The US presidential election, our digital future, and a question for the friends at ODI’s Digital Societies programme
A week has passed since Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the US presidential election. Donald Trump has not yet conceded and has launched a flurry of probably ineffectual court cases. Votes are being recounted in Georgia but they are not going to change the outcome.
I listened to many commentaries since the election: NYT’s The Daily, the Guardian’s Politics Weekly and Today in Focus, Talking Politics with David Runciman. They all agree that the support to Donald Tump has not changed since 2016, it has even increased. On the other hand, a huge number of Democrats have cast their vote for Biden and Harris which has tipped the election in their favour. That shows also in the popular vote where Biden has received ca. 77.000.000 votes vs. the 72.000.000 for Trump.
During the last few days I found myself thinking about those 72.000.000 people who voted Trump. The large part of those voters are older, white, non-college educated, and living smaller towns and rural areas. They are angry. They believe that the economic and political system has let them down. Their factories have closed. Their jobs have gone overseas or have been taken by immigrants. Trump listens to them and speaks to their anger and fears.
The economy of today (and tomorrow) is marked by an increase in productivity and a decrease in the demand for labour. This trend is pushed by digital technologies and automation and will only accelerate during this century. So, what will happen to those 72.0000.000? Early retirements for tens of millions? Not likely. Tens of millions of bullshit jobs, in the word of the late Prof. David Graeber? Probably.
If this is the trend, are we going to see more populist and right wing leaders being voted in office as hundreds of million of citizen are left stranded by the digital revolution around the world?
I realise this is quite a bleak view of the future, but that number, the 72.000.000, left me with questions about our democratic future which are not simple to answer.
What does it mean for a government to invest and research megatrends? How does it help to prepare the governance system of tomorrow? To what extent are megatrends taken into consideration in international development research and programming? I have met Elina Kiiski– Kataja and Tony Addison at the Oodi Library in Helsinki to discuss these questions.
Research and analysis help cast light on the phenomenon of megatrends. Megatrends are going to have long-term effects on governments, societies and economies. Some of these effects are already visible in our societies. The Finnish innovation agency, SITRA, has launched a page on its website called Megatrends 2020 to open up a discussion about the trends that will have the biggest impact on our future. The page explores tensions such as: tensions between the transformation of work and the need to ensure an equitable livelihood for all; pursuing a sustainable versus a restorative economy; the widespread use of technology and its effects on inequality; the politics of having corporations or governments deciding on technology; the falling costs of renewable energy; centralised policy decision-making versus broad technology-enabled citizen engagement; and many more.
Megatrends give rise to disciplines such as futures studies and foresight, which represent an attempt to forecast technological advancements and other environmental trends. They represent a specific form of evidence that enables governments to predict how people will live and work in the future.
Governments, mainly in high-income countries, and large corporations invest and use foresight analysis and megatrends as a source of evidence to inform strategic (policy) decisions. The Finnish government has established in 2015 the project to reform the Government’s steering framework (also called OHRA). The multinational Shell is well known for their expertise with foresight and scenarios.
But to what extent are megatrends taken into consideration in international development research and programming?
I discussed these questions during a video call with Elina Kiiski-Kataja, Director of Research and Foresight at Ellun Kanat and former leading foresight specialist at the Finnish Innovation Fund, Sitra, and Tony Addison, until recently the chief economist and now non-resident senior research fellow with UNU-WIDER in Helsinki and a professor of economics at the University of Copenhagen’s Development Economics Research Group.
Arnaldo Pellini – Tony, does international development research and programming consider megatrends such as the one Elina and SITRA have been working on? After all, international development should be guided by the SDGswhich look at 2030.
Tony – My sense is that megatrends, in the way it is used in the foresight knowledge community, is not embedded in the way the international development community operates. For sure, there are a plethora of international reports, especially published by international agencies and international NGOs, and those that embed the latest results of international research are very thorough, especially when they draw upon the sciences: one thinks here, for example, of the climate change assessment reports produced by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). But the international reports that come out of UN agencies, the World Bank, the IMF and the OECD, are often rather bland and usually confine themselves to a limited set of scenarios – albeit the analysis that is done is thorough, but it is done within a relatively narrow set of future possibilities.
The research community, as found in academia, has become quite narrow in many of its concerns. Within development economics, which is my disciplinary area, the last 20 years has seen a narrowing of focus, with the rise of randomised control trials (RCTs). These try to assess the likely impact of interventions, typically in the areas of education and health care (with more studies of livelihoods projects in recent years). The aim is to inform the design of project interventions and allocation of public spending. This is fine as far as it goes, but they are subject to considerable critique, albeit the award of the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics to two of their foremost practitioners has given them considerable status. This is part of a general trend within development economics towards more and more studies that are micro-economic in orientation.
This has meant a gradual drift away from some of the ‘big picture’ thinking that characterised development economics in its early years. For sure, it was sometimes too general, and too utopian in nature – especially in the academic economics community – but at the same time it did try to address some of the very large questions of development, including scenarios for the future. In contrast, among policy makers in East Asia there was an approach that incorporated some elements of foresight knowledge but not necessarily in ways that are evident to us as outside commentators: much of this was done within ministries and government agencies, only sometimes seeing the light of day in published planning documents.
The SDGs are largely a set of aspirations, with so many goals and targets that countries can ‘pick and mix’ what they wish to go for. This is not necessarily a bad thing, for the SDGs are above all a statement of political commitment by UN member states, but they do not provide an analytical framework for thinking about the future.
Arnaldo – Elina, can you give concrete examples of how megatrends and the analysis that underpin them can inform public policy? After all, public policy is most of the time very short term, if not mainly reactive. At best it is linked to election cycles of four to five years.
Elina – In Finland there are several mechanisms that have been developed to tackle the challenge of how public policy could better take into account different drivers and megatrends that affect our society.
First of all, the Finnish Parliament has a Futures Committee that specialises in foresight and public policy. The committee doesn’t participate in legislative work but of course its members take part in other parliamentary committees alongside the Futures Committee. The Futures Committee acts as an internal think tank in the Parliament and it can have projects on themes that it decides. One of the most important tasks of the Futures Committee is to comment on and approve the Finnish Government’s Report on the Future, that every government produces once every four years on a theme they find important.
This brings us to the second important characteristic of Finnish public policy and foresight which is the governmental activities and foresight processes. The Finnish ministries conduct foresight activities themselves internally and there is also an active National Foresight Network that brings together different parts of the Finnish institutional foresight processes and aims to bring foresight knowledge closer to decision making. The National Foresight Network functions under the Prime Minister’s office. As mentioned earlier, every four years the government publishes a Report on the Future on a theme it finds important. It goes through the parliamentary process so that the Futures Committee responds to it.
Finally, Finland has a lot of agencies that hold foresight at the heart of their work. One of them, Sitra, the Finnish Innovation Fund that was established in 1967 to develop the Finnish society and economy, and it still conducts this activity successfully by educating decision makers and bringing public and private interest groups together to think about the future and do research on the future. It also conducts pilots and projects on themes important for the Finnish future. Another one is Business Finland, which helps Finnish companies to thrive. It does a lot of technology-relevant and business-relevant foresight and work with Finnish companies, helping them to take advantage of opportunities that arise in the changing world.
So I would say that through institutional settings, futures thinking and megatrends can be actually quite well attached to public policy. And I think it is also worth mentioning that in 1967 Finland was still a developing country that had a difficult history, as it had been only 20 plus years since the end of the war with the Soviets and 40 plus years since the bloody civil war. So in many ways Finland put futures thinking at the heart of its post-war rebuilding strategy. It was also very successful in adapting ideas about the welfare society, that at the time was something very new.
Arnaldo – I have been involved in many projects, working with government organisations in Southeast Asia, which aimed to strengthen the use of evidence and knowledge to inform public policy. In most cases the evidence referred to the here and now, that is, current problems and ways to address them. Thinking about it now, it is as if foresight is not part of many of the different types of evidence that the government can use to inform public policy decisions.
Elina – I think that evidence-based decision making is a really important factor when forming quality public policies. However, you are absolutely right in noting that futures thinking very often lacks evidence. Or to put it another way: we usually have a lot of evidence on different megatrends, such as climate change or the fast development of technology. But what we don’t have evidence on usually is how these megatrends affect us in different fields of society and what we should do about it. This is where we need futures thinking, which is mainly the ability to look at developments from different points of view. In my opinion good futures thinking involves three different ways of looking at the phenomenon called futures. The first one is probable futures, which usually consists of data, statistics, etc. So it comes close to evidence-based thinking. Because in the past we had x in the future, it will be very likely that it will develop in to y. But more and more we also need to think about possible futures, which are futures that might surprise us and we need to be able to speculate and think about different scenarios – also unlikely ones. And finally, more and more, we need desirable futures, and then we need visionary thinking that comes close to innovation processes and creative thinking. Because very often also those shaping the future are the ones that build the future they want by their visions and strategic choices.
Tony – If futures thinking is to be useful to governments, then it needs to be done in ways that yield a very wide range of scenarios, including the downside – such as those that emanate from domestic and external shocks. The latter are hard for most governments to think their way through, because doing so reveals institutional weaknesses in their ability to respond, and these are hard truths that ministers and civil servants don’t necessarily want, at least not to be openly available to the media and public.
The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed, with brutal clarity, weaknesses in policy and institutions right across the developing world (and the developed world as well). There has been little or no scenario analysis of the macro-economic impact of pandemics on public finances, debt, and growth scenarios of low- and middle-income countries. Consequently, countries did not build up fiscal buffers (fiscal savings) and foreign exchange reserves to draw upon in such crises. We are now seeing the results unfolding.
Arnaldo – I am wondering whether, when a government decides to invest and use foresight analysis to inform strategic policy decisions, it is a sign of a shift in governance attitudes and approaches. It seems to be that investing in predicting the main trends over 30 to 50 years signals acceptance that the systems in which we operate are complete and interconnected, and that addressing public policy problems requires testing and experimenting with solutions. In doing so, we need some sense of where the work and society is moving. This is very different, has noted Paul Cairney, from the linear and rational view of policy making that is a key part of the post-war public policy systems in place today.
Tony – Institutions and think tanks. I don’t think most government departments will have sufficient breadth of disciplinary background, nor the independence to consider unpalatable futures that would lead to questioning of the current policy stance. Governments in the developed world increasingly claim to base policy on evidence. ‘Evidence-based policy’ has been the big mantra of recent years, but I think this has been quite limited in scope and impact within government: the biggest decisions are often the product of political calculation. The United Kingdom over the last decade is a prime example of that.
Fundamentally, development studies and development policy as practiced and preached by the community of development practitioners is way too optimistic. It is essentially an ‘enlightenment’ project, believing that with enough shared good sense and commitment the world can reach some kind of nirvana in which poverty is ended everywhere, and all good things come to pass. But the success of nations is highly contingent on trends that are not necessarily within their control. If future studies is to have a role in the development space, then it needs to be given a mandate to consider the darker side of development as it establishes scenarios for the future.
Elina – Absolutely. I believe it is starting to loom that the challenges societies are facing are so complex in nature that it is simply impossible to find solutions with linear thinking. However, it is not an easy transformation and it also means that many institutions, such as parties and public policy institutions, must find new ways to operate with these challenges, and conduct research and experimentation. I think part of the problems that western governments are facing today, with difficulties in executing policies efficiently or even forming a government are symptoms of this complexity. But I want to be an optimist and believe that solutions will be found, that in development policy one of the greatest opportunities lies in the potential to develop new solutions for new generations that do not have the same path dependencies that western countries from the previous industrial era have. I think we will see lots of future-oriented policies invented in countries with young populations who have the ability to look boldly to the future.
My recent report on research cooperation in Somalia finds that the system-wide damage to higher education caused by conflict can only be addressed through systems thinking and collective effort. This is even more relevant during the Covid-19 pandemic, which is challenging governments’ capabilities to respond through a whole of government approach. Lessons from Somalia could also be applied to other conflict-affected countries looking to rebuild their higher education systems.
The politics of higher education in Somalia
Higher education was in a state of near collapse following the Somali Civil War (1988-2004), and it’s still affected by insecurity in some parts of the country to this day. Yet, unusually for a conflict-affected country, the number of universities in Somalia has also boomed since the mid-2000s.
The exact number of universities in the country is unknown. Officially registered institutions with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Higher Education in Mogadishu number 76, while others point to more than 100. Our own study compiles an unofficial list of 126 private universities, far outstripping Somalia’s larger neighbours Kenya, which has 58, and Ethiopia with 36.
The fact that higher education is not regulated in Somalia is key to explaining this boom. The Higher Education Act designed to remedy this has been in stuck in Parliament for over two years. This means that local state governments overseeing higher education institutions do so without an overarching legal framework.
Our study finds that Somaliland is the only state-level government to pass a law which spells out the requirements for university registration. This near total absence of regulation means that it is relatively easy to open a ‘university,’ while national and local authorities have limited powers and capacity to monitor and enforce quality standards in teaching and research.
Only two out of Somalia’s six federal states (Somaliland and Puntland) have carried on with ambitious plans for higher education with support from development partners and INGOs. The system continues to face multiple, complex challenges.
The challenges facing Somalia’s higher education system
As Somalia’s higher education system re-emerged, some (mainly private) universities began investing in research and research training. These institutions face several challenges, including very few or no staff with PhDs (our study finds just 9% of academic staff hold PhDs), and research publications that fail to contribute to career progression.
Female researchers face heightened barriers linked to insecurity on campuses, while culturally a career in research is often deemed inappropriate for women.
Government agencies also fail to prioritise policy research, and as a result almost all research is driven by development partners.
This is also reflected in the main challenge facing the system – financial resources. Money is scarce and the sector is heavily dependent on international donors, who contributed 45% of the total federal budget in 2019.
‘Wicked hard’ problems and ways forward
The problems detailed above and the many others facing Somalia’s higher education system are considered ‘wicked hard’ problems. This means they are logistically complex, interlinked, politically contentious, and most have no known solution.
Single point solutions have limited impact on a system dogged by wicked hard problems. They provide temporary, lone answers in one area of the system that can cause problems to pop up or persist elsewhere in the system. Wicked problems require an approach that tests innovative solutions in parallel across different parts of the system and at different administrative levels.
NGOs like the Somali-Swedish Researchers’ Association organise student exchange programmes, research collaboration and mentoring support. They are worthwhile initiatives that have shown to improve the research skills of the students they involved. However, they address only a set of problems in the higher education system.
Such initiatives could be complemented by other experiments on interlinked problems elsewhere in the system. For example:
Strengthening the capabilities of state-level Higher Education Commissions;
Addressing regulatory inconsistencies on university accreditation and teaching quality;
At the same time, overcoming political blockages to the Higher Education Act and encouraging policy-makers to use research to inform decisions.
While no single development partner has the resources to address all of the system’s many problems, development partners and the federal and state governments could discuss ways to shift from single projects to designing a portfolio of connected innovations and experiments that learn from each other and that together contribute to transform the higher education system in Somalia.
Just as war and conflict has a systemic impact on higher education, the effort to rebuild post-conflict higher education systems in Somalia (and elsewhere) requires the system-wide reboot students and academics deserve.
In a recent blog, I discussed with Jordi del Bas what it meant to evaluate innovation. My main takeaways from the conversation with Jordi were that when evaluating innovation it is important “to generate evidence of whether innovative solutions work, how and why, so that they can go beyond a pilot and be scaled up to maximize their positive impact”. The OECD Development Aid Committee (DAC) evaluation criteria are not well suited to initiatives that test innovation, as they fit initiatives that are built on a reasonable degree of certainty, predictability and control.
Talking with Jordi helped me to better understand the gap that exists between the established OECD DAC evaluation criteria of efficiency, effectiveness and impact, and criteria that better fit with and evaluate the experimentation of innovative solutions to social problems: criteria such as feasibility, desirability, viability, acceptability, usability and scalability. When evaluating innovation, it is first and foremost important to assess the learning that designing, testing and adjusting the innovation has generated versus whether the innovation achieved its planned objectives and goals.
I wanted to continue exploring this gap. What interests me is that this gap is not simply about evaluative tools and methods, but it is almost philosophical; it is about the principles, values and viewpoints, as noted by Gunnar Myrdal, that shape our idea of development.
I met Petri Uusikylä last winter at a presentation on monitoring, evaluation and learning, organized by Fingo in Helsinki. My Overseas Development Institute colleague Tiina Pasanen was presenting her work on monitoring and evaluating adaptive programmes. During the Q&A session I learned that Petri had worked in the area of evaluation for several years and that some years ago he took a strong interest in complexity and systems thinking. I reached out to him to learn more about how his interest in complexity had evolved and how it influences his view of evaluating development and social change.
Arnaldo Pellini – Tell me about your background and your evaluation work in international development
Petri Uusikylä – I have been doing evaluations, performance audits and capacity building in the international development context for 15 years. I have a background in political science and experience in teaching political theory, research methods and European policymaking at the University of Helsinki in the late 1990s. After that I worked at the Ministry of Finance as a senior advisor, and for the last 10 years I have been working as a public policy consultant, EU Twinning advisor and government public policy advisor. I was one of the founders of the Finnish Evaluation Society in 1999, and I am one of its board members. In the 2000s I worked on traditional policy and programme evaluations for about 10 years. In most cases, I worked with the OECD DAC evaluation criteria which I know very well.
AP – Tell me about your interest in complexity and systems thinking, and your research
PU – I have been interested in social network analysis for a long time. It started when I worked at the Political Science Department at the University of Helsinki between 1991 and 1997. That was during the early days of the Internet, before Facebook and other social networking platforms emerged. It was difficult at that time to analyse relational data. There was very little software to do that and it was not very good. In the team I was involved with, we adopted a trial and error approach to social network analysis, which led to some interesting results that we described in a book we published in 1999 called, The Network Society (Verkostoyhteiskunta: käytännön johdatus verkostoanalyysiin).
I worked on traditional policy and programme evaluation for about 10 years after that. I learned and applied the OECD DAC evaluation criteria in policy evaluation, programmed evaluation and project evaluations. They were guiding my work – the questions I was asking and the evidence I was gathering. They always felt a bit too mechanical for the kind of initiatives I was evaluating, but they were widely used and I could not think of alternatives.
In the autumn of 2014, I remember reading Ben Ramalingam’s Aid at the Edge of Chaos. I was taken aback. It was by far the most brilliant book on international development I had ever read. It felt to me that Ben Ramalingam had put into words many of my thoughts and ideas about development and the evaluation of development initiatives.
Aid at the Edge of Chaos introduced me to the notion that cutting-edge ideas from complex science can be applied to the social, economic and political issues in development, and that those new ideas can also contribute to transforming the way international development works.
Soon after reading Ramalingam’s book, I applied some of its ideas to two evaluations: one for the Finnish Red Cross and one for the Innovation Partnership Program between Finland and Vietnam. The terms of reference for these evaluations required me and the team to follow the OECD DAC criteria, which we did. But we also managed to persuade the clients (Finnish Red Cross and the Ministry or Foreign Affairs) that we could complement the OCED by testing new systems evaluation methods. In the end it all worked out well and helped me to continue exploring the ideas of complexity science and how to apply them to development and evaluation work.
AP – What do you think evaluations capture and what do they miss in the way they are normally carried out?
PU – There has been an enormous growth in the overall evaluation landscape regarding the institutionalization of evaluation in the last decades. There is a new comparative study of the institutionalization of evaluation in Europe in which I was honoured to be one of the authors for the Finnish chapter. Finland compares well in most of these areas. According to this study, Finland is above average in the institutionalization of evaluation in its political and social systems, but lacks the procedures to utilise evaluation finding in political decision-making.
When it comes to the evaluation methodology, current evaluation approaches are rather static in applying mechanistic and linear causal logic, and often rely on rigid, a priori, defined evaluation criteria and methods. Thus, they are not suitable for understanding reasonably complicated or complex policy phenomena. My doctoral thesis last year was on the systems evaluation approach that relies heavily on systems thinking and complexity theories and utilizes systemic evaluation designs derived from these theories. Developmental evaluations, systemic models, social network analysis and the theory of change are examples of this approach. I also suggested that evaluators should adopt a more active role as knowledge brokers and policy interpreters between governments and citizens. This would make it easier for citizens to understand the complex regulatory and policymaking environment, and thus to support the development of an open and democratic society.
AP – How do you see the public sector, of which international development is an element, working with complexity and systems thinking?
PU – In the last 25 years, governance systems have changed. In my opinion, in western democracies hierarchical top-down governance structures are being slowly replaced by more bottom-up, collaborative, networked governance systems and capabilities.
Having said this, I am unsure as to whether governance systems have transformed sufficiently to tackle the wicked problems that are part of our interconnected societies and whether the evaluation methods and approaches which are used to assess the impact of public policies have evolved to meet the needs of new systems of governance.
The governance and leadership systems have to be agile to address and adapt to complex changes. Old management models based on best practices will not be sufficient to achieve success in public sector management. As my colleagues Petri Virtanen and Jari Kaivo-oja stated: “These changes are likely to be so challenging and pervasive that in some countries they go beyond the existing governance capabilities and will result in state failure.”
In a near future, there will be more need to strengthen and increase linkages and collaboration between state and non-state actors to address complex challenges such as inequality, climate change, and the pandemic we are experiencing today.
In a book I co-edited with Dr. Hanna Lehtimäki and Dr. Smedlund entitled Society as an Interaction Space, we present some new perspectives on these linkages which we call relational dynamics between governments, companies, and citizens. In doing so, we merge insights from public service science, political science, institutional logics and value co-creation.
I am currently working in collaboration with MDI Public, the University of Vaasa and Demos Helsinki on a project commissioned by the Prime Minister´s Office and some line ministries to develop a new systems governance model for Finland. As part of this study, we are benchmarking development in systems thinking in the United Kingdom, Denmark, Canada and Singapore. This study is aimed to be completed in spring 2021.
AP – Tell me about your work with the University of Vaasa and your plans to have a research centre on complexity
PU – I started as a research director at the Complexity Research Group at the University of Vaasa this April. The university has built a strong research profile in the field of governance and complexity thinking over the past 10 years. The newly established Complexity Research Group (Kompleksisuustutkimuksen ryhmä) will start using complexity science in various domains to identify, map and better understand wicked problems in areas such as climate change, energy, public administration, anticipatory governance and so on.
With the help of complexity lenses and through cross-fertilization of findings from various disciplines, the research group is committed to exploring new niches within systems leadership and beyond. I am honoured to join the great team of complexity researchers. My aim as a research director is to bring a strong international and global context to the complexity research carried out at the University of Vaasa in the future.
[I am sharing here a blogpost I have written with Vanesa Weyrauch which was published in March 2018 on on Helvetas Mosaic]
It is easy to get carried away with the promises of technology when we read about the Fourth Industrial Revolution, or 4IR.
In an earlier Mosaic article, Knowledge Systems and Policy Innovation in the 4IR, we wrote that, according to the World Economic Forum there is a good chance that by 2025 we will have: 1 trillion sensors connected to the internet; the first 3D printed car in production; the first government replacing the census with big-data sources and analytics; and artificial intelligence performing 30 percent of the corporate audits in the world. Jamie Susskind describes the mind-boggling possibilities offered by nanotechnology, with nanorobots able to swim through our bodies delivering targeted drugs, or the staggering increase in the number of people connected to the Internet, from 400 million in 2000 to an expected 4.6 billion by 2021. He writes that we are entering “a digital lifeworld characterized by machines that are equal or superior to humans in a range of tasks and activities; technology that is embedded in the physical environment in which we live; and digital technology that more and more records human activities as data and processes it through digital systems”.
There are risks of course, for example David Wallace-Wells writes: “Five years ago, hardly anyone outside the darkest corners of the internet had even heard of bitcoin; today, mining it consumes more electricity than is generated by all the world’s solar panels combined, which means that in just a few years we’ve assembled a program to wipe out the gains of several long, hard generations of green energy innovation.” Another example is OpenAI, the Elon Musk-backed non-profit set up to responsibly push the boundaries of what is possible with artificial intelligence. It has developed an AI system which generates coherent paragraphs of literary or news text (go to 19’45” of the podcast) which is so sophisticated that OpenAI has decided not to release it fully to the public because of the real risk that in the wrong hands it could generate very plausible fake news, spam or reviews.
Reading about technologies of the future gives the impression that the technological changes we are witnessing have a life on their own. They promise a bright future of efficient production and an economic growth path that is at last within the natural limits of our planet. As argues by Susskind, these technologies are not exogenous forces over which we have no control. There are people behind these technologies and governments will need to strengthen leadership and develop human capital so that they are able to govern the techno-digital transformation in a way that leaves no one behind.
The challenge for results-based management approaches
In our discussion paper, State Capability and Policymaking in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we argue that the challenge for government as we approach the 4IR is to keep up with the pace of change and understand the likely social and economic impact of technological innovation to be able to regulate it. This represents a huge challenge for middle and low income countries, since policymakers are expected to resolve interdependent policy challenges that imply a high degree of uncertainty while facing significant capability and institutional barriers such as for example limited budgets, decision-making processes organized in silos, weak IT and knowledge management structures, and low investment in evidence generation.
At the same time, the technological changes that are emerging will change the way governments work and policies are decided. Processes that investigate specific problems, design the necessary policies and regulatory frameworks, and deploy them through top-down systems will struggle in this new technology-driven context facing increasing disruption. In the near future, government institutions will have to adopt policies that govern techno-digital transformation by testing technologies and experimenting to ensure they benefit their citizens on the whole, while trying to avoid intensifying inequalities. Agile forms of government will be needed to help regulators and legislators continuously adapt to a new fast-changing social and economic environment, without stifling innovation. This is likely to challenge the role of central government agencies as local institutions may be quicker in adopting and using new technologies and interacting with citizens. Policymaking and decision making are likely to become more decentralized and concentrated in new areas called mega-regions, which combine cities and metro areas and are increasingly powering today’s world economy.
This poses a challenge to the way today’s development initiatives, particularly around governance reforms and public policy, are designed, planned and implemented. Pablo Yanguas, in his Why We Lie About Aid, writes that everyone involved in public policy knows that definitive results are rare, and yet the vast majority of development initiatives are designed to follow a linear results-based logic of input-output-outcome-impact. Most of the evaluations commissioned today by development partners and implementing organizations are asked to verify this results chain.
If we accept that governance systems will fundamentally change as we enter the 4IR and that governments have to start preparing today, then we may need to rethink the way we design and implement development initiatives. This is particularly true for initiatives that aim to support the development of leadership and human capital capabilities of future generations of civil servants, policymakers and researchers to drive these processes.
What are the implications for development programming?
Program design: The emerging literature on adaptive development provides some interesting ideas about how programs can be more open to the uncertainty of outcomes and results, and how to build a more experimental approach into governance initiatives that will increasingly deal with it. The suggestions are to invest time and resources into developing relationships with local partners and discovering common interests around problems. Digital technologies and platforms can help with that. This can help focus on solving problems that are owned, debated and defined by local stakeholders and partners, and which are not predefined. In some cases it can be about identity solutions (also called positive deviances) that partners have been able to develop despite bureaucratic constraints they face daily, and which document and support those initiatives.
Investing in acquiring a good knowledge of the political economy of the space and context in which the development initiative operates can help to design policy solutions that are politically feasible and not just technically sound. To do so, it is important to work with local innovation leaders committed to testing new governance solutions. These are individuals whose leadership is not a side effect of their position in a formal hierarchy (e.g. their job title), but rather a side effect of the respect, appreciation and trust they receive from their peers as well as being lifelong learners, a fundamental skill required by the pace and depth of changes in the 4IR.
Program implementation: test new forms of knowledge co-production to inform governance innovation and policy experiments through greater access to and use of digital technologies to link a wider range of stakeholders as we suggest through the knowledge system pentagram in our paper. Linking, for example, researchers from universities with policy research organizations; or professional knowledge by technical experts and civil servants with citizen knowledge. Through an experimental approach the need for blending different forms of knowledge and apply a more interdisciplinary approach to knowledge generation becomes more prominent. So does the need to develop physical and digital spaces for collaboration that enable testing of solutions, learning, and building on what works while dropping solutions that do not. Program funders can support this adaptive process by allowing a space for experimentation, acceptance that some experiments may fail, and investments in learning to help decide on which solutions to support.
Program teams: An experimental and politically informed program implementation approach requires a program team with the capacity and skills to do this. This involves either finding individuals with experience in adaptive management, demonstrated capacity to understand and collaborate with local leadership, and the ability to support experimental approaches, or investing the necessary financial resources and time in building skills and knowledge within the team and providing them with the space required to maximize the experience they bring with them.
Impact, replication and scaling up: Every development program is under pressure to replicate and scale up sustainable approaches and solutions. But what does sustainability and scaling up mean for a program adopting adaptive and experimental approaches to testing solutions? Replication and scaling up can refer to the uptake of adaptive and experimental principles by government partners to explore the opportunities and challenges that new technologies bring to governance, social and economic systems. It can be useful to explore the opportunities provided by the principles of innovation diffusion, which state that innovation emerges through initiatives designed and implemented by a small number of innovators. The tested solutions are then gradually taken up by a group of early adopters, followed by a larger group of adopters. In this context, innovation leaders can be catalysts for change from within a policy community. The scaling up can be accompanied by investment in documenting the successes of the partners more than those of the project, even though the two may be interlinked. In our opinion, it is a subtle but important difference.
Governance and policymaking process will be different in the 4IR. They will rely more than today on digital technologies and in the co-production of new forms of knowledge, within areas that bridge innovation, research, higher education, and local and professional knowledge.
These changes will not emerge overnight, they will evolve incrementally. Governments have to start preparing today human and governance capabilities that will be required in this imminent future to take advantage of the changes that are emerging and minimize the possible negative outcomes. Similarly, project and programs aimed at collaborating with national governments to support these change processes will need to evolve their approaches to design, implementation, and evaluations of results. In this article we have provided some initial ideas on how to do so.