The Bank of England’s Chief Economist has set out a powerful vision of a changing society and called for civil society to play a greater role in tackling the challenges that lie ahead. But does civil society have the skills, resources, and ability to respond?
Andy Haldane, the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, delivered a powerful message at the Pro-Bono Economics annual lecture yesterday. In his speech, he encouraged civil society to pay much more attention to the role it will play in the ‘fourth industrial revolution’ (rapid advances in automation, artificial intelligence, mobility, and big data) and the impact this will have on our society and working patterns.
Haldane argues that this revolution has the potential to generate huge gains for our society, such as increased productivity, more leisure time, and increased happiness. But these changes also risk eradicating many jobs and have the potential to lead to even more inequality in our society.
Haldane suggests that civil society has played little role in this revolution so far. Civil society in England will need to get on the front foot of these changes if it is to ensure stability and prevent the inequality and segregation that we have seen in previous times of rapid social change. Indeed this concern is shared in many other countries.
The Civil Society Futures Inquiry struck a similar note when reporting on its findings last year. We stressed that civil society has a long history of adapting to similar changes in our society. We noted how, when the Industrial Revolution transformed our cities, it was civil society that organised to combat the squalor and chaos, built housing, and supported people to make a better life. After the horrors of the two world wars it was civil society that supported displaced people, refugees and traumatised veterans, and helped to rebuild our country.
Civil society does have the power to change, but it faces many challenges. As part of the Inquiry we shared how many had told us, in twenty first century England, technology is bringing change at a rapid pace, shifting our relationship to work and workplaces, impacting our sense of belonging, affiliation and loyalty. We argued that civil society has a vital role supporting people to be heard, to experiment and create visions of how the future of work in this new digitally connected and technologically advanced environment can be more fair, safe and humane. Similarly, as we heard in our Inquiry, work is changing, and less and less does it provide the meaning and purpose that is essential to us all. We stressed that civil society has the potential to offer ways of finding a purposeful life as both a place of work and beyond work.
But how do we get there? As Haldane argues too, these changes will require greater political and financial investment and greater recognition of civil society’s role in shaping our country’s future. We will need to re-think how we see volunteering, the ‘voluntary’ sector and its connection to wider society. In particular, we will need to recognise that the future health of civil society is a mainstream concern. It will affect us all. It has the potential to be the place where we will find meaning, belonging and connection in the future. We will need civil society more than ever in the future as our working patterns change and as we seek connection with others within and beyond our digital lives.
But, as we stressed in the Inquiry, the future will also require civil society to adapt to these changes too. Investing in digital tools and knowledge will be important. As will ensuring civil society has access to big data for future development and ensuring that civil society can influence emerging developments (often led by big business and the state) to ensure the public are involved in setting ethical standards for new technologies. As volunteering plays a more prominent role in our society’s future, we will also need to make sure that access to civil society and volunteering is more inclusive and reflective of our society. We are working with others to build on the Inquiry’s findings to ensure civil society is at the forefront of responding to that future.
Photo credit: Niccolò Caranti23rd May 2019