Creating an inclusive innovation economy by transforming production
Instead of focusing mainly on mitigating the downsides of change, we argue that instead we need to transform production, allowing vastly more people to be makers and shapers of the innovation economy. This is likely to require action on many fronts, going well beyond what’s traditionally thought of as innovation policy.
A first priority is to “democratize” the innovation economy—opening up access to capital, capabilities and other productive resources. This implies, for instance, that policymakers should focus not just on supporting the technological frontier, but helping innovations to diffuse throughout the economy, building firms’ ability to absorb and make use of new knowledge, technologies, and practices. Finance needs to prioritize the needs of SMEs, social enterprises, and cooperatives. And property rights will need to change, to allow more people to make use of key resources like data and knowledge. We need, for example, new models of data ownership, a reversal of the trend towards extending the length of copyright protection, and experimentation with different terms for patents to counter rent-seeking behaviour amongst dominant firms.
While analysts don’t agree on exactly how many jobs will be lost and created through automation and AI, they all agree that the effect will be disruptive. So a second priority for action is to equip people to navigate a rapidly changing economy with confidence.
As many have recognized, this requires raising levels of education. However, we shouldn’t think of this solely in terms of feeding the pipeline of skills, churning out more scientists and software engineers. The character of education also needs to change, putting a greater focus on critical thinking and imagination. If we expect that skills will need to be constantly updated, then we need to take lifelong learning much more seriously. Rather than expecting individuals to take all the responsibility for upskilling themselves—a task that those with higher skills levels and incomes find far easier to do—we should see adult education as a shared societal responsibility. This might involve, for example, introducing new rights and resources that allow people to take time out to retrain or give them individual budgets to spend on learning throughout life.
And as a third priority, we need to shift the balance of power and democratic control in the innovation economy. One of the problems we face is that visions of the future are created by a relatively small group of people: entrepreneurs and politicians. The stories we tell about the future reinforce the idea that technology has a predetermined path and all we can do is mitigate its downsides. But of course in reality, the path of technology is shaped by decisions that people make, and we need many more people involved in these decisions. This means reinvigorating democratic institutions and investing in civil society and associative life.
Small steps in a radical direction
How do we achieve radical economic reform? Unger argues that big changes can emerge from piecemeal steps. A far-reaching agenda doesn’t have to be enacted all at once. And in fact we can see initiatives, policies, and institutions around the world that embody some of the ideas described above. The UK government is experimenting with a new scheme to diffuse technologies to the long tail of less productive businesses. In a number of countries, there is a growing movement exploring data trusts to govern data in a more transparent, democratic way, including from Nesta, Canada’s Centre for International Governance Innovation, and Element AI. Canada has recently announced the Canada Training Benefit, a suite of initiatives to help adults retrain, which will include an individual training credit, access to income support during time taken out to retrain, and a new right to request training leave.
But small experiments won’t add up to big change without a new vision. We need to tell new stories about possibilities for reform. Rather than limiting ourselves to mitigating negative consequences of change, we need a story about how to take control and shape an innovation economy that truly allows mass participation: a new vision for production.