Reclaiming Europe's digital sovereignty
Francesca Bria tells John Thornhill how she is helping citizens in Barcelona design their digital future, moving from an economy fuelled by advertising and surveillance and towards transparency and a new social pact on the ownership of data.
Presented by John Thornhill
Hello, and welcome back to Tech Tonic, a podcast that looks at the way technology is changing our lives. I'm John Thornhill, innovation editor at the Financial Times in London.
Last week, we heard from Seth Stephens Davidowitz, data mining expert who told us what search engines reveal about who we really are. This week, we hear from a digital innovation expert about the role of cities in helping democratise the internet.
I think that the US more looks at the digital economy from a consumer perspective. So the platform economy now, the predatory platform and economy that mainly work through advertising, that incentivise consumption, and also they're out of control. I mean, now, there is a big debate. Are they too big to regulate? How are we going to be regulating these companies? The European Commission, of course, is trying to tax these companies, and this is a big challenge on how to do that.
And I think in Europe, Europe has to compete on different values. We cannot compete for the future of the economy, the future of our society on the same ground.
That was the voice of Francesca Bria, head of Barcelona's digital innovation office, who came into the FT recently to tell us about how she is helping citizens in Europe to reclaim their digital sovereignty.
Francesca, could you tell us why did Barcelona create this office and what are you hoping to achieve?
So last June, the mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, called me to come to Barcelona. I was living in London at that point. I was at the UK innovation agency, Nesta. And she asked me to rethink the smart city from the ground up. She told me she wanted to see how the digital revolution could go hand-in-hand with the democratic revolution. So how we can build technology to really serve the people and how we can put citizen first and their needs, and then how we can align the technological agenda with the main challenges that the city has to solve. In the case of Barcelona, this is affordable housing, energy transition, reclaiming public space for citizens, and implementing participatory democracy, so we're really changing the way we do politics.
So I went there. I'm the only non-Catalan person in the Catalan government. I'm the only foreigner. I'm a woman in a sector that's very dominated by male. And I am basically co-designing the Barcelona digital future with citizens.
Right. The Barcelona City Council talks about Barcelona regaining technological sovereignty. What is wrong with the world we have at the moment? I mean, the platform companies-- Facebook, Google, Uber, Airbnb-- are fantastically popular with consumers. In fact, in some sense, more popular in Europe than they are in America. Why is there a problem with this?
First of all, I think we have to understand the disenfranchisement in general that people are feeling at the moment, in particular in Europe. There is a really big distrust, mistrust on public institution. We call it a crisis of democracy and a crisis of legitimacy of the current political system. And in particular, young people are really left out. In southern Europe, we have really peaks of unemployment of young people and a lack of future vision of future hopes. And this is leading to the right-wing populism that we see today.
So we think that we have to build an alternative to that, and this alternative has to be genuinely democratic, meaning we have to start opening up the political process, integrating citizens in the way we make politics. And this, we have to do it in the digital age. And in Barcelona, we are supporting movements that put power back in the hands of people, and this means also rethinking the current economy.
We want to move away from what Shoshana Zuboff in Harvard Business School described as surveillance capitalism, which is an economy that's fueled by advertising surveillance, which is creating a really big problem because people don't trust these systems while technologies now are becoming pervasive, and they are the underpinning infrastructure of the 21st-century economy. So based on artificial intelligence, on data, on connectivity, we are building the future of education, of transportation, the future of work, the future of our life in cities. So these are fundamental questions that cannot be left in the hands of very few technology companies that are also not based in Europe.
So we think there is a problem of power. And we think we cannot only regulate these big companies. I mean, of course, we welcome all the initiatives that are happening at European level, at national level, and also at city level to regulate these companies when it comes to taxation, when it comes to big predatory platform not complying with local regulation. But we also think we can go beyond that. We can build alternatives, and these alternatives can have, for instance, new rights on data, what we call a new social pact on data; communal rights to data, meaning that communities can have access to data, on the data, or control the data, and then utilise it as a common good, on top of which we can create the new services of the digital age.
Right. Now, as you're saying, I mean, this is not just specific to Barcelona. It's very much a European phenomenon, and you're part of an EU project known as DECODE which stands for the Decentralised Citizen-Owned Data Ecosystems. Could you tell us more about that? How did that initiative come about, and who your partners in that?
Yeah. DECODE is a project that is funded by the European Commission. It's a flagship project where the European Commission tried to see exactly what are these alternatives that can be empowered in Europe, whether a distributed architecture for owning data, how can citizens be more in control on what happens to their data, how can they share their data, how their data is owned, and for what purpose and under which condition it is used.
And DECODE is made by 14 partners and six countries. It includes the UK, France, Sweden, two city councils, which are the city of Barcelona and the city of Amsterdam. And I think the unique characteristic of DECODE is, on one side, it is backed by two city councils, and I think cities are really key as new gatekeepers of the digital rights of citizens. And then also, that it's not the usual European project that tries to build a one, single search engine and waste a lot of money on that and then maybe fails after a few years. But this is a project that really is built with communities iterating solutions, getting their feedback, and it's trying to really empower communities in the way they use data.
So we have pilots on direct democracy tools. We have pilots on rethinking the sharing economy, making it more sustainable and making it with new rights-- with citizen rights and worker rights-- and then using data as a common good.
To what extent do you think the public share these concerns because they are still massive users of a lot of these services and there's not a lot of evidence to suggest this is a really big popular movement, is there?
Well, in Europe, we have some incentive now. For instance, the GDPR, the new Data Protection Regulation, which creates space for this kind of experimentation to really succeed.
And that comes into force next year in May.
Yes, in May. And this basically starts from the understanding that data protection and information self-determination are fundamental rights of citizens, and these represent very important rights in the digital age. And they have to be the underpinning of the infrastructure that we build. And this is very dear to people in Europe. I think on one side the surveillance scandals, of course, brought to the public attention the fact that we have to do something about that.
And B, on surveillance, I think the question on how we share the rewards in the digital economy. I mean, we know that digitalisation is bringing 100 trillion profits in the next years. I mean, with automation of work, we're going to have a massive displacement of jobs. Some economists say 100 million jobs will be displaced. So this is going to affect the economy. This is going to affect labour. And this is going to affect our basic institutions.
And so now, I think there raise public awareness about that which is increasing and then also awareness from the political side.
And you think there's a different sensibility in Europe than there is to the US, that this is particularly European issues?
I think that the US more looks at the digital economy from a consumer perspective. So the platform economy now, the predatory platform and economy that mainly work through advertising, that incentivise consumption, and also they're out of control. I mean, now there is a big debate, are they too big to regulate? How are we regulating these companies? The European Commission, of course, is trying to tax these companies, and this is a big challenge on how to do that.
And I think in Europe, Europe has to compete on different values. We cannot compete for the future of the economy, the future of our society on the same ground. We have to create our own system, an ecosystem that's much more decentralised, where people own the data, where they are more in charge and they can decide what the rules are defining this new economy.
So for instance, do we want better labour standards? Do we want to regulate the environment in a specific way? Do we want some geopolitical independence or autonomy? And also, what we define as digital sovereignty, which is exactly this capacity to decide what the future of the economy, what the future of society will look like. So I think there is an incredible energy for that.
And I mean, in particular, I can talk about Barcelona, where there is a big community of innovators. Barcelona has a tradition also in radical innovation, in economy that's more like a solidarity economy with the co-operative movement that's really big, where new economic models can be built on top of this data. That's super valuable.
I'd like to come onto the specific Barcelona projects in just a minute. But before we do so, I wonder if I could draw you out a bit more about this idea that people should be able to own their own data. And the whole thrust of the GDPR is to create data commons. How does this happen? How do people really own their own data and have control over it?
So the way that we're working with DECODE, for instance, is to match of what their GDPR says to make infrastructure that are GDPR compliant, meaning that really respect these autonomy of people-- information self-determination-- and their ability to have control over what happens with their data. How do you want to share the data, on what purpose, with whom, and have transparency about it? I think now a big problem of the big platform economy is that there is no transparency. It's very opaque. So we are run by algorithms that we don't understand. People don't trust how corporations are using these tools because they don't know how this is affecting their price. They don't know what kind of impact it's going to have on their ability to access mortgage, on their labour market, and a lot of other things. So there is no ethics in the way that data is used.
And so we have to reclaim that. And I think the way to do it is to build infrastructure that have privacy and security by design, that are decentralised and put the question of encryption as a human right. For us, encryption is a right of citizens. And I feel that cities can be custodians of these new citizen rights. We have to facilitate these because now, for instance, 90% of the data that we use in cities they are not only public data, it's also citizens' data and private data. And we have to recognise that this citizen data is created by citizens and they are the ones that have to be aware and conscious and make the decision on how they want to use this data. And we have to guarantee that there is this encryption and privacy for people.
And then, what we mean by creating a data commons is that this becomes a shared resource on top of which we can build the most solidarity economy.
Right. Now, let's explore this in a bit more detail as it affects Barcelona. So can you tell us about the two pilot projects that you're doing in order to create this new infrastructure and this new ecosystem for data use?
Yeah. So we are testing DECODE on two pilots. One is with our democracy platform. So DECODE was a project that came after another project called [? Dissent ?] that was experimenting online democracy platforms that started to be used by major political parties and bottom-up organisations and cities. So for instance, now, Barcelona, Madrid, Helsinki, Reykjavik, Paris are using online platforms for people to exchange opinion, to vote, to propose ideas to the city councils. And in Barcelona, we had a really large-scale experiment, so over 40,000 citizens participating in writing the political agenda that now we are implementing in the city.
And we have at our DNA participatory democracy, so we are running processes in parallel where we are involving citizens in rethinking public space, education, culture. So we are using this platform, and DECODE is going to enable citizens to keep the data that they are sharing on this platform, to be able to sign agreements, and to log in in the platform, for instance, to vote also keeping anonymity.
But at the same time, they can share the data, and we are integrating the online platform with our sensor network-- so the data that we gather from the city-- also in the privacy-aware way and then with a lot of information that are relevant. So we can create a dashboard that's personalised to what people need to know in the city, but they are the one controlling their identity and donating the data that they want to share with the city. So it's kind of an alternative to the Google Now system, but that's Barcelona Now, where citizens are the core of the system.
Right. So getting back to the original aims of what you wanted to do in terms of transport or energy or accommodation and rent and so on, how is that going to affect the daily lives of residents of Barcelona?
We have another pilot that we are piloting with the city of Amsterdam that's exactly an alternative to the sharing economy, the hospitality economy. So as you know, cities are struggling on how we can regulate these platforms-- I mean, when it's Uber about transportation or Airbnb when it comes to hospitality. And in Barcelona, as in Amsterdam, we have a lot of problems because these platforms don't really obey to the local regulation. For instance, you have a limited amount of days where you can rent the apartment in a short-rental market, and then you have to be registered in a local registry.
So we are experimenting alternative systems where the cities can have access to a lot of this data to create, for instance, a price index so that we can show to the citizens how the economy of Airbnb is affecting the house pricing in their cities so they can see if they're paying too much for renting and they can redistribute citizens in places where the rent is more affordable. So this doesn't go against our policy of affordable housing.
And then we create alternatives where the platform cooperative, like FairBnB, which we collaborate with, they create a system where reputation is shared among the citizens and they own the reputation, and you only have to give the data which is about how many days you are renting the house and where you live. You don't need to disclose any more information, and it's more transparent and it's fair. So we don't create these problems that we're having now in cities with tourism and with the lack of affordable housing.
And I have to say affordable housing is a big issue for both Barcelona and Amsterdam. We need affordable housing. We are trying to increase the number of social housing. And the policy of Airbnb has conflicted with this policy that we want to implement.
So you referenced there FairBnB. Could you just tell us a bit more about them? Who are they?
It's a platform cooperative. So now there is a big movement of organisations that are creating platforms that are owned by the members. So they create a co-operative around it, and they want to experiment with a better system for neighbours. So a system of hospitality network that can have a better impact for the city, and it doesn't have to create this increase of price and an unfair deal on the platform.
So they're piloting their platform, and they want to collaborate with DECODE. DECODE has a very bottom-up approach, so we don't want to lead these experiments top-down from the city hall. We are collaborating with communities, with cooperatives. For instance, in Barcelona, we have another IoT pilot-- Internet of Things pilot-- where we are working with a Smart Citizen project, and they work with neighbours that are using Arduino, open hardware. They put it in their home to measure noise or to measure pollution.
And then they're putting out this network, and they want to share the data between neighbours and also let the city know what is happening so that we can make policies that improve a specific area, for instance CO2 emission or noise reduction. And before I was there in the city of Barcelona, this kind of citizen science initiatives were criminalised by the city. The city was saying this is not possible. We cannot integrate your sensors with the city infrastructure because it is illegal.
When I got there, I said this is fantastic because the ability of citizens to produce this kind of data and even to allow the cities access to the data can improve our public policy. It's fundamental for our public policy, how we measure evidence of what we do, how we take decisions. And we need to integrate the sensibility of citizens and what they do into the way we run cities' infrastructure. So I welcomed their experiments, and we discussed about partnership in the DECODE project. And of course, they are very excited to be able to be part of this broader movement and then to use the encrypted technology and distribute the larger technology that we are building with DECODE to improve their system. So it is a win-win.
So this data ecosystem that you're trying to create is not necessarily exclusive to the kind of US-style data economy that has already been created, is it? I mean, it's possible for both of them to co-exist.
Yes. I think we want to be able to provide an alternative where data is not just a commodity, where data can be a common good, a common resource, and where we open up to a broader communal use of data, where citizens can use this fundamental resource of the digital age to build systems that have a better impact on the city they live. And also, we need to experiment with new economic models because I don't think the surveillance economy that we are in right now is sustainable for the future.
And so we need to be able-- and in particular, Europe needs to be able to build a made-in-Europe economy with our values. We don't pretend it's going to replace the economy that we have right now, but definitely we need more plurality. And we think the question of information self-determination, of autonomy, of encryption as a human right is absolutely at the centre of what we can do differently.
I mean, also distributed ledgers and the blockchain now is gathering a lot of attention in the tech community. We also think that that technology can be used for the public good. It doesn't always have to be used in the financial sector to improve settlements or insurances. It can also be used to create fully digital, new urban services but that have a good impact on cities.
Can I ask about the UK? For the moment, we are still part of the European Union, and Nesta is one of the key partners in the whole DECODE project. What could citizens in the UK do to encourage this data revolution that you are talking about on a practical level?
So Nesta has written a very important report for the DECODE project that looks at the digital economy right now and the need for a more democratic way to use data and to empower citizens with data. And there is a big debate-- I mean, here in the UK, for instance with Uber, on what kind of system we should build, how we can use, for instance, the date of Transport for London to benefit the wider data economy, and how can citizens be empowered by the use of this data. Should we build platform cooperatives, or should we build a more democratic way to own infrastructure of the digital economy?
So these are the type of debates that I see happening also here. And citizens are part of this. So I don't think they are waiting for DECODE. DECODE is capturing what citizens are already doing.
I've been reading Tim Riley's latest book on what's the future. And in that, he talks about how government can use new technologies. And he makes the comparison between what he thinks is the traditional method of government at the moment, which is government as a kind of vending machine. There's a pre-set menu of options that you have, and there's a fixed price for everything that it delivers. He thinks governments ought to be moving more towards emulating some of these platform monopolies themselves so that the government itself becomes a platform monopoly. It is offering the core services and then allowing other people to innovate off it in the way that Apple runs their App Store and so on. In a way, that's not too different from your vision, is it, that you want core functions that Barcelona City Council can perform but you're encouraging innovation of that governmental platform?
Yes. But I think the solution is not to give even more power to the tech monopolies because I think if we have a problem it's that they are accumulating too much power and we don't know how to regulate it and we don't know how to shift that power back to the citizens and to the people or to accountable institutions. So I think that we have to build alternatives where public institutions can have a role, but also a knowledge of the importance of citizens to be part of this. So not only regulated by governments, but also including the broader civil society, co-operative movement.
And then posing the question of data infrastructure. I mean, we are also trying to go beyond these platform cooperatives, which is great. I mean, you can solve the question of ownership. You can solve the question of labour going beyond Uberisation and make it better for workers. But I think the missing part is data infrastructures. These data infrastructures are the underpinning of the future economy, so I think this is a question for states to think about it.
And in Barcelona, for instance, coming back to your question, we are doing a digital transformation where yes, we are creating a system that's digital. We are shifting to open source and open standards, so we're really radically opening up the way we do technology. We don't want to be locked in proprietary silos because, with the shift to the smart cities, other urban infrastructure is owned by few companies. And so we have to break these silos, break the dominance of only a few vendors, and be able to have better portability to work with open source software, work with open standards, and change procurement rules-- which I know is not a sexy topic, but it's really important for government-- to integrate clauses on data ownership.
So in Barcelona, we are changing the big vendors contract, and we are putting clauses that says the ownership of the data stays with the city hall and with the citizens. And there has to be encryption and privacy and security by design. So we are moving towards the GDPR, integrating that in the way that we spend citizen money to invest in technology that should serve the citizens.
And this also brings, I think, more transparency because one big problem that we have is people don't trust institutions because there is institutional corruption. And this is a really big problem now in Spain and all across the world. And so this allows us also to tackle the question of corruption in a very radical way and be very transparent to citizens on how we are spending their money.
So your vision, in a way, is very much what powered the original vision of the internet, isn't it? That it was going to be this liberating, democratising future, which somehow seems to have got lost along the way.
I think we want to reclaim power to the people to decide how technology is going to be used to build what kind of institutions and what kind of economic system. And I think this is a democratic vision.
Now, sovereignty is really a very hot word in Barcelona-- not just in the digital sense, but in the political sense. How is the Catalonia separatist movement affecting what you want to do?
At the moment in Barcelona and in Catalonia, we have a broad democratic movement happening. As I said before, I think a democratic revolution, which is claiming more democracy vis-a-vis the institution and also the right to decide. And this also comes back to the question of the Catalan people wanting to have a referendum, a referendum with legal and democratic safeguards. And this is what we are asking now, to have the right to self-determination and the right to decide about the future but in open political space for dialogue, of course, with Spain to make this possible.
And I think this is a positive thing. So I know it's hard to say at the moment because we are in a very tense situation and also because there is no political solution to a political crisis. And the political crisis cannot be solved legally. It cannot be solved with police force. It has to be solved politically. And we think the democratic will of the Catalan people is a good thing. And in fact, in Catalonia, also what allowed me to have this digital agenda that's putting technology in the hands of people is because we have a broad network of association, of civil society, of citizens that are very active. And they are participating in the life of the citizens.
Of course, when you have conflict-- and I think this is a European problem. It's not just a Catalan problem. It's not just a Spanish problem. It's a European problem-- how we accommodate and how we account for popular sovereignty because, otherwise, Europe can break, and also the systems that we have now fail. And so we need to integrate these questions very much at the core.
How do you think this political crisis plays out?
Well, we hope there will be a space for dialogue, there will be a political solution, and we hope for a referendum with democratic safeguards. And really, it's a clear will from the Catalan institutions. And of course, from our mayor, she has been the mediator. She asked the European Commission to mediate, international organisations to mediate. She gathered lots of signatures from other cities to mediate. So we really want a space of political dialogue.
And of course, we think this should be possible in current Europe. I mean, imagine. I'm Italian, so I'm not Catalan, but I feel this goes exactly beyond Catalonia. It becomes a question for all of us Europeans, and it's about what kind of Europe we want to build. And I think the question of self-determination as a right and more democracy is what we need, not less democracy.
All right. We will end it there, but thank you very much, Francesca. We will be back next week with another episode of Tech Tonic. In the meantime, if you would like to comment on today's show or suggest any topics you'd like us to cover in future episodes, please email us at email@example.com. This episode of Tech Tonic was produced by Fiona Symon.