The Theorist: The ‘Democratic Digitalization’ Experience

When Datashare was shelved, we looked for a second experiment for our overarching project of enhancing long-term equal stakeholdership in smart cities.

Having learned from our previous experiences, we decided to create some distance between us and the hustle and bustle of a struggling start-up. Rather than mediating between stakeholders, both of us now wanted to adopt a more independent position. We felt this would be more compatible with our philosopher’s DNA: the desire to slow down, to be transparent and open, and to develop a normative or critical stance. So, having tried to be a mediator and a stand-up philosopher, we were now ready to return to our better-known role as theorist. To be sure, this did not mean that we wanted to give up on being field philosophers. Yes, we wanted to move away from collaborative case-based research at the project level, but our theorizing should still be grounded in the interests of a non-philosophical audience (our philosophizing was to be demand driven). We still aimed to develop our theory in the context of its use by our stakeholders at Current. Rather than produce a primarily academic end-product for our philosophy colleagues, we wanted to develop an accessible and succinct tool that could actually be used by partners at Current and by other parties interested in keeping smart cities democratic.

The Democratic Digitalization7 (DD) project that had just been initiated within Current seemed to provide the opportunity to become more independent and theoretical. DD focused on the ethical and social issues that new digital technologies raise in the public domain. The proliferation of digital platforms—such as Airbnb and Uber—may hold great promise, but there is also a flipside: private companies threaten to take over public space. Current recognized that democratic governance in a smart city requires some form of public oversight of these privately-owned platforms. Three of its employees had written a discussion starter in this vein. In it, they identified three ways in which digital technologies challenge democracy: digital platforms tend to centralize power; there is a lack of democratic control over key algorithms; and a similar lack exists in the case of dealing with private data about citizens. The discussion starter pleaded for extending democratic control, based on values such as equality, inclusivity, and freedom of choice. Moreover, they suggested technical, legal, and social measures to ensure democratic control over digital technologies in the smart city.

We agreed with Current that we would join the project team that was to further develop the concept of Democratic Digitalization and its practical operationalization. Other members of the team included the DD project leader and a project manager at Current. We were tasked to develop a normative framework that was to provide:

  • 1 A shared vocabulary to discuss the issues at stake;
  • 2 A heuristic tool to identify, articulate, and address the different democratic challenges that particular smart city technologies generate;
  • 3 A set of design challenges and principles for democratic smart city projects.

We planned to organize so-called ‘case workshops,’ engaging with technology designers to identify problems regarding democracy that arose and to help them explore how best to address these problems. This way, we would learn from practice, iteratively test theoretical insights in practice, and share our findings with external partners and other audiences.

For us, the new project had important advantages compared to the Datashare project. First, we would be able to build on the existing work of Current’s own strategy department. We wanted to ensure that our private partner would actually take up our findings by connecting to an internal discussion—instead of trying to interest them in philosophical products that did not fit their entrepreneurial priorities. What we had to offer was a better understanding of the ethical and political issues confronting Current, and there was support within the organization for further developing such ideas. Second, we would be working on general topics that we expected to be more immune to the frenzy of lean development. The new project allowed us to stay closer to the traditional slow-craft of the philosopher: developing arguments, doing conceptual analysis, reading and writing texts. Third, in contrast to the Datashare case, the DD project allowed us to create a product and develop a normative position more or less on our own, rather than having to follow the agenda of our collaborators. Finally, the end product would have a chance of being relevant even if the private partner decided to withdraw—as had happened in the case of Datashare. Current was not the only company struggling to come to terms with the ethical and democratic challenges posed by digitalization.

However, despite the fresh project design we ran into new obstacles. First, despite our intentions, we ended up as mediators again rather than as theorists. Second, in that mediating role we had considerable difficulty engaging relevant stakeholders, which negatively impacted our ability to develop a theoretical framework. And third, we were again affected by the constraints and dependencies that come with working in a collaborative project.

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