Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Embracing technology is key to social justice

Much has been made of the way that new technology creates potential divisions in society. The pace and nature of change could make large sections of the workforce obsolete on the basis of their current skills. From algorithmic robotics to big data analytics, technological change poses challenges to whole sections of the workforce. You would think this would be of prime interest to Labour.

Technology has been placed in a policy silo by Labour, there was some very good work before the election undertaken by the digital skills taskforce and in the ‘Making digital government work for everyone’ report. Not heard of them? Precisely. That’s the problem. Actually, technology is a pervasive force and if we just leave it to the market then whole sections of society might not only miss out, they could be harmed. It should be core to Labour’s analysis of the future.

One particularly interesting area for the centre-left is emergence of a spontaneous shared learning economy in recent years. Whilst traditional universities debate how to ‘monetise’ their content online through what are referred to as Massive Open Online Courses, people have just been getting on with exchanging knowledge and skills. Some are pursuing hobbies but that is not the whole story. From coding to craft-brewing, project management to setting up a business, nutrition to teacher development, people increasing upskill online. If this enthusiasm is harnessed, it has the potential to release a wave of creativity and new economic value.

Just take the website Udemy, it boasts 6 million students taking over 25,000 courses offered by more than 14,000 tutors. This is a peer-to-peer learning platform. YouTube, Github, Italki, local community forums, and intra-firm networks such as the Cemex operated ‘Shift’ platform are all part of the infrastructure of this shared learning economy. It is the biggest change to the way people learn since the expansion of universities in the 1990s and 2000s. Yet, it is a quiet revolution that could fuel greater and more inclusive social mobility.

Given this has happened without prompting, without systematic design, shouldn’t we just leave all this to its own devices and watch it expand and grow at breakneck speed? To certain extent, yes. The last thing government should do is seek to regulate, interfere, or compete with this energetic groundswell of learning. It could though help accelerate its impact both in terms of reach and ensuring that learner get formal recognition for their skills so they translate into greater social mobility.

The Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce worked with the polling company Populus to get a picture of how new technology impacts life opportunities for different sections of society. We found a group called the ‘confident creators’ who comprise 11 per cent of the population. They are to be found inhabiting Tech City and other urban tech spaces across the United Kingdom. They will be fine. But then we discovered a group who are ‘held back’ – creative, aspirational, use the internet in similar ways to the ‘confident creators’ including to develop their skills but feel a degree of frustration and a need for greater support in their endeavours. The ‘held back’ are twenty per cent of the population.

By helping the ‘held back’ there could be very significant social and economic gains for society. A more worrying group are ‘safety firsters’. They tend to use the internet for everyday information and entertainment. You might say, well that’s fine. The worry though is that as the labour market changes as new technology comes on stream, they could be exposed to risks that they have identified. And it is not an insignificant group at 30 per cent of the population. Any collective action taken to ensure that the benefits of the shared learning economy are spread further must have the ‘held back’ and ‘safety firsters’ in its sights.

How should we proceed? Firstly, we should start young. Effective use of technology in the classroom requires a spirit of inquiry, collaboration and evidence. Teachers should be given space to do this in order to embed relevant learning through digital technology in schools. Secondly, digital network should supplement a completely revamped approach to careers which emphasises multiple employer experience for students up to university and beyond. The state of employer engagement and careers advice in our schools is national disgrace.

And finally, we need to create new ‘cities of learning’. This initiative was set up by Rahm Emanuel in Chicago and completely open up learning so people can acquire skills in the workplace, peer-to-peer, in colleges and in the community. It has since spread to other United States cities. When they have demonstrated that they are skilled they receive an ‘open badge’ which can be used to demonstrate learning – micro-qualifications. Already, well over 4 million people hold open badges. Told you it was a quiet revolution.

One of Labour’s significant challenges is how to present a vision of the future grounded in social justice. Labour wins when it articulates an inclusive future. Getting to grips with technological change could become core to Labour politics in the next few years. Any credible agenda grounded in social justice will need to present a vision of how to help us all adapt to rapid technological change.


Anthony Painter is director of policy and strategy at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. He is also a contributing editor to Progress and tweets @AnthonyPainter. The ‘New Digital learning Age: How we can enable social mobility through technology’ by Anthony Painter and Louise Bamfield is available now.


Photo: Rachel Johnson

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Anthony Painter

is author of 'Barack Obama: Movement for Change'


  • Ironically, I am currently translating a book from French by a well-known economist who claims that there has been a massive slowdown in technological progress and this will be the downfall of the next generation.

  • We certainly seem to be experiencing a slowdown in the big technology that reshaped the ‘developed’ physical world (eg. transport, construction, power), and a switch to micro and virtual development (software, the internet, micro-energy-generation).

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