January 13, 2022

Aik van Eemeren: "Don’t Call It Alternative, Call It Normal"

The Internet is busted. Huge corporations are calling the shots, extractive business models prevail. And safe and privacy-friendly online spaces have become scarce. How do we move from extractive practices to regenerative ones? How do we retain public control and move to a people-centered internet?

In our research on a Shared Digital Europe and public-civic spaces, we argue that public and civic actors need to build these alternative spaces. And that interoperability is an essential principle, through which they can together form a bigger ecosystem.

Over the course of summer, we consulted friends and experts on the question: how do we get to public-civic spaces, what role does interoperability play? And what is holding governments and civil society back to make the shift? In this series we share the insights of these conversations one at a time.  

What is interoperability?

Interoperability is the technical ability to plug one product or service into another product or service. It is also one of the founding principles of the internet, as it has been originally envisioned. 

There are many types of interoperability, like indifferent interoperability: think, for instance, of a car manufacturer that doesn’t care about what chargers are plugged in its cars’ standard cigarette lighters) or cooperative interoperability, when a technology developer wants other people and companies to create add-ons that fit the technology (such as phone manufacturers opting for a standard 3.5mm headphone minijack). And there is the opposite of cooperative interoperability, when a technology is downright hostile to others trying to connect, called adversarial interoperability. 

There has been a lot of talk about interoperability in activist and policy circles, but not a clear view on what role it might play in developing digital spaces that are not dominated by huge for-profit corporations. There is also a focus on competitive interoperability (which regulates the big players) and not enough talk about generative interoperability, sustaining new ecosystems. You can read more about this in our background stories on interoperability and how we got to work with it: Interoperability 1: Policymaking is Worldbuilding and Interoperability 2: The Fork in the Road.

Previously in this series we published conversations with Nathan Schneider, Mai Ishika Sutton, Jaromil, Geert-Jan Bogaerts and natacha roussel.

This time we chat with Aik van Eemeren, Public Tech Lead at the Chief Technology Office (CTO) of the Amsterdam municipality. The CTO team focuses on the question: how could and does Amsterdam contribute to the development of public technologies for society? The work has a wide range: from digital inequality to universal internet access. Van Eemeren describes his role as gathering knowledge and creating a framework required for digital transition of the region of Amsterdam.

Critical questions in the digital realm have slowly but surely become politicized in Amsterdam. The impact of technology on the quality of city life is becoming increasingly clear. The policy agenda Digital City, co-written by Van Eemeren, outlines the city’s digital ambitions over a four-year period (2019-2022) and builds on three fundamental principles of a Free, Inclusive and Creative Digital City. In addition, it lists concrete policy actions, many of them research or experiment-oriented. We’re in the agenda’s final year, so what are the lessons so far?

From experiment to scale

‘We have done many interesting pilots’, '' says Van Eemeren, “one is that we’ve seen it’s hard to scale them. There’s just not a whole tech industry working on public technologies”. So how dó we scale? Larger public institutions or coalitions or networks of institutions can play an important role. There is, for example, the Regionale Ontwikkelingsmaatschappijen (ROM), regional public investment banks that invest in innovative (digital) economies, and the Open Agile Smart City (OASC), which brings together cities to support their ‘digital transformation journey’.

Ideas for scaling public technologies are conceived of in Amsterdam itself too. Van Eemeren shares the idea of a ‘bit book’: a collection of current digital transformation experiments, initiatives and projects, and a search for a frame in which they all fit. Why is this important? ‘Because then we can better explain why we invest in this domain, to ourselves but also to private or public sector organizations who are willing to provide support’.

Too many standards = no standard

A related issue concerns standards. If there is a standard, technologies may become interoperable. For example, because we have a standard Internet Protocol (IP), computers are able to send and receive information in a network of computers we now call the Internet. But when different groups invent different standards, the idea goes to waste. Currently, according to Van Eemeren, ‘everybody’s making their own standards’. He describes ‘a competition for the winning standard’, where organizations like the World Economic Forum, the United Nations and the IEEE Internet Initiative all develop standards in the hope of universal adoption, which rarely happens.

So one crucial challenge is that there are too many standards. Amsterdam has set an interesting example when it drafted standard public purchasing terms for algorithms and made them available to local governments throughout the Netherlands. This proved scalable as other cities committed to using and developing this standard further. There is a downside, though: it takes a lot of time before everyone is on board. Van Eemeren adds: ‘We don’t need a lot of policy, what we need is someone to give direction and say: ‘It’s going to be these two or three platforms and open standards and from now on everybody’s using them’.

Think big, start small

In Europe the belief is growing that the European Union can play such a role. And there are reasons to justify this belief: think of the work-in-progress Data Act, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), guidelines governing AI, and the research and innovation programme Horizon Europe comprising many calls for proposals on public tech-related subjects. Also, the Brussels-based Gaia X is a prime example of how selecting one standard and applying it within a broader community might help bring about truly transformative shifts.

However, within Europe different digital mindsets exist. South Europe - especially Italy - are a few steps ahead in terms of thinking critically about technology, of using open standards and applying them universally. Cultural differences play a role. In Germany for instance, Van Eemeren shares, standards are applied to everything, ‘even down to the colour of pencils used by customs officers’. Whereas in the Netherlands, standardisation is culturally much more complicated.

But we can make progress, he continues, as long as we don’t bite off more than we can chew. This means breaking down the digital work field into workable parts and standardizing one piece of technology at a time. The Foundation for Public Code, for example, focuses specifically on open source code and assisting public organizations with ‘codebase stewardship’, allowing codebases to mature and organizations to collaborate.

Policy advice from a policymaker

Though not quite fitting the traditional box, Van Eemeren is a civil servant working for a local government. He knows a thing or two about policy. So in getting to open, interoperable digital spaces, where should we focus on, policy-wise?

First of all, he confides, it is a matter of language and attitude. We are used to calling open, interoperable technologies ‘alternatives’. ‘But if we want to make open normal, that’s how we have to think. If we continue to label them as ‘alternatives’, we put ourselves out of business’.

Second, we lobby the wrong way. Lobby, Van Eemeren is convinced, is ineffective when one drafts a comprehensive vision document and proposes it integrally to policymakers. It might work better when lobbying responds to existing plans and policies and ‘reacts’ by inserting clauses and proposing additions and tweaks. ‘There is upcoming regulation on who gets to issue our digital identity. We have to lobby on this specifically and propose alterations’.

But overall, lobby is not the answer. Van Eemeren: ‘Talking to European parliamentarians and lobbying them has marginal impact. I would say the power of local actions is more effective, of creating examples, of telling that story and consecutively building standards together’. By ‘together’ he refers to translocal collaboration between cities.

The power of example

Van Eemeren, on behalf of Amsterdam, works together with cities across Europe and the world, such as in the Cities Coalition for Digital Rights, a club of cities that works together ‘to protect and uphold digital rights’. ‘The coalition says: this is what we all think is important when it comes to digital rights and technology. Currently we’re digging a little deeper into the meaning of the manifest in order to get to a political agenda’.

But to do this, he continues, we need examples. Examples of what ‘secure online services’ or ‘locally-controlled digital infrastructures’ - phrases from the manifest - might look like. And this, he adds, is a complex and difficult process. ‘Can you name one successful example of a data commons in the Netherlands? If no one starts building it, we as a city can’t support it.’