Today we saw the announcement of the long-awaited Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), the new blue skies research agency to develop high-risk, high-reward technologies in the UK. As explained in the .gov website, ARIA will be “led by scientists who will have the freedom to identify and fund transformational science and technology at speed”.
Viewed one way, there’s lots to be excited about. ‘Ground-breaking discoveries that transform people’s lives for the better’, at the same time as ‘cementing our position as a global science super-power’ is strong rhetoric. If it’s to genuinely emulate its US inspiration, it’s likely to encourage a culture of heroic leaps made by brilliant scientists, unfettered by bureaucracy and pesky, process-loving officials telling them things can’t be done. It’s Doc Brown’s dream. And I want a flying DeLorean powered by banana skins.
But here’s the thing. Leaving aside the fact that £800m to meet the stated ambitions of ARIA is not a lot and the very clear need to understand just what ‘experimenting with different funding models‘ means in practice – it seems to be based on a belief that if we just leave the brilliant scientists alone to innovate, the world will be a better place. Doc Cummings’ dream.
So what would make ARIA really sing?
Don’t have a technological positivist at the helm. And don’t have an ex-permanent secretary or other seasoned civil servant. Have someone who lives and breathes responsible innovation; who can generate a culture of excitement and opportunity for rapid advancement of ideas that are likely to alleviate, not exacerbate inequalities. I can hear a faint ‘sigh’ as I write. The earnest outsider, demanding things that would assuredly dampen and devour the energy of ARIA’s scientists and investors. Not so. Just as the same piece of rope can either help someone out of a hole or hang them, the application of a technology is not morally neutral. And the 21st Century is a time to be excited at the invention and application of technologies which are equitable and seek to advance the greatest possible number of people’s wealth and well-being. ARIA needs to embody this in its leadership, its governance and certainly in its funding instruments.
Create a National Vision for Social Technology. Whether through carving out a small portion of ARIA’s funding, or the creation of a smaller, sister agency, let’s dedicate funding and investment to exploit and scale existing and emerging social technologies which improve the lives of people and places in a post-Covid world. The number of digital social innovations operating at clunky and sub-optimal scale runs into the thousands. Every single day, we see the pervasive impact of digital technologies in the ways we shop, communicate, entertain ourselves. And yet there is still a yawning chasm into which every single opportunity for realising the civic potential of digital social innovation has fallen. Where is the digital civic infrastructure for universal access to schools, education and training? Or the infrastructure to support a national network of Virtual High Streets; the digital platforms that provide people access to better homecare and which are able to pay carers more? The list of disruptive and ground-breaking digital social innovations which ‘stall at small’ goes on and on. And yet the technology and the innovations exist; lurking forever at the margins due to a lack of political vision and public investment. Let’s change this.
Embody the most progressive and porous forms of multi-disciplinary working. Now you won’t like this, ARIA. I know you want to be left alone. But the evidence is pretty clear: successful innovation is not a one disciplined beast and the most serious challenges we face require more than just the flexing of a scientist’s muscle. Make some space for a diverse public, creatives, philosophers, academics from riotously different backgrounds… Cleave the door open even slightly, and in those moments where the fizz of different worlds come together, you might just find a better song to sing.