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Thesis, antithesis and synthesis: A constructive direction for politics and policy after Brexit and Trump

In the heady days of 1989, with communism collapsing and the Cold War seemingly over, the political theorist Francis Fukuyama declared that we were witnessing the "end of history" which had culminated in the triumph of liberal democracy and the free market.

Fukuyama was drawing on the ideas of German philosopher Georg Hegel, but of course, history didn’t come to an end, and, as recent events have shown, the Cold War was just sleeping, not dead.

Now, following the political convulsions of 2016, we’re at a very different turning point, which many are trying to make sense of. I want to suggest that we can again usefully turn to Hegel, but this time to his idea that history evolves in dialectical ways, with successive phases of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.

Hegel implied that we should see history, and progress, not as a straight line but rather as a zigzag, shaped by the ways in which people bump into barriers, or face disappointments, and then readjust their course

This framework fits well with where we stand today. The ‘thesis’ that has dominated mainstream politics for the last generation – and continues to be articulated shrilly by many proponents – is the claim that the combination of globalisation, technological progress and liberalisation empowers the great majority.

The antithesis, which, in part, fuelled the votes for Brexit and Trump, as well as the rise of populist parties and populist authoritarian leaders in Europe and beyond, is the argument that this technocratic combination merely empowers a minority and disempowers the majority of citizens.

A more progressive synthesis - which I will outline - then has to address the flaws of the thesis and the grievances of the antithesis, in fields ranging from education and health to democracy and migration, dealing head on with questions of power and its distribution: questions about who has power, and who feels powerful.


Let’s start with the thesis, which in essence was simple: increasing globalisation and liberalisation, combined with waves of new technology, would empower everyone. The more we acceded to this, the faster the benefits would spread.

Better jobs, more money, greater freedoms, increased opportunities… everyone would be a winner in the end, even if many had to find new skills along the way.

For three decades, this was the message from political and corporate leaders, in speeches and op-eds, conferences and talks. Books by journalists and business gurus breathlessly proclaimed that the world was now flat, borderless and open rendering old attachments irrelevant. It was an article of faith that more openness, and more flow (of capital, people, goods and information) would contribute to the public good.

The internet was a great symbol of this: bringing information and data across boundaries, and connecting huge swathes of the world’s population. Social media would end isolation. Smart machine learning tools would solve problems, with artificial intelligence applied not just to search engines but also to health care, criminal justice, climate change and humanitarian disasters.

The thesis was symbolised in futuristic visions of hypermobility, where fleets of flying cars and drones would overcome barriers of physical distance. As consumers, we’d find goods and services at the beck and call of our mobile devices, while Amazon would drop parcels in our front gardens, taking us to a seamless future where life would become effortless and frictionless.

The optimists could point to extraordinary achievements. The last two generations have seen unprecedented advances in prosperity: dramatic rises in life expectancy (40 years in a century); greater democracy; falls in poverty (to less than 10 per cent of the world population).

Such sunny forecasts were given confidence by the continuing falls in the price of computing and genomics, and by the rising ambitions of hundreds of millions in India, China and elsewhere.

Cost per genome graph

Credit: genome.gov

For the business world the dramatically declining costs of starting a new firm – particularly in the digital economy – offered the prospect of a far more open and inclusive economy, in which you could sell your ideas or wares, taking advantage of platforms, whether from your bedroom or a remote rural area.

Cost to Launch Internet Startup Over Time Graph

Credit: tbkconsult.com

It seemed obvious that we could extrapolate to a future of ever more integration and ever more benefits from floods of new technologies from virtual and augmented reality to gene sequencing.

This was a positive and optimistic story about where the world was going – a story promoted, it has to be acknowledged, by organisations like Nesta – and a story with plenty of hard evidence to support it.

The antithesis

The counter to these arguments was also simple. In its more coherent forms it accepted some of the thesis, but argued that the combination of globalisation, technology and liberalisation empowered a small, wealthy and mobile ‘elite’ but did little or nothing for the majority, and in fact, often damaged their interests, threatening their jobs and communities.

This antithesis found its voice in politics, everyday conversation and social media (and rendered silent the horde of business gurus who were the most ardent advocates of the thesis but have almost disappeared from view).

It claimed that large minorities had seen their income stagnate. Even larger numbers feared that their children would be worse off than them, and probably jobless, thanks to the combination of migration and automation. It could point to trends in technology which continue to be ‘capital-biased’, meaning a declining share of income for labour, compounded by lax treatment of corporate taxation by governments, often run by political parties directly funded by big business and finance.

Declining corporate labour share of income

Credit: OECD

It could show that, to the extent that jobs were being created, they were concentrating in particular areas – those with high levels of graduates – benefitting the highly educated and well-connected but doing little for the low skilled.

The ‘elephant chart’ showed this at a global level: although the poor and middle classes of China and India had seen extraordinary gains in prosperity, and the global rich got richer, the relatively poor of the developed world had seen their income stagnate and even fall. Though the detail could be challenged, the bigger story was clearly accurate.

Elephant chart

Within the rich countries, GDP and productivity growth no longer correlated with job growth – the ‘jaw of the snake’ shown in the diagram below – and now there was the prospect of accelerating jobless growth. In the US for example, in many states the most common job is that of truck driver, a role eminently vulnerable to larger versions of the kind of driverless vehicles that have appeared on the streets of Las Vegas and Pittsburgh.

Productivity and employment US graph

In many countries automation threatens very many jobs. According to the OECD, which has been sceptical of some of the bigger forecasts of job loss, many apparently rich countries have only small proportions of their workforce in the kind of high performance jobs that are least likely to be replaced by machines.

Share of jobs with high performance work practices

In this view, although holders of capital were set to do well, having already prospered massively from the huge infusions of credit that followed the financial crash, the majority of the population, often still on incomes lower than in 2007 and less secure jobs, had little to look forward to.

The effects of these shifts are more than economic. In many countries, precariousness leads to both mental and physical ill-health. In the US, Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton showed the rising mortality rates among middle aged white men in particular, and that ‘deaths of despair’ — suicides, opioids and liver disease — had a strong correlation with votes for Donald Trump.

Mortality rate over time graph

Credit: pnas.org

Peak employment might already have been reached, certainly for some groups (like middle-aged men). A parallel pattern could be seen in global trade: it had been assumed that it was bound to grow but recent data suggests that we may have already passed a moment of peak trade, too.

World trade over time graph

The sense of a turning point, against the thesis, was evident even before Brexit and Trump. In May 2016, Jeff Immelt of General Electric, and one of the world’s most thoughtful CEOs, said:

"The globalisation I knew, based on trade and global integration, is changing, which is why it’s time for a bold pivot. And, in the face of a protectionist global environment… we will localise… We are going through a transformational change in globalisation, which will require fresh, new thinking."

Technology was another battle-ground where apparently remorseless trends might be turning around. The technologies that were meant to empower us could easily now be seen as the enemy of freedom and opportunity.

The internet was meant to be for everyone, but was instead dominated by a handful of mega-companies that sell our data without our conscious consent. Billboards that read your face not just for your age, gender and ethnicity but also for your degree of attention, are good symbols of this fusion of capitalism and 1984, in which the public are only passive disempowered consumers.

At the very least, it’s clear that the central economic and technological promise of the thesis was not delivered for large minorities.

But the problem wasn’t only economic. For two generations it seemed obvious that democracy was the only plausible governing model for advanced societies, and that its competitors (fascism, communism, dictatorship) had been defeated for good. Now that confidence has been shaken.

In the old democracies, where the forms of democracy have changed little since the 19th century, large minorities have lost faith not just in politicians and political institutions, but even in democracy itself. This is particularly true among younger age groups.

Responses over time graph

For pessimists, there were plenty of other reasons to worry. It had previously been possible to point to the inexorable spread of science, facts and evidence. But the rise of social media provided echo chambers of lies as well as truth, and popular politicians took pride in their contempt for consistency and accuracy.

It had also seemed obvious that the world was becoming ever healthier. But now we were seeing a growing risk of epidemics and pandemics and the threat of rising antimicrobial resistance which could threaten tens of millions of lives by the mid-century (the topic of Nesta’s Longitude Prize), in part an effect of a much more connected world with far more travel.

After a period when large parts of the world thought that war was a thing of the past, confrontation between heavily armed, technologically advanced countries is a serious prospect again, with Russia a belligerent aggressor around Europe, and China flexing its muscles.

All of these shifts affected large parts of the world. But they were probably most unsettling for Europe, which once thought of itself as the centre of the world. Now it’s becoming marginal, with a share of the global population shrinking rapidly during this century, as the power centres of economics, politics and, in time, culture, shift to Africa and Asia.

Population distribution across the continents 1950-2100

Credit: geohive.com

The net result of all of these trends is anxiety and powerlessness. People were promised that the currents of change, economic, social and technological, would make them feel powerful. Instead, they see decisions being made by political and corporate leaders ever further away from them. They feel like observers, not participants.

Trust in the powerful

One response is to solve the problem by projecting our hopes on to powerful leaders who can promise to fix things. Our powerlessness is solved vicariously through faith, as has happened so often in human history. And so we see the rising tide of populist authoritarian nationalism in almost every region of the world, in the US (Trump), Russia (Putin) and parts of Europe (Marine Le Pen to Alternativ fur Deutschland), echoed in China under Xi, India under Modi and Japan under Abe.

Other countries have yet to follow them, but with polling suggesting that large majorities believe their countries to be heading in the ‘wrong direction’, it’s easy to see how that list could extend quickly.

Countries 'right or wrong' direction poll

These authoritarian leaders are less afraid of state action. But a return to hierarchy and deference is unlikely to be an adequate response. And recent experience with populist leaders has been disappointing.

So how should we respond? What is a more constructive response to the current situation?

Simply to assert the old thesis ever more stridently doesn’t work, though it has been a comforting response for many media outlets, thought leaders and politicians. Instead, we need to design a new synthesis, which, in true Hegelian fashion, readapts the thesis in light of the antithesis.

It needs to avoid both nostalgia and the fetishisation of globalisation and technological advance as ends in themselves, rather than as means. And it needs to take seriously the complaints of the bypassed and excluded, the hundreds of millions who feel left behind in a slow lane while the rest of the world hurtles off into a future that’s not for them.

Do away with zombie orthodoxies

A starting point should be a ruthless willingness to do away with zombie orthodoxies. An oddity of the modern world is that policy approaches that don’t work often survive because of inertia.

Here is Paul Romer, newly appointed Chief Economist of the World Bank, September 2016, speaking candidly about the limits of his own profession:

“For more than three decades, macroeconomics has gone backwards…. respect for highly regarded leaders evolves into a deference to authority that displaces objective fact from its position as the ultimate determinant of scientific truth.”

Similar comments could be made about many other fields, or indeed about political parties that so easily get trapped in their own zombie orthodoxies, certainties that survive decades longer than they deserve to.

The spread of evidence is to be welcomed. But it still barely touches many areas of politics and policy, and so out of date ideas continue to dominate long after they have ceased working.

The power test and the potential test

Having cleared the way, we then need new ideas which are rooted in empathy for the many who feel disempowered, and help design practical solutions which use the best of the thesis and don’t ignore its extraordinary successes, but respond energetically to its failings.

At the heart of that needs to be a new approach to power. If the main source of the strident antithesis is a sense of disempowerment then this is where an alternative has to start – not only to shifting power to the people, but also ensuring that people feel that power as well.

We need, in short, to apply a power test to each area of public policy: do policies adequately share power? Are they designed in ways that will help people to feel power over their own lives?

A related test is needed for economic policy. How do different economic policies make the most of the available resources in a society – particularly the human resources that could be contributing to the creation of value?

In what follows, I briefly map out some of the answers in a dozen areas of policy, that stretch from education through health and democracy to the ways government works.

Education that grows makers and shapers

Every survey of current and future skills needs in the workforce confirms that education has to be about more than the transmission of knowledge, important as this is. It needs to also cultivate the ability to solve problems, to work in teams, to create and invent.

That’s why we need schooling models that give young people experience of agency, making the world around them rather than just observing it. Education that passes the power test will also be better aligned with the needs of the economy and social mobility.

This was one reason why Nesta has put so much emphasis on learning to code – not just because of the direct value, but also because of the indirect value of learning how to be a maker not just a consumer. Project-based learning, entrepreneurship embedded into schooling – the sort of models promoted by High Tech High in the US, Lumiar in Brazil or Studio Schools in England – are a response to feelings of disempowerment. They are also aligned with what we know labour markets will be demanding in the future – more ability to work in teams, solve problems, and create (the subject of a major Nesta/Pearson project looking at future skills needs in the US and UK).

This should be obvious. But education policy in many countries is running in an opposite direction.

Top 10 skills 2015-2020

Adult skills taken seriously

Few doubt that millions of jobs will either disappear or change as a result of automation, from manufacturing to services and the professions. As that reality dawns, attention will turn to adult education and retraining, to help the millions at risk of losing their jobs adapt to growing industries.

Our problem is that the systems for supporting lifelong learning are largely broken. Despite great traditions – from the WEA to the Open University – the current system is demoralized and suffering from neglect, not to mention a 40 per cent cut in funding since 2010.

If they want to fix this problem, governments will need to do three things. One is to provide funding and new entitlements. Singapore and France are showing the way. Both are offering adults personal accounts with which they can buy training (SkillsFuture in Singapore, and in France the Compte Personnel de Formation). The scales are quite modest – 150 hours in France and $500 in Singapore – but the numbers are set to rise.

Tax changes are also needed. Some countries (again, including Singapore) use the tax system to encourage firms to invest more in their lower paid workers.

Public finance is also likely to be needed to help people on low incomes take time out of work to upgrade their skills – watch out for proposals on rights to study leave.

For those rights to be useful, there’ll then be a need for better help, so that people can choose the right courses, perhaps through new national agencies or services. There are many tools to help people assess their own skills, and discover what skills they need to get a new job. The Nesta supported Skills Route app is a great example of a data-driven tool for guiding teenagers. But a much bolder, comprehensive and publicly-supported solution is needed; providing information and advice as a commons rather than a private service, and combining online help with funding for mentors and coaches.

Where there are gaps, governments will have to show that they know how to fill them. Much is already known about some of these – like the glaring shortage of skills in fields like data. Some of the gaps will be filled with new online courses. In the UK, Ufi’s Learn Direct was about two decades ahead of its time, with an online platform providing a wide range of short and longer courses, alongside local centres.

Futurelearn is a recent example, which emerged out of universities, and now has over five million users, despite, at best, lukewarm support from government. No country has got this right, though Scandinavia has some fine traditions of adult education. But some countries including the UK have got this particularly wrong. That now needs to change.

People powered health

Similar considerations apply in health. We need the best possible healthcare, provided by experts using the best available technologies. But we also need patients and the public to take more power and responsibility for their own health.

The many projects we’ve supported under the label ‘people powered health’ show what this means in practice: how to support self-management; peer to peer learning. We’ve shown how digital technologies can amplify feelings of power over health, and how people with Parkinsons or Dementia can become more active in shaping research and practice.

There are now plausible alternative visions of future healthcare – with much less activity centred in large hospitals; much more care at home or at the workplace; much more use of technology, genomics; and much more mobilisation of social resources to help.

Much of this should be obvious. But the way healthcare is presented, and argued about in politics, leaves the public as angry, disempowered observers, watching on as hospitals are shut or services are changed, rather than as collaborators.

Welfare to address risk and precarity

All over the world welfare is in flux, and for very different reasons. I’ve set out elsewhere in detail some of the reforms I see as needed.

The crucial question is whether welfare addresses the most important current needs, and whether it uses the most effective current tools. In many countries, welfare fails both tests. It doesn’t adequately address burgeoning needs for eldercare, or security in precarious labour markets. And it makes little use of digital tools that could make it feasible for governments to offer a much wider range of financial supports, including loans repaid over the lifetime.

The current experiments in basic income in Finland, the Netherlands and Canada are welcome in showing a willingness to think more creatively. My fear is that they don’t address the most important risks and needs, and may not be legitimate. They are a standardised response to needs that are, by their nature, very varied (thanks to varied family size, levels of disability, age etc).

Although basic income is the wrong answer to the right question, we need more, not less experiment, and parts of the answer will probably look quite like a basic income, but aimed at particular groups

Some of that experiment could point the way to a more comprehensive national care service that provides transparent, comprehensible rights to care for the frail elderly.

Creativity is also needed around precarity: for example, in 19 of the OECD countries, the self-employed are not entitled to unemployment benefit; in 10 they are not insured for accidents. New tools to insure against and pool risk are clearly needed as the digital economy fragments the very nature of work.

Open and inclusive innovation

Dynamic innovation has to play a decisive role in creating new opportunities and jobs. But some rightly fear that, done wrong, it can widen divisions, with a wealthy few in small clusters enjoying unprecedented opportunities, with little trickle down or out. That’s why many countries need to consider how to make innovation policy both more dynamic and more inclusive.

An important recent study (‘The Lifecycle of Inventors’ by Alex Bell and others at MIT, LSE and NBER), demonstrated this in relation to inventive capacity. Analysing 1.2m inventors in the US over a 20 year period, it showed the very strong correlation between parental influence, direct experience of invention, and quality of schooling and the likelihood of a child ending up as an inventor.

Children born into wealthy families, where the parents had direct involvement in science and technology, were far more likely to become inventors themselves. The implication was that the majority of bright childrens’ potential was going to waste, which led the researchers to argue that, shifting public resources from tax incentives towards subsidising more opportunities for invention in early childhood, would amplify the creative and economic potential of the US.

The study also showed geographical effects: growing up in an area with a large, and innovative industry, made it more likely that children would become inventors.

Children test scores, high vs low income

A related shift has been the growth of ways of innovation funding that involve the public in testing new technologies and adjusting them accordingly. Seoul’s Innovation Testbed is one good model as are Nesta’s Longitude and Longitude Explorer.

So far, policy in the UK and many other countries has not moved in this direction. Innovation policy is primarily about big companies, top universities and research centres. These will inevitably dominate. But if they monopolise money and attention, it’s hardly surprising that the public will feel that the future is being done to them rather than for them.

The fourth industrial revolution reoriented to needs that matter

The idea of a fourth industrial revolution has been in play for 20 years. It usually refers to a convergence and interpenetration of digital technologies, bio, nano, info and things. It’s a catch-all for many different technological trends – from prosthetic devices to the Internet of Things and new models of advanced manufacturing.

On the present trajectory, the 4IR promises great benefits. But it also risks leading to a widening divide between vanguards and the rest, accelerating job destruction ahead of job creation; and introducing potentially big threats to personal privacy and cybersecurity.

Most of the investment and inputs that are shaping the development of 4IR technologies are coming from the military and traditional industries, and some of the most visible ideas associated with the 4IR reflect the problem that so many resources are spent addressing trivial needs rather than fundamental ones (symbolised by fridges that tell you when you need to buy more milk and juice).

So how could this path be shifted? How could the benefits of extraordinary new technological possibilities be spread more widely?

How could many more people have the opportunity to be makers and shapers, entrepreneurs and innovators of this revolution, rather than passive observers?

Some of the answers lie in using the powerful new platforms of the 21st century to use resources far more efficiently. The existing sharing economy models point the way: not just the commercial variants like Uber and AirBnB but also many more citizen owned ones like Peerby and Streetbank, or the cooperatives being promoted in Bologna. We’ve shown how similar ideas can be used in the public sector – for example, to mobilise volunteer emergency services to enhance the health service (as in GoodSam).

In principle, platforms of this kind can greatly increase utilisation rates across society and the economy – mobilising not just things (land, buildings, vehicles) but also people in more efficient ways. But to get there requires fresh thinking about regulation, about supply chains, taxation and law. It takes us to new ideas like Sweden’s recently introduced tax breaks for maintenance of goods – an attempt to shift the economy away from waste, while also creating jobs; and to some of the technological possibilities around blockchain. But the promise is an economy that can create value, and opportunities, for many more people than before.

Democracy upgraded

The most problematic part of the current situation is the stagnation of democracy: the view that all politicians are corrupt and self-interested. This fuels the passive anger of electorates, who then revert to faith in populist leaders as the solution to disempowerment.

The alternative is to reshape democracy so that it does provide more genuine power to citizens. That’s not easy, and there have been many false starts and false promises of push-button instant democracy

But there are now many examples of more considered, practical routes to empowerment.

Nesta’s DCENT project showed in countries across Europe how this could work. The project provides free, open source tools that enable citizens to be kept informed on the subjects that matter to them (eg when their local council or parliament is debating a topic); allow them to propose and debate ideas and legislation; and provide voting opportunities and scrutiny of implementation.

There are many similar examples around the world. Better Reykjavik has had hundreds of thousands of users – proposing and voting on improvements to the public realm. Paris has a large participatory budgeting scheme, as does Portugal at a national level. Taiwan has shown how many more people can be brought rapidly into decision-making.

The best of these schemes make government more like a collaborative, reflective process of deliberation rather than a permanent referendum. They have the virtue of not only involving the public but also educating them along the way, so, for example, the trade-offs of any decision can be made clear. Reforms to upgrade democracy must be part of the new synthesis too, as a counter to the trends towards a democracy built around spin, deceit and bluster.

Data and the internet

The management of data isn’t yet at the top of the political agenda. But it’s an issue that is bound to become more central – partly because data now plays such a big role in the economy and partly because it has become so central to the ways we live our lives.

The Internet and world wide web were born out of the hope that they could, in the words of Tim Berners Lee, be for everyone. An open, free and shared resource. Some of that original spirit survives but much of today’s reality is very different.

Power has been consolidated in a very small number of commercial firms. Amazon intermediates our relationship to products; Facebook our friendships; Google our relationship to information. They’ve grown huge thanks to business models that rely substantially on how they use and sell your data, and network effects which mean that the ones that first became big then tended to become enormous, because the marginal cost of another user was so much lower for them than for their competitors.

That’s why we live in a world where the dominance of the big Silicon Valley firms is so much greater than their equivalents in previous industrial eras

As consumers, we’ve done well out of a deal that offered us free services in exchange for handing over our data. But such consolidation of power is problematic in all sorts of ways. Our most important infrastructures are now unaccountable, driven by incentives that are often against our interests (we’re not their customers, but rather a commodity which they sell). We have very little control over our own data.

Meanwhile, much of the potential value of the Internet is not being realised because it doesn’t fit the dominant business models.

That’s why the search for very different models of the internet is bound to become more prominent over the next few years, and will involve power.

How can citizens control more of the data that matters to them? How can these great new infrastructures be more accountable? My paper on new data commons sets out some of the potential answers in more detail.

Migration and democracy

Feelings of loss of control have had a big influence on the drive to populist authoritarianism. Many people feel that they have no control over migration; that their communities and places have been taken away from them.

There’s clearly a tension between democracy and open borders. Democracy means a community having control over who is welcomed in and on what terms. But the more ardent advocates of the thesis often sought to override democracy – and treated free movement as an absolute principle, even though in practice it has always been qualified.

We know a lot about what makes people belong. All humans are well designed to read the feedback messages from their environment about whether they are at home or not

We can spot whether the labour market can offer jobs to people like us; whether politics speaks in our language; whether public culture reflects our values and interests; or whether policing and other public services reflect our needs.

When the messages are negative, people feel insecure and that they don’t belong. That’s what happens to many new minorities. But it’s also increasingly been the experience of older working class communities which consequently feel a sense of loss and rejection. This paper on belonging – and the practical ways it can be nurtured – provides some practical pointers for local and national governments.

The new synthesis will have to include more overt democratic control over the terms of migration: who comes and on what terms, whether as worker, student, tourist or patient. The only kinds of democracy we know are based in places and so it’s not surprising that control over place is so important to feelings of empowerment.

Democracies can – and should – choose to be generous to refugees and attend to the suffering of the world. But the key is that these have to be choices consciously made, not imposed from outside.

Government experimentation and adaptation

To achieve ambitious goals and restore trust, government itself needs to be upgraded. One of the disappointing features of the current wave of authoritarian populists is that they appear to have few, if any, ideas about how to improve the machinery of government – and often want to turn the clock back.

Yet this is a time when almost every aspect of government can be improved: changing how they use intangible resources like data, information and knowledge; using money in more creative ways; tapping into public expertise to shape and adapt policy.

Our recent paper on collective intelligence showed some of the tools being used by governments around the world – and a far more attractive future picture for government than posturing populism.

In various other publications – all based on practical experience – we’ve spelled out what some of these options are, from finance to evidence, structures to innovation, and they must surely form part of a new synthesis that promises a government that is more in touch with the public and also more efficient.

Topic: Nesta examples/materials on website

  1. Finance: Finance for Impact on innovations in public finance, new tools from crowdfunding to SIBs loans, equity, convertible funds
  2. Organisation of structures: Rewiring the brain etc and recommendations on organising national and city governments
  3. Innovation teams: I-teams, Lab Guides, DIY etc – digital, user-centred design etc
  4. Experiment: Use of RCTs; experiments teams in govts
  5. Adoption and diffusion: Various guides to scaling, adoption and implementation; financial incentives for adoption
  6. Democracy and citizen engagement: DCENT etc and surveys of democratic innovation globally
  7. Government operating systems: Government as collective intelligence
  8. Evidence: Alliance for Useful Evidence; What Works network
  9. Commissioning: Art of Exit; guides for commissioners
  10. Savings:12 economies framework
  11. Data: Guide to data, Open Data Challenges, Offices of Data analytics
  12. Crowd-sourcing: Challenge prizes
  13. City strategy: CITIE framework
  14. Systems change: Studies on systemic innovation; rapid results methods

New platforms and infrastructures for the public

An important example of revamped government can be found in the new options for bold action to create fundamental infrastructures that make life easier for their citizens. In recent years, infrastructures have been privatised, broken up and regulated, sometimes successfully and sometimes at a high cost.

But there are many infrastructural roles that only government can perform, and over the next few years we may see much more activism as this is recognised. A good recent example is India’s creation of a universal ID card, with biometric identity.

Now in use by well over a billion people, it has massively opened up financial services for the very poor. It also appears to be cutting corruption of all kinds and is experienced as empowering. Countries such as Singapore and Denmark have created personal accounts for citizens, making possible much more creative ways of providing welfare.

Another set of examples were described in Nesta’s report on opening up central banking to offer cheaper mortgages and other financial products to the public.

Both the UID and these ideas offer a potential future in which governments can offer much more flexible kinds of welfare – lending money for a first home, new skills, university degrees, with repayments through the tax system spread over a full working life. Done right, these can greatly enhance freedom, economic security and feelings of power.

These are just a few building blocks of what could become new syntheses. They are far from comprehensive. There will also need to be more attention to tax – including fairer taxation of business and wealth to respond to class and generational imbalances

We may also need to return to the role of the state as employer of last resort, though the challenge will be to create work that has respect and dignity.

Cybersecurity is bound to become more visible as an issue. And overhanging everything may be a more aggressive geopolitical climate, with more direct attacks by nations such as Russia on the institutions of the democratic west.

Fleshing out programmes of this kind won’t be easy. But this is the serious work that must start. It requires us to think dialectically, achieving a balance between conflicting ideas, rather than taking them to their logical conclusions, the consistent mistake of the more extreme partisans of globalisation.

It also requires us to reject the opposite option - simply caving into ugly, regressive ideas which are at odds with the best values of tolerance, enlightenment and compassion.

There’s plenty of political space in between, space that aligns with the values and interests of most of the public in most democracies. As John Maynard Keynes famously said: “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, Sir?” Now some, at least, of the facts have changed. The big question is who will adapt quickest to this new reality.


Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Geoff Mulgan

Chief Executive Officer

Geoff Mulgan was Chief Executive of Nesta from 2011-2019.

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