The last word: Future-proofing democracy

Polish voters have led the way in demonstrating that high turnout can bring about change. Now they need to hold their newly-elected leaders to account.

In a general election last week, Poles proved just how important democracy is to them. A stunning 74.38 per cent of all those eligible to elect representatives to the country’s two chambers of parliament casted a vote. Not since the fall of communism has turnout been so high.

Poland’s first partially free election in 1989 attracted 62.70 per cent of those eligible. 

I also had the right to vote. However, for the first time since I became old enough to vote I was unable to do so: the closest polling station was almost 300 kilometres away. In the previous election, for the country’s president, back in 2020, the situation was different. 

Despite the Covid-19 pandemic and the numerous issues with election planning, postal voting was on offer and I made use of it. Not only was postal voting unavailable this time, but long-awaited digital voting has yet to be developed. It was also reported that the government’s mObywatel app, which stores digital IDs, kept crashing. 

Lessons for the future 

There has been a lot of buzz in recent years about the digital transformation of public services across the emerging Europe region—and beyond—but it is clear that governments do not yet fully understand what the process involves and how to carry it out properly so that citizens can benefit fully.  

Digitising and digitalising public services must make government and its agencies more efficient and must start with a mindset change and a future-proof approach. Digitalisation needs to prepare all stakeholders for the long term. We live in volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous times and there’s clearly more disruption to come.  

In his book, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, published five years ago, Yuval Noah Harari talked about the two types of abilities that humans possess—physical and cognitive. While machines have managed to replace humans when it comes to a great deal of manual work, cognitive skills such as learning, analysing, communicating and understanding human emotions were thought unique to humans.  

This has now changed. Not only have machines acquired these skills but they are very often outperforming humans. That, alongside the advancements in the life and social sciences leading to a better understanding of biochemical mechanisms that underpin human emotions, desires and choices, will make computers excel at analysing human behaviour, predicting human decisions, and eventually replacing human drivers, bankers and lawyers. 

Regardless ofwthen this happens, humans will need skills that that they don’t yet possess. The labour market has been changing for quite some time with some jobs disappearing and new professions popping up. No one can predict what the labour market will look like in the next few decades. All we currently know is that Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning (ML) and robotics will have an impact of some size on nearly every profession.  

For several years now I have heard of some primary schools offering coding classes. But even if all schools did, is that skill enough in itself enough feel safe on the labour market? A lot of people don’t yet have basic digital skills, not to mention the ability to train for a few highly-skilled professions within a career. 

In search of future-proof solutions 

Despite eventually not being able to vote I took a look at what the political parties and coalitions that entered Poland’s parliament were planning regarding disruptive technologies, education, skills and the future labour market.  

Law and Justice (PiS), which won the highest number of votes, mentions digitalisation and “future professions” several times in its over 300 pages long manifesto. “Graduates of secondary schools should be increasingly better educated in the so-called future professions, giving them a guarantee of a good and well-paid job. In this way, we will provide entrepreneurs developing the Polish labour market with highly qualified employees. […] Demand for future professions will be analysed in detail. That analysis will be the basis for courses and studies opened in different regions of Poland,” the PiS programme reads. The party also talks about coding courses for each child at school as well as for adults. 

Among the ‘100 Concrete Things’ that the opposition (and likely new ruling party) Civic Platform proposed, seven relate to education but they talk about freeing children from “heavy backpacks” and homework, making schools less political and increasing teachers’ wages. I could not find anything related to disruptive technologies and their future impact. 

Poland 2050, another likely member of the country’s next ruling coalition, talks about fluent English when leaving primary school and being able to use “competences of the future”. Those listed are communication, teamwork, critical thinking and creativity. Again, nothing about disruptive technologies. 

The Polish People’s party, which formed a coalition with Poland 2050 before the election, also talks about being able to speak fluent English before starting secondary school. They also propose what they refer to as iSchoolbag (iTornister), a tablet with internet access for every pupil. They also want to guarantee six per cent of the country’s GDP be spent on education. 

The New Left (again, a likely coalition partner) aims at spending three per cent of GDP on research and development and wants to provide schools with equipment, tools, software “responding to the current needs” and teach the basics of cybersecurity. 

The other party to make it into parliament, the Confederation of Liberty and Independence, talks about a potential reform of education but doesn’t seem to want to align it with future challenges. 

Having reviewed the programmes, I have only one conclusion: Poles have shown they know what they want for their future and that they are ready to fight for it. It is time they showed the new government, regardless of the parties joining it, that they need to be ready for whatever the future brings. The same applies to the other countries of emerging Europe. 

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