CODING FOR ETHICS
Project aims to turn His Majesty the King's sufficiency and happiness theories into a new technology policy
Story by CRAIG WARREN SMITH
Craig Warren smith, co-host of colloquium
Electioneering will soon dominate headlines in Bangkok. But a quieter and more consequential issue looms beneath the surface: whether Thailand's leaders can translate His Majesty the King's ethical concept of a "sufficiency economy" and that of gross national happiness into tangible innovations in public policy.
If they succeed in doing so, the next elected government may well embrace the new approach.
But sceptics abound. Critics in Hong Kong, writing in The Economist and Asian Wall Street Journal, dismiss the King's concepts as mere fodder in the anti-Thaksin PR wars.
They claim that sufficiency/happiness notions are too fuzzy to be operationalised, too anti-capitalistic to gain traction.
After all, Thailand sits in the geographic middle of a region that is experiencing the most significant growth surge in history.
Deputy PM Paiboon: three recommendations
Surely, they insist, the next government will fall in line with reality. Translation: endless consumption as in the Singapore model, not spiritual growth, will remain the implicit aim of the Thai government.
Last month, a project emerged that aims to prove those critics wrong. It is a year-long series of small colloquia involving some of Thailand's top academic and government leaders.
Chaired by the head of Chulalongkorn University's governing board, Prof Charas Suwanwela, it is organised by the University of Washington's Human Interface Technology Laboratory and Chulalongkorn's Centre for Ethics in Science and Technology.
Called "Happiness, Public Policy and Technology," it is intent on producing a dramatic shift in technology policy for the next elected Thai government, one that is in tune with the King's concepts.
The session brings together technology centres in Thailand such as the Asian Institute of Technology, the National Science and Technology Development Agency, the government's own technology research arm, Nectec, as well as Chulalongkorn itself.
And surprise: the project already has some powerful market forces on its side. IBM, Nokia and Intel participated in the first session, and Google has signalled that it wants to join in.
If the project succeeds, it could spread rapidly. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), which helps 191 nations set telecommunications policy, is listening in.
"ICT can enhance ethics and national happiness," says Dr Eun-Ju Kim, Head of the ITU's Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific.
Dr Suchada: momentum can grow quickly
Aligning with Web 2.0
"We believe that the 'sufficiency/happiness' concepts of the King are in tune with the new market forces in technology," says Prof Soraj Hongladarom, one of the project's co-organisers.
The key is to understand the innovation dubbed "Web 2.0," exemplified by applications that have upended technology markets in the West, causing web sites like Google, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace and Flickr to amass tens of millions of users in a matter of months. Initially, these sites had no business model, but their embrace by the public drew investors. The same could happen in Thailand.
Like China and many other governments, Thailand has taken a defensive stance against Web 2.0 by outlawing YouTube and limiting children's access to massive multiplayer online gaming. But these problems could be transcended through public/private partnerships and new alliances in Thailand that cause Thailand to move into the forefront of Web 2.0, turning it to Thailand's advantage. By turning Thailand into a hub for Web 2.0 technologies, the country could exert its comparative advantage in the technology market place and empower its citizens.
In fact, a number of corporations around the world have been nurturing technologies that aim to foster the well-being of users. Many, such as Nokia, have released the source code of their technologies so that local developers can join in. But their innovations remain mostly hidden in research labs, far from Asia. The reason: Till now these corporations have lacked a nation to serve as their beta test site.
One such researcher drawn to Thailand is Intel's John Sherry, who manages a health care research group in Portland, Oregon. "We are developing biofeedback technologies that draw insight from Buddhist meditation," he said. "These technologies can help patients monitor their behaviour and reduce stress. Thailand could offer a great environment to help companies such as Intel adapt these technologies to realities of emerging markets."
Indian researchers echo this view. "The King's ethical concepts can be incorporated into the design of technologies for education, games, devices, whatever," said Arvind Lodoya, a Bangalore-based researcher at the Shrishti School of Design whose work is supported by Nokia. "As an open society, Thailand fits nicely with open source. Designers here could develop applications that release the pent up creativity of Thai citizens," he said. "Unlike India, Thailand has the scale that could bring government officials into interaction with the private sector to point to a new paradigm of technology deployment."
Prof Charas chaired the session
Just how would this process begin in Thailand? Deputy Prime Minister Paiboon Wattanasiritham, a speaker at the recent colloquium, offered three concrete recommendations.
1) Ask citizens "what makes them happy?" An advocate of a strong local role in governance, Paiboon said that technology could be used to assess citizens to find out what in fact could satisfy citizens. "Rather than tell users what to do, the government could use web sites and digital devices to find out what communities want and to monitor their progress in achieving it.
Reinforcing Paiboon's suggestion, some participants argued that applications could be designed to foster the "wisdom of crowds," so that by deliberating with each other users could come to embrace the ethical principles that would make their happiness sustainable over time.
2) Identify who knows what: A second concept advanced by Paiboon is a concept he called "wisdom mapping," in which community members could identify each others' skill levels, much as users of Amazon.com and eBay use technologies for peer review. In a similar way, applications of technology could be designed to evaluate and honour the skills of neighbours in hundreds of communities. "A village, district or tambon could develop a bank of identified skills that could be called upon in times of need," he said.
3) Teach mindfulness: A third notion he suggested was "spiritual technologies," in which technology applications could combine with instruction to teach mind training or mindfulness in citizens, helping them cope with the stresses of modern life. Noting web sites such as spiritualcomputing.com, Paiboon suggested that the colloquia bring to Thailand the best thinking about how technology could release citizens from stress.
A search for the new
If Thailand's next government is to embrace such ideas it will need measures that allow policy-makers to distinguish between technologies that foster virtuous behaviour and those that cause harm. The colloquia explored the notion that recent innovations in neuroscience catalysed by the Dalai Lama could be the source of those measures.
Using the latest brain imaging technologies such as fMRI, the University of Wisconsin Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience has been measuring the "happy brains" of adept meditators, creating the visual basis for measurable comparisons with normal citizens who lack mind training. A plan of the project's organisers is to bring neuroscience researchers to Thailand in an effort to help public policy makers and designers use such measures to chart progress towards the happy state.
So far the Thai colloquia is just a discussion. "This sort of informal conversation is the best way for significant collaborative projects to emerge in Thailand. As the ideas catch on, momentum can grow quickly," said Dr Suchada Kiranandana, president of Chulalongkorn University.
The next colloquium in the series, slated for November 30, will focus on education technologies that foster happiness. Next in line for consideration, early next year, are colloquia that consider computer games and a final session in the Spring will address the cause favoured by the Royal Family: rural development.
Will it work? Keep your fingers crossed.
Formerly a professor at Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, Craig Warren Smith, PhD, is now senior advisor to the University of Washington Human Interface Technology Laboratory. Outside of academia, he has advised multinationals (Microsoft, Intel, IBM, Nokia, Oracle), philanthropic institutions, ministers of emerging markets, including Thailand, intergovernmental institutions and leading universities.