The Public Stack: a Model to Incorporate Public Values in Technology

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Public administrators, public tech developers, and public service providers face the same challenge: How to develop and use technology in accordance with public values like openness, fairness, and inclusivity? The question is urgent as we continue to rely upon proprietary technology that is developed within a surveillance capitalist context and is incompatible with the goals and missions of our democratic institutions. This problem has been a driving force behind the development of the public stack, a conceptual model developed by Waag through ACROSS and other projects, which roots technical development in public values.

The idea behind the public stack is simple: There are unseen layers behind the technology we use, including hardware, software, design processes, and business models. All of these layers affect the relationship between people and technology – as consumers, subjects, or (as the public stack model advocates) citizens and human beings in a democratic society. The public stack challenges developers, funders, and other stakeholders to develop technology based on shared public values by utilising participatory design processes and open technology. The goal is to position people and the planet as democratic agents; and as more equal stakeholders in deciding how technology is developed and implemented.

ACROSS is a Horizon2020 European project that develops open source resources to protect digital identity and personal data across European borders. In this context, Waag is developing the public stack model into a service design approach – a resource to help others reflect upon and improve the extent to which their own ‘stack’ is reflective of public values. In late 2022, Waag developed a method using the public stack as a lens to prompt reflection amongst developers. A more extensive public stack reflection process is now underway in ACROSS; resources to guide other developers through this same process will be made available later in 2023.

The public stack is a useful model for anyone involved in technology, whether as a developer, funder, active, or even passive user. In the case of ACROSS, its adoption helped project partners to implement decentralised privacy-by-design technology based on values like privacy and user control. The model lends itself to be applied just as well in other use cases:

  • Municipalities can use the public stack to maintain democratic approaches to technology development and adoption in cities.
  • Developers of both public and private tech can use the public stack to reflect on which values are embedded in their technology.
  • Researchers can use the public stack as a way to ethically assess technology.
  • Policymakers can use the public stack as a way to understand, communicate, and shape the context in which technology development and implementation occurs.

Are you interested in using the public stack in your own project, initiative, or development process? We’d love to hear about it. Let us know more by emailing us at

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