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Business - Written by on Sunday, June 8, 2008 10:41 - 0 Comments

Enabling the e-Society

How will policy-makers keep pace with today’s rapidly changing world and bring greater agility and dynamism to public responses to monumental challenges like climate change, food scarcity and the spread of infectious disease? How can citizens and others stakeholders feed their knowledge and experience into the policy cycle and how can policy-makers tap the collective ingenuity of society? Can we leverage the immense stores of increasingly granular and immediate data to build models and simulations that will accurately forecast the social and economic impacts of various policy options?

These are some of the issues that a group of experts and EU commissioners gathered to discuss in Brussels at the end of May. I was fortunate to be among the people that were selected to brief the European Commission, along with Andy Mulholland, CTO of CapGemini, Jeremy Millard of the Danish Technological Institute, and several others (I’m pictured below with Andy of CapGemini).


I came to deliver the gospel of wikinomics as it applies to the challenges of governance in the 21st century (see my presentation here), but I think it’s fair to say that wikinomics had already influenced their thinking. Here’s how David Broster, the EC’s head of e-government, described the policy-modeling challenge in his briefing paper:

It is now recognised that on-line collaborations have the potential to trigger and shape significant changes in the way future societies will function. Extrapolation of the present exponential growth leads to scenarios where very large percentages of populations could, if equipped with the right tools, simultaneously voice opinions and views on major and minor societal challenges, and thereby herald the transition to a different form of dynamically participative “eSociety”. While such scenarios are readily imaginable, it must be recognised that we currently do not have appropriate governance models, process flows, or analytical tools with which to properly understand, interpret, visualise and harness the forces that can be unleashed.

Much of the discussion focused on the tools and technologies that will be required to enable individuals, groups or society as a whole to forecast and understand the possible outcomes of government proposals, decisions and legislation. These tools include real-time opinion visualisation and simulation solutions based on modelling, simulation, visualization and mixed reality technologies, data and opinion mining, filtering and aggregation. They will also include translation technologies capable of enabling multi-lingual conversations in real-time.

As I argued in my presentation, however, the biggest challenges in building a participative e-Society will be political, not technological.

  1. Public agencies can no longer act as isolated policy-units in a world where complex transboundary issues will overwhelm their capacity to develop meaningful responses in a timely manner. Agencies will need an organizational disposition to seek out external ideas, skills and innovations and they will need to coordinate their efforts across jurisdictions and sectors. In other words, they need to embrace mass collaboration.
  2. The one-way broadcast model of political communications will need to be replaced by communications strategies that emphasize inclusion and outreach. Our highly educated and connected populations may be increasingly time-constrained, but I am fairly convinced that citizens can offer a great deal of insight if they are asked the right questions (e.g., they are selected to engage in issues areas where they have interest and expertise) and provided with appropriate tools that make it easy to contribute.
  3. Policy consultations will need clear targets and timing and must offer a genuine opportunity for influence. We should never ask the public to merely rubber stamp a preconceived plan.
  4. Engagements will also need trusted and inclusive public spaces — venues where citizens from diverse backgrounds and political persuasions can engage in dialogue. Digitally-enabled engagement should not merely amplify the voices and vested interests that are already overly-represented in policy-making. It will be the responsibility of elected officials to ensure that the principles of representative government are embodied in new forms of digital deliberation and decision-making.
  5. Finally, there are a host of non-governmental actors who wield increasing power and influence in today’s world and there is an argument that they too should be subject to greater democracy. A participative e-Society should arguably extend democratic principles into civil society, the markets, and international organizations



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