Can technology save the day for Brexit? (*Spoilers* : No)

If you happen to be an ardent Brexiteer, a true believer in the UK government’s desire for “innovative solutions” to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, we have good news for you. The technology exists to do the job and save the day for you.

For a start, there’s what your friends in IT call the “internet of things”, which means sensors on containers transporting goods across the Irish land border; sensors on the delivery vehicles; sensors tracking temperature, humidity, and other essential quality indicators; sensors on the goods themselves; sensors on animals – maybe even sensors on people (which of course they already have in their smartphones).

A well-designed customs and border software system would sit behind all this data, offering simple transactions for companies and individuals that need to cross the border, providing the basis of an infrastructure to deal with the majority of the challenges that a hard border presents. You might even be able to develop an app. Maybe you can use blockchain, and some “artificial intelligence“. You would probably still need some manual elements in the process, but largely, the problem is solvable. (Let’s not worry for now about the dozens of existing government IT systems you would need to interface to or integrate with – you know, details).

Excited?

This may be admittedly a very high-level description, but the oft-touted (mostly) frictionless border is a technological possibility, of that there is no doubt.

If you are a Remainer, or at least a not-so-hard Brexiteer searching for common sense among the casual frippery promoted by the likes of foreign secretary Boris Johnson, here’s your counter argument to the proposal above.

It won’t work. But you know that already.

Why not? Well, it will probably be able to work one day, but even with the best will in the world – and the best technologists, and a very large amount of money – it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

Technology can do some amazing things. But if government should have learned anything from its various IT woes over the years, to do something new, untried, untested, at large scale, and especially in a two to three year timeframe (assuming the UK and EU agree a transition deal to the end of 2020) – it isn’t going to happen.

Frankly, if they agree a transition deal to 2025, it won’t happen either. 2030? Maybe – probably not though.

Remember the NHS National Programme for IT, which started out as a three-year project? How about Universal Credit, due to be fully implemented by 2016? What about e-Borders, kicked off in 2003 and still not implemented? Let’s not worry for now about the billions of pounds wasted on just those three.

The government will, at some point, have to face the fact that technology is not going to save them. If anything, IT is more likely to sink them.

We already know that HM Revenue & Customs alone needs to update 24 IT systems to be ready for Brexit – and doesn’t yet know what it needs to be ready for. We also know that the average duration of a modern, small-scale, well-defined digital project in Whitehall is two years – excluding large-scale transformation programmes, of which Brexit will require many. Oh, and government is already short of about 4,000 digital workers before even considering Brexit.

Should we also point out that the sort of tech implementation described above has never been done, at such scale, anywhere in the world? Presumably a post-Brexit Britain will develop that ingenuity and capability as soon as we leave the EU. Praise be.

Brexiteers – thanks for your faith in what technology can do for you. Just don’t think for a minute it will be able to do what you want it to do anytime soon.

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