Never Say Never

You don’t have to read “Free” by Chris Anderson to have a healthy scepticism about the way in which Google and Facebook make money. There again, you don’t have to stop using Google or Facebook either, face it they offer a very good service and a billion plus people can’t be wrong can they?

The business model is a simple one; you are offered services you can’t refuse: excellent web search and fully featured sharing and communicating services. These you can have for free. In return you agree that the service provider can have, for their own purposes, your data. Taken  on its own your data has very little value but when taken with the data of over a billion individuals worldwide then it becomes very valuable indeed and the success of these companies and others like them is that they have successfully monetised that data. The old adage that Facebook knows what you like, Google knows what you want and Amazon knows what everybody like you bought was never truer. These companies have grown to be mega successful and the people who created them have become mega rich; a just reward you might think.

Do we ever ask ourselves is it really worth it? Is the privacy we sacrifice, our wants and whims our location data, our quantified selves is it worth what we get in return?

We could say the same thing about The Cloud. The power that we are able to carry in our pockets because The Cloud looks after all of the computation and storage means that we can not only be constantly connected we can be truly mobile in both our working and our personal lives. Given the eye watering investment in cloud services: the hardware, the infrastructure, the energy and the software development required to make it all work it has become the icon of the information age.

Will it always be so? I have written before about the natural tendency for technology to make its way to the edge. While our smart phones are relatively simple devices now (see what use they are when they aren’t connected) I don’t see why that should be the case forever and ever. It was with this in mind I was interested by an announcement from NVIDIA for its Tesla K-series GPU Accelerators which can carry out 1.3 teraflops. One of the key markets for this technology is smart cars – because it’s inconvenient when your phone isn’t connected but it could be downright lethal if your car was dependent on the cloud for all of its functionality. More recently Hilary Mason CEO of Fast Forward Labs talked about algorithms, currently in the lab, that will compare two sets of data with a million items in each set with just a few processor cycles. Admittedly the process is probability based so there is a margin of error but the point is that this function can be carried out on a personal device without recourse to the processing capacity of the cloud.

So am I speaking up for paranoia in the smart connected world with a view that we should be looking forward to carrying super computers in our pockets? Not a bit of it but I am sounding a note of caution. Right now we cannot imagine a scenario where the computational and storage capacity of the cloud could be ceded to a personal mobile device; there again, there was a time when the industry believed that there would be no reason for people to have a personal computer.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home” Ken Olsen, president, chairman and founder of DEC

One of my favourite all time movies is Dr Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. If you weren’t around in the 60’s trust me, you had to be there. Check it out it’s a tour de force from Peter Sellers who plays three roles in the movie not to mention George C Scott as Buck Turgidson and see if you can spot James Earl Jones as Lothar Zogg as well as the unlikely named Slim Pickens as Maj King Kong and the not to be missed Col Bat Guano played by Keenan Wynn. In the movie the paranoid Gen Jack D Ripper says:

“I can no longer sit back and allow Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion and the international Communist conspiracy to sap and impurify all of our precious bodily fluids.” Gen Jack D Ripper (Sterling Hayden).

It would be equally paranoid to accuse Facebook and Google of misappropriating our personal data – I’m not suggesting that we need a nuclear option. What I am suggesting is that we should never say never; we should never say that we will always need the cloud and we should never say that we can’t reclaim ownership of our personal information. The technology isn’t there yet but someday it can be. Which raises the potential for an interesting tension for while the capability may yet come to be within our reach will the industries that have grown up around free access to our data and centralised processing and storage be willing to give it up?


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.

Closer To The Edge

I once had a teacher who would say to me “Everything matters Nash, but nothing matters that much!”. Back in the day, in the 1960’s that may well have been the case but network effects were less palpable then, less obvious. Today, in our networked society everything matters an awful lot because you never know what will ripple through the nexus of connections and make an impact. The law of unexpected consequences has never been more apparent.

If you had pulled together all of the world’s top ophthalmic surgeons in 1950 and asked them to describe the perfect surgical tool not one of them would have described the laser; and yet in 1960 when Theodore Maiman launched the ruby laser into the world he had created not just such a tool but also the basis of our modern day communications – in fact the fabric of the network itself. We feel the impact of the laser today because it is pervasive: you can buy a laser at your local DIY store. The laser has made it way to the edge and so we find it not just in the surgeon’s hand but also as part of our every day existence.

3D printing matters and it matters a great deal: right now, for the majority of people 3D printing is cute. It produces weirdly coloured often strangely finished everyday things in plastic and we all go “Ahhh, isn’t that amazing”. It is confined to a small group of enthusiasts and it sits on the periphery of becoming main stream. I read just this week that Hewlet Packard is planning to get into the retail 3D printer market. Already there are some serious 3D prototyping machines; 3D printers have made it into medicine and they are being used to print high precision parts for NASA. Earlier this week, Wired reported that a German company has figured out how to print cars. 3D printing is making its way to the edge sure enough but the impact will not be in the way we conveniently repair broken plastic components or entertain ourselves with tasteless coloured op art. The real impact of 3D printing will be on logistics.

Whatever we buy these days has to be made, stored, distributed, displayed, advertised and either collected or delivered. Take two examples: a set of mugs and a car. The lifecycle of a mug is interesting; often designed in one country, manufactured in another, packed and wrapped in a third (using packaging from a fourth) and then delivered, advertised and sold in a fifth. This is a huge logistics industry made possible because of our networks.

I couldn’t design a decent mug if my life depended upon it and I want something more than an off white vessel with a handle from which to drink my morning coffee. Whether I buy my mugs from a shop or an online website or even from a catalogue what if the final step in the purchase was to go home and see them print out? That means that everything from the design process onwards in the current system would become redundant: no overseas trade, no containers full of mugs and packaging, no labels in different languages no packing machines and so on. In energy terms it’s marvellous but what about all of that employment both here and in the emerging economies? Possible now? I would say so.

When I had my last car I ordered it 12 weeks before I could collect it. That was fine and it worked for me. On the day I ordered it I sat there while the salesman placed the order on the system in Germany where the car was built, with my name on it to my specifications and shipped to England where 12 weeks later I collected it from the showroom. What if nothing was shipped except the raw materials and the power unit? What if, as the order was placed, the production line of 3D printers swung into action in the workshop at the back of the showroom with just a few people to monitor the process and to do the pieces of assembly that the robots couldn’t manage? Possible now? I think not but within twenty years, almost certainly.

As 3D printing moves from the world of the enthusiast to the economic edge we need to plan for the change it will bring in how we are employed and educated but also in how our tastes change and the way we value things. I suspect that everyday items will be things we value for their convenience – value in use but there will be an increased value in things that are crafted, by us and by individuals – value in personalisation perhaps.

The Superfast and the Furious Rural England

mary poppinsAs Dick Van Dyke says in Mary Poppins just before they jump into the chalk drawing: “You do a wink and a double blink …” Now a double blink is what I did when I read:  “HS2 could help spread high-speed broadband, minister says” in The Guardian this morning I only needed to add the wink and I could have joined Dick, the children and Mary Poppins in cartoon world. Adding benefits such as infrastructure distribution to major engineering projects is, and should be, a given side benefit though the minister in question, Simon Burns, doesn’t go into how they might differentiate the public subsidy from the private investment in order to get around the State Aid implications of this. In a desperate attempt to re-position HS2 after the demolition of the business case the government is still showing that they just don’t “get it”.

HS2 is not going to pass through my back yard so I confess to a somewhat disconnected view of the whole affair. At a push I can see the importance of central government investment in public works to stimulate the economy; at a bit more of a push I can see a benefit of a direct fast link from major cities to Heathrow though equally I can’t see that the amount of investment will yield the level of benefit claimed. What irks more than anything else though is that the government and local authorities can commit to £30+ billion of investment in a flimsy business case and yet they cannot invest more than £500m – leveraged to £1Bn eventually – in broadband technology where the business case has been repeatedly proven time after time.

On 7th January 2013, amidst a day of manic publicity on a “no news day”, we saw the launch of “The superfast and the Furious: Priorities for the future of UK broadband policy” by the Policy Exchange. The report amounted to a policy basis for leaving rural areas in the digital dark ages arguing that people don’t know how much bandwidth they use so they don’t really know what they want.  The report tries to make a case that once the current spend on broadband is over in 2015 the focus should shift to empowering consumers and businesses to make best use of the internet while creating conditions for the private sector to meet the demand through reduced regulation and long term regulatory certainty.

As evidence the report cites a literature review and a survey of 2000 people and 500 businesses but doesn’t say where the survey took place, what the split of rural to urban participants was. Simply that it was weighted to be nationally representative.

Key points where rural is mentioned as a distinguishing feature:

  • Price and reliability matter most to consumers: rural areas see reliability as more of an issue than urban or suburban areas (by 14 percentage points over urban participants) Why is that I wonder? Perhaps because it fails more often in rural areas?
  • On the issue of improved broadband over environmental protection (I guess they’re talking street cabinets here) urban and suburban participants are lumped into one for reasons not given. Virtually no difference in the responses, only 1 percentage point and based on n=875. But wait a minute, wasn’t the previous point based on n=1,752? Similarly for broadband speed over environmental issues virtually no difference.
  • On the issue of access, should everybody have broadband almost total agreement between urban and rural areas. However, where there was a question of cost, unsurprisingly a greater number of rural participants disagreed that they should pay more for access by 11% points with only 16% of rural participants thinking that they should. Are we surprise and by this?
  • Is infrastructure a priority for the public? Almost no difference in the responses between urban, suburban and rural participants. Regarding the case for government spending again almost no difference in the responses between urban and rural participants and also broad agreement that infrastructure is a top priority for business.

Rural responses are not identified in the other questions but despite broad agreement being a feature of all of the above the conclusion is that policy should focus on making the most of what we have.

The executive summary outlines the case that ending support for infrastructure after the current spending round is in line with a localism agenda and that a better policy focus would be on raising the capability of individuals.  The report argues for consumer empowerment which it interprets as helping consumers find the right supplier. The Long View talks about Smart cities, Intelligent transport and future tech and then identifies the route to connectivity for rural areas as WiFi and use of the newly released TV Spectrum. Finally the report argues the case for strengthening the role of the Minister and then highlights the importance of the consumer, the importance of retail and the need to embed connectivity into Government and mainstream business.

The report is flawed in a number of ways and its purpose is simply to justify the further isolation of the rural economy from the mainstream.

The report misrepresents the market place for superfast broadband. It’s hard to argue the case for localism when you have a centralist government that has just disempowered local people in the planning process in favour of developers. What the report ignores is that much as we parade our successful ISPs and the LLU market place it fails to address the fact that we have a single infrastructure provider of significant market power which means that ISPs only offer what is available and people only choose from what they are offered. In short, this is not an argument for stopping central investment. The report also fails to point out that of all the suppliers listed only BT has a significant wholesale offer .

The report fails to understand that the current Internet success is based on a model of consumption – not production. It talks in terms of the empowered consumer not just for broadband services but in terms of a growth in GDP driven by a nation of Internet shoppers. This view of the Internet where the majority consumes whilst the minority produces is not a long term economic driver irrespective of the speed or the symmetry of the broadband connection. Future economic success has to be based on a model of production as well as consumption and rural areas have as much a right and capactiy to participate in that economy as anybody else. The speed and symmetry of the broadband connection are the limitations on innovation that will impact on economic growth.

The report makes much of previous research and as a digest of previous work including the respected Plum report it’s worth a read. I have read the vast majority of these reports, not one of them makes the case for stopping investment or for having rural areas left out of the equation or being treated less equitably.

Another significant failure of this report is that is treats city/urban and rural as separate not only with different perceptions (which is clearly not the case) or with different needs (for which it fails to make the case) but the success of intelligent and smart cities depends on connectivity with a smart rural hinterland. Cities do not exist in isolation, they are connected with and dependent on rural areas for food, water, transit routes, skilled individuals, niche companies, artisan products, leisure facilities, carbon offset and increasingly for power supply routes. You cannot treat them as separate entities. So why would you treat them as lesser entities.

There are individual statements in this report with which you cannot disagree: you cannot disagree with regulatory certainty for instance not can you disagree with the needs of business or the expectations of Government service delivery. However the conclusions drawn by the authors are not borne out by the evidence they have collected and that is because this is a report with a political bias. A simple search on the trustees of the policy exchange reveals a body of ex Conservative ministers and Tory donors who have an agenda and to my mind that devalues this document as a foundation for policy development.

Consumers as Producers – Digital Inclusion and the New Digital Reality.

The Walrus and the Carpenter
The Walrus and the Carpenter

With due respect to William Gibson it’s the uneven distribution of the future that has run as a theme through my blog posts since I started them in 2008. Whatever reservations I may express about our attempts to create a pervasive superfast infrastructure I can’t ignore the impact of the Digital Champion programme and the work of the many volunteers in addressing digital exclusion in England: but we still have the long tail; we still have the 20% or so who remain digitally and, very often, socially excluded in 21st century England and it is my contention that no amount of Going On is going to change that. The impact of that exclusion is being highlighted this week by the introduction of digital by default in 2013.  We should refocus our efforts to support the long tail and not just at point of service delivery but unless there is a shift in the inherent values which underpin the current approaches I suspect that the long tail is going to remain stubbornly there for a long time yet.

As the Walrus said to the carpenter “The time has come, to talk of many things”: I believe it’s time for the digital inclusion agenda to move on. I don’t mean to ignore the long tail but to recognise that to be digitally included is going to mean something very different. When we talk about inclusion today we mean the internet; when we talk about superfast broadband we mean faster internet and when we talk about the internet we mean the World Wide Web. This is not just semantics because our understanding is what underpins a traditional model of society and the economy overlaid by channels of consumption. There are vested interests in keeping the world that way; the old adage that Google knows what you want, Facebook knows what you like and Amazon knows what everybody like you also bought is as true today as ever it was and that knowledge underpins the position of those organisations as Internet power houses. Last week I watched the hour long launch of the Kindle Fire  here was an object of desire built entirely around our relationship with an on line retailer.

When the current economic crisis ends, and I have to believe that it will end whenever that may be, the factory gates will not swing open and we will not all march back into work to the sound of “Sing as we go” there are fundamental changes in play which will lead to tensions between the need of current state to sustain consumption and changes in the nature of mass employment which seeks to create efficiencies in the world of supply. A connected world brings opportunities for coordinating activity on a massive scale, powered by big data and facilitated by cloud technology: production moves to the edge, supply lines become supply points, goods and services become personalized. The new digital inclusion takes the accepted ideas of skills and literacy and the necessity of online privacy and safety and adds to it the capacity for agility and expectation of a portfolio lifestyle, collaborative ability and a committed social role. These capacities will become essential parts of a digital person, without them people will re-enter the realm of digital and social exclusion.

What will the world look like post 2020 are those are clouds on the horizon?

We will finally divorce infrastructure from the internet.  See written evidence presented by Dr Catherine Middleton to the House of Lords Select Committee on Superfast Broadband (page 245). Infrastructure will underpin intelligent homes, transport, energy, water and food supply; what IFTF calls sharable cities; what I call sharable communities.

The world will be personalized: Social care and health care will take account of personal wealth and be co-produced through a raft of agencies and local providers; they will no longer be chosen from a basket of pre-prepared offers. Medication will be personalized. Learning will be personalized, lifelong and continuous to support our adaptability and agility. Political engagement will be both personal and social; political parties will be collaborative and transitory the power will lie with the floating voter. What IFTF describes as the shift from “individually responsible intelligent organisms to complex ecosystems of biologically distributed intelligence”.

The economy will be truly digital, not a digital layer over a 19th century industrialized society but truly digital. Sheer economic pressure will force production to the edge removing costs from distribution logistics, inventory storage and over production. The rise of the Internet of Things will build intelligence into everyday objects, appliances and food and the aggregated data will fine tune supply. Big data will have value in a wider sphere than just social and market trends as providers realize that they have an interest in when and how we consume their products and services. Additive manufacturing will become the norm for the majority of consumer products and it will take place as close to the point of distribution as possible. Everything will exist in software until it is required and software will exist in the cloud; deindustrialization will be the norm.

We will experience massive disruption of traditional media; the Netflix effect will spread so that we will capture increasing value from SMART TV’s. The business model of telcos and cable companies will adapt or die: we will see the same patterns of protectionism and aggressive lobbying as we have with print media and music distribution industries but the outcome will be the same. The decline of traditional news and content providers will be matched by the rise and rise of respected curators of content as we seek trusted sources. Hyperlocal will play an increasingly important role in the information needs of communities; social media will be the second point of call for information signposting. Mobile will be pervasive and the accepted norm.

There will be little demand for mass employment and so we must prepare to have different expectations of our lifestyles. As institutional wage labour declines micro contributions increase, production becomes social. Beyond 2020 we are faced with a stark choice: Do we operate a false, inefficient economy in which we make goods in factories and consume over the internet to meet a demand stimulated by the marketing forces of the big providers as we do now? Do we operate in a way which makes us social care workers one day, manufacturers the next, educators one morning, learners one afternoon? Do we embrace a rise in the value of artisan goods and develop new skills to offer personalized services? Do we become content creators and skilled curators both to generate income and to enrich the lives of our communities?

Will all of this happen tomorrow? No of course not, this is a process of change but we must prepare for that change lest the long tail suddenly shortens and wide exclusion becomes the norm again. Consider the digital skills and attitudes that we need to develop to enable participation in the brave new world; consider yet the implications for staying as we are and not preparing for the impact of change? Do we pick up our tablet, log on to the store and order a video to watch on our SMART TV and call ourselves digitally included? Think about it.

The Why of Superfast Broadband

Bristol: The Independent Networks Cooperative Association (INCA) Next Gen Road Show

I spent a lot of time in Bristol during July; partly leisure time visiting relatives, attending the Foodie Festival, letting somebody else do the washing up and partly business at the INCA Next Gen Road Show. The Road Show was an excellent event. Lots of suppliers, not least Prysmian Group a major sponsor who highlighted how community fiber network technology has matured and Allied Telesis who gave a fun demonstration of how fiber connectivity is straight forward and almost plug and play. A presentation by UK Broadband highlighted how high bandwidth wireless, both point to point and point to multi point is a credible infill technology with the added advantage of low cost rapid deployment. In short, the technical barriers are coming down.

It’s the cultural barriers that remain. The same week as the road show Ofcom released its 2012 Communications Market Report which revealed that while Superfast Broadband was now available to 60% of UK homes uptake remained low. 6.6% of all residential and SME connections. In my home county of Shropshire the registrations of interest campaign has attracted just over 5000 responses; I have no way of knowing how many of these are business registrations but I do know that there are in the region of 12,500 VAT registered businesses in the county and countless micro businesses which provide one of the mainstays of the County’s economy.

I was interested in the presentations at the road show about the “Why” of superfast broadband as opposed to the “How”. Steven Hilton, Director of the Futures Group, at Bristol City Council talked about “Why Bother” and looked at the role of cities. He picked out some key issues such as new things in the economy and innovation which I have discussed here. He also highlighted how superfast broadband can be both transformative and culturally disruptive something I have discussed previously here, and how early adopters can provide useful lessons learned. From a business perspective his key point was that it is important to develop the infrastructure to meet the demand and he made it clear that the top three requirements for businesses coming to Bristol were accommodation, recruitment and connectivity; not in the future, but now.

The keynote speaker, and participant in one of the workshops, was Irene Ng, Professor of Marketing and Service Systems at the West Midland Manufacturing Group and University of Warwick AIM Services Fellow. She provided me with my lightbulb moment of the event when she talked about New Economic Models and the work of NEMODE (New Economic Models in the Digital Economy) . I have highlighted the advantages of superfast broadband in terms of collapsing supply chains,  new ways of doing business where we adapt or go under; let’s call it a process driven approach. Irene’s talk opened the possibilities for understanding the value in a superfast broadband world; where value lies less in ownership and more in use.

What we are experiencing is a disruptive shift from owned value, the consumption of mass produced goods, through the digitization of goods and services which have enabled us to have a “social” conversation and to “co-produce” both directly and indirectly to a context where we derive value from “use” and not necessarily ownership. The future world is one where we have personalized production and the consumer space is occupied by multiple suppliers all of whom have an interest in the contextual environment. The new context needs connectivity, it needs social, it needs content and it needs a widget – a point of access.

Looked at another way; when goods were mass produced we obtained value from either volume, when we had access to cheap goods which we could use, or we obtained value from scarcity through objects of desire. When people became connected we could do things faster and we learned to do things better, then we produced new things, we added value in our mass produced world. We are now moving to a world where we are able to connect things and build intelligence into the products and we create value from our use of those products.

This idea of value from use in a connected world is highly disruptive. Irene gave the example of a person in a gym listening to music on an i-pod. The value the person gets is not in owning the i-pod per se but in the fact that he or she can use it to listen to the music while exercising; there is not even a need to own the music. Within that context other operators have an interest and want to share in it. The music provider would like to be able to target similar music, the i-pod maker would like to know where and how the widget is being used so as to target other potential widget users, the gym would like to know how they can use music to make the exercise space more attractive. All of this potential value is made possible by digitized nature of the product. What we are experiencing is convergence not just of content and devices but also of the value space. Another example was that of a car: in 2009 it was estimated that there were 100 million lines of software code executed on 70 – 100 microprocessors in a premium car. Irene posed the question: who else might be interested in your car? Tesco might be interested; it is your car that brings you to shop. So Tesco might offer you cheaper fuel, they might want to sell you cheaper car insurance; your garage might want to anticipate a problem with your car and even meet you at Tesco in order to put it right while you shop.

The message was; if you are a business you need to understand the new economic models which are facilitated by superfast broadband. Is this a fiction, a mad theory from a mad professor? A quick search of the Internet will reveal items such as Smart TV’s and TV programs that allow you to share the experience using your hand held device. There are Smart Clothes and there is additive printing . What next? Appliances, food, furniture? The protocols for intelligent products already exist: if you are a business and you haven’t yet understood the disruptive impact of intelligent products in a super connected world it’s time to reflect. What the Internet knows about us now is interesting; what the internet will know about the products and services we use will change the way we do business for ever.

Digital Agenda Assembly 2012 – a UK delegate perspective.

What do you consider yourself to be? Please insert the word “digital” in front of each of the following:

  • discoverer,
  • adventurer,
  • missionary,
  • doer,
  • manager,
  • strategist

It is highly likely that you can think of others; evangelist for example but, like me, I have no doubt you have been at least more than one; sometimes all on the same day.

I took delivery of a Commodore Vic 20 in 1980 but, not counting mechanical calculating machines, I experienced my first computer when I had just turned 15. In 1967 we had access to a teletype which produced a punched tape and in the absence of a data line we posted the tape to the local university to have a print out returned a week later. When the print out contained a result and not the words “error line 5” there was palpable excitement.  Almost 45 years later I was invited to attend the High Speed Connections strand of the Digital Agenda Assembly 2012 and to contribute in a very small way to the review of the progress towards the targets for 2020.

There is a digital divide in Europe; if you thought the problem was solved you are wrong; 1 in 4 adults have never accessed the Internet (in the UK the figure is 20% or 1 in 5. I have recently taken to (mis) quoting Douglas Adams when talking about digital inclusion:

“Digital Inclusion is big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind- bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to digital inclusion.”

I do this because of the experience of listening to people who are engaged in the digital agenda but who only see their part of it; more often than not, their part of it is the answer. I’m sure that you will hear things all the time: “If only we can give people access”, “If only we can give people the skills”, “If only we can give people cheaper equipment”. Governments, experts and activists everybody has a view on how to resolve the digital divide. Yes, we do have a digital divide and although the number of people online is falling for those that remain the divide is getting narrower but deeper. The long tail of exclusion is a reflection of the law of diminishing returns.

Look at this visualization which tries to show the scale of the digital inclusion agenda. Where would you put your approach? Invariably for most people the approach often sits in the bottom left hand area of the diagram. While all of this “is” important what we should be experiencing is a move towards empowering individuals and “that” was the message that I was hearing at the Digital Agenda Assembly.

Arc of Engagement

The Digital Agenda for Europe sets out to cover the “mind-bogglingly big” nature of the digital environment and recognises that this isn’t just a local journey to a metaphorical shop; it’s a ten year journey towards a single digital market via interoperability and trust and security through very fast internet with e-skills and ICT for social challenges.

Investment and Innovation are missing from this visualization. Ben Verwaayen described Europe as a “digital desert” and said it was destined to stay that way unless the conditions for investment were improved. The conditions for investment are reduced risk and guaranteed levels of minimal regulation. Not everybody agreed that Europe was a digital desert but Mr Verwaayen made his point; without investment there will be no innovation and without innovation there will be no new digital industries without which there will be no growth and no jobs. Where do we put innovation and investment? One of the best descriptions of the innovation environment for me is that of Loet Leydesdorff and that’s probably because of my Systems background. I Like Leydesdorff’s Triple Helix Perspective because he looks further than the traditional virtuous circle that we’re often presented with as a model and he considers a range of influences. We saw some exceptional examples of digital innovation at DA12 and the winner of the “Tech All Starts” prize was CogniCor Technologies from the Wayra accelerator in Spain. Does this suggest that we need more accelerators like Wayra? Possibly but we also need the people to go in them. The oft repeated question at DA12 was “Why don’t we innovate?” As Leydesdorff shows, it’s partly because we don’t fully consider the complexities of innovation. Isn’t it also that we don’t engender that confidence that allows people to take leaps of creativity and to develop their ideas without fear of failure. We need to move our efforts into the upper right quadrant of the visualization; the golden quadrant.

This is not to say that the rest of the picture isn’t important, there’s nothing pejorative about where things are placed but we need to listen to the message from DA12 and understand the wider importance of empowering individuals for they are the innovators not the institutions.

The UK was notable at DA12 for its lack of presence. If there was anybody there from UK government or from Ofcom they kept a very low profile. There was a vocal, enthusiastic, well informed group of activists and experts who made positive contributions to the debate and we should acknowledge that contribution. I must specifically mention Chris Conder from B4RN who spoke with Neelie Kroes and was invited to attend the Digital Champions event on the following Monday. However, I find the lack of official engagement appalling. Here on our little island on the other side of the channel we seem to be losing our way. The world is becoming more connected. There will be 500 connected devices per sq kilometre by 2020 and it is predicted that 10 years later there will be 30,000. At the end of June we had the news that the UK is not signing up to superfast broadband and the government doesn’t appear to have plans to bridge the gap between the EU’s Digital Agenda ambitions and our own. Talking to representatives from the Commission I was met with a certain amount of incredulity that rural areas are being disadvantaged in favour of city regions and being left to do things for themselves. There was similar surprise at the plans to invest £35 billion in a railway line that only stops at Birmingham and has no proven business case. Set this against the paltry £500 million being invested in superfast broadband when ICTs, even at the current rate of development, contributed £121 billion to the British economy in 2010. Building railways is something that the Victorians did because railways were the super fast networks of their day. It’s time we stopped being Victorian in our thinking. Today, 26th June, Martha Lane-Fox has made a call for us to put Europe at the forefront of digital development.  While I don’t agree with everything the digital champion says or does I do think that this is a statement to which the UK should listen.