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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The State of Welfare

I’ve just come back from a couple of weeks on the continent, doing some work, and having some fun. The first week was spent at 3GSM, the massive mobile industry trade show over in Barcelona. The second driving back through France, visiting friends and various tourist sites along the way. The trip has inspired a few new ideas and perspectives on the future.

A conversation with a friend in Paris sparked this particular post. He has been in welfare and social services, and helping to create policy around these areas, for the last thirty years. He has come to a conclusion that some might see as radical: that the current approach to the welfare state in Europe, largely driven by handouts, is doomed to failure. We need to tackle the root causes of poverty more effectively, and unfortunately the handouts themselves might be part of the problem.

It all sounds fairly right wing, the sort of language an old Tory government might have used before announcing swingeing cuts to the welfare state (calling benefits ‘handouts’ is typical Daily Mail-style inflammatory language, but that might just have been the translation). However, the point itself makes a lot of sense. The state can’t afford to budget for endless expenditure on benefits, given the growing and ageing population. We also simply can’t afford to have so many people not working. I learned at a conference yesterday that there are now a million fewer 20-somethings than there were 10 years ago, and apparently thirty percent of public servants qualify for retirement in the next decade.

Those capable of work need to be given every opportunity, and encouragement, to move in to work. This includes all sorts of groups even the discussion of whom is largely a no-go area for many politicians: notably the disabled, and single parents.

The root causes of unemployment are many, but there are some obvious ones that need to be addressed. The greed and laziness theories of some of the press, who describe armies of benefit cheats — largely asylum seekers in their misguided view — are generally held to be inaccurate within the profession. Education, childcare and simple lack of confidence are more pertinent issues to be addressed than criminality.

Where the difficulty lies is getting the right balance between carrot and stick. The stick is generally the withdrawal of benefits but this has to be applied long after people have been given the opportunities. The carrots are many: greater wealth should be the obvious one, but there is also the impact on self-esteem and quality of life that the right job can bring. Certainly though, if some people are genuinely better off on benefits then this needs to be addressed. The current British government seems to be moving in the right direction — if a little slowly — by increasing the provision of childcare before and after school. Free childcare for all might be scarily expensive from the chancellor’s perspective but it is hard to argue against the long-term benefits to the country, both social and financial.

And this is where the problem lies: the solution requires a long-term view. Yet most politicians seem to be more concerned with re-election than actually making a difference. Witness the glacial pace of change implemented by the ‘New’ Labour government despite a radical agenda and a landslide victory. The short-term approach means increasing benefits for popular or vote-winning constituencies (savings schemes for kids, re-establishing the link with inflation for pensions), and cutting those for the more unpopular groups (to the point where genuine asylum seekers are treated like criminals whatever their reason for entering the country).

So to the future: we either need more selfless politicians, or a different form of government. Flip-flopping between left and right every few years is a very slow way to make progress, and we can’t afford to be slow about this.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Cooking the Books

Well whaddaya know? Just weeks after I wrote about the poor standard of cooking and eating in the UK, it looks like cooking is going back on the national curriculum. According to today’s Guardian (and reports all over the media), teaching is to become a little more practical about preparing people for the world. And in a very pleasant surprise, teachers — who are after all the experts here — are to be given more freedom about how they teach subjects.

The QCA website gives a fantastically detailed breakdown of all the subjects, skills and reasoning behind it all here. Take a look here, especially if you have kids.

There has of course been a negative reaction from some parts of the media and various ‘experts’. Many looking for the bad news story chose to focus on the timetabling issues this new flexible curriculum might cause (that means you FiveLive). But for me this is one of those rare beasts: a genuine good news story.

Perhaps we might be capable of raising a generation of highly competent adults after all. That must bode well for the future.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

iPhone? WhyPhone?

I’m not in the habit of just posting links to other people’s articles, but I’ll make an exception here. This well-thought-out demolition of the Apple iPhone and the operators pushing for deals to distribute it is well worth a look if you have been wondering what all the hype is about.

From day one the iPhone has looked to me like a triumph of style over substance, and judging by some of the media backlash I’m not alone. This is the first article I have seen to really weigh in to the debate with a lot of coherent arguments about why the iPhone hysteria is bunkum.

Check it out on ArcChart’s website, here.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Parallel Worlds

Most technology products have a roadmap. If you were to plot the roadmaps for mobile phones, social networks, and Second Life, I think you would find that the three lines converge.

This might not sound too revolutionary. Vodafone has already moved in to the virtual world. But understand the historical context, and add in a few new technologies, and the idea becomes pretty fantastical.

The thought was spurred by a friend at a party last night. His grandfather had said that our generation would never see the levels of change in our lifetimes that he saw in his. I think it is fair to say that this is unlikely. Although some of the changes happening today are more subtle than the redrawing of country borders and the move from steam trains to electric cars, the pace of change is incredible, and arguably increasing.

One of the biggest themes of change for the last century has been the ‘shrinking’ of the world. Improved transport, and electronic communications have made it much easier to reach someone either virtually or in person, wherever they may be on the planet. But there is a limit to how much smaller the world can get. Journey times are already increasing on some plane and train routes because of the volume of people moving, and environmental issues will make physical transport increasingly unpopular.

Yet the trend for improved communications is likely to continue, driven in part by the global nature of friendships created over the Web. So how and where will people meet? Virtual worlds seem like a pretty compelling prospect.

Second Life is just a starting point. Imagine you could dip in and out of this virtual world at will, using your mobile device, and experiencing it like a virtual reality. Each geographical location represents different aspects of life: islands and buildings devoted to companies, specific music genres, or sexual preferences already exist. But with a slicker interface and mobile broadband they would become accessible in a much more integrated, more natural way that creates a new layer over our physical reality.

Instead of a phone call you might virtually meet someone in a virtual coffee shop. You might have photorealistic avatars with animated faces mapped to your own. Or you might choose a different virtual identity altogether. Either way, it could take place while you’re on the bus home rather than sat at your PC tapping out commands on your keyboard and mouse.

There are all sorts of fictional/theological parallels here, notably the astral plane. And of course the Matrix. Except this is starting to look very much more science fact than science fiction.

Tom Cheesewright