Making sense of it all: Brexit Britain and the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Following the decision to leave the EU and in the context of rapid technological and economic change, something drastically and quickly needs to change about the way we do politics and economics in the UK. This is the first in a series of posts reflecting on lots of stuff I’ve been reading recently, and an attempt to crystallise these into a coherent argument about what is currently perceived to be going wrong with the UK’s political economy, and the contribution social innovation might make towards improving the situation.

This first post explores the implications of Brexit and the Fourth industrial revolution on modern capitalism’s ability to help us find and define meaning in our lives.

Finding a sense of purpose in 21st century Britain 

How can we best find and create meaning in our lives? While this is a question that has occupied philosophers for millennia – from the Buddha’s pursuit of spirituality to De Beauvoir’s emphasis on pursuing self-chosen goals – within contemporary capitalism it is increasingly getting harder and harder to ignore. This challenge has real implications for 21st century Britain – a nation of directionless people is in no one’s interests.  A new vision for capitalism is required, one which better meets people’s material and existential requirements. I believe a more strategic approach to social innovation could play a key part in the answer.

We don’t have to look far to see the limitations of the existing economic and political set-up in helping people find meaning in their lives. Take for instance the recent news that northern coastal towns are prescribing almost twice as many antidepressants as those in the rest of the country. As Peter Kinderman, the president of the British Psychological Society explained to The Guardian, in these areas “You’ve got lack of opportunity [and] lack of a sense of meaning and purpose in life” which are impacting upon people’s mental health and wellbeing. With such massive challenges to enhancing people’s quality of life, business as usual will no longer cut it.

I know first-hand this problem isn’t isolated to northern towns such as Blackpool and Sunderland. Through work, family and friends I’ve seen too many communities around the UK where people are struggling to find their sense of purpose, typically because the traditional means of doing so – such as work or a shared worldview with others – have been eroded or transformed in such a way as to make them feel alien. This is a pattern I have previously referred to as a collective malaise. In this sense, the words of Schiller during the first industrial revolution still ring true during the fourth – too many people are still unable to develop the harmony of their being, and instead of putting the stamp of humanity upon their own nature, are effectively reduced to nothing more than the imprint of their occupation or specialised knowledge (assuming they are fortunate enough to have a job at all).

In many areas of the UK, it is still difficult for people to find work which confers a sense of meaning and dignity. This doesn’t mean everyone has to become an entrepreneur or high-flying executive. It simply means that work should be rewarding and encourage personal development over your lifetime. Yet currently there are still over 5 million people in the UK earning below the national living wage, and almost 3% of all people in employment are not guaranteed any minimum hours of work (so called ‘zero hour contracts’). If you’re breaking your back but still living hand-to-mouth, it probably feels a stretch to describe such work as rewarding and encouraging your long-term personal development.

There is clearly a need therefore for massive systemic change which, despite much political rhetoric and at least a decade of concerted social innovation activity, has as yet failed to materialise. As I will explore in more detail through subsequent posts, this doesn’t just mean transforming work. It also means equipping people with the skills, knowledge and confidence required to have a greater say in what happens in their lives, and then providing them with the channels to take action. Social innovation can play a key role in bringing about this change, though of course it is only one part of the solution. I’ve encountered many great programmes and initiatives which have illustrated how this can be achieved at a local level. For example I remember whilst working on Take Part, an innovative programme of community-based citizenship education for adults, a mother at a SureStart centre in the South West describing the transformative effect on her life of simply having the confidence to state her opinion on local and national issues, and constructively engage in dialogue with others. It may sound simple but through a simple community-based programme, she was given the skills, knowledge and confidence to start actively shaping her own identity, not having it dictated to her by others.

While such case studies are common across the social innovation field and reassure us that we’re able to have some sort of impact on improving lives, clearly such localised initiatives are not going to create the required systemic change alone. As we have seen in the continuing debate surrounding the EU Referendum, still too many people feel they have no control over what happens to them, meaning there is also a requirement for political and economic change too.

Taking back control

While much has already been written about the relationship between the Leave vote in the EU Referendum and areas that have experienced industrial decline, it is worth reiterating that not only did older industrial areas in England and Wales overwhelmingly vote to leave the EU in high proportions, but that the areas which most emphatically voted Leave also had more workers earning below the real living wage than the UK average. It should perhaps be no surprise then that there is a strong relationship between the Leave vote and people feeling they have little influence over what happens to them in their lives, as well as weak social networks and low levels of trust in others.

Whatever side of the fence you fell on back in June 2016, this should give cause for concern. Not only are there significant amounts of people across the country struggling to find meaning in their lives, they also don’t have access to the connections and resources which might help them. Not only does this matter from a humanitarian perspective, but it is now clearly having political and economic implications. So instead of looking to the past as the only mainspring of salvation, it is time to also turn towards the future and actively reshape what it means to be human.

Adapting to the fourth industrial revolution

Addressing this challenge has become even more pertinent given rapid technological change and the advent of the fourth industrial revolution, which are pushing through huge advances in automation and data exchange. While at present much of the focus is on applications for technological breakthroughs in areas such as artificial intelligence, robotics, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing and nanotechnology (among others), the warning signs are already there that this poses a significant challenge to how we create meaning in our own lives.

As Stian Westlake has also described, the UK economy is now characterised by the growing importance of and reliance on intangible assets (such as R&D and design), with a corresponding decline in dependence upon tangible assets (such as factories), with investment in knowledge/intangibles now 9% greater than tangible investment (£133bn compared to £121bn). What’s more the growth rate of the UK’s intangible capital stock (such as ICT) has significantly outperformed the growth rates of manufacturing fixed capital stock, meaning this is not a fad but the new normal. Yet if you’ve read the latest proposals for an Industrial Strategy, you may be forgiven for thinking that we’re still living in the age of heavy industry.

Given successive government’s prioritisation of heavy industry and tangible assets, it does not seem as if the country is quite yet ready for this change. This new reality is going to significantly impact upon those areas still trying to adjust to the collapse of heavy industry, and could further exacerbate the divides highlighted by the EU referendum. Knowledge-intensive sectors (which are characteristic of the fourth industrial revolution) tend to be concentrated in metropolitan areas – this includes whether measuring research activity or innovation funding. The growing dominance of these sectors across the UK economy is likely to contribute to inequalities within regions between cities and towns. It is also however likely to deepen existing inequalities and imbalance between regions, with the economies of southern English regions typically more service oriented and thus more strongly linked to intangible assets, compared to northern regions which have historically been more reliant on the production of physical goods and products.

Drone on Old Kent Road
A drone delivering parcels on Old Kent Road, one of the most deprived areas of the capital.

This should be cause for concern, given how existing inequalities are already negatively impacting upon people’s wellbeing and quality of life. While these challenges are likely to be most severely felt in areas already grappling with a host of other issues, the threat of automation affects the middle classes too. Research by Oxford University and Deloitte found a 77% probability of ‘repetitive and predictable’ roles being automated. This not only includes low wage, low skill occupations characterised by the manual manipulation of physical goods, but also administrative jobs involving a high degree of repetition. So if you are a PA or even an accountant, your position looks increasingly under threat.

Finding meaning through social innovation

How then can we better support people to create meaning in their lives? While it is clear there is a growing case for developing and supporting high value knowledge and skills that help people stay one step ahead of the robots, there is also a need to think about how this plays out across the country, particularly in areas vulnerable to the negative impact of these changes. This will require a multi-disciplinary approach – bringing together economics, politics and psychology among others. Social innovation therefore has an obvious role to play, though as I will explore in subsequent posts, the concept itself is in need of a rethink if it is to realise this promise.

My next post will expand on some of themes outlined above by drawing recent developments in social psychology, among others. I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this topic – about how modern capitalism might better support people to find meaning in their lives – so please leave your comments below.




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