THE most powerful influence on public policy is what we did yesterday.

It tends to be what we do today and then tomorrow. Inertia and gravity weigh heavily. It is difficult to reform things and change things because the voice of the future is but a whisper compared to the holler of today.

As a result, government tends to live in the issues of the moment, managing myriad mini-crises and daily problems and headlines. Getting head time for longer-term thinking and reform is difficult for policymakers, politicians and those who hold them to account. It is also a choice.

And yet at this point in our story we collectively face some of the biggest challenges and transformations ever. But where in our debate are ideas for not just mitigating the worst effects of these tidal waves of change, but for seeking the opportunities for our collective wealth and wellbeing as well?

We know that climate change requires an urgent and managed transition to a new green economy. This calls on a major role for government to lead and intervene with action, legislation and resource. Our government has set ambitious targets that are at the front of the world’s efforts. But we also know we need international co-operation at the same time, as well as the ingenuity and engagement of business and industry. This much is all obvious.

But what might be less obvious is that in the face of all such transitions there is opportunity for the ambitious as well. We know that Denmark has reaped the rewards of early investment in the technologies of renewable energy. Scotland may be leading with its efforts on power generation, but the commercial benefits of the technology currently flow out of the country. We missed that one. So, what does the next opportunity look like and what is the role of government in creating the conditions for domestic commercial success?

The Committee on Climate Change argued last year that we needed to switch to hydrogen domestic boilers. Such a transition would require vast capital expenditure that would need public support. The boilers themselves require development and if we lead then a global market could open up in the way it has for Danish turbine manufacturers.

I would not argue that this should be done in the manner of a 20th-century state-owned and non-commercial industry. Such endeavours should be managed commercially or they ultimately founder. But at the same time there is no reason why the public finances should not benefit directly from commercial enterprise in the public interest in part or in whole.

The Norwegian company Equinor (equal Norway) is an excellent example. Owned 70% by the Norwegian public interest in various forms, it also has 30% ownership from global investors with a laser focus on commerciality. It works because it is commercially run but with a direct public benefit, in this case yielding a dividend to the Norwegian budget of $2 billion last year.

And when we begin to think like this, we can see the potential for the public finances to begin to be future proofed as long as we are clever about how we go about it.

Relying on the annual taxation of income and other sources will become ever more difficult as the twin forces of the demographic challenge and the fourth industrial revolution kick in.

Wouldn’t it make sense to think about where else the opportunities lie for commercial returns in the public interest, from the assets we own or could co-invest in?

Many now support the nationalisation of ScotRail.

The National:

I understand the appeal, of course, although much of the railways are already state owned or determined. But why not create our own company to win that contract commercially and then compete for others across Europe? Succeed and annual returns to the public finances could be significant.

The risk, of course, is that you get it wrong and the endeavours cost the taxpayer and perform badly. Which is why the commercial focus of Equinor is instructive.

We are not even in the foothills of such a debate but we must climb. We can’t yet measure or predict accurately what the impact of the Fourth Industrial Revolution will be.

The first three bettered the world and raised wellbeing and living standards overall. But we collectively failed to manage the transitions for whole swathes of society by geography and generation who were left behind. We are richer now than we have ever been, and as we seek to harness the benefits of the next revolution of artificial intelligence and robotics, we must help those caught in the transition. The question is how to do that and how to resource that?

If it means fewer people working and shorter hours, then there are potentially vast benefits, as well as very obvious pain and suffering, to be tackled on the route through.

In the face of that, our current social security system will require an overhaul. Ideas such as a basic income merit creative thought now. But future proofing how we fund everything does too. We budget by iteration where a quantum leap could be required.

We need to think creatively and for the long term and need to be prepared to take risks. We also need (whisper it) politicians to work together on what are inter-generational challenges. These choices and trade-offs must be debated vigorously but if they become a partisan football we fail. And choices are what we require to make, now more than ever.

The agonising humiliation of the failed state Brexit process is enough to evaporate any faith in politicians at that level to tie their own laces let alone reform the role, function and funding of government to face the opportunities and threats to come.

So, in Scotland we need to just get on with it. You don’t have to already support independence to recognise the truths in what I have argued here. Citizens’ Assemblies can help us engage the public directly on some of the more intractable and difficult choices we now face. These can inform the Parliament and government and aid deep, rational and adult discussions across the parties about the direction we choose to set for ourselves.

All hope is not lost. We have living and breathing examples of where these choices have been got right and made good elsewhere and in history. Time to back ourselves.