Chatham House
Is Technology Destroying Democracy?


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HANS: Why don't we start with you, Francesca? Let me just put that question very simply to you; is technology destroying democracy?  

FRANCESCA: First of all, great to be here. Thank you for the invitation, and I think it's absolutely crucial and urgent to have this conversation; and to forge alliances, to look at the path forward. I think we were discussing just before the panel - it would be very nice if someone just replied ‘Yes’, so we can get the conversation started - but I think it's bit more complex than that. 

So obviously, say, a binary answer is not what we're looking for. I think first of all, we have to start understanding and I think we are getting there - that when we talk about technology, it's not a technocratic topic. It is not about technology only; it is about how technology is shaping the socio-economic system that we live in, and it has very strong implication in how we shape governments, the geopolitics and the future economic system, and obviously democracy is part of that. So we are definitely in urge to revitalise democracy, and also we observe - so I'm a Chief Technology Officer in Barcelona and we work at a local level in a city, and what we observe very strongly is this very strong lack of trust of political institution[s] from citizens at large. Many citizens, let's say, have lost hopes in the political system but also broadly in the financial system and in the corporate world; so many people just don't expect the answer, and don't expect a political institution to be solving the problems that they really care about. 

I think we need to avoid this situation where part of this lack of trust is also a crisis of political representation; the crisis of Parliament, political parties and democratic institutions. So what we are doing - to give an alternative answer that is not what we are seeing more and more across the world; which is the right of the rise of right-wing nationalisms and people feeling disenfranchised, or falling off and start voting right-wing populists that are rising to power - we are trying to provide a different answer to this lack of trust and disenfranchisement, which is a genuinely participatory democracy. 

So I think that basically the answer to this crisis shouldn't be the political system to become less open, less transparent and corrupt because this is why also lots of people were protesting - but it's basically to try and shape a different form of democracy that put[s] really people at the centre.  That's why probably I believe that cities are a great place to start, because cities are the place where people live in; where they have tangible problems - affordable housing, the fight against climate change, sustainable mobility, the future of jobs, energy transition - it really affects how the people live, and this is a place where we can be closest to the citizens and experiment new forms of democratic participation. 

Just maybe to end this first intervention, I think technology is a crucial part there; and obviously there are lots of things that are not working with the extreme social and market and economic power that the tech sector is acquiring - in particular in the last years - and this concentration may be an unparalleled concentration of power, obviously posing a lot of challenges. That's why we hear a lot about the (UNCLEAR) ‘tech-lash’; that's why we have lots of pressures for the tech companies when it comes to taxation, when it comes to international trade, when it comes to data leaks and privacy, and also the rules of democracy as such. So I believe that there is a lot of changes that need to happen there; but in particular - for instance in Barcelona - we are proposing different forms of a platform for democratic participation. Let me just say that digital democracy doesn't exist, it is a myth; so it's never only digital. A Facebook democracy doesn't exist, it is a problem; so we need to always mix. We need hybrids that are hybrids between, I think, a representative democracy and more elements of direct democracy; so we are integrating, for instance, citizen initiatives, participatory budgeting, referendum, into all the tools that we have at our disposal to engage citizens. Then it is a hybrid between digital democracy; which has to have very strong rules, in particular a lot of rules about democratic governance of platforms, and in particular around data. I'm sure we're going to talk a lot about that. I believe data sovereignty is a fundamental political issue for the future, and then this is has to be a hybrid between digital democracy and participation - real participation - in the neighbourhoods where people are with diversity - different social economic backgrounds, gender, different ethnic backgrounds - and try to be inclusive in the way we practice democracy; and I think this new participatory democracy should be the alternative to the rise of right-wing nationalism.  

 

HANS: Fantastic. 

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