Science fiction or science fact?

Sir Michael Barber
Jan 30 · 3 min read

For many decades, writers and filmmakers have laid bare dystopian futures where technological advancement has created a dark and dangerous world for humans.

As we enter 2020, many of these iconic titles futuristic dates have already passed. Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner was set in 2019; the novel Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury in 1999; George Orwell’s predictions for all-seeing technology in 1984. The list goes on.

Some of the predictions of futuristic tech and communication methods have come true — but many, if not most, have not.

So, as we enter a new decade, what will today’s science fiction writers be writing about for the remaining decades in this century? I suspect it will be less about technology and more about what it allows us to gather — data.


Today’s technologies can be used for good or ill, as with all technologies in the past. Orwell’s warnings remain relevant; the challenge is both to heed them AND embrace the positive potential of technology and data. And that depends on the ethical framework and the regulatory approaches we put in place.

Drones can now deliver medicines to rural African communities. Inoculations can be tracked through tablets by workers in the field, far from any hospitals. Satellites can track crops and help inform agricultural rotations. Mobile apps enable instant access to vital services, support and information from anywhere in the world.

There is no question that technology has huge transformative potential and can help address some of the biggest challenges the world faces — global climate change, reducing hunger and improving health.

But the fact is that not enough governments around the world are using it well enough or addressing wider concerns. And that, in 2020, is no longer acceptable.


Challenges

There are two big areas that governments should start to look at seriously and rapidly:

  1. Becoming Data Driven

Technology is just a tool. The real potential comes from examining the information it unlocks. And this understanding and regular use of data is often the gap, especially for the public sector.

But having the right information is one thing — using it properly is another. It must be interrogated, visualised, and mined for insights in real-time. There needs to a genuine data-driven culture in government — decisions are not made if the data is not there; spending is not approved if the data doesn’t demonstrate the case for it.

This will not only mean more effective policies but also more accountability and legitimacy.

2. Building Trust

Trust levels are low in major institutions — business, churches, governments, even charities. Add a series of data breaches, scandals, failed Government IT projects and on-going questions over the ethics of many tech companies, and it is no surprise there is genuine — and valid — fear over data security and the methods used to gather personal information.

Ironically, government must become more adept at using technology to confront this challenge. Not only by using technology to deliver services, but also by using it to really know its own impact. And then embracing an honest two-way conversation with service users as well as the general taxpaying public.


There is a clear paradox between these challenges. Government will need to embrace the power of data and increase transparency while also strengthening privacy and providing an ethical and regulatory framework.

Are these difficult issues to solve? Yes. But neither are they impossible. And the global challenges facing us all require urgent action. To paraphrase JFK, we have to do these things not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

Sir Michael Barber

Written by

Founder and Chairman at Delivery Associates and Chair of the Office for Students . Author, How to Run a Government, (published by Penguin 26 March 2015).

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