A short story about technology, public policy and the politics of hope
Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. In this special summer break edition we’re imagining one possible future among the infinite histories yet to be written.
Kim contemplated the glass of iced water for a moment before taking a sip. The crew bound for Mars would need the full might of human ingenuity to safely extract liquid water from the subsurface ice. But here on Earth, dawn was breaking – and Kim had a speech to write.
The immediate aftermath of people exercising their democratic right to vote hadn’t always been this way. Until paper voting was phased out in the late 2020s, candidates throughout the years had spent hours – sometimes days – waiting anxiously for ballots to be tallied and cross-checked.
Nowadays, election results were known the moment the online voting service closed. The winner took a breath, thanked their team, and got to work.
In one concession to tradition, they still addressed the nation in person – speaking live to a crowd gathered in the capital, while their avatar did the same in venues across all the major virtual worlds. Mercifully, this ritual also waited until the morning after. This left time to gather one’s thoughts and to get some rest before the tidal wave of expectations came crashing in.
But what to say?
The campaign four years ago had been a triumph for hope.
The pandemic era that had dominated the early 2020s had been hard on everyone, whatever their circumstances. Politicians on all sides talked about restoring freedoms and building back better. But they never really stopped to help people come to terms with the grief that lingered – not just for loved ones lost, but for an entire way of life altered in a million small ways by the spectre of another deadly outbreak.
The global response to the pandemic also exposed just how far out of time the institutions of the 20th century had drifted. Nation states were tested and found wanting. The crisis of authority in our politics was sent into overdrive – people saw that their leaders were no longer in control of events, and what collective trust was left soon evaporated.
The accelerating tech revolution raised the stakes even higher. The public knew that technology had saved the world, and could feel in their bones that – if nurtured properly – it held the key to a better life for themselves and their children.
Politics, meanwhile, found itself trapped in the past by a present it could no longer make sense of. To those who had been paying attention, it was no surprise that despite a post-pandemic bounce for the incumbents, the public’s satisfaction with the choices on offer went into free fall.
For the longest time it fell to others, empowered by the internet, to be the best of us.
Kim had never planned a life in politics. But growing up with technology imparted a natural fluency with a world in which the boundary between online and offline was rapidly dissolving, as well as a humility borne of participation in new sorts of communities – ones that cared about character and actions, not where you came from.
So when the party that was once the natural owner of the future crashed down to yet another bitter defeat, Kim’s generation were ready to step up. The public saw a new sort of leadership fit for a new era, and embraced a movement that was finally ready to meet the future with confidence and purpose.
It was hope that turned the tide in 2028, but it was competence and sheer determination that kept the dream alive today.
That first term had been a frenzy of activity. Public service reform is brutally difficult even under the most benign circumstances, let alone accelerated a hundredfold to catch up with a world racing away over the horizon. Nevertheless, the strategy was simple: execute fast, and deliver for the public.
The key had been to play the game on an entirely new dimension: taking advantage of technology to make a fresh start rather than trying to reform the old bureaucracy in situ. The metaverse state threw everything it had at building out new civic infrastructure – from 6G and sensor networks, data registers, design patterns and identity standards, through to new marketplaces, tokens and protocols for public service delivery.
An entire fleet of next-generation, user-centric services launched online, and rapidly eclipsed the old ways of doing things. As their success grew, they absorbed and modernised their industrial-era ancestors. Change on this scale was far from easy, but the administration pushed through – fusing political will and public purpose with entrepreneurs and technologists in a modern-day Apollo programme to remake the state.
For the first time, the quality of universal, publicly funded services in arenas like health, social care and education reached parity with mainstream private provision – and the quality of public service jobs climbed with them.
A reimagined role for the state wouldn’t have been possible without a corresponding revolution in economic policy. Where so many before had tried to slow the pace of change, the new administration leaned in hard. The twin traumas of Covid-X and the climate emergency meant that every rich country was forging ahead on deep medical science and geoengineering. Few, however, were confident enough in their grip on the 21st century operating environment to run full tilt at the end of geography.
The first-mover advantage and mass opportunity created by the establishment of new models for digital citizenship and civic participation, new legal frameworks for ephemeral virtual companies, and new protocols for digital currencies and decentralised tax administration was enormous.
The first big unlock was to level up the parts of the country that had fallen behind since the turn of the century. With fast internet now commonplace, the ability to do (almost) any job from anywhere changed everything. Combined with aggressive adoption of new transport networks and green urban automation, people’s options for where and how to live expanded massively. Big cities remained popular, but diversity and prosperity accelerated everywhere.
But by far the more profound impact was to change what it meant to be a nation state. The country’s resident population had grown a little in the last four years, but now nearly five times as many people around the globe considered it their digital home – registering and operating virtual businesses, accessing digital public services for their families and paying tax.
And, of course, voting in elections. Back in 2015, Michelle Obama had told the graduating class at Tuskegee University that voting is the way we move forward. The country’s master smart contract conferred different rights on non-resident citizens (mostly they had less say over the built environment), but there was no doubt that an explosion in participatory democracy enriched everyone.
Getting here had taken a huge national effort, and no small amount of faith. For all the remarkable progress, it remained impossible to please all of the people all of the time – but the public had now seen first hand what was possible when policymakers successfully navigated the new reality of the 21st century.
An overwhelming mandate for a second term affirmed the renewal of progressive politics as society’s lodestar for the technology revolution. Radical but sensible. Confident but humble. For the many – anywhere and everywhere.
Kim put down the glass, blinked an extended reality workspace into view, and started writing.