Governance as an app, but who will control the data?

Friday, 6 December 2013 - 8:24am IST | Agency: DNA

How will governance look like in, say, 2050, when those who control information will also wield the levers of power?

That’s the question the World Economic Forum (WEF) asked at a recent meeting in Dubai. The meeting looked at three scenarios arising from the information revolution, which has marginalised some countries and communities.

The first is a world ruled by “mega-cities” and governance is by urban agglomerations. Second a world in which strong central governments use big data to fortify control. Third, where central governments are weak, with markets providing almost all services.

All of them could be beneficial. But they also could lead to dystopian outcomes. The goal should be to take advantage of trends like urbanisation, the rise of big data, and the grouping of people into narrow communities while ensuring that they do not undermine other aspects of governance.

Mega-cities have the potential to create opportunities for workers and businesses, but they cannot solve universal problems like climate change. Likewise, use of big data has substantial problem-solving potential. But questions remain about who owns, who controls, and who regulates the use of the data. The notion of a “datocracy” incites fear. Use of big data is not confined to governments and corporations. Criminal groups too can abuse the information.

Finally, individual choice within markets is often the most efficient way to allocate resources. But markets do not produce a sufficient supply of goods. There are some that the private sector is unable to provide.

How can IT improve governance and reduce alienation among the governed? The most effective initiatives often arise from partnerships between government and the private sector. In Kenya, a private company developed a mobile-payments system that allows users to transfer money using cellphones. The government picked it up and used it to provide additional services. Such initiatives cannot solve the problem of inequality, but they do help relieve some of its damaging effects.

With rapid social change and relentless technological advancement, the question will be “How will we get everybody in on the act, and still get some action”

Consider international institutions. Today, the world is made up of some 200 countries. In all likelihood, it will be in 2050 as well. But only 16 governmental entities account for two-thirds of the world’s income and two-thirds of its population. Many have advocated the use of “double majorities” – on the basis of population and economic output – to elicit action from states while enhancing weaker states’ influence in decision-making.

The G-20 has moved in this direction but it’s flawed. What about the role of the world’s smallest countries in global decision-making; and how to reconcile the moral conviction that all people are equal with the fact that all countries are not?

In a global information age, governance will require coalitions that are small enough to function efficiently and a decision concerning what to do about those who are under-represented.

Joseph S Nye
Professor, Harvard Univ

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