The ‘good society’, in a connected world, is one that provides a framework for people to realize their potential in a meaningful and dignified manner. Steps toward this society, and economic growth, are being realized today by developments in information and communication technology (ICT), and by people who have grown up connected to the Internet.
Those who are getting their first job today, those born around 1990, are the spearhead of the future economy: the first generation to know the World Wide Web for the entire course of their lives. They are at the vanguard, leading future generations into an increasingly borderless society and an economy that is global and highly connected. For them to build the good society of tomorrow, they must be allowed to operate within a framework that provides connectivity and basic business infrastructure, one with regulations that fit the realities they face, and one that provides access to investments to fund the realization of their visions.
However, looking at the prospective opportunities, we must acknowledge the challenges and risks that are likely to dominate the global socio-economic and political scenes over the next 10 years. At the 2012 World Economic Forum in Davos, world leaders agreed on three risk dimensions, as published by the WEF’s Global Risks Report.
The first category of risks entails growing income disparities and widening social gaps among young and old between East and West and within the West. The combination of these factors could create a dystopia, a global society full of hardship and void of hope. The second risk relates to the readiness and speed with which governments and governance systems respond to change and the third risk stems from the rise of hyper-connectivity that creates the specter of cyber attacks.
Responsibility for addressing these risks falls to national governments and stakeholders in international governance systems on the one hand, and on the other to companies such as the leading telecommunications and ICT firms that provide the infrastructure for the connected global economy.
So how can these global risks be addressed and a good society created over the next decade? The answers lie somewhere within the risks themselves; hyper-connectivity and the cyber world, while creating the majority of risks, also provide many of the solutions if handled well.
Where we are threatened by income gaps and polarization of societies with chronically unemployed youth and state-dependent impoverished retirees, connectivity can help economies to reach sustainable prosperity. In three examples where ICT can be a major factor in building a good society, I want to highlight education, healthcare, and e-government.
Education: The use of technology and provision of a connected infrastructure for universal learning in the classroom of the future can simultaneously increase the quality of education and improve its affordability in all corners of the world. Students in rural areas or urban ghettos, which have been historically deprived of quality education, will have better chances to realize their economic potentials through connected education.
Healthcare: Connectivity in healthcare will reduce the burden of skyrocketing medical costs on older population groups and help in creating a healthier society with huge positive implications for increased and extended productivity of citizens. Realistic examples are remote diagnosis and also remote operations, where a surgeon in the United States can perform surgery in Lebanon using cyber-controlled robotics. Similarly, connectivity in healthcare could allow remote heart monitoring or tests for blood sugar levels. Faster, more efficient and more affordable care for the most wide-spread medical problems of our time will result not only in greater well-being of people and create healthier workforces, but also keep in check the healthcare cost for the state and families.
Government services: Connectivity in provision of governmental services, e-government, represents a third immense potential to use ICT for building a good society through reduction of public sector costs and through decentralization. In adapting all administrative government processes to electronic infrastructure, we can apply for a passport, legal documents and register property transactions without the need to go a government office. This decentralizes access to services while it maintains control centrally to reduce the possibility of human error or fraud and thereafter creates efficiency.
There is a need for proper regulation, however. Too much government intervention and protectionism would stifle progress; too little, and it will open the room for greed, and abuse of power. The balance will be struck by creating an efficient yet largely liberal economy in which governments create the necessary policies and regulatory safeguards for the emerging world, while allowing the private sector to compete in a fair and transparent environment. This approach will require policy makers to set clear rules and enact governance systems that are suited for managing a connected world.
As the breakneck speed of technological change and the rise of new trends in hyper-connectivity create new opportunities and risks, the governance systems need to be able to respond to changes faster than ever before. The liberal management of economic sectors will also need to create sufficient reasons and incentives to attract investments in sectors best suited for private initiative while maintaining sovereign authority in other areas.
These examples are based on solutions available today, but will require some time to achieve mass-market adoption. Implementing these effectively will require things such as everyone having access to a mobile phone and an internet connection, and for the fixed internet to work with high reliability. ICT readiness and quality are key to tomorrow’s good society.