Big idea: The Connected Citizen

As we put together the initial lineup and program for FWD50, we’re working on a central theme for our November event. With the pace of innovation and technology change, it’s hard to choose just one.
We’ve narrowed it down to six big ideas that keep coming up in travels and discussions. So over the next six posts, we’re going to look at each in a bit more detail.

The connected citizen

A decade after the introduction of the iPhone, almost every citizen is equipped with a sophisticated sensor, the power of which eclipses supercomputers of old. It can track our location; record sound and images; verify biometric data; sense tiny movements; and more.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

With the Internet of Things, the number of such sensors will increase tenfold in just a few years. Cheap motes attach to almost anything; already, many cities have closed-circuit cameras linked to gait- and facial-recognition tools that can pick a single person out of a crowd of 60,000 concert-goers.

It’s not just sensing. These devices put us in perpetual contact with one another. The framers of constitutions might well have chosen direct democracy over representative government had they known that every citizen could review and vote on every decision — or perhaps they’d have foreseen the whipsaw consequences of such technology, and its polarizing effects.

There’s little doubt that a connected citizenry of digital natives has vastly different expectations of what digital government can do. But innovations often undergo several phases as they become mainstream.

  • First, we think the thing is a toy. Consider early digital cameras that could hold only 8 photos; they were widely dismissed as playthings for the rich.
  • Then, we replace an existing task with a new technology. We’re simply dropping in something more efficient. Early steam engines weren’t used for power — they were used to pump water back uphill to power waterwheels when the streams weren’t flowing.
  • Then, we find new ways to use it. A digital camera soon became a way to take notes, share menus, and more. Now, it’s used for identification and scanning QR codes to exchange money.
  • Finally, we change how we behave. It becomes the new norm, and the old way seems preposterous, even cruel. Once, the rich had cars and the poor rode horses. Today, in much of the world, only the very rich can afford horses.

With connected citizens, we’re moving into the second phase. We ask someone to fill out a form on a mobile app — but it’s still a form. Government isn’t yet digital-native, because we’re just making the existing process more efficient. We haven’t yet reconsidered whether the process is relevant any more, let alone changed our behaviours in significant ways.

But we will, and a connected citizenry will alter digital government fundamentally.