Government Innovation

The other Arab world. Not the masked, Kalashnikov wielding crazies the media treats us to each day. But highly educated, global citizens that are passionate about innovation in government. There are times you see very pointedly that you are being brainwashed.

The impressive three-day Government Summit that the government of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) annually organises in Dubai is a Davos style combination of large plenaries, cosy workshops, and ‘experience-it’ expositions. I was there last week. The crowd is decidedly international, but it’s refreshing to walk around in a definition of ‘international’ in which ‘Western’ is a very small minority. The programme covered many aspects of innovation in government: health, education, the environment, transport, safety and security. And a relatively small workshop on justice by me.

It is difficult not to get carried away by all the new ideas that great speakers shower over you during such an event and to rejoice about the radical change for good that is about to come. A transport revolution through Co2 neutral driverless cars. A health revolution through incredibly small and smart diagnosis machines. An almost infinite capacity to analyse data. A safety revolution through clever surveillance. The Internet of Things in which machines talk to each other to serve you better. And IBM’s Watson – almost artificial intelligence that thinks, talks, responds in an almost human way to help answer all your questions. It’s all happening now.

Can humans keep up? Sometimes I think they can. I used to have a phone, but that was centuries ago. Now I have become completely smart-deviced. I even use it to raise my children. The centuries I speak of took only about 8 years. I work with justice innovators on a daily basis. Through them I see unlocked empowerment and creativity powered by technology that is very uplifting. That too, is radical.

But when I heard the global heads of innovation of Samsung and IBM describe a world in which everything is a smart device that invisibly connects to wake you up on time, monitors your heath, makes your perfect coffee, and to telsl you whether your children’s DNA gives them an increased chance to get cancer, I also get justice worries.

We have tough times ahead. If they happen, these developments will change relations between people: some will gain power, economic gain, and social status, while others will lose it. History has never seen these things change without a fight. The development of the printing press and the spread of ideas it supported was connected to the bloody Reformation and the French Revolution. The Industrial Revolution was connected to the ability to industrialize war and to the massive exploitation of the labour.

During the long transition from a predominantly rural to an industrialized society there was a lot of writing about how to re-organize a good government and justice in the midst of all that change. New ideas saw the light of day as part of this transition: basic individual rights, the separation of powers, rule of law, voting, collective bargaining, and the idea of a state that must care for its people.

The Government Summit – inspiring and uplifting as it was – tells us about the great things that innovation and technology can bring. How it opens avenues to better government, quality control, citizen involvement, keeping better track of things, and a whole raft of apps and goods we can now get. And we get carried away, because the discussion is focussed entirely on the innovations themselves. But there is no doubt that data collection, collaboration platforms, and linking all machines will affect the relationship between government and the governed, between citizens, and between citizens and business. This will require a rethink of at least part of the current mechanisms that help people agree on shared rules and standards to guide their lives, the mechanisms to enforce those rules, and the modes of conflict resolution that go with that. In short: rule of law and the way we organize it. That discussion should become more than a little workshop during an innovation party. Where is the separation of powers if non-state entities make most of the rules and standards? What’s the principle of legality worth if behaviour is foreseen through data analytics? What if you have a dispute with IBM’s Watson? What if Watson becomes a judge? Behind these questions lie fundamental values that we cherish. And those values should be an integral part of our discourse on innovation. Not in a luddite way. But in the same constructive mode of Montesquieu and Jefferson, who sought to make sense of a world in which kings became outdated.

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