Friday, 30 November 2018


by Jan Nagler 1, 2 and Dirk Helbing 2,3,4

How should self-driving vehicles faced with ethical dilemmas decide? 

This question is shaking the very foundations of human rights.

In the “Moral Machine Experiment” (1), Awad et al. perform an international opinion poll on autonomous vehicles. While the authors emphasize not to blindly follow local or majority preferences, they highlight challenges that policymakers must be aware of if special groups of people are not given a special status. This may push politicians to follow popular votes, while car manufacturers already pay attention to opinion polls (2).

However, is a crowd-sourced ethics approach appropriate to decide, whether to prioritize children over elderly people, women over men, or athletes over overweight persons? Certainly not. The proposal overhauls the equality principle, on which many constitutions and the UN Charter of Human Rights are based.

While we acknowledge that laws have to be adapted and upgraded to account for emerging technologies, and that moral choices may be context-dependent, changing the most fundamental ethical principles underlying human dignity and human rights in order to more successfully market new technologies may result in a rapid erosion of the very basis of our societies.

Giving up the equality principle (as Citizen Scores do) could easily promote a new, digitally based feudalism. Moreover, in an unsustainable, “overpopulated” world, “moral machines” would be Trojan Horses: they would threaten more human lives than they would save. Autonomous AI systems (not necessarily cars or robots) would potentially introduce principles of hybrid warfare to our societies.

Instead of just managing moral dilemmas, we must undertake all reasonable efforts to reduce them. Therefore, we propose that autonomous and AI-based systems should conform with the principle of fairness, which suggests to randomize decisions, giving everyone the same weight. Any deviation from impartiality would imply advantages for a select group of people, which would undermine incentives to minimize risks for everyone.

(1) E. Awad et al., The Moral Machine experiment, Nature 562, 59-64 (2018)
(2) A. Maxmen, Self-driving car dilemmas reveal that moral choices are not universal, Nature 562, 469-470 (2018)

  1. Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, Adickesallee 32-34, Frankfurt, Germany
  2. Computational Social Science, Department of Humanities, Social and Political Sciences, ETH Zurich, Clausiusstrasse 50, CH-8092 Zurich, Switzerland
  3. TU Delft, Faculty of Technology, Policy, and Management, The Netherlands

  4. Complexity Science Hub, Vienna, Austria

    E-mail addresses:;

Comment on Awad et al., The Moral Machine Experiment, Nature 562, 59-64 (2018);Link:

Monday, 26 November 2018

Open Source Urbanism: Beyond Smart Cities

Sergei Zhilin (TU Delft), Jeroen van den Hoven, Dirk Helbing (ETH Zurich/TU Delft/Complexity Science Hub Vienna)

Open Source Urbanism can help mitigate the migration crisis and improve living conditions all over the world.

The dream of building “good cities” is old1. Since the 20th century, there have been many attempts to create, develop or shape cities, sometimes even from scratch. Examples range from gigantic modernistic approaches known from Brasilia and Chandigarh, to more radical, but theoretical concepts aimed at changing society and engineering social order, such as Ecotopia or the Venus project. Recent developments are driven by the planetary trend towards urbanization, mass migration, and the need for sustainability. New visions of a global urban future were developed, such as “Sustainable”, “Eco”, or “Resilient” Cities, typically based on a top-down approach to the design of urban habitats.

Cities created from scratch heavily depend on massive private investments, for example, Songdo in South Korea or Lavasa in India. Despite ambitious goals and many technological innovations, their long-term success cannot be taken for granted, as they are often conceived by urban planners without the participation of people who later live in these cities. Such projects are typically implemented without much feedback from citizens. This makes it difficult to meet their needs. In fact, some of these cities have ended as “ghost cities”.

In the wake of the digital revolution, data-driven approaches promised to overcome these problems. “Smart cities”, “smart nations,” and even a “smarter planet” were proposed. Various big IT companies decided to invest huge amounts of money into platforms designed to run the “cities of the future”. Fuelled by the upcoming Internet of Things, cities would be covered with plenty of sensors to automate them and thereby turn them into a technology-driven “paradise.” So far, however, these expectations have not been met.2 Why?

Geoffrey West points out that cities cannot be run like companies.3 A company is oriented at maximizing profit, i.e. a single quantity, while a city must balance a lot of different goals and interests. This tends to make companies efficient, but vulnerable to mistakes. Cities are often less efficient, but more resilient. Driven by diverse interests, cities naturally do not put all eggs in one basket. This is why cities typically live longer than businesses, kingdoms, empires, and nation states.4

Importantly, cities are not just giant supply chains. They are also not huge entertainment parks, in which citizens consume premanufactured experiences. Instead, they are places of experimentation, learning, social interaction, creativity, innovation, and participation. Cities are places, in which diverse talents and perspectives come together, and collective intelligence emerges. Quality of life results, when many kinds of people can pursue their interests and unfold their talents while these activities inspire and catalyse each other. In other words, cities partly self-organize, based on a (co-)evolutionary dynamics.5,6

While rapid urbanization comes with many problems, such as the overuse of resources, climate change and inequality,5 cities become ever more important, as they are motors of innovation.3,5 Presently, more than half of humanity lives in cities, and the urban population is expected to increase to 68% by 2050. To meet the social, economic, and ecological challenges, innovation must be further accelerated, as the UN Agenda 2030 Sustainable Development Goals stress.

Given the digital revolution and the sustainability challenges, we now have to re-invent the way cities and human settlements are built and operated, and how cities can contribute to the solutions of humanity’s present and future existential problems. In the past, we had primarily two ways of addressing such issues: (1) nation-states (and their organization in the United Nations) and (2) global corporations. Both have not managed to deliver the necessary solutions on time, e.g. to problems such as climate change and lack of sustainability. Therefore, we propose a third way of addressing global problems: through networks of cities. 7 So, how to unleash the urban innovation engine?


“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 (remember that the UN wants to accomplish the sustainability goals by around 2030), 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.


Cities are the places where the engagement of citizens can have the greatest impact. The most liveable cities manage to create opportunities to unfold the talents of many different people and cultures and to catalyse fruitful interactions among them. Opportunities for participation and co-creation are key for success.

Alexandros Washburn8 said about the design process of New York City that he could not control anything, but influence everything; successful urban design required the right combination of top-down and bottom-up involvement. It is therefore essential that urban development involves all stakeholders including citizens. Vauban, a quarter of the city of Freiburg, Germany, is a good example for this. The city council encouraged the citizens to actively participate in land-use planning and city budgeting. Sustainability and new energy-saving technologies were a primary focus of the planning strategy. In two new districts (Rieselfeld and Vauban), self-built and community architecture was created, which led to urban environments conceived and designed by future inhabitants according to their own vision. Now, Freiburg counts as benchmark city. Its concepts of sustainable urban planning and community participation are widely used by other cities all over the world.

So far, most urban planning professionals do not pay much attention to long-term involvement of citizens in urban development. With the ubiquity of information and communication technologies, our cities are getting smarter, but not automatically more inclusive, just, and democratic. The Citizen Score, a surveillance-based approach to control the behaviours of people, shows how easily technological progress may lead to technological totalitarianism. In the private sector as well, global corporations, geared towards profit, can turn into threats of democracy and human rights. When services are free, people are the product, data can fall into the wrong hands, and human dignity, autonomy, and freedom will be compromised. In data-rich societies, where people are measured and watched, profiled and targeted, this problem is quite significant. If cities of the future were run like businesses, based on surveillance, driven by data and controlled by algorithms, liberty, democracy, and human rights might quickly erode.

The application of open source principles to the co-creation of urban environments could overcome these problems by supporting active participation, technological pluralism and diversity. Thereby, it would also avoid technological lock-ins and dead-ends. The open source movement, which started with opening software (see the example of GitHub) now promotes the co-production of open content (Wikipedia, OpenStreetMap), open hardware (3D-printer RepRap), and even open architecture (WikiHouse). Open Source Urbanism would be the next logical step of this open source trend.

In 2011, Saskia Sassen wrote: “I see in Open Source a DNA that resonates strongly with how people make the city theirs or urbanize what might be an individual initiative. And yet, it stays so far away from the city. I think that it will require making. We need to push this urbanizing of technologies to strengthen horizontal practices and initiatives.”4

Yochai Benkler argues that open source projects indicate the beginning of a social, technological, organizational and economic transformation of the society towards a new mode of production.9 This new mode, called commons-based peer production, is a collective activity of volunteers, usually coordinated via the Internet, producing free-to-use knowledge. Open Source Urbanism, as a new way of urban development, would therefore build on concepts such as Open Source Innovation and Commons-Based Peer Production.

In fact, citizens are keen to be not just consumers, but co-producers of their urban habitats. Some of them already experiment with open-sourcing urban design by collecting, improving, and sharing their Do-It-Yourself design blueprints and manuals on the Internet. The “Nation of Makers” initiative promotes community-driven design, prototyping, and fabrication as well in order to solve local and global challenges by improving lives in local communities around the planet.
Such examples are presently still rare and dispersed, and, therefore, not yet able to shift cities towards more inclusive urban development on a global scale. For this, one would need a socio-technical platform to consolidate and strengthen the nascent movement. Such a platform could promote the exchange of best practices and solutions to frequently occurring problems. The results would be digital commons designed to satisfy citizens’ needs10.

The proposed approach pushes for a new paradigm of globalisation, which one may call “glocalisation”. It would be based on thinking global, but acting local (and diverse), on experimentation, learning from each other, and mutual support. The approach would be scalable. It would be more diverse and less vulnerable to disruptions. It would promote innovation and collective intelligence, while being compatible with privacy, freedom, participation, democracy, and a high quality of life. If cities would open up and engage in co-creation and sharing, they would quickly become more innovative and efficient. Open Source Urbanism could take our cities and societies to an entirely new level and also help to create better living conditions in developing countries and regions suffering from war more quickly.  


1.        Sennett, R. Building and Dwelling: Ethics for the City. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018).
2.        Hugel, S. & Hoare, T. Disrupting cities through technology, Wilton Park. (2016).
3.        West, G. Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. (Penguin, 2017).
4.        Sassen, S. Open Source Urbanism. Domus (2011). Available at: (Accessed: 16th November 2016)
5.        Bettencourt, L. M. A. & West, G. A unified theory of urban living. Nature 467, 912–913 (2010).
6.        Batty, M. Cities and complexity: understanding cities with cellular automata, agent-based models, and fractals. (The MIT press, 2007).
7.        Barber, B. R. If mayors ruled the world: Dysfunctional nations, rising cities. (Yale University Press, 2013).
8.        Washburn, A. The nature of urban design: A New York perspective on resilience. (Island Press, 2013).
9.        Benkler, Y. Freedom in the Commons: Towards a Political Economy of Information. Duke Law J. 52, 1245–1276 (2003).
10.      Schrijver, L. in Handbook of Ethics, Values, and Technological Design: Sources, Theory, Values and Application Domains (eds. van den Hoven, J., Vermaas, P. E. & van de Poel, I.) 589–611 (Springer Netherlands, 2015). doi:10.1007/978-94-007-6970-0_22