Francesca Bria
Voices (Towards Other Institutions) #12

Superstudio, Atti Fondamentali. Education. Progetto 1,1971, lithography. Courtesy Fondazione MAXXI
Digital Sovereignty for the People in the post-pandemic World

We are still in the midst of a global emergency, which represents an unprecedented economic shock, that forced us to adapt, think in a new way and act quickly. Decades of economic polarization have increased inequalities, with many people facing debilitating insecurity. The lockdown has led to more economic damage and further economic polarization. Many people consider the economy as a system to which they do not feel they belong, a system designed to favor others.

The crisis we are experiencing creates the opportunity to articulate a new direction for our society. Will Covid-19 reconfigure our society? Will this tragedy also be turned into a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rebuild better economies? The pandemic makes radical and future-oriented political action even more urgent. Crises, whether wars or pandemics, can sometimes feed the social imagination. New pacts must be forged and the old rules must be deeply transformed. The deeper the crisis, the more likely it is that people are not asking for a return to normal, but a leap towards something different and better, directing policies and investments towards projects that transform our economy, projecting us into a digital and carbon-neutral future.

This pandemic triggered a sort of “forced” digitization of many aspects of our daily life. Digital infrastructures have proved to be critical infrastructures, on which essential services of society, such as work, healthcare and education, depend upon. Access to connectivity-free, public and accessible ultra-broadband–is to be considered a fundamental right of all citizens. Developing technologies such as 5G networks, cloud computing and Artificial Intelligence infrastructures have suddenly become national and global priorities.

In this digital transformation of society, we must be aware of the long-term political and social challenges that entail. Accelerating digitization is not enough, but it is also necessary to give it a direction. In my perspective, what we really need is a new social contract for the digital society. We should call it a “smart green new deal” because it’s about using digital technologies to attain both social and environmental sustainability.

This digital new deal will be about restoring our digital sovereignty. Digital sovereignty means that as a society we should be able to set the direction of technological progress and put technology and data at the service of people. This also means directing technological development to solve the most pressing social and environmental issues of our times, starting with the climate emergency, the energy transition and public healthcare.

Digital sovereignty means that digital technologies can facilitate the transition from today’s digital economy of surveillance capitalism–whereby a handful of US and China based corporations battle for global digital supremacy–to a people-centric digital future based on better workers, environmental, and citizens’ rights, to bring long-term social innovation.

Only by coupling a digital transition with a Green New Deal, will we be able to break the binary logic that always and only presents us with two scenarios for the future of digital: Big State, the Chinese and Orwellian model, or Big Tech, the Silicon Valley surveillance capitalism. Big State strips people of their individual liberties, Big Tech creates data monopolies that will eventually run critical infrastructures such as healthcare or education; neither is an option for a democratic world. I advocate for a third way: Big Democracy. A democratization of data, citizen participation and technology at the service of society and the ecological transition. I have tried to do just that in Barcelona in the past four years, turning municipal data into a common good, co-owned by all citizens and redefining the smart city to ensure that it serves its people. If we as people fail to regain digital sovereignty, we run the risk of becoming part of a digital colony in a sandwich between China and the US.

In the post pandemic phase, we stand at a historical crossroad: we can take back our technological sovereignty, by advancing a new digital humanism that refuses Big State, Big Tech and the Tech Wall between China and the US. In order to make this vision a reality, we need a new movement that can advance an alternative, making technology a right and an opportunity for many instead of a privilege for a few. My suggestion is to start from a network of cities promoting ambitious policies to take back democratic governance of digital technology and data sovereignty. Cities should give back the power to citizens through a process of participatory democracy, and use the city’s data to tackle our big environmental and social challenges: climate, sustainable mobility, affordable housing, healthcare, education. We should seize this historical opportunity.

Francesca Bria is an innovation economist and digital policy expert whose work is located at the intersection of technology, geopolitics and the economy. Previously, Francesca was Chief Digital Technology and Innovation Officer for the City of Barcelona and Senior Programme Lead at Nesta, the UK Innovation Agency. In 2017, she founded the DECODE project, funded by the EU, to create tools to give individuals more control of what happens with their personal data. She is Senior Adviser on Digital Cities and Digital Rights for the United Nations and Honorary Professor at the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP). She has been listed as one of the top 50 women in tech by Forbes and as one of 100 women changing the world by Italian Magazine Repubblica “D”.

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