Accelerating technological change remains among the most powerful driving forces impacting our lives on planet earth, both individually and collectively. It has been said that we tend to overestimate the impact of this change in the short-term and to underestimate its impact in the longer term, and this especially holds when considering the implications for public servants and public service institutions.
Moore’s Law, formulated in 1965, predicts that the capacity of digital technologies will double every 18 months. This means an exponential increase in capacity accompanied by decreases in the cost of technology. The prediction has been accurate so far: how long such an exponential rate of change can be sustained is under debate.
Against this background, let’s look at three interdependent examples of how technological innovation is impacting our individual and collective well-being. In each case we will consider the way forward in keeping with three principles: a) leaders are necessarily guided by purpose and values in the face of uncertainty; b) digital technologies have increased our capacity to share information and to collaborate in the public interest; and c) the new collaborative policy environment must be used to creatively leverage our capacity to meet the challenges of accelerating change.
Using data within competitive environments
Contemporary databanks and analytic tools offer the capacity to grasp demographics and personal information with increasing levels of precision. For example, psychodynamic demographics involve translating every click and every eyeball movement to a personal value with a potential monetary or political value. The personal data of citizens may be used to sell a product or to target a political policy to specific citizen profiles and obtain a predicted percentage of the vote. Accordingly, organizations such as private sector firms, political parties and intelligence agencies now integrate such data and its analysis into their organizational strategies and processes. But the relative lack of adequate oversight means that public discussions regarding expectations of privacy and the security of personal information depend to a substantial degree on unauthorized disclosures about real world events.
Recently, a WikiLeaks disclosure alleged that the NSA used a Facebook site to infect computers with malware. Further to a series of incidents, the issues surrounding privacy appear to be as important as they are intractable: my right to privacy may be equal to the extent of privacy I am prepared to deny to those who may be intending to harm me (as this is equal to the authority I am prepared to delegate to an intelligence agency to monitor my communication). Once established, the technological capacities involved in capturing, storing and monitoring communication can and are being used by a range of political regimes and multinational organizations around the world within competitive political and economic environments. In some instances the suppliers and the users of the systems are the same global companies. Only the purpose of those at the controls differs.
The NSA example also raises issues related to governance, oversight and accountability. The issues raised cut across many agencies and departments as well as the interests of citizen and private sector stakeholders and stretch beyond electoral cycles and national jurisdictions.
Access to technology and asymmetric threats
Technology has increased to the point that Internet instructions now give amateurs with malicious intent what they need to achieve their goals with as little as a few commercially available supplies and a domestic kitchen. This illustrates the asymmetry between the massive investments in military capacity of governments and the minuscule investment required to inflict damage to citizens and infrastructure. Such asymmetry has developed at a time when the mutual understanding between ethnic and religious populations is at risk and when travel and intermingling of global citizen populations is pervasive.
If we agree that mutual understanding and social capital are the foundations of a healthy society, perhaps we as public sector leaders have a role to play in promoting such messages in policy advice, within our organizations and the communities we touch. Without healthy communities, security is an illusion. Let’s use that awareness to renew our purpose as leaders in the public sector and mobilize partners and stakeholders in the search of new and creative approaches in support of social cohesion.
Testing the limits of the world’s ecology
Against the background of technological and economic progress, the World Bank has documented a progressive rise in the average GDP per global citizen and an increase in income inequalities, accompanied by an increase in the average size of the environmental footprints of the ever more numerous habitants of our planet. This tests new limits in our environment’s sustainability from water and energy reserves to climate trends.
Here again, the pace of change and emerging risks prompt us to think about the public interest. Among global environmental scenarios, Shell’s research has elaborated a “Scramble” and a “Blueprints” scenario, the former short-sighted and reactive in nature and the second more proactive and collaborative. Where do we wish to position ourselves? Once again, the current situation prompts us as public sector leaders to reconsider our purpose, the potential for creative and collaborative ventures, and fresh policy initiatives.
Commentary on the significance of technological innovation typically includes promising perspectives for the future. We all hope some of these expectations will prove to be realistic. But the examples above suggest that technologically-driven social and environmental change can also bring longer-term challenges for leaders into sharper relief. Examples include the adequacy of oversight of collective and individual interests; the foundational importance of social well-being to the common good; and coming to terms with how private interests interface with public interest.
In times of rapid change, all contributors to society need to focus on their purpose and their values as a guiding direction. Abraham Lincoln, for example, sought to promote learning in challenging times of war and social unrest. His suggestion was that “no man has the right to govern another without his consent.” Accelerating change heightens the onus on leaders to consider the welfare of others and seek their engagement. We need to use our power wisely and in a manner that inspires trust, citizen engagement and consensus-building at a time when challenges are increasingly complex.
Lincoln also put forward the principle that “if you would win a person to your cause, first convince them that you are their sincere friend.” As you and I lean forward to look into the eyes of our friends, perhaps they will see the passion for the public interest in our eyes. If they also see our receptivity to any suggestions they may have to offer there is hope that we can learn together how to cope with the very real interdependent challenges facing Canadians.
As Canadian public servants, we need to demonstrate our passion for the well-being of Canadians. In taking care of others, we may also be taking care of ourselves.