Online Success – on dodgy lines

7 Aug

UNPACS LogoCommenting on the UNDESA report showing the UK as the world leader in government online services, Julia Glidden, an international specialist in Open Data, makes an interesting observation about long-term policy investment.

Julia attributed the UK’s ranking in part to “a concerted national strategy, dating back to the establishment of an Office of the e-Envoy [in 1999, and the E-Government Unit in 2004] to integrate back office functions whilst simultaneously driving cross-government institutional coordination.” That’s a dedicated decade and a half of puzzling out the better delivery of public services.

Meanwhile those who campaign for vastly better broadband connectivity – seeing that as an essential enabler of greater online usage – would say that much of the last decade and a half has been wasted on short-term fixes that will inevitably need replacement in the push for future-proofing, operational efficiency, energy conservation and greater reliability.

The technologists have a strong case – and one that is gaining both media and political traction. The government may also be cheered by the UK appearing at the head of a global league table – particularly as, post-referendum, national advocacy is much in demand.

If the long-term stance had been taken for connectivity as well as services, would the outcomes have been even better? What explains the success of the latter, in a less-than-optimal infrastructural environment, is massive and often voluntary societal investment.

This is shown very clearly in the shortlist for the 2016 Digital Challenge Awards programme. Derived from an Open Call back in January the shortlisted finalists reflect what is really going on in corners of the country that media headlines very rarely capture.

The shortlisted projects for work in Digital Inclusion, Digital Skills, Digital Health and Open Data dominate the field. Sure, there are great projects in Network Innovations (from providers), Advanced Digital Applications (from university researchers) and in Rural Connectivity (by desperate country-folk), but these often more-technical pursuits are outshone by the devoted efforts of Charities, Local Authorities, Housing Associations and myriad public services agencies including the NHS, Schools and Libraries.

With their dedication to making sure that neighbours, communities and employees are not left trailing behind in our increasingly digitalized world, we should appreciate that the underlying reason behind the UK’s reported leadership is not entirely down to central policy wisdom.

In the next decade and a half we might even be blessed with fit-for-future connectivity – if the people get their way.

The State of our Digital Nation

31 Jul

2016 O2 NextGen Digital Challenge Awards

This is not scientific.

Its academic rigour may be some distance south of a tabloid’s opinion poll – but the final contenders in this year’s Digital Challenge Awards are instructive.

This is the 6th year of the Digital Challenge – an awards programme unlike any other. The categories and trophies are not set before nominations commence.

Every year the ‘Open Call’ simply asks for projects that exemplify great digital endeavour.   When the Call ends we review and define the Awards Categories and then create a shortlist for each. Every year that project shortlist reflects what is going on – real insights that might otherwise be overlooked.

Back in 2011 the focus was primarily on delivering better urban and rural broadband networks. That Rural Connectivity category remains, but elsewhere the attention has shifted beyond deployment to Network Innovations; their resilience, flexibility, performance and capacity.

Digital Inclusion projects have also been a constant category but they have evolved in so many different and imaginative ways – and some are now better aligned with an Economic Development agenda.

Projects devoted to boosting Digital Skills are far more evident (and delivering great achievements) but perhaps the brightest new category is for Digital Healthcare.   Some healthcare projects are contenders for the Digital Innovation Award and the willingness of NHS project leaders to transform their practice is evident in a flurry of very welcome initiatives in the mental health arena.

Meanwhile the Open Data category has lost its 2014 and 2015 prominence – now more business as normal rather than surprising breakthroughs.

  • Who in Westminster would have understood that Scotland is so digitally progressive?
  • Who would appreciate the educational/healthcare brilliance of body worn sensors embedded in fabrics?
  • How many Local Authorities understand the value of drones in combatting floods and other environmental risks?
  • How many judges (and jurors) know the value of Virtual Reality for visits to crime scenes?
  • How else would we be made aware of new care technologies for the elderly or the brilliantly imaginative Librarians whose services are so often under siege?

Many would decry the digital state of the nation – and sure there’s much more to be done – but the Digital Champions that step up to collect trophies in the House of Lords next October are leading indicators of massive transformations in the way we all work, live and serve.


A Certain Uncertainty

16 Jul

Question Marks And Man Showing Confusion Or Unsure

Time and again in recent weeks the pleas from European business leaders (and particularly here in the UK) for an end to uncertainty – or at least less of a policy vacuum – might have seemed quite the opposite of what might have been expected from our supposedly mighty risk-takers.

Any fleeting signs of stability have momentarily bolstered stock markets and smoothed exchange rate readjustments and yet it is ‘disruption’ we are oft told that is the golden characteristic of progressive, thrusting, opportunistic and innovative times.

This apparent contradiction reveals another truth. Businesses like to disrupt others but otherwise dislike being disrupted – and larger business with more at stake like it even less.   Yes, they’ll welcome innovation – but only on their own terms. And that is, of course, why monopoly power is so dangerously regressive.

Even, as in the case of BT’s Openreach, where the threat of regulatory changes looms large, uncertainty can invoke the sort of paralysis that borders on an existential crisis. No wonder, then, that when interviewed CEO Clive Selley is sounding more like Macbeth: “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.”  There is no standing still in business and confidence is essential fuel.  Do nothing and nothing happens.

But his organisation’s current uncertainty exists only because of the ever-widening gap between national economic imperatives (championed by the regulator in lieu of government) and the resistance of an incumbent determined to extract shareholder value from legacy assets.

Put simply (though to be fair it is far from simple) Openreach can see little investment rationale in providing everyone with future-proofed broadband services. They would much rather stretch the capability of their existing copper assets and hope that demand for capacity can be constrained.

On the other hand, those who argue (in the national interest) for a future-proofed infrastructure (inevitably with vastly greater use of fibre) point to the wider creative constraints of underperforming connectivity. Download speeds are, they’d say, far less important than upload speeds, low latency, minimal packet loss, greater reliability and vastly lower operational costs.

And it is these factors that are now calling time on strategies that were decided well over a decade ago and based on dodgy economics. Fibre was said to be inordinately expensive. It was said many times over and that mantra became embedded in investors’ minds. And it was wrong. And facing up to that truth is awkward. Not perhaps as awkward as Brexit but, like that referendum, the choice has been determined by those whose delusions are most believed.

Now, more than ever, the UK needs to rethink the parameters around digital infrastructure investment. We applaud the creative industries and the clever clogs beavering away developing new services, cutting costs and making lives easier – particularly in the public sector. But all that cleverness is nothing without affordable underlying future-proofed connectivity.

Yes, in some places, gradually, we can find signs of a smarter approach. Yes, we can see that sharp, thoroughly commercial, minds have cracked the challenges of doing what was previously dismissed as not financially viable.   All that remains is for incumbents to recognize the new realities or suffer the consequences.

Meanwhile, leastways until our incoming Digital Minister grasps the issues, the UK will muddle through with a certain uncertainty.



Don’t it always seem to go

3 Jul

EU-6Paving over paradise may not seem an apt metaphor for leaving the EU. How long have we railed against rules, regulations and the complexity of getting agreements amongst 28 States? How long have we bemoaned the deadening bureaucracy and the overhead costs of managing projects that must necessarily be communitarian to qualify for funding? How much easier, we might imagine, to go our own way?

Set aside the heretical thought that much of that complexity might have been of our making – that some determinedly perverse interpretations of EU directives might just have suited UK governments’ ideological agendas but could conveniently be blamed on some distant malevolent conspiracy.

Gradually, barely perceptibly, as layers of revelation are unpeeled, the true value of that bureaucratic buffer zone can now be measured. Paradise is not absolute but relative.

Relative to the prevailing chaotic confusion, that buffer zone may be revalued as a paradise.  Yes, that drag, that discipline, that ‘better togetherness’, those huge hurdles to gain consensus, to seek collaborative advantage and moderate nationalistic fervour, and in doing so reduce action to the most essential issues, is looking increasingly attractive.  Paving it over to erect parking lots for ministerial cars carrying a new set of homegrown zealots is no great bargain.

And, while we are thinking about absolutes, think what it means to be English or British.  Ish, sort of, defies the absolute.  The diversity of ish is in our very nature.  We delight in approximation and ambiguity.  The global success of the language owes much to its flexibility.  Its roots reveal remarkable transformations – like the origins of heresy in the ancient Greek word hairesis – a choosing.

So the country has chosen – and one half (or the other) has opted for a heretical path. The fabric, so carefully woven over decades, must be unpicked and refashioned in a different style for some new leader who will doubtless speak of unity as thin cover for naked ambition.

Paradise may be scheduled to be paved over. “Don’t it always seem to go, that we’ll not know what we’ve lost ‘til its gone”.*


* Joni Mitchell, a singer


Letting go of things not fully grasped

26 Jun

For the best part of my career I had a trusty cartoon companion – my mate Ed.

Ed Hoc graphicEd first appeared on my slides when I needed to explain that most of us have multiple identities – our personas.   Some of these were how we saw ourselves in different contexts – at work or home or in the band – or they reflected how others saw us.

Ed was, by birth, truly European and was first drawn to decorate a Scandinavian promotion for a telecoms company.   By the end of the 1970’s he was on hand to help me explain new identity options that were arriving with the advent of eMail.

It is nowadays difficult to explain the scale of that task but back then (before personal computers, mobile phones, message pagers or the Internet) telephone numbers and lists of them were important but not stored on anything other than paper.  And then suddenly we were introducing new, alternative, identities like email addresses and translations of those into meaningful names or functions.

Ed was Ed because in one serious context he was ‘Head of Communications’ or, when he relaxed listening to Blondie, he became Ed Phones.   He also served in academic circles as Ed Hoc, Prof. Ed or Dr. Ed Ovstrawski PhD but at home (or when visiting his children in Australia) he was more likely to be called Ded.

Ed has been retired many years now and rarely emerges from his comfortable archived crate in the loft – but now and again he senses that his life’s work remains unfulfilled. Last Friday morning I chanced to meet him on the stairs. “What are you doing down here, Ed?” “Just thought you might need reminding.”

Last Friday morning the newsfeed had told me I was not who I thought I was, not living where I imagined, not part of that community, not sharing the same delusions.  We live in bubbles of our own imagination.  Apparently my locale is in the top ten percent of UK places populated by folk with an entirely different worldview. I have many friends but I know none of these people from LeaviaLand.  Such are the delusional distances – the vast gulfs – that divided us in this EU Neverendum.

In business we are urged to ‘think outside of the box’ – indeed my own logo reflects that process – but now there is no box to constrain identity.  Today about half of the UK let go of something they’d not fully grasped.  Today the other half realised they had not fully grasped why the others were letting go.

Just for a moment we glimpsed the agony of those fleeing from warfare that is destroying what they imagined was their country. Today we can understand the anger of the disposed and disillusioned.  Today we (yes all of us) are like migrants wishing to plant new roots – to re-frame whoever we might be – and (some may hope) build bridges for their futures.

These seismic moments when reality breaks through are very rare but always devastating in direct proportion to the investments we made in our now thoughtlessly discarded frames.

As poet John Fuller wrote:

And it is late

To establish reasons for preferring

The things we prefer

When now it seems grotesque to imagine

That they might occur.


Thanks for reminding me, Ed.


2016 Digital Challenge Awards: shortlist announced

16 Jun

The Open Call for Nominations for the 2016 Digital Challenge Awards – where more people nominated more projects than ever before – has once again shown the wisdom of not defining the Awards Categories until we can take the measure of those responses.

We asked folks to nominate the projects that most impressed and deserved to be celebrated.  The online digital world is nothing if not dynamic.  Who would have guessed that so much brilliantly creative effort is focused on IT Skills, Health and Digital Inclusion.  These are areas where it is fashionable for politicians to bemoan a lack of progress – but in reality they are arenas to celebrated and honoured.

The 2016 Trophies will also reflect other trends – like major communities moving on from technological fascinations towards understanding the point that all that creative effort has a direct impact on economic development – yes, even the Augmented Reality  History Trail that enriches visitor experiences, boosts the tourism trade, educates local children and enhances local community identity.

This is the sixth year for the Digital Challenge Awards programme.  Over the years it has produced a wealth of inspiring case studies.  The full shortlist for all nine of the 2016 Awards Categories, once again, maps the UK’s digital development.   And when we get to the Awards presentation dinner in the House of Lords on October 13th all of the shortlisted finalists will deserve the applause.


Migration: the issue that goes away and doesn’t come back

4 Jun

Migration issues are rarely far below the surface in the current neverendum debate. Overcrowding is cited as an inevitable consequence of the migrant influx but no one questions the underlying causes of congestion.

Beautiful country area with small town and brightly colored fields

To what extent are overcrowded cities and the pressures on services and infrastructure the result of our own homegrown policies over which we have complete control?

Parag Khanna in his new book ‘Connectography[1]’ observes the growth of megacities – increasingly coastal megacities – and, like the UK’s Centre for Cities and the RSA’s City Growth Commission, regards that growth as inevitable – a long-term trend towards the supposed richness of culture and economic efficiencies of scale.  The drift within England from North to South and the consequential pressure on London and the South East has at least been recognized as in need of remediation – hence the Northern Powerhouse concept – but the remedy proposes further growth of great cities from Manchester to Newcastle via Leeds, and HS3 must go to the back of queue behind HS 2 nowhere near as important. The 2007 Treasury White Paper on subnational growth pointed in sensible directions but fell amongst the chaos of global economic calamity (and bonkers bankers) in subsequent years.

But what if our smaller towns and communities in the vastly greater hinterland were better enabled to be economically thriving without driving their citizens away to distant cities never to return? While we bemoan the pressure of overcrowded capitals do we spare any thought for the depopulation of vast tracts of land and market towns or the demands on road and rail travel for commuters who cannot find work near home?

This is our internal migration issue, the imbalance of rural and urban economies. It affects many countries – which is why you can buy a second home for next to nothing in rural Northern Spain or the middle of France. We read of massive effort and creativity being poured into solving the challenges of making megacities habitable. That’s no bad thing but let’s not kid ourselves; we choose to huddle together. That internal migration towards ever-more complex cities (mostly internally-displaced economic migrants) far exceeds any issue of a few hundred thousand refugees arriving from elsewhere.

Local Authorities can and should rise to the challenge. They may not have mayors like megacities have mayors but they surely know what is needed to bring the children (and jobs for the children) home. They understand the consequences of neglect.  It is time for Municipal Enterprise.  The issue that went away but now needs to come back requires a multi-year round of rural renewal.  The investment will pay dividends – not least in the greater resilience of cities!



[1] Connectography: Mapping the Global Network Revolution, Parag Khanna, pub: Weindenfeld & Nicolson, 2016, ISBN 978-1-474-80423-9




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