The publicity material for this event gave me reason to look forward to it:
Party politics no longer seems to be about clear ideological differences, or indeed any kind of substantial debate reflecting competing visions for a better society. Nonetheless, many pressing issues remain unresolved.
So though it might be tempting to write off mainstream politics as irrelevant, and to take a ‘none of the above’ position in the coming election, this can only feed the pervasive cynicism about the possibility of social change and progress. History has not gone on standby, but continues to throw up new challenges.
The Institute of Ideas wants to take the opportunity of this election to re-enfranchise the electorate and put each candidate on the spot by asking them to declare where they stand on a range of key questions.
And yes, there were some worthy discussions during the day:
- The electorate seem still to be deeply interested in political matters, even though they are alienated from existing political parties and politicians;
- Changing the way voting takes place might engender better discussion and buy-in from the electorate to the political process;
- The ever growing costs of the welfare state – coupled with our current financial shortfalls – mean that some significant change is needed in how the welfare state operates;
- Insights from social sciences (such as behavioural economics) possibly have at least some role to play in improving political governance;
- Wider adoption of evidence-based policy – where appropriate – probably will also improve governance.
However, at the end of the day, I felt underwhelmed by what had taken place.
For example: at the event, the Institute of Ideas had launched their “21 pledges for progress 2010“. This included the following gems:
- Limit the police’s power to detain people without charge to 24 hours rather than 28 days, in the interests of civil liberties and due process.
- Declare an amnesty for all illegal immigrants presently in the UK, whether asylum seekers or economic migrants, in the interests of recognising the positive aspirations of those who seek to improve their lives by moving countries.
- Open the borders, revoking all immigration controls, in the interests of the free movement of citizens.
- Get rid of police Tsars and unelected ‘experts’ from government decision-making in the interests of parliamentary sovereignty and democratic accountability.
- Abolish the monarchy and the House of Lords in the interests of a fully elected legislature and executive.
- Direct state funding of schools into providing universal access to the highest standard of education in academic subjects, rather than politicised cross curricular themes like sustainability or citizenship, in the interests of passing on real knowledge to our children.
I applaud the Institute of Ideas for catalysing debate on a series of important topics, but I saw little evidence of political ideas that are likely to deservedly capture the imagination and the enthusiasm of the electorate.
The material I liked best, from what was on display, was something entitled “The London Manifesto for Innovation”, created by a group called “The Big Potatoes“. This made the following assertions:
- We should “think big” about the potential of innovation, since there’s a great deal that innovation can accomplish;
- Rather than “small is beautiful” we should keep in mind the slogan “scale is beautiful”;
- We should seek more than just a continuation of the “post-war legacy of innovation” – that’s only the start;
- Breakthrough innovations are driven by new technology – so we should prioritise the enablement of new technology;
- Innovation is hard work and an uphill struggle – so we need to give it our full support;
- Innovation arises from pure scientific research as well as from applied research – both are needed;
- Rather than seeking to avoid risk or even to manage risk, we have to be ready to confront risk;
- Great innovation needs great leaders of innovation, to make it happen;
- Instead of trusting regulations, we should be ready to trust people;
- Markets, sticks, carrots and nudges are no substitute for what innovation itself can accomplish.
I’d like to build on these insights, with some concrete suggestions. These are suggestions for items that should become national priorities – items that deserve a larger amount of attention, analysis, resourcing, and funding. Borrowing some of the “big potatoes” language, I see these items as potentially having major impact over the next 10-20 years. As such, they deserve to be national priorities during the decade ahead.
I’m not sure exactly what belongs on this list of national priorities, and look forward to feedback. But here’s an initial proposal:
- Preventive medicine – since the costs of prevention will in many cases dwarf the cost of cures;
- Anti-aging treatments – an important special case of the previous point;
- Better than well – just as there are many benefits to avoiding ill-health, there are many benefits to promoting super-health;
- Cognitive enhancement and intelligence augmentation – to help everyone to become smarter and more sociable (both individually and collectively);
- Artificial general intelligence – an important special case of the previous point;
- Improved rationality (overcoming biases, in all their forms) – another important special case of the same point;
- Freedom from fundamentalism – diminishing the hold of dogma, whether from “scripture” or “tradition” or “prophets”;
- Education about accelerating technology – so people become fully aware of the opportunities, risks, context, and options;
- Robotics supporting humans – providing unmatched strength, precision, and diligence;
- Nanotechnology – the use of atom-level engineering to create highly useful new materials, compounds, and tools;
- Synthetic biology – techniques of software and manufacturing applied to biology, with huge benefits for health;
- Largescale clean energy – whether solar, nuclear, or whatever;
- Patent system reform – to address aspects of intellectual property law where innovation and collaboration are being hindered rather than helped;
- Smart market regulation – to handle pressures where social forces lead to market failures rather than genuinely useful products;
- Expansion of voluntary enterprise (the domain of not-for-profit contribution) – since not everything good is driven by financial motivation;
- Expansion of human autonomy – supporting greater choice and experience – in both virtual and physical reality;
- New measures of human accomplishment – an attractive vision that supersedes economic measures such as GDP;
- Geo-engineering capability – to equip us with tools to wisely restructure the planet (and more).
The list is driven by my beliefs that:
- Humanity in the 21st century is facing both enormous challenges and enormous opportunities – “business as usual” is not sustainable;
- Wise application of technology is the factor that will make the single biggest difference to successfully addressing these challenges and opportunities;
- If we get things right, human experience in just a few decades time will be very substantially better than it is today – for all people, all over the world;
- However, there’s nothing inevitable about any of this;
- Getting things right will require us becoming smarter and more effective than ever before – but, thankfully, that is within our grasp;
- This is worth shouting about!
Footnote: Some people say that big political ideas are dangerous, and that a focus on effective political management, pursuing pragmatic principles, is far preferable to ideology. I sympathise with this viewpoint, and share an apprehension of ideology. But provided rationality remains at the forefront, and provided people remain open to discussion and persuasion, I see great value in vision and focus.