Meeting Points

To better serve their citizens, governments are increasingly synergising with tech companies to come up with ever-smarter solutions to urban challenges. By Zahra Hankir

The ancient Arab tradition of majlis centres on sharing ideas.

The word literally translates to “a place for sitting”, and majlis meetings, whether social or administrative, frequently offered a venue for their participants to brainstorm. In a modern spin on that same tradition, Dubai launched the Mohammed bin Rashid Smart Majlis last October to collect ideas from the city’s residents online, with the goal to improve the way people live.

The platform “allows everyone to participate in building the future of Dubai”. “Who knows, the next great idea might be yours!” the site reads. The MBR Smart Majlis is just one of many government innovation initiatives around the world aiming to shake up the lives of global citizens in lasting, transformative ways.

A governmental shift towards innovation can be attributed to a variety of factors. The increasing strength of non-state actors is one; as large companies or multinationals play a more significant role in public life, the state has either quickened its steps to keep up, or invested in fulfilling public and private partnerships which trade off each other’s strengths. An increase in global austerity and widespread attitudes toward civic engagement have also changed the game – and it is undeniable that advancements in technology are a main driving factor.

Take Dubai’s virtual majlis: techsavvy, socially conscious users who visit its website can create an account where they’re able to submit ideas and view others. Testament to the initiative’s success, the majlis received upwards of 2,000 submissions in just two months, with the government noting that the vast majority of ideas were actionable.

In terms of innovation, the overarching trend is one of countries beginning to try to develop a closer underlying relationship with their people

Nigel Oakes , CEO of SCL Group and Chairman of the Behavioural Dynamics Institute

Or, The Mohammed Bin Rashid Centre for Government Innovation in Dubai’s partnership with MIT Professional Education. Launching two workshops this year, the collaboration intends to go beyond brainstorming, with participants that include chief innovation officers in various UAE government entities engaging in real and hands-on work in order to build prototypes of innovative governmental solutions.

Initiatives such as these reflect a seismic shift in how governments deal with their populaces, in part because of the manner in which tech advances have enabled non-state entities to grow.

“Technological change has outpaced society,” according to Cheryl Chung. Currently Deputy Director of Strategic Planning at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, Chung has also pioneered projects across several ministry portfolios in the Singaporean government. “Consequently, the role of the state has had to evolve and to succeed in this new operating environment. The state needs to both increase the ‘supply’ of the state and reduce the ‘demand’ for the state.”

The rise of robotics and automation moves in tandem with the demand for such innovative changes, Chung argues. As a result, some “middle-skill” jobs have all but been eradicated. To cater to this kind of shift in resource allocation and an increase in digital flexibility, states need to step up funding divisions of the government that focus specifically on innovation, or create them should they be absent.

The UK government’s Innovate UK agency, for example, is currently working with a London-based technology company that focuses on “robot-hand technology”, which may help elderly citizens with mild cognitive impairments keep control of their hands – and as a result, their independence – for longer.

The Shadow Dexterous Hand has 20 movements, allowing the user to pick up, grip and release objects with ease. The government agency has spent some US$2.6bn on innovation in the past decade or so, and has worked on projects including innovation around manufacturing and materials, for which it is still accepting funding applications. While the initiative is government-led, it has partnered with some 7,600 organisations in that time, adding almost US$17bn to the UK economy, not to mention 55,000 jobs.

Such global initiatives are not new. The Spanish government in 2008 launched Barcelona’s Urban Lab, which installed microphones and sensors on the city’s lampposts to measure noise and sound, with the goal of understanding the impact of noise pollution and suggesting policy measures that could be implemented to reduce it.

But government innovation, even on a smaller scale, does not come without its difficulties. While states benefit from their autonomy in the sphere of public policy innovation, they must balance that autonomy out with the inequity that’s often a consequence of a complex, centralised system, according to Chung. As such, the state needs assistance from other bodies to balance out the demands of furthering that innovation.

“The state needs to consider what public services it has a role in supplying vis-à-vis other stakeholders, and how it might partner them to deliver better services,” according to Chung, who cofounded Quad Research, a collective that focuses on expanding the space for data-driven discourse and assisting in better collaborative decisions for Singapore’s future.

As the increase in public services also boosts demand for them, the state must make room for civil society and the private sector to establish new providers of these services. Partnership, therefore, is key. This sort of collaborative approach appears to be taking hold. In Canada, local governments are working with small business owners to tackle policy challenges including social innovation, disruptive technology in government and women in entrepreneurship. Some 1,500 entrepreneurs, government officials and anchor companies met at a conference in Ottawa in early May to discuss how governments can support multinational companies and smaller businesses for innovation.

“The rise in the network structure and the expanding influence of non-state actors also presents opportunities for states to facilitate networks of responsibility and build inclusive institutions in place of traditionally more extractive ones,” Chung says.

“What results is greater experimentation and decentralisation, leading to more robust processes and outcomes.” With virtual majlis, a government shakeup announced on social media that included the creation of a council of scientists and other smart initiatives, the UAE has eagerly embraced government innovation.

The Dubai Now app, another Dubai Smart Gov feature that’s downloadable on iPhone and Android app stores and that offers more than 50 services from 22 government entities, was presented at the Dubai International Government Achievements Exhibition 2016.

Behind the country’s innovative state is a flexibility when it comes to catering to citizen demand, according to Nigel Oakes. Oakes is the CEO of SCL Group, which has managed election campaigns in countries including Indonesia and South Africa, as well as Chairman of the Behavioural Dynamics Institute, known for its ‘People Pulse’ technology that measures citizens’ feelings towards governments. He is moving the latter to Dubai in 2017.

“The innovative initiatives that are being promoted by Dubai will be conducive to introducing new social approaches to government,” says Oakes. “A lot of Western governments are so rigidly set in their ways that any type of innovation in terms of relationships with the people is almost impossible.”

What results is greater experimentation and decentralisation, leading to more robust processes and outcomes

Cheryl Chung, Deputy Director of Strategic Planning at Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy

However, there are governments who have managed to integrate modernisation into their policy. In Australia innovation featured in the nation’s budget, with the treasurer listing an innovation and science programme for start-up businesses as the first priority of the plan. Ultimately, it seems that collaborating with non-government bodies, creating special innovation task forces and agencies and utilizing technology to engage with a younger population, are all factors in creating a social and switched-on government.

“In terms of innovation, the overarching trend is that countries will start to try to develop a closer relationship with their people,” Oakes says. “And using big data, which can give indication of public sentiment, can only be a positive next step.”