Everyone thinks it’s about them.

I call this the Carly Simon Problem.

It’s hard to define what “digital” means these days. Everything can be digitized, from music to movies to lost relatives. So a conference on Digital Government is the broadest of tents. There’s an old proverb: When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Well, when you have a digital hammer, everything’s a nail.

Digital, don’t hurt ‘em.

As a conference organizer, one of the biggest challenges is drawing the boundaries of discussion. If we’re about the future of technology, we’re spread far too thinly, and unlikely to provide the necessary depth on key topics. On the other hand, if we limit ourselves to digital interfaces on existing government systems, we’re not considering what is now possible with a connected citizenry.

Science fiction and present fact

A few weeks ago, I heard some of the policymakers from a Canadian town talk about their parking issues:

  • Merchants want more parking, decrying the lack of free spots and claiming that it’s hurting their business. To fix this, they’re lobbying for a costly parking structure in the middle of town.
  • The cost of a parking structure would be amortized over decades. In that time, the nature of transportation will probably change dramatically, moving us from drivers to passengers (consider that the Tesla Model 3 will turn into a transportation fleet at the push of a button, as Elon Musk pointed out in his Master Plan Part 2:)
You will also be able to add your car to the Tesla shared fleet just by tapping a button on the Tesla phone app and have it generate income for you while you’re at work or on vacation, significantly offsetting and at times potentially exceeding the monthly loan or lease cost. This dramatically lowers the true cost of ownership to the point where almost anyone could own a Tesla. Since most cars are only in use by their owner for 5% to 10% of the day, the fundamental economic utility of a true self-driving car is likely to be several times that of a car which is not.
  • What’s more, the city knows, from analytics, that there are free spots a few minutes’ walk away today, but people aren’t aware of them.

This is a perfect storm of the present and the future. Deciding whether to build new parking is competing with creating apps to improve parking lot visibility; public transport may be superseded by a fleet of cars that, today, are idle 95% of the time.

In other words, it’s impossible to make good decisions about the next 50 days without considering the next 50 years. The pace of technological innovation is so rapid that we can’t wait to see what happens; we have to anticipate and experiment, and be willing to accept a degree of risk and failure as long as that failure is accompanied by concrete learnings.

Everything in three timeframes

When I discuss FWD50 with people, they variously tell me it’s about digital privacy; direct democracy; tax reform; accessibility; climate change; cyber-security and citizen resilience; transportation; education and literacy; and so many more things. I lose sleep over the fact that we might disappoint people, because it is both all of these things and a thin sliver of them.

Ultimately, the event is about change:

  • It’s about the cultural and procedural changes needed to design, deploy, and learn from technology better and faster.
  • It’s about the creation of platforms that span multiple silos, on which people can build solutions quickly, that enforce governance and standards where needed while also giving people free rein to innovate within those constraints.
  • And it’s about steering technology so we can have the kind of society we want for all Canadians.

In fact, those are the three breakout tracks we’ll run at the conference. We’ll consider three timeframes: 50 days, 50 months, and 50 years. Because despite the challenges of finding focus, this conference is in fact about all of us.