FWDThinking Episode 15: The intersection of tech and society

Alistair Croll in conversation with Martha Lane Fox.

All opinions expressed in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.

[00:00:00] Alistair Croll: Hi, and welcome to another episode of FWDThinking. Today I have the immense pleasure of having a chat with Martha Lane Fox. She is the Baroness of Soho. She is a board member at Twitter. She is a member of the British government, and she has a remarkable history, creating organizations like Doteveryone that try to level the playing field for technology access. She was one of the first people to get on board with e-commerce. She spends a ton of time organizing and advising and speaking, very candidly refreshingly, about what’s happening in government and technology and how the two intersect. We had only time for a brief half hour conversation before she ran off to the house of Lords. But I think you’ll find, we touched on a lot of topics in very candid and refreshing ways. So please join me in learning more about Martha Lane Fox. Hi, Martha. It’s great to have you [00:01:00] here. We have these conversations every now and then with interesting people doing fun things in digital governments, and obviously you qualify on all fronts. Why don’t you tell us very briefly for folks who aren’t familiar with you a bit about your background? 

Martha Lane Fox: It’s a strange kind of background. I can’t really be put in a box, which I hope I can channel into something positive. I started an e-commerce company back when everybody thought you were nuts to put internet credit card details into the internet. Lastminute.com had a kind of roller coaster ride building that business at the Vanguard of European e-commerce then started doing work more kind of in the social justice space. That where techniques society worked a lot for British governments, British prime ministers, looking at digital inclusion, helping people become part of the world that I had seen through Lastminute.com helped establish something called the government digital service in the UK. gov.uk was kind of revolutionary in our government uses technology. And now I sit in the second chamber of the British parliament, the house of Lords, and I do a bunch of different things, including sit on some boards, Twitter, Chanel [00:02:00] chair a select committee, and try and think about that intersection of tech and society.

Alistair Croll: And you were also behind Doteveryone, is that correct? 

Martha Lane Fox: I was, yes. 

Alistair Croll: So, what was the mandate for doteveryone? 

Martha Lane Fox: Oh, I started it because back when we started in 2015 felt as though the conversation about technology had not advanced as much as I thought it should, particularly around areas of responsibility and the wider implications of what people were building on society. So, we just started a small Think tank really, we didn’t have masses of resource. We weren’t trying to be hugely operational. We were trying to prompt the conversation, influence, use research, use building things to show how you could think about building technology in a more responsible way. So, it was really the kind of cusp of everybody’s anxieties about technology becoming more known. And it was a way of channeling some of the ideas that we had about how to make technology feel as though it was [00:03:00] listening to the wide implications that it had on the stakeholders. 

Alistair Croll: So, I know now we think nothing of tweeting the fact that we’re not in our house, whereas 20 years ago, we were all “don’t you dare put any personal information on the internet”. And obviously you were ahead of the curve there with people doing transactions on the internet before it was commonplace. It also seems like that everyone was pretty prescient because those fears and concerns, which may have seemed unfounded or sort of paranoid at the time have definitely come to the forefront in the last few years in politics in society. What is the biggest thing you hoped wouldn’t happen for the problems that doteveryone was trying to tackle that has happened? 

Martha Lane Fox: Well, I think, you know, this is so much about systemic change and the risk of you know, structures and institutions not being well-educated or having the kind of resilience [00:04:00] to deal with the onslaught of the technology world. You know, I feel like so much of the difficulty that we are now sitting in is because there is this enormous wave of technological change, which has hit some of us. You are very much at the forefront of all of that, but there are also organizations and structures and infrastructure and people who you know, we rely on both as a society, but also, you know just not empowered or able to deal with the right level of decisions because of not understanding where technology is at, and this is not a kind of patronizing point. It’s just very hard, you know, I’ve worked in tech and I don’t feel like I understand a lot of what happens. So, I think one of the challenges, and it might be. It’s not child abuse online. It’s not racial hatred on social media. It’s not misinformation across democracies, they are all incredibly important to clearly, you know, massive substantive issues. But I think the thing I feel is a sort of systemic risk is if we don’t enable our public sector and our private sector to [00:05:00] catch up with what’s happened in the technology sector, we’ll never be able to address exactly those challenges. So, to me, you have to go back to that kind of system level thinking and change and think about how we’re going to address that over the next 10 years. 

Alistair Croll: Yeah, I have someone complaining to me about the fact that the internet is such a, has such a profit motive behind it. And it really does seem like we as a society collectively decided perhaps because broadcast television was funded by advertising. That the internet should be funded by advertising. And that seems to be its original sin that we can stand on a soapbox and yell, and we have freedom of speech, but as parlor and the de-platforming of other organizations, not that I’m a fan of those organizations, but they’ve done us a favor by showing us that we don’t have freedom of reach in the digital world or even freedom of speech because someone can disconnect you. So, from that point of view, how do we fix that systemic underlying thing? Is it, is it more government intervention? Is it changing incentives? Is it making people pay for digital stuff [00:06:00] rather than expecting it for free through ads? 

Martha Lane Fox: I mean, I think yes, yes, yes. All of those things. Right. And this is not easy. So, you know, sometimes when I’m listening to other podcasts, yes. I’m sorry. I have listened to other podcasts and we, you know, hear people saying, well, you know, all you need to do is change the business model of the internet. Well, you know, I’m an optimist and I’m an entrepreneur and I believe change can happen, but I just don’t think that will. Right. So, I think, yes, of course, a lot of this does stem from the free. Give me data. You get free services model, of course, but I think it’s also unrealistic to think that we can change that overnight and that the substantial fundamental building block of the internet is going to be suddenly ripped away. So, I think for me, there are other things we need to do in parallel. And the first is help people understand the transactions they’re making online. I think it probably is becoming a bit better understood, but I think we can do more. And I think part of that is regulation. I personally think the government can do really quite simple, boring things like regulate terms and conditions. You know, you can worry about breaking up Amazon or Apple [00:07:00] or whoever the government wants to worry about, but you could also do some quite small and simple things as well to help people feel a bit more in control of their internet experience. So, there’s that piece of the puzzle, but there’s then I do also think there are emerging new business models, more around micro payments, micro subscription models, all the things that perhaps allow you to be part of the exchange in your data and your information, and have a bit more control and power over it in a way some of the regulation that started in Europe, GDPR has sort of thought made, I think a bit of a shift in terms of how companies think about some of these things. It’s certainly well, very, very complex regulation and a faulty in many ways. I think it has to some degree changed how governments and how organizations think about that data transaction. And so, you know that this shift is possible, but I think kind of ripping up the fundamental business model of the internet is probably a bit less realistic. Hello.

Alistair Croll: Do you want to introduce us to the cat?

Martha Lane Fox: The cat is called Coli. She’s a total [00:08:00] show off whenever I do anything broadcasting anywhere, she’s been on the news, she’s got very strong views about data protection. 

Alistair Croll: So, tell me, do you think technology is on the, on the total when, when historians write the books of this era, do you think, they’ll say that technology was good or bad for democracy?

Martha Lane Fox: You know, I just don’t see it as binary. And I actually kind of rebel against this sort of a reductionist view of the world, again, sorry to be disparaging, but it’s obviously all of those things, right? It is dependent on how you deploy it. What human inputs have gone into it. Technology is, is in some ways neutral in some ways, not because clearly algorithms have less neutrality to them and yet are kind of machine-based products, if you like. So, I don’t believe this one or the other. I think that’s the complexity of how we live now. On the one hand, you have the Russians undermining democracies by building incredible army of people [00:09:00] to wage cultural wars at the points of democratic processes, and that is phenomenally dangerous and bad clearly. But then the flip side of that, you have people organizing from Senegal to Ethiopia, to the Philippines, to in the US to Europe using these new incredible forms of interaction and engagement and social built, you know, social justice and movement building. So, it’s both, but I think the thing is we have to be aware of the downsides and make sure that legislation has caught up with the risks and that you know, we are aware of what’s happening, which I still think is sometimes too opaque.

Alistair Croll: Yeah, it does seem like we need to deploy some kind of system for sort of provenance and veracity, but until we change the, the idea that, you know, it’s seen as bad by your peers to share something that isn’t accurate, like there are [00:10:00] consequences. There’s a great line. I’m going to find it. I was reading this yesterday. It made me think of this conversation. There’s an amazing line. I know, I shouldn’t look down at my phone on a podcast, but I’m going to do it anyway. The, the line, was from an article about, um, Facebook and it said that Facebook had protected itself against the Russians, but citizens hadn’t figured out how to protect themselves against Facebook and protect is a harsh word, but it was really that, that yes, foreign actors were able to. Use algorithmic exploitation to, to sort of steer a platform, but once that’s set off the platform kind of feeds itself. 

Martha Lane Fox: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. 

Alistair Croll: So, all these platforms have objective functions and for people that aren’t familiar with those the idea of it’s what an algorithm is trying to do. So TikTok’s algorithm might be optimized for fresh voices and the new people, whereas [00:11:00] Facebook’s algorithm might be optimized for showing ads.

Martha Lane Fox: Yeah. 

Alistair Croll: It seems to me like a declaration of objective function, like telling people what the platform is trying to get them to do is a form of transparency. We seldom see in these platforms. 

Martha Lane Fox: I completely agree. And I do think, you know, the other thing is we do have to be very careful and specific in how we talk about it. You know, I do think Facebook is very different. You know, I sit on the board of Twitter, as I said, one’s a closed system. One’s an open system, arguably that again is different to Google. So yeah. Language again is different to TikTok. And although that probably doesn’t help in how we unpick these things. They are different universes with different incentive structures and motivations. So, I agree with you. And I think, you know, it always strikes me how one of the things I find most surprising is if you’d said to me in 1997, 98, when we started lastminute.com, e-commerce built in a not advertising driven internet based business that the internet was going to be so balkanized so quickly, you’re going to [00:12:00] have a whole parallel internet created by China, that kind of structurally complex relationship with Russia. Arguably Facebook building a parallel internet again. So, you go three or four different systems going on here, and that is still a massive surprise, I think. 

Alistair Croll: So, we often talk about digital rights and internet access, being a fundamental right and things like that. At what point do you think that it makes sense for national governments to generate or run a platform. By that I mean, authentication some ability to post things, some form of messaging at the national level that is sort of a platform for the citizens. Do you think we’re ever going to see a country say, look, there’s the internet, which is global, but you know, there’d be dragons. And then here’s the British or Canadian or American internet that’s provided that provides you certain inalienable rights under our constitution.

Martha Lane Fox: I think it’s really interesting. And, you know, I think these are tricky [00:13:00] and nuanced issues that get to the core of a lot of why people or citizens feel anxious about technology in some ways and why governments often screw stuff up because you know, the notion that you could build something that gave enough trust to citizens that it was not going to be a surveillance platform, that it wasn’t going to be some massive IT project that splurged the public purse. And similarly, on the, you know, on the other side citizens feeling as though this was something that gave them confidence and empowered them, I think it’s really tricky, but I do think there is way more that the government can do. And perhaps coronavirus, COVID-19 has kind of spurred some of this to allow a more creative imagining of digital services, you know, as on the edges of the verified project that we did in the UK, which now unfortunately has sort of been stopped, but that wasn’t exactly what you’re describing, but it wasn’t attempt to be able to triangulate online with bits of information, your own identity, to be able to use different products and services, but with the government, as a piece of the puzzle. So, you could use [00:14:00] your banking structures or you could use your health, but the government was in some of those equations in a way. It hadn’t been before. And, you know, those are powerful ways. I think of helping citizens unlock more, more value from the services they’re using, but I think it is going to be right now quite a bold government that decides they’re going to create an all singing, all dancing, potentially closed platform. I think a better way to go is to constantly, you know, default open, you know, worry about how you’re going to share data across government systems, worry about how you’re going to make sure that the APIs talk to each other. How are you going to create government as a true platform as opposed to government being the only platform? And so, I think that to me is a subtle difference. I remember I will share it in a minute, but I’m still struck by this. I’m not sure if it would be true of this maybe five, six years ago, but. I did some work in the UK health service. You know, we always have this amazingly romantic view of our health service in the UK. It’s phenomenal in many ways, because you can walk in and be treated and there’s no issue, but, but, but it is still a complex and [00:15:00] very, very difficult and often old-fashioned structure. And I found out while I was doing this work, trying to help them think about Wi-Fi very kind of mundane issue that there are on average, about 400 systems in a hospital on average, because you might have the kidney machines systems, you might have the nursing appointment systems. You might have the doctors clocking in systems. You might have the blood results. So many systems. And I was really struck by how enormous a wind there could be just by making those systems talk to each other. Not about some massive data mining exercise that people get nervous about just by enabling more of those systems to talk to each other.

Alistair Croll: And you’re right. I mean, once that happens, it sort of lowers the, the ability of a service provider to become a rent taker. And that’s one of the things that I’m very concerned about is. That in the physical world, you know, we need sustenance and then we can go about our lives. And obviously we need more than that to lead a fulfilling life. But in the digital world, someone’s got to pay for the electricity. And so as soon as we rely on third-party [00:16:00] services they become a sort of permanent tax on whatever those interactions are and how we figure out what a reasonable price for, you know digital presence, should be for a government for a service for a citizen. And then regulate beyond that while still driving the innovation that’s needed to move these platforms forward and give us more bandwidth and all that kind of stuff seems like a pretty Byzantine set of negotiations. 

Martha Lane Fox: I completely agree. And you’ve used the right word and I think that’s what I. I mean when I answered your question about do everyone and the risk that, that, and it’s the, it’s the medieval byzantine nature of these systems. That is a huge threat because those systems inherently will never be able to look at the big risk that we’re talking about. You know, the threats to democracy, the misinformation, the online harms, but then also the, you know, the monopolistic power and so on. So, they don’t have, they haven’t caught up. So [00:17:00] I completely agree with you.

Alistair Croll: Mike Bracken pinned a fairly fiery screed about what has happened to GDS from its early days as a sort of innovative platform. And, and we’ve had. Francis Maude and others joined us at the conference over the years. What do you think, how do you feel about where GDS has gone? Is it now just another part of government? Is it still pushing the envelope? How do you feel like that tributary has flowed downstream since you helped set it up? 

Martha Lane Fox: Well, I think that it’s been a very challenging year and I think that all power, in some ways to the British government’s use of the fundamentals of gov.uk to create some really amazing COVID related information and systems, you know what, there’s been a lot of talk about track and trace in this country and some of the NHS apps and so on, but a lot of these. Experience is really great, you know, [00:18:00] and hopefully fingers crossed leaving this country sometime in the next month. And it’s a complex process doing all of it located from there. But actually, I just think, well done team because it would have been an absolute freaking nightmare without some of the thinking that GDS has landed in the central government. So, it’s easy to knock it. And Mike is right. And if you’re Mike and you spent blood, sweat, and tears, delivering that extraordinary product, you will feel extremely frustrated when you see it either going backwards, sideways, power grabs, you know, new systems being built in parallel and so on. And so, I don’t underestimate any of those things. But as a citizen, I still think that the leap forwards that gov.uk made has landed in many ways in the culture of simplicity, in the culture of helping people use digital services for complex tasks that I just don’t think was true before. 

Alistair Croll: Yeah. And I think we see the same thing with, with errands work in the Canadian digital service, simply building, building blocks, like publish and subscribe or a standardized [00:19:00] form that is accessible or notification systems, and then letting other departments build stuff on top of that has a huge impact on sort of taking away the excuses for doing it your own way, because there’s a perfectly good piece there that simplifies things. And I got to say, you know, Pia Andrews and the team at the ESDC put together the Canadian emergency relief benefits in three weeks. Yeah. In three weeks, part of that was simplified by the fact that Canada has only a dozen banks to speak of. And they just said, let’s use the banking system, but we have seen what is now possible last year. The president of Shared Services Canada, Paul Glover told me that they rolled out Microsoft teams in six weeks. And I asked them how long it was supposed to take. He said the original plan was three years. But my follow-up question was, is anyone going to get in trouble? Like, will there be any consequences? And there’s no, like we’ve shown the world what’s possible when we have to do something, but we still treat many of these things as things we might do. [00:20:00] Are we setting unrealistic expectations and asking people to sprint all the time? Or are we shining a light on the fact that we don’t have the proper urgency for many of these things.

Martha Lane Fox: I think it comes down to a couple of things. In my opinion, it comes down to people, you know, every single company, organization, government department, it is, I hate this expression in that kind of war on talent, but it’s true. Right. And it’s got even more true now because the skills gap both internally, but then also just the gap in the sector, people to do the work is profound and very, very, very urgent. So, you know, A lot of this does come back to having been able to encourage and get the right people into the right jobs and get them enabled. And it was very lucky series of events that meant Mike and the team could do that. But finding those people is rare and they don’t last in governments, particularly for that long, because it’s a hard environment and, you know, you’re not paid the way you probably get paid in other [00:21:00] places and all of that stuff. So, I do think it’s often really easy to overlook that fundamental piece of the puzzle, which is, are there actually any people who are able to do this and are they being recruited and are they being given the mission. So that for me is one huge part of it. I don’t think it’s personally; I don’t think it’s particularly, about any, you know, I think there is still a huge amount that Government can do right now. And I don’t think they do have the urgency. I would agree with you and would probably with Mike on this point, I think that too often digital feels like it’s over there, actually fundamental to everything in building a modern, resilient society. You know, I look at our own prime minister and the SEC Committee. Done a report about this new hybrid world and our main thesis was, you know, you can’t talk about digital is fine, but it’s silos it. That’s not where we’re at now. We’re living in this hybrid world. It’s come at us. Boom, exactly. To your point. We are all deciding whether we want to be working at home or not all of us, but [00:22:00] people who can, sorry, silly thing to say. Besides finding people who can, whether they want to be at home in the office, how they want to structure it. People are expecting things to be delivered online in a way that they weren’t before. And people have got through a lot of that inertia. So, I think unless that comes from the absolute top and by that, I mean the prime minister, the president, whoever it is that runs your country or department, whatever, then you’re not going to find that that change or that urgency comes. But there is, there is the need now more than ever now, we’ve seen, what’s possible to keep up that momentum. 

Alistair Croll: Yeah. And the talent issue is huge. And I’m, I mean, I’ve got three or four different people in government. Who’ve reached out to me and I don’t work in government. Asking me, can I find diverse board members for things they’re working on. Can I find senior technologists who want to leave the private sector and save the world? It’s really hard to find those people. What do we do? What would you do if you had a magic wand to make it cool and desirable to work in government and tech instead of private sector tech? 

Martha Lane Fox: Well, I [00:23:00] think the first thing I do is all this stuff I’ve ever seen. And especially when I’m trying to find diverse people to work in the sector, shows that you need to make it about problem solving and you need to show that what you’re doing is really fundamental to the structure of our society and the way we’re going to build sales for the next thirty years and I think that is about being really mission-driven really purpose led, you know, just, you don’t only need people that are brilliant coders. Of course that’s fundamental and important, but you also need the people who do all the other layers on top of it. And you need the people, frankly, who are going to be part of the cultural shift. Tom Lewis, when we worked with my rack and for a long time, it’s a great ways of way of saying, you know, you need internet era ways of working, even if you are not like, I am not a technologist, but I have internet era ways of working. So, I think you need to realign around what the missions and what the problems are you’re solving. And there are no greater problems than the ones government are trying to address, especially now. Right? I mean, if you can’t find something to pique people’s interests, whether it’s around the climate crisis, about crawling out of this horrible pandemic about resilience in the face of another [00:24:00] biosecurity threat, who knows, but I really defy anybody not to be able to find something interesting within the governments workings to inspire them to come and help. So that’s the first thing. And then I think the second thing is you do have to have the resources in the mandate from the people within government set up. I’m sorry. I think you only asked me for one. I never asked for two, but yeah, we got done what we could get done because we had Francis Maude and we had the prime minister behind us and that enabled a huge amount of their coverage. And you need that leadership and you either have to create it or you have to find it with the drive that we have to ask for it, but that’s yeah. 

Alistair Croll: I’ve read, have you read the ministry for the future? 

Martha Lane Fox: I have, I have, yes.

Alistair Croll: So, the first chapter of that book is the most bleak, horrible thing I have read in recent memory. It is absolutely gutting. It’s basically paints a picture of climate change so bad in India that humans can no longer cool themselves. And there’s [00:25:00] mass die-offs. It is heart-wrenching and yet it feels to me like we, as, as a species, didn’t do a very good job of the things we might’ve done early on in the pandemic, whether that’s government coverups or not wearing masks or whatever else it is that allowed us to get to a scale where variants could emerge and so on. And so, if, if our pandemic response is any predictor of how are we going to respond to climate change? I’m not hopeful. 

Martha Lane Fox: No. Well, I, I have to agree with you in some way. I think that’s the thing that struck me as somewhat depressing, as I thought, maybe that this last 18 months has shown us the importance and the interconnectedness of biodiversity on one level, but also just the fact that for so many of us access to green space in a more of a connection with nature was a way of surviving over this last 18 months. So, I’ve kind of felt a bit more hopeful that it was front and center of the agenda. But then you look at the actual [00:26:00] facts and stats and the international cooperation and the lack of real clout and urgency and clarity. And we’re hosting COP26 here in the UK in September. Big conference of the parties is, is this is now it’s now completely framed around the climate. And yet it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what is trying to be achieved at this really you know, Moment where it really could be something really interesting had, had been driven. So, I sort of agree with you the bit that perhaps I disagree on is I do also think that human beings’ amazing capacity for ingenuity, invention and so on will out us. I mean, I think the world will be very different, not necessarily as we want it, but I do think we’ll find amazing ways of surviving. And I do also think that government has a capacity to back those ways when they see them emerging. So, I’m not altogether on hopeful, but you know that the urgency is not in question.

Alistair Croll: So, I know you have to run off to save the world in important ways, but I want to ask you one last question [00:27:00] and thank you very much for being so candid with these responses. It’s really refreshing. It seems to me like we used to undertake big things. We’re going to land on the moon, whatever, but the message around climate change in some of what’s necessary is extremely unappetizing. If I were in charge, I would start by saying, look, no more meat. You can only have lab grown meat. No more car ownership. We’re going to have communal car systems and one child per family. And I would never run for office. Those are horrible things. They have horrible downstream consequences, as we’ve seen in places where they’re, where they’re created and you just create scarcity, which drives up prices and creates a black market. And so on. It feels like we don’t sell. How good the world might be beyond that? So, for example, if I said no more meat, other than lab grown meat, I’m sure we would have delicious lab grown meat within months, China bought $300 million worth of lab grown meat from Israel. That’s a possibility, right? That instead of saying [00:28:00] you can’t own a car, I would say when you pick a friend up from the airport, you have something with a large boot to put it in English trips. When you, are driving in the city, you get a tiny little electric car. When you want to go camping, you get an RV and it feels like. We don’t sell. What’s good. On the other side of the austerity or compromises, we have to make, we’ve lost our ability to get people to dream about the positive outcomes of change. And until we do that, we’re not going to get the world inspired behind some of these moonshot, big bets. How do we change that dialogue where politicians can talk about what is necessary, but then help people to see beyond it, to how good it could be afterwards?

Martha Lane Fox: Well, it’s interesting when you said that immediately, I was like, that’s not how you should frame it. You know, my partner works in Marine conservation and he would say, you know, with relatively little investment and intent, you can save the ocean. And if you save the ocean, then you’ve gone a long way to [00:29:00] saving a huge amount of our planet because so much of our ocean is, oh, you know, sequesters the carbon. It’s really, you know, all of the things that the ocean does for our life on earth. I think he tells me that out of every three breaths we take one is directly from the ocean. So, you know, I would frame it as we’ll do these positive things to make our world so much better. We’ll have clean water in season, amazing coral reefs. Again, we’ll make massive Marine protected areas. We’re going to support in a different kind of business, local kind of businesses. And we’re going to really know about the provenance of where things come from. We’re going to stop mass produced unhealthy. I think it’s about how you frame those questions. And I think you have to be optimistic but realistic within that. And of course, some has to come down to legislation and I a hundred percent agree with you here. We’ve said electric cars from 2040. I think it should be 2030 personally. There’ll be grumbling. There will be downstream consequences as you put it. 

Alistair Croll: Well, that’s one of the challenges of, you know, there are, there are countries with totalitarian leaders who can say electric cars tomorrow.

Martha Lane Fox: Yes. 

Alistair Croll: And it [00:30:00] seems to me like capitalism is very effective in times of abundance because you can roll the dice a thousand times and get one win, but planning is much more effective in times of scarcity, because then you’re dealing with a wicked problem and you have to get it right. Rather than iterating, right. 

Martha Lane Fox: Yeah absolutely. But I, I think that you can, I mean, I think we have to believe we can, because if we don’t try, then when it’s not, again, it doesn’t feel like the other alternative course is either emotionally helpful or practically helpful. Actually, I think that you have to believe that we can make these changes and you have to be quite entrepreneurial in thinking about it. But of course, it’s not one plank of it. It’s got to come from, governments have got to come from individuals. It’s got to come from corporations. Yeah. And there’s so much. 

Alistair Croll: I remember talking to James Burke about I asked him why he was still optimistic with what he knew. And he said, well, that’s because all my ancestors who are pessimists jumped out the window. So. 

Martha Lane Fox: So, I think, you know, I think default to [00:31:00] optimism is better. I think that cynicism is only so helpful and I think that getting depression and pessimism is really unhelpful. So that’s just how I would approach the problems and the world. And I think it doesn’t mean you don’t feel urgent. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel scared. It doesn’t mean you don’t feel a massive sense of responsibility. You know, often those are the things that drive entrepreneurial behavior, but I also think we have to believe we can make enormous change. The world will be different, but I think we got this. We got this. 

Alistair Croll: Well, I can think of no better way to end this. And I know I thank you for spending any time with us. I know you’re incredibly busy. And I really appreciate this. We’re really looking forward to hearing more from you at FWD50 in November, but thanks so much for joining me today and have a great day saving the world. I know you’ve got places to go and thanks for introducing us to your cat too.

Martha Lane Fox: Oh, she was thrilled to meet you. Have a great day too. [00:32:00]

Martha Lane Fox has quite the history in technology. After a career in tech startups, she founded Doteveryone to tackle the widening digital divide between those with access to technology and those who it was leaving behind.

She’s the youngest female member of the UK’s House of Lords, and she’s served on the boards of M&S, Twitter, and WeTransfer. Her manifesto for a networked nation, written in 2010, paved the way for the UK’s pioneering digital services.

For many people, these achievements might lead to caution, or even reticence. But it’s immediately apparent when talking with the Baroness—yes, she is in fact the Baroness of Soho—that none of this has gone to her head. She’s refreshingly plainspoken, and despite the manifold challenges of government innovation, remains an optimist.

Lady Lane-Fox will be taking the stage at FWD50 this November. We had a brief, but packed, conversation before she had to head to Parliament that touched on digital public service, the need for accessibility, the role of the private sector, and how the Digital Service movement around the world made us more resilient in the pandemic—and must continue to do so as we tackle the daunting global challenges we’ll face in coming decades.

She even brought her cat.