Business continuity has relied on technology platforms and questions on workforce flexibility have been accelerated. Digital transformation through cloud, automation and data analytics may reach terminal velocity as FDs drive efficiency. The resilience of our economy and supply chains has been maintained through the digital processes underpinning them. Social media has become a quite-literal lifeline. Devices and products are being integrated into the frontline battles from treatment to contact tracing to testing and will be essential to the lifting of lockdowns.
Social acceptance of tech, and especially emerging technologies, has never been higher. The misguided hooligan burning of some 5G hotspot masts is the only sore blot on tech’s corona record to date. Will Covid-19’s legacy be the end of the ‘tech backlash?’
Winning the peace
Yet as Clausewitz, the great war theorist noted, new political situations and realities arise out of all wars. The Coronavirus War is no different. Tech must take advantage of the first time in a decade moral high ground it now occupies with a government in need, writing cheques to match. But it also that has the authority to legislate on newly emerging tech issues.
These unprecedented opportunities play against the downside risks to the peace for us all. Tech needs to engage now with pro-active solutions to rebuild our economies, our societies and even our polities.
Big gov, new tech?
Big government is back. An era of new spending and a complex re-engineering of public services and outdated corporate structures offer huge technological opportunity. The ability of a coordinated, integrated response among not just government agencies but what we might now call Critical National Infrastructure Plus (from supermarkets to power plants) clearly needs a refresh. Every sector will need a new deal (not just financial lifelines) with government – everything is now quasi-public sector.
A new social contract of sorts will cover community cohesion to social care to education. Government will be prepared to not just spend but also to legislate in new ways. Populations will be more willing to wear interventions on existential matters of sustainability, new energy, e-mobility and digital infrastructure (the existing government broadband rollout will need supercharging) than in generations.
Towards a smart(er) government
The UK government has done well in a coordinated response but broadly with a mid-20th century architecture for a ‘new normal’. The Government Technology Innovation Strategy (RIP) will need to be dusted off and relaunched around speed, flexibility and innovation. This will offer new avenues for platform development through no-code and low-code providers, new demands on open source, open standards and inter-operability may re-emerge, new generations of agilists and new API driven data standards will be required and a cultural reformation on the deployment of emerging technologies (beyond a narrow interpretation of AI would help) will be needed. It is time to address a digital verification regime and single government accounts for citizens.
This will not move as quickly as we might like but the opportunity is there to seriously consider a new procurement regime and tech settlement, perhaps even more so than the Maude reforms. Maybe not Smart Government 4.0 but a chance for Smarter Government 1.0. This must not be a rush to the bottom but rather a sensible forward looking strategy co-developed with tech and government.
The Government’s resilience regulatory checklist
On the flip side, resilience will become a new watchword for tech. A number of these conversations are already happening in Whitehall. The Competitions and Market Authority and the Business Department will fast track work being done on foreign takeovers of key tech companies and suppliers. The Furman Review which called for the breaking up of data monopolies and for a new regime around tech M&A will have the political top cover to be implemented. Regulators such as the ICO will seek to codify suggestions around ethics and governance in emerging technologies and data protection. A new Cyber Security Strategy, currently sitting on Ministers’ desks in The Cabinet Office, The Department of Culture, Media and Sport and the National Cyber Security Centre will be beefed up with a new mandate. Online harms legislation may not be able to be put off for much longer. Is Ofcom licking its lips on new powers? A new auditing regulator coming next year will likely be taking on new powers over technology audit and internal controls that all big business will need to adhere to.
Governments will also be broke and in desperate need of quick revenue. This sector is an easy target. Tech must be in the vanguard of offering collective solutions in the national interest that maintains our license to operate. This is not pre-ordained.
Protecting a global digital economy in the nationalist headwinds
On the international front, there is certainly a case for stronger cooperation through the EU, G20 and OECD. Digital taxation, IP protection, data flows, data localisation, competition and privacy are issues clearly best tackled at the supranational level and through multi-lateral institutions. In some ways these institutions will be enhanced by a common enemy and a desire to get trade deals done to boost the global economy.
Tech may not be the immediate beneficiary of this though in the way health and connectivity policy may be. We risk entering a period of hyper tech nationalisation through the EU’s drive on technology sovereignty, the UK focus on a new tech Industrial Strategy and a new and more vicious potential US-China trade war. This is a not insurmountable challenge as the bark now may well be worse than the post corona bite. The challenge though does need the intellectual weight of the tech industry to keep calling for a free trading digital world as a larger answer to the difficult questions only national governments can truly address. As a previous Chancellor said, that really does require us ‘all to be in this together’. There’s work to be done.
Will Wallace is a Partner at Interel, a leading European public affairs consultancy, and is a former technology adviser to the Conservative Party.