Minimalism and empowerment: new scenarios in the digital economy

Liliana Arroyo

The pandemic has clearly accelerated the use of digital tools. Internet consumption has doubled and, in just a few months, the volume of cloud storage and ecommerce [1] has grown by as much as the sunniest forecasts had predicted they would in three or four years.

Social-distancing and sheltering-at-home measures have validated remote work and sustained those businesses able to go digital. According to McKinsey, in essential sectors such as education and healthcare, the share of employees working remotely has climbed from 2% to 36% [2].

Necessity has turned platforms into lifelines, although the social debate over big tech shows that 60% of us do not trust tech companies to keep our data safe; nor do we think they can be regulated (according to the Edelman Trust Barometer). The debate over contact-tracing apps last spring was perhaps the most impactful to date with regard to these issues. And at the legislative level, something is changing: in October, both Europe and the United States announced that they have taken aim at the major tech monopolies.

Social-distancing and sheltering-at-home measures have validated remote work and sustained those businesses able to go digital

So, on the one hand, we have a great dependence on digital tools; on the other, a lack of conviction regarding the available offer’s suitability both in economic terms and in terms of data management and privacy. People are increasingly aware of this tension and, whilst many will choose convenience, it is also true that new opportunities are emerging to support a transparent, trustworthy, user-centred digital economy instead.

The good news is that there are already alternatives for software, cloud storage services, internet search engines and browsers, messaging, mobility and payment gateways. What they have in common is that they have all moved beyond the vision based on monetising personal data behind users’ backs. For example, they propose data access as a service, usually designed to include built-in privacy and data minimalism.

Personal data stores
Related content: Personal data stores: Are you in control of your digital privacy?​​​​​

This practice of collecting only the essential data both reflects respect for users and helps contain costs. Collecting and storing large amounts of data is quite expensive in its own right, even before the talent needed to polish and analyse them is factored in. The Business models for trust and transparency report includes detailed accounts of these examples [3].

Another trend points to a shift in vision, away from the idea of users as passive agents and mere subjects, opening up a range of possibilities from the perspective of empowering users with their own data. Several types of personal data ecosystems have been developed, as data banks that people can use to decide who they want to sell their data to, for how long and for what price.

New opportunities are emerging to support a transparent, trustworthy, user-centred digital economy

In the My data, my rules report, we have gone even further, looking for pro-active data-sharing options geared towards a collective benefit. We have identified data cooperatives in the field of health that aim to advance personalised medicine.

This opportunity for more accurate medicine can only be achieved with vast databases and comprehensive information about each person (from their DNA to their consumption habits). Gaining patients’ trust is essential and critical, as medical records contain highly sensitive data.

However, a cooperative approach mutualises the data, turning it into a collective resource. Cooperatives provide a protected environment where data donation is a regular practice, offering secure conditions for patients and quality samples and data for researchers. Patient incentives include enhanced privacy, but also advantages when it comes to accessing new treatments.

What both reports and the more than 20 case studies they include show is that generating transparent, trustworthy business models is economically viable. And if we trade in the vision of data as an exploitable resource for the perspective of data as a lever of innovation, it unlocks infinite economic and social opportunities, including at the public policy level.


[1] IAB Spain - Estudio anual de ecommerce 2020

[2] McKinsey & Company - The Covid-19 recovery will be digital: A plan for the first 90 days

[3] By the Institute for Social Innovation, funded by Digital Future Society

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