Crises often expose faultlines that we know exist but prefer to ignore.
The global financial crisis of 2008 exploded the ideology that markets always deliver the goods. Remember those mighty Wall Street titans rattling a beggar's can in front of the federal government in Washington to avert financial collapse.
The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 has now shattered the comforting delusion that governments are a fail-safe backstop, too. For sure, they are playing an indispensable role in quarantining people and injecting fiscal adrenaline into the comatose economy. But in the US and UK, at least, they have underfunded critical public healthcare infrastructure and institutions and been painfully sluggish in their response.
Henry Kissinger, the veteran American strategic thinker, has argued that the crisis has exposed the limitations of our current institutions. "When the Covid-19 pandemic is over, many countries' institutions will be perceived as having failed," he wrote in the Wall Street Journal.
Martin Gurri, an ex-CIA analyst and author of The Revolt of the Public, has gone even further: "We may in retrospect look upon this crisis as an extinction event of the institutions."
If the old gods have died, then where can we find salvation? As the FT's innovation editor, who tries to keep track of how technology is changing our world, my answer is simple: go long on the collective power of human ingenuity. We are an extraordinarily inventive and adaptive species. Used wisely, technology can act as a discovery, diffusion and delivery mechanism of good ideas. GitHub, the open source software sharing platform used by 40m developers around the world, may well provide more practicable solutions to many of our challenges than the UN.
Here are three questions that I think we could answer in the coming years and improve our lives in important ways. But, to use start-up terminology, our societies will need to pivot, reprioritising investment and creating new public goods and agile institutions that can enrich us all and better protect against future dangers.
1. If we are capable of constantly monitoring aeroplane engines, why can't we monitor our bodies too?
Each year, Rolls-Royce gathers more than 70tn data points from its in-service aero-engines. Or at least it did when aeroplanes were flying. This constant sensing and monitoring of every stress and strain in a critical piece of machinery is one reason why air travel has become phenomenally safe. So why do we most often wait for our bodily engines to develop a fault before we regularly collect health data?
Thanks to the use of smartwatches and other wearable sensors, we carry permanent health monitors on our wrists. With the right apps, we can easily measure our temperature, heart rate, glucose levels, menstrual cycles, blood pressure and sleeping patterns. Such technology can help deliver the precious 3Ps of healthcare: personalisation, prevention and precision. It may also be able to provide early warning signals of a fourth P: pandemics.
Healthtech surely ranks as one of the biggest economic opportunities of the century, which is why the Apples, Amazons and Googles are piling into this field. As with all technologies, it carries its own risks. The Chinese city of Hangzhou, home to the tech giant Alibaba, is planning to introduce a permanent health tracking app for its 10m people to act as a "firewall to enhance people's health and immunity". The fears of a techno-surveillance state are real. But the potential for public healthcare systems and medical researchers to benefit from the sharing of data in responsible and imaginative ways is enormous.
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2. Who do I trust with my data?
If we are able to create useful "digital twins" of our world, as Rolls-Royce has done with its engines, then we want to make sure that our virtual alter egos live in a secure environment. Yet it is clear many private corporations (with an eye to profit maximisation) and governments (with a nasty instinct to snoop) are not reliable custodians of our data.
This is an area where there may well be a technological solution to a technological problem. New data architectures are being developed that would enable us to have the best of both worlds: we can exploit the benefits of Big Data while preserving individual privacy and security. Private companies and academic researchers around the world are trying to crack this challenge. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world wide web, is working with a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop the concept of personal online data stores (PODS), which would give individual users more control over their data.
Other projects, such as the Hub of All Things (HAT) initiative, led by Irene Ng of Warwick University, are also exploring the possibilities of creating a new data ecosystem. The intent of both designs is to invert the current power relationship on the web, enabling users themselves to determine which companies and services can access the data held on their devices.
The challenge for these new architectures will be to acquire critical mass given our dependence on the likes of Google and Facebook. But is this an area where healthy competition within Big Tech may lead to better outcomes? Will Apple or Microsoft upend the rules of the game?
Public policy can also tilt the field to collective advantage. But few subjects are guaranteed to make voters' eyes glaze over faster than talking about data governance regimes and secure multi-party computation programs. Still, a better-informed public discussion about how to enshrine privacy by design is a societal debate we should be having.
3. If the internet can be such a great thing, why does only half the world have access to it?
One other area for investment that could have a tremendous impact would be to wire up the rest of the world. At present, the ITU, the UN agency for information and communications technology, estimates that only 54 per cent of the world's population has access to the internet. But digital deprivation is not only confined to the poorer and more remote regions. A report published in 2018 found that 31 per cent of households in New York City did not have a broadband subscription.
In their book Age of Discovery, Ian Goldin and Chris Kutarna argued that the mass diffusion of knowledge could help spark a second Renaissance, given the explosion of new ideas in science, technology, education, arts and health. If you believe in the random distribution of talent then there is every chance that the modern equivalents of Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Marie Curie are alive today. The internet can help them flourish.
One of the most intriguing trends of our times is that of reverse innovation, where ideas pioneered in the developing world are applied in the developed world, too. Given the environmental imperatives of our age, it could well be that smarter solutions stem from the world of scarcity than from the world of abundance.
This is certainly the case in China and India, where some remarkable companies are using technology platforms to build new educational infrastructure for children living in remote regions. Another example is logistics in places where it is difficult to transport goods over potholed or non-existent roads. Zipline, which uses airborne drones to deliver urgent medical supplies in Rwanda and Ghana, is now experimenting with such services in the US, too.
Many FT readers will — rightly — tear holes in this optimistic outlook at a time of global peril. It is true that if we cannot deal with our climate emergency, then we will be able to deal with little else. An even more hyperconnected world also creates new global faultlines and risks of technological vulnerabilities and cyberwarfare. Eras of convulsive intellectual change can stir up more primitive fears. The age of Leonardo da Vinci brought Savonarola, too.
But I favour the attitude of Garry Kasparov, the great chess champion who won so many matches by seizing the initiative and maximising his offensive possibilities rather than being paralysed by his defensive frailties. We should always be mindful of what can go wrong, but focus on increasing the chances of things going right.
In his book, Deep Thinking, about the promising merger of human creativity and machine intelligence, he writes: "I remain an optimist if only because I've never found much advantage in the alternatives." That should serve as inspiration for our anxious age.
© Financial Times