Innovation and Politics: An Intertwined Relationship
At the one-week visiting programme to Berlin and Brussels entitled Innovation in Politics organised by the International Academy of Leadership and the Brussels office of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation, we had the chance to visit multiple stakeholders and learn about different angles of innovation and their interaction with politics. Although one would expect to learn about how innovation is being applied to politics, meaning how policymakers can elevate their work to a new level of effectiveness and efficiency that is needed for the 21stcentury and the ever-changing needs of the economy, society and the environment, more interactions between innovation and politics were unveiled. The main takeaway was that the relationship between politics and innovation is intertwined and complex and cannot be thought of as a one-way street.
To start with, politics has a significant influence on innovation which means that policymakers and legislators are the ones who determine to what extent and how well innovation and technology are being embraced at the country level. For example, Estonia is one of the exemplary countries which were able to bring the entire country to a different level of digitisation. The roadmap of a fully digital government and seamless electronic citizen transactions has constantly been evolving over the past two decades. By providing digital citizen services such as the electronic tax filing system, among many other services, Estonia could elevate its governmental processes to a whole new level of efficiency. The Estonian model is different from a typical model in Europe and this is why it is being used as a case study for other European countries in the EU which have realized the need for digitalising governmental transactions partially due to the latest pandemic.
One of the underlying factors for adopting more innovation in politics and in running the state is the willingness of the government. Coming from the Middle East, this may be one of the most important findings and differentiators when comparing the EU to other areas in the world. Many local and federal governments in the EU are demonstrating an increased willingness to advance how they work and interact with their citizens and are open more than ever to adopting technologies and innovative processes that would enable them to achieve their goals. This point was validated during the meeting with the founder of Dreamocracy, a consultancy firm that works with a plethora of governments with the willingness to be more innovative and to exercise more effective democracy through leveraging collective intelligence. Another private company, Citizen Lab, is also working with over 400 local governments that seek to better engage their citizens in the decision-making process by adopting a tech-enabled participatory approach with the help of Citizen Lab’s white-labelled web platforms powered by data science and analytics.
Other ways in which politics influence innovation and determine its future and direction in a particular country or part of the world is how policymakers deal with the new and current emerging and often controversial issues regarding technology and digitalisation. While meeting with Accredited parliamentary assistants of two Members of the European Parliament from Renew Europe Group, the liberal and pro-European political group in the EP, the AI Act (Artificial Intelligence) was mentioned as one of the most debatable and controversial proposals in the current mandate. The regulation of AI will have a considerable impact on its application in any country. This process is taking an extended period of time due to the various involved uncertainties and complexities. Ultimately, politics plays a significant role in that process. One of the interesting points that demonstrate the complexity of negotiating the terms of the AI Act is how some machine learning models are repeating the controversial decisions made in history instead of creating new and better decisions that correct the unfairness of the past. For instance, when it comes to employment, many AI models that were trained to assist HR managers in hiring decisions turned out to be biased simply because the actual employment data itself was biased and not diverse enough. Prioritising equal employment opportunities, such as the employment of women and underrepresented groups in the tech sector, brings us to question the effectiveness of AI in achieving the desired diversity. Thus, some of the political controversies revolve around how much humans can and should trust AI to assist them with making important decisions or even making such decisions on their behalf. Ultimately, one of the goals of policymakers should be to make sure that AI is being used to correct/reverse some of the past mistakes and to avoid replicating human bias or repeating history even when historical data is skewed.
Despite the overall willingness of the EU to adopt more innovation on the political as well as other levels, and in light of the complexities facing policymakers in determining the best utilization of new trends in technology, there is still a long way to go. Nevertheless, it is eminent that Europe has positioned itself uniquely in the aftermath of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine as it simultaneously pushes for strategic autonomy and a more citizen- and planet-centric economy where social innovation is gaining significant momentum. Some inspiring movements in that direction are the emerging public funds supporting innovation for the social good such as the Prototype Fund in Berlin. In addition, the Sovereign Tech Fund, also based in Berlin, supports building a more robust and sustainable technological infrastructure and, just like the Prototype Fund, leverages and empowers the private technology sector. These observations and living examples from Europe reassure the salience of lobbying and advocacy with government leaders and ministries, no matter where we are in the world, to achieve the goals of progress and prosperity that we aspire for, especially when it comes to social and political innovation.
Mona Itani is an assistant professor of entrepreneurship at the Olayan School of Business at the American University of Beirut in Beirut, Lebanon. She founded Riyada for Social Innovation SAL and is the co-founder of Shabab Lab (shabablab.com). Her work primarily contributes to the capacity building of youth in social innovation and entrepreneurship, including political innovation through hackathons, in-person training programmes, incubation cycles and e-learning for high school students.