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Where to now?

I’ve worked at home for around 18 years. Admittedly, I’ve had the opportunity to get out and about from time to time. I’ve travelled a lot – across the UK and internationally. But now, of course, I just work from home. Travel is not really an option when international travel is curtailed or banned.

Working from home, when working at home is the only option, will be as novel for me as it will be for the millions of others around the world who have been effectively told to go work at home. Admittedly, I’ve the tech and have honed some home working processes. I’ve also got a rather lovely office. But bear in mind that most of us who might call ourselves ‘knowledge workers’ of one type or another, have based our working life on the premise that we work between events. Working is, in effect, event focused.

Let me explain. Prior to Covid-19-imposed-home-working-exile the typical home worker worked towards a series of objectives that were, to all intents and purposes, events. In my case these events may have been one or several of the following: a meeting with a client company in location x; a workshop focused on subject y in location z; a team meeting in HQ where we discussed achievements during the last month or quarter; a conference; a briefing; a networking gig.

These tended to be physical events requiring preparation, planning, travel, logistics and people getting together face-to-face. And the arguments made in favour of this approach were well honed: relationships with people require face-to-face contact.

Now, of course, face-to-face contact, we’re told, could be fatal – to us or to our elderly relatives. So, we’ll work at home and we’ll try to replicate the physical with the virtual: remote working tools, collaborative tools, video and audio conferencing. These are the things we’ve been aware of and have used in the past, but they’ve played second fiddle to physical mixers and “getting business done” meetings.

Some are saying that the new-normal exile may result in these tech-driven solutions revolutionising how business is done. Perhaps they’ll cause businesses to run better and result in vastly reduced costs of doing business. Perhaps businesses will even reconsider whether they really need offices and HQs – and whether nations need all the infrastructure to support business travel – when business can be done so much more effectively remotely and with a distributed workforce armed to the teeth with collaborative gadgets and connectivity.

Time will tell. And I’m hoping that the Covid-19 crisis will be short-lived and that business (and nations) will bounce back quickly. But I suspect that while the home working tools may teach us that there are other ways of doing things, and may make us ask ourselves whether jumping on a plane (when we can again) is the best way to build a relationship, ultimately we’ll revert back to what is tried and trusted: people getting together and sparking ideas, doing business and having a pint down the pub.

The exile period will allow us to take stock and question our respective roles. It will allow us to be families and remind us just how important they are. It will require us to focus on the oldest and most fragile in our society and the wisdom and humour that they bring to us all.

After 9-11 many who lived and worked in New York claimed that they were chastened by the experience. Many were of the view that the city would shake off its reputation as one of America’s most ‘me-focused’ cities and would become much more community spirited. Perhaps that happened, perhaps it didn’t. Perhaps it was short-lived. But, then again, perhaps New York recalibrated in ways we’ll never know because of the pain and the collective horror. On the surface it may be back to the way it was – but just a bit better and more controlled.

At the heart of this pandemic derived crisis I’m convinced that we’ll come out of the experience as different people. Some of us will suffer loss – the loss of a loved one, the loss of income, the loss of understanding of what we stand for. But most of us will probably just have time to take stock. Perhaps we’ll use the new-found tools and processes to get to know our co-workers and customers a bit more. Perhaps it will be the excuse we need to focus on our collective humanity and get some priorities in order. And when we emerge from the tunnel, perhaps we’ll be just a little bit better in one way or another. And our first pint in the pub, with others, will taste just so good. 

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#BCW20

Bosch Connected World in Berlin was one big show.

The IoT ecosystem attends in force but more than ever the focus is on how artificial intelligence and machine learning are integral to next generation products.

5G is on the verge of making possible more and more connected devices. Making sense of the data they generate is no longer possible without machine intervention.

The CEO of Bosch, Volkmar Denner, made this clear in his opening keynote. But he also made the point that better learning algorithms are required, obviating the need for AI based on millions of training “cases”.

The alternative, he pointed out, is that AI will be dominated by giant monopolies rather than a rich and vibrant community of ISVs.

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AI Round Tables

So what is Artificial Intelligence?

Well, simply put, it’s where machines are taught (or teach themselves) to do things that we – humans – aren’t very good at. 

Most of us aren’t good at car parking or finding our way in a place we’ve never been to before. Few of us like really dull repetitive tasks. Most of us aren’t very observant, it’s just the way our brains work. And because we’re busy we’re often just not on top of stuff that we should be.

And the great thing is that computers can be taught to do an awful lot of stuff that we hate to do – and, frankly, can do it better.

Like scanning medical images to detect potential problems. Or making predictions about crop yields based on loads of data sources. Or monitoring routine things going on in our car engines. But they need to do these things to suit us and make our lives better. And we need to understand how they do it.

The United Kingdom has pioneered the use of machine learning and AI. We have some of the world’s most innovative AI companies here building solutions for better mobility, better run cities, better healthcare. But we recognise that innovation is a collaborative business.

So we want to encourage dialog, co-operation, and partnership. It’s for that reason that we’re running a series of AI and machine learning workshops and round-tables to encourage the best AI entrepreneurs, decision-makers and funders to get together and talk. We’ll be hosting these sessions in the UK and also in UK overseas embassies in places like Berlin, Helsinki, Madrid and Lisbon.

We already have a few dates in the diary. But if you’d like to take part just get in contact with me and I’ll get you connected to the DIT’s local teams in-market.

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Citizen Experience Digital Transformation Uncategorized

Apps, Platforms and Government

This one of a series of articles focused on transformation of government service, produced in association with Equiniti

A few years ago, we were discussing the app economy. Apps (i.e. applications, typically, on mobile devices) were revolutionary, or so it appeared. Everyone wanted an app and tech entrepreneurs fell over themselves to get in on the act. Even government departments and local authorities rolled out apps.

But not all apps were created equal. The app market became the ultimate long-tail exemplar – people used a few apps, but most of the rest were wannabes.

The problem with many of the apps was that they weren’t joined up. Each had to do its own convincing of its own importance. After a while, they failed. They were deleted. They died.

There’s something allegorical about the app story. Apps continue to be important – we all use them. But apps aren’t important in themselves…they are merely windows into information. Some provide huge vistas into a vast, connected world. Some don’t.

The API economy, on the other hand, is something different.

Where many apps were standalone and insignificant, APIs provide for a joined-up world of possibilities. The API economy is as important for government as the private sector. Here’s how an article in Forbes defined APIs (and why they’re important):[1]

APIs (Application Programmer Interfaces) are the components that enable diverse platforms, apps, and systems to connect and share data with each other.  Think of APIs as a set of software modules, tools, and protocols that enable two or more platforms, systems and most commonly, applications to communicate with each other and initiate tasks or processes. APIs are essential for defining and customizing Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs) too. Cloud platform providers all have extensive APIs defined and work in close collaboration with development partners to fine-tune app performance using them.

In short, APIs allow applications to be built without the need to constantly reinvent the wheel.

In a government context, this is very significant. APIs allow applications and user interfaces to share critical information and processes. But it also means that government can become more like a platform than a set of apps that don’t talk. This makes the process of government more seamless, less annoying and much, much more efficient.

The Institute for Government (IfG) has recognised this. In its report published in June (Improving the Management of Digital Government) it pointed out how the cyber-attack that took down hospitals and doctor surgeries across the UK (largely because Old PC operating systems hadn’t been updated) showed the fragility of government IT.  It also called into question the role of the Government Digital Service. The report, while recognising that the UK was considered to have one of the most digitally developed e-governments, also laid out what more could be done.

More recently, Francis Maude, the former government minister who created the Government Digital Service, also criticised the civil service in terms of its embracing of the need for greater efficiency and reform. In his speech, delivered in September 2017, he said, “imperceptibly, inch by inch, with a control dropped here or not enforced there, the old silos and departmental baronies are re-emerging, with nothing to restrain the old unreconstructed behaviours from taking hold once more.”

The Civil Service and GDS hit back. But regardless of whether criticism is due it’s clear that there are rewards waiting if the government can reject the departmental baronies and move towards an API-focused model for government.

The IfG Report defined what needed to be done:

  • GDS should create a store for Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for the public sector that encourages reuse and supports the development of API standards.
  • The Government should urgently clarify the roles of GOV.UK Verify and the Government Gateway, to spread the benefits of secure identity verification.
  • GDS needs to manage the market for digital services more actively, by: a) configuring the Digital Marketplace for different users b) ensuring that standards are enforced with vendors, including on shared services, to save money and provide a better service for users.
  • GDS should work with the Treasury to review practices around charging for sharing data within government and the public sector, and establish principles so that incentives to share data adequately reflect the public interest.

Sharing is the watch-word here. The creation of an API store for the public sector works to ensure reusability of core information assets – meaning that complex processes can be made seamless as far as the citizen is concerned.

Many of the services provided by government require (currently) multiple systems to be accessed independently of each other. That’s why the IfG is right to highlight the importance of identity verification. Silo verification is a key reason why interoperability doesn’t work within government – and it’s also a major source of citizen frustration.

With a commitment to efficiency and reform within government we’re tantalisingly close to all- digital government service. However, the government needs to create its own API economy before that’s achieved.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/sites/louiscolumbus/2017/01/29/2017-is-quickly-becoming-the-year-of-the-api-economy/

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Citizen Engagement Digital Government Uncategorized

Engaging Millennials

I have lost track of the number of times articles on customer and citizen engagement talk about millennials and their unique characteristics – it seems to have reached mythical dimensions. So what is this “millennial phenomenon?”

What sets millennials apart from other generations, namely Baby Boomers and Gen-Xrs, is that this is the first generation to grow up in an interactive digital world – the so-called “digital natives.” To millennials, mobile and social technologies are what the telephone and the radio were for Baby-Boomers in their youth. Immediately accessing information and instantly communicating and sharing is second nature for this generation.

As a result, they expect not only immediacy of information but also brevity and conciseness of communication. It’s not that they have the attention span of a child but, rather, they have been conditioned to quickly process high volumes of information. They are also very visual; not surprising considering that the average young adult watches over 500 videos on line a month – from a collection of 75+ billion videos available on line (Comscore Video Metrix survey 2014). Given the gargantuan volume of information available digitally, millennials tend to be very selective about the information (or services) they want. And, in the process of getting them, they seek to have a personalized experience.

Given all that has been written about millennials, one would think the differences run far deeper. But the evidence seems to indicate that is not the case. IBM conducted a study about the preferences and behavioral patterns of millennials in the workplace. Their findings: Other than for their technology savvy, millennials are a lot like their older colleagues. They have similar career aspirations, desire for recognition and level of comfort making decisions on their own. A Fizziology report on social media communications found that, by and large, all three generations converse on-line about popular social topics a comparable amount.

So how to best engage millennials? Here are some tips from the experts:

– With smartphones and tablets as their standard equipment, mobile presence is a must. The key here is that the on-line experience across platforms has to be seamless, regardless of the device being used.

– Keep in mind that millennials span three decades and, as a result, there is a lot of variation in their interests and preferences. The youngest millennials are still teenagers while the oldest ones are marrying and having children. When developing an engagement strategy, you need to ensure you utilize the channels and platforms that your target millennial segment utilizes. Just as important, the content you create needs to be relevant to the channel where it is published. Otherwise, it will not resonate with your target audience.

– Appeal to their visual sense and desire for a personalized experience by using interactive applications. Applications that allow the user to zoom, spin, rotate and interact with an object virtually the same way one would with a real product will provide for a more engaging and personalized experience.

– Keep the communications brief and concise. Otherwise you run the risk of losing your audience’s attention.

You might note that there is little mention about social media here. While social media is a great tool for marketing products and services to millennials, it has limited utility in eGovernment applications. Why? Because of privacy concerns. Millennials are keenly aware of data mining practices of social media providers and they want to keep aspects of their life such as their dealings with the government private. To wit, a recent Accenture #AFSFedPulse survey found that only 20% of millennials living in the Washington DC metro-area would use Facebook or Twitter to receive information from the government.

So, yes, millennials are different – but not so different.

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Citizen Engagement Open Data Smart Cities Uncategorized

Citizen Engagement: The Secret Sauce for Future Cities?

There is much discussion around the topic of future cities. We now have government agencies, consultancy firms and environmental specialists all offering their perspectives on how cities of the future might look compared to cities of today.

The time-scale for future cities, of course, is rarely defined. Look at a short-term time horizon and cities of the future will be quite like cities of the present. The thing about cities is that they tend to develop incrementally (unless we build them from scratch). It’s very difficult to radically alter city infrastructure very, very rapidly. In most cities a great deal of the built environment is in private hands. Even the public infrastructure that sustains cities tends to evolve as city populations wax and wane – or the demographics of the population changes.

That’s not to say, of course, that cities can’t be improved (or made worse) quite markedly as a result of quite modest short-term change. For example a slight degradation of air quality can make city living near intolerable. Lawlessness in certain parts of cities can degrade property values and put off investment.

Successful cities are often successful because the factors that can work to undermine quality of life in cities tend to be carefully monitored. Successful cities tend to be those that can manage their success (or failure). New York is a better place to live in 2015 because the crime that blighted certain neighbourhoods within it has been substantially reduced. London has been successful, despite its population growth, because it has created better transportation systems and urban living processes to support its growth. It has also grown and embraced more suburbs to support housing need.

But it’s not just these individual things that make cities work. It’s also about people themselves making cities work. People tend to make parts of cities popular – they add to the built environment, employment, culture.  No amount of planning by city authorities can make cities exactly as they are today or will be in the future.

But initiatives that make the process of city-citizen engagement better tend to create outcomes that tend to work (in ways that are impossible to predict). Some of the engagement processes are about people talking to people. It’s not just about people talking to city authorities. The best city authorities tend to create the environment or platforms that help people do stuff: create companies, create employment, create art, create events, create buildings, create conversation.

José Quádrio Alves is the Global Government Director, Future Cities Lead, at CGI. He recently wrote a post called ‘Citizen engagement is a key to future cities.’ His view is that young people, in particular, are often excluded from some of the big decisions as to how cities should or could develop:

“Beyond voting, citizen engagement in major decisions at the local level, by proposing or even building solutions themselves, can be a powerful source of innovation and ideas. Since innovation is strongly related to economic development, creating conditions that make it easier for citizens to participate in community life may result in better decision making, stronger economic development and a better life for all citizens.” José Quádrio Alves

Alves recommends creating city social media platforms that allow people to focus on problems or issues or initiatives that interest them.  He provides links to initiatives in France, Estonia and the Netherlands that have been successful in this respect.

But there is a clear need for cities to experiment with such initiatives. Many major cities are major contributors to national economic success. The City of London, for example, generates some 22% of UK GDP.  Therefore it’s important that citizens play their part in making cities work better. That’s why cities are actively embracing open data initiatives to allow citizen to build services that other citizens use. It’s why city focused technologists are often avid supporters of government as a platform. It’s why the units that make up cities are getting smaller because they allow more people to feel part of their communities – by influencing how those communities develop (within a much bigger city ecosystem).

The successful cities of the future are those that recognise that they can’t do or plan everything. Government has to serve communities and citizens rather than try to predict how those communities might look in the future (or what future citizens might want). Ultimately the best cities are those that allow individuals to flourish together.