On January 22nd, 2020, the Global Partnership’s CEO Claire Melamed spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Melamed asked participants to imagine how the government can help us, collectively, ensure that technology and data contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals. She pinpointed three main ways that the government can utilize the potential of technology to seize the opportunities to fulfill the 2030 vision. 

Governments are best when they lead in the interests of their people. All the best things we have achieved as a species – the moon landings, the eradication of smallpox, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – were achieved by governments who worked with others, led people towards a better world, and seized the opportunities of technology and history to fulfill a vision and a promise.  

Our key question today – not as leaders or founders or all the things that brought us in this room, but simply as citizens – is understanding how governments can lead in this new age. What do we want from governments today?

How can government help us, collectively, to ensure that technology and data contribute towards the Sustainable Development Goals? 

1. Balance the rights of individuals

Governments exist to balance the rights and desires of individuals so they can live and thrive together.

For some, that means being visible in the data – so that everyone is counted, and everyone counts. If the data truly reflects all individuals, governments can deliver the right services and companies can develop products based on better knowledge of who they are serving. Everyone wins.

But some don’t want to be visible, and that is their right. 

Millions of people feel they are all too visible in the data, that they are tracked, watched, and counted every day, and their data sold and sold on many times. Governments who want to undermine freedoms can use personal data to identify and oppress their critics, to deny their rights, and to discriminate against whole groups. Many people are fearful of what could be done with our data. Unless trust can be built, innovation won’t happen.  

Undoubtedly, more granular, timely data can be used to drive innovations and to make governments more responsive and more effective. But if this is done by trampling over people’s rights, that is not digital utopia but digital totalitarianism.

For all our sakes – and particularly for the most vulnerable who can benefit most from the data innovations to come, but also have most to fear – governments and the people they govern need to work together to create a new social contract for data. With strong civil society and academia, trust can be built and rights can be balanced. It can be done, but we need governments to take responsibility and decide to do it.  

2. Cooperate with other governments

Governments need to make their citizens safe in the world by cooperating with other governments. The power of technology to make communication easier, to spread information around the world, to democratize knowledge, is truly incredible. None of us would ever want to go back to the world before the Internet. But just as some are campaigning to spread the benefits of the World Wide Web to the 50 percent of the world who still don’t have access, others are concerned that this same ease of communications enables those with malicious intent to influence our democracies, and to spread lies that generate suspicion and hate between communities and countries.

These are issues that cut across national borders. With the big data companies able to store data globally, and with one country able to use data to influence the affairs of another, it’s only through cooperation that we can have the benefits of the interconnected world while controlling the dangers.  

If ever there was a problem for the United Nations, it is this. As the tools used to manipulate and distort information become ever more sophisticated, and the disinformation industry ever more global, governments have to act together, holding each other to account for their actions and limiting the ability of the most malign influences to take a hold in our societies. And as citizens, we have to tell governments that that is what we want them to do – to guarantee us the benefits of the information age while protecting us from the risks to our democracies and our security.  

3. Balance risks and rewards

Governments exist to balance competing interests. Data and technology are changing the balance of risks and rewards in our economies. New ways of organizing work – the so-called ‘gig economy’ – are made possible by the ability to capture and organize data from millions of workers and millions of consumers, matching supply and demand in real time.  But many are concerned that the rewards of this new flexible economy are going primarily to consumers and to the owners of the data and the technology, not to those who are doing the work.  

In previous eras of technological change, the balance of risks and rewards, and the institutions that guarantee that balance, were evolved out of decades of often violent struggle. Think of the battles over unionization in the United States and Europe as industries developed, or the struggles between landowners and farmers in earlier eras.   Some argue that the current moment of populism and political change across the world is our modern version of this same upheaval.  

In the end, these arguments have been settled with communication and consensus – forging a vision of a common good that can encourage compromise on all sides. We need a new vision for the data economy, with governments, businesses and workers agreeing a fair settlement to ensure that the benefits of new technology are not compromised by the social tensions and unrest that change can bring.

Technology offers new tools to governments and recalibrates how people relate to each other. 

This changes the balance of interests between individuals, governments, and companies. These are the most fundamental things of all – solving these problems is why we have governments.

If governments fail to act, technology will enter into the cracks in our societies -  entrenching inequalities, worsening global tensions, and giving power to those prepared to use it in the most unscrupulous, aggressive, and dangerous ways.  

But with leadership, and with governments that are prepared to work with others and play their part, we can go back to the days of some of our best achievements, and use technology to take us towards the utopia promised to us all by those same governments, in the form of the Sustainable Development Goals.