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Tuesday, 25 November 2014

An Example of Horizon 2020 Innovation Nonsense: Citizen Engagement and Participation in Smart Cities

Later than normal owing to internet connection problems, the blog that should have appeared on Sunday …

Back in 2012 I acted as a rapporteur during the DG CONNECT’s strategy review week. Selected people (known as stakeholders) were allowed to participate in a number of meetings on specific subjects. The meeting that I worked with addressed Smart Cities (whatever that may mean). A central theme of this meeting was the importance of citizen engagement and participation. Everyone was so clear about how crucial this was for the success of Smart Cities. And in the meeting room, of the 40 or so people present, how many had any idea about what this really means and how to achieve it? I suspect that the answer was two – myself and the chairperson, an architect who is involved in mass participation.  None of the panellists in this meeting demonstrated that they had any insights into this so called crucial matter, and in fact, the chairperson, who was only there to moderate the discussion, put them all to shame for he was the only person who had anything of value to say about engagement and participation.

It is my advantage, in acting as the rapporteur, and also because I am a writer (a key capability of which is observation (as Charles Dickens well illustrated)), that I can observe what takes place in meetings. And what I observed were people paying lip service to citizen engagement and participation. What they were really interested in was gaining access to European Commission funding so that that could continue with, what I later came to describe as a technology joyride.

Prior to the meeting I mentioned to the Policy Officer with whom I was working, that, if the European Commission were really interested in citizen engagement and participation they should be looking for projects constituted along very different lines to that which is usual for an ICT research project. The response was that changing the nature of projects was unnecessary.

Anyone with deep knowledge of participation will know what I am talking and will understand the need for an approach that fits the needs of such projects, and will also  recognise in the response, the operation of taken for granted assumptions about … so many things that I will not here go into details.

Sometime prior to this strategy workshop, I was involved in a proposal that sough to respond to a call for user-driven innovation in the area that is now called Smart Cities. I proposed to the consortium that we should adopt what is sometimes called a user-centred approach that would embrace the participation of citizens who would become the drivers for the project’s work, which obviously means leaving open the details of this work – how else would it be user-driven?

This idea was greeted by the other consortium members with great enthusiasm. Then one of the technology people said: “so long as we do not have to do anything differently.” I have been hearing this for close to 30 years. New science – yes! New technology – yes! But, whatever you do, never, ever, ask a European engineer or technologist to do anything differently! It is a heresy to do so!

The bad news is that when embracing participation it is necessary to design and run projects along lines that few technologists are familiar with, and most of them would not agree with – in the end it is about their dogma, and what these stupid people find acceptable. I say stupid for this is yet another manifestation of that rather peculiar behaviour that I have highlight in my (now) often asked question: Why so smart yet so dumb?

Here I mention also the need to change the evaluation process as well, for participatory projects need to be evaluated against their own internal logic, as the evaluation of the proposal I was involved with, well demonstrated. Having embraced user-driven innovation and only defined areas of interest in a suitably broad manner, the experts condemned our proposal for not defining exactly, what would be done. Yet they were supposed to be evaluating proposals that sought user-driven innovation. More stupid people!

Recall last week’s blog and my comment about the research proposal evaluation system: an orthodox system, designed by orthodox people, to enable orthodox experts, to make orthodox comments, about what are mostly orthodox research proposals – and in those cases when proposals are not orthodox, which should imply that the orthodox experts do not understand what is before them (otherwise why would it be innovative?), to continue with their orthodoxy, and to strangle the innovation at birth.

One can add words like innovation to call texts. One can re-order the evaluation criteria and give greater importance to impacts. However, hanging a sign on a cow that says I am a horse does not alter the fact that, what you have is still a cow.

The message is clear – if you have an innovative idea, do not apply for funding from a European Commission research programme.

And to conclude, I note, that after the strategy workshop was over, I said to the policy officer:

“It will be interesting to see if this idea of citizen engagement and buy-in will, in reality, be achieved! History suggests that it will not – are we asking general infantry to do the work of special forces? If I were managing Research and Innovation in a competing region or country (like India and China) and looking for a weakness to undermine Europe's efforts in Smart Cities, this matter of user engagement and involvement would be it, and I would make sure that considerable effort was directed at addressing this topic and creating an environment where ICT centric/driven solutions would not be accepted – on the battlefield you need to exploit your enemy’s weaknesses.”

And the response I received was:

“That’s a very interesting and compelling train of thought. I would tentatively agree. In my personal opinion I am not so sure whether the idea of citizen engagement and related notions will really achieve what the buzzwords around it suggest. Further, it might even carry the kind of risks you mentioned.”

A counter argument against all the above is that through DG CONNECT’s engagement with the Social Sciences and Humanities (SSH) these matters will be resolved. Nonsense! I have worked in the space between Technology and the SSH for 30 years and the complexities of this are only known to those who have been brave enough to enter the space, and such people are few in number. Perhaps engagement with artists then, through ICT & ART CONNECT? More nonsense – even fewer people know anything about this. These are all recipes for telling tales of the emperor’s new clothes.

And it was during the process of working on the DG strategy workshop, that the idea of writing a book directed at assisting those in the Eastern world to exploit Europe’s strategic weaknesses took hold. I have mentioned this idea before, in my blog On the Saying of Unreasonable Things, which is a copy of a correspondence I had with Morton L√łkkegaard, MEP, in connection with New Narrative for Europe. I have many case study examples to illustrate my points: Smart Cities; New Narrative for Europe; FET Proactive; Marie Curie Initial Training Networks; Erasmus Mundus Joint Masters; Factory of the Future; ICT & ART CONNECT; Responsible Research and Innovation; Future Internet Research and Innovation; and Anne Glover.

So I am back once more to the notion of the Prometheus Syndrome. It is here, around the notion that Europe is tied to an irrelevant past by invisible and unbreakable chains, that China, India, and others will engage Europe in battle and defeat it. The book I will write about this will be made open access, so all will be able to read it, but I intend to ensure that it is written in a way that few Europeans will understand or accept – which is not a difficult thing to do. This is something else I have been studying for the past 30 years as well.

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