce open-source software that otherwise would have required 2.5 developers ("1+1=2.5").[1] Geoffrey West, Luis Bettencourt and I, together with some others discovered a similar pattern in cities: productivity that depends on social interactions tends to disproportionately increase with population size.[2] For example, a city with two million inhabitants would be about 20 percent more productive per 1 million inhabitants than two cities of one million. This is probably the main reason for the rapid and on-going urbanization of the world.

Interestlingly, Internet forums of all kinds have nowadays created something akin to virtual cities. Many citizen science projects (and also the famous Polymath project on collaborative mathematics) underline that a crowd-based approach can complement or even outperform classical research and development approaches.[3]

Given the great advantages of collaboration, what are the main obstacles? A central problem is the lack of incentives to share. Currently, researchers are motivated by two kinds of rewards: they receive a basic salary and they earn the recognition of their peers in the form of citations of their published work. For this reason, many scientists do not share their ideas until they have been published.

Patents are a further obstacle to the sharing and widespread implementation of good ideas. While patents are actually intended to stimulate research and development by protecting the commercial value of ideas, in the digital economy patents seem to hinder innovation more than they foster it. It is as if everyone would own a certain number of words and could charge others for using them – this would certainly obstruct the exchange of ideas considerably. However, it has recently become difficult to legally enforce hardware and software patents, and there have been an increasing number of patent deals between competing companies. The electric car company Tesla has even decided to allow others to use their patents.[4] All this might indicate that a paradigm shift in terms of intellectual property rights is just around the corner.

Moreover, it has become increasingly difficult to earn large amounts of money by publishing music, movies or news. This is not just a problem of illegal downloads. In contrast to material resources, information is becoming an abundant resource. Given that every year, we produce as much data as in the entire history of humankind, information will become increasingly cheaper.

Micropayments would be better

So why not pursue an entirely different IPR approach, perhaps in parallel to the current intellectual property regime? By it's very nature, information "wants" to be free and to be shared. Every culture is based on this. Information is a virtually unlimited resource, which in principle can be reproduced almost for free. In contrast to material resources, this allows us to overcome scarcity, poverty and conflict. Nevertheless, we currently try to prevent people from copying digital products. What if we simply allowed copying, but introduced a micropayment system to ensure that every copy generates revenue for the content creator (and those who help to spread content)? Under such circumstances, we would probably love it when others copy our work!

Rather than complaining about people who copy digital products, we should make it easier to pay for the fruits of creativity and innovation. Remember that, some time back, Apple's iTunes made it simple to download and buy songs, for 99 cents each. It would be great to have a similarly simple, automatic compensation scheme for digital products, ideas and innovations. Modern text-mining algorithms could form the basis of a system, where content creators and companies would be automatically paid whenever their ideas are used. This payment could be calibrated according to the scale of the initial investment, the age of the invention and its "innovativeness", i.e. the degree to which it made advances over already existing solutions. This would encourage cooperative innovation without providing a disincentive for new research.

Establishing a micropayment system would also allow companies and citizens to earn money on the data they generate and exchange. Then, everyone could benefit from contributing to the global information ecosystem. This would create an incentive system that would reward the sharing of data. But to get paid for every copy, one would need a particular file format. Copies ("offspring") of data would have to be linked with their respective source ("parent") via a kind of "data cord", so that micro-payments between the owners and users of the data can be processed.[5] In fact, a "Personal Data Store" would be needed to execute these payments.[6]

The above text is the content of Information Box 9.1. of the book „The Automation of Society Is Next: How to Survive the Digital Revolution"

The title has been changed.

[1] D. Sornette, T. Maillart, and and G. Ghezzi, How much is the whole really more than the sum of its parts? 1+1=2.5: Superlinear productivity in collective group actions, PLoS ONE 9(8): e103023, see

[2] L. M. A. Bettencourt, J. Lobo, D. Helbing, C. Kühnert, and G. B. West (2007) Growth, innovation, scaling and the pace of life in cities. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (PNAS) 104, 7301-7306

[3] see , ,

[4] Why Elon Musk just opened Tesla's patents to his biggest rivals, see

[5] J. Lanier, Who Owns the Future? (Simon & Schuster, 2014)

[6] Another function of this Personal Data Store would be to give each user control over his or her own personal data. Whenever personal data would be (intentionally or accidentally) produced about someone, it would have to be sent to that person's data store (which would be like a mailbox for data). The person could then determine what kind of data they are willing to share, with whom, for what period of time, and for what purposes.

Tuesday, 29 January 2019

A Platform for Informational Self-Determination

Informational self-determination should is a human right - it follows from human dignity. In times of Big Data and AI, we have lost self-determination in the digital and real world little by little. This must be changed as soon as possible.

Below is a slide on a proposed platform for informational self-determination, which would give control over our digital doubles back to us. With this, all personalized services and products would be possible, but companies would have to convince us to share some of our data with them for a specific purpose. The resulting competition for consumer trust would eventually promote a trustable digital society.  

The platform would also create a level playing field: not only big business, but also SMEs, spinoffs, NGOs, scientific institutions and civil society could work with the data treasure, if they would get data access approved by the people (but many people may actually select this as a default). Overall, such a platform for informational self-determination would promote a thriving information ecosystem.

Government agencies and scientific institutions would be allowed to run statistics. A benevolent super-intelligent system that helps good things to succeed while not interfering with our free will would also be possible. Such a system should be designed for values such as human dignity, sustainability, fairness, as well as further constitutional and cultural values that support the evolvement of creativity and human potential with societal and global benefits in mind.

Data management would be done by means of a personalised AI system running on our own devices, i.e. digital assistants that learn our privacy preferences and the companies and institutions we trust or don’t trust. Our digital assistants would comfortably preconfigure personal data access, and we could always adapt it.

Over time, if implemented well, such an approach could establish a thriving, trustable digital age that empowers people, companies and governments alike, while making quick progress towards a sustainable and peaceful world.

Further reading: