Unleashing the Power of Networks and Data: The Electric Grid as the New Internet

European Electricity Network

I have to confess that it took me a while to grasp why the energy transition to electricity makes such a significant difference. Using electricity as the primary energy supply for electronic goods, heating, and even industrial production will move the majority of energy consumption into the electric grid. Having larger parts of energy consumption in the same network is an incredible challenge, but also an amazing opportunity to build a network with a range of effects that the fossil energy supply logic could not ever offer.

Network Size and Distribution: The Smart Grid

From a network and data point of view, fossil energy supply is quite primitive. Oil pipelines transport one way to their recipients. It is simply channeled to a refinery, to a petrol station, and then ends in a car to produce energy that is used only to about 30%. It is a small pipeline network that always goes in one direction.

Electricity is far different from fossil energy as it flows in a growing bidirectional network that is already way bigger than oil or gas networks. See the two images from Openinframap.org for comparison to see the density of the electric grid in Europe.

European Electricity Network

Electricity Network

European Oil and Gas Network

Oil and Gas NetworkSource: https://openinframap.org

Furthermore, an electric grid can be used in a highly decentralized manner. Even a household with a balcony solar panel contributes back to the network.

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Defining the Boundaries of Digital Public Infrastructure: Narrow and Broad Perspectives

Smart Phone Digital Literacy Plattform

Digital public infrastructure (DPI) is a hot topic in digital government. The concept represents the public sector's attempt to regain control from an overly dominant private sector, particularly big tech, which controls much of the digital infrastructure, platforms, digital payments, instant messaging etc.

UNDP defines digital public infrastructure as:

A set of interoperable digital solutions built on open standards and specifications, providing access to public and private services at societal scale, governed by enabling rules to drive innovation, inclusion, and competition. (UNDP)

However, this technical definition reduces the concept to solutions, overlooking the broader challenges of a predominantly privately-owned Internet and the need for a public Internet.

Digital public infrastructure raises a crucial question: which digital areas or services should be at least partially or fully under public ownership? If governments are responsible for public infrastructure like sidewalks, schools, and hospitals, why doesn't this extend to the digital space? Currently, most governments limit their online presence to citizen services.

DPI should spark a discussion on why the digital space, including network architecture, social networks, and instant communication, is almost exclusively privately controlled, leading to a closed Internet and stifled innovation. Ironically, the Internet itself is a digital public infrastructure.

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The Rise of Open Source: Challenges and Opportunities in the Eventual Fall of Proprietary Software

Network graph of Matrix protocol

The past decades in the software world have been dominated by the clash between open source and proprietary software. There are ongoing debates about the pros and cons of the two variants of creating, maintaining, and selling software. More fundamentally, the debate revolves around the concept of software as a digital commons —a resource that can be freely accessed, used, and shared by anyone. This picture becomes clear when you visit GitHub or GitLab and browse through the different software repositories that are completely open in their code base, as well as in their discussions and development history.

In my view, the pro and con debate for open source vs. proprietary software is somewhat of a distraction. First, open source was demonized, then it became successful in certain areas, and now it is discussed in terms of pros and cons until it becomes the standard modus operandi. In reality, the software development industry is already changing its business models, attempting to extend the vendor lock-in logic from proprietary software businesses. Now it is called „software as a service“, and ironically, these services themselves rely largely on open source software. They are basically already working on business models using open source software without contributing much back to the open source community. This is a new form of vendor lock-in, where the software used is mostly open source, but the services are not.

The Whole World is using Open Source Software and Contributing Little Back

Major technology companies have anticipated this trend and are strategically releasing machine learning libraries, such as Google's TensorFlow and Meta's PyTorch, as open-source software. While this may seem like a generous gesture, it is primarily intended to incentivize users to utilize their cloud technology offerings (e.g. Google) when working with these libraries. However, big tech companies rely heavily on open source software, which has already led to licensing issues, and only a tiny fraction of their software is released as open source.

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