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Empowerment is the key to a connected society

It's not just technology that will determine our digital future – the ethical, social and political decisions taken now will have an impact on all of us

Our increasingly digitised, disruptive and globalised world is transforming the way we live, work and play in exciting and unforeseen ways.

Social media has given a voice to millions, increasing democratic accountability and revolutionising the ability of the individual to speak to the many.

The tidal wave of technological change is transforming industry beyond all recognition. New business models such as the sharing economy and on-demand services have increased consumer choice. Challenger brands now dominate markets, while established companies that fail to adapt to the seemingly unstoppable march of technology are collapsing at an alarming rate.

The benefits of an increasingly connected society are endless. But the speed of change, emerging anxieties and the risk of unintended consequences could undermine the very opportunities we want to realise.

Automation is improving company profitability, but putting traditional jobs at risk. Businesses using big data are coming under sustained attack from ever more sophisticated hackers. The internet of things is connecting cities, governments and communities, raising fresh concerns about the risks posed by cyber criminals to critical infrastructure and national security.

On top of this, we have the rise of fake news, cyber terrorism, online abuse, fraud, extremism, grooming and bullying, all of which are amplified by ubiquitous, 24/7 connectivity.

Indeed, technology is moving at such pace that society is struggling to keep up. The rise of unexpected threats is undermining trust both in the institutions with which the public interacts and the technology we increasingly depend on in our daily lives. This lack of trust not only jeopardises the realisation of the benefits of our digital world, but also risks further isolating sections of the population who disengage or opt out.

Frankenstein’s monster

Some will argue that these issues are part and parcel of a connected society. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We cannot allow ourselves to adopt a Frankenstein’s monster approach to the digital world – and we need to act now.

At the Corsham Institute (Ci), we are turning this situation on its head. We want to give individuals and communities the skills and tools they need to reshape their future. Neither governments nor tech companies alone can credibly claim to understand or represent the needs of the citizen in this fast-moving world.

Policy responses, however well-intentioned, are by their nature complex, slow to develop and implement, and ultimately divorced from the reality of many people’s lives and concerns. Ethical or socially responsible initiatives by tech companies, although welcome, may be greeted with suspicion in an increasingly febrile public sphere.

So how do we improve things? It’s the shared responsibility of businesses, policymakers, academics and not-for-profit organisations to put the citizen at the heart of our connected society. We need to help citizens develop the skills and behaviours that promote safe, empowered and productive engagement – critical thinking, empathy, problem-solving, resilience, and civic and economic participation.

Lifelong learning

This is neither a one-off intervention nor is it just about digital skills. Rather, this is about life skills and lifelong learning, with regular interventions and refreshers throughout people’s lives, and particular support during times of transition.

That is why Ci supports ex-military personnel to learn cyber security skills and women returners to gain the confidence to look for new types of role. It’s why we are part of a digital NHS test-bed to help people manage their long-term condition. It’s why we are building digital communities and raising awareness of the online narratives leading to violent extremism and promoting alternatives to them.

Our policymakers need to start thinking about how we can adapt our education system to provide the pipeline of tech-literate talent we need for all jobs, not just tech jobs, and to enable the reskilling and upskilling of the existing workforce hit by automation and struggling to find new work.

Technology is creating jobs as much as depleting them. But these are different jobs, and without providing new skills, we will never fill them.

Read more about ethics and IT

To build communities that are open, inclusive, informed and outward-facing, we also need to provide the digital infrastructure to maintain them. Failure to roll out reliable broadband or mobile access to every part of the country not only hinders business development, but also deprives whole swathes of the population of access to services and support.

Universal connectivity and the skills to use it are now fundamental to a citizen’s participation in the world and we as a society have a duty to provide them. A report by Cable.co.uk in August 2017 showed that the UK’s average broadband speed ranked 31st in the world, behind most of Europe, Thailand and New Zealand. This is not the sign of a global digital leader – and we are running out of time to address it.

Now is the time to stop playing roulette with our country’s future. We need to take the politics out of tech and work across the political divides to stimulate an open and transparent debate with all sectors – public, private and not-for-profit – and to bring the citizen with us in shaping the society of the future.

As Ci’s latest Thought leadership report concluded: “It is not the digital technologies themselves that will shape our future, but the ethical, social and political decisions taken about them and their use. These are decisions taken by citizens, for citizens and should be for the benefit of all within our connected society.”

This was last published in November 2017

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