Recast explores the societal implications of design and technology. We do this in this bi-weekly newsletter and every fall at the Society 5.0 Festival.

Recast explores the societal implications of design and technology. We do this in this bi-weekly newsletter and every fall at the Society 5.0 Festival (October 31 & November 1 2023).



Bridging the trust gap:
Design, privacy and security in the era of the super app

Marije de Haas | Head of Programme of the Master Digital Design | Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences

This week’s author has written her contribution in English. We are currently exploring possibilities of making Recast bi-lingual. We’d love to know your thoughts. Send your feedback or tips to or our LinkedIn-page.

In a world attracted to convenience, we need to balance our personal freedom between choice and surrender. As technology and society change, we find ourselves rethinking what freedom actually means. This question became tangible during a recent trip to Beijing.

Disclaimer: it was a short trip, and please keep in mind that this story is based on a personal experience and that I have little to no knowledge of the complex backdrop of the Chinese political landscape.

Armed with scepticism about data privacy, a colleague and I ventured to Beijing to attend a conference. My colleague was well prepared with a clean borrowed phone, a VPN and a special sim card. This way, he wouldn’t need to connect to home services or share any sensitive information. I was lazier: I simply planned to get “off-grid” with a printed guidebook with a handy pocket-size map.

In the taxi in China. Big brother is watching you...

Surrender to the super app
We lasted a good few hours, but it soon became clear we weren’t really going to get anywhere without surrendering to the 'super app'. This is a smartphone application that combines most smartphone functions: financial transfers, banking, utility payments, food delivery, social media, urban transit, health care appointments, air travel, biometrics, news, translation services and navigation. Quickly, everything became so much easier, despite the app being largely in Chinese. And the services were excellent. For example, a taxi always arrived in under a minute, and the navigation in the taxi would know exactly how long it takes for the traffic light to change. No wonder the super app is so popular: 90% of people on the street, in the tube, or on the train were glued to their devices.

The super app is very convenient but it also comes with potential danger: it allows large scale government surveillance and social control. The super app can capture a wide range of data that would otherwise be much harder to attain. “Super apps are just cloaked attempts to extract even more data and revenue from more facets of your daily life” (Ongweso, 2023). In a world captivated by the allure of seamless living, the drive for convenience often drowns out the concerns for privacy. It made me wonder: do people actually care about their freedom?

Everywhere you can rent power banks for a very small fee to stay connected. Being disconnected is not an option.

How do people actually feel?
People seemingly willingly part with their data in exchange for a more streamlined experience. I knew that was a rather extreme assumption and that the political backdrop is complex. So I set out to ask young people how they felt about this exchange of privacy for services. I met with such lovely and kind people: bachelor and PhD students of various cultural backgrounds, and some European professors now calling China their home.

Everyone was very positive about their government looking after them: the trade-off between data-privacy and safety is fair, the young people stated. Sure, they wouldn’t make political statements on social media platforms, and they had developed some sort of sixth sense about what content to steer clear from – Winnie the Pooh for example.

The name and images of cartoon character Winnie the Pooh are blocked on social media in China because bloggers have been comparing him to the president.

Now this is where I got confused. Was I making too much of an issue of this exchange of privacy for services? Has China managed to bridge the trust gap? Revealing the inner workings of governments or corporations does not automatically inspire confidence, but perhaps providing safety and convenience does? Somehow the people seemed to have warmly embraced the Chinese social contract, the give-and-take between citizen and government.

Freedom or security
I continued my conversation with the students from China when I got back to the Netherlands. Luckily, they too know how to circumvent the system with VPN and bespoke sim cards. I received a response worth quoting at length:

“I also feel helpless. Now we use personal information in exchange for not only better services, but even access to some social functions. These are not only gradually formed with electronic payments, but mainly during the epidemic stage, when the health department requires everyone’s detailed itinerary to block the spread of the virus. At that time when we were facing greater life difficulties, the leakage of personal information became a fringe topic. Although many people have been discussing it, the transfer of power will develop into a great threat. But after all these years, I don’t think I have a chance to keep my personal information secret. So much so that I haven't fully thought about the dangers of leaking personal privacy. You reminded me that I might be a little frog in a boiling pot. In fact, I think in China, we don’t talk about freedom much, we talk about security a lot. So, we have less imagination about freedom and more imagination about insecurity. We believe that the growth of wealth is also a guarantee of safety.”

(name withheld, for obvious reasons).


The trade-off between privacy and convenience, trust and design, isn't merely a Chinese affair. In Europe we also struggle with how to manage the exchanging of personal data for services. Perhaps the difference is that in most cases our exchange is not with a (democratically elected) government, but with commercial corporations.

For example, Elon Musk’s intentions to make his platform X into a super app: a one-stop shop for social media, communication, travel, on-demand labour, payments, and more. This will allowe him to control wide ranging data of all his subscribers. Entrepreneurs like Musk are not our governments, but their companies govern more and more aspects of our daily lives. The data they collect can potentially be used to influence our privileges, access to services, and the organization of our social interactions.

Inclusive and responsible
In the European Union we have a relatively well regulated media landscape with
the Digital Services Act that came into play in November 2022 . City governments and national advisory boards highlight the urgency of protecting citizen’s digital rights. Digital rights encompass existing human rights that must be safeguarded in the evolving landscape of digital technologies, examining their impact on civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights, and advocating for a culture of more inclusive and responsible technology use.

I think that design education should also play an important role here. We need to urge our future media professionals to be critical. Our strategic research agendas need to strengthen this theme. For instance, at the moment 'safety' is one of the main research themes of
the knowledge agenda for the creative industries . It would be great to add themes like freedom and democratic processes.

Keep questioning assumptions
Future media professionals need to stay vigilant in thinking beyond beautiful and efficient interactions, and be aware of human digital rights of autonomy, safety, privacy, freedom of expression, inclusivity, and diversity. In the rapidly evolving field of media and technology, it's crucial to recognize the profound impact their work can have on society. To sum up, my message to you as a (future) media professional is: keep questioning assumptions, scrutinizing information, and assessing the ethical implications of your actions. 

Recast is a bi-weekly newsletter exploring future visions for an inclusive and sustainable networked society (cast as perspective), the organizational models, roles, and methods that could get us there (cast as an ensemble of different roles), and prototypes for products, services, experiences that could lead the way (cast as molds). Recast is published by the Digital Society School at the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences.

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This was the last edition for 2023. We will be back next year!




The Centre of Expertise for Creative Innovation (CoE CI) and the New European Bauhaus (NEB) work together to give an inclusive and aesthetic approach to the sustainability transition. In December, a few European partners will come to Amsterdam to work on a new project proposal. We would like to take this opportunity to involve the CoE CI network in the discussions and development of views and visions on NEB. Join us at the at the Arena of the Reinwardt Academy.



New Dutch Wave and CreativeNL join forces again to go to Texas from March 8-16. They offer a ride to all Dutch individuals and organizations who are attending the world’s leading conference festival about the (near) future: South by Southwest (SXSW). Are you going to SXSW’24, or thinking about it? Join the informal  inspiration evening at WINK HQ in the A’dam Tower.



Join the final showcase where trainees from the Digital Transformation Intensive Programme will exhibit their solutions to the challenges they have been working on for the past few months. Immerse yourself in new ways of working and get inspired by what you can achieve with transformation design. In Amsterdam.

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Professor Eric Gordon shares his brand new (and really useful) study on applied visual art in codesign. He and his colleagues point to four specific benefits: signalling a novel procedure, motivating sideways thinking, inviting interpretation, and cultivating flexible outputs.

The Rathenau Instituut concludes that organisations, businesses and citizens should ask themselves whether they can use generative AI such as ChatGPT, Bard and DALL-E responsibly. Read more.

Researcher Dan Lockton creating and using design tools for participatory imagining: helping people, together, create and explore possible futures, imagine new ways to live, and understand ourselves, technologies, and the world around us better, in an age of crises in climate and social inequalities. He talks all about it in this interesting interview.

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