Denis Roio: It is good that we don't have a Silicon Valley in Europe

I prefer a more socially invested development that respects market diversity and does not enter disruptive amounts of money to break ecosystems and establish oligopolies

Photo: Maria Koleva Denis Roio

I am advocating for social innovation rather than financial innovation and rather than just selling more gadgets to people. The model Silicon Valley brings is not sustainable from the environmental point of view, but also from a financial point of view. The way venture capital works often is by disrupting the sector, investing on lowering the prices and then entering as a monopolist. This is evident for many cases, says Denis Roio, CTO and co-founder of think &do tank, in an interview to Europost.


- Dr Roio, last week at the State of Europe Roundtable #EuropeMatters you urged for more purpose in innovation policies. What do you mean by this?

- I am not a policy expert, but a social innovation expert, and therefore I intercede for sort of grassroots bottom-up development methodologies when it comes to innovation policies. It means using a participatory democratic approach and more involving citizens who can also contemplate social values. I think that through a bottom-up and open source approach, relying more on social entrepreneurship and thinking out of the market box, we can innovate positively in this sense. I believe that the policy makers have to make more contacts with the people, as to know exactly what their needs, their demands, their ambitions are, and this would be invaluable for them when they forge the new directions. Innovation should not be driven only by sales. We cannot innovate something only because we make profit out of it. If the purpose is profit, why should the project receive public money? Public funding should go to projects that have social purpose that makes the society better. It is also necessary to have more transparency in the public administration.

- Are you satisfied with the way the debate for Europe's future is going, and what is missing on the agenda yet?

- According to me and many other people, what is missing in the debate is the social agenda. Agenda that leverages social demand and values. Because now the financial dimension is dominating the discourse. There is a need to change the common methodology that puts forward certain values and that stands for them. The issues connected with nature, climate, with gender are also very important. If we are Europe that champions gender equality, then we should apply it in every context. If we are champions of transparency, then we should apply it, as well as ask for open access to the publications. The concept of open source is a community-based development, which works by consensus, by opening up the sources, complying with the concept of copyleft rather than copyright. This concept provides a clear example of methodology based on community involvement and participation.

- Isn't it alarming that 64% of all respondents of the recent poll, commissioned by Friends of Europe, are not convinced life would be worse without the EU, and where does this mismatch come from?

- It depends how data is presented. My first question would be what the age range of the respondents is. Because the vast majority of young people actually are well aware that life will be worse without the European Union, but with the age the perception changes. The geographical dimension is important for this kind of statistics as well. I think that in Europe there are huge differences between cities and the countryside, and this is not addressed in polls like this.

- Do you agree with some observers that there is still an innovation crisis in Europe, and why isn't there a Silicon Valley in the continent?

- No, there is no innovation crisis in Europe, but innovation should be driven by social issues and not by financial gains. I think it is a good thing that there is no Silicon Valley in Europe because we have very different values. The Silicon Valley has demonstrated a very low sense of responsibility towards privacy and towards algorithmic sovereignty issues, which in Europe is unacceptable. Europe does not facilitate extractivism of data, of identities, of desires, of needs, of behaviour, and all sorts of data extraction that the Silicon Valley is doing around the world.

I think that in Europe there is a sense for innovation and there is enough EU funding for innovation from the programme Horizon 2020 and a lot of people benefited from it. There are big opportunities for more socially-driven agenda in this respect, but this is not the case on a large scale. I am advocating for social innovation rather than financial innovation and rather than just selling more gadgets to people. The model Silicon Valley brings is not sustainable from the environmental point of view, but also from a financial point of view. The way venture capital works often is by disrupting the sector, investing on lowering the prices and then entering as a monopolist. This is evident for many cases. I prefer a more socially invested development that respects market diversity and does not enter disruptive amounts of money to break ecosystems and establish oligopolies. Today most multinational corporations based in Silicon Valley are just establishing an oligopoly all over the world, a global oligopoly, governing over huge assets and value. We need more sustainable model and Europe must regulate this situation and facilitate the creation of different conditions and values with more responsible attitude towards industrial development.

- Nowadays, in the public speech we very often hear 'digital' words like cloud, code, blockchain, gig, bitcoins, but do we know how many people really understand what it is all about?

- I think that every innovation comes with a lot of hype and many people become enthusiasts. Sometimes they exaggerate, but I think many things have changed our life. Explaining as simply as possible, blockchain and crypto innovation are very important because they bring a new possibility in the digital dimension. For example, if I give you an analogue thing like a book, I will not have that book anymore. But in the digital dimension, if I send you a pdf or a file, you will have that file and I will still have that file. So far it was never possible to be sure that I deleted my file. Because you have to track me that I deleted it, but it is not automatic. There is no asset that I can give you in the digital dimension. With the blockchain the situation is paradoxically creating scarcity, because if I give you something I will not have it anymore, and I can't spend it anymore. The blockchain creates for the first time a condition in which it will be possible to create a unique asset in the digital dimension, and its application in financial services is not the only function that this innovation can have. It is up to our audience to imagine what the innovations are. The European Commission invests in projects for creating products made with a blockchain for the social good. There is also a blockchain prize for social good and one can already apply.

- In your opinion, is it possible to close the existing digital divide or it will lead to new inequality in our society, even worse than the inequality between rich and poor?

- I think that inequality between the rich and poor is most important and a priority to solve. The problem is not the digital dimension, but finance itself: it will always bring inequality because it creates a huge difference between production processes and their market representation. Connected to these dynamics, there has been a huge wealth divide gap, widening for decades already. People that have access to the financial market make much more money than people that do not. It is not something new, but an old phenomenon that we have to fight in its own context, which is not only digital.

- What about the older generations that will be excluded from many activities because of this divide?

- I think it is very important to adapt the knowledge and include in the digital world all generations. For example, the organisation I represent, we have projects in which we involve people who are 70+, together with people who are 20. It works very well. Let me give you a hint. Among companies that are only hiring young people up to 30 years old - Google is the leader. This is the Silicon Valley mentality. I am opposing this approach because we need diversity, as the older generation is much more experienced about how things work in general, but with less update on new things. We also have an approach towards restoration and recycling of old computers, which is very successful. We don't want to require new equipment for our software to work. That is the main reason why we have so much attention from older people but also from blind people, for instance. Our operating system works for blind people on equipment that they acquired 20 years ago, while other operating systems have dropped support in new versions. Everything we develop works also on old infrastructure. Because by changing the technical infrastructure we are losing the people that know how it works. And this is worse than ever. I believe that people are less replaceable than machines.

- Do you believe that virtual currency can in the next decade replace the notes and coins we use, and would you change money for bitcoins, for example?

- No, I don't think so, it is not a currency for every day, but crypto is an asset. Actually, I am interested in the phenomenon 'bitcoin' for its scientific value, because it is an enormous network. I don't invest money in it, because I don't believe in its financial use.

- What projects of your think &do tank are supported by the European Commission?

- There are three projects. The current one is called DECODE and provides tools that put individuals in control of whether they keep their personal data private or share it for the public good. I'm just going to Barcelona for a symposium dedicated to it.

Then it is the Commonfare project, which is researching welfare, also people in condition of poverty, with low income and low employment. The third project that we completed with success last year is D-CENT - Decentralised Citizen Engagement Technologies. We work also as a European research organisation for the delivery of publicly funded software projects and we believe that code paid by the people should be available to the people. Our software gives everybody the right to use, study, share and improve its code, to support fundamental freedoms like freedom of speech, press and privacy. All our projects that I already mentioned adopt, promote and produce exclusively Free and Open Source Software, and we are well committed to encourage this ethical practice across public institutions and the European research community.

- As early promoters of the “Public code for public money” campaign, what is your opinion about the innovation programme suggested in the new EU long-term budget?

- According to the Commission's proposal, the next cluster - once Horizon 2020 is reached - will give an even bigger financial injection to innovation. I personally wish cultural, artistic, humanities in general, get more funding. The people that are writing about these things and making them understandable, like journalists but also those people that actually develop these ideas, disciplines of the humanities, are to be funded more. Because we cannot live in a world that is just full of technological advancements. We also need someone to remind us why we develop something and why we should not develop something else. We have a lot of funding for industry, for engineering, for science, but humanities are also important - anthropology, ethnography, philosophy, also arts. For the rest, we know that there is a lot of funding, but it often goes too much in the hands of few. It is a pity that the Collective Awareness Platforms for Sustainability and Social Innovation (CAPS) is not renewed. It is an initiative that ran in the last six years and funded enormous amount of projects with the participation of civil society, also with a lot of interdisciplinary approach and very good gender balance. This CAPS programme is now over. And I wish another CAPS programme will be funded, because its direction is the right one.


Denis Roio is a software artisan, chief technology officer (CTO) and co-founder of think &do tank and software house. He is better known by his hacker nickname Jaromil and develops free and open source software applications focusing on decentralisation, privacy and independent media practices, cryptography and distributed ledger technologies. Mr Roio holds a Ph.D. titled Algorithmic Sovereignty from the Planetary Collegium of the Plymouth University and received the Vilem Flusser Award in 2009. He is included among the European Young Leaders alumni (40 under 40, 2012) and listed among the top 100 social entrepreneurs in Europe (Purpose Economy, 2014). is associated to the Free Software Foundation Europe.

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