Reimagining citizenship in a digital, post-COVID-19 world

The pandemic-driven digital world has challenged the importance of time and place with remote working. As national and global borders are transcended should we also be re-thinking citizenship.

Decades of globalisation have been seen by the majority of business leaders as an irresistible and inevitable force that will continue to shape working practices long into the future.

Then the unthinkable happened. Socially-driven political movements sprang-up and gained significant and market-influencing voices — ‘gilets jaunes’ or yellow vests in France and Belgium, climate-change marches in the UK, and the #MeToo protests worldwide — all have become powerful, unpredictable and uncontrollable by any single nation state.

Socially-driven movements have gained significant and market-influencing voices (image by Dominic Wunderlich)

This has resulted in the key question: ‘Can citizenship be limited to a single state’s specific political community with which we can identify?’

An age of digital hyper-connectivity

After all, we now occupy an age of digital hyper-connectivity that transcends international borders and many, especially those with multiple citizenships, justifiably argue that fixed notions of nationality represent an outdated evolution of the struggle for equal political and social rights, and that all of this could and should change due to the compression of time, space and digital opportunities.

These same individuals believe that a dynamic and more fluid concept of citizenship is appropriate in a globalised, transnational world mediated by digital technologies. For example, Estonian e-Residency gives foreigners the ability to apply for a secure digital residency in Estonia, even though they don’t actually live there.

As part of our ongoing research in this area we have asked questions such as ‘which world is a citizen really a member of?’ and ‘what are the opportunities open to the citizen?’

Our findings indicate that the trust which acts as a social-glue, connecting citizens to institutions and increasing the legitimacy and efficiency of democratic governments has been steadily declining. Public faith in governments and politicians is generally low, along with a visible generational divide amongst voters.

COVID-19 has reinforced the assault on globalisation. Many borders have closed, people stopped travelling, and both governments and companies have been forced to re-think the wisdom behind international supply chains.

The pandemic has challenged global solutions while demanding co-operation between countries. Criticism has abounded for individual states, think Canada; at regional levels with the EU as a target; and created attempts to portray international organisations pariahs, such as the WHO.

COVID-19 reignites citizenship value debate

COVID-19 has reignited thinking about the meaning and value of citizenship. The efficiency of the vaccine roll-out has depended on country or block-purchasing arrangements as well as diplomacy.

A battle between the western-produced vaccines — Oxford and AstraZeneca, Pfizer/BioNTec, Moderna — and the eastern bloc’s Russian Sputnik V and Chinese SinoPharm became apparent at an early stage. None of this has been in the interest of citizens. Equally AstraZeneca’s dispute with the European Union illustrates this point. The consensus that accesses to vaccines for low-income countries is a global responsibility, and that these nations should receive vaccines such as Covax through specially-allocated funds has yet to be fulfilled.

The pandemic has highlighted the value of citizenship and the challenges it poses, which include instrumental and symbolic factors, as well as key inequalities between different ethnic communities.

What makes a citizen?

Citizenship consists of three related concepts:

  1. Legal duties and rights
  2. Political participation, including information gathering, deliberation and efforts to impact public policies and decisions
  3. Emotional dimensions, such as feelings of belonging, loyalty, solidarity and experiences

Despite these national affinities the global demand for other citizenships and passports remains high, despite travel and tourism being at a standstill for most.

For the privileged the easiest and quickest way to get citizenship and a passport is by investing from the comfort of one’s home. The so-called ‘citizenship by investment’ (CBI) scheme provides a new nationality to high net worth individuals who can afford to buy real estate in a country or state debt in the form of government bonds or treasury securities.

For those of more moderate means the criteria include long waiting periods, often a requirement of up to 10 years’ residence before being able to formerly apply for citizenship, and the poorest applicants who may be without documentation may face quarantine, even longer bureaucratic delays and a largely uncertain future.

The perceived value of citizenship, embodied by a passport, varies in people’s perception, social values and income. The concept is largely based on a narrow set of criteria that may no longer be in tune with the current realities of a growing number of people’s lives, something which is certainly visible among younger generations.

Economic realities, demographic trends, labour requirements, education and welfare capacities, technological capabilities — all require a new narrative to build creative solutions and a generally-accepted consensus of citizenship.

The uselessness of the British consulate

Besides determining an individual’s entry rights into a particular society, citizenship can also offer access to different service levels of public health. A colleague with dual British and French citizenship who moved to Lanzarote to escape the UK’s lockdown and winter weather is currently trying to get back to the UK to receive the vaccine. However, securing a flight is proving difficult and suddenly, the old ‘fixed’ notion of citizenship is the norm, but should it be?

Yes, nation states have a responsibility towards their citizens abroad, in particular during disasters requiring an emergency response or evacuation, or as part of other en masse situations that demand consular assistance. Some governments honour their responsibilities more than others. If a UK citizen finds themselves robbed and without a passport in an EU country, going to the UK consulate is all but useless, unless you have managed to retain sufficient funds to pay consular fees or someone else can lend you the money.

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic there has been a renewed expectation that the state needs to deliver universal access to vaccines, provide a safety net for people and maintain other important public services.

In response, many governments have given themselves emergency powers that control all manner and aspect of people’s lives, raising nagging concerns over whether they will relinquish these after the crisis is over? However, incidents such as the heavy-handed police response to public vigils in London marking the murder of Sarah Everard and safety of women on the UK’s streets raise significant concerns about the trade-offs between safety and civil liberties.

All of these ‘advances’ arrive with increased security and surveillance over the public

Similarly political leaders, institutions and organisations have championed the increased use of technology for work, education, shopping and other activities, but all of these ‘advances’ arrive with increased security and surveillance over the public.

A digital challenge of democratic values

Democratic values are often challenged by digital technologies which increase social control, political manipulation and in parallel, challenge power relations in a society. The bigger question is whether entertainment-driven, privately-owned digital platforms can be an impartial-facilitator of political engagement?

A vibrant public sphere and citizens’ participation in society’s governance are essential elements of any thriving democratic society. Citizen cafes, focus groups, deliberative polls, people’s juries, scenario workshops, conferences and public forums are just some of the ways open to engaging participation, often mediated by digital technology that needs to be safe and uncensored.

When the stakes are high, values are in dispute and facts are uncertain, emerging technologies require governments and regulatory bodies to protect and respect citizens’ rights, freedoms and values. Only then can we live in a healthy society and be able to reimagine our new forms of citizenship.

Nada Kakabadse has undertaken consulting work for international organisations in Scandinavia, Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and for several UK Government departments and the Canadian Federal Government. She was elected as a Member of the European Academy of Sciences and Arts in January 2013. Her clients in the private sector have included Alliance & Leicester, Citigroup, Microsoft, Motorola, and Vodafone Australia. In her academic role Nada is Professor of Marketing and Reputation at the Henley Business School, University of Reading. She has co-authored 23 books with her husband, Professor Andrew Kakabadse, and has contributed more than 93 chapters to international volumes, as well having published over 200 scholarly articles.