The social impacts of Disruptive Technologies in the Public Sector

There is a considerable body of literature on ethical and legal problems as well as the potential social effects of disruptive technologies; yet, most of this literature has focused on the private sector. The public sector will be affected by disruptive technologies (DTs) both through its own use of these technologies, which it can largely control, and through the introduction of DTs outside of its domain, which it can only control to a limited extent. Just like other parts of society, the public sector is subject to requirements of efficiency, which can justify the introduction of disruptive technologies.

However, the public sector differs from private organizations in its legal status and its unique social role, which comes with stringent obligations in terms of transparency, equity and accountability. For instance, the citizens expect decisions on public services to be made by public officials who apply clearly specified criteria in a transparent and systematic manner, and they also expect such decisions to be appealable.

Therefore, the application of DTs in public administration decision-making is subject to different and often stricter demands and restrictions than their applications in the private sector. This review is based on an extensive search and scanning of the literature on DTs, focusing on aspects that are particularly relevant to public administration and service provision. We have performed explorative literature reviews, to which we have added our own analysis of major differences between the preconditions for the use of these technologies in the private and the public sector.

One chapter of the literature review of the ETAPAS project focuses on the social impacts of the development and use of a number of DTs. This chapter was written by Nathan da Silva Carvalho and Francesco Mureddu (Lisbon Council). Many of the insights presented in this part apply both to the public sector and the private sector.

A number of new, potentially disruptive technologies that can change our working and living conditions are currently being introduced on a large scale, and yet others are close to being introduced. This review focuses on six technologies:

  • artificial intelligence (AI);
  • robotics;
  • the internet of things (IoT);
  • blockchain technology;
  • virtual and augmented reality
  • big and open data.

A total of 904 articles were found based on these six disruptive technologies, however, only 264 articles were marked as relevant for the study, and 50 of them were exclusively focused on the public sector.

The review showed that, indeed, when it comes to the social impacts of disruptive technologies, the public sector must keep an eye on other industries to learn the potential implications that these technologies might cause. Likewise, it is clear from the current literature that more real case applications and deployments of all these technologies must still be applied in both the private and the public sphere. Many of these technologies are being supported by many industries when governments lag behind to enjoy their potential benefits.  However, this is not to discourage policymakers from utilizing technologies. On the contrary, many studies advocate prototyping and testing of new solutions inside public administrations together with other stakeholders.

Undeniably, public managers ought to partner with private actors to test the benefits of these technologies inside the public sphere, while at the same time, trying to control the negative impacts. Each city and each group of society has its own set of issues, therefore, relying exclusively on existing cases might not be enough for the public sector to implement the correct technology to solve a particular issue. Understanding the technologies upsides and downsides is the first step to recognize which of these might be better applicable to the scenario in question, to only then test and prototype if a technology might be beneficial for that purpose.

Moreover, the public sector, as many other types of organisations, must consider a more holistic view when trying to adopt these disruptive technologies. The limited literature reveals that most of the studies on the adoption of disruptive technologies primary focus on technological aspects. However, as discussed in this study, a much more holistic view is needed for organizational adoption, such as human needs. Policymakers dealing with disruptive technologies face a variety of issues that necessitate tighter collaboration with stakeholders from the private sector. As the use of these technologies grows more convincing and popular, the time has come to scale up efforts to guarantee strong governance structures to cope with the vast spectrum of emergent opportunities and challenges that society faces.

It is worth mentioning that the application of these technologies on a mass scale could potentially lead to substantial economic advantages for the nations in question – although the concerns that come from using these technologies should always be taken into consideration. These gains are, of course, not only isolated into economic facets, as they can also improve many citizens’ quality of life. Suppose more countries can apply these technologies efficiently. In that case, it will be possible to see significant leaps in healthcare, smart cities, better governance, education, financial market, road traffic and so on. The lack of practical studies within the public sector only shows that better and more investment is necessary, along with a more flexible mindset within governments to test, make mistakes, and improve these disruptive technologies for public sector organisations.