During our work on shaping the Tech Pledge last week, we looked into progress as it is mentioned in the Copenhagen Letter as being different from just innovation. The Copenhagen Letter was written in 2017 as output of the same process that now delivered the Tech Pledge.

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Thomas, Techfestival’s initiator, reading the Copenhagen Letter
at the start of this year’s CPH150

Progress is not a fixed point on the horizon we said. What is progress shifts, with public opinion and new ideas of what is good, just, true and beautiful emerging, and with the movement of time itself. When the first steam engines appeared their plumes of smoke heralded a new age, that drove industrialisation, nation forming and, through rail roads, changed what cities were for and how city and countryside relate to each other. Steam engines still exist at the very heart of every electricity plant in the world, but progress has moved on from the steam engine.
We also realised that progress does not have fixed and static definition, and so we are free to fill it with whatever definition we think fits in the context we are looking at.

In terms of technology then, progress is a motion, a process, and in our group we defined it as (new) technology plus direction/sense of purpose. Technology here, to me at least, being not just ‘hard tech’, but also ‘soft tech’. Our methods, processes, organisational structures are technology just as much as fountain pens, smart phones and particle accelerators.

So we named a number of elements that fit into this understanding progress as a process and search for direction.

  • It is a part of human nature to strive for change and progress, even if not every single individual in every context and time will be so inclined. This desire to progress is more about setting a direction than a fixed end state. Hence our use of “(new) technology with intended direction” as working definition.
  • We need to be accountable to how anything we make fits the intended direction, and additionally whether it not externalises human or ecological costs, or conflicts with our natural systems, as these are often ignored consequences.
  • We recognise that direction may get lost, or ends up in need of change, in fact we realise that anything we make is largely out of our control once released into the world.
  • So we pledge to continuous reflection on the direction our tech is taking us in practice. Not just during its development or launch, but throughout its use.
  • Whether we want to use the tech we created ourselves, or see our loved ones use it is a smell test, if it doesn’t pass our emotional response something is off.
  • What doesn’t pass the smell test needs to be explored and debated
  • We have a civic duty to organise public debate about the value and direction of our tech right alongside our tech. Not just at the start of making tech, but throughout the life cycle of something you make. If you make something you also need to organise the continuous debate around it to keep a check on its societal value and utility, and to actively identify unintended consequences.
  • If our tech is no longer fit for purpose or takes an unintended turn, we have a duty to actively adapt and /or publicly denounce the aspect of our tech turned detrimental.

20190907_120354Working on the pledge

Regardless of what the Copenhagen Pledge says in addition to this, this reflective practice is something worth wile in itself for me to do: continuously stimulate the debate around what you make, as part and parcel of the artefacts you create. This is not a new thing to me, it’s at the core of the unconferences we organise, where lived practice, reflection and community based exploration are the basic ingredients.

To me what is key in the discussions we had is that this isn’t about all tech in general, though anyone is welcome to join any debate. This is about having the moral and civic duty to actively create public debate around the technology you make and made. You need to feel responsible for what you make from inception to obsolescence, just as you always remain a parent to your children, regardless of their age and choices as adult. The connection to self, to an emotional anchoring of this responsibility is the crucial thing here.

So there I was on a rainy Copenhagen evening finding myself in a room with 149 colleagues for 24 hours, nearing midnight, passionately arguing that technologists need to internalise and own the reflection on the role and purpose of their tech, and not leave it as an exercise to the academics in the philosophy of technology departments. A duty to organise the public debate about your tech alongside the existence of the tech itself. If your own tech no longer passes your own smell test then actively denounce it. I definitely felt that emotional anchoring I’m after in myself right there and then.

Before Techfestival‘s speakers and event partners’ dinner Thursday, Marie Louise Gørvild, Techfestival’s Director, and Thomas Madsen-Mygdal, its initiator, said a few words. Thomas cited the Copenhagen Letter from 2017 singling out how our tech needs to be embedded in the context of our democratic structures, and how innovation can’t be a substitute for our sense of progress and impact. The Copenhagen Letter, and the entire Techfestival emphasise humanity as not only the source and context for technology and its use, but its ultimate yardstick for the constructive use and impact of technology. This may sound obvious, it certainly does to me, but in practice it needs to be repeated to ensure it is used as such a yardstick from the very first design stage of any new technology.

20190905_201141At Techfestival Copenhagen 2019

Technology is always about humans to me. Technology is an extension of our bodies, an extension of reach and an extension of human agency. A soup spoon is an extension of our hand so we don’t burn our hand when we stir the soup. A particle accelerator is an extension of our ears and eyes to better understand the particles and atoms we’re made of. With technology we extend our reach across the globe by instantaneously communicating, extend it into the air, into the deep sea, towards the atom level, and into interstellar space. Tech is there to deepen and augment our humanity. In my daily routines it’s how I approach technology too, both in personal matters such as blogging, and in client projects, and apparently such an approach stands out. It’s what recently Kicks Condor remarked upon and Neil Mather pointed to in conversations about our blogging practices, what Heinz Wittenbrink referenced when he said “they talk about their own lives when they talk about these things” about our unconference, and what clients say about my change management work around open data.

Techfestival in Copenhagen takes humanity as the starting point for tech, and as litmus test for the usefulness and ethicality of tech. It therefore is somewhat grating to come across people talking about how to create a community for their tech to help it scale. Hearing that last week in Copenhagen a few times felt very much out of tune. Worse, I think It is an insulting way to talk about people you say you want to create value for.

Yes, some newly launched apps / platforms really are new places where communities can form that otherwise wouldn’t, because of geographic spread, shame, taboo or danger to make yourself visible in your local environment, or because you’re exploring things you’re still uncertain about yourself. All (niche) interests, the crazy ones, those who can’t fully express their own personality in their immediate environment benefit from the new spaces for interaction online tools have created. My own personal blog based peer network started like that: I was lonely in my role as a knowledge manager at the start of the ’00s, and online interaction and blogging brought me the global professional peer network I needed, and which wasn’t otherwise possible in the Netherlands at the time.

20190905_201346Techfestival’s central stage in Kødbyen, during an evening key-note

Otherwise, however, every single one of us already is part of communities. Their sports teams, neighbourhood, extended family, work context, causes, peer networks, alumni clubs, etc etc. Why doesn’t tech usually focus on me using it for my communities as is, and rather present itself as having me join a made up community whose raison d’etre is exploiting our attention for profit? That’s not community building, that’s extraction, instrumentalising your users, while dehumanising them along the way. To me it’s in those communities everyone is already part of where the scaling for technology is to be found. “Scaling does not scale” said Aza Raskin in his Techfestival keynote, and that resonates. I talked about the invisible hand of networks in response to demands for scaling when I talked about technology ‘smaller than us‘ and networked agency at SOTN18, and this probably is me saying the same again in a slightly different way. Scaling is in our human structures. Artists don’t scale, road building doesn’t scale but art and road networks are at scale. Communities don’t scale, they’re fine as they are, but they are the grain of scale, resulting in society which is at scale. Don’t seek to scale your tech, seek to let your tech reinforce societal scaling, our overlapping communities, our cultures. Let your tech be scaffolding for a richer expression of society.

Techfestival fits very much into that, and I hope it is what I brought to the work on the CPH150 pledge: the notion of human (group) agency. and the realisation that tech is not something on its own, but needs to be used in combination with methods and processes, in which you cannot ever ignore societal context. One of those processes is continuous reflection on your tech, right alongside the creation and implementation of your tech, for as long as it endures.

20190907_120354Our group of 150 working 24 hours on writing the TechPledge

Had a very good first day at Copenhagen Techfestival Thursday. After bumping into Thomas right at the start, I joined the full day Public Data Summit, focusing on the use of open data in climate change response, co-hosted by Christian. Lots of things to mention / write about more, but need to work out some of my notes first.

Then I met up with Cathrine Lippert a long time Danish open data colleague, that I hand’t seen for a few years and now works at DTI. Just before dinner I ended up walking next to Nadja Pass, whom I think I last met a decade ago, and over excellent food we talked about the things that happened to us, the things we currently do and care about. Listened to an excellent and very well designed talk (sticky soundbites and all) by Aza Raskin, about the hackability of human minds, and what that spells out for the impact of tech on society. While leaving the central festival area, Nadia El Imam, co-founder of the great Edgeryders network, and I crossed paths, and over wine and some food at Pate Pate, we talked about a wide variety of things. I arranged a bicycle from the hotel, which is much easier to get around. Cycling I found that even having been in Copenhagen last years ago, I still know my way around without having to check where I’m going.

This afternoon, after catching up with Henriette Weber to hear of her latest adventures, I will take part in the Copenhagen 150 think-tank, which is a 24 hour event. However, I will need to limit my presence to 20 hours, as I need to be back in Amsterdam by tomorrow mid afternoon to make a birthday dinner with dear friends in the very south of the country.

Just a month ago I wrote here about my reservations concerning the use of mobile phones as hotel room key. A hotel I will be staying at in the near future yesterday started sending me multiple (unasked) SMS’s to download their hotel app to ‘make my stay smarter’. Sure, I will trust download links in unrequested SMS! Today as I’ve ignored their messages I received an e-mail imploring me to do the same.

The app they ask me to use is called Aeroguest, and their pitch to me is about easier check-in/out, using chat to contact staff, and using my phone as door key. The first two I’d rather do in person, and the last one is not a good idea as explained in the above link.

Why such an app might be seen as attractive to the hotel, becomes clear if you look at the specifications of the app. A clear benefit is direct repeat bookings, saving the expensive middle men that booking sites are. In my case I almost always book through the hotel’s website directly. And if I enjoyed my stay I usually book the same hotel in a city for my next visit. I do use booking sites to find hotels. In this case I’ve stayed in this hotel several times before.

The stated benefits for the guest (key, chat, check-in/out, choosing your room) are a small part of the listed benefits for hotels in using the app, such as up-selling you packages before and during your stay. An ominous one, when seen from the guest’s perspective, is ‘third party services’ access presumably meaning potential access to your booking / stay history and maybe even payment / settlement information, requested preferences etc. Another, more alarming one, is “advanced indoor mapping” which I take means tracking of guests through the hotel which can yield information on time spent in hotel facilities, time spent in the room, how often / when the key was used, and by matching it with other guests, whom you might be meeting with that is also staying in the hotel. In Newspeak on the apps website in the data and analytics section this is described as “With transparency, you can proactively accommodate your guests’ needs.” Note that the guest is the one who is being made transparant. That is quite a price in exchange for being able to choose your specific room when checking in with the app.

I’ve replied to the hotel my reasons for not wishing to use the app (linking to my previous blogpost), and told them I look forward to checking in at reception in person when I arrive. When I arrive I am curious to hear more about their usage of the app. For now “making my stay smart” reads like the “smart cities” visions of old, it may be smart, but not for the individuals involved, merely for the service provider.

Early September the Copenhagen Techfestival will take place for the third time. It brings over 20.000 people together for over 200 events during three days, to together explore, discuss and create the future of technology.

Having had to decline invitations for the first two events, I’m joining the Techfestival 150 during this year’s event. Thank you to the organisers for their tenacity in asking me for the third year in a row. This time I was better prepared, having blocked my calendar as soon as the dates were announced.

The Copenhagen Techfestival 150 is a thinktank of 150 people that convenes during the festival. It created the The Copenhagen Letter in 2017, the Copenhagen Catalog in 2018, and this year the aim is to formulate the Copenhagen Pledge, a set of guidelines for anyone working in or with tech to commit to.

It’s been a good while since I was in Copenhagen last, I had wanted to join the previous Techfestivals already, so I look forward to getting back to CPH and fully submerge myself in the Techfestival (described to me as ‘Reboot at scale’).

“People only complain about their availability.”

Alper points to a good overview of the system in English. I’ve mentioned the Dutch public transport bicycle here almost a decade ago, but this is a good reason to revisit that post.

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Two people coming out of The Hague Central Station with a yellow and blue OV Fiets, just now as I walked past

OV Fiets, OV short for Openbaar Vervoer which means public transport, and fiets meaning bicycle, so PT bikes, was started in 2003 by the NS rail company at a handful of large railway stations. With public transport, especially rail, the last part of the trip, getting from the station to your destination is always the tricky part. Where walking is too far or inconvenient, buses or taxis might help but they take up way more time in inner cities, and buses still don’t get you to the door of your destination. Basically anything within 20 minutes by bicycle (meaning 7km or so), the bike easily wins over any other mode of transport. OV Fiets was set-up for those distances, as a way to stimulate more people to take the train. The reasoning is that if there’s less friction to get from the station to your destination more people will choose the train over taking the car. Everyone in the Netherlands already has a bicycle to get to the railway station from home, the need is in the last leg of a trip.

Since 2004 when my work meant much more travel, I use the train as much as possible. On a train I can still work (or blog, I’m writing this on a train that just left The Hague), which isn’t the case in the car . That more than makes up for situations where a car might be faster. I started using OV Fiets early 2010 when their availability was expanded to general availability at railway stations across the country, beyond just the first handful they experimented with and some other bigger cities. Currently all railway stations provide OV Fietsen, large railway stations from multiple locations, and increasingly fully automated.

You pick up a bike when you arrive by train, and return it before taking your train home. Over 20.000 bikes are available across the country.

Wherever I go in the Netherlands I can pick up a bike and be on my way well within 5 minutes from getting off a train. My (free) subscription is connected to my public transport payment card. I swipe the card and get a bike. Each time I pick up a bike I get billed just under 4 Euro’s, which covers 24 hours. Once a month I get e-mailed an itemised bill, which is automatically paid from my bank account. A subscription allows you to pick-up 2 bikes at a time, which also comes in handy when we have guests for a day or two, to provide them with their own bicycles through my and E’s subscription. Tuesday this week I used an OV Fiets with a colleague in Haarlem, where my client’s offices are located a 20-25 minute walk from the station, which can be covered by bike in 5-6 minutes. That’s a typical example.

In 2011 over 1 million bicycle pick-ups in a year were logged for the first time. 3 million in 2017, 4.2 million in 2018. The first 5 months of this year saw 2.2 million bicycle pick-ups already, a 30% increase compared to the 1.7 million pick-ups in the first 5 months of 2018.

When you get to public buildings or event venues it is very common to see a large number of the bright yellow and blue bicycles parked out front. All are numbered, and that number is also on your key, so it’s easy to find your own bike back.

In a decade of use I never had any issue with the public transport bikes. The only complaint is that sometimes, when I arrive shortly after the morning rush hour, large city stations may have run out of bikes. This happened to me a very few times. It is also the only common feedback on the system, as quoted at the top. Because bicycles are picked up and returned at railway stations which all have bike parking facilities, they don’t clutter up sidewalks and don’t require infrastructure on the city streets themselves.

More OV-Fiets
OV Fietsen in a railway station bicycle parking. (Image by Alper, license CC BY)