Looking Ahead: The Next Generation is Best Placed to Build Cities Back Better
by Christos Gatsios
If architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space, then it will be interesting to see what future generations craft out of our idle urban spaces, shopping malls and stations. By 2025, a quarter of the Asia-Pacific population will be made up of Gen Z, and another quarter by Millennials. The public sector, particularly in major cities, is only just beginning to comprehend the value of their skills and experience. These digital natives will fundamentally change the role and capability of the sector, heralding a potential golden age in public engagement and empowerment.
The Power of Cities
The world has witnessed rapid urbanisation. Prior to the pandemic it was estimated that by 2050 over half the world’s population will be living in cities. Cities benefit society by the confluence of ideas, resources and talent they catalyse, and this has traditionally influenced their spatial design, business agglomeration and viability.
As technology has slowly been chipping away at some of the assumptions underlying city life, COVID-19 could entirely restructure it. It has already changed our ways of working and perhaps, most importantly, is beginning to restructure our thinking. In response to the pandemic, cities will change and city governments will too, both augmented by new technologies and attitudes. Whilst the immediate priority is, and should be, to help urban spaces recover, the pandemic provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build back better. There has never been a more interesting time to be a public servant, particularly in cities, where social, demographic and environmental issues are amplified.
All governments across the Asia-Pacific, especially those in complex cities, are facing multiple headwinds. A perfect storm of technological, demographic and environmental shifts demand a new paradigm for delivery and engagement. The New Public Management reforms of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, which promoted disaggregation, competition, and incentives, have been slowly crumbling due to general public disconnect and dissonance. With the steady arrival of Digital Era Government and Government as a Platform (GaaP), and now the upheaval of COVID-19, these outdated systems are primed for collapse.
Smarter services in every sector can connect, engage and enhance experiences for customers (CX). But the potential for change in the public sector has only just begun to be explored. This terra nova – where I invite fellow Gen As to focus – will play host to the great conversations and debates of our time. Young people today are distinctively qualified and motivated to help navigate this evolution. Technology and cities are shifting so quickly that we can benefit most by experimentation and working together — generating greater empathy while tapping into the best practices.
Whether or not people are interested in the public sector, the public sector will, increasingly, be interested in them. Artificial Intelligence (AI)-augmented government, Smart City solutions and an increased focus on citizen experience is set to transform everyday life.
Cognitive technologies that are currently prominent in the consumer world will drive efficiencies and boost bandwidth across a huge array of public services. One example, the Roxy Chatbot, employed by the Australia Department for Human Services, uses AI to answer queries from case-processing officers. In the Netherlands, machine learning has helped detect fraud and waste in social benefit programs.
Whilst computer programming has been around for a while, sophistication of data and machine learning has increased dramatically in recent years, leading to new applications that enable anticipatory government. The future of data analytics will allow us to target likely problems before they erupt. While more prosaic than a Tom Cruise-led precog-murder investigation, predictive analytics can be exceptionally helpful in the allocation of resources. An ounce of prevention is worth of pound of cure and this will allow public services to forensically target issues and do far more with less. For example, the UK’s Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs department uses data analytics to enhance the accuracy of tax audits and track down tax avoiders. The city of Jakarta has partnered with Qlue to predict flooding through citizen’s complaints and Internet of Things sensor data. Both of these outcomes we can readily get behind. Our cities and public services are already evolving to provide a more targeted and strategic interventions and better value for money.
CX As Citizenship Experience
So our cities and services will continue to get smarter… so what? Well, that’s up to us. The reason for my unassuaged optimism is that I believe there is boundless opportunity here for greater democratic accountability and public engagement.
Digital citizenship and citizen-first service design will deliver greater interaction and accountability. Integrating data will enable significant leaps in service quality and efficiency. A citizen-first approach can transform departments and localities and re-invigorate public trust. Instead of a patchwork of bureaucratic systems, citizens could interact with government like they do on a modern phone app – pay taxes, apply for grants, and check local planning applications in one place – making government relevant and transparent like never before.
Encouraging this transition will further allow the public sector to tailor services to individual needs and provide better access to services. Through the application of behavioural insights we can further refine the benefits to individuals and wider groups. For example, the UK, an early adopter, used behavioural insights to dramatically improve the number of registered organ donors. Quite simply, better designed services save lives.
Governments are adopting similar measures in a range of fields, and the pace of uptake will only increase and become embedded across different areas. Developing innovation accelerators will allow wider participation of SMEs into government and allow merit of ideas and products to integrate into the public sector. The benefit of open innovation and competition, coupled with technology, can see a step-change in international cooperation too. Cities can cooperate with similar cities in different regions to solve the shared problems we face. This is happening in the City of Melbourne where, together with Indonesian cities such as Bandung, we are exploring how to improve the circular economy.
With more frequent and meaningful engagement with residents, in addition to the new scale of international cooperation, we will have a future public service built by CI or Collective Intelligence. And younger people are particularly well placed to build bridges of understanding, and overcome barriers of dogma.
Research by McKinsey posits that Gen Z is generally more inclusive, connected and open to understanding different perspectives. Supported by the high level of mobilisation technology provides, Gen Z understands the importance of dialogue and accepting differences of opinion, whether in institutions, countries or social groups. Harnessing this ability alongside inherent technological know-how could help increase accessibility at an organisational level.
Being better able to see different perspectives will make the public sector more representative and agile. Schemes such as reverse mentoring can also ensure that organisations adopt and adapt to these values. This will raise the bar in terms of benchmarking; identifying how other localities in different regions have responded to similar issues. Organisations such as Apolitical have already demonstrated the power such conversations can have. With access to rapid benchmarking and almost real-time feedback of public policy experimentation we can evolve more quickly and produce better outcomes. It is vital that programs such as Gen A continue to develop young professional’s cultural understandings and exchange of ideas. This richness in diversity will be invaluable.
Having worked in and witnessed national and local governments in Australia and the UK, I am very optimistic about the future of the sector. As it continues to attract dedicated, altruistic and intelligent individuals, despite some stigma (which isn’t always merited), the public sector is well-positioned to transform. The City of Melbourne remains an organisation deeply focused on future challenges. From climate change mitigation to 5G and Open Data, the city will continue to be an example of global best practice in liveability and sustainability. The structural challenges that will shape our governments, our cities and lives will demand different skills and talents, but ultimately will rely on a collective intelligence, rather than a purely artificial one.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of City of Melbourne.
Looking Ahead is a new series of analytical papers curated by Asia Society Australia examining how the key sectors of Australia-Asia economic connectivity and cross-cutting policy issues are likely to change as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how Australian leaders should prepare for these changes. The papers will be solutions-oriented, present possible scenarios and policy responses that governments and organisations may pursue.
Asia Society Australia acknowledges the support of the Victorian Government.