How can governments build certainty on shifting sands?

By Shirley Tay

Aaron Maniam from Singapore’s MCI; Marcel ‘Otto’ Yon from Bundeswehr Cyber Innovation Hub; and Piret Tõnurist from OECD discussed at GovInsider Live’s Festival of Innovation.

“In the next few months, politicians will remake the world,” Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari told Noema Magazine. The world is going to be “fluid and malleable”, he said, but once the choices have been made “a new order will solidify”.

Today’s problems cannot be solved with linear approaches, and governments need a new strategy, said Aaron Maniam, Deputy Secretary of Industry & Information at Singapore’s Ministry of Communications and Information.

How can governments build for an unknown future, steering through immense uncertainty? Global innovators discussed this in a session at GovInsider Live’s Festival of Innovation.

Understand different types of complexity

This year, governments have gotten to “know complexity pretty well”, said Piret Tõnurist, OECD’s Innovation Lead. A global pandemic, climate change, and political upheaval are just some of the complexities the world is facing.

Complexity tends to lead to uncertainty, she continued. “This is why complexity is such an important part of policymaking today.”

There are three ways to think of complexity, said Maniam. First, social complexity describes situations when “my definition of a problem and its solutions might be very different from another person's.” Businesses and environmental activists, for instance, have different perspectives on climate change.

Second, dynamic complexity is used to describe situations where cause and effect play out in different points of time. Population planning is one such example, Maniam said. Singapore’s ‘Stop at Two’ policy was implemented in the 1960s to reverse the boom in birth rates, but the city-state is still facing the “longtail effects” of it today.

Third is “generative complexity”, where a similar set of causes result in diverging outcomes in different places. This can be used to describe Covid-19, where minor cultural and geographical differences between countries have resulted in “very, very different outcomes” of the pandemic, added Maniam.

In situations of generative complexity, “the initial identification of causes is never enough for us to predict what exactly might happen in the medium or even the longer term.”

Experiment with public policy

Governments need to “get used to the fact that the world is turbulent, and we need to be agile in it,” said Maniam. Instead of thinking that policies will play out in a predictable way, an experimental mindset is needed.

Blueprints and committees are “structured approaches” that governments favour - but they just won’t work in a complex environment. Constant policy iterations will put governments in a “much better position” to address the nuances that exist in the world, he said.

Prototypes allow ideas to fail small and fast, added Maniam. Governments can obtain data about how the policy can be better implemented, and refine ideas from there.

Tõnurist agreed that the “long road to transformation is paved with experiment.” But governments also need an arm to “go from experiment to scaling up to transformative change.”

Otherwise, governments tend to “get comfortable”, she added. Experimentation would allow them to “communicate that they’re innovating”, but not yet commit resources to transformative ideas.

So, governments need to rethink its environment and culture to give autonomy to these units to innovate, she added. Some “interests and biases” need to be tackled to make change happen.

Embrace different skill sets

More “proactive” and “entrepreneurial mindsets” are required to cultivate agility in decision making and innovation, said Marcel Yon, founder of Germany’s Bundeswehr Cyber Innovation Hub. Yon is a private sector entrepreneur who joined the German military as a civilian to shake things up.

“At the end of the day, an organisation is influenced by the very senior leadership team, and this is where the change needs to happen,” he added. The German Armed Forces’ digital innovation unit hires 50 per cent of its manpower from the startup ecosystem, Yon revealed.

Maniam agreed that a diverse team can bring different, unique solutions to the table. Skills like futures thinking, design, anthropology, behavioural sciences, and data analytics will be useful in innovating for the future.

“We don't need all of these things to reside in a single person,” Maniam emphasised. Instead, governments need “composite teams” to collaborate on the projects they’re in charge of.

Consensus may not always be achieved

As new ideas are brought to the table, governments must understand that an agreement may not be reached all the time, said Tõnurist.

All perspectives are important, said Yon, but when governments try to create consensus between the innovators and the “protectors”, “it’s simply not going to work”. A better model would be to let the innovators take charge of projects that require transformative ideas, and the protectors handle others, he added.

Covid-19 has taken the world by surprise, and governments have no blueprint for the way forward. Much maneuvering and experimentation is required for nations to navigate through today’s uncertainty, and prepare for the challenges of tomorrow.

Catch up on GovInsider’s Festival of Innovation here: