Martha Lane Fox: Make Britain A Great Digital Nation

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There are three areas that demonstrate the opportunities in technology we in this country should be grabbing with both hands: education, women and ethics.

I think we need a new national institution to lead an ambitious charge — to make us the most digital nation on the planet.

Martha Lane Fox is the Chancellor of the Open University and sits as cross-bench peer in the House of Lords

I don’t say this because I’m a fan of institutions. I say this because the values of the Internet have always been a dialog between private companies and public bodies. Right now the civic, public, non-commercial side of the equation needs a boost.

We’ve been going too slow, too incremental. We need to be bolder.

A new institution could be the catalyst we need to shape the world we want to live in and Britain’s role in that world. Today, we’re letting big commercial technology platforms shape much of our digital lives, dominating everything from online privacy to how we build smart cities.

It will help us address some of the biggest issues we face, but it will engage with people in a new, radical way. In fact, I probably wouldn’t call it an institution at all. This is no normal public body. It’s time to balance the world of dot com, so I say let’s create DOT EVERYONE.

Firstly, DOT EVERYONE has to help educate all of us, from all walks of life, about the Internet. The Internet is the organizing principle of our age, touching all our lives, every day. As the late activist Aaron Swartz put it, “It’s not OK not to understand the Internet anymore.”

We need to make sure that those in power understand how the Internet can help us redefine public services, improve the lives of the most vulnerable and bolster our economy. We need politicians and leaders who can escape the old assumptions. I’ve seen that real change is possible, for example, in the creating of the Government Digital Service in 2010, which has become a recognized world-leader in creating digital public services. But we need to move much faster.

More Ambitious Global Role

This crisis of skills and understanding of the power and potential of the digital world is not limited to the corridors of Whitehall or the boardrooms of the City. It’s also the case in some of our most disadvantaged communities. We must ensure that no one is left behind; that the 10 million adults who can’t enjoy the benefits of being online because they lack basic digital skills no longer miss out.
Secondly, DOT EVERYONE must put women at the heart of the technology sector. At the moment, there are fewer women in the digital sector than there are in Parliament.

Something that is for everyone should be built by everyone. Do you think that social media platforms would have done more to stop abuse if they had more women in senior positions? I do. And how about the Apple HealthKit that went to market without anything to do with periods? Building an awesome cohort of female coders, designers, creators would help make us the most digitally successful country on the planet and give us a real edge. Why not launch a national challenge to source the best ideas? Why not offer every unemployed woman free education and training? There are exciting projects happening in the UK such as #techmums, Stemettes and codebar but there need to be more of them, with bigger impact, so we foster the maximum breadth and depth of digital talent. Surely there must be a couple of new Ada Lovelaces lurking in this land?

Finally, we should aim for a much more ambitious global role in unpicking the complex moral and ethical issues that the Internet presents. In this 800th-year anniversary of Magna Carta, the document widely upheld as one of the first examples of the rule of law, why don’t we establish frameworks to help navigate the online world? For example, what are the implications of an Internet embedded in your home appliances? Do children need online rights? What is an acceptable use of drones?

Let’s Not Have A Poverty Of Ambition

DOT EVERYONE is new — it won’t and shouldn’t feel familiar. It’ll be a team with many different skills, as diverse as I’ve talked about, bursting with women and demonstrating to the world what the future of technology looks like. It will be a place where both the private and public sector would want to send employees for a year because of the invaluable experience they will get.

DOT EVERYONE will be an independent organization. It will have a strong mandate from government, but also from the public — we will be setting its agenda, we will be informing it and taking part in it. It might produce written reports but it would also prototype services. It should show what is possible when you put the Internet at the heart of design.

DOT EVERYONE should aim to do 50 significant projects in the next ten years. After ten years, we should be brutal in assessing if we need it. It doesn’t need to last forever; it needs to make itself redundant.

We should be making sure that the original promises of the Internet — openness, transparency, freedom and universality — are a protected national asset, as integral to our soft power as Adele, JK Rowling, Shakespeare or even Downton Abbey.

In the last century, Britain invented the BBC and the NHS. Let’s not have a poverty of ambition in this century: we should be inventing the definitive public institution for our digital age.

This is an edited version of Martha Lane Fox’s 2015 Dimbleby Lecture.

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