The Rationale For A New Digital Deal

October 27, 2017

The following is an excerpt from the new book A New Digital Deal.

Communities around the world are accelerating their response to the current wave of digital innovations. The universe around us is getting increasingly digitalized and so are we, as individuals. No longer can the internet be considered the novelty it once was when it landed on top of an old world order. No longer are networked solutions restricted to a mere optimization of old systems, by-gone modes of production, service provisioning, trade and societal conduct in general. The adoption of digital tools within an old world has started to make room for the digitalization of that world itself, complete with new economic models, cultures, values, services, a new organizational paradigm and, again, a massive change of societal conduct at large.

Humanity has good reason to aspire to a full harvesting of the promise of what digitalization affords. Digitalization can be considered a critical ingredient in the recipe of our sustainable communities of today and tomorrow – in the broadest sense of the word – economically, socially and environmentally. Digitalization carries the means and the organizational paradigm to not just do things slightly more efficiently, but differently and better. The design shift it affords can help us collectively tackle some of the greatest challenges humanity has ever faced, such as climate change, the need for sustainable and affordable energy, fair and sufficient levels of water and food distribution, and education and healthcare for all in a world where the population continues to grow. And of course, it should help us arrive at solutions and services that will allow burgeoning cities to thrive.

Digitalization also provides us with the tools and designs that enable innovations that would never have been conceivable without digitalization itself in the first place. Digitalization represents a source for modern and innovative resolve as well as radically innovative designs, services, products and business architectures that are altering our world. Work that is place- and time-independent. Getting to a stage where we get to have healthcare as opposed to the current practice of obtaining sick-care. Abundant, affordable, green energy. Ubiquitous mobility. New modes of wealth creation. Platform revolutions. Individual growth and the collective, ubiquitous tools to propel exactly that. Such is the promise of digitalization. It is, however, not an automatic given that humanity will attain such a state of well-being. It is not even certain that even a select few will enter an era of such an elevated way of living. If we want to achieve even some of the above, we will need to come together, plan and act. We will need a New Digital Deal.

The term ‘New Deal’ is a reference to the policies articulated (and programs embarked on) in the United States in the 1930s, extending into the immediate decades after. The New Deal proposed by President Roosevelt was forged in response to the social and economic havoc brought about by the economic depression commencing with the great crash of 1929. In response to unprecedented levels of unemployment, the general stagnation of economic enterprise, hunger, disruption, as well as the sheer lack of prospects and hope for millions of people, the Roosevelt Administration sought to arrive at a New Deal.

This New Deal essentially proposed a re-orchestration of societal resources, new roles for government, and new partnerships in order to address the grave challenges of the time which seemed unsurmountable, and near-impossible to solve through traditional policies or economic means. The New Deal agenda was not intended to result in "big government," but to apply government resources differently and more effectively – and to (re-)align government with other societal partners to arrive at new types of collaboration deemed necessary to address the issues at hand. How effective Roosevelt’s New Deal has been remains open for debate. It did make a positive impact, and some of the learnings and results are even relevant today.

But I am not here to provide any judgment. Nor do I want to propose a New Deal somewhat identical to the one proposed in the USA in the 1930s. My reference is a rather loose one. Our era and the challenges we face today are different compared to what the USA faced in the 1930s, and the challenges we face today differ from one community to another. However, comparable to the original New Deal, facing those contemporary challenges will require a grand re-orchestration of societal resources, and society-wide collaboration. We need to urgently consider forging a New Deal of a modern kind that embodies and facilitates the mission at hand. We have the opportunity to do so with the modern means and tools available to us, including the organizational paradigms, cultures, economic models, values, solutions and technologies tied to digitalization.

The rationale for such a New Digital Deal is certainly not restricted to a series of negatives, the big challenges of our day and age. As already stated, digitalization represents a source for modern, comprehensive and innovative resolve. But it also empowers and enables radically innovative designs, services, and products. It has the means and the organizational paradigms to not just do things slightly more efficiently, but differently, and better.

A New Digital Deal should not just frame that promise, but also articulate what constitutes the tools, resources, mechanisms and policies to have us collectively enter a new era. To be sure, we are unlikely to arrive at some Aristotle-type of Ideal State by means of digitalization. We will not enter a Valhalla of kinds. But a New Digital Deal can help frame and leverage digitalization so that our societies become more inclusive, increasingly focused on individual growth, helping to produce more sustainable communities and, in general, a higher level of well-being for all.

A New Digital Deal should also help mitigate the negatives that come with digitalization. Millions of jobs are being lost due to automation. New digital divides have emerged: urban versus rural, those that have the job skill sets of the future versus those that do not. Those that fear digitalization and the culture it produces, and those that do not. And so on. Creative destruction rules, an older order is on its way out, disruption is king. Technological changes occur faster than society can keep up with, and much of the digitalization we see today lacks an ethical framing as a consequence. Some are concerned that artificial intelligence is evolving at exponential rates, while our mindsets are linear. Many of us are clueless as to what is under the hood of the digital services we consume, and embrace digital innovations on interface value. Many benefit from the digital innovations in a structural way, yet many more people find themselves on the edges of digitalization, remaining under the impression, mistakenly, that they are online. We concern ourselves collectively about issues such as privacy and data ownership, yet we fail to arrive at a much more comprehensive discourse and debate on what constitutes human rights and civil rights in our digital age, and how we would like to see such rights evolve. We collectively embrace technological change on an incremental level, and there is generally no shortage on the uptake of new gadgets or novel apps.

But we often fail to articulate what our digital aspirations are, what digitalization should enable, and how to get there. We respond to digital change in many ways, yet we generally fall short of preparing our current workforce and, worse, even our workforce of the future. As I will elaborate in more detail in the chapters to follow, we have come to experience digital change as largely benign. We have enjoyed the novelties and taken advantage of the digital efficiencies and, in fact, we have obtained much more than that. But there is no rule carved in stone that states that such a ‘benign-ness’ will continue to be the core of technological change, or how we experience it. To assume this to be the case will translate into more disruption without a destination and, worse, the risk of us stumbling into the ‘machine age’. In order to ensure we get out of digitalization what we need and what we want, we have to articulate it and then act on it. This is where the other meaning of the notion and definition of a New Digital Deal comes in: to get digitalization right, we need to articulate a New Deal for digitalization itself.

Now is the time to act. Now is the hour to arrive at a New Digital Deal. The absolute majority of well-informed citizenry around the world as well as their leaders appear to agree that no time is left to lose on climate change. We need to innovate ourselves out of the situation, and we need to do so now. We need a New Digital Deal.

It is only relatively recently that digital tools have become part of the core fabric and functioning of society, and those same tools continue on their journey of becoming the next essential infrastructure without which society cannot function. But the policies, regulations, economic models and partnerships we have leveraged are by and large not ready to govern these tools effectively. We need a New Digital Deal.

While many jobs are being rendered redundant due to automation, most of us are clueless as to how to moderate this development. We party online as if it’s 1999, but remain dramatically ignorant of how our own data, which we freely share today, will be used in a just a few years from now. Cities are growing at an incredible rate globally, but there is no way we can provide all the right services by traditional means. For an average city in India, at current levels of growth, it would mean building a new additional hospital every few years, if not months. Again: we need a New Digital Deal, and we need it now.

Driverless vehicles represent an enormous potential and, if it’s up to Elon Musk, we’ll all be in one very soon. But none of our cities or highways are ready for this revolutionary change. Most communities are not ready on a technology level, or on a regulatory level to name just a few layers, and many city spatial planners are sound asleep. We need a New Digital Deal.

A vast array of smart city initiatives have seen the light of day, but many lack a mature convergence of public- and private-sector partners, many initiatives lack the DNA and resources to scale, and many started out without addressing the most elementary questions, such as regarding purpose and value. For such initiatives to succeed or do better, we need a New Digital Deal.

Technology choices are abundantly present, and with that, complexity rules. To arrive at a better understanding of how we collectively prepare a future based on architectures that are leveraging standards, that are interoperable, seamless and secure, we too need a New Digital Deal, and we need it sooner rather than later.

The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands bold, persistent experimentation.”

Those were the words spoken by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932 before winning the Presidency of the United States, preparing his country for the New Deal he was to orchestrate. Today, too, we should demand – and get – bold and persistent experimentation. Too few political leaders are demanding as much, however. We need a New Digital Deal.

Bas Boorsma is the author of A New Digital Deal.

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