Towards a manifesto for technology

manifesto – a declaration of principles; a public written declaration of principles, policies, and objectives

A continuing, and eclectic, range of policy and discussion papers appear continuously from a wide variety of sources: from governments and opposition parties, backbench MPs, pressure groups, NGOs and think tanks – and many others. But it seems to me that technology barely gets mentioned as a core enabler of policy. At best it is generally seen as a secondary tool – relegated to delivery, administration and implementation. It is not viewed as a participant of policy itself, not as part of how we think about shaping and delivering the type of society we desire.

Let’s take a simple example to illustrate my point.

Transportation

The UK is experiencing severe problems associated with traffic congestion. The CBI estimates that around £20Bn a year is lost through congestion (around 1.5% of GDP). Current policy-making is largely focused on ideas such as road charging and persuading people to use public transport whenever possible. But there are other contributory options that need to be considered: technology could help deliver a change in the way we think about work which would help contribute to changing journey patterns and hence deliver beneficial outcomes.

I believe we are about to see changes in the way we approach and think about work as fundamental as the transition from the horse to the car. But we continue to plan as if the current transport model is one that will prevail indefinitely – in the same way that in the age of horse various pundits predicted complete seizure of the road network (and an insurmountable amount of manure that would prove to be a threat to public health). What was it that prevented people foreseeing the impact that the new technology (of the car) would have on the way we live and work? Or (as another illustration of the scale of change that awaits us), what was it in the mid-eighteenth century that stopped anyone seeing that a little over half a century later one person would be able to do the work of two hundred?

Consider the current UK daily commute. 62% of UK citizens commute to and from work by car. In fact, cars account for 85% of all journeys made in the UK. They also contribute significantly to carbon dioxide emissions with 25% attributed to car use. [All figures sourced from ONS].

Perhaps to state the obvious, if we could find a way of achieving targets that would take or displace say 5% of car commuter traffic off our roads, then aim for 10% or more, it would clearly have a significant, positive impact. We already know from research that the difference between a flowing road and one clogged up is not that great in terms of the sheer volume of cars: any reduction can help produce a virtuous circle of benefits.

But the problems of road congestion and the daily commute are often thought of in terms solely of better road management (through ideas such as road charging mechanisms and technology-based roadside management systems) rather than in terms of analysing the underlying reasons why so many people are commuting within such confined “time corridors”.

Whilst there are many contributory factors to take into account in improving the UK, it is areas like this where a much broader understanding of the impact technology could have on the way we think about work – and where we work – can be brought into play.

Flexible working is of course much spoken of – but in reality little delivered. Yet its impact on patterns of road utilisation could be significant. And technology provides the means of enabling new ways of working that could help deliver such beneficial outcomes. What is the point of this technology if we do not after all use it to make fundamental transformations and improvements to the way we live and work?

If just a small percentage of employees were able to work more flexibly – commuting outside of the main congestion corridors in the morning and afternoons – that could be one benefit. And if such ideas could be taken further, so that where possible employees start to work a day or more from home or somewhere other than an office a commute away by using technology, then we start to see the potential technology has for impacting transportation and local economic issues. Particularly when allied with other policy initiatives.

Technology has demonstrable positive potential when applied as contributor to policy-making itself. Clearly there are wider impacts than purely eliminating unnecessary commuting journeys and the improved management of office accommodation: there are other benefits, such as the knock-on impact on the environment, the empowerment of individual employees, and accessibility issues in terms of lowering barriers to employment of those with disabilities.

The adoption of a truly flexible working policy across the UK would clearly impact car commuting patterns and environmental issues. But it also has other beneficial outcomes, including the impact on communities where everyone is no longer absent all day due to commuting outside of the area to work. And this is just one dimension of the impact of technology on policy itself.

It seems to me that what we lack is a “manifesto for technology”: something that enables technologists to articulate, in jargon-free language, the impacts that could be derived if technology informed the act of policy-making itself – rather than just being seen as an operational and administration tool.

I’d be interested in others’ thoughts as to how we could best develop such as “manifesto”.


This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content, date and time shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

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