Digital Autarky @ Goethe Institute

Recent years have seen the rise of conflicts over people’s right to their own data, privacy, and transparency in the digital realm. These emerging conflicts bring forth issues of policy and governance for giant companies and non-democratic states just as much as positive possibilities for individuals, innovators, and public agencies.

We wish to explore cities as they evolve and shift from their traditional role in local democracy and urban economy to new opportunities offered by a networked, digital, and data-driven world. Claiming that new forms of local autonomy are on the rise, we focus on cities that are increasingly collecting data on their urban environment and actors. Through strategic leveraging of these data, cities may reclaim control from regional and national governing bodies and also from private technology companies and platform actors.

The form of the city has traditionally taken shape around the mobility infrastructure that directs growth and their political structures – streets, gates, walls, squares. Ancient societies erected walls around urban centres to control the spread of labour and capital and protect their administrative centres. While in principle the urban growth process has not changed, new tools have taken root and hyperlocal digital landscapes have opened up.

With digital autarky we define here the capacity of cities, through the use of “homegrown” data collection and processing strategies, to gain decisional autonomy over other forms of governance as well as increase their attractiveness, economic performance, and social equity. Software integration layers like the X-Road, the digital ID, and the firewall are the digital infrastructures around which today’s cities and societies are shaped. While the digital network is open and globally accessible, the vital information produced is local and geographically bound. We will explore how the new dynamics of network and place shapes cities and societies, and how mastering digital content and communications is revitalising the role of cities as central and active societal players.