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:

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