Increasing Transparency Through Technology
With so much technology around, it is fairly easy to be lulled into a false sense of security. But, let me give you a few examples. Not too long ago - a rogue trader at UBS bank cost the company over $2 billion, despite the trading process being completely digitized. What stops a citizen in any country from paying someone a nominal amount to get their driver's license? One can fill in an application form online, but they still have to spend agonizing hours standing in line to get the license through proper channels.
What I'm referring to is that technology, even with its strongly associated attribute of transparency, in itself cannot eliminate corruption. Technology, by itself, will not flip the equation. It will contribute to changing the culture, of which people are an integral part. This, and so much more, was discussed at the World Economic Forum's panel on 'Technology for Transparency' in Tianjin, China earlier this week. I was delighted to participate and learn from this spirited panel, which included representatives of various governments and corporations.
In Star Wars, Jedi Master Yoda often spoke about the 'dark side'. Technology sheds light on this darkness where malpractices and corruption are naturally high. And because there are different kinds of technology around today - there is more transparency, more 'light'. In some countries, paying off public officials to get the right permits and pass safety codes has been a part of the construction industry for as long as people can remember. In other countries, watching a pirated DVD is almost the norm. The truth is that most consumers do not know where the illegal money ends up when they offer a bribe/buy pirated DVDs. A small group has been working tirelessly to bring this issue to the fore. Delving into the Dark Web, the group has been able to show people the naked truth - that most of this money ends up in the hands of criminals, arms dealers and the like. The honest truth (and transparency) allows us all to appreciate and understand what our actions (like paying bribes) are contributing to. This helps change the perception, and in turn, the behavior of the common folks.
My conviction that technology will improve transparency also stems from the larger IoT adoption. If one were to look under the hood, the reason why IoT is catching fire is because it is shedding 'light' into traditionally 'dark' business processes. We are all aware of the tremendous excitement - because of tangible business benefits - that IoT is commanding across corporates globally. In a successful IoT architecture, information captured through sensors is analyzed in near-real-time. That's 'shedding light' on the dark side of business. IoT drives business metrics that are critical for organizations - healthier topline, increased efficiencies, higher customer satisfaction. And tied to the hip is increased transparency. Think of the retail store supply chain that becomes 'smarter' and 'connected' in an IoT world. The retailer is able to bring actionable insights to meet customer demands/desires, while driving an optimal inventory across the value chain. And thanks to that, the challenge around store pilferage reduces significantly.
The future is certainly bright with technology, but it cannot be a panacea to all problems around transparency. Government support is equally important. The panelists discussed at length that while governments in relatively smaller countries have been successfully using technology to fight corruption, the story unfolds a little differently in countries with large populations. In the case of the latter, successful marriages between technology companies and the governments (public-private partnerships) are key. Then there is the question of the technology itself. Blockchain, for example, is poised to disrupt the financial services industry due to the transparent nature of its transactions - but are we ready to responsibly use technologies such as these? These are evolving every day and it is crucial to figure out the best way to leverage them, working in tandem with tech experts and governments.
Increasing transparency isn't easy. That's why governments should continue to collaborate with technology companies to spread a message of positive change. But how far are we going to go to make things transparent? In Norway, for instance, everyone's tax records are available online. If I'd like to see your tax records, I can - but you will get a prompt saying that someone has been looking at them. Are we culturally ready for technology enabling that kind of transparency, for the greater good? Well, the jury is still out on that one. However, what I am confident about is that technology will play a definite role in shaping the culture towards a more transparent world.