5 things we should learn from Taiwan to build a resilient society

This article summarises highlights from the first SIX Dialogue Series: Social innovation for Resilience – the Taiwan Approach, between Audrey Tang and Geoff Mulgan. 

When we see “internet of things”, let’s make it an internet of beings.

When we see “virtual reality”, let’s make it a shared reality.

When we see “machine learning”, let’s make it collaborative learning.

When we see “user experience”, let’s make it about human experience.

When we hear “the singularity is near”, let us remember: the plurality is here.

-Audrey Tang

There has been a radical shift in the landscape of social innovation. 10 years ago, we looked to countries in the West to find social innovation examples. However, countries like Taiwan and South Korea are leapfrogging ahead of the West not just in technology but in social issues. COVID-19 pandemic has accentuated this shift in the geographical landscape of social innovation even further — countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Vietnam have been dramatically better at reducing infection and death rates compared to countries in the West. 

So what can we learn from Taiwan’s story? How did the country continuously evolve its democracy to build a resilient, inclusive, open society? How has the country coped with COVID-19 crisis? What kind of underlying cultures and technologies enabled rapid and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Focus on finding common ground and understanding rather than division

The story of Taiwan’s democracy coincides with the introduction of the internet and the world wide web. Audrey Tang notes “I remember that the internet and democracy weren’t two separate things. They are the same thing. For us, democracy is a continuously evolving set of technology that improves as more people participate.” 

Digital technology was used to improve participation with the focus on finding common ground and understanding rather than division based on the rough consensus in internet culture. This internet governance culture was the basis of Taiwan’s democracy and particularly in the COVID-19 pandemic, it was actively deployed in order to organise “Fast, fair and fun” principles.

Collective intelligence – Picking up the signals from the edges

When Dr. Li Wenliang first posted online of new SARS cases in Wuhan, the comments were posted on PTT Board (Taiwanese equivalent of Reddit). PTT is a non-profit bulletin board system which has a long tradition of real-time synchronous communication with real-time upvoting and downvoting. It has a unique governing system that makes sure signals get upvoted rather than noises. And by picking up these signals, Taiwan was able to respond quickly by starting health inspections for travellers from Wuhan the next day. So schools and businesses in Taiwan never went through lockdown. 

Also, Taiwan maintained the idea of open, synchronous conversation by Central Epidemic Command Centre live-streaming daily press conferences and enabling people to dial landline “1922” to ask any questions. Ideas and questions from the citizens were reflected immediately. For example, when a boy called in because he was afraid of being jeered at in school by wearing a pink mask, everybody in the CECC started wearing pink masks the next day. This continuous mutual exchange built rapid trust between government and civil society.

Reverse procurement – Working “after” the people

In 2012, the g0v movement, or g0v, (pronounced gov-zero) started as an open-source, open government movement in Taiwan. For every government service website which ends with gov.tw, civic hackers can create an alternative vision of the government website in an open source way using g0v.tw. It functions like a digital shadow government. 

So when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country, an ordinary citizen like Howard Wu could create an interactive map which shows the available stocks of masks in nearby pharmacies without waiting for the government. Audrey Tang had a further conversation with Google, which led to opening up of API, so instead of people reporting mask availability (like the Ushahidi model and other people generated content), the data from the pharmacies will be automatically published every 30 seconds, working like a distributed ledger of real-time stock of masks in all the pharmacies. This example shows the idea of “reverse procurement”, where the citizens build up the specification or allocation strategy and the government implements quickly and makes sure people have resources to implement.

Radical accountability – sharing the thought process when we are clueless

This is a different vision of what the government could be. The government works as an amplifier of what’s already there and what the social sector has already legitimised. However, in order to make this happen, trusting people and making government transparent is not enough. Audrey calls for what she calls “radical accountability”. It’s about being prepared to provide in each and every step, an account as to why we are promoting this idea and why we are taking this action. This idea goes beyond open data and freedom of information (which is about decisions that are already made and systems already built) as it’s about sharing the thought process of decisions when we don’t know.

Understanding people’s emotions – “Humour over rumour”

During a crisis such as COVID-19, people are anxious. In these stressful times, you not only face the challenge of the pandemic but you also face infodemic that triggers panic buying and conspiracy theories. In order to tackle this issue, Taiwan used the “humour of rumour” approach. They found out that the R value (reproduction number which measures disease’s ability to spread) for humour is higher than other emotions such as outrage. Responding to fake news quickly with correct information in a viral way (memes and puns), enabled rumours to die down quickly. In order to communicate public health information widely, they also had a “spokesdog” explaining the new policies using funny and viral images.