Digital Compass – Can you point me to the society?

May 7, 2021

The “2030 Digital Compass” is a recent Communication from the European Commission that defines the policy objectives for “Europe’s digital decade”. The document opens with a paragraph that sketches a changed landscape of digitalisation after the pandemic. A biased portrayal, focused on disruptive innovation and the market, instead of public goods and the society, hints at a broader problem with this document.

I start with a short detour into the story of these vaccines, as they perfectly illustrate how often we adopt a “market-first” logic, and ignore broader societal goals. This is as true for Europe’s digital strategy as it is for vaccines, whose creators refuse to make them “People’s Vaccines”.

New vaccines against Covid-19, from Pfizer-BioNtech and Moderna – are mentioned in the “2030 Digital Compass” as prime examples of the “decisive role that disruptive innovation can play”. This framing is factually incorrect, or at least incomplete. The vaccines might be disruptive innovations, but they have not been developed, as the document states, in less then a year. They are based on previous basic research that allowed the vaccine to be created in days, or maybe even hours. And this basic research has been made possible by a week. And this research has been made possible by years of public funding. The Moderna vaccine was funded with almost a billion dollars in 2020 with overall public funding for vaccine research passing the USD 10 billion mark just in the USA. In late 2019, before the pandemic, BioNtech – at that time a small pharma startup – received 50 million Euro from the European Investment Bank. Basic research into the type of vaccines that are now used to fight Covid-19 has been funded already a decade ago, also with public funds.

In a recent Scientific American article on public funding of vaccine research, there is a telling quote from virologist Barney Graham: “Having public-private partnerships is how things get done. During this crisis, everything is focused on how we can do the best we can as fast as we can for the public health. All this other stuff is going to have to be figured out later.” Getting things done fast means leaving for later matters related to intellectual property, public funding and governance of shared knowledge. It also means providing public funding for commercial actors without necessary conditions that support the public interest.

In the case of the Digital Compass, there is no urgency that could explain such strong market focus. This is rather due to adhering to a market-first policy frame that has been with us for over a decade (as part of the Shared Digital Europe project, we tracked the development of this frame since 2009). In its current versions, the Digital Compass perpetuates problems caused by this framing. And in addition, it relies on an outdated by now vision of digital development – which reads at times like a policy from the early 2000s.

At the highest level, the framework is balanced and sustainable, with references to “healthier and greener society”. But when we look at details, these societal goals are overshadowed by a focus on economic growth or technological innovation. The big pandemic story is the disruptive innovation by commercial pharma companies. While in fact what is badly needed in this regard is an approach that puts focus on the commons and gains that we can get from treating technologies as common goods. Such a perspective is possible only if you really put society at the center. And in the “Digital Compass”, the society is actually missing.

The Digital Compass document is largely uninspiring and fails to define a real, transformative strategy. It does not tell us for what purpose we want to be using technology in Europe, beyond fulfilling quantitative targets (Paul Keller wrote more about this in our previous essay about the Compass). And despite the initial reference to the pandemic, much of the strategy is written as if nothing has changed and we can go back to increasing basic targets of digital growth: 5G coverage, digital talent, takeup of cloud solutions. Targets also include an European quantum supercomputer and doubled the number of “unicorn” type companies. These quantitative indicators are rooted in by now a traditional, or even outdated vision of digitisation. It assumes that more digital technology will solve problems that we face. And in terms of a societal perspective, it mainly seems concerned with access – to broadband, or to digital e-administration. These were measures fit for a transformative strategy in the 2000. In 2020, these should be seen as indicators of baseline growth, on which we need to define the actual strategy.

Missions, challenges, principles

The Compass document highlights, in a list of Europe’s key strengths, an open and competitive single market and strong rules embedding European values. This is an ambivalent high level narrative that is ambivalent in proposed balance between purely economic and societal goals. Let’s call it “Digital Single Market + Values”. In my opinion, this is not enough. The document does pay some attention to digital rights, and proposes a new “declaration on digital principles and rights” – but the list of principles is light. And in a telling passage that concerns digitalisation as an enabler of rights and freedoms, the focus is on reducing geographical distance, “bringing people together independently of where they are physically located”. European integration through digitisation needs to mean more than reducing geographical barriers. Our focus needs to be on strengthening Europe as a society and a public sphere.

There are more ambitious policy visions that are currently presented by the Commission. These should be more prominent in the mainstream vision of the Compass. Among these, the New Bauhaus vision is especially important. The “Digital Compass” would be a very different strategy if, like the New Bauhaus initiative, it also focused on affordable and accessible spaces, reimagining sustainable living or improving quality of living by paying attention to circularity. The problem with this vision is that ultimately digitisation seems to be out of its focus, or at least is not explicitly mentioned. In principle, this is a sign of a smart, holistic approach that does not differentiate between “analog” and “digital”, “real” and “virtual”. These distinctions no longer make sense. But we need to make these connections explicit in order to extend this policy vision also to digital strategy.

Another important point of reference is the mission-oriented approach, championed by Mariana Mazzucato and elaborated in her report on Governing Missions in the European Union. Missions are now a key part of the Horizon Europe program, they are “commitments to solve some of the greatest challenges facing our world”. But just like with the New Bauhaus vision, digital strategy is only tangential to this mission framework – one of the missions focuses on “Climate-Neutral and Smart Cities”. What if we defined the European digital strategy not in terms of increasing technological capacity, but as focused on solving digital challenges?

We proposed this kind of perspective in the Vision for a Shared Digital Europe, a report that I co-authored with Sophie Bloemen from the Commons Network and Paul Keller. In it, we define this challenge as building “a more equitable and democratic digital environment, where basic liberties and rights are protected, where strong public institutions function in the public interest, and where people have a say in how their digital environment functions”. We also argue, going back to my initial argument, that we need to go beyond the Digital Single Market frame and stop treating the digital space as just a market. Because this space is firstly not a market, but a society, manifesting itself online. This became even more true during the last year, when we shifted so much of our ways of being, our activities and institutions to an online, “remote-first” mode.

In that document we propose four principles that need to be embraced: cultivating the commons, enabling self-determination, decentralising infrastructure and empowering public institutions. Strong principles and adherence to values, together with a mission orientation, should be the “cardinal points” of the new strategy.

Where is the society?

The four principles of Shared Digital Europe are equal in importance and interconnected. Yet as we revisit our vision among its co-authors, and the experts that co-designed it with us, we increasingly think that the one concerning strong public institutions, and more broadly a strong public space online, is the most crucial one.

This perspective is missing from the “Digital Compass”, which only talks about public administration and its public services. Digitisation of public administration is an important goal, but it’s very different from thinking about a digital public sphere. We also need to stop thinking about infrastructure in a technical way, as cloud or data infrastructure. In the online environment, this infrastructure is the foundation on which the online part of our societies is built. It is just as important as roads, electricity networks and other types of physical public infrastructure. But even more so, through these infrastructures we build the public space itself. “Code is society”, to paraphrase Lawrence Lessig. And for this infrastructure to be properly managed, we need to have strong, digital public institutions. As the Public Stack project argues, we also need technologies that are designed with public values at their center.

The Compass argues that “digitalisation brings people together” and that’s true. But this should be understood as more than bridging geographical barriers with the use of communication technologies. And more than building digital services enjoyed by all Europeans. We need to build a European digital space that brings people together, but is also truly public. Today, if we wanted to find a space where Europeans are truly together, we would have to look at Facebook’s bundle of platforms. These have an increasingly dominant position not just in digital markets, but also over the digital version of our societies. This is the place where we currently fulfill the dream of a connected European society, often for worse rather than for the better.

Way forward: a mission to rebuild the digital society

So this is the core gap in the EU’s current strategy: the public sphere, and the society are missing. The “four cardinal points for mapping the EU’s trajectory”, as defined in the “Digital Compass”, are infrastructure (skilled) population, business and public services. We need to add “society” to this equation – as the heart of the compass. In particular, we cannot reduce a society to individuals, whose main goal is becoming “digital talent”.

Secondly, the strategy needs to define a challenge and then launch a mission to achieve it. Digital societies face several fundamental challenges today, including tackling disinformation (broadly understood), making digital infrastructure more green or finding ways to use data as a commons, in the public interest. A mission-oriented strategy would be much stronger than one defined by quantitative indicators.

Thirdly, digital strategy for the next decades cannot be based on a “business as usual”, or “more of the same” mindset. We cannot imagine this strategy as a continuing growth measured by indicators, of which many were defined twenty years ago. Ron Deibert, head of the Citizen lab, calls for a “reset”, a deeper re-examination of our communication ecosystem. And writes that “If there has ever been a time when we needed to rethink what we’re collectively doing, this is certainly it.” Post-pandemic time should encourage us to define new visions.

This essay is a redacted version of an intervention made by Alek Tarkowski at “A Progressive European Way for the Digital Decade”, a workshop organized by the Foundation for Progressive European Studies in April 2021.

Alek Tarkowski