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Inspiration and imagination in data-driven innovation comes to Edinburgh

Technical solutions alone are not enough if we are to address the challenges of the data revolution, writes Dr Drew Hemment

Each year, Edinburgh’s Festivals bring people together from around the world for a celebration of inspirational ideas and experiences. The city is the place where astonishing visions are made real, expectations are turned on their head, and we see the world anew.

Over the coming 10 years, the world’s leading festival city will give rise to a showcase of inspiration and imagination of another kind. Edinburgh can be the place where residents are empowered over the algorithmic systems that shape their lives, artists use machine learning to create previously unimaginable work, and businesses generate value in ways both imaginative and fair. It can be the laboratory where public officials, residents, festivals, artists, engineers and ethicists collaborate on breakthroughs that can benefit the lives of people in the city region and around the world.

Through the City Region Deal, we aim to see embedded intelligence turn the urban fabric into a canvas for innovation. This is a unique opportunity to realise the huge potential of recent advances in machine learning to benefit the lives of residents and visitors to the city.

Artificial intelligence is reordering how we live, work and play in ways that are both unexpected and profound. Our everyday interactions, when we go online, use a credit card, or move around the city, are increasingly mediated by algorithms. But these systems are not transparent and rarely accountable, and recent years have seen rolling headlines on the misuse of data by global corporations and political campaigns.

To address these challenges, and unlock the potential of data-driven innovation for all, technical solutions alone are not enough. We need imaginative ways to do research and innovation, in which everyone can be involved. There needs to be a virtuous circle connecting research, policy, industry and citizens, so we can deal with the human, institutional, legal and technical dimensions together. Through the City Region Deal, we have a unique opportunity to engage thousands, perhaps even millions, in the opportunities and pitfalls of a data-driven society.

I am new to the city, arriving as a Data-Driven Innovation Chancellor’s Fellow at Edinburgh Futures Institute. My background involves working on data, futures and festivals. So I’ll be working between University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh’s Festivals, and the international digital culture community, to create artworks and experiences that build data literacy and drive technology innovation. I’ll also be leading in Edinburgh the GROW Observatory, a citizens’ observatory that empowers people in Edinburgh and across Europe through access to data practices, and is helping to validate the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1 satellites.

My journey here has only just begun; I’m looking forward to adventures that lie ahead.

Dr Drew Hemment is a Data-Driven Innovation Chancellor’s Fellow at the Edinburgh Futures Institute & Edinburgh College of Art

There needs to be a virtuous circle connecting research, policy, industry and citizens, so we can deal with the human, institutional, legal and technical dimensions together