Top-down & bottom-up innovation in an era of COVID-19

Urban innovation rhetoric often differentiates between government-imposed “top-down” measures and community-led “bottom-up” approaches. In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, we are seeing rapid proliferation of both top-down and bottom-up innovations.


Many governments have implemented surveillance technologies to track the location of infected people and monitor quarantines. These innovations are usually re-purposing existing technology but they are also controversial:

China installed CCTV cameras outside apartment doors of coronavirus carriers to enforce quarantines and uses mobile apps and QR codes to track the health of individuals.
Hong Kong requires coronavirus carriers to wear a wristband linked to a smartphone app, alerting authorities if the person leaves quarantine.
Taiwan tracks quarantined people’s phones using data from cell-phone towers. The system which is described as a “digital fence” alerts authorities when someone leaves the area.
Singapore has deployed an app called TraceTogeher using bluetooth signals between cellphones to monitor whether potential carriers of the virus have been in close contact with other people.
South Korea uses a “smart city” dashboard that combines smartphone location data, CCTV video data and credit card transaction data to reduce contact-tracing time and inform people who might have come in contact with a coronavirus carrier.
Moscow uses facial recognition and a 170,000-camera system to enforce quarantine.
Israel's security agency is using citizens’ cell phone location data collected over the past few years for counterterrorism purposes to track and enforce quarantine controls.

There is some evidence linking surveillance technologies to slowing the spread of the virus, but privacy advocates warn the coronavirus could acclimatize the public into accepting a new normal of intrusive technologies. Fans of surveillance note that citizens who accept surveillance by companies selling advertising should not be upset if the technology is used to save lives and protect society.

The Netherlands is considering the use of cellphone location data to slow the spread of the virus (as is already done in Germany, Italy and Austria), but such data must be aggregated and anonymized. Anonymized data can help authorities understand where people are congregating and reduce the rate of infection, without compromising privacy.

So what are alternatives to top-down governmental responses to the pandemic?

On March 27, Amsterdam launched WijAmsterdam (WeAmsterdam), a platform to crowd-source social initiatives combating the crisis. WijAmsterdam was built using open-source code developed in previous innovation projects. The platform lists more than 180 initiatives (as of April 1) varying from people delivering meals to neighbors to digital programming by the Rijksmuseum.

Here are a few more inspiring examples of bottom-up innovation:
Coronavirus Army is a grassroots volunteer initiative developing open-source and privacy-friendly digital solutions to help tackle the pandemic. Examples of tools currently under development include the Outbreak Tracker app which tracks your location but keeps your private data on your phone. If you test positive for COVID-19, you can then “share” the last 10-15 days of your location history to the server and have it matched against other app users to inform those who might be at risk after being in the same location as you.
Hack the crisis a global movement of hackathons developing tech-based solutions for crisis response and post-crisis era. WirVsVirus (We against the virus) hosted by the German government in March had more than 40,000 participants working on more than 800 ideas. The hackaton is coming to the Netherlands April 3- 5!
OpenCovid19 is a program that aims to develop low-cost, open-source COVID-19 creating prevention, testing, and treatment kits to fight the pandemic.
Open Source Ventilator (OSV) is a group of engineers, designers, medical professionals and volunteers working together to generate open source designs for ventilators that can be produced at scale.

The bigger picture

The coronavirus pandemic is fast-tracking many technological and social innovations. Experts are warning the crisis will undermine people’s privacy as governments implement top-down policies that weaken individual liberties.

In recent years, Amsterdam has positioned itself as a leader in responsible digitalization. Amsterdam, Barcelona and New York co-initiated the Cities for Digital Rights coalition to safeguard privacy, freedom of expression, and democracy. And Amsterdam’s government is working on the implementation of the Digital City Agenda and TaDa principles, guided by a conviction that inclusive and fair digitalization contributes to individual freedom.

As authoritarian regimes use this crisis to grab power at the cost of civil liberties, my hope is that Amsterdam and the Netherlands will respond by safeguarding personal freedom from the top and encouraging collaborative innovation from the bottom.

What do you think? How should government and civil society cooperate during the outbreak? Do you have examples of top-down or bottom-up innovations that help without compromising civil liberties? Please comment below.