Francesca Bria: reclaiming sovereignty in our digital futures

Can Europe navigate a path between the digital giants of the US and the state control of China, to build a digital utopia from our current dystopia?

Francesca Bria is the President of the Italian National Innovation Fund, CDP Venture Capital.

These are liveblogged notes from Francesca’s talk to NEXT Limited Edition in Hamburg on 24th September 2021.

Technology is not just an industry or an obsession for geeks. It’s become central to everything we do. It’s become part of work, of education, of health, thanks to the pandemic. We have accelerated digitalisation in a way that is unprecedented in our society.

But the need for safeguards, for digital sovereignty, means that we shouldn’t just continue accelerating. We need to think about the direction of travel. What rights do we want over our data? The Germans have the idea of digital self-determination. What does it mean to have rights in a digital society?

Harnessing technology for societal good

How do we direct the power of technology — of collective technology — to society’s biggest challenges? The climate emergency is the most pressing challenge we have to face. But we also need to reform our cities. We need to spread wealth more equally in society. And we need to defend our democracies. 

There are much bigger collective problems than monetising eyeballs, and yet that’s where so much talent is focusing its efforts. 

The big tech companies make more than the value of the whole European stock market — and none of them are European. They’re US or Chinese companies. Europe needs to start building technologies here — and developing our own, new technologies. 

We’re starting to understand that digital technologies underpin the whole of society. Access to the internet should, perhaps, be considered a human right. But access to the internet is controlled by a handful of powerful companies. The rules for the future are not set here in Europe. That needs to change.

Models of our digital future

There are two models of digital futures we see at the moment: 

  1. The Big Tech, surveillance capitalism model (from the US)
  2. The Big State, state surveillance model (from China)

Neither are comfortable fits for our liberal democracies. So, we need a different one. And yes, we need to regulate things. But we need to do it in a better way than we did with the cookie directive, which makes for a horrible user experience. Policymakers need to work more closely with technologists to enable the innovations that we need to empower people. 

Dystopia Now

We need to get companies to pay taxes where they create value. We need to regulate competition, particularly in mergers and acquisitions. But all this is not enough. We need to invest in technology, we need to develop our own technologies, and we need to keep the talent here in Europe. 

We have incredible talent in Europe, in security, in cryptography, and so on. But when they create something great, they get bought by companies like Facebook. Let’s stop that happening.

The dystopia is what we are living now; the future is what we have to build.