B. Technology in service of democracy and fundamental rights

12. Work on a public digital infrastructure. Offer a platform to service providers, citizens' initiatives, and urban commons.

A smart city does not succumb to the lure of tech companies offering free services in order to appropriate data. All governments have the responsibility to prevent the con­cen­tration of data power, market power, and political power in the hands of tech giants such as Google and Facebook. They should not sustain a business model that is based on collecting ever more of our personal data in order to put together ever more detailed profiles of us that allow commercial and political actors to manipulate us ever more cun­ning­ly: they seduce us into buying things we didn’t know we needed, for example, or exploit our personal fears for political gain.[1]

The default search engine on municipal computers in the French town of Issy-les-Moulineaux is not Google, but Qwant.[2] This European search engine does not waltz off with its users’ personal data when they enter a query. Advertisements are based on queries, not on user profiles. Search results on Qwant are not personalised either, in order to prevent a situation where users are more likely to receive information that confirms their ideas than information that contradicts them.[3]

Technology companies can go bankrupt, which could result in a disruption of public services. From the point of view of continuity, vital technological facilities – such as the sensor network that controls traffic lights in the city – are preferably public rather than private property.

A public digital infrastructure – from fibreglass cables, to sensors, to platforms – gives a government the control it needs to ensure that service providers can compete on fair and equal terms, that personal data is protected, and that other data is shared. This is important, for example, for the responsible introduction of Mobility-as-a-Service platforms, which offer travellers a personalised door-to-door journey using different modes of transport and a single app.[4]

A public digital infrastructure can also be used to support citizens' initiatives. This would mean for example that residents wanting to set up a digital neighbourhood platform would not be dependent upon WhatsApp or Facebook.[5] Public-civil cooperation can create new urban commons: resources that belong neither to the state nor to the market, but are democratically governed by a community of users.[6] From cooperatives producing clean energy and sharing electric cars to food collectives for the purchase and promotion of regional, artisanal products. These initiatives, which foster connec­ted­ness in the city, often need a municipality to partner with them, for instance for the development of open source platforms and apps that support the pooling and sharing of energy, vehicles, or food. In return, a municipality may demand that the cooperatives and collectives share the benefits of commoning with fellow citizens who cannot contribute money or skills.

Som Mobilitat is a cooperative for electric car-sharing in Catalonia. It has a membership of 1500, organised in local groups, and a fleet of 34 e-cars. Som Mobilitat has received subsidies from the regional government and from municipalities for setting up new groups of car-sharers in villages and neighbourhoods. Five municipalities are members of the cooperative. Other municipalities provide parking places or electricity for the shared cars; in return, they may use the cars for a certain number of hours or they may offer test drives to their citizens.[7]
Som Mobilitat works together with other cooperatives in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany on technologies indispensable for car-sharing, such as a digital platform and a smartphone app. New cooperatives can join the alliance and adopt the technology, so that they don’t have to reinvent the wheel.[8]

Before turning to businesses, governments must first ask themselves whether they are able to develop and manage their own technology for the city and its citizens.[9] They might need to hire more people with expertise, specialists with a heart for the public good. Cooperation with other (democratic) govern­ments, at home and abroad, as well as with knowledge institutions, can make the invest­ments manageable.

In Tirana, the capital of Albania, the city’s ICT department is constantly building new platforms and services, drawing upon open source software.[10] These innovations serve both the city’s staff and its citizens; an open data portal[11] and a forum for e-participation[12] are amongst the platforms that were built in-house. The municipal ICT team gets help and advice from the local as well as the international open source community.

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Further viewing & reading

Video: guifi.net, telecommunications as a commons
Audiovisual dossier: Bart Grugeon Plana, Commoning in Catalonia


[1] See principle 7
[2] Municipality of Issy-les-Moulineaux, Protéger les données personnelles, 2019 (in French)
[3] Team Quant, Overview, 2016. See also Sven Taylor, 'The complete list of alternatives to all Google products', Techspot, 2019
[4] See principle 18
[5] The DECODE project is running a pilot to develop a privacy-preserving local social network in Amsterdam.
[6] See Vedran Horvat, Real democracy in your town. Public-civil partnerships in action, 2019. See also the Bologna Regulation for the Care and Regeneration of Urban Commons. This regulation on public-civil cooperation was adopted by the city council of Bologna in 2014. In 2017, Michel Bauwens and Yurek Onzia wrote a Commons Transition Plan for the city of Ghent.
[7] Som Mobilitat. See also Bart Grugeon Plana, ‘Burgercoöperaties en commons in Catalonië effenen het pad voor een samenwerkingseconomie’, Oikos, nr. 89, 2019, pp. 63-68 (in Dutch) and Commoning in Catalonia
[8] The Mobility Factory
[9] "[P]rivate companies may not always understand how cities work (...) Departments within the municipality may deal with tasks more efficiently and effectively than private companies. Investments into training internal staff, instead of outsourcing projects to costly ICT companies, is something that should be considered." M. Ryan, 'Ethics of Public Use of AI and Big Data', ORBIT Journal 2/2, 2019
[10] Italo Vignoli, 'The Municipality of Tirana moves to open source software and open standards by migrating to LibreOffice', The Document Foundation blog, 2018
[11] Open Data Tirana
[12] Virtual Forum Tirana

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