The Coronavirus pandemic has thrown into sharp focus the inequalities in society and has pitted the haves against the have nots more than ever - those with a reliable, steady job vs those employed by firms unable to open or no longer with us; those who can work from home long-term vs those who had to be at their workplace during the pandemic; furloughed vs zero-hour contract; garden vs high-rise flat; computer for home-schooling vs borrowing a parent’s smartphone etc etc.
While technology doesn’t offer the solution to all these inequalities, it can certainly help close the gap in some areas. That’s certainly the belief of Martha Lane Fox, AKA Baroness Lane-Fox of Soho, and fortunately she’s in a position to do something about it. Lane Fox has been appointed chair of the COVID-19 Committee of the UK's upper parliamentary chamber, The House of Lords. She intends to use this role, combined with her background as a tech entrepreneur, to help the UK on its post-COVID-19 recovery path.
The function of this particular committee is to look at the longer term impacts of the Coronavirus, rather than how to deal with pressing short term matters, like track and trace or testing programs. It is more focused on how the different strands of society’s economic and social wellbeing may or may not have shifted as a result of COVID-19. Its ultimate objective, according to Lane Fox, is to decide:
What can we do to make sure we build back the most resilient, sustainable, inclusive, equitable society?
The committee has already carried out a substantial listening exercise, asking people across the UK for their views on the long-term impact of COVID-19. The responses fell into five core areas:
- Inequalities, especially those thrown up by the pandemic around education and health, as well as those it deepened further like work and housing;
- Care - both how it should work and be funded;
- Children and young people, who are facing an insecure world of work, as well as having their education and university life disrupted;
- Sustainability – how to build a robust economy that will be able to meet the challenge of the climate crisis;
- Technology, especially the shift COVID-19 has precipitated to living online and the new digital world.
Lane Fox, who was speaking at Ada’s List Conf 2020 on rethinking the role of government in the world of COVID-19, explained that the committee intends to do meaningful work in all those areas, with technology underlying so many potential solutions.
We’ve had five years in eight months. We’ve had this leapfrog into digitalisation that was coming, we all knew was happening, but was probably happening at a more steady pace. If you had told me, even a year ago, that I’d be voting in parliament on one of these [a smartphone], I’d have thought you’d been smoking crack. But that happened and it happened within a month.
I feel quite inspired by how quickly parliament got up and running. The ways of working that were so far away from what they’ve been driven to because of necessity. It’s been quite an impressive feat to get that institution to be able to do all these different things.
However, this rapid shift to digital has had winners and losers at both an individual and societal level. While the Lords’ swift embrace of online voting is a huge step forward, the reliance on technology for home-schooling is far more problematic – hundreds of thousands of children across the UK were and are still unable to participate in online learning as they’re either sharing a computer with the rest of their family, or relying on a smartphone or tablet, which isn’t suitable for all forms of school work.
There’s also the fact that the House of Commons rescinded the ability for MPs to vote online once the main lockdown ended, unlike the House of Lords where it’s still an option. As Lane Fox noted, there is “still some way to go” when it comes to the UK’s relationship with technology:
If we could take the entire British establishment and dump it in a better level of digital understanding, we would be light years ahead of where we are. If we don’t build our society and our economy for 2030 rather than for 1820, which we sometimes tend to do, then I don’t think we’re going to have the best shot at the future.
This sounds an arduous task, and one that isn’t helped by the makeup of the current government establishment. The problem with how the UK is run at the moment, according to Lane Fox, is that it always has the same people at the top, whether that’s heading up government, major schools or other core institutions. These are people who went to Oxford or Cambridge, then joined a big bank or consulting company, so everyone is conditioned to think in the same way - and the level of digital understanding is not high enough:
I don’t think the UK or any country, especially post-Brexit or any country after what has just happened, will be able to be truly resilient in the future if we don’t ensure we enable a much more rapid way of understanding this stuff.
And then there’s the nature of the technology industry, which has its own issues with diversity and inclusion to solve:
In the technology sector in the last five to 10 years – if you look at all the car crashes that have happened because of bad data breaches or products that just didn’t have any inclusive design. There’s something at Twitter that I’m ashamed of recently, where black faces were being clipped in a different way to white faces. Why is that? It’s because of this one-dimensional ‘Bro’ engineering culture. It’s not exclusively that, but that’s a big part of it because there’s no ethics training in tech.
So how do we shift this approach to technology to ensure it underpins a fairer and more resilient society? For Lane Fox, there are three key areas, which all have to work in parallel. The first is leadership, she said:
Unless you have a top-down ambition to do this absolutely as a central priority, it just will not happen. And it has to come from the prime minister, and it then has to filter through the civil service or there will always be a reason - especially in the complexity of what we will face post-Brexit, post-COVID-19 - to push whatever digital piece of the puzzle to the margins. If we had any success with the Government Digital Service [which Lane Fox helped to establish], it was because [former British Prime Minister] David Cameron was a 100% signed-up member of that, that we must digitally transform. And then you had members of the Cabinet, particularly Francis Maude, who then drove it through government.
So you need to have that top-down – like, this is the direction of travel - that cannot be underestimated in my opinion. Tony Blair said recently that his single biggest priority, if he was prime minister now, would be the digitalisation of the UK, particularly around government. And he saw that as just fundamental to success. I was really struck by that; having that as priority is key.
The second requirement is infrastructure, Lane Fox argued:
We don't have a good enough infrastructure, simple as that. We may think we do – it’s shit! I'm sitting here in the middle of London and very frequently, if I can get a mobile phone signal, that's lucky. We need to make sure everybody has access to high-quality, low-cost infrastructure.
The third area is digital understanding and skills, echoing the points above around the 'group-think' nature of the establishment and tech sector. However, the chances of seeing the current government make changes to its digital approach are pretty slim. As Lane Fox explained:
What is holding government back is, it just has not been put as a central priority. There’s stuff in the NHS where they would say they have been empowered, like NHSX, and all these different places where they're trying to put digital at the heart of stuff. But unless it stands up and says, we are going to make the UK the most digitally resilient and effective country on the planet, putting sustainability, digitally inclusive design, all those things at the heart of what we do - then I don't believe it will happen.
The Boris problem
While David Cameron and Tony Blair may have been willing to take on that mantle and focus on improving the UK’s technology for the betterment of society, [current British Prime Minister] Boris Johnson and his team take a different view – they seem to think we’re already ‘world-beating’. Lane Fox said:
I'm not close to this government but what I've picked up is, they think we're pretty good at it, they don't think this is a huge, enormous, red thing for the UK. They see it as, whatever we could do is an upside as opposed to dramatic transformation. I think that's because they've heard all the – often right, but frankly sometimes overly noisy - lobbying about the success of Tech City or the UK start-up scene or we've got pretty good broadband to most of the country; as opposed to thinking about it from a completely different perspective, which is how do we empower every single person in this country in a completely different way - the digital part is secondary - with the tools of 2020, because that's what I think the question should be. And I just don't think they think about it like that. They think about it as internet, as opposed to how do we have a functioning society and government.”
However, as she noted – in perhaps an ominous note for the PM and his entourage:
But those things can change very quickly. They can also change with the cast of characters changing.
It was certainly enlightening hearing Lane Fox detail her experiences with the current and former governments, and how far apart they seem to be in their attitude to technology. Based on her knowledge of the machinations of government, coupled with her tech nous, it’s definitely a positive that she’s the person heading up our post-COVID-19 taskforce as she’s well-placed to advise on technology to target inequality, resilience and sustainability. However, her comments around the establishment and the government’s view that what they’re already doing around digital is ‘pretty good’ are a useful reminder of the huge gap between getting good advice and actually having the common sense or humility to act on it.