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When people look to make certain technology widely available in a society, many tend to think from the viewpoint of the supply side.

However, technologies should be introduced from the user’s standpoint, and the same thing can be said about the digital agency which will be established in Japan in September.

There are a number of things that should be done to help the agency function fully in society, based on a framework recommended by a working group of the Asia Pacific Initiative.

People tend to accept new technologies because they meet certain needs or demands. No matter how outstanding the quality of a particular thing is, people won’t use it unless it meets their needs.

Digital technologies are quickly spreading in developing countries because they meet people’s needs. For instance, in countries where financial institutions are not functioning, mobile money transfer services are helping solve various problems, and in nations where fax machines are not widely available, emails are offering improved convenience.

Japan trod the same path after World War II, adopting a variety of technologies to satisfy society’s numerous demands.

Decades later, Japan has matured. In a mature society, the potential of existing technologies have been fully drawn out, and if they are replaced with new technologies it would not lead to large benefits.

In a situation where banking networks stretch across the country with ATMs accessible at convenience stores, mobile money contributes little to increase convenience.

If workers can carry out their tasks sufficiently with fax machines, they won’t feel the need to spend money to introduce digital technology.

New technologies can face opposition, since their adoption means new capital spending and learning costs, and can lead to loss of employment for people engaging in work to be taken over by the new technology.

The biggest challenge for the digital agency will be to overcome the old technologies with their full potential drawn out by years of improvement and the systems that support those technologies.

There are only two ways to introduce new technologies in such a situation. One is to introduce them to cope with issues that can be solved only with such new technologies. The other is to aim for further technological sophistication.

To realize the former, the digital agency must grasp the needs of the public, who are users of administrative services, and the demands of public servants, who are users of systems.

If the digital agency is going to create a new platform rather than new services, it should listen to the voices of software developers who will use the platform.

Discovering needs

To realize those goals, it is necessary to learn ways — including design thinking and agile development — to discover users’ needs and respond to them quickly.

In addition to learning development methods, the agency should have a system to make procurement orders and allocate budgets that enables adoption of flexible software development methods. It should also review the systems for hiring people and evaluating those who make orders.

There are potential demands for digital technologies. If, for instance, the government creates a new data platform and offers open data as new public goods, it might become possible to create new demands.

In that case, it becomes necessary to discuss how to secure data governance.

Furthermore, as digital technologies are incorporated into various infrastructure, the importance of cybersecurity will increase, leading to new demands and requests for system revisions from the viewpoint of national security.

Some people have pointed out that general-purpose technologies can be fully functional only when governance systems are innovated.

Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and digital reform minister Takuya Hirai attend a ceremony in Tokyo on Sept. 30, 2020, as the Cabinet Office creates an office tasked with launching a digital agency. | POOL / VIA KYODO
Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and digital reform minister Takuya Hirai attend a ceremony in Tokyo on Sept. 30, 2020, as the Cabinet Office creates an office tasked with launching a digital agency. | POOL / VIA KYODO

The digital agency is tasked with the role of being a driving force for governance innovation to fully utilize digital technologies.

Regarding technological sophistication, it is necessary to let users try new technologies.

Sophistication is not possible unless new technology is actually used, even a little, but it won’t be introduced if it is not sophisticated.

What should be done to encourage the adoption of new technologies in such a situation?

One answer is to show the actual impact or the ideal state the new technologies can bring to society.

That is important because problems represent gaps between the ideal situation and the status quo. If the ideal situation is not clear, you cannot see the problems and thus no demands will be newly created.

Conversely, if there are no clear problems, one way would be to show the ideal situation and raise issues from there to make demands apparent.

Entrepreneurs and startups that have changed society did just that to dig up new demands.

Digital Japan

The digital agency needs to demonstrate why Japanese society must go digital and show ideals that will be achieved by adopting digital technologies.

By doing so, the gaps between the ideal situation and the status quo will be revealed, leading to new demands, helping people accept new technologies.

But there are three points to keep in mind when presenting ideals.

Firstly, the agency should explain what theory and philosophy those ideals are based on.

Without a theoretical foundation, ideals are just ideas. Without a theory, ideals can be shared only through empathy.

Empathy can help get people involved. However, on the other hand, this method has limits because it can win support only from those who empathize with the ideas.

In order to come up with ideals that can involve many people, a method other than empathy — a theory — is necessary.

Secondly, a path leading up to the ideals should be shown. Without a feasible path, ideals are merely a delusion.

It is necessary to explain logically how that path can lead to the achievement of goals and also secure resources with which to proceed on the path.

Thirdly, as Makoto Yuasa, who operates children’s charity cafeterias, wrote in his book, it is necessary not only to show ideals as an answer but to also live up to those ideals.

It is not convincing enough just to present ideals and a path leading to them. In order to move forward, the person talking about the ideals must take the initiative and act.

The Tokyo Olympics may be a good example of what not to do.

The organizers were supposed to present ideals and discuss a theory and philosophy to support them.

If they had such a base to work from, they could have avoided changing their ideals again and again, from using the Olympics to demonstrate Japan’s recovery from the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, to using the Games to demonstrate the world is winning the war against the COVID-19, and then using the Olympics to give children dreams and inspiration. If they had a strong unchangeable foundation, they probably would have been able to involve even people who are not interested in sports.

The organizers had to show the path to achieve the ideal form of Olympics. If their goal was to hold a “safe and secure” event, they should have presented their criteria for achieving the goal quantitatively to some extent and implemented measures after sufficiently explaining them. Then they would have been more convincing.

If people involved in the event deeply thought about how the Olympic Charter should be interpreted today and put it into practice, it could have been received differently by the public.

In applying the three points to the forthcoming digital agency, we need to ask the following questions. Will it be able to have ideals supported by theory and philosophy? Will it be able to draw a path to the ideals and live up to them?

The digital agency

The digital agency’s ideal is to create a society in which each person can choose the services that fit their needs and realize their well-being.

The agency should clearly present a social vision of this ideal and explain the theoretic and philosophical foundations behind it, as well as the way to achieve it.

And most of all, it should live up to its goal of creating an ideal administrative system within itself by utilizing digital technologies to boost productivity, make administrative processes transparent and come up with policies based on data.

To realize this, old-fashioned governance should be renewed.

If the new agency tries to go its own way, it might face opposition from other ministries and agencies which may think the agency is getting special treatment.

It will be difficult to resist the pressure but the agency should not give up on moving forward toward its ideal rather than following old rules.

If the agency manages to achieve its goal, its methods can spread to other ministries and agencies, as well as private companies, leading to the creation of new demands.

After the end of World War II, Japan made rapid progress, having Western countries as an ideal.

With the launch of the digital agency approaching, we are facing a number of lessons to be learned from the nation’s defeat in the digital war.

We should make the new agency an opportunity to hold up a clear ideal leading to a power to create new demands.

Takaaki Umada is a senior visiting fellow at Asia Pacific Initiative and director of FoundX at the University of Tokyo. API Geoeconomic Briefing is a series that looks into geopolitical and economic trends, with a particular focus on technology and innovation, global supply chains, international rule-making and climate change.

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