Scotland’s independent think tank
Scotland’s independent think tank

It’s time for Scotland to embrace an inclusive Digital Enlightenment – Adam Lang

The social upheaval caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is a chance for Scotland to set bold new ambitions. The pandemic has highlighted the ubiquity of technology in the way we live our lives and the necessity of utilising it to improve our society.

We have an opportunity now to embrace the possibilities offered by technology and strive for a tech-driven future which everyone can be involved in shaping; an inclusive Digital Enlightenment for Scotland.

As well as a global public health crisis, we are currently living through the fourth industrial revolution – the fourth period of intense technological advancement that humans have experienced. Driven by technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, robotics, 3D printing and the internet of things, this revolution is already dramatically shaping our personal and professional lives. And it has the potential to define the future of our society, economy and public services in the years ahead.

Despite the scale and impact of this tech revolution, to date little has been done to really understand the views, concerns, aspirations and opinions of people in Scotland towards the technologies that are driving it. This is why last week Nesta in Scotland published a major new report, Shift+Ctrl: The Scottish public and the tech revolution, looking in detail at Scottish public attitudes towards these technologies.

The report highlights that, despite increased use of digital tech as a result of the Covid-19 lockdown, the Scottish public continues to mistrust some of the technologies that are increasingly shaping our world and are particularly concerned about their impact on jobs.

The findings show that technological developments are often seen as elitist and out of reach for many – particularly for those on a lower income and for women.

Social inequality is at the forefront of people’s minds in relation to how these technologies will be used in Scotland. Many are worried that the benefits they might bring will not be evenly spread across the population and instead will exacerbate existing inequalities. As such, there is a desire for a proactive approach from government and other agencies in Scotland to address these potential imbalances.

The research, conducted by Mark Diffley Consultancy both prior to and throughout lockdown, makes the case for improved access to learning and skills development as well as a more active role for the public in shaping how new technologies are used.

The report reveals that as people’s knowledge and understanding of technology increases, so does their positivity towards it. This is a crucial point. We cannot pretend that these technologies are not already significantly shaping our world or that they are not here to stay. Their potential to disrupt is profound but so too is their potential to help improve society. It is up to us to now decide how we engage with these technologies and whether we harness their vast potential for social good, or whether we allow mistrust to fester and stifle social innovation and development.

The Scottish Enlightenment of the 18th century was characterised by thinkers, activists and industrialists that challenged conventions and championed concepts such as human reason and societal benefit. If we want to ensure that the technological revolution we are all living through now does not worsen existing inequalities we must again embrace a spirit of challenge, change, innovation and learning. And we must do so with a focus on fostering trust through open, inclusive, ethical and transparent processes.

We must work to shift control and better engage and empower the public in shaping the technologies that are, in turn, shaping our world.

Previous industrial revolutions have undoubtedly advanced society forward in significant leaps, but they have almost always come with a considerable initial human cost. In Scotland, we can learn lessons from our past and act now to prioritise equality, access and empowerment as part of an inclusive Digital Enlightenment that harnesses the current tech revolution to the benefit of us all.

Adam Lang is Head of Nesta in Scotland