As the year comes to an end, it is only natural to ask what might lie ahead. However, instead of asking what might lie ahead next year, let us jump to mid-century. What will governance look like in 2050?
That is what the World Economic Forum (WEF) asked at a recent meeting in Dubai that focused on the future of governance under three potential scenarios arising from the ongoing information revolution. With that revolution already marginalizing some countries and communities — and creating new opportunities for others — the question could hardly be more timely.
The first scenario participants considered is a world ruled by so-called “megacities,” where governance is administered largely by major urban agglomerations. The second possibility is a world in which strong central governments use big data to fortify their control. In the third scenario, central governments are fundamentally weak, with markets — and the enterprises that dominate them — providing almost all services.
Each of these scenarios is an extrapolation of a current trend. While all of them could be beneficial in some respects, they also have features that, if left unchecked, could lead to dystopian outcomes. Policymakers should already be implementing policies aimed at guiding trends like urbanization, the rise of big data, and the grouping of people into narrow communities, often based on their relationship to the market.
The goal should be to take advantage of these trends’ potential benefits, while ensuring that they do not undermine other critical aspects of governance. For example, although megacities have the potential to create new opportunities for workers and businesses, they cannot solve universal problems like climate change or manage the production and protection of national and global public goods.
Likewise, while the use of big data has substantial problem-solving potential, important questions remain about who owns, controls and regulates the use of the data. The notion of a “datocracy” incites fear of an Orwellian “e-1984.” Indeed, the recent revelations about US National Security Agency surveillance programs barely scratch the surface of the issue. After all, the use of big data is not confined to governments and corporations; anonymous criminal groups can easily abuse the information, too.
Finally, while individual choice within markets is often the most efficient way to allocate resources, markets do not produce a sufficient supply of public goods. Indeed, there are some goods that the private sector is simply unable to provide. This system may seem acceptable to those within the “gated communities” that benefit from it, but what about all those left outside?
The WEF’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Government, of which I am a part, has considered ways in which information technology can improve governance and reduce feelings of alienation among the governed. The most effective initiatives, the council observed, often arise from partnerships between government and the private sector.
For example, in Kenya, a private company developed a mobile-payments system that allows users to transfer money using cellphones, effectively creating a banking system much more quickly than the government could have done. Once the system was privately created, the government was able to use it to provide additional services.