October 2016 saw BCS running its latest IT Impact event ‘Shining the light on post-Brexit Britain’. It emerged that, if anything, the opportunities and issues which have arisen from the recent vote to leave the European Union are those the UK should be addressing anyway. Brian Runciman MBCS reports.

Journalist David McClelland introduced the event with the thought that what we are really discussing here is change - which has almost ‘become a four letter word’. On Brexit there are many unanswered questions. Do we need to be bullish or cautious? Is this a bad time to start a new business? Does the UK have enough unique strengths to stand alone?

It was in the context of a positive discussion that the three guest speakers gave their perspectives.

The big three

Rohan Silva, co-founder at Second Home, Ex-Chairman of Downing Street’s Tech City Advisory Group and Senior Policy Advisor to David Cameron (2010-13), focused on three areas that he said need attention.

He started with his view that, in the immediate days after Brexit, it felt like post-traumatic stress setting in. And the views in a constituency he values, entrepreneurs, showed between 50 and 90 per cent voted to stay in Europe, depending on which poll you read.

Despite that initial pessimism, he said: ‘I think there are huge possibilities. Brexit is, in IT parlance, a non-linear moment. IT can win that agenda.’

He sees three challenges, three opportunities.

One. Robots. Automated systems are moving up the value chain and changing the work that humans do in society. For example, financial accounting and law roles are now being squeezed by algorithms. How should the state respond? Brexit shines a light on existing problems. Computer science education, coding and apprenticeship schemes have come to the fore in recent years.

Things like self-driving cars and software paralegals, alongside other disruptive technologies that affect the workplace, may force people to borrow money to reskill. If a potential job is around for another 20 years that model works, but employment changes too fast for that now. So, what if training was funded by the state, perhaps with a salary while you train? We need that sort of big idea. ‘In normal times that would be costly,’ said Silva, ‘but these are not normal times.’

‘The dark truth is, politicians talk about the UK being like Wimbledon - the great players come in from outside but we don’t grow too many at home. But we need to be more like Barcelona... bringing talent in from outside, yes, but with the homegrown talent to complement it.’

Two. Infrastructure. At the moment 100mb per sec is considered fast broadband. But, as Silva said, our sights need to be much higher. There are many spillover benefits - Nesta’s website recently reported that high speed broadband is demonstrably more important than high speed rail. But we shouldn’t have to choose. ‘When it is business as usual these ideas are hard to sell,’ said Silva, ‘but this is not business as usual. We have to think in new ways.’

Three. Innovation through an industrial strategy. ‘Innovation is not just about freewheeling low-red tape buccaneering,’ said Silva. He gave the example of the role the US state played in founding Google. The CIA was awash with data from around the world and needed instant translation, so they funded research in this direction. That included a professor who had Sergey Brin and Larry Page reporting to him...

Likewise, Google’s self-driving car has a connection back to the US military, who were exploring the possibility of autonomous vehicles with a Stanford team who were eventually acquired by… Google. This sort of state backing happens in Israel, Singapore and other well-known innovation hubs. ‘We need an industrial strategy of that sort in the UK,’ Silva said, ‘we’ve already had Tech City - so we can do this, with targeted ambition.

‘There has never been a time when the IT voice has been more important.’

The question of feeling in control...

Next up to speak was Geoff Mulgan CBE, Chief Executive of NESTA and former advisor to Tony Blair.

He also started with a look at the skills needs of those in jobs that will survive in our changing environment. And what is the gap between how we prepare young minds and the jobs that we will be asking them to do? We know the skills we need to focus on problem solving, creativity and the like, but this isn’t what our current education system does well.

‘I am shining a murky light, because a lot isn’t clear,’ he said. Referring to Donald Trump’s US presidential campaign he said that the slogan ‘let’s take back control’ struck a chord. In the UK it was those who felt most vulnerable to job loss that voted leave. But the political response seemed to channel (the BBC’s Blackadder character) Baldrick’s ‘lack of plan-plan.’

Mulgan laid out three possible scenarios:

  1. Brexit happens, it’s messy, but life continues.
  2. Brexit precipitates other exits and the EU unravels completely. That’s very messy.
  3. Brexit doesn’t happen, because a plausible situation allows for a political reverse.

The prevailing view, he said, is that these three are roughly equal in terms of

So what could follow? In Mulgan’s view all would precipitate 10 years or so of uncertainty; and our main decision makers would thus be distracted from the more important issues: skills, health and so on.

Could option three happen? A recent YouGov poll on leave voters says that a big shift in unemployment, say a ten per cent rise, may shift pro-leave opinion.

Mulgan then talked about the issue of control - something over which digital technology is inherently ambiguous. The software tools we have increase the appearance of individual control, but the real power lays with the originations that crop the data - so the actual distribution of control is uneven.

He used the example of implanted hardware - is that something that makes paying for things really easy? Or does it just make us easy to track?

Mulgan put forward what he considers two emblematic projects to address this spirit of nervousness over control.

For example, in the event of someone suffering a heart attack, there is a digitally-enabled social enterprise called GoodSAM, that helps qualified bystanders to provide life-saving care in an emergency. It mobilises resources, and allows people to feel they are contributing to society. Average survival rates are much improved with quicker attendance. As Mulgan says this is ‘simple, cheap and powerful and but control-enhancing.’

Dementia Citizens is an alternative approach to turn sufferers and their helpers into a data pool. It helps them find mitigating behaviours, allowing sufferers to co-create solutions to problems. There is a parallel scheme for Alzheimer’s. This approach flips the patient-doctor relationship to a degree, but to the benefit of both.

What about real egovernment?

The closing remarks by Mulgan were on the much discussed but, in the UK at least, little used potential of digitally-enabled democracy. The Mayor of Rome was elected for the Five Star movement in Italy and could win the next general election. It was founded as an internet-based party. They have had their problems, but they are responding to the view that traditional political parties have lost credibility. In Spain and Iceland, too, there have been digitally driven political movements that have had some success.

Why? Perhaps these movements give people a feeling of control.

Harnessing naivety

The final speaker was Josh Valman, Founder and CEO of RPD International, a design and manufacturing company, operating a global supply chain of creative individuals, suppliers and factories.

As a young entrepreneur he took a rather more pragmatic stance: ‘rather than thinking about what Brexit is, let’s think about what we can do about it,’ he said.

Valman’s background has taught him the power of naivety. He taught himself engineering through Google and books. He designed parts for robots, but, when trying to get them made in the UK was told, rather disparagingly it seems, to ‘go to China.’ Out of interest, he did. And found a way to produce what he needed.

Whilst still in school he consulted on dishwasher repair and started a supply chain consultancy. As he says, ‘no-one questioned why I only replied to emails after 3pm... I got away with it through ignorance, asking questions - ignorance in the right direction. There is a value in asking difficult questions by accident.’

The kneejerk response to solving the UK’s issues is often ‘innovation’. But, when asking what innovation actually is, Valman comments that the definition seems as banal as ‘the process of innovating’. No-one really defines it well, he says.

‘It is executing on ideas - not having ideas, but finding what works and what doesn’t,’ he says.

Customers have been taught to demand more by personalisation. We may look at IBM, Apple or Amazon as great inventors but, he says: ‘they didn’t invent, but they iterated and innovated. They look at the innovation and then at what falls out. Understanding what went wrong is important. Customisation is not a fad.’

Valman gave two practical suggestions on dealing with Brexit:

  1. Proper feedback systems to be built into our products, so we really know what works and what doesn’t.
  2. The need to seize on small opportunities to validate markets and restrict ‘beta backlash’.

On point two he gave the example of an app launched in Hong Kong that would be criticised within minutes in New York, potentially undermining a product that could have been good. He said that at the moment, New Zealand is the place to go, as it is representative of other markets, but social media doesn’t spread so virally, making it a good testing ground.

In conclusion

Although the issues around Brexit and the role of professional IT in helping UK PLC through are nothing new, they have been amplified by Brexit. BCS and its partners, and all those institutions working towards improving society in general can use this event as a catalyst for positive change.