On reflection: Politics and tech

James Riley
Editorial Director

This is a good time of the year to reflect on our industry and its place in today’s society – not so much in respect of all of the important issues of the day, or from the year past, but on the broader developments in society in which our industry plays a key role and therefore bears responsibility.

Clearly we are living in socially turbulent times and also our industries reflect that. New technologies, especially those mentioned in the title of this article, have been disruptive in many aspects of our economy and society. And we won’t be able to put the genie back in the bottle.

However it is, in fact, not necessary to do this, as all of these technologies can be used in one way or another for the betterment of society. Nevertheless we do need to learn from mistakes and unwanted consequences and make changes where necessary.

Technological developments are affecting the politics, the economy and many cultural aspects of our lives; and this impact is coinciding with a period of great turbulence in other areas such as climate change, populism, migration, refugees, population growth, energy issues, trade and cyber wars.

These are periods where change happens rather quickly, and we are now experiencing how, in the absence of the right leadership, things can easily get out of hand.

And history shows us that this can lead to wars and revolutions. But it can also lead to economic growth and massive progress in all elements of science, education and healthcare, a decrease in global poverty and so on.

With the right leadership good things will happen; with the wrong leadership bad things will happen.

At the moment it seems that good leadership is hard to find; good leaders are able in a positive way to engineer consent in relation to the above mentioned critical areas of our society such as, for instance, climate change (consent implying that action will follow after first obtaining consensus).

While in relation to leadership it looks like the era of ‘great men’ might be over perhaps ‘great women’ can step up here. I strongly believe that women are instrumental in engineering new forms of leadership (social capitalism).

The internet has also given us a range of extra tools that allow us to take leadership at different (lower) levels and the results of this are evident – especially in local communities, local organisations, associations, etc.

Also, a whole new group of respectable independent journalists are now far more accessible than ever before, working against partisan mass media, vested interests and fake news.

What will be interesting is whether the lack of good quality leadership at national levels can to any degree be compensated for by new and different levels of leadership.

I would think that the signs are encouraging. True, we also see a negative use of technology (fake news, undermining of democracies) but I think that as democratic societies we will be able to tackle this. Despite damage done to some of our democratic institutions, they are still standing up and doing their job.

Technology is key in addressing and solving some of the big issues of our time, but technology is only a tool. It requires people to use them for the betterment of society, and this again requires positive leadership to engineer consent among its constituents.

The major problem in western society is that a large section of our society feels left behind (perceived or real – again a question of how leadership handles this).

This is making it far more difficult to generate consent on many of the other (bigger) issues, as well as making it far more difficult to use the technical tools we have to assist in addressing and solving those issues.

If we tell the right story and ask the right questions, obtaining consent on these issues will be much easier to achieve. The current leadership, however, sees more benefit in telling the wrong stories, asking the wrong questions, coming up with fake news and actively fighting against consent – because all of this helps to maintain the inequality it thrives on, and which delivers them the votes of the disenfranchised and angry people responding to populism.

The solution to addressing inequality is not abandoning the social and economic structures that have brought us this far. With a lifestyle across the world that is better than the one that existed 50 years or so ago reducing wealth is not the aim, since we need the money to fund the solutions we are seeking.

We need to increase wealth, but at the same we need to develop a much better sharing system.

With all the problems we see around us (Trump, Brexit, Putin, China, France, populism, jingoism), it is clear that leadership so far has failed to address the issues from the top down.

Nevertheless I do still believe that we need to try, through our democratic processes, to make changes at that level in order to achieve leadership that can create consent.

At the same time, we now see leadership from the bottom – demonstrations and riots but also more young people voting, more women taking a larger part in politics, etc. This bottom-up approach can also be used to engineer better leadership at the top.

In my smart city work I try to convince cities to take a larger role in policy-making. They can engineer this through collaboration between cities and thus create political power that can be used to put pressure on national leadership levels.

In the local government arena there is already a far greater level of consent. This can be harnessed and if it is put together it can create a significant force.

I am working with a group of cities in Australia to create such leadership. Not easy, and it will take time; and a downward shift of political and financial power towards the cities must be a key long-term outcome.

So yes, there are many unknowns regarding the political, economic and cultural effects of the massive connectivity, communications, surveillance and data analysis capabilities.

But at the same time I do know that we can use them to our advantage. As a matter of fact many people are already doing this in the political, economic, and cultural groups in which they are involved.

And what makes all of this even more relevant to many of the people who are reading this is the fact that our industries are at least partly in the driver’s seat of many of the connectivity, communications, surveillance and data analysis issues – or at least we can be heard and may be able to influence the process.

Despite the risks and uncertainties I strongly believe that humankind can make changes for the better. I also realise that it is a very messy undertaking, with a lot of muddling-on and juggling of a complex range of issues, all at the same time.

So, it will be our task in 2019 and beyond to continue to work towards these goals. Smart cities can take on a leadership role here, and I will be on the sidelines cheering them on. And the ICT industry has a key role to play in all of this, through collaboration and by putting society first.

For those of you celebrating Christmas, I wish you and your families and friends a Merry Christmas, and to you all the very best for the New Year.

Paul Budde is chief executive officer at Paul Budde Consulting. This article originally appeared as a Chrismas blog at PaulBudde.com.

Do you know more? Contact James Riley via Email.

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