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Governments will have to be more human, says thought leader Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell, the social theorist and writer
DUBAI: Policymakers should adapt their relationship with citizens, moving away from the 19th-century model which has framed government thinking in the modern world, Malcolm Gladwell, the social theorist and writer, told the World Government Summit in Dubai.

“Government institutions were mainly formed nearly 200 years ago to protect their people from unforeseen circumstances. Now there has been a shift in what citizens want from their governments,” he said.

Gladwell, best known for his influential thought leadership books The Tipping Point and Outliers, was speaking at a session entitled “The Future of Humanity” on the last day of the summit.

He said changes in technology and information-processing techniques had led to a change in risks, and in how policymakers and professionals deal with them.

He quoted the examples of officials’ responses to two global crises — the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and the 9/11 attacks on the United States — as an example of these changes.

“With Cuba, the USA gathered information and then decided on a course of action; in the lead-up to 9/11, there was already a lot of information on the conspiracy and the perpetrators. The challenge was to make sense of what they already had. Cuba was a puzzle, whereas 9/11 was a mystery,” he said.

He explained that “puzzles” and “mysteries” needed different problem-solving approaches, and that changed the relationship between the professionals and their clients, as well as between governments and citizens.

Gladwell said the same process was in evidence in medicine, where doctors’ approach had changed from simple diagnosis and operation, for example with prostate cancer in men, to analysis and evaluation.

“Tackling modern health care problems requires governments to speak to people in a way they’ve never had to before,” he said.

It was also true of education, where the evaluation of teachers’ and students’ relationship had replaced a more simple approach of finding the best teachers.”Now the government’s task in managing a good school has got a lot more complicated,” he said.

The rising threat of cyberattacks — such as the one that halted the British health service last year and which are increasingly feared in the autonomous vehicle industry — has created a “novel kind of risk” for citizens, as had the dangers of climate change-related incidents.

“If there are mass pile-ups on our roads, and major flooding in big cities, it could lead to breakdown in societies. In the 21st century, governments will have to consider how to calm peoples’ fears, not just allocate resources. That’s the challenge: governments are going to have to find a way to be more human,” Gladwell added.

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