Data utility’ as an enabler of data spaces? The circular economy as a case study

The paper ”Data utility’ as an enabler of data spaces? The circular economy as a case study” (Ducuing, C., Reich, R.H.) will be presented at the 11th FSR Annual Conference “From Data Spaces to Data Governance” (9-10 June, 2022).

Abstract:

With data spaces, the European Commission is willing to foster the exchange and reuse of data for a range of policy purposes while at the same time preserving EU foundational values, such as personal data protection and the freedom to conduct a business (i.e. the data holders).

The paper enquires about ‘data utilities’ as a possible way forward to reconciliate such seemingly contradictory objectives. Data as an infrastructural resource in the data economy and data exchange constitute the starting points to deliver on the expectations placed in data spaces. New data-related institutions can be discerned as an additional building block, seemingly with the characteristics of utility bodies. By ‘data utility’, we mean, generally, ‘an entity intermediating data for the general interest’ while recognizing that different types of data utilities could (co-)exist.

We hereby assume that (i.) data (exchange) alone is not sufficient and calls for governance structures to be set up and (ii.) to some extent and/or in certain circumstances to be determined, the policy objectives placed in data spaces require ‘data utilities’ to play an active role.

The research pursues two goals: First, to apprehend the growing phenomenon and refine the notion of ‘data utility’; and, second, to evaluate how and in how far data utilities can help overcome the contradictory objectives at work with data spaces, namely fostering data exchange and reuse for a range of policy objectives on the one hand, and protect the values and legitimate interests of stakeholders in data (such as confidentiality and data protection entitlements) on the other.

Research Design and Expected Results:

The paper follows interdisciplinary research, in law and engineering.

It follows a two-tiered structure. The first step consists in an exploration of the seeming emergence of data utilities (i.) in real life – with Belgium and France as case studies – and (ii.) in the law – with EU law as a case study and especially the ‘Data Governance Act’ proposed by the European Commission.

From an evaluative perspective, the second step enquires whether data utilities can help overcome the conflicting interests of stakeholders and values in the same data. The circular economy is used as a case study. In contrast to the extractive take-make-waste economy, or “linear” economy, the circular economy concept promises to join sustainability and economic growth. It constitutes a significant pillar of the ‘Common European Green Deal data space’, if not squarely a dedicated data space (‘Common European data space for smart circular applications’)*. In particular, data and the data space are expected to serve (i.) the design of circular economy indicators of the (political) economics and (ii.) the creation of ‘digital product passports’, namely “a tool, which can be used by many stakeholders throughout the value chain of a [product]. Their goal is to document and track the full circular potential of materials, products and systems by supplying stakeholders with accurate information on diverse aspects related to the products’ circular design including but not limited to their composition”**. The circular economy demands data (mainly) from manufacturers to be shared to government agencies and/or business players. However, how to protect their legitimate interests while giving genuine circular economy direction to the reuse of data is assumed to require the involvement of data utilities.

* European Commission, European Data Strategy, Annex.
** Luscuere, Lars Marten (2017): Materials Passports: Optimising value recovery from materials. In Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers – Waste and Resource Management 170 (1), pp. 25–28.

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