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We urgently need better evidence on the impacts of digitalisation

Written by Louise Shaxson

I love the process of making New Year's resolutions. My 2020 resolutions are all about focus. On a personal level, I want to reduce digital distractions so that I end the year feeling in control of my digital environment. But on a professional level, I’m going to dive right into my work as the Director of ODI’s Digital Societies Programme, researching the challenges and opportunities digitalisation poses to our changing societies and gathering evidence of what has happened to date. Below are just some of the issues that will be key in the year ahead. 

Digitalisation is rebalancing where socio-technical developments are happening

Digitalisation is breaking down old structures and creating new ones. It’s bringing inequality into sharp focus: the digital divide is a serious concern within and between countries and between men and women, old and young.

Digitalisation is influencing political discourse, shaping how we access public services, affecting our understanding of our identity and changing the way we think about regulation.

It’s always been wrong to assume that countries’ economic, social and political development follows some linear pathway, and digitalisation is throwing this into the spotlight. 

Digitalisation is making privacy and identity central issues

And as the impact of digitalisation grows, so do our concerns about its scale and scope - especially around privacy and identity.  Today, surveillance cameras can not only identify us by how we walk, they can also lip-read.

At the same time, increasingly common digital identity cards are being criticised as an extension of colonial attitudes towards minorities. When the state collects digital and biometric data and then authorises its sale (as has occurred in Kenya), the boundaries between identity sale and identity theft become blurred - while the risk of large-scale identity-hacking becomes very real.

Bots and fake news are already influencing voting patterns, with deepfake videos that impersonate politicians and even presidents only pushing this to more worrying extremes. The danger is that in all societies, those who are already poor or marginalised will be left worse off by these developments. 

Digitalisation is transforming our work

Automation, digital platforms, cloud computing, 3D printing and miniaturisation are dramatically changing what work we do and how it is distributed.  Global supply chains may change yet again as automation makes it cheaper to restore jobs to developed economies.  And we cannot ignore the climate implications of the vast amounts of energy required by the cloud and machine learning.

The gig economy, a key development in the digitalisation of work, makes purchasing goods and services very convenient, but it often leaves workers in financially precarious positions and can deepen existing gender inequalities.  As argued by Tim Wu, we can’t allow convenience to run our lives without thinking about what it takes from the people who deliver it to us.

Recent work from ODI points out how platform companies and policy-makers can and should make active choices about how they can help to ensure decent work, job security, workers’ safety and their right to organise.  

Digitalisation requires good governance

These challenges point to two issues. The first is digital governance: who has the power to make decisions about the development of digital and other emerging technologies, how other voices can be heard, and how decision-makers can be held accountable.

Governance is now a central theme promoted by the Pathways for Prosperity Digital Roadmap and the UN Secretary General’s report on digital interdependence, while organisations like the Data-Pop Alliance advise that collection of private data must balance technological and economic opportunities with a deep understanding of politics, governance and ethics.

There is plenty of work to do to understand, for example, the role of automated decision-making in policy development, implementation and monitoring, including how to move towards ‘Human AI systems’ where we are clear that it’s people making decisions - even if the data is analysed by (potentially biased) algorithms.

These big questions about digital governance extend to areas such as:

Good digital governance requires robust evidence

The second issue is that if we are to govern effectively, we must have a robust evidence base.  We have very little hard evidence on the impacts of digitalisation: who it has benefited and how; and how different governance frameworks have shaped the delivery of those benefits.  

The research community has worked hard to define the problems we face in the digital age, and we now have a set of principles to guide what we do. However, it’s dangerous to move directly from problem definition and principles to prescribing solutions without evidence.

We know how to use evidence to inform policy, but with robust evidence on the effects of digitalisation in short supply, we are currently flying, at speed, with one eye closed. We urgently need to start building that evidence base to help policy-makers cut through the distractions and make well-informed choices.

This blog is part of our ODI at 60 initiative.