Francesca Bria: ‘Europe cannot rely on Silicon Valley’

Francesca Bria

Taking place across 6-8 May, Berlin’s Re:publica is one of the world’s largest conferences on digital culture. EURACTIV Germany took the chance to head along and sit down with Francesca Bria to discuss Spain’s role in the EU’s digital revolution.

Francesca Bria is Barcelona’s Chief Technology and Digital Innovation Officer. She spoke to EURACTIV Germany’s Alicia Prager.

EURACTIV: Can you tell us about your approach to developing Barcelona as a “Smart City”? What are your experiences with shaping its digital strategy?

Bria: At first, our problem was that the concept of the “Smart City” has been developed by the big tech vendors for the last ten years. They introduced all kinds of different technologies: connectivity, big data, big dashboards in order to manage the city service.

But why do we need this technology? Who is going to govern this data? Who is going to own the infrastructure of the city? So we shifted the paradigm upside down and started with the problems that citizens are facing in the city: affordable housing, the energy transition, climate change. And then we discussed how to give back the control of data to citizens.

We started a large-scale participatory democracy movement, both online and offline. We went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, doing citizens participation processes to identify their priorities and then used the online platform “Decidim Barcelona” with 400.000 citizens to prioritize their proposals and create the Government Agenda.

What is the key motivation for your work in Barcelona? What impacts are you hoping for?

For us, one of the main problems is the crisis of political representation: people don’t trust public institutions anymore. They don’t think we have a vision for the future, they don’t think that we are solving their problems. And also they don’t trust the corporations anymore. And this is why we have so many people voting for populist, right-wing parties that are raising to power all around the world.

So, we wanted to rethink the relationship between citizens and public institutions and try to revitalize democracy, putting people at the centre. Our answer to right-wing populism is not less democracy – it’s more democracy.

How are you putting that into action?

For example, we own 700 km2 of fibre and have built a sensor and an IoT (Internet of things) network. This means we can store the data in a public repository. Using privacy, security and ethics by design and then use this data to help solve the real problems of the citizens.

Citizens can choose whom to share their data with: for example, they can grant the doctors access to their medical data in order to improve the health system, but at the same time making sure that insurance companies won’t get access to that information. The idea is to give back data sovereignty to citizens.

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Could the model be replicated in other cities?

Yes, we refer to all the technology policies that we run in Barcelona as “ethical digital standards” and we share them with hundreds of cities around the world using a free software platform.

Our digital democracy platform is now being used by over 60 cities around the world and I chair a network of cities called the Cities CIOs Council. There are hundreds of cities who are collaborating in this kind of approaches.

Do you feel that less tech-savvy citizens are also involved in these types of developments? Are they clued up to what is going on? Has there been any criticism?

For me, it is very important to make these issues around digitalization more political. It’s not about technology, its about the model of the city. Who owns the data and what is done with it, are becoming increasingly political questions now. It’s not just about privacy, it’s also about the economic and social model.

In Barcelona we have created the Sharing Cities Alliance, to collectively negotiate with Uber and Airbnb, following the public pressure they have faced: Uber in terms of workers rights and unfair competition with the cab sector, Airbnb for contributing to the rising cost of housing rentals. Cities get out of control. Our project is about reconquering them.

One way to gain control over services like Uber and Airbnb could be the introduction of a digital tax. But it sounds like this measure would not go far enough?

We should tax these companies. Full stop. Then we can also look at ways we should modernise the international tax system to account for the digitalisation of the economy as it is now happening at the OECD level.

In Europe we have to build our own way for the digital society, we should not rely on Silicon Valley. We can regulate the big tech platforms, enforce taxation and modernise our competition law but at the same time we need to have our own public infrastructures and we need alternatives. It is a matter of European sovereignty and democracy.

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How can that be done in times when people use all these platforms so heavily? 

We are using Facebook, Google and so on because we don’t have alternatives. We don’t control our digital identities, we don’t control the data, we don’t control the payment systems. Instead of cleaning the mess up afterwards and trying to fix problems of privacy, monopoly power and our poor infrastructures, we have to take these building blocks of the new digital infrastructure back into public hands and get the all ecosystem to work with us.

With the European elections coming up, do you have a message for the new Commission?

Get your act together! We need a strategy and we need to act. We should understand that digital is not just about technical tools or some regulatory framework, it’s a core political programme for a future Europe that we have to build.

This plan should not be about one particular industry, this has a global impact on society. We need structural transformation, including things like the reallocation of property rights, new welfare programs, new education programs making European universities attractive, and having incentives for talented people working in the tech sector to stay in Europe.

Slowly, I feel like politicians are waking up, confronted with geopolitical changes. We should be able to mobilize collective action to make sure Europe will work for a people-centred, rights-preserving vision for the digital society.

[Edited by Samuel Stolton]

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