It is good to see the Government back social tech, argues Sebastien Kurzel, but they need to make sure that they truly understand compelling new technology, and do not just pay lip-service to technology that is already out of date.
It’s no secret that the government has dropped the ball in almost every policy area to make way for Brexit. But thankful, at least one niche area is getting some small attention: social tech, which should please early-stage investors of inclusive, sustainable startups such as Tom Chapman of MATCHESFASHION.COM and Sir Ronald Cohen, co-founder Chair of Bridges Fund Management.
This sudden and very public interest in social tech was underlined recently when DCMS Secretary of State, Jeremy Wright, made a flagship speech in Paris, as part of a trade mission. In a presentation ranging from freedom of speech and civil society to the dangers of terrorism, he ended by saying: “[…] let’s make sure [we use] the transforming power of technology to make life better for people all across the world.”
All well and good, and very worthwhile. But reading the speech it feels like, yet again, the government has missed some, if not all, of a different and bigger picture: one driven by our rapidly changing demographics. Today, the interests and needs of younger people contrast sharply with more senior generations, and it’s possible that this divide in expectations and attitudes has never been greater.
Yes, the dog-whistle social issues of financial exclusion, personal isolation and online safety are a big challenge, and vitally important. However, these feel old hat in many ways and slightly out of touch. Rather than being the hot-button issues of our future they are the symptoms of a much bigger demographic shift; one which the government has never, in any detail, alluded to.
While the government focuses on the tech issues considered top priority by Baby Boomers, it is the Millennial generation that’s driving the future of tech, and these changes can be seen most clearly when you look at changing data and attitudes to work.
According to the Institute of Leadership and Management, by 2020 Millennials will make up more than 50% of the UK workforce. They want their job to be meaningful, the company they work for to behave ethically and they expect a superior work-life balance. In fact, Ernst & Young’s Global Generations Research found that this generation is more likely to take a pay cut, move, pass on a promotion or even quit the job to allow them flexibility to manage work-life demands. They’re also more likely to be working in the gig-economy.
This data matters because the government has recently announced a partnership with the Social Tech Trust to set up a new investment fund, and there is a danger that ministerial pressure will be applied to fund projects that do not address the needs and expectations of Millennials.
For example, one tech company currently supported by the Social Tech Trust is Workerbird. They help workers understand and improve their working conditions by enabling them to collect and track their own data on pay, hours worked and employment terms, and they offer advice and support too. This is exactly the kind of work-life-balance social tech younger workers want but it would be unlikely to gain any support from this or any other shade of government.
The challenge for the government now is to step away from the idea that social tech is only useful if it supports the NHS, fills gaps in the education system or reinforces current legislation. Instead, it needs to accept that social tech is increasing being used to empower people and allow them to take control away from government institutions.
Jeremy Wright said in his Paris speech: “A recent report from Tech Nation confirmed that the UK is a global centre for Tech for Good, with social tech companies valued at 2.3 billion pounds last year.” Acknowledging the boom in social tech is one thing but really playing an active role in its future is quite another.
If the government doesn’t recognise this soon and start to play a part in the development of the kind of social tech that’s relevant to the next generation, what they’ll find is that this tech will eventually replace many of their functions in all areas. And they will have had no say or input into its development. If they lift their vision now, there’s a chance they can influence the direction of the whole spectrum of social tech. If they don’t, they might regret it.