Singularity University and the Governance Global Grand Challenge

Over the last decade, technology has transformed nearly every aspect of life—from how we shop, to how we study, to how we work, to how we eat. Despite this, many of us were caught off guard when technology began to disrupt the field of governance—historically thought to be one of the most bureaucratic, non-innovative, untouchable, sluggish sectors on the planet.

Governance is one of Singularity University’s global grand challenges. In particular, we are striving to use exponential technologies to create a world with “equitable participation of all people in formal and societal governance that is in accordance with principles of justice and individual rights, free from discrimination and identity-based prejudices and able to meet the needs of an exponentially changing world.”

As our Vice Chair of Global Grand Challenges, I wanted to share with you some of the work our community is doing in the governance sector as well as what more needs to be done.

Improving government services and decision-making through digitization

One of the hopes of exponential technologies is that digitization can deliver more effective and sophisticated products and services at lower costs. Estonia, which launched its e-governance program in 1997, and was hailed as one of the most “advanced digital societies in the world” by WIRED Magazine, was one of the first to demonstrate that this trend holds true even for the field of Governance.

According to Estonia’s website, Estonian citizens can currently digitally access 99% of government services, pay taxes in three to four minutes, and vote simply and securely at their convenience from anywhere in the world. Furthermore, citizens own their own health data, much of the system is managed on blockchain, and all information is held in decentralized databases that are securely and elegantly harmonized when needed. SingularityHub author and Tallinn Chapter leader Siim Saare, created this Innovator’s Guide to explore Estonia, meet its innovators, and visit its “showroom” of successful governance solutions.

Blockchain solutions

The rise of blockchain solutions for governance

While Estonia is a classic example of how governments can use exponential technologies to improve services, other governments and international governing bodies are also using exponential technologies in new ways. For example, the World Food Programme (WFP), an impact partner of Singularity University, created “Building Blocks,” a blockchain based system that improves disbursement of food coupons to over 100,000 Syrian refugees. The system allows WFP to speed up processing and settlement of transactions, lowers the chance of fraud, and reduces the cost of intermediaries such as banks. They also hope that it will better protect refugee privacy and allow them to more rapidly respond to emergencies. WFP is expanding this system to the UN’s Women Cash for Work program as well as other supply chains and is inviting other UN agencies and humanitarian agencies to participate in this work.

One of our SU Portfolio Companies, the IXO Foundation, is using blockchain to help governments and others disburse funds linked to achievements in social impact and verified impact outcomes. For example, Project Amply tracks student attendance at schools in South Africa and then releases school subsidies from the government upon attendance performance. They are also working with Siam Solar Energy in Thailand to develop a system for tracking greenhouse gas emissions and then automatically issue certified carbon credits. These innovations not only allow governments and supporters to understand their impact but also increase overall efficiency and accountability, as well as save time and resources.

SU Faculty member and alumna Anne Connelly, who is an expert in blockchain and humanitarian affairs, also speaks regularly about how blockchain can help humanitarian organizations eliminate corruption, track impact, pay employees, and improve safety, supply chains, and local economies.

Big data, AI and drones.

Big data, AI, and drones help aid governance and humanitarian work

Outside of blockchain, exponential technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence are also improving government and humanitarian work. One of our speakers at our recent Singularity University Global Summit in San Francisco, Wolfgang Fengler—who is also the World Bank’s Lead Economist in Finance, Competitiveness, and Innovation—is working with data and artificial intelligence to help governments and the world better understand the size of social problems such as prosperity and healthcare, and how well we are addressing them. Check out his World Poverty Clock, which provides real-time data and projections on the number of people living in extreme poverty. His bigger vision is to bring the data revolution to the Sustainable Development Goals.

SU Faculty member and alumna, Paola Santana, who was also a founder of the SU Portfolio Company Matternet where she helped pioneer the drone industry and drone regulatory environment, is working on her second startup, Social Glass, to improve government decision making and efficiency. Social Glass is working to create high-performing governments around the world through a new ecosystem of software applications. Her first application makes government procurement fast, compliant, and paperless.

SU Impact Partner Field Innovation Team is also working to empower local citizens to develop solutions to disasters. The organization hosted a “Do-Tank” on utilizing drones in disaster response, collaborated with Singularity University to bring technological solutions to refugees in Lebanon, and have partnered with BBVA to launch their “Shelter Smart” program, which helps citizens prepare and respond to disaster in collaboration with governments as government agencies and humanitarian organizations become increasingly taxed in responding to an increasing number of disasters.

Exponential technologies are seeking to increase citizen participation

SU Faculty member David Bray, who recently served as the CIO for the FCC and is now the Executive Director of the People-Centered Internet coalition, is taking a more broad approach to helping the public service sector harness the benefits of technology. He believes that governments have an incredible opportunity to better use technology, as well as engage change agents in innovation and better utilize the plurality of ideas that come with a digitally-connected society. At the same time, he believes governments need to take a slightly different approach than technology companies as the consequences of risk and failure have a bigger impact on the well-being of society, and they don’t always have access to the same financial resources as companies.

A number of SU alumni, community members, and faculty are also working on startups creating digital democracies and democratic processes that use blockchain and other exponential technologies to encourage their citizens to make decisions and participate in governance in new ways. SU alumnus Soushiant Zanganehphour is developing Swae, a software platform to help groups make collective decisions and govern together in a more bottom-up fashion. His tool allows citizens in municipalities, employees of companies, and customers to collect data, perform trade-off analysis on decisions, and submit their own proposals and policies. His work can transform the role of locally-elected officials and managers from top-down decision-makers into a new type of leader that empowers citizens and individuals impacted by decisions to help create those decisions themselves. The company recently launched its first partnership with Etihad Airways.

SU Faculty members Pia Mancini and Santiago Siri (also winners of Singularity University’s 2016 Global Grand Challenge Award) lead Democracy Earth Foundation and Open Collective, which are making peer-to-peer democracies a reality. Through their tool, Sovereign, they allow organizations to leapfrog political intermediaries by letting citizens make decisions and agreements and engage with others through smart contracts and liquid democracy. Their work stemmed from their earlier involvement in launching the “Partido de la Red” or party of the (Inter) Net in Argentina. Also hailing from Argentina is SU alumnus Horacio Caceres, who is building Qubistry, a blockchain system for public voting and consultations, and SU alumnus Federico Ast, founder of Kleros, which uses the blockchain for dispute resolution.

Back in the United States, Singularity Hub senior editor Vanessa Bates Ramirez wrote about one of the first experiments in blockchain voting in the United States and Singularity Hub author David Pring-Mill wrote about vulnerabilities to traditional voting equipment.

A number of SU Faculty members have also developed broader talks and articles on the future of governance and society. SU Faculty and Vice Chair Nathaniel Calhoun speaks about exponential technologies and their potential to decentralize power, Banning Garrett speaks about how exponential technologies impact global governance and international affairs, and SU Executive Founder and Director Peter Diamandis writes about the broad changes coming to the field of governance in a digital age.

Exponential technology and human rights and security

We have a number of thought leaders and innovators working to apply exponential technologies in the important areas of security and human rights.

Singularity University Faculty member Marc Goodman was an early pioneer in this field when he published Future Crimes, outlining the growing cybercrime industry and the extensive ways criminals and others could hack governments and public infrastructure and wreak havoc on society, as well as ways that governments can fight back, such as by harnessing technology themselves and engaging changemakers in their work. SU Faculty member Robert Muggah, also founder of Igarape Institute in Brazil, is a prolific writer and speaker on how technologies can solve conflict challenges in cities and beyond. He’s also an innovator in creating technology solutions to ensure citizen safety and justice. SU Speaker Rodrigo Nieto-Gomez speaks and writes about the impact of exponential technologies on national security and local police forces, and SU Faculty member Brian Ferguson speaks about technology and global security in elite security organizations. SU has also worked with Amnesty International and the United Nations Development Program to showcase how virtual reality could be used as a tool for social innovators hoping to alleviate conflict by transporting people to war zones and refugee camps.

Another SU Portfolio Company, Hala Systems, also a winner of Singularity University’s 2017 Global Grand Challenges Awards, is using data and acoustic sensors to warn citizens, as well as organizations such as hospitals and schools in war zones, about incoming missiles and attacks. Currently the company has warned over two million citizens, provided unique prima facie evidence of war crimes on 75 events, and disseminated 250 reports on aircraft activity and ceasefire violations to governments, NGOs, and the United Nations. In addition, SU recently partnered with NSquare to research how exponential technologies are impacting the field of nuclear threats, support innovators, and hold public discussions on the issue.

Singularity University Faculty member, Alex Gladstein, who is also Chief Strategy Officer for the Human Rights Foundation, is a prolific speaker and writer on how exponential technologies can fuel or thwart human rights, democracy, and dictatorships. In his recent talk at our SingularityU South Africa Summit on “The Cutting Edge of Human Rights,” he shared how authoritarian regimes, such as China, are collecting massive amounts of data on citizens from the social media platform WeChat, which is then used for surveillance and controlling access to schools and visas based on political obedience. Alternatively, he shares how exponential technologies, ranging from flash drives dropped by drones in North Korea, to futuristic internet services composed of space-based satellite networks and cheap 3D printable receivers, can empower citizens through access to information.

Along those lines, Singularity Hub author Edd Gent recently wrote about the rise of digital authoritarianism, and Singularity Hub author Thomas Hornigold wrote about the challenges of investigating corrupt algorithms. SU Faculty member Vivienne Ming speaks about the challenges of biased artificial intelligence and algorithms, among other topics.

Looking forward

While much is happening on the frontiers of exponential technology and governance, there is still more work to be done. First, given that exponential technologies will now impact every industry on the planet and all aspects of society because of their falling costs and rapid scaling abilities, it is important for governments, policymakers, and the humanitarian community to change their relationship to technology. In the past, these groups would engage technologists for specific projects or played a role in regulating technology. Today, these groups must build and lead with technology themselves. This can happen in different ways. For example, USAID, UNICEF, and WFP have all opened their own technology incubators or set up investment funds to facilitate technological solutions to the problems they are tackling. We also need governments and humanitarians to start building technology solutions themselves for their citizens. The leadership of Estonia, as noted earlier, is an example of this. Governments have the freedom to protect citizen data in a way that companies monetizing data do not. Further, citizens living in a society that provides efficient access to government services, health care, education, and more will be at an advantage over those from countries that do not.

Second, our world needs to launch a new field of study devoted to exponential technologies and their impact on society. While Singularity University has been building out this new field over the last ten years, we need more universities teaching these topics and thousands of innovators creating positive solutions with technology. While I have shared a high-level overview of some of the innovations happening among our own community, each of these topics deserves to be an entire discipline with thorough research and many, many solutions in the works. In addition, there are a number of other topics that need to be addressed, ranging from technological unemployment to ethics and bioethics to regulations, and more.

We will likely also be surprised by a number of topics we can’t yet anticipate. For example, Nature recently published an article on the possibility of quantum technology creating “quantum ballots” where voters with quantum technology can select a “super-position” of candidates, whereas classical voters can only select one candidate. Or, with the development of brain to brain interfaces which allow for telepathy, our governance, legal, and security systems—which are primarily grounded in the idea of the individual—may face new challenges and disruptions.

The good news is that we are seeing many innovators and thought leaders engaging in this new field and helping build a positive future.

Are you working on these or other governance issues? Apply to our Global Startup Program, pitch an article to Singularity Hub, apply to be a speaker or faculty member, or apply to be a mentor to our innovators.