This is not a post about operating systems, in the obvious sense. It might be better described as a post reflecting on Marx’s early view that the base determines the superstructure, so that to achieve deep change your intervention needs to bite deep into the system. Many of our component systems are deeply rooted in the circumstances of their creation and evolution, they are solutions to the problems of their time which may not be our problems. But they are neither easy to change nor perhaps even easy to recognise for what they are. This post describes a clear problem, a future post offers the promise of an approach to answering it.
It is easy, but not in the end very productive, to worry about how we got into a crisis and to pin the blame as we choose. It is harder, and very much more productive, to look at what the crisis has forced us to do and to ask how we can discard that which was of only short term utility while keeping and developing that which shows promise of longer term value.
This post provides a really useful framework not just for thinking about the difference between what we have needed to do in the crisis and what we may be able to do beyond it – neatly summarised in the matrix. But it goes beyond that to reflect on what is capable of making potentially radical change more robustly sustainable. The answers to that come not just in institutional change and adaptation, important though those opportunities are, but also from an approach to public engagement and participation which has the potential to provide the foundations necessary for better decision making more generally.
Could the crisis be a turning point, rekindling our belief in progress? It has reminded us that it is not hope that leads to action as much as action that leads to hope. It has underlined our common humanity while encouraging us to empathise with our less protected and advantaged fellow citizens. It has, I sense, made us intolerant of the unreason and cynicism that underlies so much populist rhetoric. […]
The crisis is forcing us to think differently and to act differently. Perhaps the most profound shift would be if we were ready for a different kind of leadership.
What will the world look like when we are beyond COVID-19? It’s an obvious question, and one attracting increasing attention, with a first flowering of answers appearing, doubtless with many more to come. This is an example of the approach, demonstrating both the importance of posing the question and the potential traps in attempting to answer it.
The strongest assertion in the post comes in its very first sentence:
The pandemic will change the world permanently and profoundly.
Some might choose to debate even that of course, but if the premise is accepted, it is possible to reflect on what those permanent and profound changes might be. The difficulty comes quickly afterwards, as this post both recognises and demonstrates: the more that there is potential for the changes to be profound, the less it is possible to identify what they might be with any degree of confidence or rigour, and the more there is a risk of generating long lists of what might be possible without being able to say much of consequence about what is probable. More subtly, that approach also gives little room to questions about how those probabilities might be influenced – and by whom.
The lists in this post are wide ranging and provocative. They are a good reminder of the need to be alert to change and to be on the lookout for leading indicators. But they don’t and can’t (and don’t aspire to)describe the new normal we may someday reach.
Most writing on strategy is brisk, terse, focused. It tends to the abstract and the impersonal. The author is a creature of intellect but not of imagination – and sometimes is an institution or a group rather than being an individual at all.
So this collection of essays is striking in form as well as content. They are highly personal, they are expansive, at times even meandering. At one level, they are a series of personal reflections, starting with the Australian bush fires, moving through the coronavirus epidemic, to the greater challenge of climate change and on to the social and economic state of the world – and the language we use to describe all that, which itself powerfully constrains how we think about it. But this is also – and above all – systems thinking on a grand scale.
The existence of the coronavirus and its direct impact on human health are matters of biology. But pretty much everything else about the virus and its consequences, both immediate and for the longer term, are social and economic – and so intensely political – issues. It is always true that we have choices about how we think about those kinds of issues, but it is a choice rarely exercised in the practical world of public policy making.
Government agencies in almost all countries tend to use only one or two models with which to formulate policy. Further, they rarely gather evidence and analyses on different competing assumptions, or contradictory models, and then tend to build capabilities around the existing underlying models, rather than cultivate new approaches, potentially exposing previous judgements. This would tend to suppress nuance, but also inhibit the exploration of new trajectories.
In that, of course, there will continue to be much uncertainty, bringing to mind the line that:
Democracy is the form of society devised and maintained by those who know they don’t know everything.
But to know we don’t know everything is to know something very important, and is an opportunity – even an obligation – to examine and seek to understand the wider system as a step towards influencing its direction. These papers demonstrate some of the breadth which will be required and some of the opportunities for positive change we could collectively choose to take.
Nothing can change. We have huge systemic problems, but many things are as they are, and it is foolish to assume that intentional change will deliver intended effects.
But of course that’s not true. Things can and do change. Things are as they are because it suits enough people, with enough power, for them to be that way. Change is fundamentally a political enterprise.
What’s inadvertently interesting about this post is that it was written at the beginning of March and already feels like something from another age. If anything, the assumption in public discourse has flipped. If it is possible to create a hospital in days, if it is possible to change patterns of work and life radically and rapidly, if it is possible to bring national and international focus on a common overriding goal – what then can there be which is not possible?
But the answer is still fundamentally the one underpinning this post. We can do those things. We could do many other things which are radical changes to the way things have been done – but only if the assumption of insurmountable complexity is broken. A month on, that suddenly seems much more possible. But so it has seemed in other crises, there have been other dawns beyond other darkest hours. There will be unprecedented opportunities ahead, but they will need to be seized if they are not to fade away.
These are the slides (and speaker notes) from an exceptionally powerful presentatation about diversity and inclusion given at FutureGov’s recent Designing 21st Century Government event – though alas without the energy and power brought to them on the day.
At the core of the argument is a challenge not to deny or elide bias, but to recognise and address it through five stages:
- Know your core (what ideas are most important)
- Show your flex (which ideas you can compromise on)
- Recognise your privilege
- Learn to disagree well
- Be a leader
The fourth is in some ways the most powerful: inclusion is not a reduction to a faint common denominator, it is a respectful integration of perspectives and challenges. Simple disagreement is easy and unproductive. Disagreeing well is how good ideas generate better ones.
Another year of Mary Meeker’s internet trends has landed with a loud virtual thump – weighing in this year at 333 slides. In what it covers it is relentlessly detailed, though the framing of the story not surprisingly is influenced by a very particular west coast world view. It is easy – perhaps inevitable – that eyes glaze over a bit on the way through, as yet another slide about yet another implausibly named company shows a chart rocketing to the near vertical. So rather than attempt any kind of summary, here are four slides which caught my attention.
After 432 posts suggesting strategic reading, the 433rd is an odd one out, with a first suggestion for some strategic writing (or vlogging).
As a contribution to Nesta’s work on radical visions for the future of government, OneTeamGov is crowdsourcing ideas. Contributions are invited from people working in governmen, responding to one of two questions:
What does your work look like in 2030, what has changed and what has stayed the same?
In the next 10 years what would need to change for you to be able to do your best work on behalf of citizens?
It’s tempting to respond in part with Charlie Stross’s observation that
The near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.
That is perhaps a way of linking the two questions together. 2030 is to 2019 as 2019 is to 2008, and just as the bureaucrats of 2008 would not find themselves in a wholly alien world if they were to wake up in 2019, so the world of 2030 may well not be as radically different as some might wish. That brings the focus to versions of the second question – not just what would need to change, but what is the path to changing it, which would give us radically better government in 2030?
Follow the link at the top of this post to contribute your thoughts to the mix.
Tharman Shanmugaratnam, who is Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for Social Policies in the Singapore Government, gave the opening address at the Institute for Government’s tenth anniversary conference last week. The text of his speech [pdf] is at the link above, the video is below.
It’s something of a tour de force, drawing not just on Singapore’s own experience but on evidence and examples from around the world. But what is perhaps most striking is the level of integration of the policy thinking – education, housing, health and more, each seen as facets of the others, and each set in the context of broad social challenges. It is interesting both for the content and for the political and institutional context which makes the content possible. Singapore has some distinctive characteristics, of course, and not everything is or should be replicable or scalable (the management of ministerial careers through generational planning, is just one example), but the challenge of joined up government comes across as less insoluble than it is often perceived to be, with some clear examples of the gains to be had from doing so.
Who gets to think about – and so to define – the future? At one level, self-evidently, we all do. But doing it systematically and thoughtfully is a luxury generally restricted to a few specialists, and translating into democratic decision making happens spasmodically, if at all.
This post is a survey of approaches and initiatives aimed at ‘democratising futures’, ranging from games to citizens’ assemblies and from the wisdom of crowds to the opening of expertise. As the post recognises, there is little hard evidence of what works well either in process terms or, more fundamentally, in terms of real world consequences. But that is an argument for doing more, not less, and there are some useful pointers to how that might best be done.
In 1987, the economist Robert Solow observed that the computer age was everywhere except for the productivity statistics. In some sectors, that started to change a decade or so later. Now, a further two decades on, the nature of ‘the computer age’ is very different and there is a further round of technology-driven change with even greater potential than the last one. The main conclusion of this article is that there is another surge of productivity growth waiting to be captured, though acknowledging some significant transition inefficiencies along the way. And there are still wider effects not directly reflected here – autonomous vehicles, for example, have the potential to be more immediately efficient but might add to externalities elsewhere through increased congestion.
Stepping back from that, perhaps the deeper message of Solow’s paradox, now as much as when he posed it, is that technology-based change is never just about the technology and that understanding the social and economic context in which it is deployed is always a vital part of the overall picture.
This is the recording of an event at the Institute for Government this week, in which Jamie Susskind starts by briefly introducing the arguments of his book, Future Politics, and then discusses them with Gavin Freeguard – and as the book weighs in at over 500 pages, this might be a gentler way in. Susskind approaches the question of the title from the perspective of politics and law, coming back to the question, how much democracy is the right amount? That’s a harder – and more important – question than it first appears. Answers to it have been evolving for several thousand years, but digital technology gives it a new urgency, for reasons which range from the manipulative power of social media, the elimination of leeway, to bot-driven perpetual voting.
In the last century the fundamental question was, what should be done by the state and what should be left to the market and to civil society? … In our time, the key question will be this, to what extent should our lives be governed by powerful digital systems, and on what terms?
The starting point for the future is today. The chances of getting to where you want to go without knowing where you are starting from are not good.
This compendium of essays about the state of the [Uk] nation in 2018 is not a bad way of defining that starting point, covering everything from infrastructure to social care, gender-based violence to the sugar tax and from fake news to fizzy drinks.
There is no single conclusion to be drawn from so rich a range of evidence. Unsurprisingly, not everything is rosy, but Ben Page chooses in his foreword to emphasise the positive, concluding more soberly than exultantly that “in general things are better than we think they are”.
And on that cautious note, we move on to one more year of the future.
This is thinking at epic scale.
Consider the Milky Way crashing into Andromeda in about four billion years from now, taking another billion years to establish some form of stability.
Now consider the unstoppable force of technological (and social change) colliding with the established cultures and practices of government.
Now reflect on how good a metaphor the first is for the second. There’s probably less than four billions years to wait until we find out.
We are better connected than ever before, through a bewildering array of devices and networks. And loneliness is an acute problem, undermining wellbeing and health. This post both explores that paradox and focuses more directly on its implications for the design of public services.
There is an apparently happy alignment between the improvements to quality which come from putting services online and the consequential efficiency savings which accrue to hard pressed public sector delivery organisations. But the reduction in human interaction which follows is a fundamental and deliberate feature of the new service design. It surely can’t be right that an occasional conversation with a harried bureaucrat will stave off the adverse effects of loneliness – but it always worth remembering that making services more impersonal is always likely disproportionately to affect those who are most vulnerable and most in need of support.
This post is more a string of examples than a fully constructed argument but is none the worse for that. The thread which holds the examples together is an important one: predicting the future goes wrong because we misunderstand behaviour, not because we misunderstand technology.
A couple of points stand out. One is the mismatch between social change and technology change: the shift of technology into the workplace turned out to be much easier to predict than the movement of women into the workplace. That’s a specific instance of the more general point that we both under- and over-predict the future. A second is that we over-weight the innovative in thinking about the future (and about the past and present); as Charlie Stross describes it, the near-future is comprised of three parts: 90% of it is just like the present, 9% is new but foreseeable developments and innovations, and 1% is utterly bizarre and unexpected.
None of that is a reason for abandoning attempts to think about the future. But the post is a strong – and necessary – reminder of the need to keep in mind the biases and distortions which all too easily skew the attempt.
Time Berners-Lee didn’t invent the internet. But he did invent the world wide web, and he does not altogether like what it has become. This post is his manifesto for reversing one of the central power relationships of the web, the giving and taking of data. Instead of giving data to other organisations and having to watch them abuse it, lose it and compromise it, people should keep control of their personal data and allow third parties to see and use it only under their control.
This is not a new idea. Under the names ‘vendor relationship management’ (horrible) and ‘volunteered personal information’ (considerably better but not perfect), the thinking stretches back a decade and more, developing steadily, but without getting much traction. If nothing else, attaching Berners-Lee’s name to it could start to change that, but more substantively it’s clear that there is money and engineering behind this, as well as thoughts and words.
But one of the central problems of this approach from a decade ago also feels just as real today, perhaps more so. As so often with better futures, it’s fairly easy to describe what they should look like, but remarkably difficult to work out how to get there from here. This post briefly acknowledges the problem, but says nothing about how to address it. The web itself is, of course, a brilliant example of how a clear and powerful idea can transform the world without the ghost of an implementation plan, so this may not feel as big a challenge to Berners-Lee as it would to any more normal person. But the web filled what was in many ways a void, while the data driven business models of the modern internet are anything but, and those who have accumulated wealth and power through those models will not go quietly.
It’s nearly ten years since Tim Wu wrote The Master Switch, a meticulous account of how every wave of communications technology has started with dispersed creativity and ended with centralised industrial scale. In 2010, it was possible to treat the question of whether that was also the fate of the internet as still open, though with a tipping point visible ahead. The final sentence of the book sets out the challenge:
If we do not take this moment to secure our sovereignty over the choices our information age has allowed us to enjoy, we cannot reasonably blame its loss on those who are free to enrich themselves by taking it from us in a way history has foretold
A decade on, the path dependence is massively stronger and will need to be recognised if it is to be addressed. technological creativity based on simple views of data ownership is unlikely to be enough by itself.
The really interesting effects of technology are often the second and third order ones. The invention of electricity changed the design of factories. The invention of the internal combustion engine changed the design of cities. The invention of social media shows signs of changing the design of democracy.
This essay is a broader and bolder exploration of the consequences of today’s new technologies. That AI will destroy jobs is a common argument, that it might destroy human judgement and ability to make decisions is a rather bolder one (apparently a really creative human chess move is now seen as an indicator of potential cheating, since creativity in chess is now overwhelmingly the province of computers).
The most intriguing argument is that new technologies destroy the comparative advantage of democracy over dictatorship. The important difference between the two, it asserts, is not between their ethics but between their data processing models. Centralised data and decision making used to be a weakness; increasingly it is a strength.
There is much to debate in all that, of course. But the underlying point, that those later order effects are important to recognise, understand and address, is powerfully made.
This is by way of a footnote to the previous post – a bit more detail on one small part of the enormous ecosystem described there.
If you buy an Amazon Echo then, partly depending on what you intend to do with it, you may be required to accept 17 different contracts, amounting to close to 50,000 words, not very far short of the length of a novel. You will also be deemed to be monitoring them all for any changes, and to have accepted any such changes by default.
That may be extreme in length and complexity, but the basic approach has become normal to the point of invisibility. That raises a question about the reasonableness of Amazon’s approach. But it raises a much more important question about our wider approach to merging new technologies into existing social, cultural and legal constructs. This suggests, to put it mildly, that there is room for improvement.
(note that the link is to a conference agenda page rather than directly to the presentation, as that is a 100Mb download, but if needed this is the direct link)
An Amazon Echo is a simple device. You ask it do things, and it does them. Or at least it does something which quite a lot of the time bears some relation to the thing you ask it do. But of course in order to be that simple, it has to be massively complicated. This essay, accompanied by an amazing diagram (or perhaps better to say this diagram, accompanied by an explanatory essay), is hard to describe and impossible to summarise. It’s a map of the context and antecedents which make the Echo possible, covering everything from rare earth geology to the ethics of gathering training data.
It’s a story told in a way which underlines how much seemingly inexorable technology in fact depends on social choices and assumptions, where invisibility should not be confused with inevitability. In some important ways, though, invisibility is central to the business model – one aspect of which is illustrated in the next post.