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Chapter 3
Innovation Society Tech

Space race for the people

André Wilkens

Director of the European Cultural Foundation, Amsterdam

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Space race for the people

A call for a European Public Space Programme

Europe needs a Space Programme. But instead of racing to outer space, as seems fashionable among global powers and private zillionaires, Europe’s Space Programme should be earthbound and race to reach the people of Europe. Creating a functioning European public space will not only fire up all sorts of technological innovation but most importantly strengthen a European sense of belonging, a European society of sharing and enable a 21st-Century Renaissance.

We are living through pandemic times. As well as Covid-19, there is a climate pandemic, a pandemic of inequality, a pandemic of polarisation. These individual pandemics are interconnected and together they are creating unpredictable dynamics. There is no way back to a normality which had already become increasingly self-destructive.

Human history has shown that crises can also be times of opportunity, creativity and invention. The 14th to 16th centuries were times of brutal power struggle, never-ending wars, Black Death and misery. But they also unleashed a movement of radical transformation, discovery and beauty, the first European Renaissance. Can our times unleash a similar creative boost? Can our times give birth to a 21st-Century Renaissance? Future generations will be able to tell. Our job is to make it happen.

Here is one element which I consider vital for the next European Renaissance to succeed.

Our public and civic spaces are shrinking, more restricted, more segregated, more commercial and covered in advertising. When governments turn autocratic, public spaces are especially vulnerable to mass surveillance abuse and manipulation.

The European public space is nascent. Where it exists, art and culture have been its forerunners. Look at the range of European orchestras, festivals, exhibitions, pop culture and architecture, Eurovision and the Champions League.

National filter bubbles

What do I mean by public space, anyway? Isn’t this just another abstract European buzzword? Well, yes and no. Yes, we should not waste time on hot air that distracts from real issues. And no, because we often fail to find common European answers to common European problems because we don’t have an effective space and mechanism for working things out. Maybe the Brussels bubble does, but the European public doesn’t—and that’s no longer good enough.

Our awareness of what’s going on around us is still largely determined by our national context and reality. We are still trapped in national filter bubbles. We adopt a national perspective on European issues such as pandemic responses, migration, the Euro, data security, energy, climate crisis, unemployment and tax evasion, seeing them in terms of national actors and national interests. But what would the solution to the European debt crisis have looked like if we had dealt with it through a truly European lens? Might the Germans have called for a European approach to refugee policy, not only when refugees arrived in Germany but already years earlier when Greece and Italy struggled to cope with rising numbers of boat people, had they taken a more European perspective to begin with? Could Victor Orban’s wacky conspiracy theories have gained so much traction if the Hungarian people had been part of a truly European public space and independent European media space?

A structural problem

Digital technology is making this challenge even greater. The internet could be a space for global enlightenment, but instead it risks becoming an anti-Enlightenment echo chamber. The digital filter bubble is narrowing our horizons to our own social media environment and likes. Those who understand how to play the filter bubble game best win attention, market share and elections.

The digital European public space has been colonised by non-European private platforms with little regard for democratic values and privacy standards. They have profited massively—and still do—from the systematic exploitation of European data, without paying their fair share for European content and for extracting billions and billions of Euros from European users while free-riding the European digital space. A genuine European public space is of little interest to the click-economy apart from data mining and maximising advertising revenue.

At the same time, the business model of quality journalism is being eroded. This is becoming a systemic risk for Europe and a threat to democracy at large.

In addition, in some EU countries even the national public space is coming under pressure: If media pluralism and independence are disappearing in places like Poland and Hungary, this has a direct effect on the whole way in which the EU operates and sets standards, or not.

Hence it is not surprising that we lack a shared understanding of problems and opportunities, let alone on finding genuine European solutions. In the long run, our European community, our European Democracy will flourish only if supported and controlled by a functioning European public space rather than fragmented national ones.

What to do?

We need a European Space Programme, a public space programme that connects people and is meaningful, safe, open for creative opportunities and inclusive. We need to invest in a European public space that offers a framework for togetherness, for exchange, for real European communication, for us all and not just for a select few. This task cannot be left to the invisible hand of the market, or be surrendered to operators like Meta/Facebook, Starbucks and Alibaba. This is about identity, democracy, and the future of the European model.

The European Space Programme must guarantee freedom of speech and maintain diversity without becoming mired in bureaucracy. It must not become a propaganda tool for the European Union in any way and must be subject to clear and credible governance.

This Space programme should support all formats which create a European public space, digital, analogue, as well as innovative combinations of the two. This includes European media, European social media platforms, games, but also festivals and events like Eurovision, awards, library networks and all kinds of other things we can scarcely dream of today.

The multilingual advantage

The killer app will be a solution to the language challenge. The EU has 24 official languages and a whole lot of semi-official ones. This makes it naturally more difficult to create a public space than in a community with only one language. Europe should take on this challenge proactively by exploiting the rapid development of digital translation technology. Serious investment in a multilingual public space will have spillover effects into other areas of our societies, and could be a key element of Europe’s innovation policy.

Show me the money

Space programmes cost money. We should be prepared to spend a multitude on a functioning, fair and inclusive public space on earth rather than spending on reaching outer space. Apart from sufficient funding, a successful initiative for a European public space will require a balanced mix of good governance, appealing formats, effective distribution channels, cutting edge language technology and fair regulation. What sounds quite straightforward will indeed mean squaring the circle, or put more optimistically, will be one of Europe’s most exciting and innovative ventures for the next decades—no less than a European Space Programme.

Much of the money needed could come from fees on big digital platforms like Facebook, Google and Twitter. This fee for platform providers will be part of financing the European public space and enable the currently dominant digital platforms that are already profiting from a borderless Europe to contribute to a functioning and healthy European public space. Protecting people’s personal data, and minimising the amount of advertising they are exposed to, can and should be a competitive advantage and a must for the European public space.

Creating a European Public Space is a big task. But there is a lot at stake: identity, democracy, freedom and the future of the European model. Over the past years, we have had many opportunities to see what can happen when civic public spaces are neglected and taken over by post-factual filter bubbles. That is why we need to invest in a European Space Programme to power up the Next European Renaissance.


André Wilkens

André Wilkens is the director of the European Cultural Foundation in Amsterdam which mission is to grow a European sentiment and in response to the Covid19 crisis has launched the Culture of Solidarity Initiative. André is also the Board Chair of Tactical Tech, the co-founder of the Initiative Offene Gesellschaft and a founding member of the European Council on Foreign Relations. In the past he worked as Strategy Director of Stiftung Mercator, as Director of the Open Society Institute Brussels and as Head of Strategic Communications of UNHCR in Geneva. André is the author of two books, on Europe (Der diskrete Charme der Bürokratie, S.Fischer 2017) and on Digitalisation (Analog ist das neue Bio, Metrolit 2015), and a regular media contributor.

Picture © Gerlind Klemens