Can the United States Government Keep Up?
After watching the opening debate of the Strategic Foresight Forum, A Race Against Time, Deputy Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center Jeff Lightfoot put down some of his thoughts on the subjects covered.

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Governments – both liberal and illiberal – will be critical to both developing and restraining the technologies that will shape the coming century. The critical question is whether the United States – both its people and its government – can adequately adapt to the challenges of a coming era to remain the world’s leading bastion of economic competitiveness, innovation, and individual liberty.

Panelist Mariana Mazzucato made the case that governments – particularly the American government – were behind much of the innovation that have driven the US economy since World War II, including recent game-changing innovations such as the Internet, the shale revolution, and critical technologies in the iPhone and iPad. Yet those same government institutions and their investments in research and development are threatened by sequestration and a generally grim American fiscal future. According to Mazzucato, government funding will be essential to provide both the quantity of funding, as well as the quality of funding, for countries to maintain their innovative edge going forward.

This raises important questions for the United States, where the role of government in society is increasingly rejected by the Republican party, fiscal pressures are very real and mounting, and the government operates slowly at best and not at all at worst. Given the realities of the American political system – which was designed to prevent a concentration of federal power to protect the rights of individuals – the United States will likely struggle to allocate overwhelming resources and focus toward the development of the next generation of technologies.

More to the point, the national conversation is not geared toward a major reallocation of resources toward the public sector to fund innovation. Whether true or not, the popular narrative in the United States today – efforts of liberal Democrats (and Maria Mazzucato) aside – is that companies and individuals innovate and that government gets in the way. As Dr. Mazzucato suggested, supporters of state-led innovation will have to do a much better job of changing the political narrative to win the argument in the United States. This will be challenging for both political and practical reasons. An aging United States is more likely to devote a greater share of future resources to supporting its elderly rather than funding public-led innovation. Faced with these impediments toward a more active government role, the United States may have to hope that the dominant narrative is true – that talented individuals and companies indeed can be the source of innovation needed to keep America competitive in the decades to come.

Yet other governments will not wait for the United States to catch up or to adapt its system for present realities, including those that do not necessarily share US values or ideals. The dominant role of the China Commercial Bank in supporting global green energy projects was cited as a major source of innovation in the twenty-first century.

Just as important as the role of government in spawning innovation will be the role of government in protecting its people from intrusions and violations of its citizens from new technologies. For all the hype around the benefits of individual empowerment in bringing down Arab dictators, governments are showing themselves equally adept at using technology to eavesdrop, steal, suppress, and oppress. This is true both of both non-free societies – think of the great Chinese firewall, which is stronger than ever – but also of the United States’ ability to gather and store mass amounts of data worldwide. In the case of the United States, the ability of the public political debate to keep up with emerging technologies has lagged behind the ability of the intelligence services to use new tools to push the envelope in data collection.

Legislators and law enforcement will similarly struggle to create and enforce laws to protect citizens from on-the-horizon threats articulated by Anne Marie Slaughter such as bioterrorism, miniaturized drones, and mass espionage. Just as illiberal or insufficiently-accountable governments can be the greatest great to individual freedom, adaptive, responsible governments also can be the greatest means of protecting citizens against intrusions of privacy from nonstate actors, companies, and foreign illiberal governments.

For better or worse, governments will play a decisive role in shaping the relationship between man and technology in the decades to come. Let’s hope that the United States and other like minded societies are able to innovate – and regulate – in a way that balances both competitiveness and individuals’ freedoms.

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