Technology and the Future of Britain: Ten Uncomfortable Truths for Policymakers

Technology Policy

Technology and the Future of Britain: Ten Uncomfortable Truths for Policymakers

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Posted on: 26th September 2022
Sam Sharps
Executive Director, Technology and Public Policy

Our Future of Britain initiative seeks to reinvigorate progressive politics to meet the challenges the country faces in the decades ahead. Our experts and thought leaders will set out a bold, optimistic policy agenda across six pillars: Prosperity, Transformative Technology, Net Zero, Community, Public Services and Britain in the World.

Today, all policy is “tech policy”, and our vision for the Future of Britain puts technology at the heart of solving the country’s biggest challenges – from improving health care and education to reaching net zero and powering economic prosperity. But too often, policymakers miss the centrality of tech to modern politics. This must change.

The UK urgently needs to stimulate economic growth and overhaul its public services, but it also has a freer hand in setting regulations and policy than many comparable countries.

Now is the time to embrace a bold new reality and integrate the opportunities of the tech revolution into every area of government. Here are ten reasons why.

1. Technology can make today’s best policies look totally outdated tomorrow.

Policy matters to people’s lives. The decisions governments make affect the future of individuals, communities, businesses and the country as a whole. But policy does not emerge in a fixed environment. At times, the forward march of technology means the pace of change can totally overwhelm the capacity of a system, rendering the best political plans obsolete. The challenge for policymakers is to predict when this might happen, to be prepared and to respond.

The Industrial Revolution stands as an enduring lesson in how technological development – and the societal and economic changes that come with it – can profoundly shape politics in the UK.

Little about life in Britain, and ultimately Western Europe and the United States, was left untouched by the Industrial Revolution. Societies and economies changed radically. The British state and its political system were not equipped to respond to these changes.

Amid huge economic advances, the country experienced shocking levels of inequality and poor health as people were exposed to dangerous working conditions and disease. Protests and counter-revolutionary acts by groups such as the Luddites were met with a disproportionate response by unprepared government leaders. Huge debates opened over trade, the treatment of workers, urban planning and what role the market should play.

The disruption to society required a substantial political response – and the state had to adapt to manage adjustment, address negative outcomes and place guardrails around what had become possible. There was no future for political projects or indeed politicians who ignored the changing conditions, and over time the system had to develop into one that was increasingly responsive to the legitimate demands of the working class and, as a consequence, needed to become more democratic.

The Industrial Revolution stands as the most dramatic example of scientific advance driving political reform. But it was far from the only instance in history. Technological change has, in both war and peace, profoundly influenced the passage of events and sometimes led to huge ruptures in the political landscape. There is every reason to believe that this is happening again.

2. The new tech revolution is already here.

We are in the middle of another period of massive and sudden change. Because we are living through it, it is easy to miss just how revolutionary these days are.

Compared to a world that many of us remember well:

  • Access to opportunity is no longer determined just by geography, but increasingly by connectivity. Technology is creating new opportunities for millions of people to access education, health care and well-paid jobs previously bound by geography. At the same time, this is also creating new forms of competition that benefit the few businesses and individuals that can operate at scale and depressing revenues and wages for those that can’t.
  • The physical, geographical and language barriers between countries, communities and cultures are disappearing. We used to rely on local knowledge or paper maps to navigate, limiting our range of easy, affordable travel and communication. Today, map apps and online meeting tools enable an almost universal ability to explore the world – sometimes without having to leave the house.
  • Knowledge and the power to generate ideas have become decentralised, but this is also creating a new set of gatekeepers. Computing power was once localised, proprietary and exclusive. Now, this power is much more accessible and dispersed, opening up access for previously underserved regions and segments of society. But, while knowledge and power have become unbundled and made instantly accessible, they have been repackaged by a new generation of digital gatekeepers.
  • Communication can be instant and global, creating challenges for how, why and what we communicate. Just a few decades ago, the internet was accessed by some of us, but we relied on linear TV or radio to provide nearly all breaking news. Today we have almost limitless access to knowledge and entertainment, and eyewitness footage from anywhere in the world is instantly available.
  • Our knowledge of health means we can prioritise wellbeing, not just treating illness. In recent memory, health and our understanding of biology was far more limited. Genomic sequencing cost billions, when today it costs nearly nothing. Vaccine development often took years or decades to reach a level of effectiveness that we managed in a matter of months in response to Covid-19.

We mostly feel the impacts of this irreversible, revolutionary change in incremental steps, quickly adapting and normalising innovations into our everyday routines. But life today is in many important ways unrecognisable from a reality easily remembered by millions of people, including some changes that have emerged entirely in the past 20 years. To imagine that the next two decades won’t bring even more dramatic change is both short-sighted and naive.

3. Predicting the future is both easy and impossible.

We know change is coming. The difficulty is understanding where, how and what this will mean. Policymakers frequently fall into the trap of both overselling the short-term impact and being blasé about the long term. Expecting an immediate transformation of life, they instead encounter what is initially a small change and relax, thinking policy can continue as before. By the time the real impact is felt, it can be too late for an effective response.

This is in part because technological development is not a linear process. Sometimes the world can be on the verge of a change for a frustratingly long time; for example, there have been various cycles of hype around autonomous vehicles and several unfulfilled predictions, resulting in a general loss of faith, even when progress – albeit slower than initially anticipated – is undoubtedly being made.

Sometimes tiny changes inch us forward without radically disrupting the established order but nonetheless change our long-established, everyday habits. Consider the seismic changes in online banking or the growth in online shopping.

And yet at other times multiple breakthroughs happen all at once, triggering revolutionary change in what is possible. In recent times we have seen a set of leaps forward – some of these might look somewhat removed from day-to-day experience, but each could lead to even more transformative changes in the way we live:

  • DeepMind’s artificial intelligence (AI) has solved a 50-year biological grand challenge by developing an algorithm that can accurately predict how proteins fold, opening up profound opportunities in molecular biology and drug development.
  • The cost of whole-genome sequencing has fallen since the turn of the century, from around $100 million to under $1,000. This is enabling wide use of this technology to better understand the genetic causes of disease and support people’s health.
  • Solar energy costs 90 per cent less than it did a decade ago, while the cost of wind power has decreased by more than half, opening up opportunities for a low-cost low-carbon future.
  • Through advances in manufacturing and computing, the long-held aspiration of successfully recreating nuclear fusion on Earth – bringing with it the potential for a new form of safe, low-waste energy – is closer than ever.
  • The price of cell-cultured meat has decreased from $330,000 to less than $10 per burger, providing opportunities to bring more sustainable and secure food to the nation’s plate.

Taken together, these and other breakthroughs will change the world profoundly. More than that, we are entering a phase where innovation will no longer rely chiefly on human ingenuity. Systems will learn, adapt and experiment on their own. Technology will not be just a tool: it will be a partner.

This makes the future even more unpredictable. But it does not give the state an excuse for being unprepared.

4. Government matters more than ever.

In the face of rapidly emerging, global technological change that is difficult to keep up with, policymakers can feel helpless. However, in reality, governments that are able to adapt and plan can make a difference.

Authoritarian governments have occasionally held out against technological change. This seldom lasts long, and generally opens a new class of grievance among the population. Democratic governments are forced to face reality and, at least in theory, embrace the new. But passive acceptance is not enough: the role of government is not to sit on the sidelines.

Governments can regulate some technologies and restrict the use of others. They can make big strategic decisions on infrastructure and skills. They can tax, fund and incentivise certain types of tech or applications. They can offer an authoritative opinion on contested issues and provide trust and reassurance for citizens; this is a powerful lesson we have learned from the pandemic.

The future success or failure of governments will hinge on whether they can mitigate the costs of transition to a new future, whether they adapt the way they work to reflect the new reality, and whether they can go one step further to exploit the best of what tech can offer the country.

Doing so will take confidence, courage and an appetite for experimentation. Not doing so means risking being swept away by history, the 21st-century equivalent of those politicians who could not adapt or respond adequately to the societal shockwaves set off by the Industrial Revolution.

5. All policy is now tech policy.

The idea of a traditional government “tech strategy” increasingly looks inadequate and doomed to failure.

Tech has for far too long been seen as a niche interest of younger generations rather than an integral part of every aspect of all our lives. This must change. A reverence for “analogue” policymaking that transcends technological advancements may be comforting to those who are intimidated by change – but unfortunately it is also a myth.

Digital hardware has been available and affordable for a long time. Anyone under 50 is likely to have been familiar with computers in schools; many had one in the home. Smartphones and social media are ubiquitous among policymakers of all ages. Software that was once considered niche is now commonplace: in fact, much of the success of the tech industry is in how it has made products intuitive to any user rather than requiring practice, training or specialist knowledge.

The success or failure of nearly every policy area depends to a large degree on whether and how tech can reinvent the business of government. The era of a white paper on health, education, tax or culture with either no indication that times have changed or, at best, a single section on “technology” must end. There is no policy to which tech is not central.

We have to bid farewell to the days of parking tech policy with a small, motivated younger cohort and hoping that will suffice. If a few policymakers are forced out of their comfort zones, this is a sign that they are on the right track.

At the same time, it is important that the tech industry plays its part and recognises its interest in driving more relevant, better-informed policies. Tech businesses have sometimes sought to keep policymakers at arm’s length by intimidating them with obscure language or patronising their well-intentioned efforts to engage. This kind of obfuscation also needs to end. Ultimately neither side is well-served by the failure to communicate properly.

6. We’re about to see existing jobs disappear – but new ones created.

After the de-industrialisation of the late 20th century, we could today stand on the brink of a “de-servicification” of the UK economy.

Anyone who sets foot in a supermarket or bank will recognise the trend away from human-heavy service jobs towards automation. As AI-assisted processes start to allow ever-more sophisticated handling of service delivery, this shift will increasingly take place across sectors like medicine, law and accountancy. In doing so, some of the jobs affected will be those held by traditionally better-paid and more highly qualified workers.

The government’s own projections suggest up to 9 million jobs will fall away, even as a similar number of new roles are created. Even such a neutral outcome implies major distributional and geographic shifts, and the need for substantial mitigation through the transition. It is hard to be confident that any political party is entirely ready for this.

As in the Industrial Revolution, all countries will sooner or later experience similar effects. But some will emerge from the transition stronger than others.

It is not guaranteed that the biggest economies will dominate – the factors that really make a difference will be talent and governance.

The first is a matter of education, training and specialism, but also an openness to attract and keep the best workers from overseas. The second is about the frameworks and rules that take us to the next phase, rather than trapping us in a model that is fading away. The emergence of the platform economy has rightly led to questions about how to avoid exploitation and lack of redress. But squeezing new modes of work into existing concepts of “employee” or “worker” is unlikely to be sustainable, so new thinking is needed on how to give people the control they need over their working patterns, and the ability to make their voices heard.

7. The public services could soon look as antiquated as steam railways.

It would be unfair to claim that no progress has been made in modernising public services. Substantial sums have been spent, and serious thought has gone into how to make the state more efficient and responsive. Most parts of the state have seen a significant injection of technological service-delivery and back-office functions. After such a long process, there is temptation for policymakers to believe that services have already been digitalised and that the job is now done.

This view is dangerous. Design of public services needs to start with the understanding that people – the state’s customers – expect convenience and simplicity. Their experience of online services is of frictionless, straightforward transactions, with security and privacy delivered as standard and without cumbersome authentication processes. None of this is easy, which is why constant investment and testing is necessary.

But even if governments can commit to ever-improving service design, we might be reaching a point at which keeping pace with rising demand is impossible. In this scenario, the existing structures and institutions can be slightly improved, but for each additional pound spent, the outcome is less than a pound of additional value.

This is bad on its own terms, but more seriously it damages the prospects for consent and trust in the basic functions of the state.

The alternative has to be a fundamental reimagination of the function and design of the institutions of state. Unless governments are prepared to consider whether the basic traditional institutional units of public service (for example, the classroom or GP clinic) remain the best means of delivery, they will be stuck trying to improve by increments something that might need to be replaced entirely.

The makers of the best-maintained, most modern steam engines couldn’t keep their businesses going as the world changed around them. Some changed and prospered. Others withered and died.

8. Handling public data will soon be as important as handling public money.

The treatment of data as a policy issue is something that has too often swung between oversell (assuming states can achieve magic results if they collect enough of it) and overcaution (assuming it is illegitimate for states to collect it at all, or that they cannot be trusted to protect it properly).

In reality, trust and competence go together. Citizens are used to seeing their data collected and used by supermarkets or credit-score agencies. The utility they derive from those services drives acceptance of the process. In the same way, the best hope for increased acceptance of data capture by government bodies lies in excellent public services.

The UK’s status as a medium-sized, relatively unitary state gives it an excellent opportunity to gather data and a responsibility to use it productively. If we can eliminate repetitive data entry across the public sector, then the immediate savings in administrative time alone will be substantial.

Beyond that, to take the NHS as one example, innovations in medicine and treatment will open up massive opportunities for personalised health care tailored to individuals, plus live feedback on the efficacy of drugs leading to refinement and more efficient development. All of this depends on the capture and maintenance of data across the health service and wider public sector.

Ultimately, these transactions matter in more ways than just the immediate cost-benefit calculation. Democratic engagement and citizen trust in the system will increasingly rest on the state’s responsible, and responsive, gathering and use of data. Governments who get it wrong will soon experience the damaging effects, but those who get it right will renew a vital connection between individuals and the system.

9. Technology is a national asset, and the international competition is real.

As technology is threaded through all areas of policy and all arms of the state, so it becomes a source of competitiveness on the world stage. Just as economic and military power matter to the status of a nation, so does its technological capability.

Governments tend to have some understanding of this and believe that building native tech giants is desirable – both for jobs and tax revenue, and for the softer power of influence and standard-setting for the wider world. But the obsession with replicating Silicon Valley somewhere in the UK has delivered little and might even have distracted from the looming geopolitical struggle over the raw components of the tech economy.

Avoiding dependency on potentially hostile powers for semiconductor supply is a challenge governments have been slow to wake up to. On the other hand, there is a risk that governments might overcorrect. While leaders should of course take a sober look at their country’s dependencies and relative technological and industrial strengths, a retreat to protectionism would be misguided.

A more convincing, sophisticated approach would see leaders work to support the areas in which a country can specialise, facilitate collaboration with allies and defend areas of vulnerability. Managing tech as a strategic asset can include merger control, conditions on access and specific government involvement in certain decisions. The UK’s current legal framework is reasonably comprehensive, but its application is uncertain and the strategy muddled. This needs to change.

A good starting point would be a comprehensive quantification of the sheer compute power in the country, dispersed between government, academia and the private sector. Only by understanding where the country stands in comparison with allies and potential adversaries can a realistic strategy be formulated, whether this means building deeper cooperation or focusing investment where it is needed.

10. The Network State is ready to be built if we have the courage.

The 19th and 20th centuries saw the build up and development of the modern democratic state. But in the 21st century, that model is under severe strain. A new vision for how government operates in the technological era is needed – which we call the Network State. This should not be seen as a utopian stage beyond the nation state, but rather a means of rediscovering the best of what that state can deliver.

Just as in the Industrial Revolution, when the British state had to adapt to a new reality and provide a fresh level of citizen support and comfort, today’s system of government needs to move beyond some of the approaches that worked for previous generations.

This new vision of a modern state is one in which the government is reimagined as a facilitator and coordinator, leading a new brand of public-private partnership to deliver for the people. The UK has the chance to lead and develop the shape of the state of the future; if it does not take up this opportunity, it risks being left behind.

Success will require:

  • A sincere and sustained commitment at the top of government to recruiting the right people
  • A new set of approaches to promoting and rewarding innovation
  • An empowered set of agencies with a clear mission and permission to think long term
  • A reset relationship with technology companies
  • A comprehensive rethink of public services and a roadmap for reform
  • Investment in the human and technological infrastructure needed to keep the UK in the race
  • Deep understanding of the likely and possible impacts of technology over the short, medium and long terms

This is no small enterprise. The long-term credibility and sustainability of the state rests on this transformation. The UK can have a future as a tech-enabled top-tier country, but this is far from assured. In the face of a revolution, we have no room for complacency.

Lead Image: Getty Images

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