UCL CBT
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UCL CBT

Students ask CBT leaders to express their opinions on digital identities, smart cities and sustainability — Part I

Students interview Paolo Tasca, Nikhil Vadgama and Jiahua Xu

In an initiative led by their teacher Monica Stragliotto, high school students of the Liceo G.B. Brocchi (Bassano del Grappa, Italy) interviewed members of UCL’s CBT team. With Ms. Stragliotto as moderator, Paolo Tasca (CBT Executive Director), Nikhil Vadgama (CBT Deputy Director) and Jiahua Xu (CBT Research Project Manager). They explored the relation of the CBT and blockchain technology in general with sustainability, smart cities, “super apps”, the Covid-19 pandemic, and more. Read Part I of this interview below.

The Liceo Brocchi school in Bassano del Grappa, Italy.

In the last two months we have been discussing and analysing the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainability in our English classes. Is the Centre working in this direction of sustainability and inclusiveness? If yes, which projects and phenomena is the CBT currently developing or studying?

  • Jiahua Xu: Companies today can purchase carbon emission allowances in the form of carbon certificates from an open market. If a company emits more than the allowances bought, they must pay a fine. Currently, this market is incomplete as there are just the European and the American markets, and this proves not that efficient. But thanks to advancements in technology, such as DLTs and Blockchain, it is possible to link all the existing markets and make the capitalization of this carbon emission market higher.
  • Paolo Tasca: In the Digital Identity Project in collaboration with the UN World Food Programme (2016), this UN Agency asked us for technical help in order to face long-standing problems in delivering their services to less developed and poor countries in the African continent, in particular. The idea was to develop and implement the concept of a digital social society in order to bring almost all the entire population of these countries into a digital system. In 2016 the UN World Food Programme statistics showed that almost 20 million people around the world were not properly identified. If you are not well identified, International organisations face difficulties because they cannot reach you since they do not even know that you exist, where exactly you live, which your identity and identification criteria are.

    This is a matter strictly relating to local infrastractures, since in developing countries identification problems and processes are carried out through traditional methods such as through paper or other low level technologies that can be easily disrupted simply because data can easily get lost because of human and operational errors or even frauds and corruption.

    The UCL CBT has been involved in order to explore whether it was possible to mitigate these problems through Blockchain and to bring transparency into identification processes for people in need in these developing countries. So in 2016, thanks to the collaboration with other unis and institutes such as the University of Oxford, a project was designed in order to produce a system that could enable efficiency, transparency and safety in identification, registration and data management for the great amount of activities and projects of the World Food Programme. This was one of the first attempts in the world that tried to include Blockchain and DLTs in order to tackle this kind problem. The UN has moved on into the field and put this system into practice.

    Of course, to make this possible a balance between innovation and cultural legacy must be kept, especially for those countries that are not that prone to innovation. Usually, this is also linked to a lack of financial and technological literacy (knowledge), for people in the local government that are at the edge of the system and that should be able to roll out locally the new infrastructure. Thus, a lot of training and teaching were involved in this project, as well.
  • Nikhil Vadgama: A study we are doing with colleagues across Europe is being carried out to explore how technology can facilitate sustainability and how this topic has changed over time. Thanks to machine learning techniques and AI, we are able to go out and very easily read lots of scientific papers and other sources to see whether it is possible to track how the importance of sustainability as a topic has changed, especially when it comes to research interests and people’s opinions over time. The focus is mainly on blockchain technology and the question being asked is has blockchain becoming more or less sustainable? How have interests in the different components of blockchain changed over time? Since it is thanks to blockchain that Bitcoin can circulate, however, when it comes to Bitcoin you may know that it is really energy intensive: a lot of electricity is used to enable this cryptocurrency so people may say that this is not that sustainable as a technology. We are trying to investigate how people and research attitudes have changed and whether people are more or less concerned about these aspects. Even though this is an abstract study, it is very important to check if people’s attitudes have changed over time to understand how the importance of sustainability is changing.

With reference to Goal 11, in our English classes we have also explored Smart cities as an example of a way to develop resilient sustainability. Which are the smartest cities or areas of the globe at the moment? Is it possible to turn almost every city into a smart city?

  • Jiahua Xu: I’m happy to give a first view on this. Personally, I have been in Europe for the last 5–6 years. I come from China and last year I went back to Shanghai, which is also my hometown and it absolutely blew my mind. Just with my experience of travelling (I have lived in Germany, Switzerland, the UK and I have also visited Rome and Milan in Italy), I would say thus far Shanghai is definitely the smartest city that I have seen. I was so impressed especially for the rapid development that it has undergone in the last few years. The city was smart in the sense that it was absolutely cashless and paperless. You can almost not use cash as many shops do not accept it; in many restaurants you do not receive a paper menu any more. What you have to do is to scan the QR code of your table and by doing so your table nr is registered: waiters know where you are, what your order is and your payment information is also automatically connected to it. You order and you pay: very smooth and convenient. Taxis have a similar procedure in terms of smoothness and convenience. Here in London you can get a Uber or you can use the Black Cab, which is more official. In Shanghai they have a Uber-like system called Didi, almost everybody uses it in the city and if you get an official taxi, they do not usually accept cash as well. There is a QR code where you can make your payment with your mobile phone. Personally, Shanghai is the smartest city I have visited so far.

    With regards to your second part of your question, as for now my answer would be negative. First of all, we have different levels of development in different cities, so the smartness of a city is also partly constrained by government’s budget and also by people’s willingness. Do people in the world actually want to have every city to be turned into a smart city? I am not so sure. On the one hand we want technological development but on the other we also want to preserve a certain level of diversity around the globe. So I would assume that many people around the world still have the willingness to preserve part of the Earth as it is right now, to preserve certain traditions and culture typical of their area. With the development of technology people actually cherish their traditional culture even more as opposed to less, as traditional culture is progressively diminishing and disappearing so people start to cherish it a little bit more now. To sum up, we have these two aspects to consider: firstly, objective monetary constraints; secondly, people’s emotional attachment and their own opinion on technological development. Thus, due to these two factors, I do think that it would not be possible to have every city go smart for the time being. That’s my personal perspective.
  • Paolo Tasca: I think Jiahua is in the best position to answer this question since she comes from that area of the world which is indeed very advanced in these types of technology. Even Nikhil has lived in China for a while so he can share his opinion later on. But let me add this. We as scientists, working on complex dynamics decentralised markets, have examined an interesting trilemma that emerges when people like us study these kinds of markets. The issue is on scalability, control and privacy. Large scale markets that are decentralised are supported by three main pillars: scalability, so to say how fast the system performs; control, how robust and solid the system is from malicious attacks; finally we have privacy, including availability, transparency and open-governance. These three pillars pose a trilemma, as in scientific literature we have noticed that in every way and context these pillars are applied in large scale networks (it could be in finance and any other dimension of the economic system), they keep on presenting the same issue: two out of three of these pillars are chosen and one of them is usually put aside. What we have observed is that the designers of our systems (and also of smart cities) usually focus on scalability and controllability rather than privacy. This is a problem because there is a blurring border between preserving privacy and granting compliance to citizens enforced to inhabit smart cities on one side, and on the other enforcing surveillance. Thus, the path between compliance and surveillance is really narrow. In addition, it is very easy for designers to move form preserving privacy to surveillance. Even the border between the three of them is really unknown as there is no textbook that teaches these designers where privacy ends and surveillance starts. This trilemma keeps on appearing. For instance, I may decide to enforce surveillance to offer citizens a higher sense of security and therefore control. So I may be willing to put privacy aside and put cameras around the city to better protect citizens but I can also control them better, on the other side. Conversely, citizens may suffer because privacy is reduced and they lack the freedom to perform their daily activities as they used to. This is a real risk that no one is talking about because we always think that technology is good and ready to serve us but it is not always true. It all depends on how we use it and also how our politicians design our systems. That’s my opinion on this matter, even though we cannot cover it completely in just a few minutes interview.
  • Nikhil Vadgama: Well, I think my colleagues have already eloquently answered this question but I would only add one more aspect. When you have cities that are growing it is much easier to integrate smart functionalities as opposed to cities with already existing infrastructures. For instance, think about London and its underground system: it is really inefficient because it was built over a hundred years ago and it is not possible to improve it easily. There is nothing you can do to make it better without spending enormous amounts of funds. These are the kinds of problems that older cities have when trying to modernize with new technology, so there is infrastructure that cannot be improved and costs to do so are too high, as Jiahua mentioned as well. Thus, there is this aspect to bear in mind.

Taking as an example the phenomenon of SuperApps that has started and continues to grow mainly in Asia, are there any cultural or other reasons that allow certain digital phenomena to happen just in certain parts of the world?

  • Jiahua Xu: Definitely! Paolo has already mentioned surveillance and people’s privacy, things that Western countries cherish very much if compared to the Eastern part of the world. They are less valued in China. If you ask people, we know that the government is watching us. So what? It is fine. They do not really mind about that and I think this is surely a cultural difference. In China this aspect is called collectivism, whereas Western countries (for the way you describe them) are more individualistic in the sense that they cherish privacy a little more. That is why the authority and government is trying to push forward this connectedness of cities and people or is trying to push forward these Super Apps that can do everything we want and contain personal information but also your history of activities. Asians are more headwind on this than Europeans or Westerners in general. Especially in China, these are happy days: Super Apps are extremely convenient, so let’s go for it! This explains why in China in particular people are very happily using Wechat as a Super App. With it you can do almost everything: it encompasses Uber-like functionalities, chat and social media functionalities, broadcasting, subscriptions, minigames, it is an ecosystem in itself. So it makes things easier in terms of data tracking and everything is automatic but to a certain extent privacy is breached. To sum up, this may be a big deal for Chinese because they are less concerned about certain aspects but it may not be the same for Europeans. That’s my take on this.
  • Paolo Tasca: To be honest, there is nothing new about the development of these Super Apps. They simply are the result of a different vision of the world. In Western culture, we prefer the emergence of markets with anonymous buyers and suppliers and when they meet each other in the market there is a price that mediate and synthesize the result of the demand and the supply. In this way many markets, as well as products and services emerge from this relationship and are sustained by this coordination mechanism (the markets that use prices as coordination tool).

    Instead in Asia, there is a different vision of the world: there is not that need to promote individual initiatives for the proliferation of products and services because the central authority or local government can directly or indirectly provide them. In the past they were food and goods, and the same logic applies now in the digital world where the central planner no longer provide food but new infrastructures (that are underpinning the new digital economy) like these Super Apps. It is like asking whether highways should have been built by the government 50 years ago or not: of course, it makes sense! Similarly, especially for Asia, these infrastructures are built and controlled by the government because on top of them the whole digital economy is ran in Asia and this means Billions of Dollars. So, from my point of view there is nothing particularly surprising in observing that in Asia we have the emergence of this phenomenon of Super Apps and, from an economic point of view, it is something that actually makes sense.

    Something similar may also be observed in Western countries sometimes. Let’s think about the pandemic and those track and tracing apps that are designed and controlled by governments. Is it because they are better designers than the private sector? Of course not, but because they want the control over the infrastructure and this is a similar logic standing behind the mechanisms of Super Apps you can see in Asia.
  • Nikhil Vadgama: Again, very briefly to finish it off. The other reason why Super Apps have developed or have seen more adoption in Asian countries is because of different attitudes towards technology, especially new ones. Cultural reasons have already been mentioned. There is what is called a “Leapfrogging effect” in technology in developing countries: the classic example is going from cash to using cards. Instead of this pattern that occured in Western countries, in Asian countries they went from cash to using their mobile phones to make payments. So it is convenient to have one app just for everything rather for us that we have an app for messaging but I use my credit or debit card for payments. So we should consider this “Leapfrogging effect” of adopting technology, which creates a redundancy to go through these middle steps which Eastern countries do not need to but Western countries have.

Stay tuned to our blog for Part II, to be published next week!

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