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Stephen Hale

Head of Engagement, Digital Diplomacy, London

Can I say anything useful about the future?

Posted 18 January 2010 by Stephen Hale  

I wonder how far it's possible to be a digital futurist. I find it hard enough to understand what's happening right now, and to plan for the next few months.

Communications technology moves on so fast and unpredictably, and significant changes are often driven by complex social - rather than technological - factors. I think I'd prefer to leave predictions to Tomorrow's World.

The conference room at Wilton Park (taken at a previous Wilton Park Conference)

I was at a Wilton Park conference last week as an "expert resource" for a session on communications technology.

The global governance conference was designed to "assist senior officials to understand international perspectives on key global questions and to consider future trends, challenges and opportunities over the next 5-15 years".

It was fascinating, even though for some of the time I felt like I did when I turned up to university seminars without having done the reading.

The rules of the conference mean that I can't reveal who said what. But I can tell you what I said and thought, and what the themes of the conversation were.

I introduced my session by describing a newly empowered global citizen who is more connected, better informed, and better able to establish coalitions with others. This has implications for the state, and for long established structures of government.

We have already seen the impact of these trends on a large scale. Communications technology has played a role in challenges to governments (eg in Iran and Moldova). But the impact is more often seen on a smaller scale (politicians changing behaviours in response to spontaneous social media movements, or governments crowd-sourcing solutions to niche problems).

Governments have choices about how they respond: whether to embrace the new opportunities and engage directly with publics, listen to or monitor what public groups are doing, engage through 3rd parties or covertly, or attempt to control the technology itself.

I was struck by the range of opinion in the group, some seeing major challenges to established forms of governance, others seeing new opportunities.

I'll leave the fuller conclusions to the official report. Here is some of what was said by others about communications technology in the next 5-15 years (taken from my very selective notes):


- Biased and vocal minority groups bypassing the structures of democracy and distorting pubic priorities.
- The legitimacy of institutions challenged by unrepresentative digital democracy.
- The long tail producing a new kind of inequality, giving voice to minority (sometimes extremist) groups - "the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets greased".
- Individuals in non-open societies facing personal consequences of open engagement on the social web.


- More actors in the global process, beyond established state and non-state actors, leading to better solutions to problems.
- Governments have more opportunity to listen, rather than preach.
- Governments have new opportunities to work smarter and more creatively to address hearts and minds (like public diplomacy).
- More government accountability because of transparently shared data and new mechanisms for accountability.

Wilton Park, by the way, is an astonishing place, and I can endorse the effectiveness of their conference house-style. It's no unconference, but if it worked for Winston Churchill, it's good enough for me.

Stephen Hale
18 January 2010

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