A Way Forward: Governing in an Age of Emergence

Paper by UNDP: “…This paper seeks to go beyond mere analysis of the spectrum of problems and risks we face, identifying a portfolio of possibilities (POPs) and articulating a new framework for governance and government. The purpose of these POPs is not to define the future but to challenge, to innovate, to expand the range of politically acceptable policies, and to establish a foundation for the statecraft in the age of risk and uncertainties.

As its name suggests, we recognise that the A Way Forward is and must be one of many pathways to explore the future of governance. It is the beginning of a journey; one on which you are invited to join us to help evolve the provocations into new paradigms and policy options that seek to chart an alternative pathway to governance and statecraft.

A Way Forward is a petition for seeding new transnational alliances based on shared interests and vulnerability. We believe the future will be built across a new constellation of governmental alliances, where innovation in statecraft and governance is achieved collaboratively. Our key objective is to establish a platform to host these transnational discussions, and move us towards the new capabilities that are necessary for statecraft in the age of risk and uncertainty….(More)”.

Hammer or nudge? New brief on international policy options for COVID-19

Paper by Luc Soete: “…But over time the scientific comments given on TV and radio in my two home countries, the Netherlands and Belgium, as well as neighbouring Germany and France, became dominated by each country’s own, national virology and epidemiological experts explaining how their country’s approach to ‘flattening the curve’ and bringing down the reproduction rate was best, it became clear, even to a non-expert in the field like myself, that many of the science-based policies used to contain COVID-19 were first and foremost based on ‘hypotheses’. With the exception of Germany, not really on facts. And as Anthony Fauci, Director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, probably the world’s most respected virologist once put it: “Data is real. The model is hypothesis.”

So at the risk of being an ultracrepidarian – an old word which has suddenly risen in popularity – it seemed appropriate to have a closer, more critical look at the science-based policy advice during this COVID-19 pandemic. For virologists and epidemiologists, the logical approach to a new, unknown but highly infectious virus such as SARS-CoV-2, spreading globally at pandemic speed, is ‘the hammer’: the tool to crush down quickly and radically through extreme measures (social distancing, confinement, lockdown, travel restrictions) the spread of the virus and get the transmission rate’s value as far as possible below. The stricter the confinement measures, the better.

For a social scientist and social science-based policy adviser, a hammer represents anything but a useful tool to approach society or the economy with. Her or his preference will rather go to measures, such as ‘nudges’ which alter people’s behaviour in a predictable way without coercion. Actually, the first COVID-19 measure was based on a typical ‘nudge’: improving hand hygiene among healthcare workers which was now enlarged to the whole population. ‘Nudging’ in the face of a new virus such as SARS-CoV-2 will consist of making sure incremental policy measures build up to a societal behavioural change, starting from hand hygiene, social distancing, to confinement and various forms of lockdown. It will be crucial to measure the additional, marginal impact of each measure in its contribution to the overall reduction in the transmission of the virus. Introducing all measures at once, as in the case of the ‘hammer’ strategy, subsequently provides little useful information on the effectiveness of each measure ( on the contrary, in fact). In a period of deconfinement, one now has little information on which measures are likely to be the most effective. From a nudge perspective, achieving a change in social behaviour with respect to physical distancing: the so-called one-and-a-half metre society, will be an essential variable and measuring its impact on the spreading of the virus crucial. One of the reasons is that full adoption of such physical distancing automatically and without the need of coercion, will prevent the occurrence of large or smaller social gatherings without authorities having to specify the rules. This is implicit in the principle of nudging: it will be the providers, the entrepreneurs of personal service sectors who will have to come up with organisational innovations enabling physical distancing in the safe delivery of such services.

Most noteworthy, however, is the purely national setting within which most virology and epidemiological science-based policy advice is currently framed. This contrasts sharply with the actual scientific research in the field which is today purely global, based on shared data and open access. For years now, epidemiological studies have taken individual countries as ‘containers’ for data collection and data analysis. It is also the national setting that provides the framework for estimating the capacity of medical facilities, especially the total number of available intensive care units needed to handle COVID-19 patients in each country. In the case of Europe and as a result, it has led to the reintroduction of internal borders which had ‘disappeared’ 25 years ago for fear of cross-border contamination. Doing so, COVID-19 has undermined the notion of European values. This policy brief is my attempt to clarify the situation….(More)”.

The Obsolescence of Interfaces

Essay by Carlos A. Scolari: “COVID-19 has highlighted the need to redesign current interfaces to tackle an increasingly complex and uncertain world….

Whenever somebody says the word interface one immediately thinks of a keyboard, a mouse or a joystick, and an infinite number of icons on a screen… This interface – also called a graphical user interface – is a place for interaction, the frontier space where the analogical (double-clicking the mouse) becomes digital (a file, made up of bits, opens). But the graphical user interface is not limited to that exchange between individual and technology: that relationship is mediated by an “interaction grammar” that, in order that things function, must be shared between designer and user.

This idea – the interface understood as a network of actors that are human (user, designer, etc.), technological (mouse, keyboard, screen, apps, Internet, etc.) and institutional (interaction grammar, businesses, laws, etc.) – can be taken far beyond the classical image of the individual against the digital machine. If we scale the concept, we can consider the school as an interface where actors that are human (teachers, students, governors, families, etc.), technological (blackboards, benches, books, pencils, projectors, tablets, etc.) and institutional (school management, PTA, Department of Education, Ministry, etc.) maintain different types of relationships with each other and carry forward a series of processes.

Educational interfaces

For years there has been talk of a “crisis in the school system” and of “educational innovation”. Rivers of ink and seas of bits have issued forth on this question in recent years. Back in 2007, in an article published in La Vanguardia, Manuel Castells warned: “The idea that young people today should bear the burden of a rucksack full of boring textbooks, defined by ministerial bureaucrats, and should be locked up in a classroom to endure a discourse irrelevant to their perspective, and should put up with all this in the name of the future, is simply absurd”. For some, the solution simply involves incorporating “educational technology” into the classroom and training the teachers. However, for others, we believe that the issue is much more complex and that it demands another type of focus. Perhaps a view from the perspective of interfaces might be useful for us….

Many other interfaces that were already showing their limitations from a couple of decades ago, such as political interfaces (parties) or social interfaces (trade unions), must pass through processes of redesign if we want them to continue fulfilling their representative roles. COVID-19 has added hospitals and healthcare centres to this list: during the worst weeks of the pandemic, these interfaces had to be redesigned in real time in order to tackle the boom in the number of patients entering their emergency departments.

Another interface that will not escape redesign is the city. Urban interfaces will have to be rethought in all their dimensions, from the relationship between the public and the private space to the spaces for the flow and permanence of pedestrians while maintaining a “safe social distance”. Even highly innovative spaces on an urban level, such as the “super-blocks” of Barcelona or the new co-working rooms at the UPF, are not prepared for the post-pandemic world and will have to be redesigned.

Nearly all the interfaces that have been mentioned (compulsory state schools, political parties, trade unions, hospitals) were created during Modernity to cater for the needs of a type of industrial mass society that is in the process of disappearing. COVID-19 has done nothing if not slit open all of these interfaces and evidence their incapacity to tackle an increasingly complex and uncertain world….(More)”.

Emancipation cannot be programmed: blind spots of algorithmic facilitation in online deliberation

Paper by Nardine Alnemr: “Challenges in attaining deliberative democratic ideals – such as inclusion, authenticity and consequentiality – in wider political systems have driven the development of artificially-designed citizen deliberation. These designed deliberations, however, are expert-driven. Whereas they may achieve ‘deliberativeness’, their design and implementation are undemocratic and limit deliberative democracy’s emancipatory goals. This is relevant in respect to the role of facilitation. In online deliberation, algorithms and artificial actors replace the central role of human facilitators. The detachment of such designed settings from wider contexts is particularly troubling from a democratic perspective. Digital technologies in online deliberation are not developed in a manner consistent with democratic ideals and are not being amenable to scrutiny by citizens. I discuss the theoretical and the practical blind spots of algorithmic facilitation. Based on these, I present recommendations to democratise the design and implementation of online deliberation with a focus on chatbots as facilitators….(More)”.

Digitising Democracy: On Reinventing Democracy in the Digital Era – A Legal, Political and Psychological Perspective

Book by Volker Boehme-Neßler: “This book argues that in the digital era, a reinvention of democracy is urgently necessary. It discusses the mounting evidence showing that digitalisation is pushing classical parliamentary democracy to its limits, offering examples such as how living in a filter bubble and debating with political bots is profoundly changing democratic communication, making it more emotional, hysterical even, and less rational. It also explores how classical democracy involves long, slow thinking and decision processes, which don’t fit to the ever-increasing speed of the digital world, and examines the technical developments some fear will lead to governance by algorithms.In the digitalised world, democracy no longer functions as it has in the past. This does not mean waving goodbye to democracy –  instead we need to reinvent it. How this could work is the central theme of this book….(More)”.

What science can do for democracy: a complexity science approach

Paper by Tina Eliassi-Rad et al: “Political scientists have conventionally assumed that achieving democracy is a one-way ratchet. Only very recently has the question of “democratic backsliding” attracted any research attention. We argue that democratic instability is best understood with tools from complexity science. The explanatory power of complexity science arises from several features of complex systems. Their relevance in the context of democracy is discussed. Several policy recommendations are offered to help (re)stabilize current systems of representative democracy…(More)”.

Are Food Labels Good?

Paper by Cass Sunstein: “Do people from benefit from food labels? When? By how much? Public officials face persistent challenges in answering these questions. In various nations, they use four different approaches: they refuse to do so on the ground that quantification is not feasible; they engage in breakeven analysis; they project end-states, such as economic savings or health outcomes; and they estimate willingness-to-pay for the relevant information. Each of these approaches runs into strong objections. In principle, the willingness-to-pay question has important advantages. But for those who has that question, there is a serious problem. In practice, people often lack enough information to give a sensible answer to the question how much they would be willing to pay for (more) information. People might also suffer from behavioral biases (including present bias and optimistic bias). And when preferences are labile or endogenous, even an informed and unbiased answer to the willingness to pay question may fail to capture the welfare consequences, because people may develop new tastes and values as a result of information….(More)”.

How urban design can make or break protests

Peter Schwartzstein in Smithsonian Magazine: “If protesters could plan a perfect stage to voice their grievances, it might look a lot like Athens, Greece. Its broad, yet not overly long, central boulevards are almost tailor-made for parading. Its large parliament-facing square, Syntagma, forms a natural focal point for marchers. With a warren of narrow streets surrounding the center, including the rebellious district of Exarcheia, it’s often remarkably easy for demonstrators to steal away if the going gets rough.

Los Angeles, by contrast, is a disaster for protesters. It has no wholly recognizable center, few walkable distances, and little in the way of protest-friendly space. As far as longtime city activists are concerned, just amassing small crowds can be an achievement. “There’s really just no place to go, the city is structured in a way that you’re in a city but you’re not in a city,” says David Adler, general coordinator at the Progressive International, a new global political group. “While a protest is the coming together of a large group of people and that’s just counter to the idea of L.A.”

Among the complex medley of moving parts that guide protest movements, urban design might seem like a fairly peripheral concern. But try telling that to demonstrators from Houston to Beijing, two cities that have geographic characteristics that complicate public protest. Low urban density can thwart mass participation. Limited public space can deprive protesters of the visibility and hence the momentum they need to sustain themselves. On those occasions when proceedings turn messy or violent, alleyways, parks, and labyrinthine apartment buildings can mean the difference between detention and escape….(More)”.

Trust and its determinants: Evidence from the Trustlab experiment

OECD Working Paper : This paper describes the results of an international initiative on trust (Trustlab) run in six OECD countries between November 2016 and November 2017 (France, Germany, Italy, Korea, Slovenia and the United States). Trustlab combines cutting-edge techniques drawn from behavioural science and experimental economics with an extensive survey on the policy and contextual determinants of trust in others and trust in institutions, administered to representative samples of participants.

The main results are as follows: 1) Self-reported measures of trust in institutions are validated experimentally, 2) Self-reported measures of trust in others capture a belief about trustworthiness (as well as altruistic preferences), whereas experimental measures rather capture willingness to cooperate and one’s own trustworthiness. Therefore, both measures are loosely related, and should be considered complementary rather than substitutes; 3) Perceptions of institutional performance strongly correlate with both trust in government and trust in others; 4) Perceived government integrity is the strongest determinant of trust in government; 5) In addition to indicators associated with social capital, such as neighbourhood connectedness and attitudes towards immigration, perceived satisfaction with public services, social preferences and expectations matter for trust in others; 6) There is a large scope for policy action, as an increase in all significant determinants of trust in government by one standard deviation may be conducive to an increase in trust by 30 to 60%….(More)”.

It’s complicated: what the public thinks about COVID-19 technologies

Imogen Parker at Ada Lovelace Institute: “…Tools of this societal importance need to be shaped by the public. Given the technicality and complexity, that means going beyond surface-level opinions captured through polling and focus groups and creating structures to deliberate with groups of informed citizens. That’s hard to do well, and at the pace needed to keep up with policy and technology, but difficult problems are the ones that most need to be solved.

To help bring much-needed public voices into this debate at pace, we have drawn out emergent themes from three recent in-depth public deliberation projects, that can bring insight to bear on the questions of health apps and public health identity systems.

While there are no green lights, red lines – or indeed silver bullets – there are important nuances and strongly held views about the conditions that COVID-19 technologies would need to meet. The report goes into detailed lessons from the public, and I would like to add to those by drawing out here aspects that are consistently under-addressed in discussions I’ve heard about these tools in technology and policy circles.

  1. Trust isn’t just about data or privacy. The technology must be effective – and be seen to be effective. Too often, debates about public acceptability lapse into flawed and tired arguments about privacy vs public health; or citizens’ trust in a technology being confused with reassurances about data protection or security frameworks against malicious actors. First and foremost people need to trust the technology works – they need to trust that it can solve a problem, that it won’t fail, and it can be relied on. The public discussion must be about the outcome of the technology – not just its function. This is particularly vital in the context of public health, which affects everyone in society.
  2. Any application linked to identity is seen as high-stakes. Identity matters and is complex – and there is anxiety about the creation of technological systems that put people in pre-defined boxes or establishes static categories as the primary mechanisms by which they are known, recognised and seen. Proportionality (while not expressed as such) runs deep in public consciousness and any intrusion will require justification, not simply a rallying call for people to do their duty.
  3. Tools must proactively protect against harm. Mechanisms for challenge or redress need to be built around the app – and indeed be seen as part of the technology. This means that legitimate fears that discrimination or prejudice will arise must be addressed head on, and lower uptake from potentially disadvantaged groups that may legitimately mistrust surveillance systems must be acknowledged and mitigated.
  4. Apps will be judged as part of the system they are embedded into. The whole system must be trustworthy, not just the app or technology – and that encompasses those who develop and deploy it and those who will use it out in the world. An app – however technically perfect – can still be misused by rogue employers, or mistrusted through fear of government overreach or scope creep.
  5. Tools are seen by the public as political and social. Technology developers need to understand that they are shifting the social-political fabric of society during a crisis, and potentially beyond. Tech cannot be decoupled or isolated from questions of the nature of the society it will shape – solidaristic or individualistic; divisive or inclusive….(More)”.