Wednesday 11 January 2017

What will the UK be like in the 2020s?

A report from the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR), which bills itself as the UK’s ‘leading progressive think-tank,’ was released at the end of 2016. Entitled ‘Future proof: Britain in the 2020s,’ the report tries to forecast the state of the nation up until 2030. Brexit, of course, features heavily in what the report describes as ‘firing the starting gun on a decade of disruption,’ that will lead to five powerful trends that will drive change in the UK in the 2020s.

These trends are:

A demographic tipping point: As the population grows, the UK is set to age sharply and become increasingly diverse. Globally, the long expansion of the working-age population is set to slow sharply.

An economic world transformed: The economic world order will become more fragile as globalisation evolves, trade patterns shift, and economic power gravitates toward Asia. At the same time, developed economies are likely to struggle to escape conditions of secular stagnation. The institutions governing the global economy are likely to come under intense pressure as the American hegemony that underpinned the post-war international order fades and the Global South rises in economic and geopolitical importance.

Brexit – the aftershock: The economic implications of Brexit are likely to put the country on a lower growth, lower investment trajectory, worsening the public finances, with important consequences for the UK’s economy and living standards. Migration is likely to become more controlled. At the same time, politics – long subservient to a liberalising economic consensus – is likely to become increasingly assertive in seeking to reshape Brexit Britain.

Technological transformation – between Star Trek and the Matrix: Exponential improvements in new technologies – computing power, machine learning, artificial intelligence systems, automation, autonomous vehicles, health and resource technologies, and the Internet of Things, among others – are expected to radically transform social and economic life. These changes have the potential to create an era of widespread abundance, or a second machine age that radically concentrates economic power. Which path we take – a future between Star Trek and the Matrix – will depend on the type of politics and institutions we build.

The shock of the Anthropocene – instability in an age of natural systems decay: Climate change, biodiversity degradation, and resource depletion mean we will increasingly run up against the limits of the physical capacity of the Earth’s natural systems to reproduce life as at present. The natural constraints of the Anthropocene age – our new geological era in which humans are the primary shaper of the Earth’s ecology and ecosystems – will force us to build a collective, democratic politics of restraint. The alternative is systemic degradation in ecosystems and rising inequalities in the years ahead.

Brexit complicates things more, but these changes would have happened anyway, so this not necessarily an anti-Brexit report, and here I would like to look at the technological changes in particular.

The report forecasts that technology will advance to the point that (in the UK and other western nations):        
  • Developments in automation, machine learning and general systems artificial intelligence could transform the workforce, and create new and as yet unimagined occupations.
  • By 2030 robots or smart machines are forecast to have on average an IQ higher than 99% of humans. The explosion in non-human intelligence has enormous economic potential, while also raising profound political and ethical questions.
  • A surge in autonomous or near autonomous vehicles is forecast by 2030, becoming ubiquitous by the mid-2030s. This will transform transport systems, urban design, and personal mobility.
  • The development of 3D printing will change the economics of manufacturing, reducing role of labour costs in location decisions, and increasing the importance of proximity to the customer. Additive manufacturing will create networks of microfactories akin to craft guilds, but with modern manufacturing capabilities, with radical discontinuities in trade as need for global supply chain eliminated.
  • Emergence of ‘smart factories’ cyber-physical systems and decentralised models of production. 
Although these developments will mean that economic and social change will be massive, it doesn’t need to be bad. In an echo of Murray Bookchin’s book ‘Post Scarcity Anarchism’, the report suggests that if handled fairly, they could lead to an improvement in the lifestyles of all citizens.

Many jobs will be lost, and although new ones will be created, 15 million of our current jobs are at risk of disappearing and there are likely to be less jobs overall. But how this is managed is very much a political choice. Technology is neutral, it is political and cultural forces that will determine who benefits.

As the report says:

This will require new models of ownership, higher wage floors to incentivize automation and boost the wage share, an education system that promotes creativity and skills that complement machines, a shorter working week to fairly share productivity gains, and potentially a universal basic income to supplement labour market income.

The report suggests that a new ‘social’-ism could shape how this change is managed, through democratic ownership of our collective national data. Data being the most precious resource, in the brave new world of the future. Common ownership of this data, will be as important as the physical infrastructure of the nineteenth century and the welfare state of the twentieth century, in policy terms.

The ‘Internet of Things,’ for example, will have a value of $11.1 trillion a year by 2025.Though this could lead to private network monopolies, and be analogous to the enclosure of the commons in the nineteenth century, so it will raise questions around the ownership and control of data and technology.

The report concludes by saying:

It will require building a new ‘common sense’ that reclaims a different type of modernity to that envisioned by neoliberalism – one that deepens and broadens economic and social freedom for everyone, not just a privileged few. This will require collectively shaping social, economic and technological change to extend democracy and deepen human flourishing, creating institutions that harness the growing power of technology to promote shared abundance, and building a common life that rewards purpose and kindness.

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