"We need to put technology and data at the service of the people and the environment."

Photo by Sabine Vielmo

INTERVIEW | 09.10.2020

Francesca Bria on Data Democracy

Francesca Bria is the programme director of "The New Hanse" and President of the Italian National Innovation Fund. She is one of Europe’s leading digital policy experts and an innovation economist, working at the intersection of technology, geopolitics, economics, and society.

What is the idea of The New Hanse?

The New Hanse wants to build on some of the strengths of the city of Hamburg when it comes to transparency, citizen participation and citizen engagement in the urban planning process – with the goal of ecological transition and sustainable digitization. At the same time, the programme wants to connect what the city of Hamburg is doing with some of the more ambitious projects and programmes in cities around Europe and the world – we aim to put forward a democratic idea for a future digital city.

What is the role of data in this context?

We need to put technology and data at the service of the people and the environment. Central to this is the understanding of data as public infrastructure, as a public good that should help solve some of the big environmental and social challenges the city faces. We will be very much focusing on the net zero city and leveraging the power of data and the collective intelligence of people via democratic participation in order to do that. We are creating a laboratory that wants to test new radical approaches to the democratization of data.

With whom will you work on achieving this?

We will be working with all the city stakeholders, with civil society, with academia, with research centers, with companies small and big. Our ambition is, of course, to expand what Hamburg is doing in this field locally and to create a hub that can become a reference point for a digital sustainable and democratic city in the future. Everything that we create will be open source and be published as a kind of blueprint or toolkit for other policy experiments around Europe. We can learn a lot from best practices – such as those developed in the city of Barcelona, where I worked as CTO for five years.

The European angle is very important to you.

When it comes to the question of data, data sovereignty, data democracy, Europe has a big task ahead with the European digital framework and the data governance act. The goal is to create an alternative to predatory digital capitalism and to give back the power and the value to the people that are producing this data. But in order to do that, we not only need a regulatory framework, we need a bottom-up experimentation capacity – and cities are great places to do this because cities have the right infrastructure.

Digital infrastructure?

Data is like a meta utility, an urban infrastructure on top of which more and more essential services for the city and the citizens run. Here, we can prototype new approaches to data as a public good, on top of which we can share value and create new data-driven or artificial intelligence driven services that will hopefully create a city that is less polluted and offers better quality of life for its citizens.

Cities are more and more important in challenging how technology platforms exercise their power.

This connects an old idea of cities as places for progress and exchange of knowledge and goods to a new network of progressive cities in Europe.

Cities are places in which democracy traditionally has been experimented with. And in post-pandemic times, we are seeing how cities continue to pioneer in this regard. In the fight against climate change, the C40 network is very active in international diplomacy. On migration, where national states cannot agree on a solidarity-based approach, cities are at the forefront. In the new digital environment, cities are more and more important in challenging how technology platforms exercise their power.

Can you give examples?

Take Airbnb or Uber or even Amazon with their logistics centers. In cities, we can develop advanced new progressive policy ideas and run a high-level policy discourse – and experiment with working on alternatives. In the digital economy, we need alternatives to work now, and we need a different idea of public private partnerships that are not predatory. We need to treat digital resources, particularly data, as a common in order to avoid negative externalities and the negative impact of data pollution, for example.

What are the main challenges?

Data is a resource that's concentrated in the hands of very few players. Cities face a very big task in showing that democratizing data is possible and how technology can be put at the service of a different type of urban planning. There are imperatives to change the urban environment – with ideas like the “15 minutes city” developed in Paris or the Barcelona Superblocks, which is about removing cars from the city center. These ideas are radically transforming mobility, creating more green areas, pedestrian spaces, giving back public space to citizens. Electrifying mobility and switching to connected mobility is going to be a big challenge, as is the question of how the built environment needs to consume less CO2. How do we monitor that? How do we move to a more circular economy?

How can we get there?

These things require new information technology. We need to integrate the old infrastructure - the big policy and planning that cities do - with connectivity, data and artificial intelligence. There is also a very big space for experimentation with new economic modeling and new planning ideas that could lead to a much more redistributive type of economic thinking. Hamburg is well positioned in terms of urban planning because of the citizen movement of the 1980s. And because of the transparency law of 2015, which really pushed forward new types of policies that foster accountability and public information at the service of all the citizens in Hamburg. In the end, it is about the trust you build vis-à-vis the citizens.

There is one term you explicitly dislike in this context: the “smart city”. Can you explain your aversion?

“Smart city” is a terminology that comes from the technology industry. It used to be IBM and Cisco that used this word and it stands for a technology first approach. This leads to a technological solutionism mindset. And if you look at problems like affordable housing or sustainable mobility or climate change or redistribution of wealth, you should start from these big questions. If you start with technological problems, you end up fixing technology problems.

Which is a definition of solutionism.

Right. We have been – at the public level – outsourcing more and more knowledge to technology companies and external consultants. The discourse around the “smart city” has been masking the fact we have created a lot of dependence – which has led to the privatization of assets and the production of commodities around data and specific types of technological tools and products. This is not sustainable as an economic model for the city in the long term, it also really shifts the power from a strong idea of the public towards a very privatized public space. We need to be careful that this does not happen, we need to have democratic control over those critical infrastructures and over the data that is produced – because data is the raw material for the digital economy.

My project is not about just rewarding the citizen as a single creator of data – I am interested in creating public value out of this data.

What is the alternative?

We imagine a city that starts with people first. And it does so by mobilizing local talent, collective intelligence, and distributed knowledge – for the public interest.

Data ownership is at the core of your work – in a world of data monopolists this means changing the digital political economy.

We have indeed a very concentrated industrial and social power in the hands of very few tech companies. They are very financialized. The main business model of those companies, which invest billions into digital infrastructure such as data centers, is that they monetize personal information and data. There is no such thing as a free service. We pay taxes for the tech companies to exist, and we pay the tech companies with our data. And now we are dependent on these companies.

What do you suggest?

The data and the value that is created should be given back to the people, to society. My project is not about just rewarding the citizen as a single creator of data, because this would mean accepting the premise of the business model. I am interested in creating public value out of this data. The entire infrastructures, the cloud, the artificial intelligence, all the knowledge tools that we deploy, creates a lot of collective and public value – and helps us to find new services and solutions and really think about what we need as a society for the future.

Is there a specific European opportunity to do this? Versus the American or the Chinese model?

I think a European digital model is needed because otherwise we are not going to regain our digital sovereignty, we will become a digital colony. At the moment, Europe is highly dependent – from software to hardware and cloud AI – on technology that's made in China or in the US. So we have big tech and the big state. These are the digital models. And I think that Europe needs to come up with its own big democracy, its own model for a digital society that's based on preserving fundamental rights – not only privacy of information or self-determination, but also on labor rights.

There is a big push to unionize within the digital economy.

Algorithmic management really affects your capacity for collective bargaining. It creates a gig economy where workers are more and more precarious and exploited and an algorithm can decide if you get fired or not. The accountability of these algorithms and the access to the data and the parameters that determine how these algorithms are used need to be part of our labor rights. Society is changing, and we need to set the rules and rights and standards as a society. We cannot let this stay in the hands of very few big tech companies that just break the rules on the basis of what they do.

What does that mean for Europe?

If Europe wants to maintain the welfare state with a liberal democratic society, we must propose a new way forward in the digital society. It seems very convenient to use the services of these technology companies – but Amazon for example is not only an e-commerce platform and a logistics company. They are now entering healthcare and other sectors that will be very important in the future. The same with Google. They are underpinning the institutional and critical infrastructure of our society. We have a very strong constitutional framework that supports individual fundamental rights and liberties – and we need to advance this model in the digital world.

There is so much fear or fatalism connected to technology – your approach is very constructive and even optimistic.

If we are afraid or scared or fatalistic, we will be more and more dominated by those new models. We have to have a clear idea of where we want to go. We have to set the rules and regulate but also build it. We have to really lead in this space. I don't see another option.

Could you finish this sentence: For me, this is personal because –

It's about giving back power to the people.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Francesca Bria is one of Europe’s leading digital policy experts, is an innovation economist, working at the intersection of technology, geopolitics, economics, and society and a Programme Director at THE NEW INSTITUTE

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