We were already living in an age of change like no other. Now the pandemic has accelerated that change and Britain must embrace the opportunities it brings, or we will lose out.
Most obvious is the Zoom revolution. There have been more rapid changes to the way we work in the past two years than the previous two decades. Yes, this leads to reverberations, as city-centre coffee houses emptied out, suburban high streets have thrived.
As we emerge from the pandemic, the question we have to answer now, is how to harness this innovation to solve the huge challenges ahead.
It was striking in the pandemic how often it was relatively old technologies that came to our aid. The first proven treatment – dexamethasone – is a 50-year-old drug repurposed and has saved over a million lives around the world.
In testing, it wasn’t the amazing new genomic tests that became the workhorse of the response, but good old fashioned lateral flow tests – invented in 1971.
But we have not been able to do the same with genuinely new innovation. This often struggles because of professional conservatism, ideological opposition to private enterprise, or because of a thicket of claustrophobic regulation designed for another age – and a risk-averse attitude by the regulators.
In finance, the mainstream arrival of cryptocurrencies is set to shake the foundations of banking. To customers, free and easy contactless payments make our lives a little more hassle-free. But under the surface, the centuries-old idea you need a bank to make a payment is coming to an end.
Cryptocurrency started life looking like a boom-and-bust fad. With a total market capitalisation estimated at around $2tn, and with significant investment going in from mainstream investors, the market is maturing.
Every second advert on the tube seems to be for cryptocurrency. Britain should be the natural place to develop new markets like this – with a liberal, progressive regulatory regime that allows this radical new innovation to flourish, and allows people to take their own risks.
The Swiss Central Bank recently integrated their digital currency into the mainstream banking system. Here the Bank of England has talked the talk, but we haven’t seen much real progress. The only interest in Parliament has been concerns over Chinese and Russian use of this new-fangled technology. Our geostrategic adversaries will of course try to bend technology to their will – but our response should not be to abandon it but beat them to it. That is the source of geostrategic strength.
Post Brexit, the UK has an opportunity to use these innovations to cut fraud and financial crime. In tackling this, it is vital that we ensure the UK is home to new innovations, like fintech and crypto currencies. These new innovations have the potential to change finance, just as social media has changed communication and online shopping has changed retail.
We need a commitment to a progressive, liberal environment for fintech, including cryptocurrencies, which allows people to invest their own money as they choose, to make – or lose – as much as they want. We must embrace modern technology to make life easier for people – for example making payments, especially international payments, easier and cheaper.
Tokenisation of traditional assets could help increase liquidity, codify rules and regulations, and increase transparency throughout the asset lifecycle. If we want to keep up, let alone lead in these new markets, we need to explore the plethora of uses for these blockchain technologies with far more ambition.
Britain should be welcoming, embracing, and leading these changes. But over the last few years our lead in fintech has run into a reactionary risk aversion among regulators.
Instead we need to embrace change, not fear it. This means putting in place a regulatory regime that protects people, especially from any systemic risks.
More than anything, we need to work day and night to champion the businesses making it happen by bolstering skills programs and removing burdensome barriers.
As we yearn for freedom from emergency Covid-19 restrictions let’s not stop there and keep removing pettifogging rules that stop innovation in its tracks. It means finance – and thankfully our access to it is much stronger than it was a decade ago.