The Fourth Industrial Revolution will bring massive change and opportunity to the way we work, play and build relationships. Often overlooked in the analysis of how diffusion of new technologies occurs are the thousands of public officials – such as government policy developers, regulators and health and safety inspectors – that form a key interface between technology and the public.

The speed and constantly adapting nature of Fourth Industrial Revolution products and services – from 3D printing-enabled clothing and consumer goods, to nanotechnology-enabled medical interventions and even weapons – will place great strain on existing regulatory systems. The inability to control and the time pressures to respond to diffusion into the real economy will be constant.

In addition, the linear relationship between new technologies and the public, which used to travel largely through the regulatory system before emerging for public consumption, is breaking down. The public tests and experiences new technologies before their social and environmental impacts are fully known.

Adapting to these new realities, and harnessing them, is critical for both the sustainability of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the relevance of public institutions in our cities and nations. Five skills will be critical for public officials to engage effectively with the Fourth Industrial Revolution:

1. Technical knowledge

Volunteers prepare the sandpit for the 14th IAAF World Championships at the Olympic stadium in Moscow August 7, 2013. The event will be held from August 10 to 18.  REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch (RUSSIA - Tags: SPORT ATHLETICS TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY) - RTX12COT
New models of sharing technical information, like sandbox initiatives, are needed to face the Fourth Industrial Revolution
Image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

At their core, a public regulator is an expert who has been given public trust to apply the best knowledge available to review – and either accept or reject – new and adapted products and services. Technical expertise, and its application in the public interest, is the fundamental skill for a public official.

Existing officials must always be learning and hiring practices that bring in new technical skills to public institutions are required. The metabolic rate of technical knowledge in government must run as fast as the private sector. New models of sharing technical information – such as the UK Financial Conduct Authority’s regulatory sandbox for fintech could be applied to other sectors to bring regulators and innovators into tighter feedback loops.

2. High quality data

Expertise must be combined with data. As the Fourth Industrial Revolution combines the cyber and the physical in new ways, citizens themselves become stores of data. The amount of data generated in the Fourth Industrial Revolution is exponentially larger than anything that has occurred before. Governments must be equipped with high computing power and big data capabilities in the same way as the private sector.

Public officials must also question what data is missing, and ensure an inclusive innovation system. For example, as robots replace care workers, data from senior citizens’ experiences must form part of the information assessed for regulatory approvals. Data analytics skills, to assess data quality and its biases – even its omissions – are specialized, essential skills for public institutions in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

3. Collaboration with the public

Citizen and stakeholder engagement in developing laws and regulation is a key feature of effective governance. Despite its importance to both trust and quality, stakeholder engagement on primary laws and subordinate regulations still has surprising variability.

Now imagine a world in which services – such as ride sharing and gig employment – are on-demand and running faster than your city and national government can keep up with. Harnessing public information and feedback in real time becomes critical, as does transparency about what the government knows and does not know about a service provider.

Creating effective interfaces and channels with public officials for public input, early-warnings, data and collaboration is essential to the sustainability of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. In Toronto, for example, the MaRS Solution Lab is experimenting with new collaboration models to bring forward regulatory adaptations in the sharing economy, bringing together governments, business and citizens.

4. Global networks across sectors

The Fourth Industrial Revolution is the product of global collaborations between diverse fields and firms. Oversight and rules for the Fourth Industrial Revolution will, similarly, be the product of collaboration between officials, business and the public, to gather information, share best practices and stop harmful effects. Old models of isolation must give way to transparent and thoughtful networks. Academia has a critical role to play in these networks, as do third-party organizations with deep knowledge of a particular technology.

5. An open mind and an agile workplace

Fundamentally, public officials must maintain a constant sense of curiosity alongside a clear sense of the role of government in setting standards and ensuring public safety. Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, has called on governments to embrace agile governance, including continuous improvement of regulatory processes.

Creating agile governance requires leaders that are driven by a mission, as well as focused on outputs. It also requires an adaptive organizational culture. The independence of the safety inspector from business and political interference remains essential. Appropriate disclosure rules and organizational ethics must be in place. The expertise of organizational and behavioural scientists is needed to ensure rules and procedures don’t grow stale or suffocate networks and regulatory experimentation.

The bottom line

There will be some who argue that governments, and in particular public officials, are becoming increasingly irrelevant in a digital world, and even more irrelevant in the complex environment of the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence-enabled business models. In this world, machines will perfect knowledge or, if not, humanity’s ability to control technology will be so severely eroded, no institutions will be able to cope.

This world view misses two key factors: the desire for public institutions to balance the power of technology and business with rules, codes and standards to ensure safety, inclusion and respect; and the ability of governments themselves to adapt and change. The state is not static. Regulation, at its core, is about trust. Maintaining public trust and safety is essential to good governance and to social cohesion. We all have an interest in public officials, and the institutions they lead, adapting and thriving in the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

This article is written in a personal capacity and does not reflect the views of the Government of Canada.