Chi Onwurah: After years of disastrous austerity let 2017 be the moment we use the internet to deliver prosperity

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I like to say that I went into politics for exactly the same reasons I went into engineering – to make the world work better. Perhaps I’m biased as someone who has worked in both fields, but in my view politics and technology are the twin drivers of progress in our society.

When politics fails us – as it frequently has in recent years – technological innovation can provide a glimmer of hope. After seven years of disastrous austerity, our tech sector continues to bring benefits to consumers and workers across Britain. And it’s not only London that can count on tech to provide prosperity: in my own constituency of Newcastle Central, tech salaries have continued to rise even while wages have stagnated under the Tories.

However, we need to recognise that innovation creates losers as well as winners. According to the World Economic Forum, automation of white collar jobs could lead to mass job losses over the next few years. Representing a city that suffered immensely from forced de-industrialisation in the 1980s and the loss of thousands of jobs, I’m acutely aware that technological disruption comes with a cost.

And, as I’ve written before, the underlying architecture of the modern Net centralises too much power in too few hands. I believe 2017 will be the year that we realise we’ve been doing the Internet wrong.

As the RSA’s Rowan Conway has argued, solving these problems requires a vision of innovation that is productive, rather than simply disruptive. In Labour we’re currently developing this vision through our consultation on industrial strategy, which we’ve invited businesses and individuals from all over the country to respond to.

This is all the more important because, when done right, tech can provide solutions to the big problems we’re faced with as a society. Back in 2000 I was working to build Nigeria’s first GSM network, and it was here that I saw first-hand how the communications revolution made real positive changes in the lives of many Nigerians.

For example, fishermen in the Delta could now know the market price in Port Harcourt and were less vulnerable to exploitation by local middlemen. Pregnant women in Jos could phone for a doctor instead of having to send vital requests on foot over hours.

This was technology doing what we need it to do: empowering those without resources, not enriching the already-empowered.

My experience in Nigeria was of building up a country’s technical infrastructure. But digital technology can also help us build a better civic infrastructure for our society, aiding us in our pursuit of greater transparency and democracy.

Just look at the Taiwanese example. While governments around the world have been tying themselves in knots trying to properly regulate the new intermediaries economy, the Taiwanese government turned to the vTaiwan movement of hackers and activists for a more elegant solution. Through a combination of digital democracy apps such as Pol.is and more traditional methods of offline facilitation, the Taiwanese government was able to reach a workable consensus that suited all sides of the debate.

Examples like this give me hope that technology can help to connect us instead of driving us further apart. Although a stereotype exists of tech people as money-driven libertarians, I know there are members of the tech community who are motivated by a desire to do good and make the world a better place.

One recent symbol of this public spirit is Techfugees, a movement within the international tech community which is responding to the refugee situation in new and innovative ways. Techfugees organises conferences, workshops and hackathons around the world in an effort to supply a pool of tech solutions and tech talent to NGOs working with refugees, and refugees themselves.

As Labour members we believe that “through common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone”. For the “hacktivists” involved in projects such as Techfugees and vTaiwan this isn’t ideology but common sense. It’s the tech community brought us new types of collective approaches, from open source coding and collaborative document-editing to real-life meetups and hackathons.

So I also want 2017 to be the year that even more coders, hackers, and engineers use technology to make the world a better place. As politicians, we need to play our role by recognising the risks of new technologies while harnessing the good they can create. Tech and politics can both drive us forward, but their impact is more powerful when they’re working in tandem to make us freer and more prosperous.

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