Innovation should benefit the North, not just corporations

The public good needs to be prioritised if the fourth industrial revolution is to be successful in the Northern Powerhouse.

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How can we build the kind of society we want in the Northern Powerhouse during and after the fourth industrial revolution (4IR)? 4IR promises new business models and positive impacts on our health and environment.  Microsoft’s latest advertisements, for example, claim that we will be able to feed the world, preserve our heritage and help the deaf see sound. Yet businesses such as Uber, Facebook, Google and Amazon are under fire for creating new business models which use individuals’ technology and data for their own purposes, and have found new ways of avoiding certain workers’ rights and taxation.

It is clear that there are risks and benefits to this new wave of disruptive innovation. The major risk for all of us is that we are apathetic and that we settle for what the small number of large tech companies give us, without considering its potential impacts and implications. How do we ensure that the wealth created is shared by all of us and leads to a better quality of life? This is the kind of open, important question that we need our brightest and bravest minds from across all research disciplines to be thinking about as we stand on the cusp of a technological revolution. A lesson from the first industrial revolution – led by the North of England – is that while in the long term it led to the formation of unions, which in turn fought for improved working conditions and a shorter working week, it took between 60 and 100 years for the average worker to feel the financial benefit. 

This new revolution, based on huge amounts of data, very fast computers and the world wide web combined with the pervasiveness of the internet of things, has been said to be akin to the information revolution caused by the invention of the printing press. The printing press democratised information and communication, enabling revolution, literacy and science. Ironically, the advertising-based business models of Google and Facebook have drained print journalism of income, reducing the plurality of press and restricting the number of platforms for political discourse. Discourse has in turn been reduced to often divisive soundbites which do not reflect the complexity of the issues that we face.

By bringing humanities and art together with social science and technology, we could think about the possibilities and the implications of the fourth industrial revolution.  We could truly embody responsible innovation which safeguards the rights of individuals and delivers a public good for society and the state. We could, for example, embed basic ethics into algorithms and remove bias on the basis of gender, race, disability or sexuality. We could create a social contract which delivers wealth and technological benefits to the population without exploiting their behavioural data or their rights. We could democratise digital infrastructures and build alternatives that serve collective interests rather than concentrating wealth and power in a few corporations. We could take a society and humans-first, systems view of this revolution and maximise the probability of things going right by thinking through what could go wrong and learning lessons from history.  

If we can engage with this revolution and harness its potential while building in protections for society and individuals, we can decide how we want to use these powerful new tools in a way that brings benefit to all of our communities across the Northern Powerhouse. The pace of change of this industrial revolution is unprecedented. We urgently need interdisciplinary leadership in research with a defined pathway to impact genuine citizen engagement and political debate across the Northern Powerhouse to design the future for those living and growing up in the region today. 

Dr Annette Bramley is director of the N8 Research Partnership.