Technology for the many

People standing in a circle using their phones

Written by Chris Yiu, Senior Policy Fellow for Technology at the Tony Blair Institute

This post follows the launch of TBI’s first major publication on tech policy. You can read the full report here, and a foreword by Tony Blair here.

The defining characteristic of the modern era is change, particularly change driven by advances in technology. This is happening faster than ever, and reaching into every aspect of our lives, our society and our economy. Technology has delivered huge benefits – there are incredible opportunities to learn, to communicate and to do business that simply didn’t exist before the internet. But there are also new challenges that society has never encountered until now, from new types of crime to attacks on the very substance of our democracies.

Faced with such a monumental set of issues, our political leaders are failing us. Populists, on both the left and the right, have an easy time blaming the world for our problems and making fanciful promises to turn back the clock – an agenda that is both false and impossible to execute. Meanwhile, for many moderates, the temptation is to try to split the difference between stasis and moving forward; a sort of status quo plus. This isn’t enough. Most people still identify themselves as centrists, but for leaders in the centre ground to win widespread support, they have to stand for radical change.

So we need a revolution in public policy to match the revolution in technology, to maximise its benefits and ensure they are shared widely, and to address definitely the new challenges that arise along the way. Brexit or no Brexit, this is the single most important challenge facing the country, and yet we are nowhere near the level of ambition required.

Pledges for incremental progress on broadband, for a benign environment for startups and for a modern industrial strategy are welcome as far as they go, but a party that was serious about embracing the future would aim far higher. A radical overhaul of lifelong learning to respond to automation, with no up-front costs to retrain for anyone, at any age. A public programme to deliver fibre and next-generation wireless internet to 100% of the country, and to close the gap in digital skills. Incentives for businesses to invest in new technologies to boost productivity, and to undertake large-scale testing of technologies of the future like driverless cars and medical AI.

In the public sector, accelerated adoption of technology in government, with savings recycled into increase human contact on the front line. A new government department and Cabinet minister charged to drive this agenda forward, and new independent bodies to bring advanced simulation technologies into policymaking and to steer the development of artificial intelligence. More power for cities, for example to deliver smart mobility solutions to cut congestion and pollution, and more power for local communities to make and own local decisions too.

And for the technology platforms that loom large in our lives, a robust debate about the responsibilities they have to society, and a new set of obligations to design for inclusion and democratic health.

A world dominated by exponential change requires new solutions, and these ideas are our first contribution to a policy platform alive with optimism about the potential to build a better, fairer future, and clear about the challenges that have to be overcome.

The Digital Leaders community has a special role to play in shaping this agenda, bringing together businesses, government and charities, and helping to bridge the worlds of technology and policy. Please do join the debate and make your voice heard – email us at [email protected] and tweet us using the hashtag #TBItech.

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