As designers and social innovators, should we take any notice of technology policy? Wouldn’t it be best to ignore the think-tanks and telcos, and concentrate on doing great projects in the real world? A 90% focus on projects would probably be healthy. But we also need to keep half an eye on policy making because that’s where priorities for research spending – and hence the projects we are able to do – are made.
Tech policy is not a pretty picture right now. After a few years in which social issues were visible on the agenda, tech-push is fighting back. In the European Union, for example, the Information Society Technologies (IST) programme contains a lot of tech but not much soc. The IST’s aim is to ‘master technology and its applications, and help strengthen industrial competitiveness’. Documents mention the need to ‘address the main European societal challenges’ – but the advisory group that interprets that statement, ISTAG, consists wholly of Big Tech and Big Research interests. (To compound the imbalance, ISTAG comprises 29 men and just four women). There once existed a panel of High-Level Socio-Economic Experts but they quietly disappeared in 2003, supplanted by an entity called eEurope. The main job of eEurope is to ‘develop modern public services and a dynamic environment for e-business through widespread availability of broadband access at competitive prices and a secure information infrastructure’. Once again: a lot about tech and not much about soc. All Doors’ friends report a similar pattern: proposals that don’t put tech at their centre have little chance of success.
In the UK last week, a paper called Modernising With Purpose: A Manifesto for a Digital Britain by William Davies was published by the Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR). The manifesto begins promisingly with a complaint that ‘the strong focus on investing in technology, and measuring Britain’s most easily quantifiable assets, has left social resources, and less quantifiable assets, underdeveloped’. The manifesto demands that enduring cultural norms be protected, and insists on social and constitutional rules to guard against the constant possibility of harmful unintended consequences. Disappointingly, the manifesto is otherwise resolutely orthodox in the way that it casually equates modernisation with technological intensification. The ways we live and think now, for example, are described casually as ‘obstacles to modernisation’, and the manifesto finds it self-evident that future policy ‘anchors people to technological change’. ‘We may have reached the toughest stage in the transition to a digitally enabled economy and government” writes Davies, “where the obstacles facing us are hardest to pin down or tackle, being psychological, cultural and local”.
Obstacles, or assets? A more inspiring manifesto would have located technology within a range of new ways to organise our daily lives – not made tech the starting point. It would have laid out a broader range of success indicators, and challenged us to find new ways to improve them. The good news is that a global boom in new indicators is providing us with new success criteria against which to make decisions about what we innovate, and how. An International Conference on Gross National Happiness took place in Canada in June, and even in the UK new ways to measure well-being and life satisfaction are also being discussed in UK policy circles. And I have to mention that my book, In The Bubble describes a range of daily life situations in which redesign is appropriate – sometimes using tech, but just as often, not.