Unintended Consequences and Digital Dilemmas

It is not just in the UK that concerned voices have been raised. Across the world the unintended consequences of slavish devotion to the digital stuff is gradually being revealed. The concerns arise despite the many undoubted benefits and conveniences enjoyed by citizens, governments and businesses.

The ‘backlash’ was most notably voiced in a New York Times article that urged the iPhone & iPad designer Apple to modify products to reduce user addiction. The article also pointed out that the concerns were not new — they’d been bubbling up for years and have only recently reached the ears of major investors and policy makers.

The concerns come not only from institutional investors in companies like Apple, Google and Facebook but also from the more-enlightened leaders of Smart City technologies. Some of these enthusiastic advocates have grasped the practical limitations and downsides of digitally enabled dreams.

In his well-timed tirade against autonomous vehicles (‘Driverless Cars: on the road to nowhere’) the transport specialist Christian Wolmar makes clear that ‘Politicians and policy makers should not be at the mercy of technology. They should be masters of it, harnessing it to their political aims

These concerns are driven not simply by ‘the politics of envy’, or fears of robotic dependencies or increasing social and economic inequalities. The volume of dissent reflects a deeper despair over loss of choice — the notion that each and everyone of us is being swept along by a technological tide that cannot be turned back or moderated.

No doubt some of this is ‘Luddite’ — a rage against progress — and few would deny that life and work is in many ways easier, more fulfilling and more effective than the relative poverty of our grandparents. The disruptions may be faster arriving and the impacts may be unevenly felt but the significance of current concerns is not that they are new. The concerns have now been raised because, at last, they’ve been heard despite the inherent deafness of macroeconomics.

The unintended consequences — the side effects — often remain undiscovered until technological addictions become rampant. The current concerns around air quality now remind us that urban environments have been blighted by a disregard for investment in public transport. Homelessness rates reflect over emphasis on property ownership — financialisation — more than the underlying need for living spaces. Now, in the era of digital devotion, the impacts on children claim prior attention but politicians are beginning to grasp the message. Now, at last, we are seeing greater debate about real purposes. This comes through in the thinking of economists like Kate Raworth. The ultimate policy objective is not to achieve unending growth of some flawed GPD statistic but to secure greater social wellbeing, purposeful work and sustainable environments — objectives that GDP metrics were, mistakenly, supposed to reflect.

Two welcome trends are now apparent.

Prudent Navigation towards long-term objectives

First the new-found willingness of tech advocates to embrace purposeful ideas beyond the adoration of novel gadgets and superficially slick systems that have no respect for citizens’ data ownership. In that pause for thought they have reflected on the supposed wisdom of ‘being careful of what you wish for’ but, of course, the spirit of adventure cannot be denied. The responses to these dilemmas are some well-considered strategic and long-term principles that may give policy developers a navigational guide well before calls for corrective actions.

Granularity — digging deeper

The second apparent trend is a renewed focus on cities and communities. If the ‘merely average’ macroeconomic approach is inherently deaf to the nuances and huge diversity of local economics, it is with smaller economic units that local leaders have a greater opportunity to respond with policies more-sharply attuned to real needs and priorities. This, of course, is far easier in countries that are not subject to over-managed centralized controls but where local leaders are empowered to invest the time and resources that citizens (and their businesses) demand. Jennifer Bradley (founding director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute) writing for Next City provides a classic example. As the relatively recently appointed Metro Mayors in the UK get to grips with their local realities, the balance between central diktat and local empowerment is an open issue.

The greater scope for cities and communities to ‘seize their destiny’ has long been a theme of the Intelligent Community Forum (ICF). With the willingness of tech advocates to look for relatively fresh approaches to strategic guidance plus the greater enablement of local leaders to deliver greater economic and social wellbeing, 2018 is already looking like a pivotal year for the development of truly intelligent communities. And there’s a message here for mainstream media that, in its obsessive tracking of national politics, often misses reporting on local initiatives that really do make a difference to the life and work of citizens.

The agendas for change — whether expressed in terms of Resilience, Humanising Data, Environmental Sustainability, or more liveable urban and rural spaces — are at the core of ICF’s Global Summit next June in London. This global gathering of civic leaders will, no doubt, have many tales of unintended consequences but will also celebrate their experiences of initiatives to overcome decades of lost opportunities.

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