“One small step …”
The rest of this phrase, uttered by U.S. astronaut Neil Armstrong in July 1969 as he set foot on the moon, is history for many people. Those were exciting times, as the world marveled at the incredible human achievement of landing a person on the moon and bringing him safely back to Earth.
The role of digital technology in making this happen cannot be overstated. Digital technology? 1969? The Apollo program? For those unfamiliar with the 1960’s (and as the following quote, attributed to Charlie Fleischer, says: “If you remember the 60s, you weren’t really there.”), digital technology was alive and well. Digital technology did not drop out of the sky in recent years with the emergence of new-age companies such as Google, Facebook, and Amazon.
I suggest you do some quick Google research on the digital technology that guided Apollo 11 to the moon and back; it is a fascinating story. However, the purpose of this article is not to reflect on the glory of the digital past, but rather to examine the digital technology revolution in the context of 2017 and ask what is different from 1969 and what new challenges are emerging.
The technology changes that have occurred between 1969 and 2017 are obvious – for example, there were no smartphones for astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin to call home. Some of the effects these changes have had on society are more subtle, especially as digital technology today is much more personal than guiding a lunar lander. Unlike in 1969, it seems our entire lives and genetic makeup can now be digitized and shared.
Since before the time of the moon landing we have marveled at technology advancements underpinned by digital technology – faster, smaller, more powerful, more memory, more reach, cheaper, ubiquitous, and mostly delivering more value. But as the focus of new technology shifts from machines and automation to the collection and use of data to create commercial and public value, there are a range of issues and questions to address. Cracks are beginning to emerge in the clean image of new technology.
Along with the technology shift from automation to data, there has been a growing trust gap between citizens and their governments. High-profile political events of 2016 show that the trust deficit is widening. While there is evidence to support a correlation between digital technology and rising distrust in government (e.g., labor market insecurity arising from digital disruption), a bigger question is: Does the evidence support the argument that digital technology is contributes to this growing trust deficit? And if so, what can we do about it?
While speculation is easy, this is a research question that requires thorough examination. It is perhaps reasonable to assume such research will find at least some causal relationship. Although the research may well lead to some unpleasant conclusions, this should not stop us from re-framing the question in the opposite context: Can we produce evidence that digital technology can narrow the trust deficit?
To do this, we need to view the digital technology of 2017 similar to how we saw technology in the 1960’s, when we all marveled at what it enabled us to accomplish. In 1961, U.S. President John F Kennedy challenged the nation in an address to a joint session of Congress: “First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.” Yes, there were some geopolitical overtones tied up in this goal, and there were many debates on costs, risks, and value, but what was achieved helped define the role of technological advancement in the 20th century.
In 2017, what societal level challenges and goals can we set to deliver public value? Based on the power we now have with digital technology, there are significant global, regional, and local issues in the economic, social, and environmental domains that can be addressed in ways we could never have imagined. While rising to meet these challenges by using insight from digital data, we will continue to address data-related issues that potentially contribute to distrust with government, such as privacy, ownership, sovereignty, security of data, ethics, and the moral hazards of automated decision-making.
Addressing rising public distrust requires a dual focus on factors that drive things downward while also creating a narrative that shows how digital technology can help solve real-world problems such as income inequality, affordable healthcare for all, and sustainable communities. Governments will be judged on the balance of outcomes; digital technology should be judged on how it contributes public value.
There is more than one direction to such a frictionless government, and there is no perfect way forward. One way or another, digital technology will make history as the story of our modern life. Analytics can make a difference by enabling well-informed public policy decision making required in frictionless government.
The 60’s was a time when we all focused on living while we were young, and we were more interested in what made us beautiful. In 2017, we are older and wiser. It is time for digital technology to provide new hope for solving the complex challenges society faces today.
SAP is rising to the challenge of working with government agencies as they seek to address some of societies greatest challenges through digital transformation. For more information on the SAP approach, read “Frictionless Government: Provide, Protect, and Prosper in the Digital Society.”