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British party politics took the stage at TED yesterday. Not in Long Beach, but in London, from where Conservative party leader David Cameron filmed a surprise segment. It was a good get for TED and a coup for Cameron, who follows in the footsteps of the current Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who spoke at TED Global in Oxford last year. Cameron gave a smooth presentation, dashed with the prerequisite self-deprecation and disdain for his own profession that politicians like to trot out for their audiences these days. And he outlined a plan to harness the information technology revolution in the name of remaking society.
If you think it’s all about money, you can only measure success in healthcare, education or policing by spending more money, or measure progress by spending more money, we will have a miserable time. If you think other things matter, like family, friendship, community or values, then actually this is an incredibly exciting time to be in politics.
A noble sentiment. And many of the examples that Cameron showed to demonstrate his vaunted principles of transparency, choice and accountability were excellent applications of current technology capabilities. But one small point: none of them were what you might call “free”. The Department of Economic Development is supporting the Missouri Accountability Portal, which tracks how taxpayers money is spent. I couldn’t see which crime map Cameron showed on screen, but EveryBlock, an equivalent site which acts as a neighborhood feed blog, was originally funded by a two-year grant from the Knight Foundation and is now wholly owned by msnbc.com. It’s not free. And compelling citizens to behave responsibly takes time, effort and, well, money. As Cameron himself quoted, a successful initiative in the U.S. to encourage people to recycle involved paying them to do so. With money, presumably.
Cameron’s response to curator Chris Anderson’s question of how we could know that he wasn’t merely trotting out platitudes to a tech savvy audience, was insightful. “There isn’t any money to do the things that politicians want to do,” said Cameron. “There isn’t going to be a lot more money because of the huge deficits we face.”
Quite right, of course. But did Cameron mean to imply that if he did have a healthy budget, it’d be business as usual? And does he think that turning to tech is some kind of cheap (free) solution? Information technology is a tool, an incredibly powerful one, yes, but not a poor (or even inexpensive) replacement for either well-financed initiatives or smart, creative, holistic thinking that actually addresses the problems of our time. To butcher the subtitle of the conference, what the world does not need now is more platitudes and superficial understanding of complex issues and industries.
What comes next? The Bloomberg Businessweek Innovation and Design blog chronicles new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.