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We Need Smarter Governments to Manage a Changing Global Environment

Civilisation in need of transformation

The natural disasters, climate change and widespread social and economic crises that are taking place in the world today show that the human race needs to become smarter.

The urban revolution that succeeded the Neolithic agricultural revolution has allowed us to build new city-based civilisations that are conducive to innovation and information-gathering in all aspects of life and beyond. While amazing civilisations have come and gone over the last 10,000 years it is only since the 20th century that we have seen a real explosion in the urbanisation process, leading to a doubling of the global population. And all of that growth has gone into cities, accompanied by relentless rural migration.

Yet from a policies and strategies perspective our thinking has been linear—more of the same, rather than an investigation into fundamentally different ways to organise our societies and economies. Civilisations that have gone before us have failed because they clung to the past and showed no intelligent forward thinking that would enable them to break through traditional patterns and transform their societies.

Our current cities—with population numbers that have never before been envisaged—are not coping with this. Even an indirect event such as the nuclear crisis in Japan has a devastating economic effect on relatively distant Tokyo, and even beyond.

Until recently such events were mainly measured in human cost, but the present crisis events show that they have an equally devastating effect on economies, and could trigger a severe setback.

The lack of one single dollar element produced in a disaster-affected region can cause severe economic damage to its total global sector—in which it may perhaps be only the tiniest link. Have those industry sectors never thought of industry-wide disaster recovery systems? It clearly shows how vulnerable we are if we cling to our silo-thinking approach—a methodology which, while it may create valuable isolated expertise and efficiencies, could result in economic damage outweighing those benefits.

Change needs to take place before disaster strikes

As discussed on previous occasions (for instance, following the disastrous bushfires in Australia in early 2010) once disaster strikes it is too late to start looking for smarter ways to get us out of the situation. At that point every effort has to go into addressing the emergency and we automatically fall back on the plans and procedures that we are familiar with and that will allow us to take immediate action.

However, as a consequence of this no structural changes are made which would help us address the underlying problems. By the time the inevitable government inquiries is initiated everybody is busy again with their own lives, and when yet another report appears indicating that structural changes are required it is filed to gather dust.

And when the next disaster strikes another inquiry is set up.

Governments are not showing leadership

A typical political response to the need for structural change is to vocally and violently oppose and discredit any proposed changes so that serious debate is impossible. Countries like the USA and Australia are examples of this type of political dysfunction. The UK also often falls into this category; but surprisingly the current coalition government is getting some traction.

Many of the European countries are in a permanent state of indecision. Most of the time they are unable to reach a consensus and, while the EU does come up with plans that actually are of a transformative nature, the implementation is then left to the individual member states; and that is where they often come to a grinding halt. Of course, the current unstable political situation in countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, the UK and even Sweden does not assist in important decision-making.

The fact that many countries have a hung parliament, or have political structures that bear a resemblance to one, is also indicative of the mood of the people. Many are disappointed and disillusioned by the political system and by the inability of their leaders to take a more serious stand on these issues in the national interest, rather than always seeking their own political advantage.

Many of these political leaders are behaving like 18th century oligarchic Regents.

Anyone who knows anything about how governments operate, particularly since Wikileaks, must be questioning whether our leaders are really up to the job?

The situation in the Middle East and North Africa is also very much a part of this global turmoil. Here also people are protesting and demanding better performance from their leaders.

Trans-sector policies are needed to penetrate the silo mentality

Today’s society apparently lacks the level of smartness needed to cure the current malaise. As already mentioned the key is leadership, and in particular leadership of the kind that will take the necessary steps towards real transformation. It is unlikely that solutions will be forthcoming if we hang on to the past. To rely on the old structures, many of which have created the problems or, in any case, cannot resolve them, is not smart.

The way the financial crisis is being handled in the USA is a classic example of this. Very little has changed that would prevent another financial crisis from happening—perhaps not immediately, but in a few years, when the pain of the current one has been forgotten and a new group of acquisitive people, fostered by the system, takes over from those retiring with their bonuses. The ‘Regents’ who created the crisis are the same people who are now suppose to get us out of it.

The key to looking to the future is to work on transformation and cutting through the various silos—they are run by the vested interests which are all bent on protecting the status quo. It is no longer enough to try to solve isolated problems within the silos as we have done in the past. We need to acknowledge the interconnectivity between the silos and address the issues horizontally—connecting the brilliant minds with others, across silos. With the brains of world linked in such a way surely we will be able to come up with the solutions we need—it appears unlikely that our mediocre politicians are going to be able to do so.

Decentralisation of power and a further democratisation of our societies is the way forward, and the internet and mobile phones are providing a great service in this respect. All around us we see that people are taking advantage of this technology, and those same principles can be used anywhere in our societies and economies.

People power is emerging everywhere—in politics, retail, healthcare, education and so on. Clearly people are driving the change, but often they are held back by politicians. The climate change conference in Copenhagen in 2009 was a prime example of this—people wanted change but our leaders failed to deliver.

In Australia the National Broadband Network has won enormous public support, despite the relentless political infighting around it—another clear indication that the people are ahead of their politicians.

New energy policies

Be it climate change, CO2 emission or nuclear reactor disasters, it should be clear to governments that action is needed, and that more of the same type of solution will not suffice. The endless politicking, denial and indecisiveness is putting more people in danger. For example, it is obvious that reliance on centralised—either dangerous or heavily polluting—power plants is not the answer. The correct way forward is to work on decentralised systems, and that also brings renewable energy into the energy grid. Electric vehicles are another element that can assist in addressing these problems.

True, this might not fit the current business model of the energy sector; and, yes, it requires a total transformation of the full supply chain from mine to consumer. But is that a reason to not do it?

Yes, it will cost money to speed up these smart grid developments, but the disasters in Japan are proof of what inaction can cost the local and the global economy. Politicians in the USA, Australia and other countries can continue the argument about the negative effect on their constituency of imposing taxes to fix these problems, but what use will that money be if we create more severe social and economic disruption to these people?

New directions needed for society and the economy

While a trans-sector approach is a good way to start looking at the interrelation of all of our current challenges, the road ahead will be smart communities, smart cities and indeed smart countries.

This is no longer an issue of trans-sector thinking alone. Significant societal and economic change is now needed around how we organise democracy; how we revitalise regional areas; how we better spread populations; and how we organise agriculture, manufacturing etc.

And it is obvious that the changes must be more far-reaching than simply addressing the direct issues of education, healthcare, poverty and the environment. A new level of human intelligence is required to produce a far more universal approach to the future.

It is not smart to endorse so called safe building standards that enable the construction of nuclear power plants in areas prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. Such These hazardous buildings should not be there in the first place. Nor should we encourage earthquake-prone cities such as Los Angeles, Tokyo, Christchurch and many cities in China, Turkey, Iran and elsewhere to increase their populations. You cannot empty these cities but you can stop putting more and more people into dangerous situations. Again, just hoping for the best with our ‘building standards’ will not just cost many more lives—it could also very easily ruin economies and civilisations.

Broadband—a utility for transformation

To go to our own field of expertise, using broadband-based infrastructure as a utility to assist us in building smarter systems would be a good start. But, as we have said to the UN-supported Broadband Commission, as well as to the various governments with which I have been involved, nothing is going to change until governments begin to transform their societies and economies.

Japan has one of the best broadband infrastructures in the world, but very few of its government policies are aimed at aggressively using that infrastructure to make structural changes to regional development, e-health, tele-working, smart grids, etc.

True, excellent reports have been written on the subject of societal and economic transformation, and about smart cities; and some of these changes are indeed happening at the edges. But beyond these reports and some pilot projects nowhere are there transforming policies in place to address the underlying structural societal and economic problems.

Everywhere we see the vested interests using outdated government policies (developed in times before the current massive changes in, among other things, population growth) to control many elements of the economy and to resist any form of change.

The key reason is that the social and economic benefits offered by such structural changes fall outside their balance sheets.

And this is why governments will have to step in to make the structural changes that will help their countries move forward.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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Great piece, Paul. Some quick thoughts here.1. Wout de Natris  –  Mar 23, 2011 8:57 PM

Great piece, Paul. Some quick thoughts here.

1. Africa, Middle East
From what I hear people manage to take their lives in their own hands more, e.g. through cell phones, for information and payments. This drives development and change at a grass root level, but not necessarily as we would in the west.

2. Are governments the place to be nowadays if it is change you seek? Are there other potential drivers for change? What I notice is that governments tend to leave a lot decisions, responsibility, etc. to industry on the public - private cooperation line of reasoning. Also where industry may not be effective because of inherent disagreements and need government’s guidance. I noticed regularly of late that people in the room discussing this form of cooperation may not really be listening to what is being said. With misunderstanding, a lack of trust and prejudiced conceptions of each other view. The RIPE - LEA cooperation discussed in London may be an example of the way forward for other discussions on cooperation. Even in a commercial environment.

3. Politicians that are supported by and seek office through major gifts to their campaigns can never be independent from these supporters. So how can they ever decide against the vested interests of the strongest and richest? Change will never come from them, only from major shocks to the system. No more major gifts, membership driven political parties, with some government support and free publicity moments in the media for all is a solution to that.

4. Average people fear change. So it takes major leadership or great dispair for people to dare change.

5. So, I read that I live in an unstable political climate in the Netherlands. Interesting to read. So far I thought that it are interesting times, but not unstable. Not that I agree with that is going on.

Wout de Natris

Haarlem, 23 March 2011

Dear Wout,Thanks for your supportive comments. I Paul Budde  –  Mar 24, 2011 5:04 AM

Dear Wout,

Thanks for your supportive comments. I agree with what you are saying, there are no easy solutions and there will be many, based on the level of economic development, geography, culture, politics and so on. However, the common thread is people power :)

I also recently wrote something on the Netherlands: Missed opportunity for Dutch government innovation http://tinyurl.com/4fwcf33

Best Regards,


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