agenda for the city of the future

Digital democracy

The digital space is a public space which we, citizens and public institutions, have power over.

These are the results of dozens of conversations, discussions and exchanges of Cities for Change.  Door uiteenlopende deelnemers en organisaties uit Amsterdam en andere steden in Europa.

Transition

Information must belong to citizens and users, technology is democratically developed and platforms are managed in public-civil partnerships. The digital space is a public space which we, citizens and public institutions, have power over.

The design is based on design justice: with, by and from users, and especially the most vulnerable, such as children receiving online education. And the government develops a well-thought-through, long-term strategy on the digital transition in the public interest.

 

'Think in old-fashioned solutions. Such as unions for couriers and other platform workers, data centres as utilities.'Sanne Stevens, researcher digital technology London School of Economics

'Think in old-fashioned solutions. Such as unions for couriers and other platform workers, data centres as utilities.'Sanne Stevens, researcher digital technology London School of Economics

'Our education and entire cultural life is in the hands of private tech companies. They control our data.’Paul Keller, director think tank Open Future

Recommendations

  • Regulate and enforce. The municipality cannot dismiss all large companies at the same time. But it does have the power to impose rules that protect citizens instead of businesses. This also implies active enforcement. As is currently being done with Airbnb rentals and should be done with regard to the court ruling that determines that Uber drivers and Deliveroo deliverers are employees and not freelancers.
  • Regulate and enforce, again. The municipality actively maps out how and where digital private platforms cause social problems. For example, there is much ado around work via platforms (such as Uber, Deliveroo, Helpling): lawsuits, protests, published abuses and so on. The outcomes of this mapping are used to develop regulation and enforcement, together with experience experts, researchers and legal experts, also taking into account examples from other cities.
  • The municipality is open about considerations and choices. Now, private platforms and other tech companies often create a preferential position for themselves. And the municipality facilitates these companies – for example, it has a covenant with Uber, but has failed to hear its couriers and drivers.
  • The (local) government sets conditions. For subsidies and investments for tech innovations: public interest, open source, sustainable and so on – just like with other subsidies. Including a critical assessment of whether tech is the right tool. The advisory committee for this (also) consists of independent and critical tech thinkers and representatives of civil society.
  • Invest. In the face of the financial muscle of the tech companies, massive public investment is needed, at the European level, to develop publicly managed platforms.
  • 'Old-fashioned' solutions. Like unions for couriers and other platform workers, data centres as utilities.
  • Step away from the logic of the market. Commercial interfaces are now the norm, they nudge, they direct ... From a design justice perspective, creators and users can contrast that with something else.
  • Research. The damage of a hamburger has been mapped out, from animal feed to the burger on your plate. The same can be done for digital products and the impact of the entire digital production chain on our daily lives. For example, through a municipal programme mapping the social, economic and ecological effects of the digital transition. Through studies into the impacts of the tech purchased by the municipality itself. And by following the example of other cities. Certain damages, alternatives and regulation of platforms and other tech companies are already materialising there. Amsterdam may use their experiences to take its own timely measures.
  • Cities in Europe and worldwide are increasingly joining forces. In innovations and by jointly developing alternatives for public institutions and citizens. For example, Helsinki has developed its own navigation system and Amsterdam might construct something similar building on their know-how. Or several cities may jointly set up a municipal cloud infrastructure.

'How disruptive is it that so many companies know more about us than we do ourselves?'Touria Meliani, alderman for the Digital City in Amsterdam

Which problems are the recommendations an answer to?

There are three issues: power, money, and public space.

The trillion dollar companies, BigTech, shape our daily lives. Education, groceries, healthcare, culture, funerals, birthdays: the pandemic shot us into the digital space and the platform economy at lightning speed. It all seems efficient, easy, innovative.

Meanwhile, that space is filled with revenue models focused on huge profits instead of on our well-being. We, citizens and governments, hardly have any say in how the private tech companies operate, and we are hugely dependent on them. Meanwhile, their profits do not benefit the city, nor the ones who do the actual work. Meanwhile, the hidden costs are passed on to couriers and drivers, and while Airbnb provides home owners with extra money, it dramatically changes the character of the inner city.

And the effects penetrate even deeper into our daily lives. Quite literally, with the ‘concrete boxes’ housing energy-guzzling data centres, the Uber Eats and other couriers chasing down our city streets. Google Classroom determines our education. You can really only attract audiences to your theatre by being on Facebook. Our online photos are used to develop facial recognition software.

What is already happening in Amsterdam or other cities?

  • Coopcycle is a federation of bicycle delivery cooperatives. Democratically governed. This allows them to unify their power and resources and reduce costs (without the layers of management that make up Uber Eats). With strong bargaining position to protect the rights of couriers and drivers.
  • Campaigning. Rights for Riders and the European Assembly for Riders are fighting for better working conditions for all bicycle couriers.
  • Taking action. Via Uber Cheats , couriers can report their actual kilometres cycled and file complaints.
  • Samen Beter is a network of municipalities, health insurers, formal care workers and informal care providers for exchanging protocols and experiences. Deliberately independent from commercial companies.
  • Building coalitions. Public libraries in the Netherlands form a coalition to continue to fulfil their public role, in particular in the digital space.
  • Developing solidarity. Open source software already exists in many shapes and sizes. And this can be expanded further.
  • Using alternatives. For example, Helsinki has developed its own navigation system. And there already are many collective and cooperative online conference tools like Meetcoop. Instead of Zoom, Teams and so on.
  • Developing inclusive participation. Citizens and citizens can organise themselves on digital participation platforms. OpenStad is one such platform, developed by, among others, the municipality of Amsterdam. Barcelona also has enormous experience with such platforms.

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