FWD50 Keynote: The Tipping Point

I was invited to an incredible and inaugural conference in Canada called FWD50 which was looking at the next 50 days, months and years for society. It had a digital government flavour to it but had participants and content from various international, national and sub-national governments, civil society, academia, industry and advocacy groups. The diversity of voices in the room was good and the organisers committed to greater diversity next year. I gave my keynote as an independent expert and my goal was to get people thinking bigger than websites and mobile apps, to dream about the sort of future we want as a society (as a species!) and work towards that. As part of my talk I also explored what the big paradigm shifts have happened (note the past tense) and potential roles for government (particularly the public sector) in a hyper connected, distributed network of powerful individuals. My slides are available here (simple though they are). It wasn’t recorded but I did an audio recording and transcribed. I was unwell and had lost my voice so this is probably better anyway :)

The tipping point and where do we go from here

I’ve been thinking a lot over many years about change and the difference between iteration and transformation, about systems, about what is going on in the big picture, because what I’m seeing around the world is a lot of people iterating away from pain but not actually iterating towards a future. Looking for ways to solve the current problem but not rethinking or reframing in the current context. I want to talk to you about the tipping point.

We invented all of this. This is worth taking a moment to think. We invented every system, every government, every means of production, we organised ourselves into structures and companies, all the things we know, we invented. By understanding we invented we can embrace the notice we aren’t stuck with it. A lot of people start from the normative perspective that it is how it is and how do we improve it slightly but we don’t have to be constrained to assumption because *we* invented it. We can take a formative approach.

The reason this is important is because the world has fundamentally changed. The world has started from a lot of assumptions. This (slide) is a map of the world as it was known at the time, and it was known for a long time to be flat. And at some point it became known that the world was not flat and people had to change their perspective. If we don’t challenge those assumptions that underpin our systems, we run the significant risk of recreating the past with shiny new things. If we take whatever the shiny thing is today, like blockchain or social media 10 years ago, and take that shiny thing to do what we have always done, then how are we progressing? We are just “lifting and shifting” as they like to say, which as a technologist is almost the worst thing I can hear.

Actually understanding the assumptions that underpin what we do, understanding the goal that we have and what we are trying to achieve, and actually having to make sure that we intentionally choose to move forward with the assumptions that we want to take into the future is important because a lot of the biases and assumptions that underpin the systems that we have today were forged centuries or even millennia ago. A long time before the significant paradigm shifts we have seen.

So I’m going to talk a little bit about how things have changed. It’s not that the tipping point is happening. The tipping point has already happened. We have seen paradigm shifts with legacy systems of power and control. Individuals are more individually powerful than ever in the history of our species. If you think way back in hunter and gatherer times, everyone was individually pretty powerful then, but it didn’t scale. When we moved to cities we actually started to highly specialise and become interdependent and individually less powerful because we made these systems of control that were necessary to manage the surplus of resource, necessary to manage information. But what’s happened now through the independence movements creating a culture of everyone being individually powerful through individual worthy of rights, and then more recently with the internet becoming a distributor, enabler and catalyst of that, we are now seeing power massively distributed.

Think about it. Any individual around the world that can get online, admittedly that’s only two thirds of us but it’s growing every day, and everyone has the power to publish, to create, to share, to collaborate, to collude, to monitor. It’s not just the state monitoring the people but the people monitoring the state and people monitoring other people. There is the power to enforce your own perspective. And it doesn’t actually matter whether you think it’s a good or bad thing, it is the reality. It’s the shift. And if we don’t learn to embrace, understand and participate in it,particularly in government, then we actually make ourselves less relevant. Because one of the main things about this distribution of power, that the internet has taught us fundamentally as part of our culture that we have all started to adopt, is that you can route around damage. The internet was set up to be able to route around damage where damage was physical or technical. We started to internalise that socially and if you, in government, are seen to be damage, then people route around you. This is why we have to learn to work as a node in a network, not just a king in a castle, because kings don’t last anymore.

So which way is forward. The priority now needs to be deciding what sort of future do we want. Not what sort of past do we want to escape. The 21st century sees many communities emerging. They are hyper connected, transnational, multicultural, heavily interdependent, heavily specialised, rapidly changing and disconnected from their geopolitical roots. Some people see that as a reason to move away from having geopolitically formed states. Personally I believe there will always be a role for a geographic state because I need a way to scale a quality of life for my family along with my fellow citizens and neighbours. But what does that mean in an international sense. Are my rights as a human being being realised in a transnational sense. There are some really interesting questions about the needs of users beyond the individual services that we deliver, particularly when you look in a transnational way.

So a lot of these assumptions have become like a rusty anchor that kept us in place in high tide, but are drawing us to a dangerous reef as to water lowers. We need to figure out how to float on the water without rusty anchors to adapt to the tides of change.

There are a lot of pressures that are driving these changes of course. We are all feeling those pressures, those of us that are working in government. There’s the pressure of changing expectations, of history, from politics and the power shift. The pressure of the role of government in the 21st century. Pressure is a wonderful thing as it can be a catalyst of change, so we shouldn’t shy away from pressure, but recognising that we’re under pressure is important.

So let’s explore some of those power shifts and then what role could government play moving forward.

Paradigm #1: central to distributed. This is about that shift in power, the independence movements and the internet. It is something people talk about but don’t necessarily apply to their work. Governments will talk about wanting to take a more distributed approach but followup with setting up “my” website expecting everyone to join or do something. How about everyone come to “my” office or create “my” own lab. Distributed, when you start to really internalise what that means, if different. I was lucky as I forged a lot of my assumptions and habits of working when I was involved in the Open Source community, and the Open Source community has a lot of lessons for rest of society because it is on the bleeding edge of a lot of these paradigm shifts. So working in a distributed way is to assume that you are not at the centre, to assume that you’re not needed. To assume that if you make yourself useful that people will rely on you, but also to assume that you rely on others and to build what you do in a way that strengthens the whole system. I like to talk about it as “Gov as a Platform”, sometimes that is confusing to people so let’s talk about it as “Gov as an enabler”. It’s not just government as a central command and controller anymore because the moment you create a choke point, people route around it. How do we become a government as an enabler of good things, and how can we use other mechanisms to create the controls in society. Rather than try to protect people from themselves, why not enable people to protect themselves. There are so many natural motivations in the community, in industry, in the broader sector that we serve, that we can tap into but traditionally we haven’t. Because traditionally we saw ourselves as the enforcer, as the one to many choke point. So working in a distributed way is not just about talking the talk, it’s about integrated it into the way we think.

Some other aspects of this include localised to globalised, keeping in mind that large multinational companies have become quite good at jurisdiction shopping for improvements of profits, which you can’t say is either a good or bad thing, it’s just a natural thing and how they’re naturally motivated. But citizens are increasingly starting to jurisdiction shop too. So I would suggest a role for government in the 21st century would be to create the best possible quality of life for people, because then you’ll attract the best from around the world.

The second part of central to distributed is simple to complex. I have this curve (on the slide) which shows green as complexity and red as government’s response to user needs. The green climbs exponentially whilst the red is pretty linear, with small increases or decreases over time, but not an exponential response by any means. Individual needs are no longer heavily localised. They are subject to local, national, transnational complexities with every extra complexity compounded, not linear. So the increasing complexities in people’s lives, and the obligations, taxation, services and entitlements, everything is going up. So there is a delta forming between what government can directly do, and what people need. So again I contend that the opportunity here particularly for the public sector is to actually be an enabler for all those service intermediaries – the for profit, non profit, civic tech – to help them help themselves, help them help their customers, by merit of making government a platform upon which they can build. We’ve had a habit and a history of creating public infrastructure, particularly in Australia, in New Zealand, in Canada, we’re been very good at building public infrastructure. Why have we not focused on digital infrastructure? Why do we see digital infrastructure as something that has to be cost recovered to be sustainable when we don’t have to do cost recovery for every thing public road. I think that looking at the cost benefits and value creation of digital public infrastructure needs to be looks at in the same way, and we need to start investing in digital public infrastructure.

Next paradigm shift, analog to digital, or slow to very fast. I like to joke that we use lawyers as modems. If you think about regulation and policy, we write it, it is translated by a lawyer or drafter into regulation or policy, it is then translated by a lawyer or drafter or anyone into operational systems, business systems, helpdesk systems or other systems in society. Why wouldn’t we make our regulation as code? The intent of our regulation and our legislative regimes available to be directly consumed (by the systems) so that we can actually speed up, automate, improve consistency of application through the system, and have a feedback loop to understand whether policy changes are having the intended policy effect.

There are so many great things we can do when we start thinking about digital as something new, not just digitising an analog process. Innovation too long was interpreted as a digitisation of a process, basic process improvements. But real digitisation should a a transformation where you are changing the thing to better achieve the purpose or intent.

The next paradigm is scarcity to surplus. I think this is critical. We have a lot of assumptions in our systems that assume scarcity. Why do we still have so many of our systems assume scarcity when surplus is the opportunity. Between 3D printing and nanotech, we could be deconstructing and reconstructing new materials to print into goods and food and yet a large inhibitor of 3D printing progress is copyright. So the question I have for you is do we care more about an 18h century business model or do we care about solving the problems of our society. We need to make these choices. If we have moved to an era of surplus but we are getting increasing inequality, perhaps the systems of distribution are problematic? Perhaps in assuming scarcity we are protecting scarcity for the few at the cost of the many.

Next paradigm is normative to formative, “please comply”. For the last hundred years in particular we have perfected the art of broadcasting images of normal into our houses, particularly with radio and television. We have the concept of set a standard or rule and if you don’t follow we’ll punish you, so a lot of culture is about compliance in society. Compliance is important for stability, but blind compliance can create millstones. A formative paradigm is about not saying how it is but in exploring where you want to go. In the public service we are particularly good at compliance culture but I suggest that if we got more people thinking formatively, not just change for changes sake, but bringing people together on their genuinely shared purpose of serving the public, then we might be able to take a more formative approach to doing the work we do for the betterment of society rather than ticking the box because it is the process we have to follow. Formative takes us away from being consumers and towards being makers. As an example, the most basic form of normative human behaviour is in how we see and conform to being human. You are either normal, or you are not, based on some externally projected vision of normal. But the internet has shown us that no one is normal. So embracing that it is through our difference we are more powerful and able to adapt is an important part of our story and culture moving forward. If we are confident to be formative, we can always trying to create a better world whilst applying a critical eye to compliance so we don’t comply for compliance sake.

Now on the back of these paradigm shifts, I’d like to briefly about the future. I spoke about the opportunity through surplus with 3D printing and nanotech to address poverty and hunger. What about the opportunities of rockets for domestic travel? It takes half an hour to get into space, an hour to traverse the world and half an hour down which means domestic retail transport by rocket is being developed right now which means I could go from New Zealand to Canada to work for the day and be home for tea. That shift is going to be enormous in so many ways and it could drive real changes in how we see work and internationalism. How many people remember Total Recall? The right hand picture is a self driving car from a movie in the 90s and is becoming normal now. Interesting fact, some of the car designs will tint the windows when they go through intersections because the passengers are deeply uncomfortable with the speed and closeness of self driving cars which can miss each other very narrowly compared to human driving. Obviously there are opportunities around AI, bots and automation but I think where it gets interesting when we think about opportunities of the future of work. We are still working on industrial assumptions that the number of hours that we have is a scarcity paradigm and I have to sell the number of hours that I work, 40, 50, 60 hours. Why wouldn’t we work 20 hours a week at a higher rate to meet our basic needs? Why wouldn’t we have 1 or 2 days a week where we could contribute to our civic duties, or art, or education. Perhaps we could jump start an inclusive renaissance, and I don’t mean cat pictures. People can’t thrive if they’re struggling to survive and yet we keep putting pressure on people just to survive. Again, we are from countries with quite strong safety nets but even those safety nets put huge pressure, paperwork and bureaucracy on our most vulnerable just to meet their basic needs. Often the process of getting access to the services and entitlements is so hard and traumatic that they can’t, so how do we close that gap so all our citizens can move from survival to thriving.

The last picture is a bit cheeky. A science fiction author William Gibson wrote Johnny Pneumonic and has a character in that book called Jones, a cyborg dolphin to sniff our underwater mines in warfare. Very dark, but the interesting concept there is in how Jones was received after the war: “he was more than a dolphin, but from another dolphin’s point of view he might have seemed like something less.” What does it mean to be human? If I lose a leg, right now it is assumed I need to replace that leg to be somehow “whole”. What if I want 4 legs. The human brain is able to adapt to new input. I knew a woman who got a small sphere filled with mercury and a free floating magnet in her finger, and the magnet spins according to frequency and she found over a short period of time she was able to detect changes in frequency. Why is that cool and interesting? Because the brain can adapt to foreign, non evolved input. I think that is mind blowing. We have the opportunity to augment our selves not to just conform to normal or be slightly better, faster humans. But we can actually change what it means to be human altogether. I think this will be one of the next big social challenges for society but because we are naturally so attracted to “shiny”, I think that discomfort will pass within a couple of generations. One prediction is that the normal Olympics has become boring and that we will move into a transhuman olympics where we take the leash off and explore the 100m sprint with rockets, or judo with cyborgs. Where the interest goes, the sponsorship goes, and more professional athletes compete. And what’s going to happen if your child says they want to be a professional transhuman olympian and that they will add wings or remove their legs for their professional career, to add them (or not) later? That’s a bit scary for many but at the same time, it’s very interesting. And it’s ok to be uncomfortable, it’s ok to look at change, be uncomfortable and ask yourself “why am I uncomfortable?” rather than just pushing back on discomfort. It’s critical more than ever, particularly in the public service that we get away from this dualistic good or bad, in or out, yours or mine and start embracing the grey.

So what’s the role of government in all this, in the future. Again these are just some thoughts, a conversation starter.

I think one of our roles is to ensure that individuals have the ability to thrive. Now I acknowledge I’m very privileged to have come from a social libertarian country that believe this, where people broadly believe they want their taxes to go to the betterment of society and not all countries have that assumption. But if we accept the idea that people can’t thrive if they can’t survive, then our baseline quality of life if you assume an individual starts from nothing with no privilege, benefits or family, provided by the state, needs to be good enough for the person to be able to thrive. Otherwise we get a basic structural problem. Part of that is becoming master buildings again, and to go to the Rawl’s example from Alistair before, we need empathy in what we do in government. The amount of times we build systems without empathy and they go terribly wrong because we didn’t think about what it would be like to be on the other side of that service, policy or idea. User centred design is just a systematisation of empathy, which is fantastic, but bringing empathy into everything we do is very important.

Leadership is a very important role for government. I think part of our role is to represent the best interests of society. I very strongly feel that we have a natural role to serve the public in the public sector, as distinct from the political sector (though citizens see us as the same thing). The role of a strong, independent public sector is more important than ever in a post facts “fake news” world because it is one of the only actors on the stage that is naturally motivated, naturally systemically motivated, to serve the best interests of the public. That’s why open government is so important and that’s why digital and open government initiatives align directly.

Because open with digital doesn’t scale, and digital without open doesn’t last.

Stability, predictability and balance. It is certainly a role of government to create confidence in our communities, confidence creates thriving. It is one thing to address Maslov’s pyramid of needs but if you don’t feel confident, if you don’t feel safe, then you still end up behaving in strange and unpredictable ways. So this is part of what is needed for communities to thrive. This relates to regulation and there is a theory that regulation is bad because it is hard. I would suggest that regulation is important for the stability and predictability in society but we have to change the way we deliver it. Regulation as code gets the balance right because you can have the settings and levers in the economy but also the ability for it to be automated, consumable, consistent, monitored and innovative. I imagine a future where I have a personal AI which I can trust because of quantum cryptography and because it is tethered in purpose to my best interests. I don’t have to rely on whether my interests happen to align with the purpose of a department, company or non-profit to get the services I need because my personal bot can figure out what I need and give me the options for me to make decisions about my life. It could deal with the Government AI to figure out the rules, my taxation, obligations, services and entitlements. Where is the website in all that? I ask this because the web was a 1990s paradigm, and we need more people to realise and plan around the idea that the future of service delivery is in building the backend of what we do – the business rules, transactions, data, content, models – in a modular consumable so we can shift channels or modes of delivery whether it is a person, digital service or AI to AI interaction.

Another role of government is in driving the skills we need for the 21st century. Coding is critical not because everyone needs to code (maybe they will) but more than that coding teaches you an assumption, an instinct, that technology is something that can be used by you, not something you are intrinsically bound to. Minecraft is the saviour of a generation because all those kids are growing up believing they can shape the world around them, not have to be shaped by the world around them. This harks back to the normative/formative shift. But we also need to teach critical thinking, teach self awareness, bias awareness, maker skills, community awareness. It has been delightful to move to New Zealand where they have a culture that has an assumed community awareness.

We need of course to have a strong focus on participatory democracy, where government isn’t just doing something to you but we are all building the future we need together. This is how we create a multi-processor world rather than a single processor government. This is how we scale and develop a better society but we need to move beyond “consultation” and into actual co-design with governments working collaboratively across the sectors and with civil society to shape the world.

I’ll finish on this note, government as an enabler, a platform upon which society can build. We need to build a way of working that assumes we are a node in the network, that assumes we have to work collaboratively, that assumes that people are naturally motivated to make good decisions for their life and how can government enable and support people.

So embrace the tipping point, don’t just react. What future do you want, what society do you want to move towards? I guess I’ve got to a point in my life where I see everything as a system and if I can’t connect the dots between what I’m doing and the purpose then I try to not do that thing. The first public service job I had I got in and automated a large proportion of the work within a couple of weeks and then asked for data.gov.au, and they gave it to me because I was motivated to make it better.

So I challenge you to be thinking about this every day, to consider your own assumptions and biases, to consider whether you are being normative or formative, to evaluate whether you are being iterative or transformative, to evaluate whether you are moving away from something or towards something. And to always keep in mind where you want to be, how you are contributing to a better society and to actively leave behind those legacy ideas that simply don’t serve us anymore.

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