Lord Wei is a Conservative member of the House of Lords. He is a co-founder of Teach First, a social entrepreneur, and a former government adviser.
Dominic Cummings famously admires America’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and rightly has sought to create an equivalent organisation here in the UK.
But one not always recognised fact is that DARPA was instrumental to the creation of the internet, which in turn was based on technologies designed to enable global military communications to function even in the face of global catastrophes, such as nuclear war – or indeed pandemics.
We have Paul Baran, an engineer at RAND in the 1960s, to thank for getting the wheels in motion:
“Baran cooked up a system that could divide communications into tiny pieces and use distributed network “nodes” to pass these pieces around. If one node was knocked out, the others could pick up the slack. In 1964, he published a paper on this system – entitled “On Distributed Communications” – and a few years later, it would play into the development of the ARPAnet, the research network that would eventually morph into the modern internet.”
We need to count our blessings that the pandemic, at least in the West, has occurred at a time of widespread fixed and mobile access to the internet, with video calling and conferencing widespread, save in some rural areas.
Millions of families and individuals are getting (further) acquainted with the likes of zoom, houseparty, and their local and national online supermarket websites – and beyond this we are seeing an explosion of online workout sessions, church services and content, and health and education consultations and learning.
But we could have gone even further by now, and lessened the impact of this crisis to our society and particularly to livelihoods.
First, in business, we could have innovated further to enable all our local shops to have delivery services, and the ability to beam content to draw in virtual as well as physical footfall, and even enable automation and remote displays to serve the public even if one is forced to have staff work from home or elsewhere, whilst training up all staff to do better paid work managing and using the machines brought in.
Second, we could have designed our buildings to be even more intelligent than they are now, to protect us from threats such as pandemics, to have anti-viral sanitation built into their operations whether through air conditioning systems, far UV lighting, and in the way spaces are laid out – and we could have focused more on building offsite, in better controlled environments, rather than building as we always have done, largely to save costs.
Third, we could have applied the design of the internet to the way government works, what back in the day Big Society meant for me (not primarily as was widely reported, a way of harnessing volunteers, important and awe-inspiring as the voluntary response has been). This pandemic has shown the centralised government decision making and operations can be clunky, slow, and not always aware fast enough of changing situations which are the norm now in our volatile world – despite the heroic efforts of our leaders and frontline workers.
Fourth, our healthcare systems clearly need to be less centralised in future, since hospitals themselves are a source of infection. More emphasis could have been put on local delivery of services, drugs, and even training up patients and those caring for them to provide treatment using mobile medical equipment and remote consultation. Never again must we be in a race against time to prevent hospitals running out of beds, or put pressure on them to free up beds, nor must we ration testing in future, but make testing the norm even after this pandemic.
Fifth, our financial and business sectors also, for all the innovation in fintech and e-commerce, could have been even further advanced. In future there must be ways for governments and the Bank of England to be able to directly wire funds to citizens and businesses with real time information flowing back and forth. Instead we have been forced to use systems that were not designed for the situation we are in, to try to alleviate quickly the pressure on millions of people.
And, finally, as someone who works in Parliament, which laudably has fought to maintain face to face contact over centuries, we too need to look at how the internet can be harnessed to enable more remote debating, amending, and voting when necessary, as well as to engage the public beyond the usual lobby groups, and for the Lords at least to be like a legislative Wikipedia, in which we pull together to create laws that are just, measured, and which work on the ground.
Why, you might ask, have we not pursued a more aggressive application of the internet and its decentralised approach to our society, to better prepare for situations like this? Well, there are lots of reasons and we will no doubt uncover more over the coming years. Partly it is because we did not think a pandemic would happen (at least not in the way it has). Partly because of cost. Partly because change is hard. And partly because most of the money was focused more on funding Facebook, and Netflix, rather than the above. We basically got distracted.
Our local music school has had to shut recently, like many organisations. It turns out that the tutors could mostly carry on and make a living from one to one tuition online, but the school itself was sustained from group sessions, which have stopped.
I checked online, and up until a few years ago there was great software being worked on to enable live jam sessions, where multiple musicians could play together remotely. But many of the businesses and startups working on this ran out of funds for lack of interest.
Amidst the tragedy and death unfolding, and huge pressures on the NHS ,whose staff are heroes who we must protect and backup; and amidst the financial earthquakes reverberating around the world, we need as a nation and as a world, to make a bold decision to rebuild after this pandemic has peaked – harnessing all that is good about how the internet works – to rise out of the ruins of our old way of life and build a new, more resilient one.
And we need to remember the internet is a gift from above that we must not waste again, but harness it and the approach to design inherent in it, to allow us to weather and overcome other future shocks with both humility and strength.