When the SpaceX Dragon Capsule touched down last week in the Pacific Ocean after its successful unmanned mission to the International Space Station, it brought back with it from near orbit an increasingly undeniable truth: governments are losing their monopoly over managing certain complex tasks.
Indeed, as access to information increases and the cost of collaboration decreases, so too does our dependency on governments to manage complexity. As a result, a newly empowered civil society is reclaiming its rightful place between governments and free markets as a viable alternative that is capable of solving big problems. Through the use of crowdsourcing – fueled by general good will along with well-designed economic incentives – societies can now tap previously inaccessible creative potential of the masses. By shortening the distance between our collective intentions and our collective will, the message we send to governments is: The people have finally arrived
Projects like the SpaceX Dragon Capsule demonstrate, however, that governments need not disappear, but instead need to transform themselves in certain instances from service providers to service enablers. In the areas where governments do continue to act as service providers, they can take advantage of crowdsourcing to improve the quality of services they deliver.
For example, in the face of high rates of absenteeism in the Indian health care system one NGO is enabling patients to report on service levels through SMS text messages. By combining a wider collection and distribution of information, we enable increased transparency and create more accountability. Citizens and governments can thus work together to ensure effective and efficient interactions and transactions with the ultimate goal of increasing confidence in the government’s ability to fulfill the will of the people.
While governments must transform themselves to prepare for the challenges brought about by the aforementioned technological paradigm shift, there is still much traditional work for governments to do. Take for example, cities paralysed by gridlock. Not only does this congestion hurt a country’s productivity, it also has an extraordinary negative effect on the quality of life of all citizens, especially the poorest. Combating problems such as congestion requires not only aggressive regulation, but also public investment in attractive alternatives: undertakings that can only be made possible by strong and capable governments.
What this demonstrates then is that the bell has not yet rung in the battle between the will of the people as expressed through the free market and the will of the people as expressed through governments. The future role of government therefore must be conceived as a combination of the old and the new. Crowdsourcing certain tasks can free governments from the duty to deliver services and instead allow them to focus on facilitating services. At the same time, our new world order will still require governments to check the excesses of the free market and promote a healthy quality of life desired by all citizens.
To achieve the right balance, governments need not get hung up in determining where they need to do less and where they need to do more. Instead, governments need to ask themselves how they can do everything smarter by taking advantage of citizens’ input to determine where to focus energy and resources and how to fulfill the will of the people.
Author: Matthew Carpenter-Arévalo is a Senior Manager with the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers Community.
Image: With the Earth’s horizon as a backdrop, the SpaceX Dragon commercial cargo craft is seen berthed to the International Space Station in this photo provided by NASA and taken May 25, 2012. REUTERS/NASA/Handout.