A discussion on technological disruption in government, business, healthcare, education
OpenGov attended a fascinating panel discussion on how technology is going to impact different spheres of lives, societies and nations, in Singapore and beyond at the launch of a new book, titled Living Digital 2040: Future of Work, Education, and Healthcare on February 8.
Published by World Scientific and authored by experts including Mr Poon King Wang (Director, Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities, Singapore University of Technology and Design or SUTD), Dr Hyowon Lee (Assistant Professor, Information Systems Technology and Design, SUTD), Dr Lim Wee Kiat (Research Fellow, Asian Business Case Centre, NTU), Dr Mohan Rajesh Elara (Assistant Professor, Engineering Product Development, SUTD), and 4 others, the book explores practical possibilities that we can pursue and how our collective capacity for innovation and collaboration can tackle the disruptive forces, and transform our lives for the better.
In his opening remarks at the launch, Mr Ng Chee Khern, Permanent Secretary (Smart Nation and Digital Government), Prime Minister's Office, lauded the authors’ approach of talking to people on the ground, instead of just discussing high-level concepts. He also praised the practical advice offered by the book for living meaningful, fulfilled lives in the midst of technological disruption.
However, he also cautioned about potential dangers posed by technology. He said that disruption can be understandably scary for the average citizen. The many, many choices and paths available to people, might end up overwhelming them, instead of improving their lives.
In another paradox of digital technology, our highly connected world could become increasingly fragmented, due to the extreme customisation and personalisation enabled by technology. Fake news is the most visible manifestation of this, but it is not the only one.
Finally, loss of jobs to technology could hollow out the middle class, leaving behind a simultaneous race to the bottom and the top for different segments of society.
Permanent Secretary Ng said that it is the government’s job to ameliorate these adverse impacts, to influence the development of technology in a way which is good for the individual and good for society.
Subsequently, there was a panel discussion moderated by Prof Chan Heng Chee, Chairman of the Lee Kuan Yew Centre for Innovative Cities. The panelists included Mr Ng; Dr Lee Chien Earn, CEO Changi General Hospital; Mr Charles Ormiston, Partner, Bain and Company, Southeast Asia and two of the authors, Mr Poon and Dr Lim.
Prof Chan asked the panelists to talk about the most important changes technology would bring in their domain of work.
Presenting the government perspective, Mr Ng said that technology can definitely be used to run cities and countries much better and much more efficiently. This is already happening.
Citing the examples of tech giants, Google and Facebook which are able to understand us and cater to our needs and likes even if you try to be anonymous, he said that governments will also be able to know more about their citizens.
The relationship between citizens and governments could go either way. It could be a scenario where government plays a smaller, more facilitative role, doing things with citizens, rather than to them. Or governments could obtain more levers to control things.
A mere 5-6 years ago, during the Arab Spring, technology was hailed as force for good, for freedom. In 2017, headlines are talking digital technology damaging democracy and freedom.
The final outcome will depend on policy choices, and the citizenry can influence those policy choices through participation in how the government makes decisions.
The second big area of impact Mr Ng highlighted is the relationship between countries. He said that it will be critical for Singapore to ensure that in terms of infrastructure, regulatory regimes, cross-border agreements, Singapore continues to be a developed, digitalised nation, so that it can remain competitive and continues to receive international investment flows.
Technology has altered the drivers of competitiveness for businesses. The rule used to be that you become the largest player and leverage your scale. Now scale is a burden. It is no longer the largest companies, but the companies which innovate the fastest, thrive best.
Mr Ormiston mentioned Nokia which fell from the position of the indisputable market leader to that of non-relevance in the mobile phone market, within an astonishingly short period of 4-5 years.
Secondly, companies can no longer control the entire value chain. They have to get comfortable working in an ecosystem where they do not have full control. To do so successfully, they have to adopt agile working methodologies. Mr. Ormiston used the example of the consultancy industry itself, which he is a part of. Previously, the consultants would make 6-month plans. Now they have to demonstrate results on a week-to-week basis and work more collaboratively with clients.
The third major disruption noted by Mr Ormiston was the value of data, both internal and external. And the boundaries of what is good or bad, or acceptable/ unacceptable are changing. Imagine a store-based retailer using cameras to track everything their customers do and using analytics to understand their customers’ behavior. It might appear to be a startling proposal. But that is exactly what the online retailers do!
Mr Ormiston went on to talk about a Chinese company which is using social media for credit scoring. They can tell if a person is a drug addict from the data. So, it is no longer about internally generated data only. Companies need to tap on data from multiple sources.
In the area of healthcare, data can help create archetypes of patients, enabling better personalisation of services and service delivery to under-served groups. For instance, some people come in for screening all the time, while others who might be in urgent need of health screening rarely visit the hospital. Technology and data can help identify such people, so that they can be provided with the required care.
This shift from quality to value was one of the transformative effects of technology highlighted by Dr Lee.
He also talked about a shift of healthcare from hospital to community. Using the analogy of a F1 race, he said that a hospital should be viewed as pitstop in the life’s journey and the objective of healthcare should be to keep this pitstop as precise, painless and brief as possible. And the care has to continue beyond the hospital into the community.
To ensure that care continues into the community, it must be recognised the care team includes healthcare professionals, and also the patient’s family. And the care team can be empowered by technology.
Can information be made available to them when they need it? Now information is mostly provided through push mechanisms, like the prescriptions and instructions when a patient is discharged. Technology can enable the delivery of this information through a ‘pull’ mechanism.
Technology can also help in dealing with the constraints of an ageing workforce. It is important to keep in mind that it is not just the patients who are ageing, the caregivers are also ageing. In this scenario, robotics can help take care of menial tasks, so that nurses can work longer and better.
Technology can also help in matching demand and supply in the healthcare area. For instance, it can match care-seekers with nurses and therapists.
In the education arena, Mr Poon said that the focus in most education systems in on helping students land that great first job. But what can universities offer to students which they cannot get outside now? That should be the focus at an institutional level. At an individual level, digital technology can enable educators to help each child find something they truly care about and support them in excelling in the area.
Dr Lim advocated for the STEAM approach to education, adding Arts (humanities and social sciences) to the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics of the popular STEM approach. Because there is more to technology than the technical aspects. We need new ways of thinking to understand the impact of artificial intelligence, genetics, robotics on our lives.
For instance, consider the trolley dilemma, a thought experiment in ethics. A trolley is hurtling down railway tracks, heading towards five people, who are unable to move or are oblivious to the danger. You see a lever you can pull to divert the trolley onto a different track where it will hit one person. Or a variant of the problem where you can push a fat man onto the tracks to stop the trolley. Philosophers have pondered over the morality of the options for decades.
How is this related to technology?
For autonomous vehicles, this is a very real dilemma. During a potential crash scenario the algorithms have to choose between different courses of action, with no perfect solution available where no one is harmed.
We have to consider these complex questions with no easy answers, if we are to truly understand and deal with the impact of technological disruptions.