The internet is indubitably one of the most important and transformative innovations of the past few decades - the influence of the now ubiquitous technology permeating the very fabric of our societies and economies. But while the rapid changes facilitated by the internet have brought much good, it is becoming increasingly clear that the digitisation of our lives also has many downsides and challenges we are still ill-equipped to address.
The centralisation of power over the internet’s infrastructure, business models and virtual spaces, into the hands of just a handful of dominant tech companies is a source of growing concern, especially as the core values of these tech giants often do not necessarily align with those of the European public. This is why, as European internet users, we find ourselves increasingly out of options, having to rely either on the technologies and narratives of big tech companies more interested in our data than our rights as users, or solutions built in countries that do not value privacy and freedom from the government’s prying eyes in the same way we do.
But things need not be this way. The NGI initiative is an important opportunity to radically rethink the way the internet works today, involving voices from across Europe (and beyond) to help us develop a vision for what an internet that embodies the values Europe holds dear, such as openness, inclusivity, transparency, privacy and cooperation, should look like.
The NGI is not just about thinking about what a better future could look like, but also about actually building the alternatives that could get us there. We are at a crossroads, with rapidly evolving technologies like artificial intelligence expected to radically reshape our societies, and growing geopolitical tensions threatening to rewrite the rules governing the internet itself. Alternatives and more human-focused narratives are needed more than ever.
Engineroom was one of three parallel projects that formed the first wave of programmes under the NGI umbrella, which together helped set the agenda for future phases of the initiative and brought together an initial ecosystem of key stakeholders and voices from across Europe. Within this framework, Engineroom’s role was to identify the technologies and emerging dynamics that would have most of an impact on the future internet, and evaluate how their development could lead us towards a more ‘human-centric’ and inclusive future internet.
To do this, we focused on three strands of work:
- The development of a radical new vision for what the future internet could and should look like through a variety of foresight exercises.
- The identification of the most important emerging technologies that will have to underpin this more ‘human-centric’ future internet, using experimental new data science methodologies and non-traditional data sources.
- The mapping of the ecosystems and networks surrounding these previously identified topics: where do we see clusters of activity? And what are the key ethical, technological, economic, regulatory and political barriers we need to address
The Engineroom project covered a wide breadth of topics through a variety of outputs.
Some highlights include:
- Finding CTRL: We launched an experimental collection of radical vision for the future internet, which featured internet luminaries such as Jimmy Wales and Shoshana Zuboff and short stories, artworks and more by emerging thinkers in the technology space. Finding CTRL continues to be one of Nesta’s most-read publications to date.
- Designing R&D funds: Our recommendations were used to launch four dedicated NGI R&D funds, €10 million each, on topics including interoperability and online identity. You can read a summary of what we think the key challenges for the internet are here.
- Mapping the trends: Using cutting-edge data mapping methodologies, we identified early signals of change likely to underpin the future internet.
- Events: we brought over 1500 participants together from all over Europe, through events like FutureFest and Reimagining the Internet.