In recent years scholars have recorded a global ‘democratic recession’ as overall trust in government institutions and elected officials erodes while support for populist politics, anti-establishment rhetoric and civil unrest grows. Citizens of representative democracies around the world, with particular emphasis on youth populations, are growing disillusioned by the traditional systems that govern society (Wike et al; 2017, 3). This is evidenced in the findings of the Democracy Perception Index, which ranks how effective countries are in delivering democratic benefits.
The survey found that more than half of the world’s citizens of representative democracies felt as though their voices were ‘rarely’ or ‘never’ heard (2018, 2).
Amongst multiple other factors, this erosion of trust can be attributed to the perception that government institutions are out of touch with the concerns of citizens as well as how and where citizens are expressing these concerns, which today takes place predominantly on digital channels. Governments across the world have remained largely untouched by continuous technological innovation, whereas these same innovations have changed almost every other sphere of life for the majority of society.
This concept paper is a preliminarily exploration into the opportunities of digital democracy and how inclusive innovation frameworks can inform how we might reimagine how citizens, civil society and governments within representative democracies can better engage, work toward tangible outcomes and uphold the social contract through technological innovations. The following text will detail the unique African context within which the challenge I aim to tackle exists in, the desired outcome of this course of study and the project that I aim to launch as well as preliminary thoughts around implementation.
Technological advancements are transforming society at a pervasive rate, enabling human beings to better connect with one another and ensuring that every societal, public and private institution has access to more effective ways of interacting with the citizens that they serve. Although there are specific improvements and successes with the incorporation of digital integration into government process and systems, the application has not been in a holistic and widespread sense and tends to happen in bubbles that do not scale up.
Government institutions have not experienced the same increase in levels of overall effectiveness as the private sector has seen in terms of the application of technological innovations. We’re then able to see that this growing divide between democratic governments and citizen populations can in part be attributed to this disconnect in how citizens express themselves and how governments take on board that information. This point is particularly magnified when you view this disconnect through the lens of how young people use digital tools and platforms as a way of aggregating voices, mobilising and enacting change within their communities.
The context of the above challenge is applicable in South Africa as well and young people best embody these feelings of disillusion towards the government. Even though this generation are historically the most empowered and free youth cohort South Africa has ever seen, they also bear the brunt of our elected officials failing to deliver on the post ’94, growing unemployment and the lingering inter-generational trauma of Apartheid. This is evidenced in the 2019 national elections which had the lowest voter turnout in post democracy South Africa since the 1994 elections. The Electoral Commission of South Africa reported that of the nine million eligible voters who did not register to vote, six million of those were young South Africans. And that less than 20% of eligible first-time voters actually registered to vote (Patel and Graham). Qualitatively this point is evidenced in South African youth taking to Twitter on the eve of the 2019 elections, sharing their personal reasons for why they are losing faith in our democracy using the hashtag #Iwanttovotebut.
With that being said, South African youth do however understand the importance of their role as active citizens in this democracy. The Youth in Transitions in South African Communities study, states that although young South Africans are unsure of whether government will or can address their concerns they care about politics and how decision making affects their day to day (reference). This is not surprising as the country has a rich history of civil mobilisation and student lead activism and we see this resurfacing in democratic South Africa, being propelled by young people.
In the past few years, South African university students have been at the forefront of the Rhodes Must Fall and the Fees Must Fall movements, with young people regularly mobilising for issues that span from climate activism to protest against gender-based violence. South African youth are reimagining civil mobilisation much like the rest of the world by using technological tools and platforms to mobilise, organise and aggregate dissenting voices through Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, crowdfunding sites, petition sites and countless other advancements that make connecting with one another easier. Young South Africans are already using digital tools and platforms to begin to unpack how we can make up for where government is lacking in terms of servicing citizens. There is an opportunity to aggregate these efforts and make the systems more accessible, giving a voice to society at large through digital democracy.
The vision for the impact I aim to enable through this line of academic study is work that works to revitalise democracy by creating avenues for young South Africans, particularly those from marginalised communities to learn how to build and create digital tools that provide information, promote transparency and deepen engagement between citizens and government through a skills development programme. In its current iteration, the project is a skills development programme that empowers youth from marginalised communities to create digital tools and platforms as a means to empower their communities to aggregate dissenting voices, mobilise and be a part of their governments decision-making process and work toward a type of democracy that truly services all citizens equally.
For this undertaking to truly be considered an inclusive innovation it must impact the most vulnerable in our society, which I believe to be our youth cohort, because of their reduced economic opportunities and an education system that has failed to adequately prepare them to successfully tackle the challenges of today’s world. In Q1 of 2019, Stats SA reported that youth unemployment for 15- 24-year olds sat at 55.2% and 41% for 25-34-year olds. These concerns over an ill prepared working age population are further compounded when viewed through the lens of the threat of automation. Countries with the right infrastructure needed to fully leverage automation, will benefit from it.
However, for countries like South Africa who are less prepared the Fourth Industrial Revolution, automation may bring more job losses than gains, with 35% of South African jobs at risk of automation (reference). Automation also poses a disproportionate threat to the economic well-being of POCs as it affects low skilled jobs which have historically been filled by POCs in South Africa (reference). This opportunity is particularly magnified because Sub-Saharan Africa is on the precipice of a labour boom, with 15 to 20 million increasingly well-educated young people (in comparison to previous generations) joining the African workforce every year for the next 3 decades. To fully leverage the potential of this demographic, we need to ensure that we are creating the training and skills for quality jobs (reference).
A successful undertaking in this regard looks like a skills development programme that focuses on creating a POC talent pipeline well versed in researching and understanding societal issues and then translating the solutions for these issues into digital tools and platforms that can be used by their communities. The ultimate goal would then be to partner with government and civil society to activate the tools while also working to digitally upskill government institutions and make the use of these tools more widespread and embedded in government processes. Success metrics will be based on engagement within the marginalised communities. To understand whether this programme is succeeding, I will look at factors such as diverse reach in terms of participants to ensure that this programme is inclusive. Whether this programme creates the platform for and captures robust qualitative content that can go on to inform policy making so that these policies reflect the true lived experience. The ultimate measure of success would be satisfaction of citizens and renewed trust in democratic institutions
In terms of existing solutions in the field, I look to the work of Nesta the Innovation Foundation as an inspiration for the content and the context of their work. To address the educational aspect of the project, I admire the work of Umuzi, a high value skills development programme that focuses on readying youth for jobs of the future.
This foundations work focuses on smarter uses of data and technology in government, tools and platforms that encourage democratic engagement and platforms for supporting the public sector in tech innovations. Nesta achieves this through research, working with government and civil society institutions, piloting these programmes and then scaling them for implementation. Their D-Cent work is what I am most excited about. The website states that it’s a “Europe-wide project developing the next generation of open source, distributed, and privacy-aware tools for direct democracy and economic empowerment.”. My belief that is that South Africa is fertile ground to pilot these kinds of projects.
I currently partner with Umuzi in my current role and I most admire the programmes operating model. Umuzi upskills young people into high value tech careers by using skills development to build a digital talent pipeline. They do this by linking talented young people who have been failed by the education system and then train them in to jobs where there are distinct skills shortages, namely in the tech industry, but the programme evolves to respond to changing employment needs This particular solution is applicable in my own undertaking in terms of the funding model which works with both government and the private sector funding to ensure its success as well as acting as proof of how a tech innovation skills development programme can be successful.
My belief is that my arrival at this point in both my academic and work career can be attributed to my academic experiences, skillset and natural interests. In my current role I’ve had the privilege of working with and observing Umuzi and this has made me realise that there is an opportunity for this kind of work. Since then I have immersed myself in content on this subject and consequently drafted the first version of a business plan and investigated feasibility and funding options. During this process I have also become aware of a knowledge gap that I need to fill if I seek to make this undertaking as impactful as possible. My current plan for addressing that knowledge gap is to refine my knowledge and skillset for this particular challenge with the academic rigour that I am seeking out from this course as well as making a career change from strategic communications in advertising to strategic communications in the development space so that I may gain more of a niche and practical understanding. The following is how I believe I’ve progressed in readying myself for this undertaking:
During my Honour’s year at Vega school, I completed and was awarded a distinction for a research dissertation entitled, “Twitter as a tool for revolution”, where I outlined the rise of the Rhodes Must Fall movement through the lens of Twitter as a vehicle for civil mobilisation. This research was a culmination of my undergraduate foundational understanding of social structures in democratic societies, new media communication and the behaviour change work I studied at Vega. I believe through this process that I gained a holistic understanding of the digital communication landscape and scope of possibilities, the implementation of the research has given me a skillset that will equip me well for the type of research that this programme will require. I view this initial research experience as the foundation for this line of academic inquiry that I hope to pursue further.
In my current role, I have the opportunity to research, implement and test the application of communication strategies that have typically only been used in the private sector to address prevalent social issues. In a recent project I worked on an ART delivery optimisation campaign where I had the opportunity of working with an international development agency and government departments to create an efficient behaviour change campaign. The feedback that I have received leads me to believe that there is an opportunity for the type of skillset I bring to be applied in the development space in South Africa.
In order for me to realise the vision that I have set out in this concept paper I need address the following areas; I have identified the need to strengthen my academic grounding in the development space so that I have a holistic view of the landscape and the feasibility of the various opportunities that present themselves. I also need access to a space where I can explore different iterations of this project prototype and receive feedback so as to understand what I can realistically set out to do. My hope is that through the academic rigour of this programme I will be able to put together the strongest business case possible. Lastly, I would like access to networks of peers and industry experts to act as an informed sounding board, offer insights into how I can turn this into a sustainable project and advice in terms of funding options and partnerships.
This is why I believe that the Master of Philosophy in Inclusive Innovation will best equip me for entering this next phase of my career. I see this degree programme as an opportunity to aggregate all of my existing knowledge, natural interests and future goals and responsibly implement a pilot programme that aims to address major social issues in present day South Africa