Examination of Witnesses (Questions 620
WEDNESDAY 29 MARCH 2000
620. And always will.
(Mr Tutcher) That is something we would not want to
stop. Just as we may all frown on smoking and smoking rooms and
all those things, there is actually a lot of good communication
which happens in some smoking rooms, so we would not want to cut
down on people coming into the office, we would not want to see
that interaction reduced by virtue of being able to work virtually.
621. Can I move on to another area now? Looking
at the work you are undertaking, is there similar work being undertaken
in other countries? In particular, in the most successful, the
furthest advanced with e-commercethe States, Scandinavia,
maybe Sweden and Finlandhas work been done there? How are
they dealing with these issues? They are further advanced in some
respects than we are.
(Mr Wilsdon) When we were setting up this project,
we did do quite a comprehensive search for similar initiatives
both within Europe and further afield. There are studies which
have been done, there has been a lot more work done on the social
side than there has been on the environmental side. Some very
interesting work has gone on in the States, sponsored by the US
Government and done by NGOs and community organisations. On the
environmental side, there is more interest now and we have seen
quite a lot of work appearing in the last six months or so. There
was quite an interesting report published in the States in December
by an academic called Joseph Romm which looked at the impact of
the digital economy and particularly of e-commerce on global warming
in the context of what the new economy is doing in the States.
He came up with some very optimistic conclusions as to the percentage
of CO 2 emission reductions which are going to be achieved through
this route. Some have criticised him for perhaps under-estimating
the rebound effect in all of this, in that yes, people save energy
in some ways but then they obviously use more energy in other
waysthey go and buy more new products or they travel further
to do other things apart from going to Tesco or whatever. I think
that is true. Within Europe, the Commission has for a couple of
years now sponsored a project called ASIS, the Alliance for a
Sustainable Information Society, which is looking more widely
than just e-commerce, it is looking at all information communication
technologies but is very much looking at them through the prism
of sustainable development and trying to weigh up the economic,
social and environmental consequences. ASIS has produced some
interesting pieces of work from all sorts of European countries.
There was a conference in February which I attended on our behalf
and we made some useful links with people there and will be pursuing
those over the coming months.
622. That was going to be my next question.
How are you going to link up with initiatives elsewhere?
(Mr Wilsdon) We will be talking to quite a few of
these organisations. There is another big initiative going on
in the States at the moment run by a body called the World Resources
Institute. They have a big programme called the Digital Dividend
which is about the social and environmental dividend which IT
and e-commerce will bring. So we will be talking to all these
people and hopefully forging links. Our focus in terms of our
outputs is primarily the UK in that we are making recommendations
to the UK Government, to local authorities, regional development
agencies and UK business. Obviously, though, e-commerce is global
and you cannot put a ring around it in that sense. That is a challenge
for us, I am sure it is a challenge for you in your enquiry as
well. It is hard from a government perspective to grapple with
something which by its very nature is global.
623. I am conscious this afternoon we have concentrated
primarily on the social issues rather than the environmental ones,
I was wondering if there is anything you feel in particular we
might be saying about what Europe might be able to do further
on the environmental aspects?
(Mr Wilsdon) I think it would be a very valuable thing
if the Commission were to be carrying out research similar to
what we are doing here in the UK but looking more widely across
Europe. There is a great need, as we have said, for more analysis
of these issues and I do not think we are yet at a stage where
we can make firm predictions or firm recommendations. As I say,
the Commission has been funding some work but nothing which has
looked as comprehensively as we are hoping to do in the UK.
(Mr MacGillivray) I certainly take on board the interest
in the question about jobs at the macro-level. We have been thinking
rather more about particular impacts in deprived neighbourhoods
which we certainly do not intend to ignore, but in terms of the
more macro-picture and, if you like, the middle men and women
and the impact which came up from Lord Cavendish, that is something
which would be very suitable for the Commission to do some research
on at the European level, as they have done quite a lot with other
Lord Skelmersdale: Many years ago I did an economics
course and the one thing which I have retained from it is that
economics is an historical science
Baroness O'Cathain: Really!
624.in that you cannot predict the future
from it with any degree of accuracy. Would you not say the same
is true of your research?
(Mr MacGillivray) Personally, I think I probably agree
with you, but in terms of the metaphor of us being the jury which
is deliberating, the important thing to emphasise about this is
that the e-commerce revolution has not happened yet and is not
inevitable yet. It is not one of these mysterious forces of globalisation
which will steamroller over this country. There are a huge number
of policy interventions which can be made to steer it one way
or the other. So as well as being the jury, it would be nice to
somehow shape the outcome of this, because it is not something
people are powerless to change. Economics is not the tool to do
that but there are ways that the future can be shaped, maybe not
predicted entirely but certainly shaped and nudged in a certain
direction. I think it is fairly clear from what we have said that
we are not completely dispassionate about what we are going to
find over the next year and what we will be recommending.
(Mr Wilsdon) Absolutely. I agree with you, it is going
to be very hard to predict in any firm way, but I do not think
that removes the obligation on Government, on business, on the
policy-making community of which we as Think Tanks are a part,
to grapple with these issues in a serious way.
625. Absolutely right.
(Mr Wilsdon) We are using in methodological terms
a scenario-based approach which does enable us to have a bit of
flexibility in the way we think about the future. We are not saying,
"This is what it is going to look like", we will map
out three or four possible worlds if you like and then use those
as the under-pinning basis for the research we are doing on specific
themes, and the purpose of that is precisely to try and overcome
this problem of not knowing.
626. The other problem we have, of course, is
that the whole ball game is moving so fast it is likely to be
out of date before you get round to publishing it.
(Mr Wilsdon) Absolutely. We must not forget however
many internet years there are to a calendar year.
627. You are clearly conscious of that fact?
(Mr Wilsdon) We are, very.
Lord Skelmersdale: Although I might have done,
I did not set out to annoy Lady O'Cathain. It was a serious question.
I am glad you are treating it seriously.
628. Do you think it is inevitable, or if it
is not inevitable, what can you do or others do to derail it?
I hear of some quite outlandish things being done in the States
in the form of campaigning using the internet.
(Mr MacGillivray) There are definitely some anti-technology
movements. My personal view from the Economics Foundation is that
some of the most exciting innovations in social policy are coming
from a judicious use of new technologies rather than an escape
from them. It seems to me that as people come back from their
Y2K exile and re-engage with the 21st century, there is a lot
of social problems where the new technologies can actually play
an active part in alleviating them rather than just being a negative
factor which has to be guarded against as best as possible. Some
of the work we are promoting at the community level is directly
intended to produce benefit rather than being in some way a fire-fighting
exercise against the dark forces of globalisation. I think it
is inevitable but there is potentially more benefit than harm
to be had out of it.
(Mr Tutcher) Can I add a slightly different view?
One that says that I think there is a real opportunity to create
economic wealth and we have to be very careful about the environmental
implications of that because we are very aware of the consumerism
which could result. I think one of the numbers which is produced
out of the US is that e-commerce or trading electronically, however
you may like to define that, has already contributed something
like 0.7 per cent off the inflation rate. Whilst I have not done
an economics course, something inside me says there is probably
something which is pretty good about driving down inflation through
using technology in that way. I think the issue becomes one of
how does Government ensure that the extra wealth which potentially
can be created is distributed fairly to those who need it most,
and yet still give an incentive to those people who are doing
most of the creation to actually retain some of it. I think there
is a balance to be drawn there, that Government probably does
have a role to play through whatever levers it has to make those
629. Mr Wilsdon, would you like the last word?
(Mr Wilsdon) Picking up on John's comment about distributing
the wealth, as I say, our study is focused on the UK, there is
a lot of good stuff being said by the UK Government about closing
the digital divide in this country. From the sustainable development
movement, obviously we like to think global, as the phrase goes,
and I think there the real challenge lies in the fact that 40
per cent of the people on this planet still have not made a telephone
call. That sometimes puts into perspective the hype and the over-enthusiastic
way in which governments, businesses and others talk about this
stuff, and that makes the real challenges we have in the UK pale
into insignificance to some extent.
630. On that sobering thought I think we will
draw the proceedings to a conclusion. Thank you very much indeed
for your evidence, it has been very helpful.
(Mr Wilsdon) Thank you.