Beyond high-tech patriarchy

What would it mean to reorient innovation policy away from hi-tech industry, and towards those who toil in its shadows?

Isaac Stanley
29 October 2019, 10.10am
Image: Uwe Anspach/DPA/PA Images

“My Government is committed to establishing the United Kingdom as a world-leader in scientific capability and space technology.” Amidst the pomp and circumstance, and the defiant Brexit-related soundbites, careful observers of the Queen’s speech would have noted the persistence of two more substantive themes.

On the one hand, the speech contained flashes of techno-nationalism, with commitments to establish the UK as a “world-leader in scientific capability and space technology.” On the other, it dutifully nodded to the spectre of the ‘left behind’, with its mention of “ambitions for unleashing regional potential in England”.

The government briefing paper accompanying the speech emphasises the novelty of its commitments, most notably to “to significantly boost R&D funding” and to set up a UK equivalent of the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). But its basic juxtaposition of elements – high-tech R&D as the key to boosting productivity and reviving flagging regions – has been a running theme since May’s leadership. The government’s existing ‘Industrial Strategy White Paper’ already maintains that “if we succeed, we will create an economy which works for everyone.”

But in its current shape, the Industrial Strategy, even with more recent additions, can only fail to achieve this objective. Its overwhelming focus is on frontier sectors, to the neglect of vast swathes of the ‘low-value’ economy. This does not simply risk exacerbating rather than reducing regional divides; it also fails to intervene in the arrangements that currently devalue crucial aspects of our lives. This devaluation condemns a large, disproportionately female, migrant and minority ethnic section of the population to poverty. But it also lies behind a deterioration in the quality of services used by everyone – leading to a kind of public impoverishment, even in a society of private affluence.

Help us uncover the truth about Covid-19

The Covid-19 public inquiry is a historic chance to find out what really happened.

What would it mean to reorient innovation policy away from the frontier, and its relentless pursuit of mastery over the natural environment, and towards the parts of the economy where most people work – and whose activities give our lives meaning? How could we invest seriously in innovation in these sectors, on the basis of a more expansive conception of value?

The fetish of the frontier

Both the Industrial Strategy and the Queen’s Speech briefing paper lay heavy emphasis on ‘high-value’ frontier industries such as robotics and self-driving vehicles. On the face of it, boosting such sectors might seem like a reasonable aspiration. There are, however, reasons to be cautious about betting so heavily on high-value manufacturing as the key to economic rebalancing – the threats of Brexit and of encroaching automation notable among them.

But even if it is possible to substantially expand high-value manufacturing in the short term, this would be highly unlikely to lead to better jobs or wages for most people in most places. As one study from the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research has identified, even on a generous definition of the industries that might benefit from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, these sectors account for little more than 1% of the whole UK economy (by employment), and 10% of manufacturing jobs. The jobs in these sectors are very unevenly spread across the country, with the spend in effect heavily weighted towards the South-East. So the Industrial Strategy’s focus on frontier sectors threatens to increase, rather than reduce, regional divides.

Putting things in perspective: the foundational economy and reproductive labour

However, the implications of ‘frontier thinking’ go beyond the smouldering politics of regional inequality.

The breathless exaltation of the frontier that can be found in the pages of the Industrial Strategy – or indeed of the innovation policy document of any OECD country – is animated by a particular ideal of human achievement. Here the hero is the scientist, the inventor, the disruptive entrepreneur; restless in pursuit of progress – of a world that is ever faster, harder, stronger.

But as philosophical thinkers such from Martha Fineman to Andrew Sayer have pointed out, humans are vulnerable as well as capable. Vulnerability is not an aberration, or the fate of unlucky minorities; it is a universal feature of the human condition. We all need clothing, food, shelter, emotional nourishment, and care in infancy, sickness and old age.

And it is in addressing each-other’s basic needs that a great many of us spend most of our days. As in many industrialised countries, much of the UK economy is made up of ‘foundational’ services, meeting the everyday needs of households and small businesses. The ‘providential’ foundational economy delivers housing, education, health and care, while the ‘material’ foundational economy provides households with daily essentials such as utilities, high-street banking and food.

Distinct but related is the ‘overlooked economy’, which provides goods that are socially defined as essential, such as haircuts, house maintenance, or a meal out. These are usually low-tech and unsung, but nonetheless crucial in shaping our quality of life. Taken together, the foundational economy and the overlooked economy make up nearly two-thirds of UK employment. Unlike frontier sectors, they are also important across the UK. Around 6% of the population, for example, is employed in the care sector, and this proportion is similar across regions.

The ‘low value’ of these foundational activities is commonly understood in terms of their low ‘productivity’. But their devaluation can only be truly grasped when we understand them as forms of reproductive labour. Feminist economists and theorists including Silvia Federici and Christine Verschuur have drawn attention to the deeply-embedded hierarchies in capitalist societies resulting from the sexual division of labour. ‘Productive’ labour is associated with men, while ‘reproductive’ labour is associated with women. Reproductive labour can be understood as the work of ‘social reproduction’: sustaining our everyday existence through providing care, cooking food, maintaining relationships, and attending to hygienic and emotional needs. It is closely associated with the domestic sphere, where it is usually unpaid. However, in contemporary capitalist societies a great deal of it also takes place outside the home, in schools hospitals, creches or in offices by after-hours cleaners.

From the viewpoint of mainstream economics, this reproductive labour is either completely or relatively invisible, because it is completely or relatively ‘unproductive’. And yet a moment’s reflection would force us to acknowledge that ‘productive’ sectors are entirely dependent on unpaid or low-paid reproductive labour for their healthy profits. Even the most highly-driven entrepreneur might struggle to advance the frontiers of technology if it were not for the ‘low-value’ labour of others to guarantee their health, education and everyday nourishment.

This hierarchy has far-reaching implications. Even in societies with high rates of employment and high GDP, people who carry out reproductive labour often struggle to secure their own wellbeing.

A striking illustration is the current crisis around adult social care. Increases in life expectancy and in the proportion of women entering waged labour outside the home have not been matched by an appropriate expansion in publicly-funded services to meet the care needs of the elderly. For unpaid family members – usually women – the attempt to provide care at the expense of or in addition to paid employment leads to either emotional exhaustion, material hardship, or both. Paid care workers have been the victims of a race to the bottom in terms of pay, conditions and security. Disproportionately represented among them are migrant women, often forced to neglect or leave behind their own children, causing great anxiety and driving the formation of a “global care-chain”.

The devaluation of reproductive labour is not only reflected through insufficient public funding for foundational economy activities. As research by members of the Foundational Economy Collective has shown, it also manifests through reductive conceptions of work and inappropriate, extractive business models.

In home-care, a conception of care work in terms of bio-maintenance underlies the reduction of the care worker’s role to the delivery of essential maintenance tasks in 15-30 minute slots. Although easy to quantify and cost, this model of care abstracts completely from the wider social interactions and values that give independent life its meaning. In residential care, heavily financialised business models see the pursuit of high returns through debt-based financial engineering. The application of these techniques, developed by private equity for high-risk, high-return activities, is deeply unsuitable for the low-risk activity of care. The resulting ownership churn, financial fragility, and hard-nosed approach to pay and conditions profoundly undermines morale and care quality.

From productivity to value

An industrial strategy that recognised the contribution of the foundational and overlooked sectors to our collective wellbeing could have profound implications in helping us move to a more equal, caring and human economy.

The core objective of the UK’s current industrial strategy is raising ‘productivity’. As one might expect, the ‘productivity’ of many foundational sectors in the UK falls well below the national average. But this does not mean that direct interventions to raise ‘productivity’ in these sectors necessarily provide the key to improving pay and conditions in them. Unlike in manufacturing, the challenge in many foundational service sectors is to raise value rather than output. As we have seen, the low ‘productivity’ of many foundational sectors is rooted in their deep social devaluation, by which their essential work in propping-up ‘high-value’ activity is obscured. While there is evidence that the productivity of some of these sectors is poor in comparison to the same sectors in other major European economies, this is (as Ed Pemberton has argued) less likely to be explained by miraculous working practices than by a public willingness or private ability to pay relatively more for these services.

Some ‘productivity’ gains may be achievable through application of technologies and working practices, but this needs to be done in a way that improves, rather than reduces, the quality of the service. Existing attempts to automate reproductive labour, such as the fast-developing industry of care robots in Japan, are not reassuring. While these robots may facilitate daily tasks, they cannot address the fears and anxieties associated with age – and they may even increase people’s sense of loneliness. If automation is allowed indiscriminately to penetrate foundational sectors such as education, health and catering, the most likely result will be the production of an ever more anxious, lonely and psychologically troubled generation.

The challenge then, is not to raise ‘productivity’, but to raise the value of foundational activities in a more expansive sense of the word. This partly means raising the amount that society is willing to pay for them; not a technical challenge, but a political one. However, increasing public expenditure on foundational services is necessary but insufficient here. Perverse institutional arrangements and extractive business models underpin the poor pay and conditions prevalent in many foundational sectors.

Changing these will require not just more resources, but radical social innovation, in Roberto Unger’s sense of (initially) localised experimentation which can “foreshadow” wider economic and social transformation. Such innovation cannot simply be imposed top-down, but rather needs to be driven by workers, social movements and other civil society actors, in collaboration with local authorities, employers and researchers. Supporting such radical social innovation should be a core task of funds such as the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund - just as important and substantial as its support for innovation within the frontier industries. (The Welsh Government’s Foundational Economy Challenge Fund is already showing the way here).

Emerging experiments in the Social Care sector, as well as calls for change from social movements such as Reclaim Social Care and the National Association of Care and Support Workers (NACAS), provide a flavour of what this radical social innovation might look like in practice. Researchers in the Foundational Economy Collective researchers have argued for experimentation in the way services are commissioned, provided and inspected.

Innovation in commissioning should explore how to use the procurement process more purposively to raise the value of care work, and to drive community wealth building in an expansive sense. The process should involve closer working between the organisations that provide care and the local authorities that largely pay for it, in order to move beyond risk-averse commissioning that fails to meet the larger needs of care recipients or givers. An example is Tameside Council, which has reshaped its home care services away from 15-minute time blocks and towards a more person-centred model by retendering their contract, requiring selected providers to work with them closely on improving outcomes and staff pay.

Innovation in provision should explore of new models of care, giving care workers greater opportunities to apply their imagination and creativity, and drawing on the insights of care-recipients to provide more holistic care. Inspiration might be provided by the “communities of care” emerging out of anarchist activist movements in the USA, which seek to collectivise the experiences of illness and grieving (as well as the care they necessitate) - in the process redefining the meaning of ageing. New care models should be associated with clearer pathways to progression for care workers, and improved access to life-long learning.

Business and governance models are another area ripe for experimentation. New forms of worker ownership and governance models giving more active roles to workers and other stakeholders (e.g. care recipients’ families) could help raise the status of care work while giving workers more of a say and better pay. The Equal Care Co-op, for example, is a platform-based social care and support co-operative, operating in the Calder Valley, West Yorkshire.

Finally, innovation in the inspection of care will also be required. Current measures focus on the bio-medical needs of care recipients. However, their social needs, not to mention the working conditions of care-givers, are comparatively neglected. It is vital to develop new, collaboratively designed metrics which better reflect the true value of care work; and which leave room for experimentation with new models of care.

For all of these forms of innovation to flourish, local authorities must have the latitude and resources to permit experimentation. A major role of UKRI (UK Research and Industry, the funding agency responsible for delivering the UK’s industrial strategy), – or any future innovation funding body – should be the provision of these resources, as well as other forms of support around knowledge sharing and evaluation. These might be provided through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund, which already makes funding available to research-industry partnerships for innovation in pursuit of various ‘grand challenges’. (Again, the Welsh Government’s pioneering Foundational Economy Challenge Fund could provide inspiration here).

This kind of innovation is needed not just in social care but across foundational and overlooked sectors – and funding for it should be just as substantial as funding for frontier sectors. In all sectors, it is only through investing in the orchestration of key stakeholders – local authorities, workers, employers, local civil society, and researchers – that transformative experimentation with new service and business models is feasible. And it is only the embedding of these new service and business models that can secure the dignity in work that every member of our society deserves.


The ideas set out here have only been a sketch; they explore a few possible pathways for experimentation out of the many that are possible; in one sector out of the many that must be addressed. They are suggestions for a small part of a much larger collective movement of institutional experimentation that would be necessary to revalorise the foundational economy. We cannot continue to accept the casual devaluation of the incalculable contribution of a large group of people in our society, underpinned as is by an indefensible and deeply patriarchal hierarchy of value. And to move in this direction, we must abandon the high-tech patriarchy which passes today for innovation policy.

Our productivist economic system can only function by denying its dependence on both reproductive labour and the natural environment, (not coincidentally often imagined as ‘mother nature’). In a time of climate crisis, developing a non-extractive relationship with nature will also require developing a non-extractive relationship with each other. Those who live their lives in the blinding light of the ‘frontier’ economies must acknowledge the human worth of those who currently toil in its shadows.

Earlier I evoked the large and unacknowledged debt owed by the scientific and entrepreneurial “heroes” of capitalist societies to the invisible army of reproductive labour. In acknowledging the value of the foundational economy, those who have been indifferent to it have the chance to rediscover the humanity of those who labour in it – and, in the process, to rediscover their own.

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Economics journalism that puts people and planet first. Get the ourEconomy newsletter Join the conversation: subscribe below


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData