Fighting the wrong battle

Soundbytes on innovation

In our workplaces, schools and homes, we are locked in a battle for supremacy in the digital economy. Our enemy? East and south-east Asia. Or at least, that's what the government and industry would have us believe.

Talk of "the knowledge economy" often echoes the paranoid fantasies of the cold war. The competitiveness of the EU is set against the emerging giant that is the Chinese economy. Internet bandwidth in South Korea and Japan elicits nervous rumours among policymakers in Westminster. Forecasts of the future are even more terrifying, with the number of English-speaking graduates in India predicted to soar in the coming years. Britain, we are constantly reminded, must keep innovating its skills and technology, or become an also-ran of economic history.

This view of things is debatable. Britain is still creating more jobs in service industries than it is losing through outsourcing; and increased productivity in this sector, unlike manufacturing, tends to create jobs rather than cut them. On the other hand, no economic trend is permanent, and things could look very different in five years.

Yet even if this vision is based on impeccable economics, it has not been promoted with very clever politics. The EU's Lisbon agenda commits the Continent to becoming "the most competitive knowledge-based economy by 2010", meaning faster telecoms networks, greater flexibility, and more knowledge workers. Yet this technocratic stipulation is hardly likely to win support for the European project, as the recent rejections of the EU constitution in France and the Netherlands have rather suggested.

Policymakers in the UK view the internet as a learning resource that will build human capital and raise our innovative capacity to compete against Asia. And that's not all: by enabling home-working, it will help achieve the 80 per cent adult employment rate pledged by the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, David Blunkett. Strategies to increase uptake of the internet may often be couched in the softer language of "digital inclusion", but their emphasis remains firmly on productivity and competitiveness.

But recent research by Neil Selwyn from the University of Cardiff suggests that this intimate association between IT and learning may turn people off. Selwyn found that very few people are voluntarily adopting the internet in the name of "lifelong learning". In fact, nearly 40 per cent of people in the UK never use the internet, claiming that it is "not for them". Given the vast array of uses to which the internet can be put, this must be based on some misunderstanding of the technology. IT and new media are too often promoted in the wrong way by the wrong people.

The virtues of technological experimentation, craft and exploration are stifled by being squeezed into economic equations. Indeed, the economic benefits of innovation are very often the highest when they are least sought: the research and development that led to America's high-tech boom in the 1990s was pioneered by the Pentagon and Nasa, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The "innovator's dilemma", as Clayton Christensen described it in a book of that name, is to ensure that pursuit of economic success doesn't crowd out the haphazard innovations that will be the basis for economic success several years down the line.

The good news is that Britain has plenty to celebrate in the world of new media. In e-democracy, we are the envy of the world, even if few of the best projects have come from government itself. Websites such as TheyWorkForYou and WriteToThem have come up with entirely new ways of bringing the political process closer to citizens: indeed, TheyWorkForYou has been praised as "the finest advocacy" web application in the world".

In the US, a number of academics are studying the community-building uses of new media - for example, Keith Hampton in Pennsylvania and Paul Resnick in Michigan - while the Pew Internet & American Life Project produces unrivalled data on the effects of new media in society. But these experts are envious of the UK for having produced independent sites such as UpMyStreet, which facilitates localised discussion via message boards, and nethouse-prices (www.nethouse-prices.com), which uses freedom of information requests to distribute up-to-date information on house prices in every UK street.

What is exciting about these examples, and so many of the New Statesman New Media Awards nominations, is that they have come into existence experimentally and independently. The internet doesn't have a function, it is simply a new sphere of possibilities, which are as much civic as they are commercial, as much amateur as professional.

There is an oft-used analogy between new media and the built environment, and it works in this context. A good built environment is a public as well as a private resource. It is cause for celebration in its own right. Where economic imperatives are allowed to reign supreme, innovation deteriorates and the reputation of the construction industry is tarnished. To avoid this happening to new media, innovations must be granted a place in society as beneficial in their own right, not just as means to economic ends.

William Davies is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research. His new report, Modernising with Purpose: a manifesto for a digital Britain, is published on 14 July