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by Erik Roscam Abbing
Technology is fundamental to the city, from the energy systems that fuel it, to the mobility and data networks that connect it.
In tomorrow’s city, Artificial Intelligence transforms job markets , robots clean the sewers and smart energy grids trade kilowatts for cryptocurrency. These are near certainties, and they’re coming in years, not decades.
Technology has the potential to strengthen economies, draw communities closer, empower learning and cure diseases, but it also brings unintended consequences. Data is used to put crooks in powerful positions. One Bitcoin transaction consumes as much energy as an average American household does in 16 days , and I’m not entirely sure the creators of Fortnite have good intentions when they draw my kids in with their highly addictive content.
Despite these doubts, there’s nothing inherently evil about technology. It simply extends the abilities of whoever uses it, regardless of intentions. When technology becomes invasive, unsustainable or exclusive, it’s often because of a power imbalance. If we controlled the data that Facebook currently holds, it wouldn’t be sold to third parties without our permission. If banks were transparent and cooperatively-owned, we wouldn’t need cryptocurrencies. If CO2 were taxed commensurate with its impact, airlines would invest in alternative fuels. Only when power is distributed does technology behave as it should.
Perfectly distributed power is as unrealistic as any sci-fi dystopia, but everyone working with technology has a responsibility.
With great technology comes great responsibilty
Perfectly distributed power is as unrealistic as any sci-fi dystopia, but everyone working with technology has a responsibility. They must challenge the powers, and work to make technology more pro-human, not the other way around.
Humanising technology means designing, commercialising and using technology responsibly, making it as useful, meaningful, accessible, distributed and transparent as possible. Most of the tech we use today is very much the product of private, for-profit companies, but a number of initiatives and organisations point the way to a more distributed future: Creative Commons, Arduino, and Fairphone, OpenMotors, the Asilomar Principles and the Open Data Commons to name a just few.
Humanising technology also means asking some bold questions when designing services:
If data will be owned by a central party, what would sharing it bring us in terms of partnerships and joint value creation?
If privacy is at risk, how would we feel if it were our own? And how can we respect each individual’s right to their privacy?
If a solution involves technology that consumes resources or has a large carbon footprint, do we really need it? What are the alternatives, and what advantages do they offer?