Mathew Lawrence on reaping the benefits of mega-tech - with communities + big policies having equal status

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We met one of the rising stars of the progressive policy circuit the other day - Mathew Lawrence from IPPR - and had a fascinating chat about automation, capitalism, mobilising communities and much else. 

Mathew’s essential point is that technology will not determine technology’s future - people, politics and institutions will. And he brims with ideas about how that might happen, in a current environment where digital tech (and its coming AI incarnation) seems hell bent on amassing cash while turfing millions out of their jobs. (We both noted the Bank of England’s Mark Carney signalling to elites that this might be a problem - ours is here and here, and Mathew’s is here).  

In language familiar to those fans of the Great Bearded One, the problem is that, when the corporates own the robots, it means profits are returning more to “capital” (the moneyed elite that can buy the productive tech) than to “labour”. Does it seem crazy to immiserate billions of people who might well, after all, consume your products (if they had income)? Yes. Does it look like info-capitalists will do much about it? Despite Carney’s fingerwagging the other week, not really.

The Guardian journalist John Harris wondered this week what happens when 10 million jobs just disappear in the UK, within 15 years, due to the cognitive and human-routine replacement power of AI and automation. Social despair, chaos and maybe worse, it could be predicted: Harris reports brilliantly but chillingly on how retail and distribution may become as depopulated as agriculture, very soon. 

Mathew works for one of the major macro-level policy think-tanks - so his solutions are very structural, and probably depend on electoral “regime change”, as George Monbiot puts it (Waiting for Corbo, in other words...). Yet they are ingenious, worth itemising, and available from his webpage

  • If the spoils of automation currently go to those who are already victors, then get the citizens into that game. A government could create a “citizens wealth fund”, that can use both clever taxation, and steady dealing on the money markets, to build up a fund that could produce (by 2030) a £10K dividend to everyone at the age of 25. This uses the massive productivity of the “fourth industrial revolution” to enable mass access to the kind of start that middle or upper class kids get at the beginning of their working and relationship lives. (This could also feed into and making viable a citizens income - see the RSA proposals). 
  • Also Mathew suggests the problem for the UK economy might be too little automation, rather than too much - small and medium sized enterprises could be deploying it much more effectively than they are, to raise their game. So create a national investment bank that will support them to do so with accessible and patient loans - and a “Productivity UK” body that will pressure and advise on this agenda. Living wages, shorter working weeks are civilised measures, but they also put the pressure on businesses to amplify the productivity of the workers they can get, by investing more in advanced tech. 
  • And finally, Mathew wants different kinds of ownership of businesses to be considered - literally, “who owns the AI/robots” will determine who gets the most benefits from them. The aforementioned new banks could be briefed to support cooperatives and mutuals of all kinds, with the ghost of the Lucas Aerospace Plan hovering in the background... 

Yet on that final point, we came to a challenge. How much skill and capacity for running new kinds of cooperative/collaborative organisation is out there? At A/UK, we have a presumption that communities have within them traditions and practices of self-organisation and making - around all the arts of living, not just economic/market activity - that await the right call, and the appropriate structures, to flourish.

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Our postings this week around Transition Towns show the evidence that the right appeal, and set of practices, can bring forth such flourishing. And our participation in CtrlShift recently was evidence that what we might call a “socio-structure” - an infrastructure that arises from social and civic actions and enterprises talking to and supporting each other - really does exist. 

But it also feels like the cooperative movements of old - and the new participatory advocates - have a real step-up moment here. Which may be as much about popular education and training. To add our own wee institution to Mathew’s pile - what would it mean to attend “Cooperation University”, and get an MCA (a Master of Collaboratve/Cooperative Administration) instead of an MBA? 

And in the classic net-era, instant-karma way, at the end of writing this post we received a crowdfunding appeal for what looks like exactly a street-level MCA, from the Stir To Action organisation (click on image below):

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Combine this with the more digitally-aligned work of the Commons Transition Primer and the Platform Cooperative Movement, and that begins to look like a new institution (or network) of cooperative learning. Exciting and interesting times. Let’s stay connected. 

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