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Creating more freedom for experiments Living Smart Campus also tests rules

Can the ‘Living Smart Campus’ of the University of Twente become an experimental zone with less rules? Experimenting with new technology requires experimentation with legislation at the same time, says Michiel Heldeweg.

Rules are, all too often, a limiting factor for the speed at which we want to introduce new technology. “We recently saw this, when we discussed autonomously operating drones. You give these drones an assignment, but humans aren’t behind the knobs all the time, the drone finds its way. At this moment, this is not negotiable”, says Michiel Heldeweg, Professor of Law, Governance and Technology at the University of Twente.

Less defensive 

The Space53 initiative, in which UT participates, would like to do more experiments with autonomous drones on the former air force base close to the campus. The possibilities, even for regular drones, are limited although the area is suitable for it, with lots of space and a minimum of regular air traffic. “After doing experiments in this huge open space, the idea is to scale it up to the university campus before taking the step towards the city center of Enschede. The question we’re asking ourselves is whether you can introduce special experimental zones, in which the rules regime is less strict. Rules are there for a reason, that’s clear, but even the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment indicates that it might be time to regulate in a less defensive way.”

Ask for forgiveness 

The Living Smart Campus project is, for Heldeweg, an ideal testing ground for legislation: “Is it possible to get a special status, in which legislation doesn’t close down all the possibilities but you a agree on a ‘code of experimental conduct’? What do we need for that?” A special status can be introduced ‘top-down’, agreeing with the legislator on an integral experimental permit. Another approach is ‘try first and ask for forgiveness later’. This means: start doing the experiments and develop the code of conduct from practice. This is the bottom-up approach. It seems a bit noncommittal, but in fact it isn’t: “From the moment you move your experiments to the campus, you have to deal with people interacting with experiments they sometimes don’t know the existence of. How would you react if a drone lingers in front of your window for some time or even seems to follow you when you’re walking on the campus? And then again, this is the campus situation. If we move to a city centre, these questions get even more urgent.”

Responsible

“I would like to know how rules and legislation get in our way. I share the opinion that we have more rules than is necessary. At the same time, we have to be aware  of the fact that there’s a lot of experimental freedom already right now. It is a cliché to speak about ‘all those annoying little rules’, often pointing at countries where those rules do not exist. All too often, these are countries with unstable and reckless regimes, so they’re not the best examples to look at. Even when you have more freedom of experimentation, responsibility remains. An experimental zone is about more freedom, but also about a good experimental infrastructure and governance that takes into account all stake holders. In one way or another, you’ll have to make arrangements for that.” Looking beyond the experimental phase, the experiments will one day become new products or services. Users of these may expect that aspects like safety and privacy are well thought of.

Michiel Heldeweg plays with the idea of bundles of exemptions from the rules: for a certain experiment you look at the rules that are applicable. At every node of rules you’ll have to check if exemptions are possible. Putting bundles like these together, creates a free space in the map of rules. “There is clearly a need for this approach, because even the authorities themselves meet frustrations. In the port of Rotterdam, use of drones for tracing smugglers in between the containers is not allowed. At the same time, the smugglers use drones themselves, and simply dump them in the water after use.”

Is it feasible to designate whole of the campus as an integral experimental zone, is one of the questions Heldeweg wants to answer. A starting point is: looking at the possibilities for every experiment, to find the ‘bundles’ mentioned before. Discussing the possibilities in a very early stage of technology development helps keeping up the speed required.

“Living Smart Campus is an excellent step towards legislation that is future proof. All over the world, we see ‘smart city’ concepts, but at our campus we can introduce new technology and legislation at the same time. That, in itself is an exciting experiment!”

Wiebe van der Veen
Press relations (available Mon-Fri)