Governance—the process of enacting policies and decisions by the group in charge—happens not only among formal political governments but across multiple social systems, including businesses, organizations, families, schools, and other institutions. Governance happens through laws, regulations, social norms, and power structures and rests on a set of core values critical to human rights, dignity, and self-expression. Because governance impacts decision-making processes, it is directly related to access to power and resources.
According to Pew Research, at the end of 2017 about 57 percent of the world’s countries were considered democracies, about 13 percent were considered autocracies, and the rest were mixed. People living under these governments experience different degrees of basic freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to take part in public affairs, access to the rule of law and justice, and the right to vote and express political opinions. In addition, various marginalized groups, such as women and minorities, refugees, or those living in conﬂict or war zones, are subject to challenges ranging from discrimination to human slavery, rape,torture, and death. Historically, the spread of democracy has been deeply linked to the invention and spread of technology. Our major social and political revolutions—democratization, decolonization, and civil rights and women’s movements—have been accompanied by developments in technology ranging from the invention of the printing press to the globalization of radio and television to the arrival of the internet and social media. These technologies, which spread information and allow people to collaborate in new ways, are by nature disruptive to governance and existing power structures.
As more sophisticated digital technologies emerge, such as artiﬁcial intelligence, robotics, and digital biology, suddenly anyone can be powerful—and people can use their power to help or harm others. Our governance systems are both struggling in this modern world, as well as seeing people participate in civic life in new ways.
A number of governments, international bodies, startups, and nonproﬁts have started using exponential technologies to help governance become more efficient, transparent, accountable, personalized, and accessible to their constituents. For example, Estonia has become one of the world’s ﬁrst countries to embrace digital public services for its citizens, creating digital identities for all citizens and enabling digital access for paying taxes, opening bank accounts, signing up for mortgages, voting, and using digital currencies. Estonia has also declared access to the internet a human right and prioritized data privacy, data security, and decentralization of data to maximize individual citizens’ control of their data.
While Estonia’s efforts are intended to help the country become more efficient, streamlined, and prosperous, other governments that have embraced digital technologies are facing criticism for being too authoritarian. China, for example, is under scrutiny for its efforts to use facial recognition technologies, artiﬁcial intelligence, and big data to identify and classify individual citizens in the name of reducing crime and terrorism.
A number of new GovTech startups are building infrastructure to allow individuals to participate more deeply in the democratic process. These range from simple applications such as the Spothole app, which allows Indian citizens to report road potholes in need of repair by the city government, to apps like Hollaback, Safecity, and Harassmap that allow people to report sexual harassment and abuse in cities around the world. More complex projects, such as those run by Democracy Earth Foundation, are spearheading new forms of collective decision-making through digital voting among borderless communities. In 2019, youth in Hong Kong started using the private app Telegram to create “leaderless and anonymous” protests to protest the government’s proposed extradition laws.
International governing bodies like the United Nations, World Bank, and the World Food Programme are also embracing exponential technologies to improve services, cut costs, and reduce corruption. The World Food Programme piloted Building Blocks to use blockchain to track and deliver services to individuals living in refugee camps, and the World Bank is using blockchain to track land rights. The United Nations and Amnesty International developed some of the ﬁrst humanitarian applications for virtual reality by creating powerful experiences for both leaders and the general public to virtually visit refugee camps and conﬂict zones, increasing empathy and funding for thesechallenges.
However, governments are experiencing new challenges related to keeping up with the pace of technological change and regulations. Governments around the world are struggling with how to regulate social media and data privacy as well as other exponential technologies, including scientists using biotechnologies to create the ﬁrst genetically engineered humans through CRISPR/Cas9.
The governance GGC will continue to be one of the most important challenges in the coming years to all of us.
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