A card game to reimagine gov-tech futures by Digital Futures Lab. By Urvashi Aneja
In June 2022, at Digital Futures Lab we conducted a three-part workshop on the future of gov-tech and public service delivery in India. After concluding the workshop, we agreed internally that while the sessions were informative and insightful, we also felt they had been limited. Discussion had been polarised at times as people held different ideological perspectives, and it had been difficult to build a common vocabulary among the interdisciplinary group we had assembled. Moreover, because the workshop focused on the current problems and challenges, participants struggled to look beyond the present issues and systematically think through alternative, desirable and plausible futures.
Based on this experience, we felt the need to design a new tool to guide our workshops and engagement on gov-tech in India. The use of emerging digital technologies by governments for public service delivery is already contributing to harms and risks that include exclusion and surveillance. But reliance on these technologies, in some shape or form, is likely to grow as governments seek to reduce costs and optimise for efficiency and scale.
How might we reimagine gov-tech for citizen-driven futures? We urgently need new imaginaries to steer technology and policy toward preferable outcomes.
From our discussions that followed the workshop, we developed ‘Axiom: A card game to imagine citizen-driven governance’.
The game is set in 2032, in the pretend city of ‘Axiom’, for which we identified some key characteristics, such as demographic and income levels. Players represent ‘Do-Good’, a well-respected civil society organisation that has worked in the city of Axiom for years. Do-Gooders must address the challenges that arise when governments use emerging digital technologies for governance, such as threats to privacy, the outsourcing of government functions to private actors, surveillance, censorship or a digital divide. In facing these challenges, each team is given one value (e.g. empathy, equity, accessibility), one tech tool (e.g. drones, VR, big data), and one non-tech tool (e.g. youth movements, social enterprises, direct access to policymakers) they are required to use and cannot compromise on. The game ends with a cross-team discussion on the different solutions proposed, identification of those which point towards the most desirable outcomes, and the interventions needed today to arrive at it in the future.
We played the game for the first time EVER at the Digital Futures Gathering in Berlin, in September 2022! Below are few snippets of some of the ideas developed by participants:
Value: Transparency and accountability
Tech tool: Big data
Non-tech tool: Public space
Suggested intervention: Big data is used to track debates in the online sphere and this information is then showcased on dynamic billboards in public spaces. The aim is to break information silos and expose people to conversations outside of their normal filter bubbles. Big data can also be used to expose the financial flows behind online pages containing mis/disinformation.
Problem: Algorithmic discrimination
Tech tool: Open source
Non-tech tool: Universal Basic Income (UBI)
Suggested intervention: The group proposed that Do-Good builds an open-source crowd-sourcing tool to better understand algorithmic discrimination, protest its use and demonstrate how different and better algorithmic tools could be built. Public servants contributing to discrimination are denied their UBI, and this gets redistributed to people who have been discriminated against!
Problem: Data governance and privacy
Tech tool: VR
Non-tech tool: Cooperatives
Suggested intervention: Do-Good develops a campaign to build societal awareness and resilience around data use. 3D simulation techniques help people learn how to store their data and a VR experience portrays various data dystopias and utopias. The group also noted the presence of data intermediaries that would store the data that emerges from this experience.
We ran short on time and so weren’t able to have a detailed discussion on what these solutions could suggest for alternative futures and how we might get there. However, a point that came up frequently was the need for greater investment in public spaces and enhancing the technological capability of civil society organisations.
After playing the game for the first time in Berlin, we realised a basic flaw – we had designed it around current challenges rather than the futures we want! This had bounded the world of the game, prompting players to imagine alternative ‘solutions’ rather than preferable futures.
We’re now refining ‘Axiom’ so that the search for solutions is replaced with the outcomes we would like to see in the delivery of governance and public services through technology. We’re also changing our value cards to reflect more clearly an ethic of care. For example, instead of inclusion, we seek attentiveness. Other changes are also in the works!
‘Axiom’ currently exists as a text on a Google Doc that is read out to players. Following further refinements, we hope to turn it into a card-based game that can live online and be freely downloaded and printed by whoever wishes to play it.
Urvashi Aneja is the founding director of Digital Futures Lab – a multidisciplinary research network based out of Goa, India, that examines the complex interactions between technology and society in the global south.