Climbing the learning curve

The West has a lot to learn from other parts of the world in responding to pandemics – and attitudes to data and government play a big part, says Rainer Kattel, Deputy Director and Professor of Innovation and Public Governance at the UCL

Listen to our podcast with Rainer here.

Vietnam has a population of almost 100 million and a long border with China – yet by the end of July, had recorded just one death from Covid-19.

On the same date, the UK, with a population two-thirds that of Vietnam, had recorded around 46,000 deaths from the virus. Thailand, with a population just a shade higher than the UK, had 58 deaths.

Why? Rainer Kattel believes one reason is the very different relationship between data and government in the west and far east.

“We have an extractive model in the west – private corporations extract value and profit from our data and we accept that,” says Professor Kattel, Deputy Director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose (IIPP) at University College London.

“If it’s the government, it’s seen as Big Brother [in the west]. It goes back to the early days of the internet and efforts to keep the government’s hands away from it. The original seed of the internet was for it to be very decentralised – or maybe it was the original sin!

“In the West, people were more afraid of government than big corporations, so the corporations scaled up and became enormously powerful. This led to very extractive behaviours, in terms of those corporations deriving private value from data, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and algorithms.”

Kattel says this model peaked in the tech epicentre of Silicon Valley, while the opposite extreme is strong state control over data in China.

However, he stresses that it’s not such a simple story: “The Chinese Government is playing a huge role but Alibaba and other private companies are also heavily involved in the public-private data partnership.

“Many Asian countries were quick off the mark in response to the pandemic and those strong public-private partnerships helped. In the West, the public-private relationship is one of antagonism.

“You can argue that those [far eastern] countries are not very democratic, but are they right to have a stronger role for the state in data issues and the digital economy in general?”

In terms of the response to Covid-19, Kattel says a stronger public role definitely had a very positive impact – helped by greater knowledge of earlier pandemics.

“The previous experience [including SARS in 2002-2004] played a big part in citizens being prepared to accept intrusive government behaviour in areas like track and trace [South Korea and Singapore were two countries lauded for their response]. However, it’s not just about the data, but also mobilising the human resources to respond.

“In the far east, they invested a lot of human resources, developed apps quickly and made data available to allow people to make decisions about areas they might stay away from. Only Germany in the west has got anywhere near what they have done in Asia.”

How does Kattel think we have done in terms of public sector innovation during the pandemic? “In Europe, there wasn’t any real innovation – we relied on systems we already had. Germany had good health preparedness across the federal system. In the UK, the response was poor in many ways; the most interesting public sector response was fiscal, with the Central Bank supporting the market.

“In Asia, we have seen much more innovation – because the public sector has a much stronger mandate and the digital infrastructure is also stronger. For example, countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh were able to use digital identities to get cash very quickly to people who needed it. That isn’t the case in the United States, for example.

“You also saw innovation in Asian countries, in areas like creating e-platforms for farmers to sell produce in different ways. Again, you might argue about how democratic they are, but in a crisis, their approach saved lives.”

So how can we shift the balance away from the western extractive private sector model to a place where there is more focus on creating value for people?

“It’s very difficult when the big tech platforms extract such huge value from their business model,” says Kattel. “They are incredibly important market shapers. Amazon, for example, is changing the whole landscape for their suppliers.

“Their use of algorithms and AI is hugely important – the big tech platforms are the largest funders of AI and their algorithms are not transparent. They are hampering the innovation potential of the public sector and its ability to deliver public value.”

The IIPP has a fundamental belief that the public sector can be extremely innovative, and that we can trace back many digital breakthroughs to public services.

It is currently looking to reshape the debate in a number of ways, including how the public sector is using existing AI infrastructure to deliver more public value. “It’s about moving from the extractive model to a value-creating one and data and AI are crucial to that,” says Kattel.

“Is AI being used in the right place in healthcare or energy, for example, to create public value? How is data owned and shared? What deals are we making – that’s one of the questions Mariana Mazzucato constantly asks.

“We need a new deal, a new social contract – but what are the agreements we need around data infrastructure? We have these two competing models – from extremely private (embodied by Silicon Valley) to extremely public (like China).

“Can the European Union create something in between, something more democratic and citizen-controlled? It is trying to position itself somewhere in the middle, but we aren’t getting very far

“European Commissioner [Margrethe] Vestager started taking on Google and Apple for alleged anti-competitive behaviour, but the discussion about how our data is used, and how we move from the extractive to a value-creating model, is very much at the beginning.”

Kattel says there is important work going on by people like Professor Francesca Bria about how citizens can own and share data at a city-wide level and use it to benefit local people and businesses.

However, to make real progress, he says the west has to be far less inward-looking: “It has to consider the positives of what is happening in the far east; we might not like their model but we cannot dismiss it. We think ‘China is very different’ or ‘We can’t learn anything from Vietnam’.

“We take a superior approach and have a tendency to study the West and its own systems. There is much to be learned from elsewhere – but at the moment we are not learning.”

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