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Report
20 November 2018

Directed digitalisation

Working towards a digital transition focused on people and values – The Dutch approach
Privacy freedom of choice algorithms Artificial intelligence
The public sector, the private sector and civil society organisations must steer digital society in such a way that greater focus is placed on people and values. The aim is a digital society in which no one is excluded. This report identifies five actions aimed at values-driven innovation.

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Summary

Over the past eighteen months, the Netherlands has started to realise the massive scale of the impact of digitalisation on society. Digitalisation is not longer essentially a reference to a collection of gadgets but has gradually been recognised as a transition process, with opportunities and risks. A key question for the future is therefore how the Netherlands should structure that transition.

The most important message from the Rathenau Instituut is that government, the private sector and civil society organisations need to shape and direct the digital society in such a way that greater focus is placed on people and values. Only then can a digital society be created, in which no one is excluded. With that in mind, in this report we propose five actions.

Read the five actions on the tab page 'Recommendations'

Ethical issues are more prominent on the agenda

This report will show that government and many other parties have started to act on the message from Urgent Upgrade. A whole raft of social and ethical questions, for example about our understanding of algorithms and a fair data economy, are far more clearly present on the agenda than two years ago. Policy makers, regulators and civil society organisations are already developing knowledge about the new themes. In respect of privacy and security, the step has been taken from agenda shaping and policy making to actual policy implementation. Over the past eighteen months, therefore, the governance system has changed for the better.

In other areas, themes have been placed on the agenda, but not yet translated into actual policy measures. Examples are the protection of democracy, understanding of algorithms and a fair, competitive data economy.

A number of technologies and their related societal issues have also not yet been placed on the agenda. Examples are facial recognition, virtual and augmented reality and the possible health effects of digital technology.

Working towards a digital transition focused on people and values

Various parties such as policy makers, politicians, civil society organisations, regional and local governments, professional associations and regulators recognise the importance of protecting public values. They are clearly considering the issue of what digitalisation means for their organisation, sector or practice. The key question however is how we can best manage this digital transition. Many have recognised that protecting public values and fundamental rights must be the starting point for digitalisation.

This means a turnaround in the debate on the deployment and influence of digital technologies: from a focus on technology and the assumption that it will automatically lead to social progress, to a focus on the interaction between digitalisation and values. On the one hand, digitalisation is a tool for tackling social challenges while on the other hand it is a development that could compromise public values. By viewing digitalisation as a transition, the focus is placed prominently on the question ‘what type of digital society do we want to live in?’. To answer that question, an integrated approach to innovation is needed, that gives shape and direction to the digital transition and as a result to our society, from the viewpoint of public values.

Five actions to reinforce the governance system

We propose five actions that will help policy makers, businesses and civil society organisations to reinforce the governance system. For more information read the tab page 'Recommendations'.

A follow up to the report Urgent Upgrade

This report is a follow-up to our report Urgent Upgrade published in February 2017, written in response to the Gerkens motion that was adopted by the Dutch Senate. That report mapped out a broad spectrum of societal and ethical aspects of digitalisation.

 

Preferred citation:

Kool, L., E. Dujso, and R. van Est (2018). Deliberate digitalisation – Working towards a digital transition focused on people and values – The Dutch approach. The Hague: Rathenau Instituut

 

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Conclusions

The Netherlands has become more aware of the impact of digitalisation on society. Nonetheless, to bring about a digital transition in which people and values are the central focus, both the public and private sectors will have to develop their activities more specifically from the perspective of social challenges. And in that very area there are huge opportunities for the Netherlands and Europe.

This is reflected in this report, in which we formulate five recommendations to improve the course of the digital transition (for more information read the tab page 'Recommendations').

The central thrust of these recommendations is the term socially responsible digitalisation. This must become the starting point for any business or government innovation. Any technological opportunity requires that the transition itself is embedded in society, and based on international agreements. Furthermore, the Netherlands will have to continue to invest in the position of regulators and other supervisory bodies.

More specific action is needed

Important steps have already been taken in respect of cybersecurity and privacy, but such issues as discrimination, exclusion and loss of autonomy have not yet been translated into specific policy measures.

The same applies for such themes as the protection of democracy, the transparency of algorithms and fair economic competition.

Certain technologies and the related social issues, such as facial recognition, virtual and augmented reality and the effects of digital technology on health have not even been placed on the agenda.

Public and private sector must digitalise more decisively

There is clear evidence of greater awareness and uncoordinated individual actions. What is missing is the link between social issues and innovation. In tackling the challenges facing us as a society, the public and private sector must direct digitalisation from the viewpoint of societal challenges and public values.

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Recommendations

Five actions to reinforce the governance system

The Rathenau Instituut has proposed five actions that will help policy makers, businesses and civil society organisations to reinforce the governance system:

  1. Invest in a value-driven approach to innovation
    Ethical and societal issues cannot be considered in isolation from innovation or digitalisation processes. To fulfil the ambitions of the Netherlands, for example in healthcare, in the energy transition or with regard to mobility, it is essential to link innovation to societal issues: the Netherlands must no longer view public values as the final step in an innovation process, but as a starting point. This ties in with thinking on innovation policy in terms of mission-based innovation policy or targeted innovation systems.
     
  2. Arrive at a proactive, overarching agenda and action plan for the societal and ethical aspects of digitalisation
    Societal and ethical issues in digitalisation have been placed on the policy agenda, but there is still no integrated vision. A number of questions have not yet been translated into specific policy measures. A proactive agenda also calls for attention for topics that as yet barely feature on the agenda such as facial recognition, virtual and augmented reality and the possible health effects of technology. Any truly overarching agenda will also contain a vision on how to involve society (see point 5).
     
  3. Invest in a strong position for supervisory bodies
    Supervisory bodies represent a vital link when it comes to reinforcing the governance system with regard to digitalisation issues. These watchdogs have indeed become more focused on those issues. It is their role to invest in establishing knowledge and collaborating with other supervisory bodies. A number of these watchdogs have been granted new authorities or increased budgets. It is essential that we continue to monitor whether and to what extent these new powers and increased funding are sufficient. These actions of strengthening the watchdogs can be regarded as first steps. We are only just beginning to understand the true potential of digitisation. From a strategic viewpoint it is therefore vital that we continue to invest in the capabilities and capacities of the supervisory bodies.
     
  4. The private sector: engage in socially responsible digitalisation
    Politicians and society as a whole are becoming increasingly aware of the societal and ethical aspects of digitalisation. This has resulted in growing pressure on the private sector to tackle these issues seriously. Corporate social responsibility in the field of digitalisation calls for a proactive attitude from the private sector in recognising and indeed anticipating the societal and ethical implications of the technology they are developing. In a whole number of ways, businesses are obliged to make the effort to protect human rights. It is now up to them to shape their duty of care, in practice.
     
  5. Encourage technological citizenship
    In order to help set the course for innovation, individual citizens must be closely involved. They must be informed of the possibilities and risks of technology and must be able to participate in the democratic debate and political decision-making processes. It is important that we continue to encourage these three elements in any strong governance system. There must also be clear attention for the limits of the self-reliance of citizens, and their willingness to participate. Values-driven innovation means shaping innovation on the basis of shared, public values. This can only be achieved in consultation with society and that in turn calls for a vision from government.