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Calling in the experts: our roundtable on smartphone lifetimes

We've got some ideas to extend smartphone lifetimes and we invited some experts to put them under the microscope.

Ideas love company, and there comes a point in developing policy recommendations when a discussion with experts will turn good proposals into excellent ones. NGI Forward is exploring ways to extend the useful life of smartphones to reduce their environmental impact and last week we held a roundtable discussion on extending smartphone lifetimes. This is a complex issue with lots of moving parts, which is why we invited experts in a range of fields. We were joined by an impressive array of experts in repair, cybersecurity, software development, sustainability and European policy. Representatives of device makers, mobile networks, security analysts, advocacy groups and the European Commission pulled our suggestions apart and helped us put them back together.

Our focus on smartphones came from our work last year on the environmental impact of the internet as a whole, which culminated in our report: Internet of Waste. The internet and its underlying infrastructure use a significant portion of earth’s resources, consuming 5-9 per cent of global energy supply and creating around 2 per cent of global emissions. And the little black rectangles we carry around in our pockets and bags? They’re some of the biggest contributors. Europeans replace their smartphone on average every two years, and 72 per cent of their lifetime emissions are created before they hit the shelves. As a result, extending the average lifespan of smartphones from two to four years would reduce emissions by 44 per cent. More than half of Europeans expect their smartphone to last for four or more years, so it’s clear there is a market for devices that last longer.

We’d like to see smartphone lifetimes extended to five years by 2030 and our roundtable discussion focused on two areas that could help to contribute.

Short-lived software support

The software on a device needs to be updated regularly to keep it secure and running smoothly. When software updates stop, a device can become unreliable or vulnerable to data breaches. As a result, the lifetime of smartphones can be artificially shortened if a manufacturer stops providing updates before the hardware breaks. Despite the importance of software updates, most smartphones receive them for only two or three years. A 2020 Eurobarometer survey found that 30 per cent of users replaced a smartphone because the performance of the old device had significantly deteriorated, and 19 per cent replaced it because certain applications or software stopped working on the old device, so the influence on device lifetime is clear. 

In our roundtable discussion, we suggested that smartphone makers should be required to provide at least seven years’ software update support. We thought that setting an ambitious target would push manufacturers to think differently about the way they provide software updates, and also drastically reduce the likelihood of artificially shortening device lifetimes. We also suggested that device makers allow users to install alternative operating systems, preferably open source ones, at the end of official support. This would allow the open-source community to create software that runs easily on older devices and receives regular updates indefinitely.

Davide Polverini of the European Commission described the work going into developing legislation for extending smartphone lifetimes, which focuses on the Ecodesign Directive. The Commission is developing vertical regulations that will apply to smartphones and tablets, as well as reviewing the Directive itself to explore how it can be adapted to cover electronics and internet technology. Ugo Vallauri from the Restart Project and Right to Repair Europe pushed for the Commission to be ambitious and agreed that software updates should be provided for far longer than they are currently. Ugo also explained that the practice of serialisation, where manufacturers prevent repair by tying specific parts to a device’s software, is becoming more common.

Our other experts were broadly in support of extending software update periods, especially since analysis by the Fraunhofer Institute shows that the cost of extending updates from two to five years is around €2 per device. However, participants raised concerns that the cost would be greater for smaller device manufacturers, which could further concentrate the market in the larger manufacturers. Device makers are not the only ones that would be affected, since several chips within smartphones need their own software. Any legislation should take this complexity into account, especially in tackling the dominance of Apple and Google, which together control the vast majority of smartphone software. We also discussed the possibility that manufacturers would create a loophole by providing a basic operating system which would be cheap to support for several years, and offer an alternative with more features that could be abandoned sooner.

We discussed the importance of updates being maintained for each component of the device, including those made by other companies, and whether it is possible to separate software and security updates (we decided possibly not). Our experts emphasised the importance of processes being as easy as possible, and the likelihood that users will be reluctant to start over with a new operating system when theirs is no longer supported. We also heard about the idea of code escrows, in which software is released if a company ceases to exist.

Making repair information public

Our second proposal is for manufacturers to publish repair manuals, device schematics and diagnostic tools so that anyone can use them. Pre-pandemic growth in repair cafes and parties demonstrates that consumers are keen to repair their gadgets and keep them going for longer. Despite this popularity, it remains difficult for end users to conduct their own smartphone repairs, so making repair information public could have a significant impact. The information would also be invaluable for research, since the repairability of products could be compared without having to tear each model apart. The French Repairability Index has also demonstrated the possibility of public availability, after Samsung published repair manuals for several of its devices online.

This is different from the Commission’s current approach for products such as electronic displays, which requires only that approved repair professionals can access this information. For TVs and other screens, repairers must either apply to be added to a national register (though no Member State has implemented one to date) or be approved by the manufacturer, which can implement any arduous contract requirements it so desires. Manufacturers can take five working days to approve a repairer and another working day to provide manuals for a specific model. We think these hurdles are likely to push more people to replace their smartphones rather than repairing them – when these devices are so important to our daily lives, each day they’re away for repair creates a serious disincentive.

Our experts debated the risks of this information being available to people that might use it to take advantage of security vulnerabilities. For several of our participants, Samsung’s recent publication of repair manuals for the French repairability index demonstrates that the right incentives can override worries about the information being misused. We also explored how likely consumers are to conduct repairs, what risks of injury they might face, and whether the availability and quality of spare parts was a greater concern. In the end, it appeared to be a chicken-and-egg issue. We can’t know if consumers will take matters into their own hands because the opportunity does not currently exist, and whatever downsides can clearly be overcome if the incentives are in the right place.

What next?

We are incredibly grateful to all our roundtable participants, who created a lively discussion and really got stuck in. Next, I’ll be incorporating their insights into a policy briefing aimed at the European Commission, to lay out the proposals and their potential impact. We’ll publish it on our website in the next few weeks, but feel free to contact me if you’d like to receive a copy of the final briefing.

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The NGI Policy-in-Practice Fund – announcing the grantees

We are very excited to announce the four projects receiving funding from the Next Generation Internet Policy-in-Practice Fund.

We are very excited to announce the four projects receiving funding from the Next Generation Internet Policy-in-Practice Fund

Policymakers and public institutions have more levers at their disposal to spur innovation in the internet space than often thought, and can play a powerful role in shaping new markets for ethical tools. We particularly believe that local experimentation and ecosystem building are vital if we want to make alternative models for the internet actually tangible and gain traction. But finding the funding and space to undertake this type of trial is not always easy – especially if outcomes are uncertain. Through the NGI Policy-in-Practice fund, it has been our aim not only to provide the means to organisations to undertake a number of these trials but also make the case for local trials more generally.

Over the past summer and autumn, we went through a highly competitive applications process, ultimately selecting four ambitious initiatives that embody this vision behind the NGI Policy-in-Practice fund. Each of the projects will receive funding of up to €25,000 to test out their idea on a local level and generate important insights that could help us build a more trustworthy, inclusive and democratic future internet.

In conjunction with this announcement, we have released an interview with each of our grantees, explaining their projects and the important issues they are seeking to address in more detail. You can also find a short summary of each project below. Make sure you register for our newsletter to stay up to date on the progress of each of our grantees, and our other work on the future of the internet.

Interoperability to challenge Big Tech power 

This project is run by a partnership of three organisations: Commons Network and Open Future, based in Amsterdam, Berlin and Warsaw.

This project explores whether the principle of interoperability, the idea that services should be able to work together, and data portability, which would allow users to carry their data with them to new services, can help decentralise power in the digital economy. Currently, we are, as users, often locked into a small number of large platforms. Smaller alternative solutions, particularly those that want to maximise public good rather than optimise for profit, find it hard to compete in this winner-takes-all economy. Can we use interoperability strategically and seize the clout of trusted institutions such as public broadcasters and civil society, to create an ecosystem of fully interoperable and responsible innovation in Europe and beyond?  

Through a series of co-creation workshops, the project will explore how this idea could work in practice, and the role trusted public institutions can play in bringing it to fruition. 

Bridging the Digital Divide through Circular Public Procurement

This project will be run by eReuse, based in Barcelona, with support from the City of Barcelona, the Technical University of Barcelona (UPC) and the global Association for Progressive Communications.

During the pandemic, where homeschooling and remote working have become the norm overnight, bridging the digital divide has become more important than ever. This project is investigating how we can make it easier for public bodies and also the private sector to donate old digital devices, such as laptops and smartphones, to low-income families currently unable to access the internet. 

By extending the lifetime of a device in this way, we are also reducing the environmental footprint of our internet use. Laptops and phones now often end up being recycled, or, worse, binned, long before their actual “useful lifespan” is over, putting further strain on the system. Donating devices could be a simple but effective mechanism for ensuring the circular economy of devices is lengthened.  

The project sets out to do two things: first, it wants to try out this mechanism on a local level and measure its impact through tracking the refurbished devices over time. Second, it wants to make it easier to replicate this model in other places, by creating legal templates that can be inserted in public and private procurement procedures, making it easier for device purchasers to participate in this kind of scheme. The partnership also seeks to solidify the network of refurbishers and recyclers across Europe. The lessons learned from this project can serve as an incredibly useful example for other cities, regions and countries to follow. 

Bringing Human Values to Design Practice

This project will be run by the BBC with support from Designswarm, LSE and the University of Sussex

Many of the digital services we use today, from our favourite news outlet to social media networks, rely on maximising “engagement” as a profit model. A successful service or piece of content is one that generates many clicks, drives further traffic, or generates new paying users. But what if we optimised for human well-being and values instead? 

This project, led by the BBC, seeks to try out a more human-centric focused approach to measuring audience engagement by putting human values at its core. It will do so by putting into practice longer-standing research work on mapping the kinds of values and needs their users care about the most, and developing new design frameworks that would make it easier to actually track these kinds of alternative metrics in a transparent way. 

The project will run a number of design workshops and share its findings through a dedicated website and other outlets to involve the wider community. The learnings and design methodology that will emerge from this work will not just be trialled within the contexts of the project partners, but will also be easily replicable by others interested in taking a more value-led approach. 

Responsible data sharing for emergencies: citizens in control

This project will be run by the Dutch National Police, in partnership with the Dutch Emergency Services Control, the Amsterdam Safety Region and the City of Amsterdam.

In a data economy that is growing ever more complex, giving meaningful consent about what happens to our personal data remains one of the biggest unsolved puzzles. But new online identity models have shown to be a potentially very promising solution, empowering users to share only that information that they want to share with third parties, and sharing that data on their own terms. One way that would allow such a new approach to identity and data sharing to scale would be to bring in government and other trusted institutions to build their own services using these principles. That is exactly what this project seeks to do.  

The project has already laid out all the building blocks of their Data Trust Infrastructure but wants to take it one step further by actually putting this new framework into practice. The project brings together a consortium of Dutch institutional partners to experiment with one first use case, namely the sharing of vital personal data with emergency services in the case of, for example, a fire. The project will not just generate learnings about this specific trial, but will also contribute to the further finetuning of the design of the wider Data Trust Infrastructure, scope further use cases (of which there are many!), and bring on board more interested parties.

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Policy in Practice Fund: Reducing the digital divide by improving the circular economy for devices

Leandro Navarro from eReuse answers a few of our questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve.

We’re introducing each of our four Policy-in-Practice Fund projects with an introductory blog post. Below, Leandro Navarro from eReuse answers a few of our burning questions to give us some insight into the project and what it will achieve. We’re really excited to be working with four groups of incredible innovators and you’ll be hearing a lot more about the projects as they progress. 

Your project is focusing on extending the lives of internet devices. Why is that an important issue to tackle?

The issue of climate change adaptation and mitigation is rapidly becoming more urgent. Digital technologies can help us fight climate change, environmental degradation and pollution. However, at the same time, they add to the problem of pollution and health impacts of the extraction of minerals for components, energy used in their manufacture, and the waste released resulting from improper disposal. A circular consumption model is key: manufacturing fewer devices by extending the lifespan of the existing through reuse ensuring final recycling.

Extending the life of a computer directly benefits its users, the health of people and the planet. It roughly translates into savings of about 30 Kg of greenhouse gasses per year of reuse and a 40-60 per cent reduction in total environmental impact due to extended use. The amount of mining exceeds the weight of the material used in a new smartphone by 260 times: 34 kg of rock is mined for each 129g smartphone. At the same time, by collecting and refurbishing decommissioned computers for second-hand use and ensuring final recycling, we are contributing to a local economy for refurbishment and remanufacturing companies. At the social level, we are bringing computer access to more people and reducing inequality. Public and community reuse programmes save money: in cities like Barcelona, we have seen savings by public administrations beyond €500 per donated and reused device by social organizations supporting homeschooling students without computers during COVID-19 confinement. 

Over 70% of European consumers would like to buy more durable and repairable devices, but this is not reflected in the products available to us. When you buy a lamp you get thousands of hours guaranteed. Why not for digital devices? 

Over the last 3 years, eReuse has collected durability as an open dataset for above 10,000 devices. We have created local ecosystems, that we call circuits, in cities like Barcelona and Madrid with diverse stakeholders, that cooperate to capture, remanufacture and recirculate electronic devices and fight the digital divide. We have helped to improve the procurement of 3,000 devices, with 1,100 recirculated into a second life. During COVID-19, these circuits have proven to be a resilient and effective solution to vulnerable sectors in the access, use and appropriation of digital goods and services. 

What is your ideal vision for how we buy and use internet devices?

With more mobile devices than people on earth and powerful companies keen for us to keep purchasing, the successful implementation of the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle) for electronic devices becomes vitally important. Today, most laptops, desktops and mobile phones are prematurely recycled when they become obsolete or depreciated by companies and public administrations. 

When we recycle a device that could be reused we lose computer use-value, we preserve the linear consumption model, which is not only damaging to the planet but also excludes those that cannot afford to always buy the latest products. 

Limiting premature recycling and promoting reuse is not the final solution to our sustainability problem but it is a way forward. Things improve with less device obsolescence and more cradle-to-cradle.

What do you hope to learn from the project, and how would that be useful for policymakers across Europe and beyond?

During the last three years, we have been working together with the Barcelona City Council to develop policies and practices in compliance with legal and operational standard procedures (secure data wipe, remanufacturing and other needs of the reverse supply chain). We have built a circuit based on the cooperation of several actors within an economic compensation system, and together we have traced thousands of computers from the Barcelona city council. We have been inspired by these principles: 

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Don’t recycle prematurely

Explore potential alternative users to give devices a new life

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Organise circular use up front

Plan for a device’s entire lifetime during procurement, including its second life

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Reduce overall consumption

Buy durable, repairable and reusable equipment and consider refurbished

We would like this project to help us to consolidate all the knowledge into agile policy templates, based on existing experiences, to help other policymakers provide value, and to support local initiatives of reuse centres and second use markets, with special attention in supplying devices to the disconnected groups.

How will this project get us one step closer to a fully circular economy for digital devices?

This project will make it easier for public and private organisations to maximise the lifespan of the devices they procure (circular procurement), reuse internally, and finally donate for further social reuse in their community, ensuring final recycling. Extended usage reduces total environmental footprint, that can be assessed through traceability data, and supports people without access to new computers and the internet. To facilitate regional replication we are creating clauses for public procurement contracts, focused on municipalities, to embed reuse in the acquisition, legal templates for computer donation to local social refurbishers and agreements between recipients and refurbishers to commit to accountable reuse and final recycling (e.g. commodate).

How can people get involved and find out more?

Look for and get involved in local initiatives about repair, collect and reuse computer devices no longer used (see repair.eu). Other people can use them, so we extend their lifespan and reduce the market pressure for new devices to be manufactured. Follow our work on eReuse.org and @eReuseOrg. If you are a public or private organisation, get involved in circular public procurement and circular policies, be an active part of nurturing a healthy second-hand market that serves everyone in your community with digital services at the lowest social, economic and environmental cost.

Icons: Pixel perfect and Flat Icons from www.flaticon.com

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Building a greener internet

How can Europe play a leading role in building a more sustainable internet?

When we think of emerging technology and sustainability, the images that come to mind usually include futuristic cities, made clean, green and perfectly efficient through the magic of algorithms and digital services.

But this utopian vision of a fully connected future comes at a potentially dystopian environmental cost. Many of our daily activities damage the environment. Thirty minutes of video streaming emits between 28 and 57g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and binging on a 10-hour series could use the same energy as charging a smartphone 145 times. A group video conference on Zoom creates 4.5g of CO2e for each participant in an hour-long call, so a company of fifty employees each participating in two hours of video calls every working day creates as many emissions as the burning of 50kg of coal each year. 

In 2018, the internet used between five and nine per cent of global energy generated – more than global aviation. Ten years from now, it could account for as much as 23 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon and energy provision aren’t the only issues at play. With the emergence of smart cities and a 5G-enabled Internet of Things, we are adding billions of low-cost new devices and sensors to our lives and built environments, embedding increasingly sophisticated electronics into our roads, buildings and appliances. How can we be sure that the benefits they deliver aren’t outweighed by their own environmental footprint – from the resources and servicing they require to the waste they produce?

Of course, thinking about the link between sustainability and technology isn’t new. The European Union recently set itself the goal of recovering from the pandemic in a way that supports both its green and digital ambitions. For policymakers across the continent, managing this so-called ‘twin transition’ is set to become one of the defining challenges of the next decade. The UK, as an R&D powerhouse with the desire to become a zero-emission economy, should take notice. The twin transition should be embraced as an opportunity, rather than a challenge, to demonstrate our leadership and ability to innovate.

It is only through a more conscious approach to connectivity that we will succeed in reconciling our green and digital aims. We have identified four principles that will help us get a handle on the environmental impact of the digital economy, and could make Europe the global standard-bearer for sustainable and ethical internet technology: 

  1. Because of the universal nature of this challenge and its potential to create significant knock-on effects, we must integrate sustainability thinking into all areas of internet-related policy, from GDPR enforcement to media regulation and competition law. 
  2. We have to improve the design of technologies by setting standards and regulating where necessary to encourage hardware producers and software developers to align their ambitions for sustainability and innovation. 
  3. Consumers need to be informed about the impact of their purchases and empowered to live their digital lives more sustainably and consciously. 
  4. Finally, we should incentivise positive change and create markets for more sustainable alternatives through tools like procurement, investment and taxation. 

To illustrate how these principles can apply to very different contexts, it is useful to take a look at the lifecycle of an internet device, from beginning to end to beginning:

Extracting natural resources

The internet is made up of physical infrastructure, from our smartphones, laptops, wearables and voice assistants to the core networks and cabling that connect our homes. Producing these tools requires a staggering variety of materials, many of which are extracted from the ground in less developed countries under conditions that threaten both local communities and the environment. Smartphones, for example, can contain upwards to 62 different elements, with the materials in each iPhone requiring the mining of more than 34kg of raw ores. Not only is the amount of energy required in these processes significant – they often involve the use of poisonous chemicals. We urgently need new and sustainable sources for the most difficult to source materials, and promising research shows we could extract many of these from recycled electronics. We can also reduce the global impact of mining by tightening up socio-environmental regulations and investigating mining opportunities within Europe.

Supply chains and importing

Once the metals, minerals and other materials that form the basis of our internet hardware are extracted, they are processed and shaped into components in several stages by a complex web of companies located across the world. An iPhone, for example, contains parts from over 200 suppliers. These supply chains are notoriously opaque. Manufacturers often don’t know exactly where a part or its materials have originated, nor do they know how sustainable their production processes are. By the time a device reaches a shop or online store, up to 95 per cent of its lifetime greenhouse gas emissions have already been created. We cannot meaningfully tackle the environmental footprint of these devices unless we have common European standards for supply chain transparency and mandatory reporting requirements that bind upstream and downstream companies looking to sell into European markets. 

Marketing and purchasing

As soon as our devices arrive in store, they fly off the shelves at astonishing rates – 200 million smartphones are sold each year in Europe alone. We replace our smartphones roughly every two years, often before they are broken, despite the opportunity to save £100 per year by keeping an old device running. Three quarters of Europeans are willing to spend more on products and services if they are environmentally friendly. We need to educate and empower consumers so they can choose devices that last longer and are easier to repair and upgrade. That starts with giving them clear and visible information about the environmental impact of their devices at the point of purchase. Local governments, public sector organisations and infrastructure providers also spend significant sums on connected devices and internet hardware. If we channel their purchasing power through green procurement rules, sustainability assessments and better guidance, we can make a real difference and create markets for manufacturers that design for sustainability and longevity.

Use and services

All of our clicks, calls and content are sent buzzing through the internet’s physical infrastructure, made up of wireless base stations, cables, switches and servers. The data we send and receive travels through data centres, large warehouses full of servers that need huge amounts of energy to power and cool them. Our data consumption is increasing quickly, and even today these systems are powered in large part by fossil fuels because they are cheaper or more readily available. Data centres across the globe used around 416 TWh per year, or about 3 per cent of global electricity supply in 2019, which is nearly 40 per cent more than the consumption of the entire United Kingdom.

According to some estimates, a single email creates around 4g of carbon dioxide. Unaware of the impact of our actions, we send roughly 300 billion emails per day, creating 1.2 million tonnes of emissions every twenty-four hours. That, quite literally, makes spam and marketing emails litter. We could make it easier for consumers to switch from services that still rely on fossil fuels and nudge tech or data companies into adopting greener energy sources and cutting back on unnecessary data-hoarding as per the GDPR’s data minimisation principle. Working with industry, we should develop standards to demonstrate and improve the energy efficiency of websites, software and services. Major platforms could lower the resolution of video content, remove auto-play functions or give users the option to listen to audio without video. Search engines and online stores could do more to identify and promote green results.

Distributed services such as the blockchain also contribute significantly to carbon emissions, with each Bitcoin transaction creating a staggering 287kg of CO2 is emitted for each single Bitcoin transaction, equivalent to around 800,000 VISA card transactions. In Iceland, Bitcoin mining is projected to soon use more energy than the country’s residents. We need to get ahead of these technologies so we can contribute to more environmentally friendly designs.

Extending lifetime

Anyone hoping to extend the life of their internet device when it breaks will come up against some serious hurdles. Repair manuals and spare parts are rarely made available to end users, and manufacturers often threaten tinkerers with draconian warranty conditions. This makes repair expensive and pushes us towards buying a new device. The fragility of modern device designs, with their edge-to-edge glass screens, adds to this trend. Our devices should and could last longer. They ought to receive software updates for longer, and be upgradeable. Modular designs such as the Fairphone have shown that this is possible. We can educate consumers about the repairability of their devices at the point of purchase, and ensure the long-term availability and accessibility of repair manuals, tools and parts to make fixing devices a viable alternative again. We also need legislation to give users the Right to Repair their devices and encourage manufacturers to design products that can have their lives extended.

Managing waste

When our internet devices break or become too slow to run the latest apps, we usually replace them. But that’s not the end of the story. The designs of our devices make them incredibly difficult to recycle, with minuscule parts soldered and glued into place. As in the early stages of a device’s lifecycle, we again rely on less developed countries to do our dirty work: 1.3 million tonnes of undocumented goods are exported from the EU each year, and in the UK as much as 80 per cent of electronic waste recycling is shipped to emerging and developing countries. Working in dire conditions, low-paid workers will disassemble the device for its valuable components, but many parts will be lost, and those that can be reused will be subjected to acid and chemical treatments that are prone to leaking into the environment. We need a Europe-wide takeback scheme and financial incentives for manufacturers to make devices easier to recycle when they are no longer repairable. 

Today we launch a new report that explores the many effects the internet has on the environment and sets out a series of recommendations that policymakers, businesses and consumers should consider to grasp the opportunities presented by the green and digital twin transition and make Europe a leader in sustainable internet technologies. This report is part of our work leading NGI Forward, the strategy and policy arm of the European Commission’s flagship Next Generation Internet initiative, which seeks to build a more democratic, inclusive, resilient, sustainable and trustworthy internet by 2030. We hope that it sparks a new conversation about a common European approach to the internet that will support the twin green and digital transitions necessary to recovery from the pandemic. There is a huge amount that we can do to create positive change in this area but we must act now.

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Eight goals for a human-centric internet

As part of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative, the NGI Forward consortium aims to set out a vision for a more human-centric internet. This blog identifies eight key objectives that can get us there and inform our policy and technology research.

In recent decades, there has been a revolution in the development of internet technologies across a wide range of fields, and all indications are that the technological progress is continuing at a rapid pace. These breakthroughs undoubtedly have a profound impact on society, and while they present significant opportunities, there are also complex dilemmas and challenges emerging around these new technologies.

Currently, the development of the internet technologies of the future is centralised around a few internet giants in near-monopoly positions on the global data market and, without an adequate response, humans risk losing control to data-driven, non-human-centric business models. It is the goal of the Next Generation Internet initiative and NGI Forward to secure progressive development of internet technologies and policy that support the development of a more human-centric evolution of the Internet.

A mixed method approach to identify emerging challenges

Insights into emerging technologies and their corresponding challenges and opportunities can be of great value for European policy-makers in this process. Understanding these emerging challenge areas will allow policy-makers to become involved in shaping internet development early on to embed more human-centric values.

Following some of our previous work to map out future internet challenges, the NGI Forward consortium have identified a new set of eight key topics that we believe will be central in developing a more democratic, inclusive and resilient Next Generation Internet. These topics will help inform the NGI’s policy and technology research agenda going forward.

To identify the most pressing issues facing the internet today – and tomorrow – we employed a mixed method approach that includes computational social science methods and expert workshops. In the first phase, DELab at the University of Warsaw collected qualitative data from technology news articles and academic working papers to identify trending keywords related to the Internet in the broader public and research community respectively. In the second phase, DATALAB from Aarhus University organised an expert workshop with leading stakeholders in the internet research community to help narrow down the areas of focus and verify or adjust the topics. Lastly, DATALAB synthesized the results to select eight key topics for the NGI.

The chosen topics are not tied to any one technology to prevent them falling out of relevance in the coming years. They are broadly interpretable and solution-agnostic so as to avoid us jumping to simplistic conclusions or specific solutions too quickly. The rapid technological development in recent decades demonstrates that focusing on specific tools and technology may render topics obsolete within just a few years, while societal challenges are more likely to remain relevant and allow the EU to focus on a wider range of solutions beyond a predetermined technology.

1. Trustworthy Information Flows

It is widely recognised that trustworthy information flows are essential for healthy democracies, but with social media and the Internet, content can spread much faster and in less moderated ways, challenging traditional information flows. The problem of online mis- and disinformation – often referred to as fake news – has evolved from a journalistic concern to one of the most urgent democratic issues in recent years. Despite major attention from the media, academia and governments, an effective solution is still not available. Coupled with other issues such as governmental censorship and large-scale content moderation by online platforms, information flows are changing rapidly, and further research is needed to explore different solutions that are sustainable and consider often conflicting values.

2. Decentralised Power on the Internet

The Internet was originally designed to be open and decentralised. But the de facto internet of today is controlled by a handful of giant companies with virtual monopoly control, acting as gatekeepers by enforcing policies on their users. However, visions for a more decentralised Internet are gaining traction – an Internet where humans can communicate without relying on big companies that collect data for profit. Some concepts for a decentralised Internet utilize distributed web and blockchain technologies to yield a more open and accessible Internet, while others focus on empowering people to publish and own content on the web outside centralised social media platforms. More research is needed into these solutions, both technical and socio-technical.

3. Personal Data Control

Recent revelations including the Cambridge Analytica scandal have made clear the lack of control we have over our own data, and the sheer amount of data collected online has created a major privacy concern. New approaches to privacy and data rights are needed to realise the societal and environmental potential of big data to connect diverse information and conduct rapid analysis – such as data sovereignty, data portability, and collective data rights. Achieving this will require research into the ways policymakers can fit these new concepts into existing data regulation frameworks in a way that offers individuals better control and authority, and builds public trust and engagement.

4. Sustainable and Climate-friendly Internet

The environmental impact of the Internet is enormous and growing rapidly. Each activity online comes with a small price in terms of carbon emissions and with over half the global population now online, this adds up. According to some estimates, the global carbon footprint of the Internet and the systems supporting it amounts to about 3.7 percent of the total carbon emissions, similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. As the Internet expands into new territory, it is estimated that the carbon footprint of the global internet technologies will double by 2025. Indeed, sustainability should be a bigger priority, and further insights are needed into how emissions could be controlled, how awareness of the environmental impact of the Internet can be raised, and how internet technologies can be utilized in the fight against climate change.

5. Safer Online Environments

People increasingly experience the internet as a hostile space. Cyberviolence in many shapes and forms is a growing concern, and it has a significant impact on an increasing number of people, LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, women and children in particular. It will be vital for a more human-centric Internet to build safe online environments. For this to happen, a range of issues needs to be taken into consideration, including the role of social media providers and the protection of free expression. At the same time, solutions need to be investigated, such as effective moderation or containment procedures, creating useful aid for victims of cyberviolence and enabling law enforcement to take action against offenders.

6. An Inclusive Internet

The Internet offers a potential for inclusiveness in a global and diverse community, but if access is not evenly distributed, the Internet will deepen inequality. Half of the population of the world is still offline, urban areas are better connected than rural, and those that are connected in advanced ways may not be in a position to realise the full potential of the Internet to improve their lives and mitigate against critical issues. Many disabled people also are excluded from using online information and services, so inclusive infrastructures and tools are needed to remove barriers and create an inclusive and accessible Internet for all.

7. Competitive European Ecosystems

Today, the Internet is dominated by two narratives that give little agency to users: the American model, ruled by capitalist market powers with internet giants harvesting massive amounts of personal data to shape human behaviour, and the Chinese model characterised by mass surveillance and government control of the internet. These narratives cannot go unchallenged, and growth and innovation in the European tech industry without acquisitions from the U.S. and China-based companies is needed to support a competing narrative adhering to European values. This requires further research into possible policy and regulatory initiatives that can increase Europe’s competitiveness in the technology sector.

8. Ethical Internet Technology

Recent examples, such as Google’s censored search engine developed for the Chinese market (‘Project Dragonfly’), instances of algorithmic bias in criminal cases, racially targeted ads and “differential” pricing, and the use of Facebook data for voter manipulation, have shown that the Silicon Valley attitude of ‘moving fast and breaking things’ has failed. With the rapid development of new technologies in the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, further research is needed in order to develop targeted ethical frameworks for the development and implementation of new technologies.

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Greening the internet, remotely

Team NGI Forward has got off to a cracking start in the new world of online conferences, with our debut session at IAM Weekend. Run by a collective of artists, technologists and activists, IAM brought together hundreds of attendees from across the globe to discuss The Weirdness of Interdependencies. We had a great time joining […]

Team NGI Forward has got off to a cracking start in the new world of online conferences, with our debut session at IAM Weekend. Run by a collective of artists, technologists and activists, IAM brought together hundreds of attendees from across the globe to discuss The Weirdness of Interdependencies. We had a great time joining in and stirring up discussion about how we can make the internet more sustainable and climate-friendly. Here’s how it went.

Our aims

We’re experiencing an unprecedented and likely unsustainable proliferation of connected devices, data and traffic. Do we risk sleepwalking into a future of internet curfews and Netflix-shaming? Or can good policy and ‘smart everything’ save the day? We wanted to create an immersive workshop about these strange futures and difficult choices.

How we did it

Let’s start with some notes on the format of our workshop since everyone is looking for ideas on running online events these days. We used video conferencing and a shared slide deck so we could update it real-time with attendee contributions. For the interactive section, we used breakout rooms to split into two groups of around 15. It worked well, and as you’ll see below, we collected a ton of ideas from our willing participants.

The internet’s environmental impact

We started with a discussion of what the internet is, and where it begins and ends. The boundaries are blurry, and we have embedded the internet in so many aspects of human life that its impact is widespread and in many areas difficult to define. Powering this global network requires vast quantities of electricity, estimated at between 5-9% of the world’s total generation capacity. Despite current efforts to move to renewable sources, most of the electricity powering the internet comes from burning coal and gas, which means that our internet use is creating 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly equal to the entire global airline industry.

With the advent of IoT and 5G, the sustainability of our digital lives will become a pressing issue in the years to come. Yet, we are doing relatively little to build social awareness, spur positive cultural change or capture the market opportunities associated with innovating for a more sustainable, resilient and ethically-sourced internet.

In the rudimentary map below, you can see the different groups of people and activities that contribute to the internet’s environmental impact. From users streaming video and the data centres that serve them, to the devices they use and the mining required to produce them, everything has an impact.

And here is a set of facts about each of these areas that hits home:

Two possible ways forward

Any policy change can have unintended consequences, so we decided to present two potential approaches to reducing the internet’s climate impact. We wanted to explore what the world would look like if politicians, businesses and citizens had to make more conscious decisions about connectivity, our data and the devices we use. We wanted to challenge participants to consider tough trade-offs, predict winners and losers, and think through unexpected consequences that could range from YouTube rationing and internet class systems to urban mining booms and net-zero stock bubbles.

To get us started, Markus sketched out two equally challenging ways forward. We decided we wanted to avoid creating a dichotomy between decisive climate action and calamitous inaction. Instead, we created two imaginary scenarios that involved work on a broad scale, just with a different approach. In reality, the plan would likely include elements of both, but taking an extreme makes a futures exercise more interesting!

At this point, we split into two groups and used a futures wheel to plot out the potential consequences of each scenario. Here’s the template we used.

Scenario one: Fast Forward

In this imagined future, we’re going to accelerate our technological efforts towards solving climate change. There’d be an explosion of funding for research and development. We’d create apps, services and devices to help us monitor, analyse and act on the information we gather about the climate. We’d see all of the following actions:

💙Ramp up investment in green innovation and smart cities to mitigate climate change
💙Drive forward the digitisation of public services and make infrastructure ‘smarter’ to improve energy efficiency
💙Promote more decentralised data infrastructure
💙Encourage the proliferation of connected devices and data to better inform decision-making and policy

The good

This group predicted that new jobs, income streams and circular economy systems would emerge alongside greater access to the arts and the addition of new perspectives to global society. Greater efficiency in logistics and a greater variety of services available could lead to reduced digital lock-in for consumers, and digital tools could give us greater control over our lives.

The scenario would enable climate movements to rapidly scale, connecting people to local grassroots campaigns and improving coordination. We could see loneliness drop as we become more connected, with technology assisting ageing populations with healthcare and companionship. 

We’d invest more in technology to reduce food waste, which could help to resolve food insecurity. The price of healthcare could drop due to automation, and we could even see the beginning of a Universal Basic Income

The bad

On the negative side, our participants feared that this approach could exacerbate some already familiar problems. Greater reliance on technology could further challenge our right to privacy and worsen the digital divide. Remote areas and older people could also be left behind, which might make loneliness worse for marginalised communities.

We’ve seen in the past how a small minority of climate deniers can derail global efforts. Fake news could spread through the population like wildfire, making it challenging to verify the reliability of data. In this scenario, more people could gain access to the internet, and more conflicting views online could make it difficult to come to democratic decisions about what to do. 

Policymakers and the justice system could also be too slow to keep up with the pace of innovation we’d see in a world focused on accelerating research and development. A delayed reaction here could result in failing to protect workers that lose their jobs to automation. That could include farmers, challenged by an increase in mechanised processing and even genetically modified foods

Financial investment could be directed primarily towards large incumbent technology companies, crowding out small businesses in the online marketplace. Companies would also need to focus on long term investment in adapting, rather than short term gain.

Accelerating our adoption of technology could cause huge piles of electronic waste, with the toxic processing of rare earth metals and pollution rising interminably. 

It’s a complicated picture!

Scenario two: Press Pause

In this future, we’ve decided to hit the brakes. We’d slow down emissions by reducing our use of technology. Our focus could move back to spending time in nature. There might be campaigns to shame people that stream content ‘excessively’. We’d likely see the following:

💚Increase taxes on – and remove subsidies for – fossil energy and ‘dirty’ technology
💚Redesign public services to be more energy-efficient and less interdependent or reliant on the internet
💚Consolidate data centres, regulate energy use and traffic
💚Introduce a right-to-repair, discourage further proliferation of devices and encourage data minimisation

The good

This group felt that pressing pause would make things fairer by increasing tax on companies rather than individuals, forcing change at the core of the internet. Achieving this pause would require global collaboration on an unprecedented scale, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity to solidify global ties and collaborate.

With a more conscious approach to connectivity or even reduced internet access, we’d choose more carefully what to post online. The taxes collected in this scenario could fund all manner of social interventions, and we’d likely see a reduction in overall pollution. People could become more connected to their local communities, and we could bring marginalised groups into discussions on an equal level, especially those whom technology currently excludes because of their age, background or lack of infrastructure.

The bad

However, the consolidation of data centres could also lead to more centralised control over the internet, and it’s not clear whether this would be good for the environment in the long term. We could also see the emergence of a two-tier internet, where traffic for either vital services or wealthier groups is prioritised. 

Moreover, a culture of click-shaming could develop, forcing people to reduce or even hide their internet use. Is this how we want our approach to the internet to change?

Trade-offs along the way

Together we identified a set of trade-offs when considering greening the internet.

Green tech vs ethical supply chains: Green innovation is still heavily dependent on problematic battery technology and critical raw materials, such as rare earth minerals. These are often sourced through unsustainable means and under poor working conditions.

Saving the climate vs economic stability: Our economy and innovation ecosystems are heavily dependent on high levels of consumption. If we stop buying new devices every year, jobs may be lost and not necessarily replaced. R&D investment will have to come from new sources. 

Reducing consumption vs fair access: The global north and specific demographics benefit disproportionately from internet access. But there are still 3 billion people without a connection. Providing the same opportunities and fair access to everyone would have a tremendous impact on the environment and more environmentally friendly devices would likely be prohibitively expensive for many.

Public interest vs consumer benefit: Consumers are voters. Policies that hurt them tend to be unpopular. If we encourage companies to sell phones without chargers, will they just make greater profits to the detriment of lower-income families? Are we willing to stick with old phones for longer or pay a premium for repairable devices?

We don’t have the tech or the equality

The groups also questioned how long it would take to develop the technologies required. We decided that we will need serious investment in technology and corresponding public policy in either scenario, but that neither was particularly appealing overall. Large companies will likely be better prepared to adapt, but this depends on their sector. The geographical and political context of companies and users is another barrier to enacting these changes.

Both groups reflected next on who would benefit from these scenarios, and the answers were similar. Some participants expressed pessimism that either scenario would do much to shake up the power imbalance in the digital economy. We could easily empower those currently in marginalised groups to connect and benefit in either scenario. However, connecting them would require coordinated, concerted effort from those in power. Without this effort, participants felt that current inequalities would be exacerbated, continuing the exclusion experienced by people with lower incomes, the socially isolated, people with medical conditions and older people.

Thank you, IAM!

We had a fantastic time discussing these issues with our lovely attendees, and we’ll be contacting them, so we stay in touch. The rest of IAM Weekend was both insightful and great fun; we’d highly recommend it.

If you’re interested in these topics, join our newsletter and get in touch.

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How collective intelligence can help tackle major challenges…

...and build a better internet along the way!

It’s hard to imagine what our social response to a public health challenge at the scale of COVID-19 would have looked like just ten or fifteen years ago – in a world without sophisticated tools for remote working, diversified digital economies, and social networking opportunities. 

Today, we see frontline doctors self-organising through social media to share diagnostic and treatment advice, DIY communities sharing open source solutions to help bolster supplies of ventilators and face masks, and the transition of many businesses to a physically distributed and temporally asynchronous workforce model.

The common enabler of all these activities is the internet. Recent years have seen innovation across all of its layers – from infrastructure to data rights – resulting in an unprecedented capacity for people to work together, share skills and pool information to understand how the world around them is changing and respond to challenges. This enhanced capacity is known as collective intelligence (CI)

The internet certainly needs fixing – from the polarising effect of social media on political discourse to the internet’s perpetual concentration of wealth and power and its poorly understood impact on the environment. But turning to the future, it’s equally clear that there is great promise in the ability of emerging technologies, new governance models and infrastructure protocols to enable entirely new forms of collective intelligence that can help us solve complex problems and change our lives for the better. 

Based on examples from Nesta’s recent report, The Future of Minds & Machines, this blog shows how an internet based on five core values can serve to combine distributed human and machine intelligence in new ways and help Europe become more than the sum of its parts. 

We have been mapping projects that bring Artificial Intelligence and Collective Intelligence together.
Source: nesta.org.uk

Resilience

Resilience is a core value for the future internet. It means secure infrastructure and the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation. But it also means that connected technologies should enable us to better respond to external challenges. Online community networks that can be tapped into and mobilised quickly are already an important part of the 21st century humanitarian response. 

Both Amnesty International and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap have global communities of volunteers, numbering in the thousands, who participate in distributed micromapping efforts to trace features like building and roads on satellite images. These online microtasking platforms help charities and aid agencies understand how conflicts and environmental disasters affect different regions around the world, enabling them to make more informed decisions about distribution of resources and support. 

More recently, these platforms have started to incorporate elements of artificial intelligence to support the efforts of volunteers. One such initiative, MapWithAI, helps digital humanitarians to prioritise where to apply their skills to make mapping more efficient overall. 

The internet also enables and sustains distinct communities of practice, like these groups of humanitarian volunteers, allowing individuals with similar interests to find each other. This social and digital infrastructure may prove invaluable in times of crises, when there is a need to tap into a diversity of skills and ideas to meet unexpected challenges. 

In the future, collective intelligence may also help improve our ability to cooperate and share resources in, such as food and energy, effectively between and within groups. At Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID), we are supporting research that asks whether different levels of social connectivity within and between overlapping social groups on an online platform can improve coordination in response to collective crises. Experiments like this one, will help us to understand how the internet can be organised to support more collectively intelligent and resilient behaviours. 

Inclusiveness

The need to consider a diversity of information, opinions and ideas is a key factor in the success of any collective intelligence initiative. This is true for small group interactions – which have been shown to require cognitive diversity of participants to improve problem solving, creativity and learning – as well as large-scale initiatives such as crowd predictions, where individuals making mistakes in slightly different ways ensures that the collective estimate holds. If we want to address challenges facing the whole of society, we need solutions designed for everyone.

One example of collective intelligence improving inclusiveness – while also taking an inclusive-by-design approach – is Mozilla’s Common Voice project, which uses an accessible online platform to crowdsource the world’s largest open dataset of diverse voice recordings, spanning different languages, demographic backgrounds and accents. 

The Common Voice project crowdsources diverse voices, accents and underrepresented languages

Ensuring diversity of contributions is not easy. It requires a deliberate effort to involve individuals with rare knowledge, such as members of indigenous cultures or speakers of unusual dialects. But a future internet built around an inclusive innovation ecosystem, products that are inclusive-by-design, and fundamental rights for the individual – rather than a closed system built around surveillance and exploitation – will make it easier for projects like Common Voice to become the norm. 

Democracy

The future internet should have the ambition to protect democratic institutions and give political agency to all – but it should also itself be an expression of democratic values. That means designing for more meaningful bottom-up engagement of citizens, addressing asymmetric power relationships in the digital economy and creating spaces for different voices to be heard. 

Both national and local governments worldwide are starting to appreciate the opportunities that the internet and collective intelligence offer in terms of helping them to better understand the views of their citizens. Parliaments from Brazil to Taiwan are inviting citizens to contribute to the legislative process, while cities like Brussels and Paris are asking their residents to help prioritise spending through participatory budgeting. The EU is also preparing a Conference on the Future Europe to engage citizens at scale in thinking about the future of the bloc, an effort that could be enhanced and facilitated through CI-based approaches like participatory futures. These types of activities can help engage a greater variety of individuals in political decision-making and redefine the relationships between politicians and the constituents they serve. 

Unfortunately, some citizen engagement initiatives are still driven by tech-solutionism without a clear market need, rather than the careful design of participation processes that make the most of the collective contributions of citizens. Even when digital democracy projects start out with the best intentions politicians can struggle to make sense of this new source of insight, which risks valuable ideas being overlooked and diminished trust in democratic processes. 

There are signs that this is changing. For example, the collective intelligence platform Citizen Lab is trying to optimise the channels of communications and interpretation between citizens and politicians. It has started to apply natural language processing algorithms to help organise and identify themes in the ideas that citizens contribute using its platform, helping public servants to make better use of them. Citizen Lab is used by city administrations in more than 20 countries across Europe and offers a glimpse of how Europe can set an example of democratic collective intelligence enabled by the infrastructure of the internet.

Trust

A closely related challenge for the internet today is the continued erosion of trust – trust in the veracity of information, trust between citizens online, and trust in public institutions. The internet of the future will have to find ways of dealing with challenges like digital identities and the safety of our everyday online interactions. But perhaps most importantly, the internet must be able to tackle the problems of information overload and misinformation through systems that optimise for fact-based and balanced exchanges, rather than outrage and division.

We have seen some of the dangers of fake news manifest as part of the response to COVID-19. At a time when receiving accurate public health messaging and government communications are a matter of life and death, the cacophony of information on the internet can make it hard for individuals to distinguish the signal from the noise. 

Undoubtedly, part of the solution to effectively navigate his new infosphere will require new forms of public private partnerships. By working with media and technology giants like Facebook and Twitter, governments and health agencies worldwide have started to curb some of the negative effects of misinformation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But the commitment to a trustworthy internet is a long-term investment. It will not only rely on the actions of policy makers and industry to develop recognisable trustmarks, but also on a more literate citizenry that is better able to spot suspicious materials and flag concerns. 

A tweet by the UK Government warning about misinformation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many existing fact checking projects already already use crowdsourcing at different stages of the verification processes. For example, the company Factmata is developing a technology that will draw on specialist communities of more than 2000 trained experts to help them assess the trustworthiness of online content. However, crowdsourced solutions can be vulnerable to issues of bias, polarisation and gaming and will need to be consolidated by complementary sources of intelligence such as expert validation or entirely new AI tools that can help to mitigate against the effects of social bias.

Sustainability

Undoubtedly, some of our biggest challenges are yet to come. But the internet holds untapped potential for us to build awareness for the interdependency of our social and natural environments. We need to champion models that put the digital economy at the service of creating a more sustainable planet and combating climate change, while also remaining conscious of the environmental footprint these systems have in their own right.

Citizen science is a distinct family of collective intelligence methods where volunteers collect data, make observations or perform analyses that helps to advance scientific knowledge. Citizen science projects have proliferated over the last 20 years, in large part due to the internet. For example, the most popular online citizen science platform, Zooniverse, hosts over 50 different scientific projects and has attracted over 1 million contributors. 

A large proportion of citizen science projects focus on the environment and ecology, helping to engage members of the public outside of traditional academia with issues such as biodiversity, air quality and pollution of waterways. iNaturalist is an online social network that brings together nature lovers to keep track of different species of plants and animals worldwide. The platform supports learning within a passionate community and creates a unique open data source that can be used by scientists and conservation agencies. 

Beyond the direct use of citizen generated data for environmental monitoring and tracking of progress towards the sustainable development goals, online citizen science and community monitoring projects can lead to increased awareness of sustainability issues and longer term pro-environmental behavioural change and for those involved.

Building the Next Generation Internet – with and for collective intelligence

To enable next-generation collective intelligence, Europe needs to look beyond ‘just AI’ and invest in increasingly smarter ways of connecting people, information and skills, and facilitating interactions on digital platforms. The continued proliferation of data infrastructures, public and private sector data sharing and the emergence of the Internet of Things will play an equally important part in enhancing and scaling up collective human intelligence. Yet, for this technological progress to have a transformative and positive impact on society, it will have to be put in the service of furthering fundamental values. Collective intelligence has the opportunity to be both a key driver and beneficiary of a more inclusive, resilient, democratic, sustainable and trustworthy internet. 

At this moment of global deceleration, we suggest it is time to take stock of old trajectories for the internet to set out on a new course, one that allows us to make the most of the diverse collective intelligence that we have within society to become better at solving complex problems. The decisions we make today will help us to shape the society of the future. 

Aleks is a Senior Researcher and Project Manager for Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID). The CCID conducts research and develops resources to help innovators understand how they can harness collective intelligence to solve problems. Our latest report, The Future of Minds & Machines mapped the various ways that AI is helping to enhance and scale the problem solving abilities of groups. It is available for download on the Nesta website, where you can also explore 20 case studies of AI & CI in practice.

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