Archive | July, 2016

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.

 

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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”.*

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* Joni Mitchell, a singer