Thursday, 8 August 2019


An interview with Dirk Helbing

An earlier version of this article, written by Peter Lau, appeared first in German at brand eins, which is accessible here:

Digitization will change everything. We know this, we have heard this before. But how should our society deal with it? Scientist Dirk Helbing has many ideas…

Dirk Helbing is not a man for small ideas. “I believe we are facing a fundamental social upheaval that will be bigger and faster than the industrial revolution," says the 54-year-old physicist and sociologist, summing up his vision of the future. "We will experience an all-encompassing transformation that will substantially change all areas of life and our entire society. To manage this unscathed, we need a lot of public debate about our societal options.”

This may sound exaggerated to some, but the scientist who works at ETH Zurich as a professor of sociology with a focus on computational social science is more qualified to judge this than many technology evangelists and end time prophets. After all, he has been analysing complex systems for more than 20 years – and human society is such a system. But it is rarely seen this way in everyday politics. In many cases politics is seen as a matter of solving particular problems – here some regulation, there some subsidy – which unfortunately often does not work. Probably for this reason: the world does not consist of separate problems – they are interconnected. And anyone who wants to keep an overview needs to think outside the box to get a systemic perspective.

Born in Aalen in 1965, the researcher has always been interested in both areas of the academic world, the natural and social sciences. He studied physics, but some mathematics, sociology and psychology, too. With his interdisciplinary diploma thesis, he established a new field of research: pedestrian dynamics, the investigation of pedestrian flows.

Helbing has studied traffic congestion and mass panics. He worked on new traffic assistance and traffic light control systems at the Institute for Economics and Transport at TU Dresden, and he was one of the founders of socio- and traffic physics. He also dealt with opinion formation models. His current research at ETH Zurich focuses, among other things, on understanding human coordination, social cooperation and collective intelligence.

But Helbing has always gone beyond academia. The best-known example is the FuturICT initiative, which he initiated in 2010: almost 2,000 people from 30 countries around the world worked for several years in interdisciplinary research teams to address the key challenges of our future. Among other things, this promoted new research approaches such as data science and computational social science. The initiative was gigantic, but the basic idea was simple: “Today, we understand the mysteries of the universe better than life on our planet. That's why we need large-scale research projects that help us understand our society better.”

Society. The big picture. Helbing regards it as a system in which freely (inter)acting people can create order in a self-organized way, potentially better than central control system can do. The networked world has become too complicated to control: "Under certain circumstances, when computers are complex enough and systems simple enough, a centralized organization may work. But even the traffic light control of a big city can no longer be done without serious simplifications, because there are many more possibilities than a computer can check in real-time. We usually restrict the system to periodic, repetitive solutions that work optimally for typical, average traffic situations – which do not occur in reality. Non-periodic solutions, however, which flexibly respond to actual situations, are typically not considered. “In Dresden, we have, therefore, developed a traffic light control system that locally adapts to actual requirements: here, the traffic flows control the traffic lights rather than the other way round.”

Dirk Helbing believes that such self-control approaches can also be used to organise human societies in a more sustainable, fair and efficient way. Does that sound technocratic to you? Just the opposite!

According to Helbing, the Silicon Valley’s Tech Giants degraded people to objects that are managed by their algorithms. From his point of view, their goal is to control society and all its parts.

Helbing's efforts go in a completely different direction. He wants to empower people – encourage them to use and enable them to shape digital opportunities themselves. His vision is a society that offers individuals the greatest possible chance for creativity and innovation, in exchange for taking responsibility for what they do.

This fits the ideals of both, a free market economy and basic democracy. Therefore, the following describes novel concepts and approaches which allow for a participatory society rather than the blueprint of some kind of “new world order”. The latter, of course, would fundamentally contradict his idea of a self-regulating society, supported by digital tools.

1. From Consumers to Producers: Digitally Supported Entrepreneurship

Traditionally, industrial societies are organized through processes that can be handled in a standardized way.

The organisation of work and the educational system are based on this. With the new, AI-based wave of automation, however, we find ourselves in a situation where intelligent algorithms and machines can take over everything that is organized according to repetitive patterns or simple rules. This means that, in many jobs, people will have to compete with artificial intelligence and robots – a competition that is hard to win. In addition, computers support economies of scale: If you can handle a thousand users with an algorithm, you can often supply the service to millions or even billions of users with little extra effort. And you may not even need more staff for this.

It follows that (large) companies will probably no longer be offering as many jobs as in the past. As a result, many people will be forced to become entrepreneurs or self-employed. This means that they will have to figure out how they can contribute to our society in the future. They will probably concentrate on things that humans can do better than machines, such as creative activities, social engagement, and environmental care.

Seamless access to knowledge is very important in this context, and its provision will probably involve citizens more than in the past. People are already talking a lot about open source and open access, crowdsourcing, and open innovation, hackathons and citizen science, fablabs and maker spaces. But this is just the beginning. Research and innovation should no longer be limited to scientific institutions and companies alone: they should take place in many places of society, leading potentially to more interesting activities for all and a massive wave of innovation.

This is urgently necessary, particularly in Europe. If we don't put innovation on a much broader footing and allow for combinatorial innovation, supported by digital means, we may never be able to catch up – not just with competitors, but first of all with the existential problems humanity is faced with. This is why we need approaches that digitally empower everyone.

Of course, this change will not come easily for everyone, as – besides performing paid work – many people have primarily played the role of consumers. That's why we need to support people in finding new active roles.

2. Enlightenment and Empowerment: Everyone Could Make A Difference

We urgently need an age of digital enlightenment. This means not only that we need to be informed more transparently about what is happening socially and technically, but also that people need to be enabled to help shape their future. For this we will need better training in digital affairs, but also seamless access to existing knowledge, e.g. using virtual and augmented reality. We will also need to promote general skills to cope with our complex, global, digital world.

That is, where and how can I find relevant information? How to judge it, and how to protect myself from fake news? How to use social platforms constructively? how to avoid cyberbullying and hate speech? How to use digital resources? How to control smart devices rather than them controlling us? This requires basic skills such as critical thinking and focus, such that we don't get distracted by every arriving bit of information and every digital nudge.

Digital enlightenment best begins in the kindergarten. Years ago, I saw interactive videos in a technology museum in Japan. The children were thrilled. They painted flying objects and sea monsters, which were then scanned and integrated into the interactive movies. Of course, they were fascinated. They learned that they can have an influence on what happens on the screen – and wanted to become digital shapers rather than train drivers, I guess. In the future, it will be less important to teach standardised knowledge at school, because it will be available everywhere. We must teach young people focused thinking, creativity and the ability to cooperate. The teacher will be a coach who helps children to develop their talents and compensate their weaknesses.

Later, the focus will be on running projects. This could be the development of an app or an algorithm to control some Internet of Things functionality, or it could be an object designed on a tablet that is then produced with a 3D printer. The children will learn that one no longer needs large factories and a lot of money to produce something. This is a novel situation today, but in the future it will be part of everyday life. Of course, in this context it also makes sense to teach children how to sell products and start a business.

I imagine that cities and communities will operate Fablabs and Makerspaces, as they provide meetings halls for citizens or sports fields today. Everyone will be able to create things there, and to learn from others how to use digital tools and machines. Such Makerspaces should be located in every neighbourhood. They would also have advantages in crisis situations, particular if energy-autonomous, as the principle of participatory resilience, “Help yourselves and each other,” can be quite powerful.

3. Big Data for Everyone: Benefits of Informational Self-Determination

In contrast to the material economy, digital products or services can be offered in almost unlimited numbers: data can be reused a million times. Sharing data creates value. But to fully unlock this value, we need to organize the digital world differently from the material world, in which resources are much more limited.

Surprisingly, even though many jobs in the digital economy have to do with data, the amount of data available to the public today is tiny. Therefore, most of us cannot create much added value with data. Even in science, access to data is very limited. From May 2018 onwards, however, citizens have the right of data portability within the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation. This means that all citizens have the right to request and use personal data that companies have collected about them.

They could, in principle, load this data onto a platform of their choice to create a large public dataset. They could also add other information, such as data generated with the Internet of Things. Over time, citizens could create a collective treasure trove of data by crowdsourcing. So far, unfortunately, progress in this direction was rather limited.

It is about time to force IT companies to share the data they have collected about us – our data – with us, but potentially also with others. According to various estimates, many megabytes or even more than a gigabyte of data – i.e. between one million and one billion digits – are being collected about every one of us every day. We need a new social contract. Given that Google, Facebook and other companies are faced with enormous public pressure recently, we may be getting there.

Most of all, we need a digital platform to manage our personal data. We should automatically receive all data collected about us in a personal data mailbox, which would allow us to determine who could use what part of our data, under what conditions, for what purpose and how long. A digital assistant – a personal AI system – could help us manage our data according to our preferences: Access to our personal data would be transparent to us, and unauthorized use of data would be punished.

This would eventually create a trusted digital society: Those who have earned our trust would gain access to more data and make more money. The competition for data access would create a competition for trust. Given the data deluge, most money in the future will not be made with data, but with data analytics, i.e. algorithms that skilfully transform data into products and services.

4 Basic Income, Sharing Economy and Investment Premium: Opportunities for All

With digitally enabled automation, we will see a dramatic change of our economy. Eventually, there may no longer be fulltime jobs for everyone. Many people will have to reorient themselves. That's why we need a basic income. Existential security implies social, political and economic stability. On top of this, covering our basic needs frees our minds, so we can experiment with new jobs and other forms of economic, social, cultural and environmental engagement.

In contrast to others, however, I think that a basic income alone is not enough. In addition, we need frameworks that support competition and cooperation. Therefore, two things have to be added. The first is a sharing economy, in which we share our things with others. Today's social system and our thinking are based on accumulation. We seek security and, therefore, want to increase our possessions. But what is it good for if we store lots of things in our cellars and our bank accounts, if we don't use them?

Imagine that, in a future sharing economy, all sorts of things would circulate, but be available for us just when we need them. Take cars, for example: it is assumed that 20 percent of today's vehicle fleet or less would be enough to provide us with high-quality mobility. The advantages are obvious: considerable savings of raw materials, greater sustainability and greater comfort. Mobility could be cheaper and more convenient. And our cities would be nicer places to live in.

Hence, a basic income and a sharing economy would could satisfy our basic needs, but this alone would not be enough to engage people. There would be no incentives and no opportunities for active engagement. This is why I propose to regularly pay out an additional investment premium as well. The recipients would not be able to spend this money for their own consumption, but would have to distribute it to others. People should invest it in the best ideas and technologies or in economic, social, cultural, environmental, medical, educational, or neighbourhood projects: Planting trees, renovating schools, cultural activities, and more.

For this we would require digital platforms, where everyone can present their projects, from cleaning up parks in the neighbourhood to new mobility solutions to the development of new medical drugs. Anyone could use their investment premium for what they think is important. And if a project gets enough money, it would be realized. Uninvested money would be withdrawn from the system and paid out again in the future. The investment premium would establish something like a “crowd funding for all.” I believe this would be particularly useful on the local level, as neighbours often know best what is needed there.

In today's economic system, a few venture capitalists decide about our future. These people have very little time, such that many good ideas are lost. Revolutionary business models endangering previous investments face particularly hard times getting funded. As a result, urgent economic and societal problems remain unsolved – such as climate change and lack of sustainability.

The investment premium would complement venture capitalism: If we can all decide what is important and what is funded, this is likely to lead to more diverse innovations, which is favourable for innovation rates, societal resilience, collective intelligence, and sustainability. The new economic framework to bring it about may be called “democratic capitalism” – the perfect marriage between capitalism and democracy.

5 Reinventing the Central Bank: Money Could Work for Us All

Of course, all this will cost a lot of money – and it has to come from somewhere. One possibility would be to tax data. Today, the monetary value of data is not taxed in most countries, despite the significant environmental impact of digital technologies. Taxing data would allow the state to pay for the information infrastructures modern societies need. In particular, the state could set up public platforms on which democratic and economic participation takes place: for example, platforms to distribute the investment premium or forums on which political issues are discussed and decided in a subsidiary way, namely by the people concerned by the respective problem. This would be a digital version of the people's assembly in ancient Greece.

I have to admit, however, that state funding through taxes would not be the best solution. Taxes are old thinking anyway! If we reinvent everything, we can also think about a new financial system. It would be possible, for example, to create the money needed by a new central bank. This would be owned by The People and would produce the money needed for the basic income, the investment premium, and public services.

Such an approach may sound adventurous at first, but in principle it is similar to what we have today. Since the financial crisis, the central banks have created trillions of dollars to keep old-school capitalism alive. However, this money has profited very few companies and people. In the future, it should benefit everyone.

While the implementation may appear difficult from today's point of view, it should actually be feasible. The necessary changes do not have to come all at once. They could be put on the road step by step, and new things could grow alongside old ones. If set up well, we would see a self-reinforcing trend to the better.

6 City Olympics: Solving the World's Problems Together

So far, so good. But the need for action is urgent, because we are facing existential challenges in many places around the world: Climate change, lack of sustainability, conflicts and wars. Many believe that the nation states are not in a position to solve these problems on time and that global companies will not solve them either – because solving problems and earning money are two different things. This is how the idea came up that we need a third way, based on cities and regions that would form worldwide networks based on similar problems and interests.

Every two or four years, City Olympics would spark a sportive competition for the best solutions to our problems, in the spirit of "think global, act local". Possible disciplines would include sustainability, energy efficiency, CO2 reduction, resilience and peaceful coexistence. All sectors of society would be involved in these competitions: Scientists and engineers would push ahead research and demonstration projects, companies would try to spread better products, politicians would mobilise the population, the media would report on the activities and the progress. In this way, all social forces would be unleashed to tackle our problems together and find better solutions. The resulting solutions would be open source and creative commons, so that each region could choose the solution that suits it best. Everyone could take these solutions, combine them, and develop them further. This would boost combinatorial innovation, and it would create opportunities for businesses, start-ups, public institutions, and civil society.

It is often said today that, in the future, we will have to limit our consumption and ourselves. I believe that this is a problematic narrative that will lead to distributional conflicts, dissatisfaction, and social upheavals. Most likely, only innovation can save us. But we must promote innovation a lot more and put it on a broader basis, so that it delivers faster, more, and more diverse results.

Diversity promotes resilience that makes society crisis-proof. At the moment we are far from this. Very few people decide a lot today – and that is a problem. I believe that with a more subsidiary approach, in which regions and civil society can fully unleash their potential in a bottom-up way, we would make faster progress. It would combine intelligent design with the success principles of evolution, experimentation, co-learning, and social cooperation. This approach would be compatible with many things that are important to us, with self-determination, creativity, competition, and democracy. And above all, it would be fun!