This opinion piece was written by the United Nations Development Program’s Milica Begovic, Joost Beunderman and Indy Johar. For more like this, see our government innovation newsfeed.
The intent of putting the Next Generation Governance (#NextGenGov) agenda at the centre of the Istanbul Innovation Days 2018 was to start to explore the future of the world’s governance challenges and to debate how a new set of models are needed to address a growing “relevance gap” in governance and peacebuilding.
Any exploration into the Next Generation of Governance requires us to recognise that in an increasingly multi-polar world, a world where power is increasingly more directly used and the singular rule of law we had “hoped” for is being challenged, the future of governance is not only about the technocratic capacity to make rules (even if they are machine-readable rules), but also our ability to construct new social legitimacy for all and by all.
In a world where we are facing urgent calamities and deep-running risks like never before, organisations like UNDP are witnessing a growing gap between the incremental progress in practice and a rapidly accelerating set of challenges — whether rampant inequality and its impact on social cohesion, growing ranks of forcefully displaced people, the fragmentation of state agency, rapid depletion of the commons, or the seemingly intractable rise of new forms of violence.
We explored science fiction, arts and culture as seedbeds for imagining alternative economic systems
This gap — between the emerging reality (strategic risks) and existing practice — is set to exponentially grow unless there is a major rethink of development practice and how we remake governance fit for the 21st century.
Earlier, we hypothesised that across the world, our governance models are broken: we are holding on to 19th century models that deny the complexity of the “systemocracy” we live in: a world of massive interdependencies. #NextGenGov therefore is an exploration — the first of many — of the type of experiments that chart a way towards a future in sync with the Sustainable Development Goals. It aims to explore the lessons, challenges and gaps emerging with governance not relegated to a single goal (SDG 16) but as the prerequisite of achieving the SDG agenda as a whole.
A very 21st century kind of failure
It could be argued governance is the central failure of the 21st century — sidelined as an inconvenient overhead, governance innovation has seen consistent underinvestment and a lack of attention.
Our means of governance and regulation have become relics in an age of growing complexity. New capabilities and trends like rapid real-time data feedback loops, algorithmic decision making, new knowledge of the pathways of injustice and inequality, and the rise of new tools and domains of power are challenging established ways of decision making.
Frequently hampered by simplistic notions about the levers of change, awed by networked power dynamics in the private sector and undermined by public sector austerity, many of us seem scared and disoriented in responding to the scale of failure and new needs we are witnessing. Worse still, we seem unable to make the case that ultimately, good governance should not be a means of state control but a means to unleash sustainably the full and fair capacity of all human beings.
In this context, the growing strategic risks of our age are making past governance protocols and processes increasingly incoherent and misaligned to the need of both member states and our broader global ecosystems; both real-world precedents and statistically derived probability are collapsing as viable decision-making tools.
This incongruity is revealed at different scales and conditions:
1. The existing structures, governance and business models, skills and institutional cultures are producing solutions that do not fit the new nature of problems they are supposed to be addressing (IPCC’s 1.5 C report and genetically engineered baby in China as most recent proxies of misalignment of current practice and emerging existential threats).
2. Business-as-usual as a method to address the entirely new scale and modality of problems is a recipe for decline and irrelevance (consider ongoing efforts to apply current regulatory paradigms to distributed technologies like blockchain).
3. Governments and investors too are experiencing the lack of coherence between existing solutions and emerging problems, and are therefore eager to restructure their relationship with UNDP and similar organisation
Towards new zones of experiments
Searching for fresh perspectives, our approach was to hone in on a series of Zones of Experiment — a range of domains that could unlock some of the great transitions the world is facing.
We looked at new ways to protect and restore the commons, to actualise the human rights of landless nations, and to prevent conflict and empower civic actors in revealing abuses. We also explored science fiction, arts and culture as seedbeds for imagining alternative economic systems, the role of new technologies in urban governance, and new practices in the way power is organised, manifested and influences decision making.
Across these zones of experiments, we are seeing how a new generation of edge practitioners is challenging the status quo, and how their experiments enable us to learn both context-specific and transferable lessons.
Together, they point the way to the #NextGenGov agenda as a new approach to strategic innovation (and feedback coming in after the IID2018 indicates the need to explore additional Zones of Experiments with emerging new practices such as governance of digital financial markets and impact of systemic structural issues, such as decline of trust on single point sectors including attitudes towards vaccination).
Underlying all these is the double-edged sword of rapid technological progress in a multi-polar world that is challenging established ethical certainties. The unexplainable AI is one such manifestation, where the advanced identification of correlation is argued to be sufficient to guide decision-making be judicial or even law enforcement, challenging — even perhaps regressing — us to a pre-scientific age and undermining the basic principles of governance — accountability and equality of treatment (as argued by Jacob Mchangama).
Experimentation can’t be seen as an add-on, but should be at the core of exploring the future
As Primavera de Filippi outlined in her keynote speech, new technological capabilities always carry the potential both to disrupt the status quo or conversely reify existing structures of power and inequality. If we want to put the new tools of power in the hands of the many not the few, we need to focus on the governance of the new infrastructures rather than rely on governance by those infrastructures.
However, whether in blockchain applications (Primavera’s domain) or elsewhere, it is evident that often we simply don’t know yet what kind of detailed issues, unintended consequences or unexpected feedback loops we might face when applying new technological capabilities. This means experimentation can’t be seen as an add-on but should be at the core of exploring the future and rapid learning about implications of emerging trends.
This is not the place to summarise each zone of experiment discussed during the Istanbul Innovation Days. But we can outline a series of shared lessons and implications for the future of governance and peacebuilding.
1. Micro-massive Futures — A series of new micro-massive data, sensing, processing and influencing capabilities (as revealed in the work of Metasub, PulseLab Kampala and Decibel) is enabling state and non-state actors to transcend the tyranny of the statistically aggregated average, and instead focus on the micro, the unique and the predictive — early warnings on looming epidemics or weather-related crop failure, emerging signs of microbial antibiotic resistance, or the compound impacts of pollution on individuals, particularly in disadvantaged populations.
The much more fine-grained understanding they enable (whether through big data, social media mining, or specific sampling and real-time blockchain-anchored measurement) creates radical new pathways to harbouring and enhancing the public interest. Achieving decent average outcomes (of health, pollution, human development…) has more than ever become obsolete as a goal: the geographically, individually and temporally hyper-specific data we can obtain, and the wicked nature of the issues at hand, require new ways of understanding ‘risk’ — and acting on it.
This same micro-massive future, on the other hand, is also weaponising the capacity to mine data in order to influence outcomes at the societal scale — opening up huge new questions about the meta-governance of these new capacities in the first place.
This implies a double set of responsibilities: if we can now govern and influence outcomes at the micro-level of the individual and molecular detail, and at the massive scale of societal bias, with at both scales growing capabilities to understand risk and predict possibilities — how do we govern in this new reality in order to use these powers for good? Or conversely how to ensure that the emerging capabilities of new governing realities are not resulting in human rights abuses, discrimination and violence?
2. From control to ennoblement — Where such distributed data generating and analysis capacity comes into its own is through new contracting agreements that change our capacity to manage shared assets. The multi-party contributory contracts, e.g. the blockchain-based agreements at the heart of the Regen Network, show us how the collective inertia around agricultural restoration could be overcome.
Crucially, rather than disincentivising “bad behaviours” through control, such ennobling regulatory systems can now be imagined to incentivise, communicate and verify contributory systems. Equally, this capability is paving ways for entirely new class of governance mechanisms for the commons — including bestowing legal rights on rivers and the Amazon. How do we reimagine governance if such ennoblement and restoration would structurally be our objective?
3. Making the invisible visible — New ways of building the politics of change are continuously emerging. Using mapping, animation, arts and other visualisation tools, practitioners like Forensic Architecture and Invisible Dust — and in different ways, Open Knowledge Germany — are empowering citizens and civic groups to reveal issues which for a wide range of reasons tend to remain hidden — whether in the case of state agents committing human rights abuses or pernicious, slow-moving killers like air pollution (which in many case of course equally implicates states in failing to uphold human rights).
By involving distributed civic networks and creative professionals from right across traditional disciplines, and by connecting to the aspirations of populations in different ways, such emerging tactics act as a powerful complement to established tools to build the demand for change.
4. Hybrid participatory futures — Getting to a next level of citizen engagement in the transitions we face requires a next generation of platforms that enable engagement with complexity, new technology and alternative imaginings of the future. This is about new settings for deliberation, new ways of extending invitations to take part, and tapping into the creative resources of science fiction and the arts to reimagine social contract and alternative economic systems.
Medialab Prado in Madrid, the Edgeryders community, the deliberative citizens’ assemblies in Ireland or, at local scale, RanLab’s deliberative polls across Africa, show in different ways that new settings for participation can engender new cultures of participation cutting across “online” and ‘offline’. Their deep investment in the tactics of convening people enable the creation of new and highly constructive new communities of concern around difficult topics, as well as building legitimacy for bold experimental approaches.
Well-curated online platforms, temporal gatherings and permanent physical spaces all play a role in building the shared legitimacy for civic innovation
This in turn enables the prevention of potential policy failure or the addressing of topics hitherto thought untouchable by established political players. In an era that frequently bemoans the decline of trust in the abstract, such cultural infrastructure rebuilds avenues towards greater trustworthiness across different parties, and an ability to imagine futures unconstrained by current divisions and biases, as the mitigation of risk.
As differing platforms have differing biases in terms of who they attract and what behaviours they foster, such participation will always needs to be hybrid — well-curated online platforms, temporal gatherings and permanent physical spaces all play a role in building the shared legitimacy for civic innovation. Enabling the participatory co-creation of the future is a fundamental component of the governance architecture in a complex world: we must complement the nudging of people’s behaviour (a crucial tactic which has been applied with considerable success) with nurturing human imagination and facilitating deliberation and engagement with evidence.
5. Public goods & rights beyond the state — In an era where about 68 million people are currently stateless and this number is expected to rise significantly in the coming years, we are seeing state players as unable, unwilling or simply absent in the anchoring of fundamental human rights like people’s individual and family identity, and unable to access public goods provided outside the national boundary.
The Rohingya project and IRYO show powerful alternatives and lessons for the remaking of public services like healthcare for both refugee populations and other contexts where access to such services is patchy. These positive alternatives are equally matched by more challenges examples of the quasi-privatisation of justice — where large technology multinationals are already acting something like a judicial system — “one that is secretive, volatile, and often terrifying.”
They also reveal the need and possibility to reimagine not just service provision but also new architectures of governance beyond the nation state — consider the incoherence of applying national laws to growing numbers of stateless people, para-state futures around the world.
The fundamental question arises whether the seemingly limitless rise in populations on the move and para-state governance could compel us to imagine and construct at a more structural level new domains of service provision potentially disinter-mediated from the state — and whether that might be more than just dire necessity but also an opportunity to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.
6. From evidence-based to experimentation-driven policy — In an age of increasing complexity, the danger of traditional evidence-based policy leading us by the rear view mirror is evident. Instead, the zones of experiment — whether EcoLogic’s futuristic urban landscapes or the service design innovation shared by Pia Andrews from both New Zealand and New South Wales — show the possibility of a new arc of policy formation: experimentation is used to create new forms of situated intelligence and learning, consisting of both new evidence and new insights to underpin the ongoing and iterative development of policies and programming.
These pathways enable institutions to make sense of changes, (re)formulate intent and execution pathways, and thus co-evolve in an open and collaborative process. Fundamentally this is about recognising 21st century governance will be structurally different: the new institutional capacity can clearly not be designed in vitro but has to grow in-situ, informed by strategic portfolios of experimental options in order to grow the evidence necessary for policy intervention.
We need to challenge our existing practices at a deeper level
7. Sovereignty 2.0. In an age where a vital commons governance can now also be advanced either by imbuing ecological entities — such as rivers in Colombia and elsewhere — with legal rights or by emerging new sets of capabilities like smart contracts and machine learning — as indicated by Regen Network — could this mean the massive scaling of strategies that imbue new types of bodies with “sovereign” powers and capabilities for e.g. machine-based contracting and fining. If so, and heeding Primavera de Filippi’s warnings, the governance of these infrastructures will be a crucial field of innovation.
Whilst even individually these are important new trajectories, when taken together these emerging lessons show how we need to challenge our existing practices at a deeper level. Given the degrees of uncertainty and emergence we face, this implies a call for strategic investment in a broad portfolio of experiments can guide us to the future.
Fundamentally, these are learning options that enable UNDP and its partners to seed and test new ways of governing across different domains. In parallel, #NextGenGov also pointed towards a further set of questions and challenges we face when staring into the future of governance in a multi-polar tomorrow.
1. Beyond the social contract
In a world of sped-up complexity and change, the social contracts and legitimacy underlying our governance systems are constantly in question, not least because the relevance gaps affecting nearly all players (between needs and capabilities; between promise and delivery; between aspiration and capacity) means that not just trust, but actual trustworthiness is in decline.
Across the world, we are seeing broadly two cultural-societal paradigms that underlie potential future social contracts: both of which could be argued as falling.
Where individualism is the main tenet, we all too often fail to mainstream and anchor societal innovations that would reduce collective risk, whether vaccination rates or distributed flood prevention strategies. Where the collective is seen to take priority over the individual, the possible inability to accommodate divergence and diversity risks undermining the distributed creativity, energy and drive needed (and available!) to address wicked issues.
The challenge we face is to move towards social contracts based on an explicit recognition of interdependence — reaffirming the need for the hybrid participation structures suggested above to provide the distributed fertile ground for this, as well as opening the space for discussions on system governance beyond the human governance. In future Innovation Days and Next Gen Gov experiments, we need to transcend natural rights and embrace new sovereignty 2.0: such as sovereignty for rivers, trees and forests, opening the scope for dynamic interactions of such rights frameworks for a new social ecological contract.
2. More than one democracy?
Irrespective of scale or context, it is clear that no sole actor — whether state, civic sector, corporate or start-up — has the ability to tackle the wicked issues of our time alone.
This means that discourses on good governance and democracy fundamentally have to be about the distributed power to co-create society. Clearly this is conditioned both by the openness of institutional infrastructures and by the socio-economic fundamentals that enable or hinder people’s agency.
In this reality, seeing multiparty parliamentary systems as the sole mechanism for delivering democracy seems increasingly hollow
Recognising democracy as creating the positive freedom of “being able to care” (whether about individual life choices, the craftsmanship of work, and about wider social and planetary interdependencies) implies not just a concern about the trends that reduce such capabilities (such as declining economic growth, growing job insecurity or the disasters that uproot people’s lives) but also a focus on the multitude of avenues that enable such care to be expressed and acted upon.
The challenge we face is that in this reality, seeing multiparty parliamentary systems as the sole mechanism for delivering democracy seems increasingly hollow: citizen assemblies and participative, high-frequency accountability & feedback systems are examples of vital complementary mechanisms for the enhancement and preservation of public and shared goods. The examples we have seen are evidence of how they can unlock positive, inclusive new avenues to the future at any scale from the local to the global — in ways that “politics” as usual cannot.
3. Bureaucratic revolution?
In the non-pejorative sense of the word, bureaucracy is at the core of governance. Innovation and experimentation in the realm of our everyday bureaucracy can change the nature and people’s experience of governance and everyday life itself — look no further than Mariana Mazzucato’s work on the role of bureaucracy to create new markets.
Just like the 19th century centralised bureaucracies shaped the notion of the modern state, the present “boring revolution” in our capabilities (e.g. around data insight, zero overhead cost of micro transactions and transparent multi-actor contributory contracts) can drive a radical reinvention of the notion of governance and power. This is what is at stake.
The challenge we face is evident in the many salutary lessons that IID2018 provided, on how positive outcomes of this process should not be taken for granted. Instead they can only result from clear intent, human-centred design and an approach to strategic innovation that is up to the magnitude of the issues at hand.
Beyond IID2018…to be continued
The IID2018 was an effort to manifest the strategic relevance gap between our rapidly growing needs and risks, and our all-too-slowly developing practice — in this case that of increasingly inadequate global governance models and implications across a range of interdisciplinary policy spaces.
If revealing strategic risks and their interrelated nature is about building the demand side for ambitious change — Invisible Dust’s credo of “making the invisible visible” clearly struck a chord — then what comes next has to be a strategic innovation response that goes beyond organisational tweaks or individual responses.
After all, in a show-of-hands poll on the first day of IID2018, only 5 people thought the world is on track in achieving Sustainable Development Goals — hardly surprising, given recent news on climate change or the accumulating impact of air pollution on health and learning. Addressing governance failures is at the heart of delivering the SDGs and it will require concerted belief, effort and strategic scale investment.
We must rebuild the states’ capability for agile, iterative governance
By virtue of its cross-sectoral strategic development role, UNDP has a natural and unique responsibility to focus on addressing the strategic, entangled and systemic governance risks facing us at a national, transnational and global level — and in doing so it needs to act as integrator on a country and transnational levels, whilst recognising and respecting the necessity of a multipolar yet machine advanced interoperable future — where the notion, means and conceptions of governance are fully reimagined and socially co-created for a 21st century.
Practically, this means NextGenGov was just the beginning of investing in and building a strategic portfolio of experiments that enable partners to learn, manage risk, and effect system change, in order to rebuild the (technical, political, informational, financial) capability of states and civic actors for agile, iterative governance that is premised less on building solutions and more about dealing with our new certainty — uncertainty. —Milica Begovic, Joost Beunderman, Indy Johar
This opinion piece was originally published on Medium.
(Picture credits: Unsplash, UNDP)