The economic and social consequences of digital innovation require, and will continue to require, political responses to take advantage of the opportunities that these innovations can bring to society. The challenge for government and regulators is that the speed at which these technologies evolve is much faster than the speed of policy decision making. In Future Politics: Living Together in a World Transformed by Tech, Jamie Susskind argued that governments must rapidly develop the capabilities required to adapt to a near future characterized by: 1) increasingly capable systems, 2) increasingly integrated technology, and 3) increasingly quantified society.
But what capabilities are required? How do we develop them? How do we prepare for this imminent future? I reached out to Shivam Gupta who works as a researcher on Project digitainable at the Bonn Alliance for Sustainability Research / Innovation Campus Bonn (ICB) (also on Twitter @bonnalliance) to find out what he and his team are up to in terms of working to find some answers to these big questions.
Arnaldo Pellini – Can you briefly describe what Project digitainable intends to achieve?
Shivam Gupta – Project digitainable aims to uncover the influence of digitalization and artificial intelligence (D&AI) on the indicators of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), considering the intricate interrelations between the indicators. The research is conducted by utilizing expertise from the natural and technological side, as well as from the social side. Furthermore, the project will act as a platform for furthering research on how to efficiently and sustainably use the opportunities provided by D&AI for sustainable development.
AP – The digital revolution offers incredible opportunities for governments to design policies and services that are well informed by evidence (data and analysis), efficient, and that contribute to the equitable and sustainable development of society. Yet, the public sector seems to struggle to take advantage of these opportunities. In an interview I published on this blog, Johannes Mikkonen of Demos Helsinki said that government organizations are traditionally better at the maintenance of stability than at the transformation and change required to make use of AI in governance and policy processes. What do you think?
SG – Considering the public sector and its responsibilities, stability is much desired; hence his opinion makes complete sense. Also, the application of AI in the public sector currently is in an experimental phase along with staff who need a considerable push to realize the advantages and risks of AI. Some countries are already able to provide stability while using AI in their workflows, for example Singapore and South Korea. I believe stability also depends on the providers’ and consumers’ acceptability and tolerance. Currently, we are all overwhelmed with the data regulations. After getting comfortable with data sharing, only then we can talk about the effective use of AI. The future may bring some interesting insights to it. I am optimistic that soon the public sector will be AI-enabled for an efficient workflow.
AP – Most governments have subscribed to the SDGs. How can digital technologies help countries to progress towards them? Can you give some examples? Can SDGs be the doors through which digital technologies begin to inform policy processes?
SG – D&AI is now a significant part of life in much of the world. People may not have access to healthy air to breath or safe water to drink, but the majority of people have the option to use the internet and share their information. So basically, this information can be gathered easily by just one tap from anywhere in the world to support progress towards any SDGs. For example, Health (SDG 3): mobile phone cameras are helping to identify malnutrition in new-born babies; Food security (SDG 2): real-time monitoring of crops is done using drones and satellite images to forecast any possible food scarcity situation; Safe drinking water (SDG 6): the application of blockchain is under experiment for delivering safe drinking water and recycled water to society. There are countless examples that demonstrate the potential of D&AI for progressing the SDGs. In Project digitainable, I am developing the basic theories of change at the indicator level of the SDGs to investigate how, where and what kind of digital technology is playing a role. I am also investigating through theories of change the ways we can identify any positive or negative implications on other indicators. I personally believe that the SDGs are certainly the gateway through which D&AI will play a crucial role in informing policy processes. The silver lining which we should not miss out is that the potential is there, but there can be cultural and normative issues that can prevent tech use in a social construct. In the digitainable project, we consider that the social aspect is as important as the technical aspect, precisely to answer the last question you asked.
AP – Understanding the context and the politics within the context is a key element of designing true problem-driven governance solutions for public services. It seems that those principles also apply to tech solutions. So, to paraphrase Jaime Faustino of the Asia Foundation in the Philippines, tech solutions to help progress towards SDGs have to be technically sound and politically feasible.
SG – Jaime Faustino’s statement stands very true. Further to that, there is also an essential aspect of digital democracy which has been a matter of discussion in the recent past. Various initiatives are being taken up by citizens in the form of citizen science projects, using ICT and new advancements in digital technology to address the localized problems that may or may not be taken up for further development. These kinds of bottom-up initiatives are already making a significant impact in policy making and public services, for example actions taken by citizens on Amsterdam Schiphol and London Heathrow noise monitoring. Open street maps are one of the game-changers in getting geospatial data of places that even Google is not able to reach. Hence, I would like to add that along with understanding context and political feasibility, it is also important to consider social aspects and desires for making it more inclusive and ‘leaving no one behind’. In the project, I find the part of equally weighing the social context with technology fascinating and crucial for technology-driven progress towards the SDGs.
AP – You have held a Thinkathon in April on these topics and issues. Tell me more about it.
SG – Yes! We have organised an event called Digitainable Thinkathon, which aimed at bringing together people from research, the private sector, civil society and public administration. Participants came from different places and disciplines and discussed their ideas together with D&AI experts about mega discourses of our time, raising a range of questions for sustainable development and its implications at indicator level for the SDGs. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic we held the event online on 28th April 2020 and we will have soon updated on our website.
Thank you very much, Shivam.
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