Why the Greens should love Big Brother

Our ever-watched society is good news for the environment.

Last month, Lord Alan Sugar’s digital signage business Amscreen launched the OptimEyes system; screens that will watch you as you watch them - analysing your face and recording your age, gender and location.  This is the latest advance in technology that generates more and more insights into what makes us tick – the holy grail for market-hungry brand managers.

Whilst this might feel invasive and evoke images of a big brother society, there’s a flip-side to this abundance of information: the exponential growth of digital processing power seen over the last decade is also giving global citizens access to knowledge that in the past brands probably would have preferred remained buried in complex, global supply chains.

For instance, mobile phone apps such as Barcoo have pioneered bringing information about everyday products to European smartphone users through the simple scan of a barcode.

Going one step further is Carrotmob, a digital platform that allows individuals to come together in groups to spend money to support a business in return for them making an improvement that people care about.

Then there are businesses such as Honest By, who claim to be the world’s first 100 per cent transparent business.  Established by designer Bruno Pieter, the site sells fashion items where full details of sources, cost and even retail mark-up are freely available.

So, why is this move towards ultra-transparency good news for sustainability? Two key reasons. First - by giving civil society a voice, digital platforms are allowing debates about important social issues, which in turn are encouraging businesses to be more accountable as they realise the sheer impossibility of controlling their messages.  Last year, the sponsors of the 2012 Olympic Games wanted to tell the world how proud they were to support the Olympics.  Campaigning platform 38 Degrees wanted to tell the world how these blue chip companies were choosing to take a (legal) tax break.  Guess whose voice won?

Secondly, ultra-transparency is prompting business to scrutinise what really happens in their supply chain.  This can only be a good thing, if in the future it prevents bute-tainted horsemeat from being added to beef products heading for human consumption. The Sustainability Consortium (TSC), for example, brings together diverse global players like retail giant Walmart and many other household names to develop transparent methodologies and strategies for a new generation of products which address environmental, social and economic challenges. 

Of course, digitally-driven campaigns have their detractors.  There are those who believe it is nothing short of dangerous to use social media to create policy.  Avaaz.org is a digital campaigning community which attracted 2,419,077 signatories in just 36 hours supporting an EU-wide ban of neonicotinoid pesticides, linked to the dramatic fall in bee populations globally.  Enraged experts, including the United Kingdom’s National Farmers Union, warned of catastrophic crop losses without the pesticide.

This is, of course, the point about sustainability. It is complex and there often isn’t one "right" answer - a set of interventions are needed to truly solve a problem.

At Forum for the Future, we describe a sustainable business as one that is commercially successful and delivers goods and services that have a social value - all within environmental limits (or one planet’s worth of resources, not the current three in the UK, five in the US).  Whilst Lord Sugar’s OptimEyes might feel like a step closer to losing the personal data we hold dear, radical transparency is overall a positive driver towards this. 

By driving companies to assume responsibility for aspects of their supply chain which previously they may have been content to leave with suppliers at best - hidden at worst - we will see standards rise. And as the voice of the general public gets louder, businesses will be encouraged to deliver on their wider responsibilities to both society and the environment.

With more people watching, business become more accountable. Photograph: Getty Images

Sally Uren is the Chief Executive of Forum for the Future

Photo: Getty
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.