2020 had a profound impact on how we live, work and plan ahead – this change is also reflected in how tech policy is regarded and where it is headed as we overcome the Covid-19 pandemic.
For many of us, returning to the home office after a strange yet much needed break felt like a jump into the deep end: what have we learned? Where do we pick-up or start over? What should we expect and prepare for?
To help us navigate the questions, opportunities and challenges that lie ahead of us, we hosted Carly Kind and Areeq Chowdhury for a discussion on tech policy trends in 2021 and beyond.
This short blog post pulls together some of the key themes we covered.
Technology made 2020 more survivable…
Technology allowed us to be better prepared for this pandemic than we could have ever been before. And it goes beyond Zoom’s low barrier to entry - as Areeq pointed out, it would be interesting to calculate the number of lives saved both as a result of speed in vaccine innovation, but also by the presence of technology infrastructure to carry out working, learning and connecting.
There has been an incentive for public and private sector cooperation in levelling up digital access, and we should see proactive investment in digital infrastructure such as broadband.
The implications of the digital literacy boost across all age groups are significant and open new opportunities for adult learning and development, as well as digital upskilling in the less connected parts of the world.
We have been able to connect within and across sectors in ways we found hard before, getting unprecedented access to influential figures and information that helps move the right initiatives forward.
… but are the benefits of the 2020 tech acceleration sustainable?
Alongside the sheer use and adoption of tech, the concentration of power and wealth has also been unavoidably exacerbated. Digital inequalities have been visibly exposed during the pandemic, raising the question of whether this global event is the boost we needed to shape more fair and inclusive outcomes post-pandemic. This demands an active exercise of cooperation between public institutions, tech players and civil society organisations to identify, prioritise and action the most pressing issues at any moment.
Importantly, preserving momentum of these benefits hugely depends on current and incoming changes in attitudes to the internet, platforms and broader technology at both public and government levels. Back in December, we published a series of articles as part of our partnership with the YouGov-Cambridge Globalism Study analysing polling from across the world towards big tech, geopolitics and the pandemic - we look forward to reflecting on 2021 data later this year and observe any shifts in these attitudes.
Take the example of the exponential rise in video calls with GPs - will behavioural shifts in managing our day-to-day health through tech be normalised, or will we see a mass return to pre-pandemic preferences — despite the queues and prolonged waiting times?
Some reasons to be optimistic about the future
Genuine open-mindedness towards the science and innovation that has made a vaccination possible so soon, enhanced further close cooperation between innovators, private sector and governments.
A real shot at achieving net zero and putting a break on the climate crisis. Priorities have shifted in the right direction and voices have been heard farther and wider as distractions were minimised for the best part of last year.
Amplification and impact of conversations that matter across borders and politics. There is potential for the world to change for the better using tech, amongst other tools, following on from historic milestones such as the Black Lives Matter movement.
The prospect of a modern, progressive approach to big tech regulation that sets out to preserve the large-scale benefits of interconnectedness. A Biden presidency is expected to elevate these discussions between Europe and US in 2021, and we are already seeing more sophisticated conversations at the UK level.
Improved public and civic engagement between governmental institutions and activists and citizens. Involving people in public debates and improving our public deliberation methodologies will be a worthwhile effort.
Gaining public trust and finding common ground amongst a wide range of views on tech policy remains a key challenge for policymakers in the months and years ahead. Ultimately, steering the current tech acceleration on to a path to success is less about the technology itself and more about the vision and leadership of those at the helms of countries around the world.
P.S. Join us for a series of events centred around our expanding tech policy programme this year, featuring climate, health, internet governance, regulation and technology for developing world. To stay in the loop, sign up here.