“Local government’s point of view is missing!”
Artificial intelligence (AI) concerns us all. With its diverse duties, local government in particular can benefit from AI. This is why #KoKI (Artificial Intelligence in Local Government) was the first initiative to be launched by Co:Lab (Denklabor & Kollaborationsplattform für Gesellschaft & Digitalisierung e. V.).
On that day in December, Krellmann and Gerald Swarat founded an organisation called Co:Lab and launched a related initiative known as #KOKI. Co:Lab gives experts a platform for discussing the positive aspects for society of the digital transformation. #KOKI aims at specifically exploring the ways in which local government can make use of AI. This is also reflected in the name #KOKI, which stands for Kommunen und KI – German for Local government and AI. “When it comes to new technological trends, the points of view of local government and civil society are frequently neglected in Berlin’s ‘hype cycle’,” explains Swarat. The organisation and the initiative want to address this shortcoming.
The kick-off to #KoKI also marked the commencement of Co:Lab – a think tank for society and digitalisation founded by Anika Krellmann and Gerald Swarat along with others. Co:Lab brings together experts from very different areas, who will be launching initiatives revolving around the topics of digitalisation and society on an interdisciplinary, application-oriented basis. The aim is to explore the current interactions between society and digitalisation, to anticipate the emerging challenges and to investigate the scope for action.
In the association’s first initiative, #KoKI wants to specifically explore ways in which local government can make use of AI. “When it comes to new technological trends, the points of view of local government and civil society are frequently neglected in Berlin’s ‘hype cycle’,” explains Swarat. #KoKI aims to change that. Further Co:Lab initiatives will follow, not necessarily with the same focus on local government, but always centring on digitalisation in society.
Krellmann, who in her main job is an officer at the local government association for municipal administration Kommunale Gemeinschaftsstelle für Verwaltungsmanagement (KGSt), handles the business side of things. Swarat is Berlin office manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering IESE and co-chair of Co:Lab. Both are supporting this cause not in an official capacity but as private individuals. They stress that the association and the initiative are free think tanks that are open to everyone from Amt Hüttener Berge in Schleswig-Holstein to Zwiesel in the Bavarian Forest, meaning that they literally have members from A to Z.
Local government the core of society
As Anika Krellmann sees it, this multidisciplinary collaboration in the context of #KoKI is quite simply representative of society: “Local communities are the places where people’s lives happen,” she explains. This makes them a good place to start for anyone wishing to leverage technology on behalf of the common good. As she points out, contact with local government is much more than just appointments at public authorities. After all, local government is responsible for planning roads, building playgrounds and designing cities. “The coronavirus crisis shows us that local government is at the very core of our lives because our lives are fundamentally local,” Krellmann says.
AI is often associated with cost-cutting and looming threats
On the other hand, Swarat notes a frequently distorted image of technology: “AI in particular tends to be viewed as a vague threat. Some people think that it destroys many jobs or is used for surveillance or that it will one day make decisions that were previously the sole preserve of judges.” Yet, the diversity behind the term AI only becomes clear when potential applications start to actually be used. “We want to change this negative narrative and attempt to tell a better story that places the focus on the common good,” says Swarat.
But what exactly can AI do for local government? According to Gerald Swarat, this is the wrong question: “The question is what problems local government thinks it can solve more effectively by using AI and what AI even means for it.” To rephrase the question and view the technology from a different angle, the main principle underlying #KOKI is dialogue. This is something that COVID-19 has made more difficult of course.
“The term is really very vague”
Not even the two #KOKI originators Krellmann and Swarat saw each other in person for six months after the well-attended kick-off event. Yet, this is where technology can provide very specific assistance, enabling meetings to be held solely using digital applications.
The aim is for administration experts to establish contact with each other and to build networks with researchers, consultants and other practitioners. This could possibly ultimately lead to preliminary partnerships – and hopefully some concrete applications. But first of all, basic questions need to be answered, questions such as “What do we in local government mean when we use the term ‘AI’?” As Swarat says, “The term is really very vague”.