We are often told we are living at the start of a new industrial revolution, an age in which our world will change beyond compare. For many that has already happened, and in reality it is Europe and North America that seem to be the developing, rather than developed, nations of this new age.
That is a crude assumption, even for an unseasoned politician like myself. In reality, that is the non-digital reality nation states are wrestling with in the concept of industries of the future, their application and impact. Governments across the globe are playing catch-up with states such as Singapore, Estonia and Rwanda, where it is recognised that necessity is the mother of invention.
These three independent nation states share a not dissimilar history in which economic, physical and political trauma have played a significant role defining their recent histories and the challenge of overcoming them; Singapore bound to a reality of no natural resources, Estonia starting from scratch in the post-Soviet age and Rwanda rising from the ashes of genocide. Each challenged in the very concept of what it means to be a sovereign nation state in a post-colonial and post-communist age. While their starting points differ, all three began with a recognition that to exist, they must give their nations’ peoples a rationale to stay, a rationale to believe that the state’s vision of the future is one which improves living standards, life expectancy and opportunity.
The ability to start from scratch has enabled these small nation states to lead the way in advancing technology at every level of society, from voting to paying taxes, to giving small business the opportunity to emerge and grow in the most challenging environments. It is a national endeavour.
Elsewhere in the world, we are not starting from scratch. We are the inheritors of an industrial structure founded at the dawn of the 16th century, emerging from the printing press to the industrial landscape of Dickens. It is an infrastructure on which old scientific advances were well matched. An infrastructure that enabled the hierarchy of business and inhibited democratic participation and equality, an age which required revolution to enable basic change. It is an age of colonial and communist dominion over the drivers of industry and thought. It is an age for the few.
It is one which I am well acquainted with; my father, now nearing his 83rd birthday, is a coppersmith, a trade learned in the greatest shipyard of the 20th century – John Brown of Clydebank. The shipyard no longer exists and the town has changed beyond belief. Technological advancement placed us at a profound disadvantage at a time of great change. While shipyards in South Korea and Norway embraced new and innovative approaches to ship construction, the UK was quickly left behind.
Having been given a new portfolio as spokesperson for industries of the future, a portfolio that covers a profound range of uses from the morality of AI to how robotics can assist in the perennial issue of an ageing population, I am conscious that the SNP must seek to engage in the debate as well as championing practical investment in the infrastructure of the future. In doing so, we will rise to the challenge of building a nation state that is more equal, more able to offer its people improved living standards, improved life expectancy and freedom in ways our parents and grandparents could never imagine.
This is a scientific endeavour that must be measured not only by wealth creation but by prosperity and equality across class and geography as its main purpose. The more equal a society is, the more secure it is.
While still a devolved political state, Scotland will face many limitations and challenges in delivering infrastructure for industries of the future. No doubt many will countenance the quick fix of retrofitting, which we must caution against. Retrofitting the digital age on top of the industrial age will allow a range of difficulties to emerge; it will maintain and embed monopolies in both the public and private sectors, critically in the financial sector and in the arena of democratic participation, burdening small- and medium-sized businesses as well as local communities with structures that limit innovation and opportunities to deliver greater equality.
Scotland is already looking beyond the physical boundaries to independent nations such as Finland, Estonia and Iceland to inform a range of policy fields, none more critical than skills. And yet we all need to look at the economic model that will deliver this change, and one country stands out in its philosophical and practical approach as well its ability to challenge industries of the future and to enable innovation in science through one of the most traditional concepts in our societies – community.
We must reflect on the Mittlestadt of Germany as a model which enables stability and growth, not at the expense of communities, but with them at its heart. Wealth creation alone, without stability for communities, must be rejected. The social wealth and social capital of communities, as well as their resilience, are a far better measure of the effectiveness of government policy. There is now an opportunity for the industries of the future to be at the heart of equality, dignity and liberty.
Technology and the House of Commons do not go together. Nevertheless, it is my intention to speak out in this bastion of the past on the profound challenges we and our children will confront in the not-too-distant future. If I have a hope of what the digital age will be, it is an age in which equality and dignity are the drivers of industry and thought. It must be an age for all.