Change is the New Constant: A parable for our times
In some building on Wellington's Terrace, somewhere in a spacious office, sits Bill Johnson, 58. He looks at his computer and frowns. He looks to his EA, inevitably called Sharon, and frowns. He looks at the papers on his desk, and frowns, this time, letting out a firm sigh.
As the head of the ministry, he's had a stellar career. He's put in his time, and as he takes off his glasses to wipe his brow on this hot day, he thinks back amongst all his accomplishments. He worked hard on the shipping system, and streamlined that process. He revolutionised the way direct mail was sent out, and he even managed the call centre into its most efficient state ever. But, as the stress dawns on him one more time, why is his department struggling once again?
He thinks of the Forum for the Future of the Public Sector he attended a few months back, and remembers something a young, bearded hipster from some startup was saying…
"Today's leaders have got there on merit of optimising what was current. Their excellence is knowing and perfecting what once was - not what will be. Innovation is a skill. It's a skill government has never really had to work on in the last 10 or 15 years, and some departments have avoided it entirely."
Bill remembers he took a note to start an innovation group, he decides to pay them a visit. He wanders downstairs to the office and approaches their innovation hub. Declining a bean bag, Bill takes a "real seat" and starts to hear from the team.
Mark, 22, presents an idea for using social media for everything. Mark thinks comms departments are silly - why would anyone wait for a long form bit of news? Attention spans hardly last over 140 characters these days. He suggests each team of every department of every ministry has a Twitter, Facebook, Instagram account to post about new releases, what they're working on, and conducts polls for real-time feedback. Mark thinks that this could improve relations with the public, and remove the need for an expensive comms team. He even suggests local MPs could use Facebook or twitter polls to survey their electorates on their opinions. Real democracy, and real representation was now more possible than ever.
Next, Sarah, 26, talks about a way to innovate places like DIA and IRD at scale. She's heard that every single email, call, text, communication can now be fed into a computer for a data processing technique called "sentiment analysis". This new technology can detect generally feeling negative or positive, a major insight. She quotes the website that claims the Enron disaster couldn't have happened with sentiment analysis in place, with worried emails being caught in a completely automated system. This could have efficiency gains on a massive scale, and the software was easy to install.
Susan, 28, talks through an idea for Universal Basic Income (UBI). You see, Susan has read up about artificial intelligence and automation, and after a few years at Stats NZ, has realised that the unemployment rate, currently at 5%, will rise to 40% in the next thirty years and then to 90% by 2100. A UBI would see everyone in New Zealand get a small amount of money each week to live on, citing success in parts of the UK, Canada and Finland.
Mark pipes up, "Oh yeah, how are you going to pay for that? Tax Robots?!"
Susan sheepishly responds "Well, yes, actually. Think about it."
Mark looks bewildered initially, then smiles and nods approvingly.
Jack, 21, is the brightest of the lot. At high school and university, Jack used 3D printers to print any object he could design. With a love of fabrication, and a degree in industrial design fro Massey, he keeps up with the work in the industry. He muses that by 2100, we could print anything, from a combination of any materials. He presents confidently that money will not be needed in 2118. Everything will be free. Jane and Mark interrupt to ask what we will even do by then. Jack replies - "I dunno, explore space?"
Jane says "What, like the crew on Star Trek?! Haha!".
Jack pauses, defeated, for a moment, raises his head and says "Well, if you think about it, they were all government employees, too."
The team collectively present other ideas they've been looking into as well. They talk of self-driving busses and trains to overhaul Wellington's public transport system. They looked into a floating rubbish collector for Wellington's worsening harbour. They even started a trial with edible food wrap in the kitchens, banning plastic wrap. There was even a pretty out-there idea of storing New Zealand's open data on the blockchain, collected from this year's census. The team is clearly ecstatic about their research an ideas, and have a vision a really modern New Zealand government in the coming years.
As the group's presentation comes to a close, Sharon slips into the room, handing a post-it note to Jim, signalling him to action it. Jim, reacting to the series of presentations laid out in front of him, lets out a hearty chuckle. "Well, thanks for that, team, that has made my day. Great ideas. I really appreciate what you're doing here. Keep going." Jim closes the door, and pauses for a moment to let his eyes return from their firmly rolled position.
Whispering to Sharon, "What ridiculousness. Those ideas will never work!", he proceeds to head back to his office, taking his seat, and looking back at Sharon, back at his computer, and lets out another sigh as his mind wanders back to a state of worry.
Sam Jarman is a software engineer/improv actor/public speaker/writer and future thinker living in Wellington, New Zealand. You can find him at his blog.
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