This blogpost is a summary of insights from the recent World Bank report on the impact of emerging digital technologies on citizen engagement.

Technology is re-imagining citizen engagement, but in what way exactly? What will the new decade bring? Which digital developments should we be on the lookout for? And how can governments prepare for these technological developments that may impact citizen engagement?

Recently the World Bank published an insightful report, written by Tiago Peixoto and Tom Steinberg to assist governments with preparing for the (possible) impact of emerging digital technologies. The report presents 11 predictions about the influence of technology on citizen engagement and proposes 6 measures for governments to take. The main questions this report aimed to answer: Will digital technologies, both those that are already widespread and those that are still emerging, have substantial impacts on the way citizens engage and the ways through which power is sought, used, or contested?

The full report can be downloaded here. Before you start reading these 76 pages, we summarize a few of the key insights from this report here. It may provide food for thought on the future of citizen engagement – and what questions your government should start considering to address this decade.

The impact of … Augmented Reality

Augmented reality (AR) has been a potential ‘hype’ in recent years. However, except in the field of gaming and some medical disciplines, it has not yet led to significant progress in governments. The potential impact of augmented reality on citizen engagement is significant. Why? The report argues AR would change the way citizens perceive public spaces.

A citizen walking around in his or her community with a pair of augmented reality glasses could get real-time responses on city plans, services or buildings based on the embedded algorithms. This type of innovation could help develop the relationship between citizens and their local governments.

The report points out that such a digital tool should be framed: who will be allowed to provide the underlying data? Is it possible to guarantee factual and objective information? These questions are still highly sensitive.

The impact of … Social scoring

As a result of our vast online activity, an enormous amount of personal data is generated that tells a lot about habits, tastes, and even political preferences. Today, most governments only evaluate this data to detect and prevent criminal activities. However, the level of accuracy of this data could lead to more sophisticated surveillance activities or social “rankings”. For example, an insurance company could use this information to generate enhanced credit ratings, influencing the allocation of credit or insurance. As the report points out, such practices are already a reality in some countries – China, for example, has already developed ‘citizen scores’ based in part on digital activity.

Extract from Nosedive, a chilling episode from the dystopian Black Mirror series, depicting the possible outcomes of extensive social scoring.

The challenge for governments is to decide how to regulate these practices. Will they prohibit, encourage or allow decision-makers or organizations to take these “social scores” into account? What areas might these scores affect? Implementing legislation could have a serious effect on power relations and inequalities.

The impact of … Automation

Automated data processing can not only inform social scoring but also enable cities to better understand the problems faced by citizens. The set of smart city tools provide local decision-makers with valuable information on the use and operation of public services in real-time, thus improving the efficiency of these services. However, these innovations could also bring about more negative changes: by reducing the investment required from citizens, automated data processing could minimize citizen engagement in the long term.

Several voices are raised in the report, explaining that if governments improve services only on the basis of automated data, citizens may lose the desire to communicate with the government and engage in politics. Automation could eliminate the need for citizens to engage and report problems, which could affect their motivation to participate in deeper forms of political engagement. In the future, science may even prove that citizen desires detected by algorithms are more legitimate than traditional mechanisms such as voting.

What actions can governments take?

As worrying as some of these predictions may seem, they should not cloud your judgment for the future. These are just predictions, not certainties. In the years to come, they may be influenced by a multitude of new factors that could change their effects. In reality, the realization of these predictions, fortunately, depends largely on human action – so it is up to governments and civil society actors to ensure that technological innovations are as beneficial as possible to citizens.

In conclusion, the authors of the report recommend several key actions that governments can take now to regulate innovation in a positive way. These include:

  1. Ensuring that the digital government puts the need of its users first;
  2. Launch formal public debates on social scoring to ensure you’re prepared to make informed decisions;
  3. Utilize Citizen Assemblies to craft informed, robust, and legitimate digital policies;
  4. Design all civic technology initiatives for inclusiveness.

Ready for more predictions & actions you can take as a government? Download the full World Bank report from 2019 here.

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