Can we future-proof our democracies with a new transatlantic digital agenda?


We seem to lean towards disagreeing with one another rather than coming together on the big issues. A statement we may all agree on is that the exponentiality of digital technologies creates opportunities and challenges far greater than we can imagine. If our own minds are unable to grasp exponential progression, how confident can we be in the linear, but tedious decision-making process of governments to handle the digital transformation of our society? This is a key question we need to ask ourselves on both sides of the Atlantic. It's answer may well lie in a new transatlantic paradigm shaped by a common digital agenda.

Like many of you, I also see the divides in our societies. They are very real. I see political leaders shocked by the fact that their messages have stopped resonating with their constituents. Voters are trusting new sources of information, beginning to rethink old policies and questioning the institutions that govern them. The campaign signs of politicians read "Stronger Together" and "Progress for all". If you look at the signs held up in the streets, you see a very different picture. "Error 404: Democracy not found" or "The system is rigged" is what you read. Some say we are dangerously manipulatable. Others say we now have access to countless new sources of information and can think and act more independently than ever before.

I also see a divide in the private sector. I currently work with a sector undergoing major disruption: the international financial industry. I see the tedious journey ahead. This journey not only includes revamping IT infrastructure, upskilling employees, dealing with lots of regulation, becoming better custodians of data, and somehow coping with this thing called blockchain. This fight for survival essentially comes down to the struggle of reconnecting with clients in an omnichannel world. Even those "putting the user first" tech companies are currently learning the hard way. Users need to trust not only the front-end, they also want companies to use data in a way they understand. Having a great UX alone will not cut it when an increasing amount of users demand more data control and transparency. 

I see that political parties as well as technology and financial service companies all run the risk of disconnecting with their most important stakeholders: the voter, the user, the client. Here are a few stats to showcase a bit of the problem: Only 10% of Germans have a good understanding of algorithms and 71% do not know how GDPR protects their data, just 26% of Americans can name all three branches of government and only about 40% trust their bank - on both sides of the Atlantic. My fear is that, left alone, many will resign in light of the complexities and gravitate towards simple but dubious answers. 

Policy makers need to improve their digital skills. Tech companies must better factor in the social implications of their products. We need more “digital diplomats” that are able to translate and mediate between governments, technophiles and most importantly the general public. The congressional hearings with tech CEOs in Washington and Brussels exposed the knowledge gaps. We need to have a more in-depth dialogue between politicians, the public and businesses. The Digitalrat or Google’s cross-functional AI Ethics Board are a start (unfortunately the ladder was dissolved only a week after it was announced - but as we say in the digital economy: failure is success in progress). Other promising examples are Google’s Zukunftswerkstatt focusing on building digital skills, or the Regulatory Sandbox of the British Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) that enables regulators and tech companies to jointly test new business propositions, without putting the general consumer at risk. Still, I believe that we need to further uplevel our understanding and commitments in order to develop a more inclusive and sustainable digital economy and society. This is in our political, economic and most importantly societal interest.

This is where the transatlantic realm comes into play. Let's reactivate it to find a common approach here. Communities on both sides needs to come together and deal with general-purpose technologies, such as artificial intelligence or nanotechnology. The dissemination of these technologies is not limited to geographic, cultural or political borders. There are no regulatory bodies that have the skillset and coverage to effectively counsel technological developments across boarders. A transatlantic partnership can create a common vision here. Why not create a public-private “Transatlantic Digital Future Board”?

Learnings can then be passed on into a global dialogue at the United Nations or G20. Policies developed on a transatlantic level can also create a competitive advantage over other regions with a different interpretation of the role of technology in society. Most importantly though, it can help all of us reconnect in a society that, despite being digitally connected, seems to be quite divided currently. We should not take the (still) rather stable socio-political climate for granted and I think its time to work on a common transatlantic policy for digital future.

Based on these thoughts, I would like to explore three questions in my upcoming posts:

1) How can we help individuals reconnect with political institutions and better understand the technology they use?
2) How can our different approaches to these topics help us in finding a better, more holistic approach?
3) How can we use this exciting conversation to build a new alliance across the Atlantic?

We need to put the voter, the user and the client first again - on both sides of the Atlantic.


Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

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