Fair warning: this post contains futurology, ideology, praxeology, and other -ologies best ignored by sensible human beings. I won’t be offended if that puts you off and you click away to something more practical.
So, now that only the interesting readers are left, let’s crack on.
In September I was kindly invited by the Isle of Man Chamber of Commerce to contribute to an invite-only government forum called ‘Vision 2020 and Beyond’. Four other young(ish) professionals and I sat on a panel that asked the broad question of “What are the key trends affecting the IOM directly from a business point of view?” The brief that sat behind this relatively innocuous question was that as so-called ‘internet natives’ we were to engage in some big-picture thinking about how our generation sees the future. Crucially, we were to focus on how that might differ from the vision of the previous generation, who made up the majority of the audience. With the head of every government department in the audience, I think the panel would agree that we and our promoters at Chamber felt a little like we were conceptual guerillas in enemy territory, looking to flip a few metaphorical tables in the heart of the temple of the status quo.
OK so I am over-dramatising it; I don’t know whether we were quite that controversial, although we certainly did our best. The panel was a well received part of what was broadly a really encouraging day that challenged a lot of pre- and mis-conceptions – including some of my own about the openness of our government to new ideas. Having had several good discussions since, I am writing this article with a view to opening up the debate on some of the most argument-inducing points to those who weren’t there to shout at me in person.
As I am writing based solely on my own contributions to the panel (I don’t want to presume to cover my fellow panellist’s expert areas myself) it jumps around a bit. So, in the buzzfeedesque ‘listicle’ tradition of my generation, which is so well suited to that lack of narrative finesse, I present:
The four things the Isle of Man cannot afford to ignore (the last one will blow your mind!)
1. The Coming Data Wars
Data has become one of the most valuable commodities on the planet. It’s a strange one, because like unstable elements it quickly decays into worthless trash. Also like unstable elements, it can be extremely productive in the right hands and extremely dangerous in the wrong hands. We were asked how the prevalence of this strange commodity would impact on the future of the Island.
My first response was that we need to understand the scale of the data revolution and its implications for the workforce. You must not think of the data revolution as just ‘more’ data; this is not about adding a little more colour to your quarterly report. What we have seen is a qualitative shift as well as a quantitative one. It is kinds of data we’ve never collected before, and in many cases don’t even know we’re creating – for example, there is a well-documented positive correlation between personal intelligence and liking the ‘curly fries’ page on Facebook! Theories abound as to why, but the important point is it is an example of a usable correlation we didn’t even realise we were generating. Data is also being generated and used at speeds up to and including real time, making effective analysis and monetisation orders of magnitude more complex. Businesses won’t just need to collect data, they need to manipulate it more effectively and at speeds faster than their competitors to gain a competitive advantage.
Statistical analysis will be the new numeracy.
The impact of those challenges will quickly be felt in the Island’s workforce. Many people claim coding is becoming ‘the new literacy’; well, along the same lines, statistical analysis will be the new numeracy – a basic requirement of entry into many, many professions. Unfortunately, that’s a rare skill today – the ability to not just spot correlation, but causation in all the noise, and then to work out how to benefit from it. I would stress that these basic ideas of data, such as correlation and causation, do not require you to be a math genius or even to be able to do basic arithmetic; they are important concepts about interpretation of data, set quite apart from the actual number-crunching and therefore accessible to everyone, no matter how math-minded.
My second comment revolved around the fact that there are absolutely two sides forming in the field of data. There are those who believe data should be totally ‘sovereign’ – the property of the individual or company – and who are willing to engage blind hosting, end-to-end encryption, and other methods to make data as decentralised and private as possible. On the other hand, there are both leakers and three letter agencies looking to ensure there is always a way to access data, and pushing for as much centralisation and/or transparency as possible. In leveraging the data economy – which is not really optional if we want to flourish economically – the Isle of Man as an international business centre will have to enter this binary conflict and pick a side. I can’t really see legislative neutrality being a viable option: the two options are mutually exclusive and I believe international pressures will almost certainly necessitate that the decision is made at the legislative level and not left to individual companies (more’s the pity). As such, an informed risk will need to be taken based on both ethical and economic arguments. I know which side of the picket fence I’ll be on, and it’s the side of individual privacy, but I fear our legislators may see it differently.
2. Empowerment and Disruption
Those of us who work in technology-driven industries like to talk about empowered consumers and how empowerment is disrupting traditional industries. We therefore rubbed our hands in glee (or at least I did) when we were asked how individual empowerment would impact on the Island’s economy.
The big trend for me is disintermediation – the trend towards buyers and sellers being connected more directly. Think of companies like Uber, Lyft, AirBnB, eBay, and Kickstarter – to name a few of the better known ones. For those of you who don’t speak Millennial, these companies and others like them are often taking a reduced role as, at most, a facilitator to those transactions and this in turn is leading to a significant trend in decentralisation. As an island that relies heavily on intermediary B2B businesses we should be worried, because if history is anything to go by B2B industries follow where B2C industries lead.
Do not assume that areas like law or financial services are sheltered from these trends by regulation.
The practical take away from this is that if your customers could happily do business with your suppliers, assuming they were connected directly with a reasonable degree of information, you need to look very seriously at your value offering. Equally, if your company relies primarily on high degrees of centralisation of talent or capital, you could also be at risk. You’ve heard the quote, I hope, about the biggest bookstore in the world not owning any stores (technically no longer true), the biggest hospitality company owning no hotels, and the biggest taxi company owning no cars (again, not technically true, but still pertinent to the argument). Well, for the good of our Island please do not assume that areas like law or financial services are immune or sheltered from these trends by regulation. These ‘peer-to-peer’ or ‘C2C’ services inherently ignore or circumvent regulation, everywhere they manage to deliver value to consumers by doing so. You can legislate all you want, but these technologies will adapt faster than draftsmen can write and are already pushing governments into that awkward position of writing unenforceable laws, which are then promptly ignored. As proof of that, the World Economic Forum lists financial services as the industry most likely to be disrupted by this sort of new technology over the coming decade.
3. Education, Automation, Education
Next up, we were asked about how the workforce would change. My fellow panellists covered most of the macro-trends here, with the key ones being automation (of damn near everything) and how the traditional education-career-retirement-death life path is being replaced by something more like education-job-education-job-education-job-education-job-education-job-much-delayed-death. That is, careers aren’t what they used to be, with young people much more likely to hop between companies as well as industries, and to constantly re-skill. That’s a big deal in itself that deserves its own ‘listicle’, but for my part I concentrated on the ‘start of life’ education we are used to and how that needs to change.
This is a serious policy challenge we need to address right now, not in ten or twenty years’ time.
And change it needs to. The ‘short version’ of the change that automation will bring is that high frequency, unoriginal tasks will be taken over – the ‘thinking’ by algorithms and the ‘working’ by robots. Most people agree that the very last jobs to be automated will be those that require originality and creativity. If we want a workforce prepared for the future, then, we need to radically re-prioritise creativity in education, and that will require massive shifts away from the methodology of our ‘industrial era’ school system. This is a serious policy challenge we need to address right now, not in ten or twenty years’ time.
At the most basic end of the spectrum, we need to move away from a system that prioritises ‘hard’ subjects over ‘soft’ ones. Currently, with the exception of a few specialist schools, every educational institution in the world (state and private) puts arts, music, drama etc. at the end of the list of subject priorities. Maths, English (or the native language), and sciences come first, then humanities, foreign languages, and IT, and then finally the creative arts. At the very least we need to rebalance these subjects to carry greater weight in a world in which creativity will be more in demand by the business community. A more substantial shift, however, might look at following Finland’s lead and throwing subjects in the waste-basket of history in favour of interdisciplinary learning. Would it be hard to break away from the UK educational model? Yes, damned hard, but economic differentiation takes work.
Thinking more radically, we may even need to consider a shift away from the classroom and the exam paper to environments and assessments that are more fluid and more conducive to a broad development of creative skills and critical thinking. We live in an age where individualised ‘mastery learning’ is possible and should be driving out industrialised standardisation as the norm. I would rather we were ahead of that curve than behind it.
4. Governing the Ungovernable
Finally, we were asked what the biggest hurdles might be to businesses meeting these challenges of the future. That’s where I took a deep breath and started to rationalise my rather unpopular answer: government.
Agile governance constitutes our only long term competitive advantage as a jurisdiction.
Let’s unpack that, because there is more to it than just anarchistic belligerence. In the Isle of Man, agile governance constitutes our only long term competitive advantage as a jurisdiction. We don’t have natural resources. We don’t have a large labour pool. We don’t have a big consumer market. All we have is agile and business-friendly legislation. Businesses and our economy desperately need that to be protected. If we want to be agile then we need governance that is structurally efficient, technologically empowered, and has a clear democratic mandate.
The ‘consumer’ trends my fellow panellists and I were talking about are equally applicable to voters/citizens. This shouldn’t be a surprise – they are the same people with the same expectations! These expectations include disintermediation, direct engagement, transparency, and immediacy. Our current method of representation, being a system essentially developed in the 17th century, doesn’t do that, so it should be no surprise that we see increasing apathy and feelings of disenfranchisement amongst voters across the globe. At the time of the panel Brexit was very much on our minds, but we can now add Trump’s election to the list of anti-establishment upsets caused by this very real phenomenon of voter disengagement.
Therefore, we need to consider significant constitutional reform to address these issues. For example, should we consider more direct democracy in the future, particularly for handling local community and social issues? Assymetric cryptography and distributed public ledgers (the magic of the blockchain) give us the scope for secure, instant, direct democracy, for example, such that you could engage in and see the live results from a referendum in the time it takes to eat your cornflakes. That may not work for all issues, but it could certainly work for a lot of localised issues.
It’s pretty daft to think a woman in Ramsey can’t represent a man in Port Erin on national issues.
This sort of direct engagement could in turn give us cause to revisit how our representation works – if MHKs were freed from dealing with local issues, could we then have fewer, more professional representatives handling national issues? If we went down that road, we could consider scrapping superfluous levels of political representation that have been superseded by direct democracy – local councils, mayors, MLCs and so on – and perhaps scrapping constituencies in the way we elect national representatives. After all, it’s pretty daft to think a woman in Ramsey can’t represent a man in Port Erin on national issues in the age of the internet. If we need fewer, more professional representatives, maybe we could then consider MHK salaries, because frankly the current MHK salary isn’t even attractive to a successful professional at my relatively early stage in their career, let alone someone with ten years’ more experience.
On the same note, if we want more engaged citizens and voters, how can we give them the sort of transparent and immediate information they have come to expect from the private sector? A little innovation is called for. How about we create a budget calculator, where for every departmental increase or item of spend, you have to balance it with a decrease elsewhere or a new revenue stream? We wouldn’t be the first to do it, voters would be more informed, and aggregated results could inform MHKs on the public’s relative preferences – something voting and pressure group campaigns are notoriously poor at doing. How about if the same platform also allowed polling on national issues, consolidated political news streams, live streaming of Tynwald sessions, and an easily searchable, taggable, and shareable version of the Hansard database? Governance by app wouldn’t be such a bad step to take and could help to empower political representatives with both more information and a firmer democratic mandate.
I was keen not to champion particular answers at this point, because I don’t fancy myself the constitutional architect of the Island. Instead, I intended to raise a lot of fundamental questions I think we need to ask about how our constitution works – with maybe just a few of my preferred examples thrown into the mix to see if they stuck! Ultimately though, I firmly believe that if we want to safeguard the Island’s agility not just for the next few years, but well into the future, then governance needs to keep pace with the private sector in terms of its form and structure as well as in terms of its policies.
The astute readers amongst you will have seen a common thread between individual data sovereignty, the decentralisation of supplier-consumer relationships, the personalisation of education, and direct voter engagement. I believe individualism is becoming a more powerful force in the organisation of the post-industrial world as a matter of economic fact, whether you like it ideologically or not. Crucially, however, it is not the crass atomic individualism of Rand, but a sort of hyper-connected individualism that recognises the importance of the individual as well as of the community, but chooses to protect the former’s choice in how they engage with the latter. I know Manx politics is relatively non-ideological, for better or worse, but that doesn’t mean we can ignore these sorts of macro-social changes and what drives them.
There are other trends that will feed into this, such as automated, non-specialised additive manufacturing (3D printing etc.) bringing supply chains closer to consumers. It would be impossible to touch on all of them, but what matters is that we address these changes properly, and that means understanding the ideas and systems that lie behind them. Whilst our brief was to talk about trends affecting business, I think my conclusion is that for an Island like ours the concerns of business and the concerns of the state are intrinsically linked. The state needs to adapt, and fast, to avoid drowning the private sector amid the white-water rapids of technological progress.
For an Island like ours the concerns of business and the concerns of the state are intrinsically linked.
I went into this process assuming that talking about these sort of provocative issues was a form of profanity in the Manx public sphere; generally my long-suffering wife doesn’t even let me bring them up at the dinner table. Having been through it and had these conversations with the government and other key stakeholders, though, I was pleasantly surprised by the willingness to talk about them. The question now is whether it’s just talk, or whether we’re actually capable of delivering rapid, vision-led change at a practical level in Manx public life. On that I remain a sceptic but, with the government’s follow-up event due in January, I am open to them proving me wrong.
Written with thanks to the Isle of Man Chamber of Commerce and Jane Dellar for the opportunity, and to my fellow panellists Kristan McDonald, Steven Craven, and Katie Nicholson for making it such an interesting process.