Liveblog: Francesca Bria on How Data May Help Cities to Become More Democratic and Sustainable

We need to rework our urban systems if we are to survive the climate crisis. And, as Francesca Bria explains, ethical use of data could be our greatest weapon…

Warning: Live-blogging. Prone to error, inaccuracy and howling crimes against grammar and syntax. This post will be updated over the next few days.

Watch Francesca Bria at NEXT22 on-demand

We’re in a period of structural change, that’s a continual crisis. There’s inflation, war, climate crisis, and the soaring price of energy. But we’re also still going through the process of digitalisation — and that offers opportunities. Accelerating the speed of digitalisation is not enough, we need to give it a direction. And that’s towards environmental and social sustainability.

Europe has been pretty powerfully pulling together during the pandemic — coming together on vaccine procurement, on spreading vaccines to developing nations — and now in energy. Now they face two transitions in concert: the green transition and the digital transition. Europe is aiming to be the first climate neutral, circular economy continent by 2050. EU legislation is not enough — it needs to be people first.

That’s why she likes cities.

The twin transformations

How do we make the green and the digital transformation work for people, to change their lives for the better? We have to tackle a range of solutions, like facilitating electric cars — and more cycling. Can we use data and AI to help? Yes – but we need to keep people at the heart of what we do. Cities are vital in the fight against climate change.

When she was working in Barcelona, they decided to remove cars from the city centre. This reduces carbon emissions, but also forces a rethink of mobility across the city. You gain green spaces, reduce emissions, and open opportunities for micromobility operators. Paris is working on the 15-minute principle – all basic facilities should be within 15 minutes of your home. That massively reduces the need for people to commute.

In Barcelona, they involved 400,000 citizens in shaping the agenda. This isn’t about replacing democracy with Facebook. It’s a hybrid model where you devolve more decision-making to the neighbourhoods and use both digital and face-to-face means of engaging citizens.

Exploiting data ethically

Data is the raw material of the digital economy. It’s a valuable asset – but it all depends on how you use it. It’s worth €829bn by 2025, estimates the EU. Extracting that value is a challenge and, right now, big corporations are doing the best job of it. We call this surveillance capitalism. How do we move to a fairer, more sustainable model of making value from data?

Well, one approach is using AI and algorithms to regulate platforms, and the activity on them. It may be the only way of holding them truly accountable. In Barcelona, they used blockchain to ensure data sovereignty, via the decode project. Barcelona also used open internet of things data to feed into their understanding of the dynamics of the city.

This seems obvious, but it’s not. We don’t really know how to use this data well, yet, and in a way that’s fair to citizens and private. People are working on a European Data Trust model, based on consent, portability, and interoperability. In Hamburg, they’re looking at a data sharing model for micromobility. It’s a model built on not giving up competitive advantage, but also sharing data in a way that benefits the whole city.

The digital third way

If we scale this model, within and between cities, we start to have the data we really need to move towards net-zero and arrest climate change, without sacrificing people’s data privacy. Open and ethical digital data services are what we should demand – it is our data.

Is there a third way between big state and big tech? Yes: but it requires a new regulatory approach for the digital age, that avoids creating monopolies, but still encourages innovation. It means a new social contract for the digital age, which involves digital sovereignty, and allows us to set the direction we want technology to go.

How does this look in action? The New Bauhaus is a movement to create an interdisciplinary culture movement to achieve a vision of a new deal.

Francesca Bria is the President of the Italian National Innovation Fund, CDP Venture Capital. She is Honorary Professor in the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose at UCL in London, and a member of the European Commission New European Bauhaus High-level Roundtable set up by the President of the European Commission.