For the WSIS community to be effective in meeting its ambitious goals adopted last week, it will have to become more evidence based and innovative.
At the beginning of the new millennium – before the arrival of Facebook and Twitter – Kofi Annan, then Secretary General of the United Nations, called for the creation of an inclusive “information society”– “one in which human capacity is expanded, built up, nourished and liberated, by giving people access to the tools and technologies they need, with the education and training to use them effectively.”
Two events have since been held to explore how to achieve such a vision: one in Geneva (2003), and one in Tunis (2005). Collectively, this process has been known as the “World Summit on the Information Society” (WSIS). Last week in New York, twelve years after that first meeting in Geneva and with more than 3 billion people now online, member states of the United Nations unanimously adopted the final outcome document of the WSIS ten-year Review process.
The document (known as the WSIS+10 document) reflects on the progress made over the past decade, and outlines a set of recommendations for shaping the information society in coming years. Among other things, it acknowledges the role of different stakeholders in achieving the WSIS vision, reaffirms the centrality of human rights, and calls for a number of measures to ensure effective follow up.
For many, these represent significant achievements, leading observers to proclaim the outcome a diplomatic victory. However, as is the case with most non-binding international agreements, the WSIS+10 document will remain little more than a hollow guidepost until it is translated into practice. Ultimately, it is up to the national policy-makers, relevant international agencies, and the WSIS community as a whole to deliver meaningful progress towards achieving the WSIS vision.
Unfortunately, the WSIS+10 document provides little actual guidance for practitioners. What is even more striking, it reveals little progress in its understanding of emerging governance trends and methods since Geneva and Tunis, or how these could be leveraged in our efforts to harness the benefits of information and communication technologies (ICT). The WSIS remains a 20th century approach to 21st century challenges. In particular, the document fails to seek ways to make WSIS post 2015: evidence-based; collaborative in how to measure progress; and innovative.
Drawing on lessons in the field of governance innovation, we suggest in what follows three approaches, accompanied by practical recommendations, that could allow the WSIS to address the challenges raised by the information society in a more evidence-based, innovative and participatory way:
1. Adopt an evidence-based approach to WSIS policy making and implementation.
Since 2003, we have had massive experimentation in both developed and developing countries in a number of efforts to increase access to the Internet. We have seen some failures and some successes; above all, we have gained insight into what works, what doesn’t, and why. Unfortunately, much of the evidence remains scattered and ad-hoc, poorly translated into actionable guidance that would be effective across regions; nor is there any reflection on what we don’t know, and how we can galvanize the research and funding community to address information gaps. A few practical steps we could take to address this:
- Create regional and nationals “What Works” centers tasked to collect, store and categorize evidence on how to further an inclusive information society – perhaps linked to the regional and national Internet Governance Forums (IGFs). Consider “What Works” centers in the UK;
- Develop a content platform where existing research and evidence can be shared in a manner that answers particular questions, and shows relationships across the evidence gathered, like the Netmundial Solutions Map, a crowdsourced platform to collect and show data on issues, resources and actors in the Internet governance ecosystem in a connected manner.
- Organise research-a-thons, or research sprints like hackathons, in different regions or at relevant global events (e.g. WSIS Forum) that seek to analyse and distill the evidence gained into decision trees and actionable tools for those developing access projects and initiatives. Consider the researchathon platform facilitated by Columbia University in New York City to promote collaboration among researchers.
- Include a budget line for evidence gathering and research in every national WSIS implementation plan or strategy;
- Set up a network of experts that are seeking to understand what works and what doesn’t as it relates to information society projects. The Network of Innovators, a project which seeks to connect expertise within government on how to innovate in governance, is an example of how this might look.
2. Measure progress towards WSIS goals in a more open, collaborative way, founded on metrics and data developed through a bottom-up approach
The current WSIS+10 document has many lofty goals, many of which will remain effectively meaningless unless we are able to measure progress in concrete and specific terms. This requires the development of clear metrics, a process which is inevitably subjective and value-laden. Metrics and indicators must therefore be chosen with great care, particularly as they become points of reference for important decisions and policies. Having legitimate, widely-accepted indicators is critical. The best way to do this is to develop a participatory process that engages those actors who will be affected by WSIS-related actions and decisions. Such a participatory process not only enhances the legitimacy of decisions; it also increases donor trust and could help unlock investment potential. While we acknowledge the work conducted by the International Telecommunication Union and the Partnership on Measuring ICT for Development, there are several possible pathways to creating more participatory metrics and indicators. These could include:
- Developing a set of bottom-up processes to determine what outcomes and metrics should be measured to determine progress – potentially using game-like approaches. Consider, for instance, @Stake which is a role playing game that seeks to develop insight in metrics and how to navigate differences in interests.
- Developing a crowd-sourced, citizen-science like, initiative to collect data that can document impact and inform the annual reports prepared by relevant UN agencies tasked with WSIS follow-up. Consider Open Seventeen which seeks to engage citizens in measuring progress against the 17 sustainable development goals.
3. Experiment with governance innovations to achieve WSIS objectives.
Over the last few years, we have seen a variety of innovations in governance that have provided new and often improved ways to solve problems and make decisions. They include, for instance:
- The use of open and big data to generate new insights in both the problem and the solution-space. We live in the the age of abundant data – why aren’t we using it to inform our decision making? Data on the current landscape and the potential implications of policies could make our predictions and correlations more accurate.
- The adoption of design-thinking, agile development and user-focused research in developing more targeted and effective interventions. A linear approach to policy making with a fixed set of objectives and milestones allows little room for dealing with unforeseen or changing circumstances, making it difficult to adapt and change course. Applying lessons from software engineering – including the importance of feedback loops, continuous learning, and agile approach to project design – would allow policies to become more flexible and solutions more robust.
- The application of behavioral sciences – for example, the concept of ‘nudging’ individuals to act in their own best interest or adopt behaviors that benefit society. How choices (e.g. to use new technologies) are presented and designed can be more powerful in informing adoption than laws, rules or technical standards.
- The use of prizes and challenges to tap into the wisdom of the crowd to solve complex problems and identify new ideas. Resource constraints can be addressed by creating avenues for people/volunteers to act as resource in creating solutions, rather than being only their passive benefactors.
Moving forward, the WSIS community may want to adopt some of those innovations. One option to consider includes the creation of WSIS and/or IGF innovation labs that seek to develop, connect and promote innovative ways to improve people’s lives by assuring access to the Internet. An important function of these innovation labs may include to coordinate and showcase the work done by existing UN-based innovation labs, such as the UNDP Public Sector Innovation Lab, OCHA’s Humanitarian Data Exchange or HDX, Global Pulse and UNICEF Innovation labs.
Very often in international policymaking, success is defined simply as the approval or signing of a declaration or document. Yet signing a text is only a beginning. The hard work of implementation ultimately determines whether people’s lives are truly improved and societies are changed for the better. This blog post has outlined three approaches to WSIS implementation that can be taken to translate the vision of the WSIS – and more generally of an inclusive Information Society – into reality.
By considering the recommendations we outline above, the WSIS could be transformed from an exercise in seeking compromises to an effort that seeks to genuinely leverage innovative tools and practices to address challenges and opportunities identified in the WSIS+10 outcome document. In short, we believe that WSIS can start applying the tools of the information society to address the challenges of the information society. Adopting these tools can start without delay, without having to wait yet another ten years.
Our intention has also been to start a broader conversation, and to engage the community-at-large to provide insights and examples in each of the three areas discussed. We look forward to your comments and suggestions which you can either tweet using #WSIS10 or reach out to us directly via twitter on (@leakaspar; @sverhulst or @thegovlab).
Lea Kaspar heads Global Partners Digital’s programmatic portfolio and leads the organisation’s international policy arm (http://www.gp-digital.org/).
Stefaan G. Verhulst is the co-founder and chief of research and development of The GovLab (http://www.thegovlab.org).