Forget “Building Back Better” — Technology Needs to Be Built Differently

December 7, 2020
Elementary school students engage in online instruction at the school site learning hub in Cathedral City, California on November 20, 2020. (Taya Gray/The Desert Sun)

The pandemic is accelerating the entrenchment of corporate technologies across a range of civic spheres, from education and health care to municipal economic development. The list of examples is growing quickly, from Google and Apple’s foray into the global public health response, to the use of Proctorio and other remote educational proctoring tools, to Facebook’s and Shopify’s involvement in supporting and shaping small business communities. This entrenchment is, in part, a by-product of fast decisions made by governments and public institutions about how technologies are deployed or permitted in society. Once normalized, these technology decisions — which privatize the governance of technology in insidious ways — are notoriously difficult to change, replace or undo.   

Difficult, but not impossible. To reimagine and shape more of our technologies (and the markets for them) through a civic lens, and as public goods, we can create and implement civic technology policy. Civic technology is technology built to serve civic purpose — it is created with the consideration of a range of social, cultural, economic and political factors in mind. Civic technology takes all of these forces into account when it is being designed, implemented, adapted and governed. Pursuing a civic technology policy approach is a way to grow public control over how technology is shaping society. The tough part is not technical — it is political ‚ finding governments with the will, confidence and incentive to exert state power on markets. Though this represents a significant shift in technology policy, its timing and intention lines up well with larger recovery efforts, including with economist Mariana Mazzucato’s approach to mission-oriented innovation policy.

There is no minor tinkering that will achieve significant change in terms of technology and society; an ideological overhaul to support civic technology is required. To begin imagining how the implementation of such a policy would look in practice, it is useful to consider the idea through a number of different lenses. Labour, democratic participation and economic development are three good places to start.

Once normalized, these technology decisions — which privatize the governance of technology in insidious ways — are notoriously difficult to change, replace or undo.  

Thinking about technology policy through a labour lens, the best way to honour and value the professional knowledge and skill in our service sectors (a large part of many economies) is to galvanize the creation of technologies that support people rather than seek to overtake or automate their work. One tactic to achieve this is directing public investment into open-source (non-proprietary and shareable) software capacity. Prioritizing and mandating open-source software can help service and care industries continue to evolve — and thrive — by adopting technology that can be co-designed with and by workers. It’s a different model of capacity building, one that includes worker co-design as part of technology purchasing, implementation and oversight. For example, education institutions at all levels could be required to procure open-source remote learning tools such as BigBlueButton. Shifting to these kinds of products encourages educational institutions to invest in the skills to implement and adapt open-source software within their institutions, by those that use it. This, in turn, builds ongoing human capacity to implement other customizable technologies with strict attention to their civic and public mandates, including data governance policies.

From a democratic participation perspective, civic technology can be a factor in expanding approaches to increase public engagement; consider the open-source tool, used in Taiwan on a range of political issues (disclosure: I volunteer for, or some of the Decidim work done in Barcelona. Both are examples of civic tech that bring more people into direct and sustained participation in governance across a range of political issues. Using tools such as these enable different and broader participation in political agenda setting, although digital divide issues remain a constraining factor to address in execution.

From the perspective of community and economic development, another tactical investment is a public works program, one that would include support for community programs such as mesh internet networks that deliver affordable internet to people who aren’t well served, addressing some of the limiting factors of the digital divide. Ironically, these mesh internet programs are currently more in need of people to support their implementation than of costly and monopolized infrastructure. Another tactic in this realm is to increase investment in public computing power, an asset now locked up in the big tech companies (such as computing resources for artificial intelligence or server capacity to run open-source tools), or at least to design new models for public sharing and access to existing private capacity. The power asymmetries that are entrenched in today’s digital infrastructure realm are stark. Finally, civic technology policy can shape markets to diversify business models — to move away from surveillance capitalism that treats data as a commodity and shift attention toward (and place value on) different business models for software and systems. Tools designed to operate from a different set of instincts. Governments can use public procurement to create demand for civic tech products that are well poised to succeed in the large global market for public sector technology.

These are just a handful of examples of what this policy approach might look like in practice. To get there, governments must be willing to undergo organizational change. From a human resources perspective, governments will have to define new teams, roles and responsibilities, including intersectional economic, legal and technical roles (among many others) that are about broad technology design across sectors. This includes taking on new responsibility for defining how public and private technology systems should interact with each other. It means exploring legal approaches to support a technology transition away from current models, which is a much bigger project than new procurements. Work must also be done to create new economic measures that capture the cross-cutting societal benefits of a civic technology approach. Most importantly, the public service teams that implement this policy need to be given the authority they need to pull it off.

Creating and implementing new civic technology policy will be a steep uphill battle. Decades of outsourcing technology policy work (and its attendant risks) to consulting firms is a hard habit to break. This outsourcing has also left operational capacity of the state severely depleted. The political desire to feed and fuel industrial growth in the status quo tech sector consistently eclipses and elides discussion of technology’s social impacts — particularly in terms of how widespread private digital infrastructures shape society and limit democracy.  But these norms aren’t the only option. Forget building back better, we need to build our technology differently. The answer is civic technology.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.

About the Author

Bianca Wylie is a CIGI senior fellow. Her main areas of interest are procurement and public sector technology. She focuses on examining Canadian data and technology policy decisions and their alignment with democratically informed policy and consumer protection.