Monday, 7 October 2019


by Dirk Helbing

I am a strong supporter of the use of digital technology. I wonder, however, whether we have really taken the most promising path.

Many business models today are based on what experts call surveillance capitalism. Companies therefore try to obtain as much data as possible about basically everyone, create personal profiles, and then commercialize this data – often without the knowledge of those affected. The economic and personal consequences are difficult to estimate.

Many business models make money selling sensitive data, which are later used for "behavioural control". However, the data is not only used for "neuromarketing". Rather, personalized fake news, election manipulation, propaganda, cyber-bullying, and cyber-attacks also benefit from the use of personal data.

This puts public confidence in the digital transformation at risk altogether.

The biggest profits are made by the companies that most ruthlessly collect and commercialize personal data. Many business models thrive on undermining solidarity and human rights, such as privacy, which until now were considered to be extremely worthy of protection. More and more people – including many politicians – are realizing that we have reached a point where even the cornerstones of democracy are in danger.

In addition, digitalization has further exacerbated sustainability and climate problems. It is even expected that energy consumption by IT systems will increase exponentially to more than 20 percent by 2030.

Nevertheless, many continue to promote the concept of a big data-driven and AI-controlled society with the idea of optimizing the world. However, neither a visit to the Silicon Valley nor a visit to China leaves the impression that it has been possible to create something like a "digital paradise". The quality of life in many Swiss cities is still much higher.

There is a reason for this: today's data-driven visions neglect the findings of the humanities – and thus the unquantifiable aspects of our lives.

Cities are not just logistic systems that can be optimised and automated – and not just gigantic entertainment parks. They are places of encounter, communication, friendship and innovation. What constitutes being human – consciousness, love, freedom, creativity – is not or not adequately represented by big data.

A society controlled solely by big data would potentially eliminate all this, at the expense of humaneness. To avoid this, in the past, freedoms – in particular privacy – were created in which things that would otherwise fall prey to optimization could thrive. These freedoms are now threatened because many system developers struggle with things that are not quantifiable. In other words, digitisation has not taken sufficient account of the humanities and social sciences, and this has prevented better solutions.

But you should never put all eggs in one basket... I am convinced that there is a better version of digitalisation. In addition, it seems to me that we have reached a turning point (also due to some recent decisions of the European Court of Justice regarding what rules apply to companies that want to do business with personal data in Europe).

The basis of the new approach I propose would be to create a platform for informational self-determination that would respect human dignity. Personal data would then be sent to a personal data mailbox. New data will be paid for, whenever used. Most importantly, however, you could manage your data yourself. You would decide, who would be allowed to use what personal data for what purpose, period and price. Competition for access to data would lead to a competition for trust and thus to a digital society built on trust.

All personalized products and services would be possible, if only you agree with them. Benefits from this would be expected for citizens, society and businesses. A level playing field would be created. SMEs, spinoff companies, NGOs and scientific institutions would also get access to big data, thus creating added value and contributing to solving the world’s problems. When managing your data, you would be supported by a digital assistant – a personalized AI system – which preconfigures the settings according to your wishes.

Such an approach would reduce abuse, but strengthen human rights, democracy, and the economy. It could also be more energy-efficient and sustainable, as companies would no longer have to create their own data collection, which presently causes enormous redundancy and unnecessary energy consumption.

I further expect benefits from a pluralistic, multi-dimensional approach. I do not believe that the world's problems can be solved by optimization. This would presuppose the choice of a goal function, which, however, would be one-dimensional in principle (otherwise one cannot compare "better" and "worse" solutions). However, this would dramatically over-simplify the world. There is not even a science to determine the "right" goal function. In the past, the "gross national product per capita" was used. However, this has caused the sustainability and climate crisis.

Will choosing a different goal function help? Probably not. For as long as one pursues a single goal, one neglects all the others until there is a problem that has become greater than the one that one was trying to eliminate. That's how one gets always late solving problems.

Nature, based on evolution, works differently. It does not optimize, but experiments, and the better solutions spread faster. There is no one-dimensional control. Instead there are multi-dimensional feedback loops.

We can now build such a multi-dimensional feedback system for our complex, networked world – by combining the Internet of Things with local incentive schemes. The resulting "digital forces" could turn today's supply chains into a circular economy through a co-evolutionary process. The multi-dimensional finance system I am talking about here can be designed such that it concurrently promotes the various goals we want to achieve, for example, social and environmental ones.

I therefore believe that efficiency and sustainability, democracy and prosperity do not contradict each other. If one builds the right framework, a digital catalyst so to speak, one can achieve that they reinforce each other.

With the instrument of the Climate City Cup, we try to promote such thinking and collective action. We aim to combine the best mechanisms we know today, namely competition, collective intelligence, experimentation, and intelligent design.

But the most important thing is that the world is not a zero-sum game where somebody must lose for someone else to win. Rather, a circular and sharing economy would make it possible for everyone to have a better quality of life. Before, I have outlined how this can be achieved through a participatory, multi-perspective information ecosystem, rather than through (over-)regulation. The approach would strengthen human dignity and help to solve the problems we face. By supporting symbiotic and synergy effects, it would promote prosperity and peace rather than conflict.

Isn’t this, what we would want to see? Let’s do it then!

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