Geneva is a city of contradictions: simultaneously provincial and cosmopolitan, conservative and daring, tradition-bound yet innovation-friendly, business-like but hopeful in its humanitarianism.

Photo: Sophie Zermatten

Geneva’s status as an international city, its prominent position on the global stage, its influence on geopolitics, the multi-ethnicity of its population, and its history as a city of refuge and exchange made it a relevant choice for study and intervention. As a financial and diplomatic center, it is one of the most influential cities in the world due to the overwhelming presence of humanitarian institutions, meetings and congresses. Because of this international influence, Geneva has a significant opportunity to drive meaningful change in several areas, such as cybersecurity in NGOs. Its international status also brings with it security challenges that are specific to "International Geneva" (e.g. espionage and terrorism). These criminal activities may not be of direct concern to the majority of residents, but from a policing point of view they require a special unit dedicated to them.

Similarly, Geneva's geographical location as a border city with France makes it a refuge for crime. This, combined with the multi-ethnicity of the population, has led to a division of territory between different organized crime groups in relation to specific markets, such as drugs, which are usually more common in larger cities.

As far as Switzerland in general is concerned, security is a fundamental aspect of Swiss culture and society. Most people consider public safety in Geneva to be a "given" and have a high level of trust in public authorities, especially the police. However, when it comes to digital security, the majority of people do not feel safe and there is a lack of trust in the ability of public authorities to protect them and their data. How questions of surveillance, privacy, dependency, addiction, transparency and trust are answered will play an important role in the current renegotiation of Geneva's urban social contract.

About Geneva

The city's evolution from a fortified Roman village to a bustling medieval trade hub, and from a citadel under siege during the Protestant Reformation to a modern open city, highlights its paradoxical nature. Geneva remains a place of contradictions, being simultaneously provincial and cosmopolitan, conservative and daring, tradition-bound yet innovation-friendly, business-like but hopeful in its humanitarianism. It is a place with a long-standing tradition of hospitality and cultural exchange that shaped its identity.

In 1989, it was revealed that the Swiss federal authorities had been keeping over 900'000 secret files on organizations, political groups, citizens and foreigners, including those they suspected to behave in an 'un-Swiss' manner. The files contained information on people's political activities, their personal lives, and even their religious beliefs. The scandal had a significant impact on Swiss society. It led to a loss of public trust in the government and raised questions about the role of intelligence services in a democratic society. The scandal also highlighted the need for stronger privacy laws in Switzerland.

On 18 June 2023, a large majority (94.21%) of the population of Geneva voted in favour of amending the Constitution to include the right to digital integrity. This decision is in line with the concept of the "Social Contract" developed by the Geneva philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and highlights the difficulty of educating citizens on new issues. The work of Rousseau transformed political thought and played an important role in shaping Geneva's political discourse, and its development as a republic based on popular sovereignty and civic participation. In the digital age, the need for a new social contract is not only apparent, but essential. The overwhelming support of the people of Geneva for the right to digital integrity, as demonstrated by their large turnout, underlines the urgent need to rethink or renegotiate the current social contract to include the new relationships, benefits and risks created by digital technology.

Our Work in Geneva

1. Digital Security and Social Contract

In an age where our lives are increasingly entwined with digital technologies, our first pop-up cycle in Geneva seeks to illuminate the path towards a safer, more secure digital landscape for the residents of Geneva.

Our first crucial question revolves around digital security – the ability of public and private institutions to safeguard the digital lives of Geneva's residents. The age-old debate of "privacy versus security" took center stage in our emerging research questions as we asked if these two fundamental values are fundamentally at odds with each other, or can they coexist harmoniously in the digital realm.

Through analysis and collaboration with local stakeholders, we dedicated our efforts to uncover strategies that will bolster confidence in public institutions' capacity to ensure digital security.  In a world where digital threats are constantly evolving, we believe it is crucial for individuals to be informed and engaged in these critical issues. How can Edgelands Institute foster a greater interest in digital security and its impact on the social contract? We seek to ignite positive change through community engagement, educational programs, and public outreach.

2. Security and Trust

Our research begins with a fundamental question: when surveillance technologies are employed for security purposes, what should transparency look like to facilitate democratic discussions? We believe that transparency is the bedrock upon which trust is built. Another pivotal question that drives our research is who should bear the responsibility of providing information regarding surveillance technologies.Defining responsibility becomes crucial in a world where the lines between public and private organizations are increasingly blurredl. We are committed to exploring innovative models that can help distribute this responsibility equitably and effectively.

Lastly, our research scrutinizes whether the same standards should apply, regardless of whether surveillance technologies are owned by public or private organizations. In an age where digital security impacts everyone, we are determined to unravel the complexities of governance and regulation to ensure that individuals' rights and interests are upheld consistently.

3. Transparency and Awareness in Surveillance Technologies

Our research commences with a fundamental inquiry: What are the roles and responsibilities of the city, the canton, and individuals in safeguarding digital security? As the boundaries between the public and private sectors blur in the digital landscape, we aim to delineate clear frameworks that define the responsibilities of each entity. The second critical question we pose is how the right to digital integrity complements or enhances existing agreements around digital security for Geneva's residents. Our research endeavors to bridge the gap between legal frameworks and individual rights, creating a more robust foundation for digital security while empowering residents to protect their digital selves.

Lastly, our research challenges conventional notions of the social contract by contemplating whether it should encompass private companies. If so, we seek to determine how their inclusion can be achieved. As digital technologies become an integral part of daily life, the role of private entities in shaping the social contract cannot be ignored. We aim to pave the way for a more comprehensive and inclusive social contract that reflects the realities of the digital age.

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