Why has digital not figured more strongly in #brexit versus #bremain?

With three days to go before the UK decides whether to stay in or leave the European Union I have been surprised that the role of digital in our lives has not figured more highly in the debate.  Instead we have largely digitally clueless men (and mainly rather similar men) on both sides advocating the status quo (remain) or returning to the past (leave).

Neither of these are the reality of my world or I suspect for the majority of UK people.  Their jobs, lives, needs and wants are all being transformed by digital and those forces will not go away whatever the outcome.  Having said that, the fantasy of “taking back control” in a world were we have all surrendered power to Facebook, Google, Amazon and others seems to be ring particularly hollow. In case your wondering, I’ve already cast my vote to remain.

I’m an optimist when it comes to the future benefits of an increasingly digital and globalised world.  Healthcare, transportation, education and communication are all being improved along with the lives of billions of people.  Send time in China or India and signs of a rising, confident middle class powered by smartphones and access to information are clear.

Clearly this raising of all boats brings with it significant challenges from dwindling resources and climate change to immigration and cultural pressures but this is a genie that cannot be put back in the bottle.  We simply can’t close the doors and huddle together in the hope that we can turn the clock back to the 1950s.

Instead we need to raise our sights to the opportunities and help design diverse local and global solutions to these challenges that harness digital, are culturally sensitive and take into account the genuine fears of those around us.

We need to explore ways of giving people a genuine voice that is stronger than the echo chambers of Twitter or Facebook.  This starts with expecting participation rather than observation and helplessness. We will need to legislate minimum wages and employee protection while recognising changing patterns of work and global collaboration. This can of course only happen in big blocks of countries and alliances which is why leaving the EU would be so stupid.

If I had a magic wand I’d want to encourage genuine transparency in markets so that our buying and voting choices can be informed by visibility of labour practices, human rights and environmental data rather than simply price.

We must find ways to bring value back from the rich and powerful individuals and companies who have benefited disproportionately (and hoarded cash) from the last twenty years. This will not be simple or painless but is essential if others are to see their lives improve.

More than anything we need to change education so that people feel empowered rather than simply ill-prepared for the challenges ahead.  This means learning to cope with change, a focus on transferable making and entrepreneurial skills and an expectation that they will be listened to and involved.

Britain’s vote on Thursday may end in an angry demonstration of helplessness but I hope not.  The digital revolution we are all part of will not go away if we stamp our feet and refuse to play anymore. I want a positive excited vote to stay in, followed by strong digital participation to remake the EU that can follow.

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