Digital Rights, Civic Participation and Crises – observations from Berlin [Guest Blog]
On the 6th of May, during the re-awakening of Berlin after weeks of restrictions and lock-down, the Digital City Alliance Berlin met (online) to collect and write down some observations and learnings we felt had become evident during the first trimester of this very extraordinary year. The Digital City Alliance is a network of organizations and people from science and civil society, building synergies and opening the conversation on digital urban policy in Berlin. Since 2019, we are closely following the development of the Berlin Digital Strategy, lead by the Berlin Senate Department for Economies, Energy and Public Enterprises. The collected observations and demands are aimed at informing the digital strategy process and hopes to be a constructive contribution in times where we all have to collaborate in finding durable solutions and building robust systems to carry us also in crisis. This is a short summery of our findings:
A coherent digitalization policy for Berlin
The current COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of an inclusive policy design for digitalization. It needs to enable social participation and make digital infrastructures accessible to all people as a public good. It has become evident that digital policy is not a side issue, rather it must play a central role in the sustainable development of the city of Berlin. Under the circumstances of a worldwide pandemic, problems and challenges have become visible. At the same time, the diverse landscape of actors in Berlin has emerged, and unfolded its potential and ideas. Initiatives, neighborhoods, and the Berlin administration have demonstrated in many places what we can achieve if we support and collaborate with each other, and it is only together that we will master the current situation and collaboratively build a long-term digital policy for Berlin.
Demand drawn from our observations
While some digitalization policy issues can be tackled at the federal level, the Berlin Senate has an important role to play on the ground to ensure digital inclusion, protect citizens rights and build infrastructures for the public good. The past few months have shown even more that digitalization is not just something that concerns experts, but everyone. We hope the following observations and demands help to inform digital policy in Berlin.
The need for coherent and inclusive digital policy
Civil society participation in digitalization policy in Berlin must be institutionalized. Digital transformation and policy making must be steered and negotiated beyond legislative periods and together with the public. We therefor propose a Round Table for Digital Politics, as an open and inclusive instrument for political administration, civil society, and science to consult and develop sustainable policy proposals. This can also be a way to overcome current difficulties of intersectional cooperation between the cities different administrative resorts, that are currently hampering digital policy development in the city.
Social inequality = digital inequality – Close the digital divide
In the wake of COVID-19, social inequalities have become entrenched as technical equipment has become even more crucial for participation in public life. In the field of education, where homeschooling became the “new normal” for all children and families in Berlin, the digital gap became physically evident. Children and young people from disadvantaged families without appropriate equipment struggle with access to online teaching. When analog (physical) spaces that provided access to digital infrastructure, such as municipal libraries or neighborhood centers, were closed during the Corona pandemic, large groups of people who rely on these essential services were marginalized.
The possibility to work from home was available to only a small portion of those employed in Berlin’s public administration. Very few employees and civil servants were equipped in a speedy manner with the tools needed for remote work (access to business e-mail, VPN access, laptop, etc.). As a result, schools, daycare centers, employees and citizens could not be supported immediately by the responsible authorities. In the public administrations, relevant structures had to be set up first to ensure that they could continue to work during the crisis. The implementation of videoconferencing initially encountered major hurdles and were sometimes carried out with tools that were questionable in terms of data protection.
We strongly recommend that public digital infrastructures be designed in a way that they are independent, inclusive, and resilient:
- Data and data processing systems that link the public sector and urban society belong, as far as possible, in public hands. They must be designed in accordance with fundamental rights, particularly with a view to maintaining and strengthening informational self-determination and focus should lie in the promotion of open source, open data, and open government. Data trusts should be guiding principles for a data policy oriented towards the common good.
- Software that fulfills governmental and societal tasks in the form of (partially) automated decision-making systems must be subject to democratic control.
- Develop support programs (e.g. for technical equipment) to increase digital access, especially in education to ensure that every student can participate in online teaching.
- Create local contact points to enable digital participation, experimentation and education (e.g. KiezLabs);
Strengthening local economies and local production
The lock-down of public life resulted in existential difficulties for many people in the city. Both the city and federal government were quick in responding with effective support systems in form of emergency aid for small businesses and freelancers.
At the same time, the void left after the closing of shops and restaurants, was quickly filled by already dominant digital platforms, gaining market power and customers, while further weakening local business owners. A further observation was the volatility of global supply chains, where vital equipment like medical goods, electronic devices and components for the food industry partially broke down.
A sustainable, locally embedded digital transformation can become a cornerstone for robust local economies. In Berlin there are currently various attempts to establish local, sustainable delivery service for food and the transport of goods. The aim here is to support the founders with money, expertise, and a city-wide network so that local and independent infrastructures become possible in the medium term. This requires more than just individual entrepreneurial risk. With political and financial support, multi-stakeholder companies can emerge that are managed de-centrally and in the interest of the city's inhabitants. These can be cooperative, digital platform companies or forms of companies that are only just developing, such as platform coops or purpose organizations. Therefor we ask the city to:
- Enable and support networking in local systems and economies. For example, support local production, both large and small-scale, and establish digital marketplace infrastructures. This is to ensure independence from large corporations for local & regional companies.
Digitalization can no longer be understood solely as a technical and technology-driven policy field. Rather it must be perceived as a societal transformation that ought to be shaped in an interdisciplinary and participatory way. The Digital City Alliance Berlin sees the potential of the government of Berlin and all vibrant actors living in the city and we hope to support further collaboration for sustainable digital policy and transformation.
Image: (c)Tomma Hinrichsen, Weizenbaum Institute