The Good Life: the key to a smart green future?

Tom and Barbara Good from the BBC sitcom ‘The Good Life’. Image: BBC

by Tamsin Murray Leach

There is a lot of misunderstanding about what we mean when we talk about innovation — or technology, for that matter. From popular conceptions of gadgets and robots to governments placing their faith in ‘innovation!’ as a stand-alone economic panacea, the broader socio-political context behind technological change is too often overlooked.

This is especially true when it comes to factoring in the paradigmatic shifts in society’s conception and practice of the ‘good life’ that have taken place with each technological revolution.

But what is ‘the good life’? British readers and Anglophiles are perhaps most likely to associate the phrase with the seminal 1970s BBC sitcom, in which Tom Good gives up his job at a plastic toy firm to create a sustainable and self-sufficient life in suburbia. Much to the disdain of their conventional neighbours Tom and his wife Barbara turn their tiny front and back gardens into vegetable plots; raise chickens, pigs and a goat; generate their own electricity and run car from methane derived from compost; make their own clothes; and attempt to set up a barter economy on their street.

A huge hit in the 1970s, the ‘hippy’ lifestyle of the Good family was then the stuff of comedy. The car and generator regularly broke down, and the garden produced insufficient food; their homemade wine was too strong and their clothes ugly and ‘unfeminine’; their affection for their animals led to their perceived failure to butcher them; and, far from enthusiastically joining the barter system, the rest of the street thought them ‘loons’. Yet the programme did not spare the then-dominant good life, either. Neighbours were portrayed as trapped and/or blinded by ‘the system’, confined to lives of consumption and meaningless, Tayloristic jobs.

Yet today, not only do the Good’s lifestyle choices no longer seem like the choice of ‘loons’ — they are aspirational. Hybrid cars and biofuel buses are becoming the norm; the so-called sharing economy has been captured by corporates such as Uber and Airbnb; plant-based diets are catered to by all the major supermarkets; while natural fibre clothes and low-yield, ‘artisan’ produce sells at the premium end of the market.

And had the sitcom been made just twenty years earlier, the consumerist treadmill lives of their neighbours would not have seemed like comedy either. The aspirational lifestyle then was very much a suburban house with a car in the driveway; a regularly updated inventory of household appliances for the woman; and a job-for-life for the male ‘head’ of the household.

In fact, what Carlota Perez’s research highlights is that not only have these major shifts in lifestyle occurred with every technological revolution since the 1800s, but that they are key to unleashing prosperity in each surge. The initial period of each revolutionary surge is one of Schumpeterian creative destruction, driven by a powerful cluster of new and dynamic industries and infrastructures, in which a myriad of innovations — technological, procedural, institutional, societal — battle it out for investment and uptake. These surges of activity eventually lead to major structural changes in production, finance, distribution, communication — and consumption. However, in each of the five revolutions that she recognises, this early installation period of the new technologies has always culminated in a speculative bubble, followed by a major crash and subsequent depression.

It is at this point that the future promised by those new technologies looks both uncertain and threatening. Deskilling and job losses have occurred across industries and regions, while the new industries provide higher productivity but less employment. Finance, accustomed to the high returns of the speculation days and scalded by the crash, becomes averse to long-term investment in production. It is the moment in the cycle when something must occur to foster investment, employment and innovation in order for the installed potential of the new technologies to lead to those major structural changes.

This is the period that Perez believes we are experiencing in the current ICT revolution: the financial instability, the populism at both ends of the political spectrum, and the fears of a robotic future are not fundamentally different from those of the 1930s, which was the equivalent mid-point of the previous mass production revolution. In the past, the years that follow this transitional point have typically seen a positive-sum game between business and society, thanks to the state providing a common direction for convergent innovation and profitable investment — a direction based on dynamic and sufficient demand.

This is where the ‘good life’ comes in. New ways of living which become possible due to technical change are often overlooked as simply a by-product of ‘progress’. However, with each major technological change it is the new lifestyles that shape demand for new products and services, and it is those products and services that actually become the major source of new jobs — and of well-being.

The key role of new technology may seem counter-intuitive given what we have described thus far as characteristics of the present shift. Indeed, when The Good Life TV show was first broadcast, the ICT revolution was just beginning. At the time, ‘going back to nature’ seemed like just that — going backwards to a niche lifestyle that appeared practically the opposite of the slowly emerging digital future filled with shiny high-tech gadgets.

Yet since then, microchip-based technology has decreased in price and spread across the globe, becoming integral to the lifestyle of the majority. And at the same time, awareness of increasing and converging environmental pressures caused by the previous good life of mass consumption — resource scarcity, environmental degradation and climate change — has seen increasing support for so-called ‘green’ living.

Far from being oppositional, this aspiration to ‘green’, combined with the technologies of ICT, has instead resulted in the gradual emergence of what we call today’s ‘smart green’ good life. Where economies of scale once relied upon standardisation of both supply and demand, now variety, specificity and adaptability are easily handled with ICT. Health and education are becoming increasingly individualised. As resource scarcity looms, intangibles and experiential entertainment are booming. Indeed, if stimulated by government policies that encourage a convergent direction underpinned by the model of a ‘green good life’, the transformative nature of ICT is capable of reducing tangible content and enabling innovation across the whole production spectrum — from the extraction of natural resources to manufacturing, distribution, logistics and reuse.

Understanding the lifestyle aspect of each paradigm shift — and the role that the state has played in encouraging that transformation — is the main object of our latest Working Paper. We first briefly look at the history of technological revolutions and the way in which innovation is deployed to explain why this is the case. We then examine the five different lifestyle shifts that have occurred since the first Industrial Revolution. The paper looks in depth at the legacy of the last surge of development which, though still pervasive today, was already reaching stale maturity at the time The Good Life was broadcast. This was the so-called ‘American Way of Life’ — reliant on mass consumption — which developed in response to the technologies of the automobile, oil, electricity, plastics and mass production.

From our research, we make the argument that these changes are not down to technological determinism: rather, lifestyle shifts are a socio-political choice, arising from the realm of the possible that the new technologies provide, but fostered by an interplay of markets and government policy. As Mariana Mazzucato has highlighted, markets are outcomes — and the state is a key actor in shaping those outcomes. Systemic government policies are necessary to clearly tilt the playing field in the direction that these burgeoning lifestyle preferences suggest. Today Europe is in a unique position to adopt the emerging ‘smart green’ way of life as its own, and to play a formative role in fostering prosperity through sustainability. We must not let this opportunity pass us by.

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