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14 June 2016

From the patterns on a fern to the crinkle of the shoreline, the world needs structures to survive

The social and government structures we create also must have some structure on every scale. 

By Tim Berners-Lee

I believe Britain should stay in the EU. The logical reason is that we need structures of all scales to manage this planet, and there are a good many things that are best done at the scale of Europe. The emotional reason is that it is so much more fun to embrace the fascinating mix of people, cultures and languages that is Europe.

Now is not the time to cut ourselves adrift. The forces of globalisation are breaking down barriers to commerce and culture. To be isolationist will make life more difficult; it will make us less able to compete, in the markets of culture, ideas and products.

Is it true that taking care of people who have had to leave their homes, taking nothing with them, is going to cost us time, money and space? Yes, but our duty to them is core to our human condition and is not a function of political structure. We have to accept them, village by village.

In the longer term, will we see a lot of migration? Yes, but don’t panic. The European passports our children have are a valuable asset – an insurance against things not working out in one country in the future.

Young people will move towards jobs and exciting culture. Older people may move towards better weather. Companies will move to where they find it is best to do business. When particular cities become such strong magnets that they start to get overwhelmed, then we must understand what makes them attractive and rep­licate it elsewhere.

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A wonderful thing about nature, from the pattern on a fern to the crinkling of the shoreline, is that has interesting structure at every scale. From my time working with people and organisations, I have come to suspect that the social and government structures we create also must have some structure on every scale. The old adage is “think globally, act locally”, but in fact there are many other scales: by ourselves, in families and groups, in villages, towns, cities, nations, regions – and globally.

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As an Englishman sitting in London, I am surrounded by lots of structures including the borough, but also Greater London, England, Britain, Europe and the Earth. When I am sitting in Massachusetts, where I work and raised two kids, then it is the town, the city, the state, the US and the world. What these different domains share is simple: these are the places we call home. The places we can get stoked up about defending. The more personally relevant the place, the greater our passion to protect it.

Promoting and protecting the internet is generally geography-free. When we discuss privacy, it has been at the EU and US levels. Why? We desperately need commonality of understanding between companies and consumers about privacy expectations and use of data. That is too hard to get globally. The global level is the UK for broad declarations of principle. Doing it at the scale of the UK is much easier but gives less benefit. So Europe is a sweet spot – a broad and diverse tablet on which to carve the right principles. On the other hand, when talking about Open Government Data, the UK has been the sweet spot: small enough to make a serious move efficiently, large enough to make it valuable, and relevant enough to act as the trailblazer for others.

I think a lot of people feel that the global scale, the planetary scale, has been missed out when it comes to such attention. If the people in this country, this region, spent just a bit more on helping the poorer areas get up to speed, poverty would be dramatically reduced, they say. That may be a common imbalance.

Of course, the internet and web standards happen in a generally nation-free way. Borders are not part of the net’s design, and people don’t worry about them when agreeing on the technical standards, because good technical design generally isn’t a function of where you are. So we also need global-level structures.

The EU level, though, is essential for us. There are a lot of regulations that may be boring and bureaucratic, but is it not more efficient to use the ones set by the EU, rather than for each country to make its own? The solution is to help make the processes less bureaucratic, not to copy and make our own versions. And the value of the same regulations in each country is huge, whether you are talking about standard engineering parts fitting together, or common understandings on websites about personal data and privacy. We need to be better at bringing our ideas into those European discussions – in pubs across the land it seems we always talk national politics rather than continental politics, even for things where the European politics may be more relevant.

Emotionally, on the one hand, I’m a European as well as an inhabitant of the planet, and on the other hand a Brit and an Englishman (with a bit of Welshman and Scot). 

I have had enough memorable times with people from other bits of Europe to feel a camaraderie and a sense of single purpose, to also enjoy being part of the larger whole. Cycling with a group a few weeks ago, we touched four countries in a week’s biking.

Like so many referendum issues, this ­decision is governed by the heart and wallet. This is perhaps a refreshing change to the cult of personality that is prone to distort party politics. But in the Brexit debate, the weight of enlightened opinion around the “wallet” argument clearly points towards Remain. So it comes down to the heart. For me, the heartfelt sense of belonging that comes with true connectivity is an overriding piece of systems thinking. In this case, the connectivity for the UK is with the 440 million-strong continent next door. It is an essential part of our organic structure. My heart and wallet are at one: Britain should remain in Europe.

Tim Berners-Lee invented the web in 1989. He founded the World Wide Consortium and is the president of the Open Data Institute.