“Society and government need to act like a single brain”: Geoff Mulgan on Covid and Social Change

You have been charged as part of a larger team – funded by the British government – with finding policy answers to the global pandemic. What is your thinking on Covid and what’s ahead?

This crisis has been the biggest real time simultaneous challenge to governance and policy that anyone can remember. It has had extremely uneven responses all over the world, the successes and the failures of which are complicated. In my view, they don't fit very well with a particular regime types or culture types – they are much more explained by particular decisions by political and other leadership.

What kinds of decisions?

It is fascinating to see so many governments moving very rapidly to create entirely new welfare states almost from scratch, providing income support, employing a whole raft of technologies to support that, getting involved in the details of business support and loans and credit. As never before, mass testing and use of data were organized in highly creative ways, particularly in East Asia – ways which Europe can't remotely handle, for all sorts of reasons.

What can be learned both from success and failure?

I am looking at how some of those methods can be applied to other tasks like climate change or preparing for dramatic changes in the labor market. This year, we've seen already faster changes to the use of digital online in schools than ever before. Many things, which probably should have happened a generation ago, have been forced to happen by the crisis. And there will be big, big gains in terms of productivity and quality of service from all of this.

For now, the stress on both societies and citizens seems to be enormous.

We do see a mental health crisis, with lots of evidence around the world of high levels of anxiety, loneliness, depression. We need to see what is working in terms of trying to mitigate those and provide new forms of support with a very localized and online form of eldercare. The crisis has shown huge vulnerabilities and weaknesses in many countries in how care for the elderly is organized. It is often two generations behind in terms of basic use of data and technology – or indeed sensitivity to the lived experience of old people.

Data is core to tackling some of these issues?

The aim is to draw on a whole range of tools, some indeed very technology based. And we are trying to create a model of very rapid interaction between the decision makers who are having to act in real time and the researchers who usually work on much slower timescales. We are trying to ensure that the questions which are really being faced by the front line are being adequately answered by the vast resources of global research. After the epidemic, this can be applied to lots of other fields where there is still quite a big gap between the knowledge creators and the knowledge users.

Knowledge is the key: You see the chance to close that gap, to use that momentum to drive social innovation in a much broader sense?

The task is to orchestrate the data, the knowledge, the intelligence of the society in a much more systematic way. This is what has happened to an extent in democracies like South Korea and Taiwan and also in China – the conscious use for public purposes of almost any kind of knowledge which could be useful. That includes credit card data, mobile phone data, it means linking up all the doctors and nurses and tapping into their real time experience of what's working and what isn't working.

In the 21st century, mental health, anxiety, loneliness are public matters.

What are the main obstacles to this?

It is much harder in some parts of the world, partly for reasons of political economy. If you have more privatization, then all of that data will be proprietary to companies – and it's very difficult to orchestrate it equally. If you have very strong privacy fears, then obviously no one wants to share data. Europe has gone in that direction, in an understandable reaction against Google and Facebook. But it risks really falling behind in terms of social, public, collective intelligence. That has become very clear through this crisis.

Is this a lasting legacy of this crisis, Europe falling behind?

The big issue is how to help society and government together to act more like a single brain – to observe, to analyze, to think, to act, to learn very fast through a crisis, but then to apply exactly the same mindsets and methods to cutting carbon or tackling jobs, inequality or preparing for all the challenges of aging. The great governance question of the next ten years is indeed: Which parts of the world will be up for doing that?

This would mean a massive reconfiguration of the institutional setup of the state.

A fairly significant restructuring, yes. The principle is that almost all the state knowledge and data should be open and shared, not a monopoly. What I am suggesting is certainly very different from the neoliberal state – and also very different from the traditional socialist state. Indeed, most of the 19th and 20th century traditions across the political spectrum are not very helpful for the 21st century.

Including social democracy?

The traditional social democratic vision didn't say that much about knowledge. It was more about a functional delivery state with a view on economic policy and welfare. But it was operating in a pre-digital era. These issues didn't really arise. The social democratic states also tend to be quite weak on human lived experience, the very subjective as well as the objective. It was assumed that mental health was a private matter, whereas physical health was a public matter. In the 21st century, mental health, anxiety, loneliness are public matters and actually vital for rethinking what a welfare state should be for the future.

These are huge shifts in both what's thought of as the goals of the state and the means the state uses to achieve those goals. Is there a name for this, a theory?

It's new and it's emerging and there isn't a very clear theory of it. But in reality, in the past the state always evolved in practice ahead of the theory. The job of the theoreticians is to try and make sense of what is happening, with a much more data intelligence driven state than that of 50 years ago, at a time when the richest companies in the world are mainly based on data and knowledge. You can see that in East Asia, but also Estonia to a degree, Finland and elsewhere: What they're doing in reality is way ahead of what the professors are talking about in universities who often have no sense of that at all.

Your vision is that of a learning society, both on an institutional and a private level – to adapt to that emergent reality and experiment and be nimble about it.

Exactly. The core of the future state is the systematic organization of learning at multiple levels – starting at the very micro level of a school with things like study circles where teachers regularly think about what's working and what isn't, discussing new research that might be relevant to them. The equivalent in hospitals is the role of work centers and new institutions to synthesize evidence to feed into how public services are working. Parliaments also should be much more consciously organizing learning exercises, critically scrutinizing what worked, what didn't, when was money spent well or badly? And the media should be become a thoughtful, critical part of that learning system.

What would that mean on a very macro level?

I am trying to get the UN to think about how to put knowledge and learning at its core, not money. The institutions that were created in the 1940s, the World Bank and IMF, made it obvious that finance dominated the global institutions and the prevention of war. Now we should have similar organizations of global learning.

Do you see all of this a connected to your insistence on our need for new ways of social imagination?

A lot of what I'm talking about is truth – truth about the present and the past, the orchestration of knowledge and truth in new forms, mainly as commons. That is the single most important task of our time because we're facing enemies who want to do the opposite, in politics, in the media, and sometimes in business, too. But we also need a capacity to imagine – and that has different organizing principles because there is no truth about the future. Nobody knows what will happen in 10 or 20 years. I see these as complementary but distinct.

You need to envision change to make it happen.

And the problem of our current governance is that it is not good at that. There are some exceptions like Finland which has long had its committee of the future. Singapore has its foresight teams. But most democracies have almost no capability of thinking 20, 30, 40 years into the future.

Would you say that Covid exposed on the one hand existing faults and failures of societies and on the other hand opened up the space for imagination or actual change?

I don't know yet. I think many people will try and interpret the crisis with their existing frames. If they're conservatives, that will prove their views, if they are social democrats, it will prove the views they had anyway. But in some parts of the world, it will unlock and speed up innovation and change. It will require political leaders who are able to understand the meaning of it all. And that's the crucial missing bit – political parties and leaders who can make sense of this crisis, with a critical intelligence to see the needs of the future.

One last question. Can you finish that sentence: For me, this is personal because –

I joined a university two weeks before it shut down and had to go online and our whole working model has changed; because in my neighborhood the crisis forced a reinvention of horizontal community support structures that I have never seen before; and because tomorrow my mother gets the vaccine.

Geoff Mulgan is Professor at UCL and Senior Advisor at THE NEW INSTITUTE

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