Perspectives on the role of data in designing future societies

14th November 2022
What if the data we generate wasn't just for companies to sell us things but for us to enrich our own lives and societies? Tech Foresight’s Claudio Sanna reached out to Professor Pierre Pinson for a conversation around the potential for data to help us rethink and improve ourselves, our societies and, as a result, our economies.

A data-centric world

Data is ubiquitous.

As our dataome – the information we generate about ourselves – increases, so does our capacity to compute it and extract value out of it. We harness it to learn about ourselves, our society and economy. In doing this, we’re unlocking ways to redesign our systems to be more efficient, sustainable, transparent and tailored to human needs and characteristics.

I met with Professor Pierre Pinson, Chair of Data-Centric Design Engineering at Imperial’s Dyson School of Design Engineering, who explained how data-centric design engineering was born with this idea in mind: generating optimal value for society from data.

“It is rigorous engineering with the layers of purpose, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship you have in design”, Professor Pinson explains.

“What we do as designers in the digital space is using data as raw material and imagining ways to make an impact by generating value for society and industry. Our idea is to take this to the next level, by identifying new needs and new areas in which data and analytics can bring substantial change.

“If you can find some generic approach, tools and methods to get optimal value from data, you can make a really big impact everywhere – it could be healthcare, energy, sustainability, the circular economy, and many more areas.”

Data and our selves

Our relationship with data in the last decade has been somewhat controversial and polarised, generating a mix of excitement and concern. Many industry commentators predicted that with the rise of companies that existed solely online, data would be the new oil. But like oil, its use and applications have been extremely beneficial, and extremely dangerous.

“In the last ten years we’ve been overshooting in two different directions. On the one hand, some have had the attitude that data is just data, why should one be worried that it gets shared broadly? And, when we see Facebook and the likes building big businesses through the use of private data, making us and regulators worried about where the boundaries to our privacy actually lie.

“But then, on the other hand, we overshot in the opposite direction, like with GDPR, by thinking that the best approach is to build walls between our personal data and the rest of the world to keep our personal information safe and private.”

A discussion in  transition

The debate rages on. And the pace of change and regulation varies wildly between regions and cultures, too. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing data policies, so data-centric design has even more work ahead to shine a light on paths that prove ethical and acceptable to different data owners, processors, managers and regulators.

“In the next decade we’ll have to find the right balance between the two [perspectives] since, otherwise, this will clearly prevent us to grasp the amazing opportunities brought in by data and analytics to advance our societies.

“We have to better inform people about the privacy-openness trade-off, because if we accept a certain loss of privacy, we could gain a lot. We all have different preferences and willingness to share, and what is truly important here is transparency and accountability.”

Generating value for society

The power of data to generate value, does not come necessarily from developing fancy AI systems or statistical models.

“I think that something that is beautiful about data is that the first thing we can do with it is to be descriptive,” adds Professor Pinson. ” The true power of data is actually just to inform people. And one of the most powerful ways to generate value and reduce inequalities is to monitor things, to see how they evolve, to get people to realise how good or bad things already are. .

“We also need to use data to make sure that we bring transparency, that we bring information to people. Maybe also that we bring a level of trust… I think this would help for behavioural change in many different aspects.

“It can be health or energy, and it can be also safety. There could be so many things that we can do with data so that we have an impact on society and the way people behave without trying to be invasive in enforcing them. It is just saying I’m trying to inform you, being transparent, and you can trust me in the way I inform you.”

It’s fascinating to reflect on how the simplest use of data can be the most impactful. A transparent society is one that fosters trust and making people aware is the first step to steering them towards behavioural change. Problems are acknowledged only when salient and compelling; before changing behaviours, we first need a leap in consciousness.

Our open questions for data and society

Using data to deeply understand collective societal mechanisms and processes could help us design better ways of living in a range of communities. How could data-powered transparency and trust change politics for example? Would that stir people towards more fact-based choices and transform the political language and discourse? We’ve seen an example of that during the Covid pandemic, where data informed unanimous action, irrespective of opinions and ideologies.

Among the examples of use of data in the industry, Professor Pinson mentions his experience in the energy sector, and how digitalisation has changed the industry, such that data is used for forecasting, trading, and decision-making. Data contributes to the evolution of the area and fostering the adoption of renewable energy.

As we discussed largely in our 2041 Scenarios, renewable energy and computation go hand in hand. He also told me about his collaboration with shipping and retail businesses, where data can improve processes, accountability, reduce pollution and bring more transparency.

“Data gives us also the chance to look at problems that we never considered before and generate value in new areas. With some colleagues we aim to use data for problem-solving in developing countries. Such countries are usually very good at leapfrogging, such as jumping directly to the mobile phone without ever having a house phone or creating the landline infrastructure.

“Our idea is to use data and digitalisation to help them leapfrog in certain areas that could be health or sustainability, making sure that we can design systems with a social component, bringing accountability, transparency and trust.”

Looking at the future: AI and decentralisation

AI (Artificial Intelligence)

Something that we talk about a lot with our Imperial Business Partners members is the role that AI must play in the future. From identifying timelines through to assessing likely early, medium-term and longer-term applications of the technology across business and society, the debate is far from settled.

But what role will data play in helping clarify and justify our strategies here?

When talking about the future of decision making and the possibility of AI replacing humans, Professor Pinson becomes more cautious:

“So, you can see a lot of these tasks where you would think, okay, eventually it makes sense that an AI would replace humans, but I think humans will generally not be comfortable with this, or they would want to still keep a level of control or supervisory control there in case something goes wrong.

“There are families of tasks where safety is critical – like the control of electric power systems. AI might be able to handle most of the operations, but could it react to uncertainties like humans do with their gut feeling? When humans encounter a situation they’ve never seen before, they rely on that to ‘save the day’. As of today, we do not yet believe an AI can do that.”

His faith for the future of his field relies on technologies for decentralisation, what many believe will herald the new generation of the internet: Web 3.0.

“Regarding new technologies, I think blockchain is a good start. I don’t know if it’s blockchain as we experience it today that will be the technology in the future that would be really transformative. But already, this forces us to rethink the kind of digital technology that we need to adapt to the reality and evolution of our societies.

“The real world is decentralised. It’s multiagent. It’s people needing trust and data to be informed. This kind of technology where you say that any kind of data architecture should be decentralised, well to me it makes sense. “

Decentralisation of data and organisations

Decentralisation is a trend that extends well beyond the digital space and it’s likely to impact also the very structure of many organisations, an example we talked about in a previous blog is the emergence of DAOs (Distributed Autonomous Organisations), new organisational models where hierarchy is substituted by decentralisation.

Another thing he foresees for the future is the need of real-time data transmission, for which new communication protocols must be designed in the future.

“We can get information about what energy people consume in their house, and then we can send them back a signal being a price or something else so that they change their consumption. We can then help the demand to adapt to the availability of renewable energy. But, in practice, it is most often not possible to get this data available before 24 hours — at best today, maybe 15 to 30 minutes… if that data is not made available on time, it just becomes useless.

“And so that’s one of the key aspects of how we can develop new concepts and tech based on data, is that it’s kind of intertwined with communication technology. Is this 6G? I don’t know. But if we rethink the way communication networks evolve in parallel to what we want to do with data, maybe that will bring the new transformative technology that would really have an impact.”

Our conclusion

 Whatever the future will bring, one thing is clear: data gives us the opportunity to create technological solutions that are increasingly tailored around humans and nature.

Transparency and trust will be essential to unlock the power of data to bring transformation in our society and the much-needed behavioural shifts to create more sustainable and fair ecosystems of living.

About Pierre Pinson

Professor Pierre Pinson is the Chair of Data-centric Design Engineering at Imperial College London, Dyson School of Design Engineering, a Chief Scientist at Halfspace in Copenhagen, Denmark, as well as the Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Forecasting. The core focus of his research, teaching and consultancy activities is on how to generate optimal value for society from data. He takes a multidisciplinary approach combining various aspects of mathematics & statistics with a number of application areas, such as meteorology, power and energy, logistics and business analytics. He made some important contributions within forecasting, optimisation under uncertainty and game theory, especially with power and energy applications.

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