There's always a silver lining to a cloud and COVID-19 has been a catalyst, has been a stress test of our competence, capability, technology and social capital. It has also been a reminder that we do need more resilience, more sustainability and a better world. So, there are green shoots of hope.
An upbeat assessment from Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister in Charge of the Smart Nation Initiative, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Singapore, on Day One of the World Economic Forum’s Global Technology Governance Summit, as he opened up the virtual gathering in the company of the CEOs of tech giants YouTube and Salesforce.
Technology has brought great societal benefit, he went on, adding a by-now increasingly familiar observation about the accelerant nature of the COVID crisis:
COVID-19 did not invent or create new technology. In fact, many of those technologies were already available, but what it's done is to really turbo-charge the innovation and the use of that technology…Because of the need for contact tracing, we were able, very quickly, to spin up a Bluetooth proximity detecting system for contact tracing, and it has shortened our contact tracing time from what used to take a four day process, today is a one and-a-half day process, so it's made a difference, a real difference.
But despite positive exemplars of this kind, it remains the case that the key political and social issue around technology today is trust. As Balakrishnan put it:
Do people understand [technology]? Do people believe that it is being used for their good? Do people appreciate or have confidence that the data, which is really what we all contribute, is used appropriately and is not abused? So there's a whole key question about trust that needs to be answered. The second dimension is about utility, meaning, does this system, or does the technology behind the system, actually work and actually deliver? COVID-19 has been a stress test of this. And that brings us in turn to the need for governance or an ethical framework for the policies the programs, the projects and the legislation that government pass.
Global society is at a tipping point, he suggested:
We are now at a point in which the digital world is merging with the real world. In the real world, you would not accept the concept that 'anything goes', or 'Trust us, we know what we're doing,' or that there's no regulations and no limits, whether it's limits on fishing or limits to the type of speech or the purpose behind which sometimes even hate speech or divisive speech is useful.
So if we accept the hypothesis that we're now merging the digital world with the real world, then the question arises whether many of those foundational myths on which the Internet as we know it was created, actually need a reset and a reboot? By that, I'm really referring to the politics of it, the policy and legislation, and how we come to terms with this new technology. If you look at YouTube, the volume, the sheer scale of material being generated, the speed, the fact that it's distributed on at the speed of light, and the diversity of it all - I don't think in the real world we've actually adapted ourselves for something on this scale. So we have a scale problem, which we need to deal with.
Including YouTube as part of his thesis was clearly a deliberate choice by Balakrishnan as one of his fellow attendees at the Summit was that firm’s CEO Susan Wojcicki, who was more than ready to defend her company’s role and responsibilities in the governance debate:
We work very closely with governments all around the world and I believe it's critical that we continue to do so. We've certainly seen, as technology has played a more important role, a significant rise in the interest of government and a significant rise in the number of [legislative] bills. There already is a very significant [amount] of governance that exists and I believe there'll be a lot more going forward.
But there are also a lot of challenges, she added, not least around what constitutes acceptable content:
I see a lot of issues around speech and what should or should not be allowed on platforms, for example, and that's a really tough area. Certainly, countries pass certain laws and we comply with all the laws that different countries pass, but a lot of times there's content that is legal, but could be seen as harmful and it's hard for governments to necessarily find the right way to regulate it. It also is content that can change very quickly. We just saw that with COVID-19, with a number of different types of misinformation. It would be hard for governments all around the world to all have different regulations about that and have compliance. So there's this category of content that I would say is content that is technically legal, but could be harmful. That's where we put in a lot of time to try to make sure we put the right policies in place.
It is challenging when governments have different rules, she argued, but posited that the way forward for now is to work with organizations and legislatures when they come together. She cited as a case in point YouTube’s work with GIFCT (Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism), an organization funded by governments that works to fight violent extremism:
That's an example of where you can get a good coalition to be able to come up with [an answer to] how do we handle this tough topic, but do so globally and do it in a consistent way?
But there needs to be more progress made on such collaborative efforts, she admitted:
I would love it if there was a global group that came up with a number of different philosophies or processes in terms of where they think some of the limits are and we could work to try to interpret them and what that would actually mean for a platform. Right now, we work with governments individually. Sometimes there's a lot of differences, so we do our best to both explain the technology, work with them to show how we are either in compliance or working to be so.
We care deeply about our communities, about the users, about the impact that we have. A lot of times I find that these questions are complicated and the more you dig into them, the more complicated they turn out to be. They have all these unintended consequences. There needs to be a lot more discussion between companies and platforms and technology [providers] and government, so they understand [the issues] and we can make the best decisions together to keep our community safe.
A collaborative approach is critical, agreed Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, who pointed to the work of the World Economic Forum’s International Business Council and the positive progress made there in getting some of the world's largest companies to commit to being fully transparent in their reporting of some of the most important Sustainable Development Goals.
He also pointed to a joint effort between University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB), the World Economic Forum and the Benioff Ocean Initiative as an example of how bleeding-edge technology can be turned to addressing world issues, citing the threat to whales and dolphins through inadvertent ship strikes as his exemplar:
Ships have never moved faster or more efficiently and, as they go through high traffic areas, you're much more likely to have a strike of a whale than ever before. Now by using technology developed by the University of California Santa Barbara, by using Artificial Intelligence combined with audio technology, combined with drone technology, we're able to identify where whales are and where ships are and notify ship captains before those strikes occur. It's really an example of how technology can improve very significant problems that we have in the world. As we look to make everything go further, we can discuss what are those pieces of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) that we like and apply them to these very complex problems.
And as Balakrishnan had scoped YouTube into his thesis, Benioff pushed the ball back into the Singapore politician’s backyard to follow up his point:
One of the greatest challenges for Singapore today is really becoming net zero…I don't know the exact numbers, but I think that Singapore permits about 50 million tonnes of CO2 a year. When I was there recently, I had an opportunity to speak to the Government and one thought that was in my mind was how to create a carbon bank, maybe with Australia or maybe with another country, that has scaled ecosystems to preserve the amount of biodiversity needed to really sequester those 50 million tonnes.
I think the way to think about carbon emissions and sequestration, emission reduction, education, innovation, those four key elements in reducing those 50 million tonnes, is to think about a relationship with biodiversity and [how] Singapore can come in and preserve and conserve and help to innovate around creating a carbon bank, where they can store that carbon and say, 'We are a net zero country and here is the evidence'.
I think we can do that today. I think that with the power of biometricians, the people who are actually able to quantify these levels of biodiversity, and a clear addressable issue like, ‘How do we reduce Singapore's emissions?’, this can be addressed. I think that this is an area where we have to think aggressively about scale, because I'm sure the Minister - and the Prime Minister as well - wants to get to net zero as fast as possible. This is, I think, the right way to think about, ‘How are we going to do that?’.
Trust, collaboration, governance - common themes at World Economic Forum gatherings, perhaps so common that it’s an easy stance to raise a cynical eyebrow at their mention. But as Minister Balakrishnan suggests, after all that was so awful on a global scale about 2020, now is surely the time to be receptive to whatever silver linings there are to found as we emerge into the Vaccine Economy - and one of those is surely to be seen in a continued willingness to tear up rule books and approach problems with a fresh perspective.
The theme of digital acceleration has been an increasingly common one in recent months as organizations have testified to the speed with which they found themselves forced to shake off old practices and processes and find new, sometimes better, solutions in the face of the pandemic. Resistance to change was no longer able to be an inhibitor to ‘out of the box’ thinking and innovation. A ‘let’s just do it’ mindset has informed those organizations that have most successfully ridden out the COVID crisis.
The challenge for business and for society as a whole in the post-pandemic age is how firmly we can hold on to that attitude and apply it to long-standing problems, such as climate change. Organizations - private and public sector alike - had to pull together and find new ways to collaborate during the pandemic. If it can be done during a global crisis, it can be done when the pressure lessens…if we want to do it.