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Technology matters, but people matter more: notes from the Digital Future Society Summit

Tags: 'Digital trust' 'Public innovation'


Reading Time: 8 minutes
  • On 24 February 2019, Digital Future Society held its second Summit in Barcelona.
  • On the eve of MWC19, the Digital Future Society Programme brought together more than 250 experts in innovation, technology, research, philosophy, as well as various representatives of civil society to focus on key themes including public innovation, digital trust and artificial intelligence.

Through a carefully curated series of keynotes, panels and parallel sessions, participants asked and shared answers to questions that have significant consequences for us all: how can citizens be empowered to take control of their digital lives? How might we develop ethical security and data privacy solutions that are available to everyone and easy to use?

Aligning digital systems with human rights and democratic values

While high-level politicians and big name speakers such as Anand Giridharadas, Cory Doctorow and Saskia Sassen dominated the headlines, it was two key themes of the Digital Future Society Think Tank – public innovation and digital trust – that captured participants’ imaginations, debates and thoughts. The second edition of the Digital Future Society Summit triumphantly gathered 250 technology and social sciences experts from all around the globe, including executives from Facebook, Telefónica, LinkedIn and Consensys; innovation experts from World Economic Forum, Open Knowledge International and Nesta; academics from institutions such as Columbia University, Mila and Instituto Empresa; activists from CSOs like Fundación Ciudadanía Inteligente, Digital Impact Alliance and the Institute for Technology & Society; and public entities such as the Spanish government and European Commission.

As Digital Future Society is a programme of Mobile World Capital Barcelona, the day began with an opening speech from MWCapital CEO Carlos Grau, focusing on two major themes of the Summit: public innovation with new technologies and digital trust, especially in terms of data ethics. When it comes to technology, society matters – so how do we imagine technology’s impact on our society? We are already living its consequences in the public and private sphere – so what to do about it? How can we align current networks and digital systems with human rights and democratic values?

Plenary highlights: redefining 5G and avoiding alchemy

“Technology’s biggest players need to reckon with a new kind of 5G(s) if they want people to like them again,” remarked Anand Giridharadas, author of Winners Take All and Editor at Large of Time Magazine. It’s impossible to have a conversation about technology and what it can do for the world without talking about the tremendous disconnection between the people who own and operate technology and the societies they live in that increasingly resent and distrust them.

“When I think about Digital Future Society, I think about how the tech revolution was promised as the great emancipation: it will level every playing field, obliterate hierarchies … and the opposite happened,” continued Anand. Technology has accentuated historical divides and inequalities, which is why Anand went on to propose a new set of 5G “principles” for a more equitable digital future:

The keynote by science fiction author and digital rights activist Cory Doctorow began with a warning. We are entering an “age of alchemy” where we leave behind the dream of democratic, inter-operational technology into some kind of secretive, IP-driven constitutional monarchy, he cautioned. In exchange for free access to dominant platforms, we “deputise” tech giants like Facebook to police users and moderate content that could lead to social harm.


This approach is incompatible with competitive markets, affirmed, going on to offer an example of what happens when the tables of disruption are turned. Austin, Texas had the same problem as Barcelona when Uber and Lyft came to disrupt the city’s taxi industry. When the city forced new drivers to undergo the same background check as regular cab drivers, Uber and Lyft promptly abandoned the city. Local entrepreneurs went on to form a non-profit version of Uber and Lyft called RideAustin in which drivers get 25% more of the fare, and data is shared with city planners instead of both going to shareholders and third parties. The app also has a feature that enables users to round up their fare with the proceeds donated to local charities.

Panel: a new social contract for the 21st century

Following the two keynotes, three members of the Digital Future Society Global Board of Trustees took to the stage to discuss a potential solution to the challenges raised by Anand and Cory: a new social contract for the 21st century. What would such an arrangement actually look like? And what would it mean for innovation in cities and in business? How would a new social contract redefine the way we work, learn and function?

According to Daria Tataj, Chair of High Level Advisors to the European Commission, a central ingredient in the social contact of the 21st century is trust, calling it “the currency of today.” Tataj also highlighted the need for more leadership, and it does not mean more leaders – especially “a leadership that understands people, networks and social change.”

Lawyer and digital rights advocate Renata Avila agreed, suggesting that even though “half of humanity is connected to the internet today, the new social contract must preserve the rights of the other half.” She went on to insist that the disconnected and digitally excluded must be brought into the discussion, in order to avoid seeing the global poor as a “data commodity.”

Renowned academic Saskia Sassen built on this idea, pointing out that “in our extraordinary modernity, we see the rise of extractive logic.” It is the opposite of commerce, which is inclusive and promotes shared prosperity. “The average citizen must understand these things – understanding algorithms shouldn’t be a strange thing that only academics and physicists know how to do.”


Parallel sessions: where emerging tech meets government

Following the plenary sessions, participants chose between two parallel sessions, in which the initial work of the first Digital Future Society Think Tank working groups was shared and discussed.

The first session explored emerging technologies in public sector innovation through a panel discussion moderated by journalist Pipo Serrano. Public sector innovation involves implementing practical ideas for public benefit. In this session explored the challenges and opportunities of using emerging technologies like blockchain and artificial intelligence to enhance public service delivery.

The session began with a cautionary tale from Fabro Steibel, Executive Director of ITS Rio. “If inclusion is not a driving force of public innovation, it ceases to be public,” said Fabro, sharing the example of how a third of primary school places in Brazil remained empty after the government moved to online registration. “So what principles should guide Brazil’s plan for AI? Governments should lead the conversation and make sure to involve all other stakeholders.”

Agnes Budzyn of ConsenSys highlighted the importance of building tech for users, including governments. “There must be constant checkpoints as you adjust your technologies to users.”

Christina Patsioura, Senior Researcher at GSMA Intelligence brought up the idea of how public-private partnerships can bring principles like ethics and inclusion to innovation. “There is a need for entities outside the public and private sector to push for things like ethics and inclusion that are not necessarily on the priorities list of governments or companies.”

AI Research Manager at the Barcelona Supercomputing Center Ulises Cortes invited the audience to “imagine if technology was like medicine: before going to market it would have to go through years of trials. When ready for public consumption, there would a government-regulated book of safe use. Governments start to think about the negative impacts of technology after it’s already too late.”

The panel discussion was followed by case study presentations on real examples of emerging tech in government. First, Public Innovation working group member Josep Monti explained how his project DNA (Decentralised Nation Autonomous) is helping one government scout the global blockchain ecosystem for solutions that can be applied to public services like identity, voting, business, banking and residence. In her pitch, Natalia Olson-Urtecho of Disruptive Factory addressed the challenges and opportunities of building public-private technology partnerships in times of economic crisis. “During my time with the Obama administration innovation team, were able to digitise our internal paperwork to help small businesses during the recession – a time where we see innovation most,” Natalia explained. “We were able to use technology to remove internal barriers, go paperless and focus our tie on helping citizens create companies.” At a more locally-focused level, Boyd Cohen explained how his startup Iomob aims to help cities create more inclusive and streamlined access to affordable mobility using decentralised technologies. “We enable discovery, multi-modal routing and payment integration so that in one app, any mobility service will be accessible so that any user can get access in any market in the world.”

A new data ethics for the digital age

In the Digital Trust & Security session on a new data ethics for the digital era, the idea of creating business models based on trust was raised, what to do when that trust is breached and how to deal with the fact that children are especially vulnerable in the digital world. Data ethics in the digital world is a hugely important issue that needs more framing a deeper understanding on the part of all actors, not least government and industry,” said parallel session moderator Katrina Steibel. “Using data the right way is not about what is technically possible – but desirable from society’s point of view.”

“We know our society is biased,” admitted Pere Nebot, Chief Information Officer at CaixaBank. “When we collect that data and create a model, we need to make sure humans are involved and not take decisions directly and exclusively based on the model. Only humans can ensure that the final decision is ethical based on the result of the algorithm, which is nothing more than a result.”

Marc Torrent of Eurecat highlighted the role of public administrations in making sure digital rights and ethics are preserved in digital environments: “Governments hold the key right now in this shift toward a new data ethics. In order for a whole company to make a transformative shift, many people must agree on what data ethics means. We need governments to amplify the signal of the small communities trying to drive change.”

Representing i2cat and the European Network of Living Labs, Artur Serra reminded the audience of the importance of inclusion when striving to make data use ethical: “Just because you are connected does not mean that you are part of the digital society. You are digitised, but you are not necessarily getting the benefits of the digital society.”

Mario Viola of ITS Rio added that individuals also have a responsibility to be aware of their own values applied to a digital context: “Digital literacy means more than training people to navigate the web,” he said. “It is about being able to choose what information you get and knowing how to control your data.”

The panel discussion was followed by a series of pitches demonstrating real life ways of reinforcing digital trust:

  • In the city of Madrid, where Victoria Anderica is working to make transparency by law and open government
  • in London, where Daniele Quercia is building “happy maps” that give users the choice to optimize their routes for things other than speed: happiness, calm, quiet and even smell…
  • …and in the fintech world, where Victoria Yasinetskaya is working to promote more balanced and diverse teams in data science and software development, as well as digital products that take the needs of all users into account.

Summit closure

To conclude the day, Spanish Minister of Economy and Business Nadia Calviño gave a closing speech, reiterating the central theme of the Digital Future Society Summit: although “technology matters, people matter more.”

“There are many new tools that must be put at the service of society if we want information, data and the digital revolution to benefit all,” continued Minister Calviño. “We need to analyse, reflect on and debate these questions, which is why the Digital Future Society initiative is so important – and why we have supported it since the beginning. I think the Digital Future Society is an excellent example of public authorities working together making this one of the most important events in the field worldwide.”

Brimming with new insights, conversations and ideas on how to do exactly that, participants were invited to save the date for the next edition of the Digital Future Society Summit ahead of the Smart City Expo World Congress in November 2019.