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Tech & Digitalisation

Ending the centre’s Great Malaise

Commentary7th January 2021

The centre of politics has for too long been too beset by the tyranny of low expectations. Too wrapped up in opposing what they believe to be the misguided beliefs of the right and left, many continue to perform acts of political recidivism, using old playbooks and unable to form a new vision of hope.  

Previous shocks to the system, including the Trump victory in the US and Brexit in the UK, have not been enough to inspire new ideas and a new vision of modernity and fight back the rip tides of nationalism that continue to pull people in. Put bluntly, the centre has failed to respond or to connect with people; whether to address their fears or to help them believe their aspirations are possible. It still looks like a vote for the status quo, rather than having a coherent vision for what the future might hold. 

But current events should finally be a catalyst. Because amid the turmoil and tragedy of Covid-19, the pandemic has shone further light on the weakness and strengths of our society and our institutions. There needs to be a forensic reappraisal of all elements of our systems, but three major themes have stood out, and must be at the centre of liberal politics today.  

Chapter 1

Accelerating innovation

The first is that science and technology are fundamental to addressing today’s challenges. They include health, where new solutions are needed to improve the quantity and quality of people’s lives; energy so that we can realistically achieve net zero, while maintaining living standards; and food so that we can sustainably feed the world. A greater focus on building a culture of growth and innovation, which means developing the foundations through science and then encouraging the development and diffusion of technology, will be critical in propelling nations forward in the future. 

This has been apparent during the current crisis, where those most able to adapt to – and even thrive economically – have been the people and companies of the internet age. The most prominent example is Amazon, whose stock rose more than 60% last year. But 2020 was also a record year for European tech investment and a bumper year for IPOs in the US. Snowflake, Unity, DoorDash, Airbnb and Palantir were among some of most notable, capping a record year.  

The life sciences royalties company Royal Pharma, the cell-based therapies firm Legend, and the precision medicine business Relay have also had large offerings, as part of a wider flourishing in an industry of the future: biotech. This a sector still dominated by the US – including through more than $40bn in R&D expenditure through the NIH – but it is increasingly coming of age in Europe and China and gaining greater attention in India.  

The headline act, however, has been the speed of development of vaccines, while the breakthroughs in mRNA vaccines are a culmination of decades of scientific endeavour in this field. The Moderna vaccine was designed in just two days, by 13 January 2020, which is an extraordinary feat. But it should also be recognised that it is the confluence of other successes in science and innovation policy and commercialisation too: sequencing data being made accessible via GISAID so quickly and the dramatic fall in the cost of sequencing since the Human Genome Project.  

But more widely in 2020, DeepMind has made a significant leap forward in protein folding, opening up new possibilities in synthetic biology and drug discovery, while the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier for their work on genome editing. Commonly referred to as CRISPR, the gene-editing toolbox is developing rapidly, opening up the possibility for us to interact with biology in the same way we do computers.  

As a16z’s Vijay Pande writes in our “Tech Moonshots: Big Ideas for a Brighter Future” piece, we can now use “biology itself to solve not just one but all of our worst biological problems,” including in health. This presents profound possibilities, which if translated into products, can shift the curve. For example, in response to Robert Gordon’s brilliantly pessimistic book on slowing productivity The Rise and Fall of American Growth,  Bill Gates wrote: 

"Think of a cure for Alzheimer’s. That disease costs the U.S. $236 billion per year, mostly to Medicare and Medicaid. A cure would immediately alter the budget of every state in the country, not to mention millions of lives." 

So even if it is slightly a leap into the unknown, it is one we should take. Policymakers should therefore be creating the environment to accelerate innovation in this space, including creating the right data ecosystem. This was a key element of the Cancer Moonshot that President-elect Biden announced when he was the vice president, but as we have seen as a result of the pandemic, health is a common collective goal and will require efforts such as these at a global scale.  

The benefits of biotech also go beyond health and extend into energy and food, two areas that should be fundamental to progressive politics. The well-being of our planet and of a society in which many still go hungry should concern us all. In the former, it is clear that we need an array of innovations in key areas such as storage and generation, with progress in geothermal and the theoretical possibilities of fusion offering hope. In food, technology can potentially transform everything from how we produce, process and even consume food. As Pasi Vainikka also sets out in our moonshots piece, food can now be made “out of thin air,” with the multiplier effects of repurposing land alone being potentially astronomical.  

Further from home, the progress of private endeavours such as SpaceX and others are presenting profound possibilities for exploration, interplanetary communication and through more sophisticated satellites, understanding more about the world beneath us.  

These technologies and innovations are just some of a wider revolution that is upending many facets of society. Together, they will be part of the next great leap in societal progress. Accelerating innovation, to increase prosperity and so we are better prepared for the challenges of the future, must be a key theme for governments today.  

Chapter 2

Increasing access and opportunity

Alongside innovation, we must have a stronger focus on access and opportunity. Without it, another key inequality exposed in 2020 will only grow worse:  the digital divide is actually a deep fissure, which requires urgent action.  

Around the world nearly 50% of people don’t have access to 4G. In sub-Saharan Africa, this is as low as 10%.  This has had catastrophic impact during the pandemic, when in education alone nearly 95% of students were forced online. This issue is not just confined to the developing world – in France, the decision to reopen schools after the first wave was in part influenced by the fact that 500,000 low-income students had to drop out as they had no access to remote learning.  

Increasing access is therefore a question of equity and opportunity and should be a fundamental pursuit for those who believe in the power on an interconnected world, where new nodes of knowledge and information form and fashion new ideas and invention.  

It should be part of a great digitalisation in the modern world, to which government is not immune. 

Chapter 3

A new theory of state

Because another key theme to emerge over the past year has been the inability of many nations to respond adequately to a crisis. Despite decades of structural stasis in state-craft, the debate today, in many parts of politics, is focused on the wrong questions. The left is pursuing far greater state action in our lives, in the belief that its failings are a function of funding, control and power, and on the right, the message is muddled; a focus on nationalism and sovereignty are crushing a belief in free markets. Neither side is thinking about the broader systemic questions about the operating model for government in the 21st century and not enough attention is being applied to how, as a system, the state better delivers for its citizens.  

As we wrote earlier last year, it is time that we reconfigure the state for the internet era. Keeping citizens safe during an emergency is the minimum we should expect from our governments, and many states were underprepared for the pandemic in 2020 and approached it without the capacity to deliver in a time of crisis.  Public services have not only been forced through a decade of austerity, they have been stuck in an innovation drought, no longer meeting peoples’ expectations. Contrast this with the success of the internet giants in 2020: adaptable, reliable, user-centric and successful. It’s no surprise that Amazon today tops lists of most-trusted institutions – it does so because it’s reliable and easy to use and simply works – a far cry from the majority of peoples’ experiences of public services. But the gap between the capacity of Amazon as a private enterprise and the capacity of modern governments should not be so stark.  

This should be a warning to politicians everywhere. Resilience of the modern state comes from innovation and an adaptable operating model, not simply increased funding (if you’re on the left) or efficiency gains (on the right). Public-sector reform cannot be a niche issue: effective, sustainable solutions to the problems people raise on the doorstep won’t be forthcoming without a fundamental rethink of the way governments operate.   

Newer democracies with less entrenched systems such as Estonia and Taiwan are leading the way, building closer, more functional relationships between state, people and business. Taiwan uses its vTaiwan platform to develop a consensus-based approach to difficult policy issues such as regulating Uber. It has also been one of the most successful countries in the world at countering the pandemic, with 31 cases per million people, in part due to its ability to gain public trust and work closely with networks of pharmacists and PPE-producers to encourage mask-wearing. 

Nihilistic calls for a hard rain to fall on the establishment miss the point, but progressive politicians need to embrace a reform agenda that is just as radical. Rather than tearing down one static system and elite to replace it with another, governments must put in place the conditions that force continuous improvement over time.  

Reconfiguring the state for the internet era means, first, putting in place foundational infrastructure such as open platforms for common needs like payments and digital identity verification, so that private- and third-sector innovators can build services. Second, it means reorganising policymaking structures around user needs, through a fundamental refocus on engagement and interaction, and a better stewardship of public data. And third, it means building upon and opening up the foundational digital infrastructure of the state to enable vastly more choice in public services so that users can benefit from exponentially faster innovation and improvement. Digital technologies break the industrial era constraint that you can’t listen to everybody and take on board their views. Amazon responds to people’s needs constantly and is in a process of continuous improvement, whereas governments are stuck with paper-like consultation processes. Taiwan again shows that you can listen-at-scale and build social tech that points you towards consensus. 

Chapter 4

It really is time to build

Together, this means focusing on building institutions and politics that are conducive to and focus on improvement. As it stands many are essentially stagnant or even regressive. The centre of politics therefore needs to stand for action and ambition, better embracing the innovation already taking place, encouraging greater human ingenuity, and harnessing the power of people working together consciously to make the world a better place.  

In an age of information and ideas, too many parts of politics are either indifferent to or standing in the way of progress. Primary among these is around climate tech, but we need changes in a whole raft of areas, and we need them to happen at scale.  The pandemic has shown that concerted action can take place if there is collective will and the right incentives: policymakers should learn how to better create these when there isn’t a crisis, so that they don’t happen in future.  

Marc Andreessen wrote a call to arms last year saying it’s time to build, and that should be our collective endeavour, with government and private sector working in coalition to correct market failures.  This will create jobs and opportunities, but it will also require foresight and helping guide people through the process of change, rather than watching disruption continue to drive disparities and destroy dignity. Our politics should reward prosocial behaviour and be better at self-correcting failure. But above all it needs to be bold and universalist in its ideas, creating a common platform for opportunity.  

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