I had been very eagerly anticipating the 7th Conference on the Regulation of Infrastructures at the Florence School of Regulation (FSR #CRI18) for weeks. On the day of departure, that exuberance was reined in somewhat when I attempted to explain my enthusiasm to a very patient taxi driver taking me to the airport for my flight. ‘So what is it about?’ he asked, perhaps instantly regretting his standard line of polite taxi chat. ‘Well, it’s about network regulation. You know, like electricity, gas, telecoms, transport, water…it’s really exciting.’ Sensing a subdued response, I apologetically explained that I was still working on a catchy tagline.
So, what was the #CRI18 about and why do I insist that it was exciting beyond its sunny location? Well, the FSR at the European Institute has for the last 7 years hosted a Conference on the Regulation of Infrastructures (CRI), which traditionally covers the governance and regulation not only of power networks, but telecoms, transport and water. Similarly to the University of Aberdeen, the ancient backdrop to and architecture of the FSR belies the very modern issues being grappled with inside its walls. But more generally the conference under this year’s title of ‘New network structures: decentralization, prosumers and the role of online platforms’ was about issues that legal practitioners and academics beyond the field of infrastructure regulation are grappling with. According to the FSR, the speed of evolution of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are significantly challenging the traditionally stable landscape of infrastructure services provision. There are now new data and service layers on top of traditional networks that are completely transforming these industries. Digital platforms are creating new network effects, allowing new actors, including new digital service providers and prosumers to enter previously often monopolised markets. These actors challenge the central role of the traditional actors within network industries and create links and coordination between sectors, which did not exist before. These developments provide great opportunities on the one hand but also present disruptive innovations that entail new regulatory challenges. The #CRI18 sought to take stock of the major current challenges to infrastructure regulation and a result of technology and network effects. (A ‘network effect’ exists when a product’s value to the user increases as the number of users of the product grows. Useful examples include the telephone and in the modern world Amazon and Facebook. A basic definition can be found here. How do we engage with and govern the technologies and networks (both physical and digital) that facilitate and enable our daily lives, when they are changing before we even have the opportunity to fully understand their consequences? In a single word this conference was about transition – technological transition through innovation, digital transition through an ever-wider array of digital platforms, social transition in terms of how consumers behave and their role in (not just energy) markets, in addition to the effect new technologies have on how we behave as citizens, whilst still requiring the essential services provided by traditional infrastructure. It goes without saying that we still need to turn on the lights and charge up our phones so that we can update our social media status. As @malouwa, I certainly tweeted about it and Jean Michel Glachant, Robert Schuman Chair and Director of the FSR and Director of Loyola de Palacio Energy Policy Programme is one of the most prolific tweeters I have come across (@JMGlachant – but turn on the notifications at your own risk as the highly topical tweets will completely take over your screen).
Together with Matthias Finger, Director of the Transport Area of the FSR and Pier Luigi Parcu, Director of the FSR Communications & MediaPresenters, Jean-Michel Glachant and other colleagues at the FSR hosted the #CRI18. The two-day conference covered a wide array of topics. For example, how Blockchain technology displays both the characteristics of infrastructure and a process. As a result of this dual nature there is uncertainty over how it should be regulated and by whom. Presenting author, Simone Franzi and his colleagues at Virginia Tech University applied a model which indicates that as a result of its similarity to traditional infrastructure it may need to be regulated as such. Brenda Espinosa Apráez from Tilburg University showed how Big Data is increasingly driving innovation across multiple sectors. Therefore the governance of key services infrastructure like water, energy and transport may benefit from data-driven innovation (DDI), for example smart meters, sensor, the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence. On the one hand doing so can result in improved information exchange and better decision-making, which translates into better achievement of the public value associated with these services (reliability, affordability, safety and sustainability). On the other hand DDI applied to infrastructure management reveals gaps in the adequacy of existing regulatory frameworks and illustrates the need to adjust existing rules or create new rules to address potential risks. Henri Soest of the University of Oslo used Peer-to-Peer (P2P) electricity trading (where consumers trade electricity directly with each other) to illustrate the way the current legal framework in the EU continues to be based upon the traditional electricity system, relying on vertical supply chains and separation of producers and consumers. This makes the existing governance framework inadequate for dealing with these new market arrangements and it therefore needs to be reviewed. Sih Yuliana Wahyuningtyas of the Atma Jaya Catholic University of Indonesia presented on an Indonesian online service provider, Go-Jek, which is an online platform for everything from food delivery and shopping to e-payment all in one app. It was argued that technologies like Go-Jek illustrates how innovation responds to market demand faster that state regulations can. Although the implementation of legislation and regulation in Indonesia may be particularly slow-moving, this research offers valuable insights and lessons to all those who study how legislation and regulation may be improved to address fast moving technological change and the potential for self-regulation to fill the gap of inadequate state regulation.
The prize for best paper went to an excellent presentation from presenting author Fanny Vanrykel and her colleagues at the University of Liege for their research on Fostering Share&Charge through proper regulation’. Share&Charge is a German digital platform that organises the sharing of charging stations for electric vehicles together with the billing of energy transactions. It allows for direct transactions between charging station owners and electric vehicle drivers. The reason for the success of this particular paper was its ability even more so than other papers to cut across sectors (transport and energy) and recommend regulatory reform due to the legal issues arising from the introduction of so-called ‘disruptive models’ that introduce new forms of network structures (including decentralised networks), new actors (prosumers, platforms) and at the same time raise regulatory challenges.
This is just a small sample of the 19 presentations at the #CRI18. Importantly, the FSR is not alone in attempting to dissect these issues. In April this year the University of Aberdeen hosted the annual conference of the British and Irish Law Education and Technology Association (BILETA), titled ‘Digital Futures: places and people, technology and data’, which sought to not only foster dialogue on issues arising from new technology and their effect on different areas of law but also to develop strategic directions in terms of how the law should address these issues. BILETA 2018 considered issues from data protection & privacy, education, crime & security, intellectual property, and technology & regulation. (For an excellent write up of the BILETA conference please read the Aberdeen University Blog post by our very own Jo Bac, who recently successfully completed her PhD – we wish you all the best, Jo!) The FSR #CRI8 and BILETA conferences similarly sought to initiate and produce wider academic discussion of the challenges that technologies and digital platforms pose to existing legal and regulatory frameworks. On the one hand these technologies and digital platforms enable and ease our daily transactions on the other they have significant social and political consequences and may therefore require a robust legal framework. Yet, how to govern technologies that develop and change at an ever more rapid pace? How to regulate a moving target? Should we try to apply existing legal frameworks to new concepts and technologies or set up new ones even if we do not fully understand their implications yet?
The FSR #CRI8 conference has made me realise how well-placed the University of Aberdeen is to engage in this debate on the transition of traditional technologies and how to govern innovative technologies, whilst simultaneously fostering them to harness their benefits for a low carbon energy transition and the improvement of our daily lives more generally. If you, like me, get excited by these issues in terms of how to address this tension and the technologies covered in this post, there are plenty of opportunities to develop your learning in these areas. Within the University of Aberdeen School of Law alone there is a wide offering of courses that engage with these matters, including Taught LLM courses, such as Downstream Energy Law, which covers the transport of electricity and gas as network industries and the challenges they face as they are opened up to competition, and Low Carbon Energy Transition: Renewable Energy Law, which covers the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy for mitigating climate change and the effect of new renewables technologies on the governance of the electricity network. The Law School also offers Commercialising Innovation and Law which considers patents, trade secrets, copyright and database rights, new business models, competition (focussing particularly on natural resources) and communications and activities in developing areas, relying on speakers from practice and industry and the International Intellectual Property: Frameworks and Challenges course, which is a more general course on IP focusing on the international legal framework. Aberdeen University across its different schools very much acknowledges the interdisciplinary nature of these technologies, crossing boundaries between energy, IP/IT and engineering, for example through its offering of the undergraduate Sixth Century Courses, which include The Digital Society, where a multi-disciplinary understanding of the digital society on individuals, organisations and society together with the main issues and challenges of the digital society are covered.
In a world of endless options, particularly digital, we must remain vigilant of how much choice we actually have when certain services come to dominate. This is the case for traditional infrastructure like electricity networks as much as for online platforms that seem to cater for our every need. One of the lessons to take away here is that different areas of law (energy, environmental and IP amongst others) together with other disciplines such as but not limited to engineering, IT and economics are becoming ever more inextricably linked and indistinguishable in terms of how they engage with the effect of new technologies both physical and digital on existing industries and society in general. So if we want to continue to enjoy the comforts and benefits of new technologies and use them to maintain the quality of our lives and our environment (both physical and digital), we must as practitioners and academics at all levels now more than ever step outside the comfort of our disciplines, which in itself is a big and ongoing transition. This is challenging and exciting.