Ideology versus insight

The overwhelming geopolitical narrative of the twentieth century was the collision of ideologies. Entire nations operated for the better part of one hundred years as laboratories for ideas, often based on models originating in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twenty-first century, we can do better than experiment with whole populations at the expense of lost generations.

We now have more data and analytical tools than social scientists or politicians of previous eras could have ever imagined. But our democracies still operate on outdated assumptions of ideology and parental models of leadership which have no place for learning, experimentation or the acknowledgement of failure. We don’t want our politicians to talk about experimenting with policy but rather we assume they come to the election with the right answers fully developed. There is no room in the political discourse for complexity or nuance. We are all guilty of viewing politics through the lens of our personal views of the world.

One solution is a digital twin, not of a machine but of a population. We have more data than ever about communities, including rich longitudinal studies of many groups. Models of populations have a long and successful history and we don’t hesitate to use them in economics but are reluctant to use them in the tuning and refinement of social policies. For example, central banks change monetary policy (such as interest rates) based on their simulation of the economy both as a whole and in individual sectors. But, decisions about criteria for social care or financial support are not similarly adjusted based on data. This is despite the science telling us that just as the economy needs to be constantly fine-tuned, so the reactions and needs of communities for support changes depending on many complex factors such as the job market and other social issues.

Having explained the role of digital twins and aligning them with the economic models that people are already familiar with, politicians can focus on investing to be ready to respond to the insights they gain. Our best leaders are already wonderful storytellers and could focus their skills on telling the story of the data and avoid falling back onto stories of ideology, the old left and right.

Perhaps a notable and recent positive exception is the policy research into a Universal Basic Income. While Switzerland went straight to a referendum (which was defeated at a poll in 2016), Finland has adopted a much more scientific approach, running a two-year trial with randomly selected participants. Not surprisingly, the results are complex and suggest that implementation cannot be simply based on ideals. The challenge now is for Finland to avoid a binary conclusion and use the data as input for a digital twin of their population, giving them a Universal Basic Income as one of many tools to be applied when the data indicates it will be of greatest benefit with the least trade-offs compared to other policy options.

Even with data, leaders in both government and business need to be prepared to experiment. They need to celebrate being wrong in trialling policies, programmes, services and products, otherwise they are trying to live-up to a model of infallible leadership which is unachievable. Just as business is beginning to systemically understand the importance of failure (see Rethinking failure), electorates also need to step-up and reward those leaders who are humble enough to celebrate trying an idea and sharing the nuanced learnings.

Because of the huge amount of data that we swim in every day, we simply don’t have the tools to make sense of it all, so we filter it into a belief system. Reversing position based on new facts goes against the model of the ideal leader which is much more aligned to the ideologue rather than being open to ideation and iteration. This is perhaps why the more aligned an idea is to the ideals of past ideologies, the harder it is to iterate and learn.

Leadership itself can be measured and maybe we need to encourage rationale debate by creating a digital twin of our leaders themselves, allowing all of us to test their performance under the pressure of different complex scenarios!

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