Hit fast-forward in your mind. Imagine a world where data about traffic, public transportation, and pedestrian patterns is continuously analyzed to provide the smoothest possible commute for the largest number of people. Centralized, one-click tax preparation and payment. A single, voice-activated digital assistant ready to answer any civic question.
How far ahead do you think you’d have to jump to make these things happen? Five years? Ten years? Neither. In fact, each of these innovations is already up and running somewhere in the world today, with more happening every day. They are signs of profound change.
Digital transformation-or the way of thinking about this change-refers to the use of technology to improve the reach and performances of enterprises. It’s not limited to private enterprise. When applied to the social fabric, digital transformation points to a reimagining of the way governments interact with their people, cities serve their inhabitants, and public agencies address the needs of their communities.
As diverse forces such as social media, climate change, urban migration, and sprawl continue to upend the status quo, employing every tool and service available to help societies respond to disruption is critical. Today, new devices coupled with artificial intelligence using vast amounts of data from millions of sensors are helping us tackle key social concerns.
Building more efficient, secure, and resilient governments
Turn to Estonia for an example of a digital transformation of the social infrastructure. Estonia has only 1.3 million citizens but is larger in landmass than Switzerland; as a result, many towns do not have a nearby government office. Every citizen carries a digital ID card that allows him or her to vote remotely, pay taxes with a few clicks, manage health care, and much more. These days, the country has opened its digital service to everyone in the world via e-Residency. But because of this digital dependence, the government needed to ensure its resilience in the event of a natural disaster, cyberattack, or other disruption. How? As part of a joint research project with Microsoft, Estonia moved the official digital record of land ownership to the cloud. Since then, they have clarified public cloud usage guidelines to allow most data to be stored in a public cloud located within the EU, and they are building up data embassies to keep critical e-government databases and systems abroad backed up in the cloud.
Globally, these types of changes will be most effective when they’re supported by a legal and policy framework that reinforces the technology, particularly for issues of security, privacy, and resilience. A collaborative research project has launched in New Zealand to explore some of these larger questions of how governments can harness digital technologies to develop smarter, more inclusive societies.
“Essentially, we are interested in better understanding what it takes for New Zealand to become a digital society, what opportunities and challenges it presents, and what role digital government plays in getting there,” says Graeme Osborne, the general manager for system transformation at the New Zealand Government Chief Information Office (GCIO). The results of the project-a collaboration between the GCIO, Microsoft Digital, and the Fletcher School at Tufts University-will be published in a future white paper that will provide insights and ideas not only for New Zealand but also for countries around the world.
Urban digital nervous system
“Digital transformation is helping people and organizations reimagine work and personal life. It’s empowering cities and countries to realize digital dreams that create better education, and safer, healthier and more sustainable living. The opportunity for our digital societies to drive social and economic progress is unprecedented,” according to Anand Eswaran, Corporate Vice President, Worldwide Services and Microsoft Digital.
The technology is sophisticated enough now that the possibilities seem almost limitless. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and data analytics, technology is now able to anticipate human intentions, becoming increasingly responsive to the needs of the people it’s designed to serve. Underpinning this work at Microsoft is a belief in inclusive design, which holds that technology should be empathetic; habitable environments should be not only aesthetically pleasing but also usable by everyone, regardless of ability, age, or life status.
Inclusive design helps inform the concept of the urban digital nervous system (UDNS), which is a metaphor (first used by Bill Gates in 1999) for the systems that regulate a city’s operations and automate its core functions. Thanks to advances in artificial intelligence and data analytics, it’s a metaphor with strong connections to the real thing. As it matures, the UDNS will start to anticipate human intentions, becoming increasingly responsive to the needs of the people it’s designed to serve. One such project is under way in Auckland.
With 1.4 million residents, Auckland is New Zealand’s largest city, and it’s growing fast; its population is expected to double by 2040. With growth comes traffic, and already Auckland’s existing transportation infrastructure is struggling to cope. Auckland Transport, the agency responsible for helping people move around the city safely and efficiently, worked with Microsoft Digital to better understand how to plan for population growth. The project used Internet of Things data from public transport nodes, traffic lights, and intersections to shorten travel time, ease congestion, and make the streets safer for pedestrians. Eventually, a social listening tool and a mobile app for parking will help Auckland Transport become even more responsive.
Digital transformation is a central element in what is increasingly being referred to as the fourth industrial revolution, signaled by our burgeoning understanding of how to embed technologies in the physical and biological spheres. The pace of this change is historically unprecedented and disrupting nearly every industry in every country. Societies too must adapt, not only to protect their members’ livelihoods, lifestyles, and longevity but also to offer their communities the services they need and to provide a framework for future growth. As that happens, governments will become more customer-focused-and will contribute to a better quality of life for everyone.
For more information visit www.microsoft.com/digitaldifference.
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