National Service 2.0

VoteThe future of the nation state is starting to come into question. Social contracts that justified citizen loyalty are fragmenting. It should be of no surprise to government leaders that people are not totally happy with the manner in which the world is carved up. Often the borders were created with a total disregard for long established tribal unity. There are many examples of ill-fitting boundaries across Europe alone, including Basque country, Catalonia, Veneto, Cornwall and Scotland to name but a few. Many such border conflicts are being ‘resolved’ through warfare.

Relatively stable countries have worked on building their brand in the form of soft power. Promoting their culture, as a mechanism to weave their sovereignty status into the global fabric. Other powerbase-strengthening activities involve buying, not just the natural resources of other countries, but the land from which they are sourced. Or through building and owning the infrastructure of other countries, eg. ports and railways.  And of course strong trading links with adjacent countries serve to strengthen the borderline.

But nations, established and yet to be established, should take note of what the private sector players are doing to ensure their survival.

The business world is changing in many ways, but the most interesting, and relevant to this post, is the emergence of the digital business ecosystem.

Take two entities, Apple and the automotive sector. Traditionally they occupied parallel universes. The automotive industry is gearing up for a driverless world, where cars are a utility rather than an (social) asset class. Apple, and others, are revving up to disrupt the automotive industry, and add vehicles to their device portfolios. Once iOS is ‘under the bonnet’, the automotive industry will have made this predicted transition.

But landing your operating system is only part of the plan. Creating an ecosystem to enable the market to build apps using your operating system’s application programming interfaces (APIs) is where Apple’s tendrils start to burrow deep into the sector. Apple will no doubt choose to work with one or more major automotive players to develop these APIs, but for all intents and purposes, Apple will take ownership of that market, because they effectively own the market platform. Each freelance developer, or software house, that develops an Apple automotive app is, in part, an architect of Apple’s ecosystem. I am not singling out Apple, there are other players. But Apple knows ecosystems, and it knows how to build a raving fan base (aka a tribe).

You might ask yourself why certain tech firms are buying start-ups with the indiscriminating ferocity of a forest fire.  Well the more companies that use their platform, the more likely they will create a platform ecosystem that will provide them with some degree of sustainability, if they can grow it fast enough. Market share trumps profit in this game. Amazon has set the gold standard in how the game is played. Similarly raining free tools and apps upon students is also an investment in your ecosystem’s future.

You can be sure in countries where software piracy is rife, tech company marketing leaders will be doing all they can to ensure it is their software that is being pirated.

But back to national matters. Whilst I have outlined ways in which countries strengthen their territorial claim, they could do well to learn from the platform strategies of the likes of Apple, Uber and AirBnB, where each customer is a stakeholder of sorts, albeit sometimes a fickle one. Again, each software developer is an architect who is both expanding the footprint and the variety of associated services. This draws in more customers. Which in turn makes it more attractive for developers and business owners to commit their resources to supporting the platform.  Again drawing in more customers, ad infinitum.

What if your government developed a business architecture that covered everything from trade through to dustbin collection? What if the associated rules were openly available? And what if the associated data channels were also open? Some elements would only be available to certain approved developers, whose apps would only be released when they are proven to be suitably secure. What if the app store for your government had a policy that eighty percent of citizen applications must require three clicks or less to conclude? What if setting up a business was a matter of a few clicks? Or similarly for acquiring a visa, or booking a dental appointment? What if you had an application that could enable your driverless car to negotiate with other driverless cars to clear the road because you are in a hurry, and are willing to pay for a clear route? What if the same app made this non-negotiable when needed by the emergency services?

Word would get around that your country is citizen, tourist and business-friendly.

Of course, this is unlikely to garner much support from xenophobes, as migrants get wind of a land where society-induced cognitive leakage (aka stress) is eliminated because of the elegant design of the associated ‘service architecture’.

However, it is likely that the associated services would only be available to registered users, ie citizens.

So, in a society where everything is only accessible via a device, it is unlikely that the quality of life would be high if all, including basic societal services, were inaccessible.

Such a model has profound societal, security and privacy implications. For some, including many young people, it will boil down to convenience. That is why so many people are happy to share where they live with Amazon.

The underlying reason for taking this approach is to turn one’s society into a talent magnet. And this is important, given there is a global shortage of talent. By talent, I don’t mean people in general, or even young people. I mean people who can do things that robots and algos cannot. The corporations will follow the talent. In part, to have access to the talent, and in part to have access to their wallets. Such an ecosystem will create services that will likely boost tourism. It will create cash surpluses that will ensure that the less talented, and the infirm, are not abandoned. Get this wrong and your nation becomes an economic backwater before you can say disintermediation.

Again the big challenge for governments is in acquiring and retaining the best citizens. Some new ministerial posts will be required, including:

  • Minister for Talent Management.
  • Minister for Citizen Services.
  • Minister for Global Marketing.

The associated responsibilities can be found deep in the job specifications of existing roles. I think we need them brought to the fore.

Of course this model could also be applied at the trading bloc level. Though one would need to be quite confident about the long term prospects of the bloc in question before embarking on such a journey.

But an app-based society needs an infrastructure fit for the digital age. Rural broadband comes to mind. As well as an education system that generates creative talent, rather than compliant ‘factory cogs’.

I believe that governments need to get their platform act together. Otherwise the geography lessons of the future will involve maps where national flags will be replaced by corporate logos.

As the power shifts from employers to the talent, and from the government to the citizens, we may well see the rewriting of a popular quote relating to the government-citizen relationship dynamic:

Don’t ask what you can do for your country, but what your country can do for you.