How COVID-19 has shown us that society needs resetting

This is the first installment of a series in collaboration with the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR) Japan, which will explore how the coronavirus pandemic has revealed the need for a reset of the world’s economic and social systems.

It’s summer 2022, and you’re taking your first trip abroad since the coronavirus pandemic swept the world and shuttered national borders.

At your destination, the immigration officer asks for your passport and another, less familiar document — an “immunity passport” proving you carry antibodies that prevent you from contracting and spreading COVID-19. Satisfied, the officer lets you through, but not before they have you download an app on your smartphone that will let your host country track your movements and contacts — something it’s already doing for its own citizens.

Is this the kind of world we’ll be left with after the pandemic?

The measures described above are already being debated or implemented in some countries, raising questions about privacy, government control and the benefits and risks of technology.

They are the same questions being asked by a new global initiative, the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution (C4IR). Founded in San Francisco in 2017, and with satellites in nine countries and counting, this independent, nonprofit network seeks ways to harness technology for the good of humanity.

The head the network’s Tokyo hub, Chizuru Suga, talks with Editorial and Communications Lead for C4IR Japan, Jonathan Soble, about how Japan risks falling behind in promoting socially beneficial innovation, and how the pandemic is raising the stakes when it comes to society’s relationship with technology.

COVID-19 has shown us how dependent we are on technology, but has also seen a ramping up of surveillance in some countries. With C4IR looking at how big data and AI are reordering society, how has the pandemic impacted your work?

The virus is making our case for us. People are waking up to the impact of digital technology. They can see how easy it is to build an app to track your movements.

For example, they can see which countries have been proactive in embracing innovation and those that haven’t.

Take a basic thing like digitizing government paperwork. Japan is behind on this. The tools exist — we have the so-called My Number system of individual identification numbers, for example, but implementation has been slow. And because of that, it takes time to do things like distribute economic aid in a crisis.

That’s the kind of gap that opens up between countries with different approaches to technology policy and innovation. COVID-19 is making it obvious.

Our goal is to help people understand that the world is changing irrevocably because of technology, and to nudge the world in the direction of positive change. The pandemic is an accelerator.

The World Economic Forum is talking about “The Great Reset,” which is the idea that, no matter how much you’ve invested in the pre-coronavirus world, you have to re-assess everything, ask if it’s still relevant and make adjustments where necessary, even if it’s painful.

It’s a good message for Japan, which has more than 200 sets of laws covering different industries, many of which are out of date — but to change even one law can take years.

What we need is a broad social consensus that the world has changed and government needs to change with it — we have to come to terms with that big reality. If we do that, we’ll be in a better position to shape how technology affects us — to nurture the socially useful bits and protect ourselves against the potentially harmful bits. Maybe the virus is teaching us that.

Japan has often been known for slow, consensus-based policy making. Is this approach riskier now?

Let’s say someone creates a new, interesting business somewhere in the world. At some point, that business is going want to try its luck in Japan.

But if it’s too new — if it doesn’t fit inside the neat box that a certain set of industry regulations was designed for — it will run into trouble.

It might not be able to operate here, or it might have to radically change its business model. And so Japan misses out. And we might never notice — after all, the thing has never existed here before.

But the missed opportunities add up. Eventually, a big gap in quality of life opens up between people who live in places where innovation is happening all around them, and people who don’t. Consensus is crucial, but there’s a difference between real, purposeful consensus-building and simple foot-dragging or fear of change.

If Japanese regulators don’t create space for new ideas, innovation will forever be something that happens in other countries. Japan will get things after everyone else, and not in their original form, but with odd rules unique to Japan imposed on them.

Improving tech regulation in Japan is one thing, but isn’t one implication of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that rule-making has to be global, because technology is borderless?

That’s true. In the past, Japan has usually waited for other countries to make the rules, but there are limits to that approach.

Some of Japan’s problems, like its aging population, are hitting us earlier or harder than other countries. Like it or not, we’re at the forefront of difficult social changes. That means we have to be a leader in coming up with solutions. We have to make the rules from scratch, which is not something we’re used to doing.

And we can’t just think domestically — we have to be in sync with other countries. The rules need to work in a global context.

At the same time, a history of copying brings some advantages. Take privacy laws — when Japan created its rules to protect personal information, it took bits and pieces from other countries’ laws. As a result, we’re positioned somewhere between the United States, where technology companies pretty much have free rein, and Europe, where individual privacy rights are sacrosanct. It’s a good position to be in.

That’s partly because a balanced approach is healthy — we need to protect privacy but also leave room for innovation — and partly because we can mediate between the two approaches. Japan is the only country whose privacy regime is recognized as being compatible with the European Union’s. Yet Japan also shares the basic American view that data should be allowed to flow freely across borders.

On privacy and other issues, Japan can seek out core principles that are common to different systems and build on them. If we don’t, many countries, including Japan, will find themselves squeezed between competing regulatory systems developed by others. Japan has the world’s third-biggest national economy, so it’s in a position to represent weaker voices in debates with places like the U.S., Europe or China.

Japan has been promoting the idea of trust as a pillar of global technology rule-making. What exactly does that mean?

When technology regulators or academics talk about trust, it can sound awfully vague. But the basic concept is simple.

Say you’re sending an email. Who do you CC? It’s partly a question of trust. If I share this information with that person, I’m confident that they won’t misuse it. The more sensitive the information, or the less you know about the recipient, the more reluctant you’ll be to include them. Before you let someone into your circle of trust, you want to know certain things. Do the person’s ethics align with yours? Are they following good cybersecurity protocols that will protect the information you send them?

The same idea governs trust between countries. Our goal is to expand the trust circle, step by step and in a way that’s fair to everyone. It’s another area where the COVID-19 pandemic is both a challenge and an opportunity. After the crisis will come a reopening of borders. How do we do that? How can we ensure that a traveler is free of COVID-19, or that a country is telling the truth when it says it has the virus under control?

The temptation will be to open borders to a select group of friendly, well-regarded countries. It’s a natural response, but I worry this will lead to countries forming blocs — not traditional economic blocs but physical ones. It would be bad for everyone if people could only move within this or that bloc. There’s an urgent need to widen the circle of trust as we look toward an exit from the pandemic.

One part of trust-building is making sure that everyone is represented. There’s talk of creating “immunity passports” and the like to enable people to travel again. Who will qualify, and how will they be certified? It would be very dangerous if those decisions were left to one country to make unilaterally.

We don’t want fundamental principles like freedom of movement decided by a contest of national strength. It could easily be politicized — you’re from a country that’s on “our side,” so you’re OK.

Lots of people would end up being left out, including refugees and others without a strong state to represent them.

What we need is a truly global solution for reopening borders that’s fair to everyone. Multinational companies and universities with lots of international students should be natural allies in advocating for this — it needs to be a multi-stakeholder approach. If only states are involved, the tendency will be to put narrow national interest first.

This is exactly the kind of area where the World Economic Forum and the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Network can be a voice. It could be a new part of our mission.

Chizuru Suga is head of the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Japan, and leads projects related to health care data policy, next-generation mobility, smart cities and other fields. Previously, Suga was an official at the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI). Jonathan Soble is the center’s editorial and communications lead.

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