Dreaming Britain

Futures for a bewildered country

What would it take to make us the world’s biotech and medicine hub? Cambridge is already one of the most impressive biotech hubs around. What if we made it a national priority? What if we authorised germline therapies for Cystic Fibrosis and other inherited horrors? Gave heroic tax breaks on medical research, on technologies that support it? What if we decided to push the boundaries of the permissible and the possible?

Imagine a nation whose prosperity is premised on health and knowledge. Would that be a dream to offer your kids? Imagine that Biotech’s Apple is born in Manchester; that the next Yorkshire generation’s jobs weren’t mining but growing. Imagine Britain was where desertification was reversed; where the new antibiotics were born; where cancer was beaten. Let’s say everyone’s health data is public property. Let’s say companies can have access to what we know in exchange for the provision of healthcare; let’s say the state gives free licences on national patents in exchange for drugs and treatments.

Or education. Let’s make this the education capital of the world. Let’s say every graduate does a year teaching. Let’s dump the three term school year – based on a basic agricultural calendar – and build a new one around how children learn. Let’s test them at a standardised age based on their date of birth not their year of enrolment. Let’s start the school day for teens later because they need more sleep. Let’s acknowledge that different people have different ways of taking in information – some do well from lectures, some from texts – and build on where they’re strong. Let’s feed students before they study and understand how food, sleep, emotional wellbeing and external stress affect learning. Let’s pioneer ways of combining media that increase speed of information uptake, comprehension and retention. Let’s ask about approaches – why don’t we teach maths as a language? Isn’t that what it is? Why do we teach languages in tables when that’s not how kids learn them? Let’s talk about groups – Google suggested recently that the composition of teams is more important than how high-achieving the members are in getting remarkable results – so do student groups need to be streamed not according to individual ability but according to interactions and identity?

Let’s imagine Britain as the radical frontier of learning, the hub of new educational techniques. Let’s imagine exporting teachers and ways of teaching, and a national economy geared towards the creation of excellence in whatever field, and towards rounded education, integration and wellbeing. What if no one failed to finish school? What if no students had to be excluded? How would Britain look then?

Let’s talk about governance. It’s the same question: why do we run our country’s most fundamental systems on the pre-existing lines of centuries-old best guesses and untested Victorian assertions? Because we always have?

So let’s apply what we know about decision-making to the political process from elections to local councils to parliament. We know how smart crowds work and how they can be broken – and the party system and the whip system could be designed to degrade the choices of parliament. Whatever side you support in our political wrangles you’re probably also aware that press coverage of complex and crucial issues is lacking. That has to change, because an informed population is key to democracy. Let’s fix that, fix all of it. Let’s create the most perfectly fair, most representative, most wise and effective governance machine in history. Today our country is the governance joke, the way Iceland’s banks were a joke. Look at Iceland again: they completely reformed their polity and rescued their economy. Can we do the same with democracy? Could we have a rolling plebiscite mediated by digital applications so that the population was constantly engaged with – and educated on – the nature of government, compromise and cooperation? Could we produce a functional, distributed, engaged, stable direct democracy from the confusion of Britain’s first referendum in four decades, itself brought about by a Prime Minister defaulting from the fundamentally representative nature of British democracy? And should we? Would we get, perhaps, the world’s first truly enlightened polity and a genuinely cohesive society in which “tolerance” is replaced with mutual understanding, and multiculturalism with a metacultural mosaic in which a single entity is composed of many?

Do none of these inspire you? Shall we consider a society premised on deep privacy (against the trend) or radical transparency (in line with it)? Take whatever you love and expand it to make a defining national ethos, be it psychology or energy generation, radical reforestation and rewilding or urban vertical farming. and then tell someone. Dream aloud because in this moment and for a matter of months you are TE Lawrence: you may act your dream to make it real. We are in desperate need of dreams of tomorrow rather than yesterday; dreams of winning rather than nightmares of loss. It does not matter if your dream is unattainable; it need not be wise or sensible. What matters is that you say it out loud, so that the freedom of fools – the babble of participation – gives enough comfort to someone, somewhere, that they voice an idea that becomes a movement.

Dream Britain. Be wrong in interesting ways. Go.