Governance in Covid-19 and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Artificial intelligence. File photo

The last few months have ushered in a new epoch for governance. As the coronavirus has swept through the globe, nations have had to respond with agility. The biggest challenge has been that we are facing an unknown. We have not seen a global pandemic of this scale since the Spanish Influenza a century ago. It has required quick responses. Yet, this has revealed many fault lines in our current governance structures.

There, of course, have been successful responses to the pandemic. Vietnam, New Zealand and South Korea, for instance, have had successful strategies. Yet, wealthier nations such as the United States and the United Kingdom have been woefully unprepared, demonstrated by the alarming increase in infections and deaths. In South Africa, the rapidly established structures by President Cyril Ramaphosa following the initial cases of the coronavirus in the country proved to be effective and efficient. However, as the days moved into months, bureaucratic wrangles and legal challenges began to take centre stage inhibiting and hampering agility.

This presents an interesting dichotomy in an increasingly globalised world. As the systems theorist Buckminster Fuller once said, “We have today, in fact, 150 supreme admirals and only one ship – Spaceship Earth. We have the 150 admirals in their 150 staterooms each trying to run their respective stateroom as if it were a separate ship. We have the starboard-side admirals’ league trying to sink the port side admirals’ league. If either is successful in careening the ship to drown the ‘enemy’ side, the whole ship will be lost.” The current context has both demonstrated the benefits of agility and the significant costs of its absence.

In a white paper released in 2018, the World Economic Forum defined agile governance as, “adaptive, human-centred, inclusive and sustainable policymaking, which acknowledges that policy development is no longer limited to governments but rather is an increasingly multi-stakeholder effort.”

The pandemic, if anything, has been a yardstick for agile governance. We are currently facing great shifts. Alongside the pandemic, is the shift to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Characterised by advances in technology such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, blockchain technology and big data, the 4IR is changing the way individuals and entire societies work, live and interact. Interestingly enough, this concept of agile governance characterises the 4IR. While many are wary of the 4IR, Klaus Schwab who coined the term refers to it merely as tools “made by people for people”. 

This paradigm shift requires a reimagining of regulations, principles, protocols and policies to accommodate the technologies of the 4IR positively and inclusively. However, laws and regulations take long to come into fruition. The process of unpacking the implications of legislation, the extensive consultation required, and the bureaucratic processes for approval sometimes lag behind the very pressing needs of society for which the legislation is required in the first place.

It is particularly important for the African continent to not only tap into the technologies of the 4IR but also examine its governance structures – we will only emerge successful with agile governance. As the former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “Good governance is perhaps the single most important factor in eradicating poverty and promoting development.” The African Development Bank characterises good governance by capable states, mobilised civil societies and an efficient private sector. Yet, good governance in this era means that we also embrace the technologies of the 4IR. The takeaway message of the WEF in Africa last year was that the 4IR would potentially to accelerate the socio-economic development of the entire continent.

As Cathy Smith, the managing director of SAP Africa, put it, “It can solve a host of business and societal challenges, from providing better healthcare and basic services to creating more efficient governments, and helping businesses become intelligent enterprises that drive growth and prosperity. Our governments and institutions have a massive opportunity to start using AI and digital platforms to do life-changing things.” As Smith explained, through the African Union (AU), the continent has taken a collaborative and proactive approach to harness the economy. Now, we need to do the same for technology.

This means continuing to have agile governance structures across the board. Of course, the continent comprises various vastly different nations. As we have through structures like the AU in the past, we must continue to learn from each other so that we create our own models, tailored for the continent.

While a report on Worldwide AI Laws and Regulations compiled by research firm Cognilytica found that many governments are adopting a “wait and see” approach to creating laws and regulations in this space, there needs to be a proactive shift.

In 2018, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that through the Presidential Commission on the 4IR, of which I am deputy chair, technologies would be used to augment South Africa’s competitiveness. The commission has made eight recommendations that will put South Africa’s fortunes on the upward trajectory. One of these recommendations is that the country reviews amends or creates policy and legislation.

As we begin to champion the 4IR, it is imperative to ensure that our legislation is in line with this. As per our initial recommendation, ministries, or line departments, should be tasked with looking at all our legislation and updating them in line with the 4IR, which would need to be approved by parliament.

This would require the legislature and the state executives to be trained to become 4IR- and science-literate to implement changes. Due to the fast-paced nature of technological innovation, there should not be a lag between regulation and the impact of technology on the lives of citizens.

As countries look at adopting national artificial intelligence (AI) plans, the natural starting point has been integrating the technology at a local government level. According to Deloitte, there are over 1,000 smart city projects in countries like Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Half of these projects are in China, giving it the largest concentration of smart cities. Advances in AI, including autonomous operations where machines or entire facilities can run themselves, could be a game-changer. Around the world, smart cities and local governments are leveraging this technology in many ways. The scope for 4IR technologies here is immense and can bring many benefits, including improved safety, energy efficiency and increased tourism.

Many countries have digital blueprints for government services. E-Government service, such as those outlined in these digital blueprints makes streamline administrative processes, reduce the cost of accessing those services, government services more accessible online, improve turnaround times, and strengthen accountability and responsiveness. We’ve seen how analysis based on algorithms, one of the building blocks of AI, can help improve efficiency and objectivity.

Agile governance does not solely encompass government. Governance is the process of decision-making and extends to the private sector and civil society. As the WEF white paper outlines, “There is an urgent need for a faster, more agile approach to governing emerging technologies and the business models and social interaction structures they enable. As traditional policy development processes lag behind the rapid pace of technology innovation, citizens increasingly expect the private sector and other non-government entities to take on new responsibilities and develop new approaches to support the diversification and speed of governance.”

As we fundamentally relook at society, from the point of view of the pandemic and the 4IR, governance has to be a key priority. We cannot be static in the face of change; we have to continuously adapt in order to ensure that governance is effective. Perhaps the most significant challenge we face is that we are wholly unprepared for this shift. To paraphrase, the former United States secretary of state Madeleine Albright, we are armed with a 20th-century mindset and 19th-century institutions but trying to understand and govern 21st-century technologies. To subvert this, we have to be open to fully embracing agile governance in every aspect.

Fortuitously, we are on the ground floor of the 4IR itself. As Schwab puts it, “This revolution is only in its early stages, which provides humankind with the opportunity and responsibility to shape not just the design of new technologies, but also more agile forms of governance and positive values that will fundamentally change how we live, work and relate to one another.”

Professor Tshilidzi Marwala is the Vice-Chancellor and Principal of the University of Johannesburg.  He is the Deputy Chair of the Presidential Commission on the Fourth Industrial Revolution.