David Brunnen

Member Article

Diffidence and Deference: diluting the digital economy

Acclaimed as hallmarks of a civilized society, our globally acknowledged ‘British values’ of diffidence and deference are increasingly being questioned as suspects in the on-going navel-gazing search for economic growth.

‘Animal spirits’ – the confidence and assertiveness that drives ‘market sentiment’ - were, and probably still are, regarded by Keynesians as a key factor in recovery from economic recessions.

Yet, as a nation, we collectively shudder at ‘gross’ examples of bombast and boasting and instinctively we invoke our reserves of diffidence and deference. Over-confidence and undue reliance on self-belief are generally regarded as ‘rather more than impolite’ but even our ‘orderly queuing’ at the bus stop has been fingered as a social inhibitor – and the Olympic effect of people (‘perfect strangers’) actually talking to each other on the train has been noted as worthy of national media and political comment.

Charming and as distinctive as these cultural traits may be, and as well-deserved might be our reputed Anglo-saxon penchant for the preservation of national heritage, the strain of holding it all together is beginning to show. On the one hand we celebrate celebrity – perhaps in awe of anyone who dares to step out of line or aspire to something better. On the other we shower shame on plans that go awry and we discount the value of ‘learning on the job’ – as if experiences are not an education.

None of this would matter much if we still lived in a pre-digital era. It might not even matter much if we were still living on the pre-2000 lower slopes of technological endeavour. But adapting now to the digital economy is bringing these culture clashes to the fore.

The largest part of the strain comes from not looking where we are going. It is too tempting to look back rather than look forward; the digital road ahead ahead is not widely understood. But this is hardly a new issue and history does have this annoying habit of repetition. Way back in 2003 (’Sticking to the Straight and Narrow’) we observed the short-term approach to digital infrastructure investment and many would argue that the current ‘upgrades’ to local networks are still far from fit for future purpose.

Another part of the strain is down to the world becoming flat – the digital leveling process with easy exchange of ideas and capabilities is turning intermediaries into unemployable extra-mediaries. The impact on jobs can be seen quite clearly in the ‘Job Polarisation’ data recently reviewed in ’Letting Go’.

Even the venerable CBI would concur – their recent business survey reported that ‘Having a high-quality, reliable digital network is … increasingly important, with 7% more firms this year (43%) saying they are very significant to their investment decisions’ and ’firms on balance rate the UK’s mobile broadband networks as below average when judged on speed and breadth of coverage’.

With headlines today focusing on the design for Future Cities and their investments in connectedness it is time we asked some serious questions about the ‘Information Society’. Certainly everyone will eventually need multi-Gigabit services but before we get there we will also need to understand the value of education for knowledge workers, enabling an environment for innovation, the criticality of digital inclusion, and the delightfully disruptive power of citizen access to Open Data.

But, even more than building those community programmes on better-connected foundations, Keynes’s ‘animal spirits’ will need to be unleashed if any place or community is going to make the most of its revitalized infrastructure to attract and retain inward investment, new creativity and economic growth. ‘Exploit’ need not be a dirty word in a digital world where we all live in developing economies.

Maybe the Olympic experience is telling us to let go a little of those reserves of diffidence and deference that dilute the potential power of digital economy.

This was posted in Bdaily's Members' News section by David Brunnen .

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