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Citizens’ industrial policy: data ownership and technological sovereignty within cities

By Simone Gasperin | Twitter: @S_Gasperin

A strange pattern appears to characterise the global economy: the eternal return of the “Seven Sisters”. This was the label that back in the 1950s Enrico Mattei — President of the Italian State-owned oil company (Eni) — attached to the Anglo-American cartel that was dominating the global oil industry. Their model was as simple as it was exploitative: extracting petroleum from oil-producing countries, paying very little royalties and providing no technical support for domestic production and refining.

In the 21st century, the new oil — the crude valuable resource — is data. And seven new sisters have made their appearance: Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook in the US; and Alibaba and Tencent in China. They do not compose a formal cartel, but their business model is fundamentally based on a monopolistic dominance of the world market. The Seven Sisters 2.0 extract data from each citizen around the world — without any monetary compensation or control over the use of personal information — “refining” them through fairly simple data management systems in order to sell this valuable manufactured data to commercial companies, for the sake of advertising.

As with the case of the oil industry, the new digital data industry raises serious questions about transparency, accountability and exploitation from such tech giants. In the 20th century, the original Seven Sisters were threatening the economic sovereignty of oil-producing countries. Today, the menace of the new generation is targeted more directly to the sovereignty of the citizens themselves.

The discussion “Empowering citizens through data”, organised by the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) with the British Library, has tried to address these very urgent problems. Francesca Bria, Commissioner of Digital Technology and Innovation at City of Barcelona, and Jaideep Gupte, Principal Investigator on Smart Data for Inclusive Cities, provided insightful perspectives over the topics of digital innovation within cities, technological sovereignty and citizens’ participation in the democratic process.

First, the importance of building a new social contract. The rise of big tech companies and digital platforms, with the difficulty of properly taxing and controlling them, is posing serious challenges to the social and political sustainability of traditional democracies. In urban contexts companies such as Airbnb and Uber, far from providing answers to the housing and transport crises, they actually make the problems worse.

IIPP Deputy Director Rainer Kattel, Francesca Bria and Jaideep Gupte. Credit: Kirsten Holst

It is obvious that cities are the places where this is more pressing, both in developed contexts (Barcelona) and in developing ones (Mumbai). Yet, they are also the most effective level to engage citizens into building new social institutions from the ground. This is not about the very problematic, rather technocratic concept of “Smart Cities”. As Bria stresses, following the example of Barcelona, the process should start from the needs of the citizens and continue with their constant involvement, to find the best technological solutions. Gupte has noted that several positive — although still little known — examples can be taken from emerging economies: China and India are leading on digital innovation in cities.

The other major points raised were about industrial policy and data ownership. Again, the city perspective is crucial. The upcoming 5G infrastructure will be a strategic competitive weapon for industrial systems. But it will find a key application in cities, with particular respect to transport, energy management and office workplaces, areas in which citizens are affected on a daily basis. Bria has also lamented the narrow-minded focus on competition rules and market solutions that has been pervading EU policymaking in recent years. This is seriously undermining the technological sovereignty of Europe, with the risk of becoming an effective digital colony. To react against this worrying scenario, she suggests a model entailing State ownership of the digital infrastructure and citizens’ ownership of data, with cities as the locus where technological sovereignty and citizens’ democratic participation can find their fruitful synthesis.

State-owned oil companies and establishing national sovereignty of oil-producing countries brought the domination of the old Seven Sisters to an end. Nowadays, public ownership of digital infrastructure at the national and city levels, together with the direct involvement of citizens — the rightful owners of their data — could finally undermine the exploitative and unrestrained power of the new digital Seven Sisters and their similar relatives.

Watch the full Empowering Citizens through Data talk with IIPP Deputy Director Rainer Kattel, Francesca Bria and Jaideep Gupte:

Simone Gasperin is a PhD student at the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP). Simone’s provisional PhD thesis title is: The entrepreneurial role of State-owned enterprises as innovative and learning organisations, aiming to explore state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as innovative organisations for the production and diffusion of technological knowledge in their respective national systems of innovation.

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The official blog of the UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose | Rethinking how public value is created, nurtured and evaluated | Director @MazzucatoM | https://www.ucl.ac.uk/bartlett/public-purpose/

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UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how public value is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato | Deputy Director: Rainer Kattel

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