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Technology • Inclusive Growth • Inequality

Access all areas: future-facing politics

Stella Creasy - 03 October 2014

Uncertainty, risk and disruption are part and parcel of modernity. So too is the potential for social justice, progress and growth. Those companies, and countries, that only seek to manage these trends will corrode from the inside out as inequality and insecurity increase and innovation is stifled. In contrast, those that share information, support competition and encourage collaboration will succeed.

Trust in politicians has always been low, but in the whirlwind of modernity, where economic and social pressures come from around the world, national government seems increasingly impotent. Those who provide someone to blame - whether immigrants, the previous government, the BBC, unmarried women or all of the above- are striking a chord with a public that feels increasingly fragile and exposed. The cycle of creative destruction which defines the fast-paced, fast-changing nature of our economy and jobs market can pull too many people down for too long. Some will argue social justice requires us to slow or even stop these trends. I want to argue the opposite- the purpose of progressive politics is to help ensure everyone can anticipate change, adapt to it, embrace it and, perhaps, even provoke it in the first place.

This is not a call for intervention, but invention. Politics is about priorities but all too often gets caught up servicing processes. Yet our future success cannot be achieved by any one policy or government alone. Only by ensuring the public has direct access to the forces for change - information, competition and collaboration- can we together make Britain a country where all our citizens thrive in the 21st century.

Dealing with disruption and insecurity

Those at the sharp end of modernity are right to be anxious. It is estimated that 36 per cent of jobs in the future will be replaced by automation in the UK.  As more and more of our lives are transformed by information technology, the one in five people who are struggling with digital skills who are overwhelmingly from low income backgrounds- are locked out of its benefits. Of the 2.5 million people currently unemployed, more than a third have been out of work for over a year. For them prosperity becomes more distant everyday- employers all too often ignore those who have been out of work for more than six months, bidding up wages to attract the short-term unemployed or those already in work. As their skills become less relevant, employers are less willing to invest in them further lengthening their chances of success.

Insecurity isn't just in the workplace. Our security is threatened by terrorism developed both at home and abroad. These threats are not posed by the nation states of the Cold War, but from individuals and groups, with conflicts communicated around the world at the touch of a button. Change seeps through borders previously thought impenetrable; whether the price of coffee, energy or the future of our industries all now depend on the actions of organisations and institutions thousands of miles from our shores.

Whilst history has always been defined by social and economic development, these changes have taken place at an unprecedented haste. It took nearly 130 years to sell a billion cars and, even after 95 years of our love affair with television, today's world has just under 1.5 billion television sets.  In contrast 2.7 billion of us already use the internet every single day- a technology only invented 25 years ago. Little wonder many can feel defenceless in the face of such relentless momentum.

Such powerlessness comes at a time when we have never had more possibilities for individual opportunity and social progress. Alongside halving global poverty, in the last 20 years average life expectancy has gone up by six years. Many low-income countries have exceeded this. Some, such as, Liberia, Ethiopia and the Maldives have seen double figure increases in life expectancy.
Robot cars exist that can park themselves, as do mass produced hydrogen cell cars, transforming the impact of the most popular form of transport on our environment. Scientists have developed a set of sticky handheld paddles based on gecko feet to climb up walls meaning Spiderman is no longer just a comic book character. Whenever we doubt the capacity of humanity to overcome what seem like the most impossible and dangerous of situations, we should also remember our ability to surprise and surpass ourselves. Progress is not inevitable, but neither is failure. Yet all change brings disruption in the status quo- and the potential that without planning some may suffer or not succeed as a result.

Fostering creative capacity

For progressives, it is political action that seeks to tip the balance. We see how inequality holds back Britain; that we miss out on what can be achieved when our citizens don't have a chance to realise their talents. Traditionally for the Left this has been about finding lifelong careers; in this new world it is about the chance to develop a range of skills so that people have options whatever life throws at them.

At the root of this is not just formal learning but creative capacity; the potential not just to repeat someone else's role but to remake the world around you. Every day we use knowledge to 'lifehack’ - using information to improve our experiences and opportunities - from devising new routes around stations, sharing money-saving tips, or developing new ways of teaching using technology. With a nearly 20 per cent productivity gap between the UK and other G7 countries, creating a country where more have access to information and the ability to interpret it will be key to ensuring our citizens can catch up.

Modern technology is also creating possibilities to apply these skills because it is breaking down the barriers to starting and running a business. You can now start, run and succeed as an entrepreneur from anywhere. The UK has the strongest internet economy in the world, with online sales representing a higher share of GDP than transport, communications, or utilities. Many of those locked out of prosperity in previous eras would have lacked the capital to invest in bricks and mortar. Thanks to online engagement, Britain has already seen a significant growth in entrepreneurial activity from stay-at-home parents, carers and people with disabilities, able to grow a business in their own home, in their own time and around their lives in a way that suits them.

The benefits accrue not just in technical ability. Knowledge really is power as it helps build confidence, drive creativity and generate resilience. This transforms the debate about the future of our economy and equality, not just for those previously cut off or even for major companies, but for everyone.  If competitors and prosperity could literally come from nowhere and everywhere there is an incentive for businesses, governments and citizens to pay attention to and invest in everyone- because they could all be challengers as well as collaborators. In 1998, just 17 per cent of 18-29 year olds wanted to start a business, now it’s 30 per cent. Nurturing this means we can live in a country where you no longer have to have a fortune to make one.

This raises new questions about the reforms that can make Britain an environment where entrepreneurship is stimulated rather than stifled; not just in providing digital skills but also in the kinds of employment rights, social security and mentoring citizens require. So too opportunities for success will not arise by giving people more access to information or skills development alone. Removing barriers to competition through effective regulation and investment is critical to helping break open markets, incentivise innovation and challenge those who seek to suffocate change as a way of exploiting captured audiences -whether they are big or small organisations themselves. As part of this, promoting access to the data held within institutions- both public and private- would create a valuable resource in driving new opportunities and challenging existing elites.

The power of collaboration

Promoting competition and open data as catalysts for progressive entrepreneurship isn't the same as survival of the fittest. We see the disturbance on its own this can create to individuals and institutions, and the risk that inequality is exacerbated. Collaboration offers a vital and complementary force for producing innovation and social justice; it is how we can invest in each other to take the risks to nurture our mutual future success and also manage the periods of transition this can entail. Whether national infrastructure, venture funds or training programmes, such relationships bring access to resources that could be prohibitively complex or expensive for individuals alone. Fostering this requires an ethos of collaboration - not to counter competition but to balance it. That means helping the public create the networks for shared thinking and resources which are the platforms that then make such joint ventures possible. To be a government that crowdsources, rather than crowd controls.

Uncertainty, risk and disruption are part and parcel of modernity. So too is the potential for social justice, progress and growth. Those companies, and countries, that only seek to manage these trends will corrode from the inside out as inequality and insecurity increase and innovation is stifled. In contrast, those that share information, support competition and encourage collaboration will succeed.  If we give up on the notion that we can find a way to do this, however complex or difficult it may be, then markets and the vicarious inequality they can produce unchecked will become the default mechanism by which our society is shaped.

In this context the case for progressive politics becomes stronger not weaker. At present, only 40 per cent of the world is online. We can see what has already been achieved and so the potential that exists if we inform, engage and empower our citizens to succeed together. In our information-rich future, it is an enduring truth that by the strength of our common endeavour we will achieve more than we do alone.

Stella Creasy is shadow minister for competition and consumer affairs and Labour Co-operative MP for Walthamstow

This essay form part of the Policy Network publication Laying the Foundations for a Labour Century, edited by Liz Kendall and John Woodcock.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Social Policy and Changing Welfare States.

Tags: jobs , growth , innovation , technology , creativity , ICT , power , collaboration , Labour , Policy Network , openness , robots , inequality , social policy , government , Stella Creasy

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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