The new progressive agenda

Turbulent times require a radical policy response

Hi, it's Chris from the Tony Blair Institute. I'm excited to share our latest essay, which is all about the tech revolution and what it means for the future of progressive policy.

by Tony Blair and Chris Yiu

The pandemic has exposed some hard truths.

The interconnected global system we took for granted – even as the forces of nationalism and populism chipped away at its edges – has let us down at the very time we needed countries to come together. Huge inequalities in people’s access to technology have cost us dearly, particularly in the developing world. The agenda-setting power of traditional sources of authority is ebbing away in plain sight.

In short: the institutions of the 20th century are fundamentally mismatched to the challenges of the 21st century.

So as the world comes to terms with the shock and loss of the coronavirus crisis, it is time to take an uncompromising look at how things were before, and what must be made anew.

We have been here before. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century necessitated a complete realignment – not just of businesses and the economy, but also of society, the welfare state, education, infrastructure, politics and government itself.

The technological revolution of the 21st century demands a response that is equivalent in its all-encompassing scope. Everything must be on the table, and action must be swift. Reconfiguring the world in response to the Industrial Revolution took a century; now even a decade would be too long to wait.

But the context for action is different. The internet has shattered what passed for shared public debate into myriad conflicting conversations. The impact is asymmetric: It has become far easier to rally people against something than to forge consensus around an alternative.

The stubborn refusal of progressive politics to acknowledge this new reality leaves the field open to insurgents offering protest rather than policy. Populism is no basis on which to govern. But as the recent experiences of so many countries demonstrate, it nevertheless has a powerful allure – and indulges those who would rather smash the system than seek to reform it.

Incrementalism will always fare badly against this kind of assault.

To prevail, progressives must instead return to being champions of progress.

There are two important dividing lines on this journey of reinvention.

The first is between those who recognise that how we handle the technology revolution is the central question of our time, and those who do not.

The second is between those who believe that, properly managed, it can help us build a better and more equal society, and those who see it as a threat to be slowed or stopped.

This is why the new progressive agenda must be centred on the tech revolution.

Progressives must embrace the world as it is and is soon to be, find new ways to connect and forge alliances, and provide compelling answers to the big questions of our time. The role of technology is to enable human progress; the purpose of progressive politics in the 21st century must be to weave it into an optimistic vision for the future.


Answers, not anger

Today’s information and operating environment is highly fractured, and this in turn favours political campaigns based on broad, relentless negation.

But this advantage is not absolute, and can be overcome with the right approach.

The problem with the old-fashioned left view of radical policy is that the solutions it offers are in the end either totemic (e.g. nationalising the railways or power companies), spending more (e.g. on unreformed health services or abolishing tuition fees) or tinkering (e.g. rearranging the bureaucracy and relocating offices). None are even remotely near what’s required for the world we are dealing with today.

Furthermore, deep reform of government and public services has fallen off the political agenda – at a time when the opportunities for transformation have never been greater.

The risk for the left is that, as it searches for a new agenda, it alights on divisive issues and picks fights that ultimately cost it the opportunity to govern.

The more disciplined political strategy is to drive up the salience of centre-left ideas that resonate with the majority of voters. This means focusing on a progressive economic and social agenda in which the treatment and equality of minorities is a critical and non-negotiable part – but does not define the campaign.

This new progressive agenda has three core components. First and foremost, a determination to bring the practical benefits of new technologies to all in the ways that matter most: revolutionising health and education for the many, connecting the world and ending the climate crisis. Second, a renewed focus on a prosperous, high-tech economy with new forms of support for work and innovation, and fit-for-purpose regulation. And third, a new generation of institutions built on common technologies and entrepreneurship, emboldened by a more dynamic distribution of power within countries and new, future-facing alliances between them.

Guaranteeing a bright future for all

Predictive health for all. The industrial era ushered in huge advances in medicine and mass health care, but the cost of this model is skyrocketing as populations grow and age. The radical solution is policy that optimises for health rather than the health-care system itself. A new generation of interventions should be person-centric, predictive and precision-targeted, with artificial intelligence taking the strain on diagnosis and optimisation while clinicians and carers have more time for human contact. A global platform for gathering, sharing and mining medical data will be transformative for the fight to find new drugs, cure disease and extend active, healthy human life for everyone.

Personalised education for all. The industrial era also brought huge progress in education, but here too the model needs to evolve. A trade-off between quality and scale, where only a few have access to the best education, belongs in the past. In the future, every student should have access to world-class learning resources and the most stimulating educational interactions, all personalised to their individual circumstances. Achieving this at scale will require the determined application of new technologies in the education arena, from digital platforms to online classes and AI tuition, in addition to a surge of investment in facilities and teachers.

Universal digital inclusion. Access to technology is transformational – for people’s health, education, participation and prosperity. The great development challenge of the 20th century was helping people to live, and while infant mortality and avoidable deaths have not been eliminated, the goal is in sight. The great development challenge of the 21st century is unlocking opportunity, and this will only be possible when everyone has equal access to the global digital commons. We have the technology at our disposal – from fibre and 5G to satellites and free-space optics – to connect everyone on the planet, and we should do what it takes to close the digital divide well before the decade is out.

Net-zero emissions. The climate emergency is a clear and present threat to our shared future, but our 20th-century institutions have failed to arrest it. International negotiations should continue but cannot be relied on in the time we have left. Immediate action must be taken in parallel to curb our environmental impact – achieving major changes at massive scale in ways that people can get behind. We need to redouble our efforts to dramatically reduce the cost of renewable energy, but this alone will not be enough. A range of transformative technologies – from carbon capture and storage, grid-scale batteries and micro generation through to electric vehicles, precision agriculture and plant-based meats – must be accelerated to shift the world onto a more sustainable path before it is too late.

Unlocking economic opportunity and innovation

Reimagined social insurance. Technology creates new opportunities for people to work flexibly and to build businesses that are only possible by virtue of connected, global markets. But for some people a more dynamic economy will also be a more precarious one, and as technology takes over more tasks, many people will have to acquire new skills to find work that suits them. Rather than trying to forestall these changes, the radical solution is to lean in to them while taking steps to widen access to opportunity. A complete overhaul of benefits should refocus on new measures to help people manage risk, cope with changes throughout life and acquire human capital as a hedge against a more fluid world of work.

New global standards. In the 21st century we are stakeholders in digital platforms as much as we are citizens of the countries and cities we live in physically. As the technology companies in our lives have grown, they have delivered huge benefits, but they also now wield significant geopolitical power. And as governments scramble to reassert themselves, the risk is that clumsy attempts to regulate tech companies will splinter the internet ever further, stifle innovation and make everyone worse off. Instead countries should work together to define common global standards on things like data protection, competition, taxation, security, freedom and online harms, setting the agenda for responsible capitalism without holding back new ideas.

Charter sectors. Many of the rules and regulations that made sense in the 20th century are now barriers to progress in the 21st century. But attempting to reform them incrementally is doomed to fail; every change threatens a vested interest, and in the time it would take to debate them all the world will have moved on. Rather than toil endlessly in the margins, the radical solution is simply to start over. Policymakers should pick strategic sectors where tech could make a transformative difference – think urban and interurban mobility, aerospace, smart grids, telepresence and telemedicine – and let innovators press ahead under new, flexible and light-touch rules that make sense for the future not the past.

An ARPA in every country. The business of shaping the future should not be limited to the interests and obsessions of tech companies and philanthropists. Governments are in a unique position to build and accelerate speculative technology portfolios with the potential for outlier results. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) approach centres on creating the right environment for world-class programme managers, who are tasked with identifying radical visions for technology and building the external research networks to make them possible. This is emphatically not a general model for running a country, nor is it about writing huge cheques – cutting-edge R&D is by definition a niche pursuit. But shaping the future does matter, and it requires the sort of long-term commitment to science and innovation that is often scarce in government today.

Renewing and remaking our institutions

Shared government technology. The bureaucracy of the industrial age is steeped in inertia and scales terribly, whereas the software infrastructure that powers internet-native organisations is responsive and scales infinitely. The reality is that every country needs the same digital foundations: fast, interoperable systems to handle data, identity, transactions, notifications, payments and the like. Governments should deploy software at scale to dramatically reduce duplication and inefficiency, freeing them to focus on service delivery. The technologies required should be built once and opened up for any country to implement and extend, taking maximum advantage of tech-enabled economies of scale.

Platforms for public services. Entrepreneurs have outmanoeuvred 20th-century incumbents in all sorts of industries, gaining the upper hand by leveraging tech and focusing on customer needs. Citizens deserve similar improvements in their experiences with public services, but the industrial production model is inherently resistant to change. Rather than fighting these trends, the radical response is to refocus on using tech to meet the needs of citizens – even if it threatens vested interests. This means creating new opportunities for technologists and others to work within government to improve delivery. But it also means creating more platforms on which entrepreneurs can build new products and services for citizens to choose as alternatives to the status quo.

Networked institutions. The modern world is far too complex to govern top-down. Devolution was the right response in the industrial era, catalysing local action to overcome the inertia of distant government. In the 21st century there are new scale benefits in software and data, but also new technologies (like cryptocurrencies and encrypted messaging) that render centralised authority inert. The next step is therefore a new topography to reflect the new reality, with a more dynamic allocation of responsibility between neighbourhoods, cities, regions and national institutions, and new protocols for working together to advance common interests. In parallel, technologies for civic participation and engagement need to be reclaimed and nurtured, tightening the feedback loop between citizens and the decisions that affect their lives.

New global alliances. The geopolitics of the 20th century was anchored in the real world, but the global arena of the 21st century has been reshaped by the digital world. Europe and the United States must provide a space where the technologies of the future – from artificial intelligence and 5G to robotics and biotech – can be advanced in pursuit of freedom and the common good. The West must find a new stance in relation to China, cooperating on some dimensions while competing and confronting it on others, and redouble efforts to accelerate economic development around the world. And all must work together to bring about digital peace, before hacking and interference escalate into cataclysmic cyber warfare.

A coalition for the future

The structures and institutions of the 20th century cannot deliver this agenda. Of course we should cherish our past, learning from our mistakes and building on what works. But this is no time to be precious: Setting the new progressive agenda in motion requires action rooted in new institutions infused with the technologies, culture and operating models of the 21st century.

A new generation of leaders must be prepared to embody a new sort of leadership for the internet age: able to draw together different talents and experience, accessible to the public without mediation, and humble enough to make promises they can realistically hope to deliver when in power.

And they must take the first steps to assemble a coalition for the future that looks very different to the coalitions of the past. Diverse, not uniform. Networked, not hierarchical. Built for pace, not burdened by inertia. Restless for change, not content with the status quo.

Effective at harnessing technology, extending our public discourse and making it easier for people to build together rather than be driven apart.

Focused and determined to accelerate progress and international development, so that the countries currently lagging behind have a shot at becoming the superstars of the future.

Above all, audacious in a shared ambition for the common good.

Today starts with this new progressive agenda, and with us figuring out together how to make it real and who will do what. Tomorrow will belong to the countries, companies, entrepreneurs and communities that work together responsibly to bring about positive change through technology.

In time, the pandemic gripping the world will pass – but the revolutionary impact of technology will remain with us. In the depths of the crisis there is yet an opportunity: to shed the things that are holding us back, and to renew the politics of hope with a radical, practical vision for the future.

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Thanks to Nicolas Colin, Linda Griffin, Martin Gurri, Sarah Hunter, Jason Stockwood and Freddie Williams for reading drafts of this post.