Six Months and What Has Changed?

Six months since I last published a post. It’s not that I haven’t been writing I’ve just been writing for other people. As times got harder and the 17% of excluded people became the preserve of JCP and Digital by Default I guess I gave up; there is a lot to be said for the mundane, it gives us time to stop being angry and to withdraw to a wider perspective.

A piece from the World Economic Forum caught my eye via Flipboard. Under the catchy title “How will the digital landscape evolve as laws, tech and people change?” You can watch it here:

Chaired by Robert F Smith of Vista Equity Partners the speakers were: John T Chambers of Cisco, Piere Nanterme of Accenture, Liu Jiren of Neusoft and Max Levchin of Paypal and Yelp fame now CEO of Affirm.

The discussion was lively and interesting so I do commend it to you: it covered ideas such as 100% digital homes and businesses, think digital first, digital skills, interactive education and digital security and trust. I don’t think I particularly disagreed with anything that they said although a lot of it was said from the perspective of the business bubble. What did become apparent was the acceptance that the world will be in two halves: the hyper well educated, engaged, skilled and employed then there will be the rest and the rest will consume.

I have written before about the assumptions that are associated with consumption in the digital arena. Because we consume in a digital domain we are assumed to be included and not to need any channels for production – of content, of opinion, of voice. This was the biggest flaw with the English government’s digital inclusion strategy: if we were consuming then we must be engaged and included.

Two particular comments stand out for me; the first from Max Levchin that “the person at the centre of the cloud knows more about people in the cloud than the people at the edge know”; for him this was a networking opportunity, there was a gap there that needs to be filled. To my mind technology always moves to the edge if the power resides at the centre doesn’t this create a tension rather than an opportunity? If I have the knowledge do I want to share it and compromise my trading position? For me it also generates a technology question: the cloud exists because processing and storage demands are too great to reside at the edge: what happens when edge storage, processing capacity and network connectivity drives the capability to the edge? Will we want to reclaim our identities and what will we have to do in order to make that happen?

The second from Pierre Nanterme who said that there was a need for skills in data analysis and that there should be a public private partnership in order to create the necessary skills in the workforce. I have a saying: never underestimate the importance of skills but they are not the answer. Think back to the visit of Eric Schmidt to England in 2010/11 where he convinced the coalition government that what we needed were people who could programme (not people who could communicate). The It curriculum was torn up over night, every child in full time education was presented with a Rasberry Pi and we set ourselves to programming. Now, when those children are making the transition from primary to secondary education or from secondary to higher we hear the demand is for analytical skills, it’s data scientists we want. I have had some association with education since 1974 one way or another and the complaints of lack of skills from the commercial world have existed for all of that time. It is a view of education that needs to change; education is for the individual not industry and the pathway to work needs to be such that the formation of the individual takes priority and the skills follow – not the other way around.

My comments alone will hopefully suggest that this is a session worth watching so give it a go and let’s see what you think.

Shall we just change the music?

When I was about 3 years old I was taken to Rubery to see Grandpa. He had become too difficult to manage at home and so he had entered this great Victorian edifice where he now sat on a bench, in a courtyard with a fellow inmate. Beyond that I remember only that he gave me thruppence. I didn’t know it at the time but it was my first experience of somebody in residential care. Until very recently I had little to do with care homes beyond that early childhood memory.

When the market place for care was created there was an aunt who we would visit weekly in one of the Georgian houses that had been converted; it was, to all intents and purposes, like one of those bed and breakfast establishments at the sea side, except that it was on the main Worcester Road in Stourbridge, about as far from the sea as you could get. Each day the residents, who were very well looked after, were assembled in the front room. The television was on with the sound turned down and sometimes there would be a CD player playing Vera Lynn or Glen Miller. I remember a particular lady who sat by the Aunt in question and one day I attempted to strike up a conversation by asking how she was; she replied: “Yo doe cum ‘ere to get better,” and she resumed her contemplation.

More recently, like many people, I have had the experience of finding residential care for my mother. Mother, or Mum as we call her, came to a point where she required 24 hour nursing care so it was a little more extreme than just finding somewhere where she would be looked after and be happy and safe. We compiled a list and then set off on the round of telephone calls and visits by appointment. In many, not all, of the places we visited the residents sat in a large sitting room; sometimes the TV was on, sometimes it wasn’t but always there was that music from the 30’s and 40’s playing somewhere in the house.

It was my wife who posed the question: what sort of care home would we want? I was about to give some trite reply when I stopped to think. I wouldn’t want to give up technology just because I was in a care home. I would want access to the internet to be able to e-mail, skype, facetime with the grand children, use social media, post photographs, look up stuff, get my newspapers, buy books, watch films and access my bank account. I spend an awful lot of time connected to the outside world.

Then there are the other benefits, permanent access to my GP so he can monitor my medication (presumably I will be on medication by then) check my blood pressure, keep an eye on my heart. I would want to monitor the impact of my activity, keep an eye on my diet. Even if I couldn’t do all of these things, even if I no longer functioned 100% some of this would be relevant. Surely my world would still be personalised in some way even if I couldn’t look after myself, alone.

We tend to think of the digital world in terms of young and productive people with recognition that it has an important role for older people so it’s worth the effort of getting them online. There are a notional 17% of people who are classed as digitally excluded and there are efforts underway to address that final, small percentage. Should we put some thought into how we provision facilities for people’s final years? I don’t mean as a “nice to have” or an “added benefit” but as a right of access. There will be a cost: how do you provide secure access to online services for older people who live in a large establishment? What skills do you need to provide for the care staff? Will care homes require an IT specialist or a support company? Will the cost be met through the recovery of care costs? Is this to be a luxury for people who can afford it as an extra and will local authorities who meet the 12 week property disregard refuse to pay for an unnecessary option? Whichever way you look at it this is more than just providing WiFi access in the residents’ lounge.

Or do we just change the music?

“Two households, both alike in dignity,”

Romeo and Juliet Act 1 Scene 1 William Shakespeare


While growing older may have given me a more considered view of life there are some things that even now will drive me into a rant. One such thing is people in responsible, public facing roles who grab a headline by stating the obvious. Take, for instance, Eddie Copeland Head of Technology Policy at Policy Exchange: . I don’t know Eddie but he has a blog and an impressive CV ranging from being a Parliamentary Researcher, a Congressional Intern, and Project Manager of large infrastructure projects and so on.

His offense on this occasion is his recommendation, widely publicised in the press and on the BBC last Tuesday, that the Government should offer the elderly lessons in the internet to encourage them to ‘discover life online’. I know that this is a sound bite from the Policy Exchange Manifesto which suggests that £875m is the figure required to get the final 17% online but aren’t we entering into a world of unreality here? Actually I would challenge the idea that we need £875m to tackle the problem of the final 17% (approximately 6.2 million people); that’s £141.13p per person more or less – what’s the 13p for I wonder?

It’s not that I would deny people working in the field of digital inclusion access to a slice £875m it’s an agenda that’s very close to my heart and I do not for one minute underestimate the importance of the work; it’s the approach and the short sighted attitude that makes me so cross. This is a technology manifesto intended to influence Government policy and the headline grabber is get older people online to help with problems of loneliness.

Contrast this with the interview on Giga Om with Usman Haque on May 20th just one week earlier: . Usman Haque also has an impressive CV he is a founding partner of Umberellium , founder of the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform He is an architect, creates responsive environments and dozens of mass-participation initiatives in cities, festivals and galleries throughout the world.

His view is that being on line empowers people and gives them the opportunity to take control of their environment. He is interested in how cities can talk to people and how people can interact with where they live. While there is a view that you have to have the skills before you can interact – a little obvious – that view misses the point. If you are setting out policy you are driving something forward not focussing on remediation of the obvious problem. If the vision for the future is realistic and enticing then the means will be found to redress the issues but if the focus sets out that we have to do A before we can progress to B then we may never realise the vision never mind succeed in including the final 17%.

Policy Exchange also falls into the skills trap: teach the skills and surely the rest will follow. It is widely recognised today that skills only approaches have pretty much failed – which is why we still have the 17%, the long tail that grows ever longer. We have to address the issues of trust, confidence, and belief and benefit which means that skill is just one piece and it doesn’t follow that it has to come first.

Policy Exchange and Eddie Copeland are seeing people as passive participants in the digital world; consumers and employees. The trick is to see people as active participants who are taking control and realising value in a digital economy. In the digital world full time mono occupations have gone forever and we need to be agile, self reliant, just in time learners. Let us look at the means to achieve that as a headline.

Penval’s Last Post

If you’re like me you probably have two, three or even more books on the go at any one time. It’s a character failing I guess; the inability to sustain concentration on a single thing for more than a short while. That said, I’m quite happy to flit from one to the other spending an hour or so on one then putting it to one side and spending half an hour on another. I have four on the go at the moment:

“Umbrella” by Will Self is like a babushka doll, it peels back history starting from a woman’s incarceration in a Victorian mental institution in the mid twentieth century. Having personal experience of caring for someone who spent time in such an institution during the early seventies this book triggers vivid memories and I have to put it down for a while and then go back to it; it is both disturbing and addictive.

I move from that to “Value & Worth: Creating New Markets in the Digital Economy” by Irene Ng. This is one of those books that provides multiple “light bulb” moments as it analyses the way in which the digital economy works; value is redefined and we begin to re-think what we mean by co-creation and co-production. It has led me to re-visit and re-evaluate the work of thinkers like Clay Shirky right back to E V Hippel and L Leydesdorff.

In similar vein I’m also reading “Who Owns the Future” by Jarond Lanier. I’m a big fan of Lanier even though I find his style irritating and “You Are Not a Gadget” should be essential reading for anybody in the digital inclusion arena. In his latest book he looks at how the Internet is becoming a driver of inequality by shifting power to a minority with the willing participation of the masses. This is the dark side of big data; it raises significant questions about the political forces that drive the Internet and highlights the shifting influence of the middle classes.

All of the above are e-books, the last one “Traces Remain” by Charles Nicholl is a hard back given to me by my son for Christmas. It’s a series of essays which examine the insights we can gain into some of the lesser known people in history (principally late Tudor and early Stuart) who had an influence on better known characters such as Shakespeare but whose record is contained in fragments. It’s a great book at bedtime and it provides a satisfying break from the digital world and yet it still has relevance because we all leave traces in our on line world it’s just that our information legacy doesn’t lie there to be discovered instead it’s farmed, in real time for the benefit of the owners of Lanier’s Siren Servers.

Why am I writing this down? I’m sure that those of you reading this will have a list of books equally as interesting, if not more so. Back in November 2012 I wrote a blog post which I called “Literacy, Coproduction and Sharing: It’s what digital inclusion should be”. In it I noted that I had written 57 Blog posts since 2008 – roughly one a month – and this in turn was my personal commentary on Digital Britain. I realised that I had changed; my views on the digital divide were not what they had been in 2008 when I had eschewed the value of skills and the need of the masses to get engaged for the sake of some sort of brave new world. Re-reading those 57 posts I detected a growing cynicism on my part because when I looked around the world appeared to be where it had been in 2008. We appeared to be using the same deficit models as our starting point and we were measuring outcomes in terms of people’s ability to consume rather than people’s ability to influence and organize.

When this deficit model of inclusion looked at against the views of Lanier and Ng has to be seen as, at best, well meaning but wrong. That doesn’t mean that skills and social and shopping don’t have a place; it means that we are failing to question why we are doing this in the first place. Peter Thiel from the Founders Fund said “We wanted flying cars and we got 140 characters”. We constantly hear that we don’t have enough innovators, we don’t have enough entrepreneurs and yet we encourage a society of passive consumption. Personally I don’t think it’s something to shout about when we in the UK are the biggest on line shoppers in the world. We should be worried, we should be looking to change that; instead we strive to get the final 17% of “digitally excluded” people into the same digital cul-de-sac as the rest of us.

So I, for one, decided to move on and I’m leaving Penval behind. In the future I will focus on those technologies that I think will make a difference: 3D printing, the cloud, everything in software, shifting production to the edge, the Internet of Things. I will also focus on the digital detriment: those things that I feel work against the common good and not for it, I want to highlight those technologies that empower people, which give a voice that has to be heard, that supports people and recognises their contribution. People are not a free data feed for the “fire hose”.

Hopefully my output will continue at one per month minimum and in another four year’s time I can look back with less cynicism and see a digitally included world  of producers, participants and activists.

Literacy, Coproduction and Sharing: It’s what digital inclusion should be.

This is blog post number 57 which means that since I started, in 2008, I have achieved my objective and written one post every month, more or less. Looking back it’s a personal commentary on digital Britain and digital inclusion which spans four years and two governments. The posts track my changing views on the developing digital agenda from a time when laptops were smart accessories, phones were stupid and BlackBerry was the device of choice; the world was hyperlocal and it wasn’t particularly social;  open data was new but it wasn’t yet big.

Early in November 2012 I attended the Coproduction event at Manchester University; it was a great event with inspiring presentations, useful conversation and debate. The conversations both on the night and subsequently have added to my conviction, that we cannot continue to see digital inclusion and the economy as separate.

Smart School was a conversation of note: “The IoT raises the possibility for exploring the potential for education of a smart school; a pupil in a smart school will have an education in the social and economic potential and issues related to data and the Internet. “ The project goes further and has ambitions to: “… build on projects such as the ambient learning city to create a learning layer in the community for informal learning or storing and sharing community memories and history.”

This resonates with my thinking on a number of levels but not least because it’s about production, literacy and sharing it reflects the view of a Digital Britain that: “empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential” Steve Balmer, Chief Executive, Microsoft. (Department of Business Innovation and Skills, 2009) .

This is not a deficit view of a digital Britain which emphasises providing access to employability, to health, to education and information that the rest of us will take for granted nor does it exclude those things, it simply puts them into a different context that assumes an empowered individual within a community not a lagging individual on the periphery.

Service Systems was also a conversation of note, not least because it linked to the work of NEMODE about which I have written in a previous post. The case for service systems argues that goods dominant logic is becoming an outmoded model for many of the things that we buy and that a service dominant logic provides us with value in use and results from co-creation between the producer and the user. I strongly recommend looking at the work of Irene Ng on the implications of this for the digital economy.

Now it’s easy to pass this off as an academic exercise but I happen to believe that thinking like this underpins the real needs of a digital person in the 21st Century. As always serendipity brought me to something that crystallised my thinking: a video by Brian Solis the social media marketing phenomenon. You can watch the interview he does with John Swartz from USA Today on You Tube where he talks about producers and consumers co creating value mediated through technology. I’m not at all sure that he believes in a shift from traditional goods dominant capitalism to a service dominant culture but the interview brings into sharp focus the digital capacity that individuals will need in the new digital economy.

The themes of access and empowerment remain at the heart of digital inclusion though I often feel that access alone is regarded as sufficient moral justification; needless to say, I disagree. My thinking has become increasingly concerned with the fact that we are pursuing inclusion through the same initiatives that we have always done with a focus on the consumption of goods and services but the world is shifting to a place where the emphasis will have to be on literacy, coproduction and sharing and I have yet to be convinced that our current approaches will achieve these things.

Post Script:

I am indebted to James Duggan from Manchester University Phd Programme for sharing with me the thinking behind Smart School and also for signposting me to the paper“On value and value co-creation: A service systems and service logic perspective” by Vargo et al.


The Internet of Things (IoT) a network of things, objects and identities operating in smart places using intelligent interfaces to connect and communicate with users and social and environmental contexts. There is a short, readable paper on this from The University of Salford .

In Praise of Questions

I would like to put in a word for people who ask questions. How often do you hear someone described as a great question provider? Are you a solutions person? Everybody loves a solution and those who provide solutions can achieve minor celebrity status.  By way of example: Ofcom’s sixth International Communications Market report declared that the UK is a nation of online shoppers with eight in ten internet users saying that they had ordered goods or services online in 2012, higher than any other European country. At worst the headline received neutral press so it must be a good thing; but as far as I can see nobody questioned why we were a nation of on line shoppers. I would suggest that it’s because the thrust of public facing digital inclusion initiatives has been based on consumption but I have no hard evidence for that though I would like to ask the question.

The need to provide solutions leads to solution led initiatives which by their very nature are generally well received. Whoever was criticized for supporting older people to get on to the Internet? What’s wrong with providing access to recycled PCs for people who are less well off?  I applaud these initiatives but I want people to ask: why are we doing this? I want people to continually ask this question because when we don’t review the rational that underpins our solution it is possible to lose sight of how we got to where we are.

Our solution led digital inclusion initiative is underpinned by one or more assumptions; take for instance the assumptions about what is digital inclusion? As far as I know digital inclusion was officially defined by UK Government in 2008 as: “The best use of digital technology, either directly or indirectly, to improve the lives and life chances of all citizens and the places in which they live”. (Communities and Local Government, 2008). Digital inclusion can be seen as desirable because if offers a range of potential benefits for the demand side user; the benefits case for the supply side user will be related but different, for instance, cost savings, efficiencies, profitability, reach and so on. At one end of the demand side benefits case Annie Dare, at the time Special Adviser to the Digital Champion, Martha Lane Fox described the benefits of digital inclusion as:

“…..providing access to employability, to health, to education and information that the rest of us will take for granted”. (Race for 2012, 2010)

At the other end of the range of demand side benefits for those who are digitally included, viz making best use of digital technology, the benefits have also been described in UK Government policy as being:

“The number one benefit of information technology is that it empowers people to do what they want to do. It lets people be creative. It lets people be productive. It lets people learn things they didn’t think they could learn before, and so in a sense it is all about potential” Steve Balmer, Chief Executive, Microsoft. (Department of Business Innovation and Skills, 2009) .

As a provider of solutions for digital inclusion do you see yourself in either of these descriptions? I posted a blog in September “Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality” about the changes in the digital landscape that will, over the coming years, affect all of us. I’m not going to rehearse them here but I do have questions that I would like you to ask yourself:

How far are the definitions and benefits still valid in 2012 and how appropriate will they be moving forward for example on a 10 year, 15 year or 20 year plus timescale?

What are the trend related scenarios (Social and Economic) which illustrate the range of activities expected of a digital person in the next 25 years which illustrate the benefits case? Do we need to generate new scenarios which support the way in which we can enable people to realize benefit from digital inclusion?

Given a range of possible scenarios is the experience of all users a positive or a negative one. Is technology liberating and empowering achieving the benefits as perceived by Steve Balmer for all users or for some users is the technology dividend limited or is it even controlling access to the benefits defined by Annie Dare?

What are the underpinning assumptions about digital inclusion? Should we challenge these assumptions in the light of new economic and social models? Is an inclusion model based on consumption of services and consumer goods adequate or should we assume the production of services or life style organisation as foundation elements of digital inclusion?

Every now and then you come across something which crystallizes an idea for you. I stumbled upon a talk given by Jaron Lanier at PDF 2012 in which he talks about the impact of digital in a democracy.

What he has to say resonated with my thoughts about the new digital reality it can be paraphrased as “the means to be middle class in the information age is shifting” but, as Lanier puts it, without middle class clout there can be no democracy. As we celebrate our nation of consumers and focus on enabling the final 18% to access services that are digital by default should we not pause, step back and question the assumptions that underpin our solutions in a disruptive digital environment. Are we setting out to empower and to create producers of content or are we simply providing access for the consumption of goods and services? Go ON, ask yourself!

Improving the Investment Case for Digital Inclusion

Building an investment case for digital inclusion is exactly what we should be doing but it takes time. I have tried to create a summary of an approach here but it’s difficult to summarise a complex process in under 1000 words (or two sides of A4). My hope is that participants will take up the cudgel and add to it by commenting or linking their own posts with their own ideas. This is cross posted from the Social Digital Ning.

At the third Social Digital Research Symposium we heard a proposal for an investment case for the continuing promotion of digital inclusion as a social, financial and economic benefit. I blogged previously  that there might be more to it that the proposal suggested but this is something that we can and should subscribe to and support through the knowledge base that has been collected over the last ten years of academic focus on the digital agenda. As the investment case stands I believe that we can add to it and make it a stronger case. In my experience it’s rare to find a politician that “gets” digital anything though the simpler concept of “faster internet” will be something to which they can ‘sign up’ however we must also keep in mind that those same politicians also signed up to a “faster railway line” and they did that with a very dubious investment case. The High Speed Train project is currently mired in controversy because of the understandable planning concerns but also because of the way the investment case was presented.

An investment case needs a clear statement of intent: too narrow a statement and the business case will not stack up; to wide a statement and there will be too many options. Time spent on the initial statement at the beginning will make the later analysis more thorough, easier and more convincing. Just as an example what we have here is:

“To realize social, financial and economic benefit to England through accelerating the rate at which citizens participate on line.”

The key word here is “accelerate” it assumes that the current initiatives will eventually succeed in getting everybody online. Can we confidently say that this is the case or do we need to support the current initiatives and have additional, more targeted mechanisms?

The statement of intent should identify the quantity of benefit as the proposal says;  this would include Go On UK’s identification of savings, maintain the position of the UK as an e-commerce economy, increase the world ranking of the UK in the various indexes; WWWF and OECD and decrease levels of inequality, social isolation and worklessness.

Our new statement reads:

“Generate x% of savings in public services; maintain the UK’s position as an e-commerce economy and improve the countries ranking on the WWWF and OECD indices and reduce levels of inequality, social isolation and worklessness in England by x% by accelerating the rate at which citizens participate on line.”

Next the investment case should ask what are the alternative means of achieving the same  outcome? While the proposal as it stands acknowledges the base or “take no further action” case and proposes a top down marketing initiative as the preferred action as a good investment case it should consider alternative ways of spending the same amount of money. For example the investment case acknowledges the relative investment in UK Online Centres; at the very least it should consider the impact of increasing investment in current activity as an option.  England leads the world in behaviour change management; we export our expertise. Perhaps another approach would be to increase investment in that area and “Nudge” people into participating on line.

We now have a more detailed statement of intent and we have a base case, a preferred option and two alternative investment options for comparison. The investment case needs to go on to identify stakeholders; in its current form it is very weak on stakeholders and identifies only UK Online Centres, Go On UK Consortium and Digital UK. Who else is affected? What about Department of Health, Department of Work and Pensions, DeFRA, The National Housing Federation, NAVCA, The Local Government Association or NIACE? This may not be “The List” but the investment case needs stakeholders because someone has to deliver the benefits and each investment case has to be aware of the potential dis-benefits.

As an example: the benefits to the NHF of wider on line participation is an improvement in the rate of rent arrears as benefit uptake increases, employment opportunities improve and there is more efficient maintenance supply chain management as residents participate in self reporting schemes. This is a quantifiable benefit and improves the investment case. However a potential dis benefit is that as a result of the successful marketing programme Housing Associations may be ill prepared for a sudden influx in the demand for on line facilities and on line training opportunities leading to poor expectation management, loss of momentum and impact on the success of the initiative. Stakeholder engagement is a key part of risk identification and management as well as benefit delivery.

At this point our investment case has a full statement of intent with measures of performance; a range of delivery options, a stakeholder list and an analysis of benefits, dis-benefits and risks all of which are owned. We are now in a position to analyse the effectiveness and achievability of our delivery options by weighting and rating our measures of performance and our stakeholder commitment to each of the options. Taken with our benefits analysis and dis-benefit assessment we can demonstrate both the achievability and the compellingness of our preferred option against the other proposals.

Now and only now can we begin to “plug in” our costs for delivery and benefits realisation, now we can undertake our NPV calculation. Our business case is made more robust by providing the reassurance that we have covered all of the bases and no other option will deliver or exceed the level of performance of our preferred option. What if it doesn’t? I hear you ask – well, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it; a lesson that HST may have learned. But, doesn’t it take a long time? Well, yes and before anybody say it, this is probably too complex for many politicians but civil servants will approve because it is Green Book compliant and should provide most of the evidence for a funding gateway review.