Overnight, everything became highly digitized: without a smart phone or laptop, life was almost unthinkable. But even before Covid, platforms, apps, algorithms and data had already penetrated deeply into our daily lives, with the city becoming a technological hub. Essential, useful and enjoyable, but also raising questions: Who controls it? Who makes money from it?
Taking what makes a city more equitable as a starting point results in a different approach to technology, a platform society and digital rights: the wellbeing of residents is paramount, the information society is democratic and does not invoke inequality and discrimination. In a just and equitable city, citizens control their human material and a data economy adds value to the city rather than let it flow out.
Currently, we have little power over the platforms, apps and algorithms that direct our lives – we are primarily at the service of a revenue model. We have no idea who owns which information about us, and what they do with it. Also, data and algorithms reproduce bias and prejudice, and the influence of tech giants on public debate is enormous, as underscored by recent discussions about disinformation and fake news.
All government organisations rely on digital technology (which, incidentally, is created by private companies). To help us, to monitor us and to detect fraud and abuse. The risk of these digital systems continuing to repeat assumptions, prejudices and misinformation is very real. The recent childcare benefits scandal has made this painfully clear.
The Covid pandemic has underscored that, like water, energy, housing and healthcare, data networks and digital technology have become indispensable in our daily lives. Digital technology must be regarded as a basic human need and an essential service that must be democratically managed.
This can take many different forms, including cooperatives in which citizens oversee the use of their own data or partnerships between government and citizens comprising joint ownership, management and control. Such a change requires digital courage.