The Contemplative Edge

Or the mental ramble that followed the Gigaom shutdown.

Try as I might I can’t remember when I first heard of Om Malik. In my mind he’s associated with names like Zack Exley, Micah L Sifry, Danah Boyd and Esther Dyson but that can’t be because they are in the realm of digital inclusion and empowerment and Om Malik is about cutting edge innovation and commercial reality. So when was it?

My first strong memory of GigaOm was ‘back in the day’, as everybody on the podcast keeps saying, when Chris Albrecht and Tom Krazit did the Gigaom Show. From there I began to listen to Kevin C. Tofel and Janko Roettgers on cord cutting and Chrome; then there was Derek Harris and Barb Darrow whose insanely bad podcast intros prefaced great in depth interviews on cloud and big data and finally my favourite, everybody’s favourite tech Mom, in reality the very clever Stacy Higginbotham (not forgetting her dog, her eight year old – who must be nine now – and her bemused husband). These people have accompanied me in the car, to the gym and around the house then all of a sudden there they were: gone!

I have chased around in search of information: I have checked Twitter feeds, I have read Howdy y’all Stacey Higginbotham’s blog on http://staceyhigginbotham.com , I have caught up on Mathew Ingram’s Flipboard pages Media Past and Future but right now these are like echoes; Gigaom has gone and I’m going to miss it.

Which makes me think: why did I like it so much? Entertainment apart it was a source of information, good, detailed tech stories. These I could reference in my own personal blog which was where I organised my thoughts. Take for example “Never Say Never” which I posted in February; it was Derek Harris who mentioned the NVIDIA Tesla K-series GPU Accelerators and it was one of Stacey Higginbotham’s guests, Hiliary Mason, of Fast Forward Labs who talked about algorithms which can sort millions of data items in just a few processor cycles. All of which made me think about our dependence on current cloud technology to make our smart things smart and yet technology moves inexorably to the edge. Isn’t there a future conflict of interest there? When technology allows Google Translate to sit on my smart phone without a data link or central processing where is Google’s business model?

My personal ramblings are not cutting edge, they are what I call contemplative edge. Now I’m no longer involved in digital anything as a way of making a living I don’t have to scan the tech blogs and news feeds for the latest thoughts and ideas but I still do because I have the space to think about these things.

Despite what you may have read or heard England is not a cutting edge economy. We survive on a service based economy with some manufacturing (we do very good very expensive cars) and we have a lot of people in minimum wage zero hours employment. There are a few, small innovative companies but on the global scale of things they are very small. We are digital consumers; our measure of digital inclusion is based on how much we consume and how many services we access. Right now the Internet of Things is only just emerging in popularist news stories. The Insurance industry has been complaining that smart vehicles will reduce accidents and also insurance premiums; how will they make money? The white goods retail industry has been sounding warnings that smart appliances will lengthen the replacement cycle and that will hit profits. I spotted a set top box only this week which advertised itself as being able to make your TV a Smart TV – nonsense but you can get away with that sort of thing in the UK because the vast majority of people are not digital savvy, they are just consumers which is all they need to be.

What has this to do with Gigaom? Like I said at the beginning these are ramblings. Gigaom brought insight into a fast moving, technically advanced, disruptive world. Without the likes of Gigaom we will understand less. While other tech blog sites will continue they will have that geeky edge that Gigaom managed to avoid which is what made its stories so accessible and because of that we are potentially less well informed. In a few months time technology products branded for the Internet of Things will find their way into UK stores and we will consume them, as we do. We will not pause to consider the infrastructure of the cloud, the implications of big data or the cul de sac of development into which we will be driven so that we can be Smart. Gigaom could never influence the actions of nations but it could, and it did, inform those people who wished to keep thinking about what all of this might mean.

Gigaom I will miss you.

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“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: http://www.policyexchange.org.uk/people/research/item/eddie-copeland . I don’t know Eddie but he has a blog http://policybytes.org.uk 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: https://gigaom.com/2014/05/20/thingful-wants-to-crawl-the-internet-of-things-but-is-this-the-right-model/ . Usman Haque also has an impressive CV he is a founding partner of Umberellium http://www.umberellium.co.uk , founder of the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform Pachube.com. 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.

Never Disagree With An Idiot

George Carlin, the American stand up comedian said: “Never disagree with an idiot. He will bring you down to his level and then beat you with experience”. He came to mind this week when I was reading the reports of Apple CEO, Tim Cook’s response to criticism of Apple’s aggressive tax avoidance tactics. It’s not our tax avoidance that’s the problem he said it’s your tax regime (I’ve paraphrased but you get the gist). That same “bubble” mentality was evident in an Observer piece on Sunday: “How Silicon Valley tech elite’s wealth created a world apart” by Rory Caroll. This was very much a populist piece, by which I mean it wasn’t world shattering investigative journalism, but it highlighted a way of thinking. In summary this was a description of how employees from companies like Google, Apple, EA and Twitter are setting themselves apart from the people who live in the same geographical location. They travel in their own buses, they create their own gated communities and they create a sense of taking much and giving back little. They deny it, of course, with statements which reflect a view of San Francisco as a dirty city with poor schools to which the elite come to create wealth regardless. One reflects that they can’t understand people’s criticism; after all they are helping people to share.

Of course, as an outsider looking in, you can see that from Tim Cook to the unnamed developer they’re missing the point. We can apply Apple’s logic to any number of laws that we don’t happen to like; it’s not that I broke the speed limit, it’s just that you set the limit too low; likewise the tech employee community cannot see the difference between doing for and doing with.

Was any technology truly disruptive that didn’t move things closer to the edge? For example, the personal computer, the private car, the smart phone, Mpeg compression or the internet? Surely the disruption comes because the means of consumption or production becomes increasingly divorced from the core and choice is placed in the hands of the individual. We can see a cycle in which a new development triggers a market change, the old core responds first with negative publicity and then with attempts at regulation; then there is adaptation, new market models arise and it starts again. Old companies disappear or change and new ones grow up to replace them, better suited to the new environment.

This begs a question: what is the role of the Cloud? Think before you answer! On the one hand the cloud (let’s not get into the argument about what the cloud physically is; I know it isn’t a “the” but as a concept it’s out there, it’s working and like it or not most of us use it. We can think of it as a great facilitator, no cloud no smart phone for instance. We can see it as a great benefit; the Internet of Things is unlikely to function without the Cloud, there is going to be no Drop Box, Netflix will struggle and the low cost, fast running start up will, well it will not start up!

What of the cloud as an aggregator, a consumer of very big data, about us? Where does the wealth on which all of those unpaid taxes accrue get created? Isn’t it based on the analysis of that eye watering collection of data about us? Up to a point I accept the argument that nothing in this world is free; I don’t get to use my smart phone for all of those personalised services for nothing. In return I give up data about me, my contacts and my life. At what point do I, or any of us for that matter, decide that the cost is too high?

I am a great admirer of Jarond Lanier; not just because of his achievements but because of his ability to  set out the world from his point of view. While he is great at identifying trends he’s not so hot on the solutions and his latest book “Who owns the future” is a case in point. His argument for humanistic economics sounds okay but it’s based on an old idea of value; that of value in ownership. The economics of the digital realm comes from value in use. Without the cloud my smart phone may be an aging design icon but it’s also just a lump of useless alloy and glass. The value lies not in ownership but in use. Right now that value is created for me in time I will need that value to be created with me – and the digital network will allow that process of co-creation to happen. If it doesn’t then the price I am currently paying to realise that value will be deemed too high (I believe I will not be alone) and I will go elsewhere and do things other ways. Two things flow from this, firstly the developers that are setting up their world apart in the dirty city will have to start to do things with their neighbouring community and not exist in the belief that they are doing things for otherwise things will fall apart very quickly. Secondly that data of mine that you are taking in payment for services is generating a lot of money – much more than I think the services are worth – so give something back Mr Cook, pay your damn taxes.

As a final thought I firmly believe that cloud technology will eventually move to the edge where it will become truly disruptive. This will be because of resource demands and as every network architect knows the closer to the edge the less resource dependent it is; where we are now is unsustainable. I predict a period of negativity, followed by regulation (presumably in return for paid taxes) and then adaptation and a new business model – it will take time, but it will happen.

One Idea for Growth – It’s the ecosystem, stupid!

You know how it is; you’re wondering what you’re going to write about this month and then three ideas come along at once. I was inspired to open the blank document by an old friend, Professor Lynn Martin at Manchester Metropolitan University Centre for Enterprise who was looking for ideas and thoughts on encouraging growth. I was further motivated to get ideas on paper by a well publicised blog by Graham Jones, MP for Haslingden and Hyndburn, who had let rip a swyngeing attack on Lancashire County Council for the way in which they were spending 40.11  million euros on superfast broadband while identifying few business benefits. Then I read the Institute for the Future’s post on the outcome of their 2012 retreat where they looked at the “Two Curve problem” where we make our strategy decisions based on where we are, not on where we are going.

So, let’s think about growth!

How to generate growth for a business, for a town, for a region for a whole national economy? There is a lot of nonsense talked about growth and that’s because it’s become the stuff of policy geeks, politicians and sound bites. “Projects will not be authorized unless they contribute to growth”; “Funding will only be allocated to those projects that contribute to growth”. It has become the watchword for gatekeepers everywhere and yet I doubt any one of them knows what it means.

Growth refers to an increase in some quantity over time” Wikipedia

The old models for growth have not served us well; growth by acquisition achieved by leveraging cheap credit has profited the few at the expense of the many. Growth through promoting shareholder value, maximizing returns on investment by cutting costs and compromising innovation has brought companies to the brink of disaster, witness General Motors. So what do we mean by growth? Do we mean an increase in revenue or do we mean an increase in employment? Do we simply mean an increase in turnover? As a business it would be my aim to increase revenue, which would mean increasing turnover but not at the risk of increasing costs, which would mean not by increasing my employment costs. One of the myths abroad is that business exists for the wider benefit of society: it does not, it exists for the benefit of itself so what do we mean by growth? How can I grow my business?

There are, what I call, the three business benefits: You can do things faster, you can do things better or you can do new things. By doing things faster I can do more, I can respond more quickly than the competition, I can add value by turning around commissions in a shorter space of time with the same or with improved quality. In this way I can increase turnover. I can do things better; I can do more things on line so reducing the time and cost of travel, I can make it more convenient for my clients to contact me 24/7/365, I can provide a better product at no additional cost by improving my own processes. In this way I can increase turnover. I can do new things: by understanding the commercial environment in which I operate I can generate new services and new products; I can leverage the delivery opportunities in order to customise my services and tailor them for each individual client; not just build a better mousetrap but build your better mousetrap.

The problem with this approach is that it builds on what is, it doesn’t prepare for where we are going and our strategy for growth should consider the way in which the world is changing. In April the Institute for the Future held its annual retreat and it picked up on an idea established in the late 20th century of the two curve problem. Curve one is as I have just described where I know my commercial environment and I have “ideas” of how I might exploit it; which is no guarantee of success but it’s where I can make a start.  IFTF take a different stance in which they describe curve two, a new environment which is changing:

  • From enclosed to open and sharable cities
  • From pipeline supply infrastructure to agile energy ecosystems
  • From large scale manufacturing to just in time
  • From institutional wage labour to micro contribution
  • From information overload to enhanced individual capability
  • From individual intelligence to complex systems of distributed intelligence

I see these trends arising from the connected nature of the modern environment. One of the impacts of always on communications has been the ability to make the most of the distributed supply chain and just in time delivery. Whereas once the raw materials, the expertise, the labour and the control mechanisms all had to be brought together in one location the “parts” of the process can exist independently of each other. The coal does not have to exist next to the steel works. The order processing does not have to exist in the same city. The sales enquiry team does not have to exist in the same country. I do not have to be employed by the company which makes the product or commute to work by 8:00 in the morning.

What the next generation of communications technology will do is take that distributed supply chain and remove the linearity, just in time will become “now”. Not all processes will have to be time based any more than they will have to be location based; we will do things “now” because now is a good time and the location is irrelevant. Yes, the steel ore will have to be at the plant before the steel can be cast but we won’t wait a week for delivery because it was ordered to be here now because the processing happened in real time and if discussion was needed it took place now, because an appointment wasn’t needed and nobody had to travel and no space had to be arranged.

If we are to have growth and from that growth generate enough surplus revenue to create employment we need to understand the impact of true time and location independence on the supply chain. It is no good creating businesses that operate as if this were the late 20th Century when we moved thousands of people each day to generate growth by doing something called knowledge working where computer processes overlaid manufacturing processes that hadn’t changed since the industrial revolution. We can’t all live at the top of the value chain and the value chain no longer has its pinnacle in the Western economies. It’s time for a change in approach which recognises that the world today is not the work of the 19th century industrialists and that “growth” will not happen because our politicians say that it must. Creating the conditions for growth demands a truly democratised approach to the generation of wealth in which the units of production can be brought together as needed and a recognition that growth arises from creating an ecosystem not from focusing on single traditional places.

I'm in a time warp, get me out of here

A week in politics is a long time, a week in technology is an eternity. Why is it then that in the last week I have felt that time has stood still for the last 3 years? Firstly we had the latest studies of Britain’s rural broadband not spots; closely followed by Britain’s slowest broadband village. I don’t for one minute wish to underplay the seriousness of the underlying statistics or the risk to service delivery and to the economy of those places. My normal response would be a silent rant about the impotence of the market place to do anything about the situation but hot on the heels of these revelations came the news that a newly launched satellite was the answer. Suddenly satellite was the only viable alternative for providing rural broadband services.

In May 2007 I was responsible for an exhibit at the “Bridging the Broadband Gap” conference in Brussels. It so happened that our stand was right next door to Avanti’s and they were talking about their satellite technology then. It’s taken this long to see it become a reality and I have to take my hat off to them, launching a satellite is no mean feat. Avanti have to realise a return on what must be an enormous investment and while no other service provider is proposing a solution the drawbacks of dialup line uplinks and base stations located in Europe plus the inevitable latency seem to be a small price to pay for a form of connectivity and, it has to be acknowledged, blindingly fast download speeds.

So why bother to register a concern in the face of an entrepreneurial success story? It’s the box ticking mentality of the English political establishment that has me worried. The pressure will be lifted from our principle service provider, local politicians will see a reduction in their mail as broadband issues disappear and the UK government can look a financial saving in the eye and say “thank heaven for that!” let’s move on.

The weather struck again, I’m sure you noticed, especially if you live in the Eastern side of this small island Britain. Even though the freeze was both early and unusual by our standards it brought with it the predictable outcome; the daily commute was disrupted, yet again. Given that I’ve blogged about the British obsession with conducting both business and bureaucracy as if this were the 19th century I couldn’t help looking up at the ceiling and letting out a gasp of despair. Setting aside social needs and personal preference, how many of those individuals who struggled through snow and ice really needed to be there? I even heard one person quoted on the BBC as saying it’s a shame that people have to be there in person to sign invoices. What? The truth is that we are incapable of adopting a digital mindset. You can only manage people if you can see the whites of their eyes. What if they stop working and watch daytime TV? What if they use their equipment provided by their employer to download child pornography, what will the Daily Mail say? The preferred option is to subject the national economy to the cost of lost working hours, grid lock and personal injury. There has to be another way, there is and it’s digital.

The crowning moment for me was the announcement by a seriously large County Council that they were going to initiate a rural business hub project to tackle the poor infrastructure in their area. For a moment I had to stop and think, had I been thrown back in time? Perhaps they hadn’t heard about the satellite launch? I can applaud any attempt to support local businesses with infrastructure developments but I despair again at the complete lack of innovative thought behind the idea of business hubs in the 21st century. Have they not thought that if they can get connectivity to a hub they can use cheap technology to provide connectivity to the business? Why not operate a 50% grant scheme and use de minimis rules to avoid state aid. Why not take the opportunity to aggregate domestic demand and make a business case for investment in fibre. Why not invest in the technology to create local data clouds and then sell access to larger companies so that employees can work from home. Did they consider the options, I don’t really know but I suspect not. Would any of these ideas work, I’m not sure I haven’t done the sums but if you don’t investigate the possibilities you will never know and you won’t generate other options along the way.

This is what frustrates me most of all, it’s the unwillingness to think about the full potential that digital technology offers. While the cries of “what about the cost” and “what about the risk” are loud and clear those behind the voices fail to consider the social and economic cost of not being digital in the true 21st century sense.

Or was my first instinct right, I am stuck in a time warp and it’s really 2007!

Big Society Digital Challenge

One of the lessons learned from the Digital Challenge was that three years is a long, long time in the digital world. I started work on the Challenge in 2003/4. The ideas we envisaged were simple but the technology to deliver was complex; access to personalised services for the most socially excluded through channels of choice. Of course, by the time Sunderland was declared the winner in 2005/6 the digital world was waking up to the possibilities of the app, open data and Gov 2.0 The ideas we had in 2003/4 were realised but the technology to deliver had revolutionised the whole approach.

Like impatient children on a long journey we say “are we there yet?” To which the reply comes, “nearly” but should we be asking what else should be changing along the way? I’m a digital optimist: I believe that digital technologies can change lives though for me that means tackling the barriers to change at the organisational level. Digital politics are deeply embedded in the social fabric and shifting the balance in favour of the majority will not come quickly or easily.

Digital inclusion increases the opportunities for communities to learn and learning communities build social capital which in turn becomes the basis for innovation. This is a Big Society theme and is a strong rational for Digital Inclusion to be part of Big Society thinking. Digital enhances community voice; it multiplies the channels of communication, it amplifies and extends the reach of community voice. It’s another platform for opinions and stories which are there to inform service provision but can also reflect the political mood of that section of the community for those who care to engage and listen. Using digital to inform decisions will become increasingly important in the next year. Communities must be positioned to make informed decisions about which services they wish to take from local authorities, which services they wish to take from someone else and which they need to take over for themselves. The transfer of community assets can only be effective against a backdrop of information and that information needs to be accessible by the whole community and not just the Parish Council.

Ask any business and you will be told that making money is about adding value. (We can discuss whether exploiting shortages and buying market share by driving down margins count as sustainable money making strategies over a beer sometime.) Whether it’s taking raw material and producing goods or making finished goods available in a faster, cleaner, easier or more attractive way. It’s the amount of value that you add that people will pay for and that’s how you make money. If whatever it is you’re doing isn’t adding value then it’s time to revisit your business plan. The same is true with knowledge in the knowledge economy. If you describe yourself as a knowledge worker then at some point you must, by definition, take information and do something to it that adds value. It is our success at adding value to knowledge that places us at the top of the value chain whether that is by creating new intellectual property from pure research, whether it’s mining information for new insights or finding new ways to present information so that others can benefit or add value.

Politics is about power and digital politics seeks to keep a traditional power power base. Consciously or even unconsciously the desire to retain power facilitates the creation of barriers to a true digital society and a more democratic distribution of digital benefits. The Big Society has to get past the fundamental mind set of service providers that it is their role to deliver to people rather than to deliver with people. To achieve the latter you have to be able to listen, and that means listening to a number of channels at once and it means that you have to inform decision making and that means providing information openly and facilitating the interpretation of that data.

As a nation we retain an industrial mind set. The daily commute is a perfect example; how many people who travel from home to workplace every day at the same time as everybody else physically need to be there? Setting aside social and emotional needs why do we persist in work practises that have more to do with the mill towns of the industrial revolution that a 21st century digital economy? The principle of only being able to manage people when you can see the whites of their eyes has spawned an associate economy of support industries: sandwich sellers, flower sellers, free news papers and so on. In truth we don’t have to do this and the related economy would be doing more good if it grew in the communities from which the people travelled thereby contributing more to sustainable community development. The Knowledge economy is, to some extent, a location independent economy. The industrial mindset that brings people to the centre of production instead of seeing people as the centre of production brought together through a digital collaborative infrastructure also generates the kind of thinking that undervalues rural communities seeing them purely as centres of digital consumption rather than production. The perception is that rural markets need to be stimulated to create conditions for infrastructure development instead of being enabled as contributors to the economy as a whole.

In the midst of all of this we have the national initiative to get everybody on line by the time the Olympics start which brings me, in true James Burke style, back to where it all began and the impact of changing technology. Despite its altruistic origins in giving a voice to individuals and communities the plan to get everybody on line owes more to accessing services cheaply and efficiently than it does to digital democratisation. Enter the App. Increasingly the use of mobile services and apps are supplanting the Internet as a provider of services. It’s a small step to visualising a low cost smart phone with basic functionality which holds the Apps that provide access to services for that 20% of society for whom the social safety net is a vital lifeline. Apps for accessing benefits can be downloaded as easily as those for accessing i Tunes. Log in with your handy 12 digit GSI password and away you go. Face it, people were never going to realise the benefits of cheap flights, and discounted shopping in the face of all of their other problems, were they?

Hopefully, by now, you’re asking yourself, what’s wrong with this picture? We’re losing sight of digital literacy. We’re de skilling the Internet. We may well have a generation of digital natives but with their Facebook pages and You Tube videos and multiple Twitter streams can they add value? It’s not enough to get everybody on line; we have to face up to a political tension in the digital domain to keep everything as it is, a 19th century industrial society when we didn’t teach workers to measure, we simply gave them a stick and told them to work to its length. Technology is changing, and that’s a good thing, but political and economic attitudes are entrenched in self interest and we have to find ways to change those as we adapt our approaches to make the most of digital opportunities. As we come to grips with the Big Society and the implications of CSR 2010 we should ask ourselves are we going to do this best with a 19th Century approach or are we going to grasp the full potential of a digital society and grow inclusive, supportive, sustainable and vibrant 21st Century communities.

Rebooting Rural

To those who understand, who get IT, who have vision and imagination that goes beyond a responsibility to shareholders there is no issue in understanding the potential for unlimited bandwidth in rural areas. For everybody else it is sometimes difficult to describe the one big idea that would make it a worthwhile investment.  In a change from my usual blog posting format I acknowledge a fictional piece by Zach Exley in “Rebooting America” called “To: Micah L. Sifry, Personal Democracy Forum 2008”, in which I write to you from a point not too far in the future. As always it is there for people to read, comment and appropriate as they see fit.

2017, today I retire, finally. Taking the ZEV from the community pool would, normally, have bothered me. It was only a 45 minute walk to Higher Heath via the back roads but this morning I wanted to be there and back as quickly as possible. Besides, it was only 5:30 and the ZEV would be returned and charging in its bay before the morning commute at 8:30. I’d even booked the session with the village co-ordinator, so my conscience was clear.

Not that many people commute these days, there’s no need. The national fibre network has made the daily commute to the office and the factory a rare occurrence. You work from where you are; finally people have recognised that value is added, by the person not the person in attendance. Even CNC machine programming can be completed at home and then the operation monitored remotely. Loading, unloading and problem solving can be done by skilled individuals more locally placed.

The breakthrough had come with the Great Green Retrofit of 2012 – 2015 and the realisation that to reap the full benefits of the Smart Grid you needed infrastructure. While you’re in the community lay the fibre, while you’re in the house connect to the network – the rest, as they say, is history; a two year history of unprecedented economic growth and social change.

In 2010 we were told that rural areas might get a form of fibre network, possibly to the pavement by 2017 – now I’m on my way to the parish cloudlet for one final look before I hand in my identity tag. Truth is I don’t need to go there. I’ve been managing the cloudlet for the last two years and I’ve only been there maybe a dozen times even though it’s just a 45 minute walk away. A direct fibre connection allows me to monitor, change, and manage even watch without ever having to leave home. I can hold meetings with the other operators using virtual presence. Today, however, I wanted to visit, one last time.

The cloudlet network was a by product of the infrastructure investment. Back in 2010 the assumption had been that The Cloud would be the way forward. Factory sized server farms with obscene bandwidth hosting applications, storing data, personal information and entertainment; anything and everything for everybody. The problems with the cloud idea were numerous, they were wasteful, huge energy requirements, low carbon efficiency and they were vulnerable; despite redundant systems they were a single point of failure. Worst of all, people didn’t trust them, they weren’t fully understood and they were too remote. The idea that your “stuff” was in a repository somewhere across the Atlantic didn’t have the right feel for many people. The owners of the cloud did little to help themselves. Each of the big corporations wanted the whole cloud to themselves; they were proprietary in a world where people wanted choice and the freedom to change if they weren’t happy just as they did with any service that they paid for.

So the idea of the cloudlets was borne. Any community could have its own small cloud that served the needs of its community. The cloudlets supported each other and provided resilience. The large, corporate clouds became service providers for large corporate customers and the repositories for commercial content; there never was money to be made from the large amount of personal content, it took up lots of space and it never really paid for itself.

The cloudlets charged local people for their local services such as data storage and access to the wider network. They also charge content providers to be the gateway to the local network. What’s more they charged just enough so that it wasn’t prohibitive; the aim was not to protect the channels of access but to facilitate them. People had the option to subscribe to content or to pay a micro charge for individual items. Because people owned the solution they no longer expected free – except to personal content – so it was possible for things to exist just once and to be accessed many times. In this way the community connected to the local cloudlet and the cloudlets connected to each other and to the corporate clouds.

Recently there had been an increasing business in identity certificates. Local people could choose for their identity to be confirmed by an organisation in their locality; a bank, a library, a hospital, a doctor’s surgery, a school or a church. Each of these would electronically host part of a person’s on line identity with the more established providers, banks and doctors, being used for higher levels of authorisation. Each time a person used their identity, such as to make a purchase on line or complete an application for a service or benefit they made a micropayment to the identity provider via the cloudlet. It was just a few pence but because it was a multi sourced identity it was more reliable and it was no longer password dependent – you were who you said that you were. Just as people vouched for people once upon a time, a local service supported a person’s on line identity.

The decision to put out Parish Cloudlet in Higher Heath hadn’t been without controversy. Whitchurch as the major town had wanted to host it and use up one of the empty industrial units. By putting the facility in Higher Heath the small amount of waste heat it generated was piped to the local nurseries and into the district heating project. The new build was sustainable; it used local materials and incorporated low carbon technology. Yes, it still drew power from the grid but we also put energy into the grid generated from methane and a ten gigawatt wind farm that sat on the periphery of what had, once, been the parish tip.

The introduction of the smart grid had driven the need for universal infrastructure, now it exceeded expectations. The scale of the green retrofit programme raised awareness of the need to save energy and local ownership of the programme drove behaviour change; this in turn created the demand for smarter household goods that worked with the grid; the availability of infrastructure created the conditions which gave manufacturers the confidence to develop appliances which met consumer demand. The energy grids had become pro active rather than re-active. The demand for energy reserves to meet peaks in demand had shifted to energy profiling.

The capability of interconnected smart appliances also allowed the food supply chain to become proactive. A profile of user needs emerged based on food usage; local providers registered their ability to meet local need and then national retail outlets backfilled the rest. Transport costs were reduced, overstocking virtually disappeared and the risk of local shortages was eliminated. National suppliers suffered a loss in trade, yes, shops reduced in size, some jobs were redistributed but the lower costs meant that profitability was maintained.

The impact on transport infrastructure had been significant. Fewer people travelled to work every day, some not at all. The infrastructure investment in the small industrial and office units on the village outskirts meant that young entrepreneurs had somewhere to start their business ideas. Perpetual access to the university network provided innovation support. People who worked locally, spent money locally and the number of small shops on Shrewsbury Street began to grow.

Those that had to travel long distances tended to use the trains that ran more frequently as the local spokes fed the town hubs which linked to the city centres. Trips to the station made use of the network of Zero Emission Vehicles which were maintained in pools of half a dozen or so by members of the community. ZEVs were booked on demand, via the cloudlet and at times of high demand neighbouring villages shared. People’s journeys were profiled and a pattern of use built up over time so that more often than not there was space on a ZEV to get you where you wanted to go. Outside of the cities, the infrequent buses no longer ran without passengers.

I arrived at the gate of the small compound and held my pass to the reader, the gate opened. I noticed one of the cameras swivel towards my position, somebody in the Parish was watching me, I looked towards it and waved. I parked the ZEV and entered the low wooden building through a series of doors until I stood inside the server room. A cluster of racks worked noisily in one half, in the other a new installation was in progress. The cloudlet had increasingly started to provide thin client services. It was scalable, reliable, and people no longer needed to buy heavyweight processing. The new installation was a bit of an experiment. Recent developments in entanglement technology offered unprecedented speed of processing over the relatively short distances from the villages to the cloudlet. This did away with the need for fibre. The two ends of the device are brought together and then one end remains with the user while the other is installed in the rack at the cloudlet, which then talks to the fibre network. Somehow, they talk to each other. For now the fibre network is still needed for everything else but within 10 years, who knows.

I returned the ZEV to its bay in the pool and hooked it up to the grid. People were appearing on the streets, the odd vehicle drove along the bypass, and it was going to be a warm day. What now; a holiday, a rest? Possibly but then long walks, take lots of pictures, more time with grand children and who knows, I may even write a blog.