Mark Prisk MP: Reflections from the Valley
Over the last week Mark Prisk MP, Shadow Minister for Business & Enterprise, has been in Silicon Valley CA, supporting a collaborative business mission for twenty UK web 2.0 entrepreneurs. Web Mission was organised by social entrepreneur Oli Barrett, and consultants Polecat and TechCrunch. Here Mark offers his reflections on some of the policy issues which have arisen from his trip.
The conventional view from Britain of the US economy is universally gloomy. So I am pleased to spread a little happiness from here in Silicon Valley.
Seen from here, there are good reasons to be cheerful. For whilst no-one doubts the troubles in housing and finance - have you seen the sub-prime numbers in California? – I’ve also heard some good, countervailing arguments for thinking positive.
First, technological innovation offers the prospect of real savings for companies, large and small. That means more business for the tech sector and key players like Oracle.
Second, the soaring price of fuel means that investment in, and the development of, environmental technologies will accelerate. At least two of the venture capitalists I have met this week spoke glowingly about recent ventures, which they fully admit they would never have touched just two years ago. Watch this space for a soon to be announced battery-powered car to take on the motor giants in Detroit.
But the third reason to be cheerful is that downturns generate the next wave of change. And in the Valley change is good, because change means innovation. Indeed, the mighty Google was actually founded out of the last dotcom bubble going pop. So amidst all the negative talk, there's a well founded view here that the future is about to get a whole lot better.
What will that future look like? Well in talking with the techies, money men and academics there I would highlight two themes which have kept emerging, which we in the political world need to reflect on.
The first is how technology is breaking down the gap between our working and personal lives. The second is how organisations need to change if they are to keep ahead, and the implications that has for Whitehall.
On the move
In the words of Microsoft, we are about to 'start living mobile.' Almost all of the new innovations which I have seen this week are founded on the assumption that the mobile phone or PDA will be the preferred platform of choice. Never mind PCs, laptops are now officially passé. Indeed, I am writing this on my Blackberry, using a Bluetooth Freedom Universal Keyboard, whilst enjoying some Bach Cantatas on my iPoD. No wires, no laptops to clear airport security.
Single, handheld devices which are able to not just surf but interrogate the web to find what I need, wherever I am. Devices whose functionality enables me to communicate with my network at all times, share and manage documents and images when I need them, and so break down the artificial barrier between work and home, times and places. We are all about to become nomads.
There are some great ideas here in Silicon Valley, which are going to really cut the ties of place for us in our work and personal lives. However, for policymakers this nomadic age has some serious implications which we have yet to address. Here’s just two.
- What is a workplace and should we continue to separate our homes from workplaces and then spend hours commuting between them?
- Second, if you can work from home routinely just how much parental leave - without any requirement to work - do people need? Will the current policy approach to the so called work-life balance still make sense in 20 years time, or will complete flexibility of work mean we need more help to know when to stop?
Ever since the Industrial Revolution society has clearly distinguished work from home. Yet already that division is blurred and it’s about to be largely irrelevant.
The second theme which is dominating thinking here is about how businesses are run. Oracle, Google and others here have been at the heart of developing a new, collaborative business model. In place of the conventional, hierarchical corporation in which information is guarded jealously and competition is a zero sum game, we find an open, collaborative culture, both within organisations and between them.
This is what has become known as Wikinomics, a bottom-up, open and collaborative approach to business. With the notable exception of Apple under Steve Jobs's leadership, the predominant business model here is radically different to that which most people in the UK would recognise.
I am normally a sceptic of business management fads, but this seems very different. And having questioned people closely about how it really works, I am becoming converted to the cause. At its heart lies a candid recognition that a single corporation simply cannot cover the whole waterfront of emerging and inter-related technologies. Only by being open and engaged across the tech community - entrepreneurs, engineers or scientists - can a business hope to keep an edge.
Open to new solutions
Thus problem-solving is best achieved by an open source approach, putting the issue out for comment and contributions, rather than having a small group at the top hand down a single solution.
This is, of course, something which both George Osborne and Oliver Letwin have addressed in the last twelve months. It has serious implications for not just the knowledge economy but also how government should work.
Regarding the latter, this isn’t about better consultation. Indeed some will see it as an alternative to discredited government consultations which end up providing the answers Labour Ministers want. Open source policy development would mean recognising that both the nature of the problem and the potential solutions are no longer solely in the hands of elected policy makers and their chosen advisers.
The open source approach also offers an interesting way for us to radically improve government procurement. Whitehall currently spends £150 billion on goods and services. Yet all too often when seeking bids for more complex services or projects Whitehall predetermines both the problem and the specific solution. There’s just no room for innovation.
So the challenge of Wikinomics and open source policy development goes right to the heart of how we are governed, in principle and in practice.