Governing and Teaching in the Digital Age

May 21, 2012
By Molly Lanzarotta

As digital technologies have revolutionized every corner of each of our lives – from commerce, to the way we socialize, to the way we make things – how will digital technologies transform public life and the public sector moving forward? This question set the stage for the plenary session “Governing in the Digital Age” at the Harvard Kennedy School’s 75th anniversary conference on May 11.

At an event that drew hundreds of HKS alumni and supporters, the question of how the digital revolution is having an impact on the school came to the fore early in the day during a question and answer session with Kennedy School Dean David Ellwood and remained a theme throughout the day’s discussions. Among the questions that emerged were: What sorts of research are most important in this space – cyber security, government performance management, service delivery, democracy itself? – and how best can the school prepare public policy students to lead in a fundamentally different age?

Panelist Aneesh Chopra MPP 1997 offered ideas drawn from his experience as U.S. Chief Technology Officer for the White House from 2009-2012. Chopra emphasized the importance of the policy maker as “impatient convener – in the context of technology and innovation, it means convening to lower barriers to entry,” he explained, outlining a larger movement of “open innovation” that borrows heavily from the private sector. A new policy role for entrepreneurs, a new role for prizes, challenges and competitions as a substitute for procurement – “these allow us to have the best ideas to come forward to solve problems,” Chopra said.

Jonathan Zittrain MPA 1995, a professor at HKS as well as the law and engineering schools, and the cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, described tools and innovations “that reflect the question of how to improve governance through the use of technology back into our own HKS environment.” From use of “intellectual play lists” of live-annotated texts in lieu of text books, to “rotisseries” of questions about a common text that students and professors can electronically share around the globe, Zittrain enthusiastically outlined creative uses of technology in teaching. He explained that at HKS “we are trying to really embrace what the networked, digital environment can offer so that when students come here they see something that is vibrant, dynamic, changing and relevant to the world.”

Susan Crawford, Visiting Stanton Professor of the First Amendment, highlighted the course she is teaching this semester at HKS, “Solving Problems Using Digital Technology.” She described the class as pushing students to think of themselves as designers who work with communities – in Boston, they are working with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative – to use technology as a tool to help with self-governance. “Our job as a school is to train those public citizens – whether they're in government or not – to feel themselves vitally connected to the problems of public policy, as they always have been, but to use the tools of technology to visualize a better future for citizens.”

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picture of panel

Panel (From L to R): Archon Fung (moderator), Ford Foundation Professor of Democracy and Citizenship; Susan Crawford, visiting Stanton Professor of the First Amendment; Aneesh Chopra MPP 1997; Jonathan Zittrain MPA 1995, professor of law at Harvard Law School and the Harvard Kennedy School.

Zittrain explained that at HKS “we are trying to really embrace what the networked, digital environment can offer so that when students come here they see something that is vibrant, dynamic, changing and relevant to the world.”

Aneesh Chopra MPP 1997

Aneesh Chopra MPP 1997