Let’s get back in the game

James Plunkett
8 min readApr 3, 2024

For a while now I’ve been writing a series on the ‘how’ of government, trying to answer the following question:

What has changed since 1997 that bears on the way we should govern?

The series focuses on governing capabilities. What new operating models, methods, and mentalities of government do we need in 2024, compared to 1997? Here are posts one, two, three, and four.

The question I’m really interested in, though, is bigger than this. It goes beyond our governing capabilities to ask: can we describe the progressive project today? What is the work to be done?

So, before I wrap up the original series, I thought it might be useful to zoom out and situate the issue of governing capabilities in the broader story of progressivism, and of social progress over time. And to focus specifically on the conditions for progress in the twenty-first century.

I thought it might be fun to do this by asking an admittedly silly question, really just as a provocation:

What would it take for life in the year 2100 to be dramatically better than life in the year 2000?

Once I’ve had a crack at this question, I’ll wrap up both series with some overarching thoughts on the progressive project today. What is the work? And how hopeful can progressives justifiably be?

A colour pencil illustration of a group of people working together to build a rainbow out of coloured bricks. Generated by Midjourney.

Unlocking progress in the twenty-first century

A six-digit combination lock

Over the course of the twentieth century, life in Britain got better in ways prior generations would have struggled to imagine.

We nearly doubled life expectancy, roughly quadrupled real incomes, and made decisive headway on social afflictions like mass unemployment and unsanitary living conditions.

We’re now nearly a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century and we don’t seem to be on track to repeat this feat.

Gains on long-standing goals, like increasing longevity, have slowed or gone into reverse. Meanwhile, we face a new class of problems — endemic chronic health conditions, mental illness, collapsing ecosystems, loneliness — that seem intractable, as if they’re written in a language we haven’t yet learned.

So what lessons can we draw for the century ahead from the progress we made during the last one?

Rather than trying to explain every aspect of social progress, I thought I might just try to name, in a simpler, more functionalist sense, the key components that clicked into place.

So, let’s jump into that admittedly silly question:

What would it take for life in the year 2100 to be unimaginably better than life in the year 2000?

Condition 1: Unearth technologies with transformative potential

If we’re aiming for the kind of dramatic progress we achieved in the twentieth century, we’d do well to start by unearthing a new class of technologies with revolutionary productive potential.

A way to transform our capacity to do things in the world, much as we did when we unearthed technologies like steam power and electricity.

There are still mixed views on whether or not digital technologies meet this test of having ‘revolutionary productive potential’, and I don’t intend to hash out that argument here.

I’m just going to run with a fairly modest claim, which is that digital technologies have transformative potential, even if we’re not yet realising this potential by using these technologies well.

This is to say nothing more than that digital technologies let us act at scales and speeds and with certain qualities — precision, coordination, iteration, etc — that were previously impossible, even unimaginable.

So the potential is there, even if it’s currently latent, or is being misused, which are both points we’ll come back to.

Condition 2: Develop a new best way

We know from historical experience that new technological capabilities aren’t enough on their own.

To turn technologies into progress we also need complementary social technologies. New ways of working that fit the logic of our new technologies, so that we can put them to use.

In the industrial revolution, the potential of the steam engine, and of new contrivances like looms, were unlocked when we developed the complementary social technologies of the factory system — which we did decades after the first successful use of a steam engine.

In the twentieth century, we did something similar when we unleashed the productive potential of electricity with the system of assembly line mass production. And again we did this decades after we unearthed the underlying technologies of electricity — techniques for turning motion into electricity and back again.

It seems to me we’ve now repeated this feat for digital technologies, which would mean this condition for progress is met. By which I mean we’ve developed a system for working with digital technologies.

As in those two previous episodes, we’ve developed this new system decades after inventing our era’s founding technologies, which this time around we might name as the transistor (1947), the integrated circuit board (1958), and the information protocols of the web (1989).

Also similar to those previous episodes, the transformational implications of digital technologies have only really begun to be felt since an accompanying system has started to fall into place.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what is the new system?

We know it’s still early days because we haven’t yet settled on a name for the new system; it gets called variously: agile, product working, internet-era methods, or my favourite if wonky, ‘digital practice of production’.

I like that last term, personally, because I think we should conceive of internet-era methods as a ‘new best way’, analogous in their function and significance to the old ‘best way’ of Fordism/Taylorism.

I also think the word system is apt because, like mass production, a digital practice of production is not a single social technology. It’s a set of social technologies that work together in an integrated way.

If we were to list out the social technologies that make up a digital system of production, we would at minimum include:

  • New organisational forms/ways to structure and run organisations. These replace the hierarchies and functional silos of the machine age with flatter, more cell-like organisational structures in which outcome-based, cross-discipline teams are the unit of delivery. When organisations are structured this way they can move more quickly and be more responsive, working with less risk in complex environments.
  • New ways of working (processes, rituals, management practices) that integrate learning and doing, so that teams can iterate their way towards outcomes. This replaces the linearity of industrialism, which tended to emphasise upfront planning, assuming a relay passage of work through sequential stages from design to manufacturing (or from policy to delivery). Those earlier, linear approaches have proven fantastically risky and crisis-prone when used in the complex world of digital technology (as companies learned to great cost during the software crises of the 1970s and as governments are still learning today when they approach technology in an outmoded way (e.g. see Horizon, Robodebt, or the early failures of Healthcare.gov)). A digital practice of production avoids crises like these, de-risking complexity by organising work in small, tight feedback loops of doing, learning, and adapting.
  • New cultures and mentalities that complement these working arrangements, chief among them a spirit of humility (at least epistemologically speaking). Good digital teams listen hard to their users, they move quickly to test a cheap version of the thing they’re building, and they start by testing their riskiest, most consequential assumptions. They try to ‘fail cheaply and learn deeply’.

Let’s keep aside for now the question of whether we’re doing sensible things with this new system. What’s clear is that this ‘new best way’ is adept at working with digital technologies.

If anything, the power of the new system is scary. Hence why we now often worry that digital technologies are too effective at the uses to which they are put, or so powerful as to be dangerous. (Consider, for example, how we worry about the power of the attention/compulsion economy.)

Something else is clear too: this ‘new best way’ is qualitatively and formally different to the old one — it has a different grammar or logic.

Hence why digital transformation — when an organisation tries to go from applying the old best way to the new one — feels a bit like it must feel to be a Werewolf mid-transformation, howling in the moonlight.

For all its power, though, I’d maintain that a digital practice of production is still pretty young, having matured only since around 1995/2000. And indeed I think this immaturity explains a lot of why the 2020s feels so dicey — we’re living through the tumultuous youth of a new technological era.

(We’ll talk more about this later when we reflect on our struggle to diffuse our new technologies and practices, and to regulate adequately their associated business models/variant of capitalism.)

What do I mean specifically when I say the new practice has matured only recently? I mean partly that it’s only really in the last 25–30 years that the new system has been properly codified. You can now learn it easily from books and off-the-shelf tools (which doesn’t mean it’s easy for a legacy, pre-1990s organisation to adopt the new practice, just that the barriers are mostly about the cultural/organisational difficulties of transition).

I also mean it’s only really in the last 25–30 years that the new system has become the default way of working in the vanguard of our economy. Most of the world’s largest companies by market cap, for example, are now native speakers of this new practice of production.

Or, to put that last point another way — and to borrow a phrase from Peter Drucker — it’s only since around 1995/2000 that a digital practice of production has become dominant.

Which doesn’t mean the new system is in the majority in our economy as a whole, but just that the new system has all the economic and cultural momentum. It’s powerful because it’s clearly the way things are headed.

Right, we’re two conditions in to our six conditions for progress and the wordcount is already mounting, so let’s pause there for now.

I suppose one point to note in closing is that, on these first two conditions at least, it feels like things are going well, and this doesn’t exactly chime with the vibe of our times.

So just to reassure that things are going to get worse as we come onto the aspects of progress that we’re fumbling. These relate to how we’re diffusing and regulating our new technologies and practices, and how we’re building new futures with them. Or rather how we’re struggling to do these things.

In the next post in particular, we’ll dwell on that qualifier I used above when I wrote that companies ‘in the vanguard of our economy’ are now adept at working with digital technologies.

The issue being that these practices haven’t really spread in any deep sense beyond the vanguard, so the future has arrived very, very unevenly. We haven’t yet managed to diffuse our most powerful new capabilities across our society and economy in a way that is empowering. So up next is a post about how we cultivate the conditions for agency in a digital society.

To stay in touch with my writing you can follow me on Medium or Blue Sky or Substack. Here are links to the first, second, third, and fourth posts in the series about the ‘how’ of government. And here are two posts I wrote recently on similar lines: How to govern human and How to solve wicked problems. Or for a more sweeping, optimistic take on where things go next, there’s End State.