Digital transformation and critical human security: Theoretical propositions to explore opportunities and challenges for increased human security in public policy

Critical Human Security and Post-Covid Public Policy[1] Blog series. Blog No. 3

By Matthew Lariviere, School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol

Recent interest from national governments and supranational non-governmental organisations has begun to focus on the opportunities and threats the proliferation of digital technologies may pose to human security. However, ‘the digital’ is still often poorly conceptualised and abstracted within policy discourse.

vector of covid molecule with world map at centre

This blog defines ‘the digital’ and explains multiple interpretations of how the phenomenon of ‘digital transformation’ can be viewed in connection to critical human security. It posits theoretical propositions to explore opportunities and challenges for digital technology to support secure human futures.

‘The digital’ is often used colloquially to refer to a wide and diverse range of different im/material processes and artefacts. The digital can be evoked as a euphemism for mobile technology, the internet, artificial intelligence, and other horizon technologies. However, the digital is not a recent phenomenon. Scholars from social science disciplines, like anthropology and sociology, have been exploring what ‘the digital’ means in relation to understanding cultural production from museum artefacts, presentation of self on social and new media platforms, and community development (Boellstorff et al., 2012; Horst and Miller, 2012). At the most essential level, scholars often define the digital as a series of processes and objects reduced to binary code (Horst and Miller, 2012; Miller, 2018).

The digital, when defined in this way, often is framed in opposition to the analogue, the physical manifestation of things. Such a distinction often demarcates a historical transition where humanity shifts from creating and inhabiting an analogue society to one which is increasingly ‘digitalised’.

Within public policy, there is now a profound interest in ‘digital transformation’ as desirable and inevitable marks of modernisation and progress. ‘Digital transformation’ has been defined in policy and management research literature as processes intended to support an organisation or other entity by changing its components and activities by using information and communication technologies (Vial, 2019), or a method to focus on clients’ use of ‘new technologies’ to reconfigure operational models within organisations (Berman, 2012). The anticipated outcomes of digital transformation within public policy areas are to ‘improve relationships between public administrations and its stakeholders, increased citizen satisfaction, and, most importantly, a change in bureaucratic and organizational culture’ (Mergel, Edelmann, and Haugg, 2019:10). However, evidence is still at an embryonic stage to demonstrate whether these outcomes are feasible or sustainable.

Despite the current evidence base, digital transformation has come into sharp focus as an area of strategic value during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. In this blog, I explore the intersection between digital transformation and human security in the time of COVID-19, and their possible futures.  I do so through the lens of critical human security that identifies and integrates seven cross-cutting parameters for human security in everyday life: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security, and political security (Kennett, Kwon and Lee, 2023; Newman, 2013; UNDP 1994).

This approach gives us the opportunity to re-think how we theorise ‘the digital’ to mitigate or enhance different forms of human (in)security for citizens. Through this exploration, I introduce and critically discuss three propositions to theoretically orient digital transformation with the critical human security approach: Digital transformation as an additional parameter of human security, digital transformation as an embedded parameter of human security, and digital transformation as an integrative parameter of human security.

The first proposed theoretical orientation for digital transformation in human security studies is as an additional parameter of the human security model. Here, digital transformation can be interpreted as a distinct additional parameter to the model’s core parameters (e.g., food, health, and environment). This first approach highlights prevalent digital solutionist and deterministic discourses where digital technology is seen as one of the key mechanisms for public service transformation, policy reform, and modernisation. A recent example of this discourse is the publication of the UK’s Digital Strategy. This policy paper sets out the UK Government’s strategy to support growth in the digital economy, secure data storage and sharing, and the requisite life-long skills to support digital capabilities for citizens (Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport, 2022). However, the strategy is abstracted from the systems, organisations, and material circumstances that support digital innovation within society. Its focus on ‘the digital’ and ‘digital innovation’ more precisely speaks to economic prosperity priorities, rather than how digital technology has become a ubiquitous actor in virtually every facet of policy work, governance, and social life.

To address this abstracted approach to digital public policy, I propose a second theoretical approach to understand the relationship between digital transformation and human security: digital transformation as an embedded parameter of human security. This approach recognises that digital technology does not exist separate from social institutions, practices, services, or infrastructure; digital transformation is necessarily embedded within these human systems, thereby recognising the mediating influence of digital technology within the other parameters of human security. National responses to the COVID-19 pandemic have provided copious cases as to how governments have responded to support citizens’ health security.

Many national governments developed independently, or with industry input, a mobile application to identify new cases with an active SARS-CoV-2 viral load and to map individual’s physical contact. These attempts to ‘test and trace’ infectious individuals were designed to recommend individuals as and when to social isolate or inform the institution of local ‘lockdowns’ to prevent the spread of the virus (Department of Health and Social Care, 2020). However, despite the ambitions of these systems, many were mired by low uptake and overspend with questions raised about their efficacy in reducing the spread of the virus (Wise, 2021). Despite these issues with implementation, such cases still present a policy approach that sees explicit links made between digital transformation with parameters, like health security, of the human security framework.

The final theoretical approach anticipates the future potential for digital transformation to move beyond its ‘embeddedness’ within a single parameter of human security to a role that is integrative across multiple areas. In other words, an integrative approach reflects not only the realities of technology embedded in various institutions and services within the other parameters of human security, but it also highlights the possibilities of technology to increase the permeability of other human security parameters, recognising what can appear as arbitrary divisions based on legacy, public policy domains. For example, my research with adult carers during the first national lockdown in England identified how online video calls helped to support wellbeing and resilience of carers during periods of acute social isolation (Donnellan et al, 2023). However, the study also identified how continuous use of the technology also helped to facilitate a ‘sense of belonging’ to a community distributed across the UK where links to a person’s local community and support network may have diminished as a result of health policy focused on social isolation and shielding (Lariviere et al, 2020).

While this exploratory study focused on the intended and unintended consequences of a single use-case of digital transformation of carer support, it suggests the potential of digital transformation efforts, if scaled appropriately, to cut across multiple areas of human security, here, individual’s wellbeing (health security) and social connection to mitigate loss of traditional relationships (community security). With this integrative theoretical approach, I posit digital transformation may reconstitute static, public policy domains to reflect lived experiences of in/security rather than rely on reified, legacy paradigms from the mid-twentieth century that predate digital transformation.

While this blog has introduced unique theoretical orientations to understand the relationship between digital transformation and human security, there are undeniably challenges and opportunities for future digital public policy to secure human futures. Future research could explore empirically how these theoretical approaches may be used to re-frame current dilemmas specific to digital transformation:

  • Digital divide,
  • Data security
  • Digital literacies and digital capabilities,
  • Digital exclusion,
  • Social inclusion.

To conclude, my hope is that the theoretical approaches briefly introduced here will advance how we make sense of the role of the digital in relation to and mediation of individual, organisational, communal, and societal transformation focused on increased human security.

[1] This draws on collaborative research funded by ESRC Grant Number ES/W010739/1.


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