Governments and governance in the digital revolution: opportunities and challenges. In conversation with Johannes Mikkonen

At the end of last year, with support from Helvetas I co-authored a paper entitled, State Capability, Policymaking and the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Do Knowledge Systems Matter? In the paper we define the 4IR as “the confluence of technological breakthroughs, covering wide-ranging fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, autonomous vehicles, nanotechnology, biotechnology, energy storage and quantum computing”.

The aim of the paper was to identify the most relevant questions that we thought needed to be explored to understand and prepare for the changes that the 4IR is bringing and will bring to governance systems and policy-making processes around the world.

One of the questions related to governance systems was, How are new digital technologies likely to enable new ways to design, implement and evaluate policies that use new technologies, and are at the same time inclusive and transparent? Some of the technologies that we had in mind when formulating this question were artificial intelligence, machine learning and data analytics, and we believe they have and will have a more and more significant impact on policy making and governance systems. But how?

I reached out to Johannes Mikkonen who is a senior consultant with Demos Helsinki to find out more.

Digital governance for all, Johannes Mikkonen

Arnaldo Pellini – Can you briefly describe your background and your role with Demos Helsinki?

Johannes Mikkonen – Demos Helsinki is an independent think tank aiming to impact ongoing global transformations actively and build sustainable and fair post-industrial societies. We work together with the public sector, the private sector and NGOs specialising in consultancy services, entirely new ways of cooperating with organisations and people, and thinking about the most wicked societal challenges of our time.

Over the last few years my work has focused on investigating how digitisation and smart environments change society and how public organisations would be able to grasp the opportunities of new technologies and solve societal tensions that these technologies are causing.

AP – When reading about the 4IR I read that it is imminent, around the corner, in the near future, etc. Are we already in the 4IR or not yet?

JM – Currently, technological development is very rapid and many digital solutions that didn\’t exist just a few years back, such as mobile payment systems and algorithm-based suggestions for products such as we see when we open Amazon or do internet searches in Google, are now an important part of our everyday life. New technologies already combine the physical and digital realms: cars are being shared through Uber, houses are shared through Airbnb, etc. So, the technologies of the 4IR, such as artificial intelligence, augmented reality, robotics and 3D printing, and many others, are rapidly changing the way we humans create, exchange and distribute value.

However, even though there’s a lot of talk and excitement about these mainly technological changes, in my opinion there is less discussion and understanding about what societies will look like in the 4IR. We are still in the early stages of 4IR and we lack a clear understanding of the threats and opportunities that it brings.

I think that at this point in time, it’s crucial not only to talk about transformation and technology changes but also to create visions of otherness for societies and communities about the world after the transformation and technology changes have occurred.

AP – In the paper I mentioned above, we say that state institutions struggle to understand and keep up with the impact of the changes that 4IR is having and will have on citizens, civil liberties and political systems. One problem is that governments have to address these challenges with 19th-century institutions. What do you think?

JM – You defined the problem well. Most of our governments’ responsibilities and ways of operating were designed during the emergence of the industrial era. It’s not only the changes that 4IR is bringing, but the world in which we live today poses challenges that many governments are unequipped to deal with, such as the climate crisis, environmental degradation, global mobility and demographic changes. Governments aiming to address the challenges of the 21st Century struggle to design and pass major reforms through traditional legislative processes. As a result, people’s trust in their governments is in decline in many countries.

AP – Let’s zoom into the 4IR and in particular artificial intelligence, machine learning, data analytics, etc., and let’s try to organise our thinking. What is/are the link(s) and relationships between these technologies?

JM – The interesting aspect of the digital revolution is that new technologies are developed simultaneously in different contexts and domains. Take for example virtual reality, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, robotisation, nanomaterials, and energy technology. All these technologies are evolving very rapidly and at the same time in universities, labs and companies all around the world. The most interesting thing for me is to analyse the social consequences that these simultaneous developments bring together. I am thinking, for example, about digital platforms displacing traditional companies, computers displacing humans and new devices displacing traditional channels of communication.

Moreover, the more digital technologies are developed and are exploited the more data they produce and the greater the availability of data to improve algorithms and create better digital services.

Currently I’m working on a research project where the aim is to build a distributed ledger as a service, implement it through four different public services, and assess the impact of it. There’s a lot of buzz on blockchain, but until now I’ve been sceptical about its potential to transform governance on a systemic level. Now I’m enthusiastic to learn more and happy if I’ve been wrong.

AP – What opportunities do these technologies bring for governance systems and policy-making processes?

JM – 4IR-related technologies are constantly evolving and offer significant opportunities to governments. For instance, they allow collecting and analysing huge amounts of digital data which help to better understand the demand and need for services that citizens have. This helps inform policy decisions about public services that are better tailored to those needs. Digital technologies offer ways for government agencies to be closer to the public by creating feedback mechanisms that enable government agencies to constantly learn and evolve.

To seize these opportunities is not easy. It requires considerable changes in government and governance capabilities, for example digitising services on a large scale, continuing to prioritise citizens\’ needs, developing leadership with a long-term vision, rethinking the way services are organised and produced. It requires, in other words, a real systemic change of governments.

AP – What are the challenges for the government to take advantage of these technologies?

JM – The problem is that government institutions are traditionally about maintaining stability rather than transformation and change. I think that only if governments rethink themselves and acquire the capability to design user-centric services, digitise their operations and find new ways to collaborate across agencies, sectors and with the public, can they take advantage of the opportunities that these new technologies offer.

This process should also be underpinned by a foundation, or the development of trust between citizens and government agencies that collect, store and analyse the data citizens produce through the platforms they use daily. Trust creates an accountability towards citizens in the sense that citizens provide data (and taxes), and in return the government agencies commit to offering efficient and tailored services that address citizens’ needs.

This means changing current operations and actions, goals, services and structures of current public institutions. Public sector institutions need to be able to define the reasons to exist, when Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft, etc., are able to offer better and better solutions.

AP – I am involved in governance initiatives in middle- and low-income countries. What capabilities and systems are required in government agencies to at least start to explore how these new technologies can help decision making and the provision of public services?

JM – This question is crucial: for the 4IR to be globally relevant, it has to offer access to cost-effective technologies that respond to the different demands of people and public services all over the world. While the cost of technology is falling, new technologies (and the know-how that goes with them) are not equally accessible across the world. This is especially the case when multinational corporations have a monopoly of power on digital technology and governments do not show the political will to invest in the human capital required to understand and further develop new technologies.

In other words, countries that struggle with weak governance systems and low human capital will struggle to adapt and take advantage of the opportunities these new technologies offer. Having said this, addressing these challenges and adapting the governance systems to the digital revolution will require a similar rethinking of governance systems and capabilities that I mentioned earlier. Governments in middle- and low-income countries will need to re-imagine the way their governance systems operate, their engagement with citizens, the collaborations required to co-design a shared vision of the future for their societies, and invest in the knowledge and skills required to use new technologies and govern their adoption through laws and regulations.

AP – For many years I have been working on strengthening knowledge systems to inform policy and practice. In most of the projects that I have been involved in, the knowledge was research-based knowledge. Do you think that these new technologies will make research and the scientific method obsolete at some point in the near future? What is the value of research-based knowledge in a technology-driven governance system?

JM – It is obvious that research-based knowledge is challenged by increasing opportunities for different data-collection. Universities’ old monopoly positions on data, knowledge, professions and place in the elite are eroding all over the world. However, in the digital age, systematic knowledge production and theoretical knowledge are more central to production than ever before. Research-based knowledge cannot cope with the amount of data produced in the information market. However, research-based knowledge still plays a crucial role in providing tools for critical thinking for citizens and policy makers.

Thank you very much, Johannes, for taking the time to answer my questions.

If you republish the post, please add this text: This article is republished from Knowledge Counts, a blog by Arnaldo Pellini under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article here.

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