Paul Grainger, Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL

Skills and collaboration towards a new social contract 

One facet of 2020 has been the demonstration of how constrained nation states have been in protecting and supporting their citizens during a pandemic.

‘Stay at home’ is the best most can offer, with fingers crossed that science will come up with both prevention and cure.

Meanwhile their populations face a variety of threats from economic collapse, cybercrime, and the social and educational impact of isolation.

Suddenly, ‘skills’ are in focus

This includes not just elite scientists working on vaccines and ventilators, but the carers, IT specialists, retail distribution, teachers and a whole range of those who have maintained an economy and kept us supplied.

They have preserved a social fabric through the pandemic.

In learning how to work in new ways our fundamental reliance on skills and training is being recognised. 

There must be a greater focus on developing skills to cope with this new reality

Beyond the conventional economic skills there is an increasing necessity for the skills of collaboration.

As with much of the social and economic impact of the virus, we are seeing the acceleration of change, rather than something new. The pandemic has simply accelerated a process that was in train.

The nation state has not adapted to new global phenomena: their educational systems are not providing sufficient levels of skill for the economic realities of the 4th industrial revolution, both threats and opportunities.

In February, before the pandemic had taken hold, the McKinsey Global Institute published a report "The social contract in the 21st century[1] concluding that:

"Broadly, individuals have had to assume greater responsibility for their economic outcomes. While many have benefited from this evolution, for a significant number of individuals the changes are spurring uncertainty, pessimism, and a general loss of trust in institutions."

The McKinsey Report looks at advanced economies and the changing relationship between individuals and institutions.

However, the theme has been picked up more broadly by the G20, hosted in 2020 by Saudi Arabia.

The Communique of the ‘Think Tank’ strand of its work[2] identifies areas of national incapacity, and where there must be a greater focus on developing skills to cope with the new reality.

Market failure in social media, and other virtual platforms

The need to respond to the market failure in social media, and other virtual platforms, leading to a domination of a largely Californian culture and economic dominance unfettered by national regulations

A small number of virtual platforms have established an oligopoly of social and media communications, distribution of ‘gig’ work, and retail.

Their exploitation of artificial intelligence, and vast wealth, enable them to pick off potential challenges to their position, both from potential rivals, and from democratic and civic accountability.

When US President Donald Trump accused the Chinese tech firm TikTok of passing on information regarding American users to Beijing the court ruled in favour of TikTok. Trump’s attempts to silence TikTok (for daring to emulate the data harvesting practices of US platforms) demonstrate this new impotence.

In addition virtual conglomerates are in a position to relocate at whim, choosing suitable regulatory and tax regimes at will, and resisting attempts to impose some form of accountability. Most social media users are vulnerable to manipulation by these platforms and those cyber criminals who hide behind them, from fake news to identity theft.

Raising general skill levels in these areas, for the protection of the individual and the community, is an urgent priority, recognised by many of the contributions to the Communique.

Failure to regulate virtual platforms

This failure to regulate the virtual platforms has led to the ignoring of established social conventions and taboos which make normal social interactions useful and manageable.

This analysis features strongly in the publications of Paul Twomey [3]. His significant work on developing the means to constrain abuses of data manipulation draws perceptively on the social and civic conventions established over many years of civic evolution.

The democratic citizen, for example, expects confidentiality in transactions with professionals, doctors, lawyers and so forth. However, the virtual platforms have no respect for confidentiality. They spy and probe.

Twomey points out: "that many digital services are provided for free, or under-priced, in return for information about and influence on the digital users. This information and influence is sold to influencers advertisers and other influencers, such as political and social activists.

"Thereby the influencers shape the users’ economic, social and political behaviours in accordance with the influence-selling objectives. These interactions stand in sharp contrast to the transactions in standard economic markets, where producers sell products to consumers and receive revenue in return."

Fortunately, there are signs of a fight back. The best example is the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Snower and Twomey hope that this may become a model for further regulation. But at the moment it remains the wild west.

Recently, incautiously, I mentioned the word ‘prostrate’ within earshot of my ‘phone, which was eavesdropping. Within minutes two quack remedies were in my inbox.

This digital husbandry, coupled with commercial or ideological manipulation, is a challenge to the operation of our economic markets, contests democratic freedom, and is potentially detrimental to mental health [4].

It is important that the community is provided with the skills to resist this assault on freedoms.

Government 'silos' fail to collaborate adequately 

Responding to this threat is problematic while national agencies continue to operate through 'silos' which fail to collaborate adequately.

The GDPR is a good, but rare, example of a powerful body, the EU, setting a standard which can be adopted internationally. Such collaboration is infrequent and presents a weighty challenge to the vision of the G20.

Nation states are wary of potential economic damage and within a nation stare there are competing interests, as Donal Trump’s battle with the US legal system illustrates.

Even at the local level, as Francesca Froy points out [5]: "Governments intervene in a myriad of ways at the local level, but rarely are these interventions coordinated effectively."

Governments work through departments and agencies which have been organised around traditional economic, civic, and diplomatic functions. However, virtual platforms cut across all of these, presenting a co-ordinated challenge to established forms of political and civic control.

By and large higher level technical and academic institutions continue to organise their teaching into silos, whereby students become experts in their speciality, but to the exclusion of wider skill sets. But the demands of the 4th Industrial Revolution are complex and interwoven. A wholesale review of the vocational curriculum is urgently required.

A new social contract is needed

This could underpin a new social contract whereby nation states, through partnership and collaboration, seek to enhance opportunities for their citizens in a world dominated by artificial intelligence, while safeguarding them from manipulation through data abuse, cybercrime, mis-information and exploitation.

If 2020 has taught us anything, it is the need for collaboration both within internal systems and internationally. Nation states and the silos within them, are no longer able to adequately protect their citizens.

Threats to the environment, to health, to the economy are global threats requiring a world-wide response. As I write vaccines are being approved for general distribution. Our survival through, and hopefully our exit from the pandemic has depended on skill and collaboration. That being the case, we should invest heavily in both.

Establishing an agenda for change

The 2020 G20 did a great deal to promote international collaboration in response to the pandemic. There is now an Italian presidency for 2021, and the agenda is being assembled. One topic is to be: Education and training: how to recover the ground lost during the lockdown.

While the sentiments are sound, as it stands this sounds a little backward looking, and I hope we are also able to establish an agenda for change.

It has been decided to make the first conference virtual. I rather hope that by the summer I may need to make use of my passport once more!

Paul Grainger, Honorary Senior Research Associate, UCL

[1] The social contract in the 21st century: Outcomes so far for workers, consumers, and savers in advanced economies, James Manyika, Anu Madgavkar, Tilman Tacke, Sven Smit, Jonathan Woetzel, and Abdulla Abdulaal

[2] The final Communique (T20 summit season September 17 - November 01, 2020 virtual summit from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia), published on 6 November 2020.

[3] Revisiting Digital Governance, Dennis J.Snower, Paul Twomey, Maria Farrell. October 2020

[4] See for example:

[5] OECD LEED programme, ‘Breaking out of silos: joining up policy locally’, Francesca Froy, University College London, Jan 2008.

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