The BCS Engineering and Technology Forum and the BCS Management Forum are launching the FutureTech.FutureSoc blog. Edward Truch explains more.

The rate of change in the business world continues to accelerate. This well worn phrase is once again confirmed by the latest CEO study from IBM 'Enterprise of the Future' published in November 2008 which points to no let up in the pace of change. This global study of over 1,000 CEOs finds that nearly all are adapting their business models and two-thirds are implementing extensive innovations.

CEOs are moving aggressively toward global business designs, deeply changing capabilities and partnering more extensively. The report finds that CEOs have moved beyond the cliché of globalisation and organisations of all sizes are reconfiguring to take advantage of global integration opportunities.

Developments such as cloud computing remind us of IBM's CEO Tom Watson who reputedly said in the early 1940s, 'I think there is a world market for about five computers'. The subsequent proliferation of computers, both mainframes and later PCs, has accelerated ever since.

Watson's prediction is suddenly looking less far-fetched, as we see convergence of data storage and consolidation of computing power by both governments and the private sector. Apparently, some researchers at IBM now believe that five computers may be four too many. Some commentators point to a new revolution in the air. As we upload our lives into cyberspace, we are beginning to unleash the full potential of the internet.

Such changes not only involve technology, but fundamentally change the ways in which organisations function and need to be led and managed. It is ever more important to look at organisations from a much broader perspective and to take into account the socio-technical aspects of IT systems design and implementation, as well as the broader economic and societal implications.

As the development of technology continues to accelerate, our understanding of the social and organisational implications lags further behind.

Ever since the industrial revolution sociotechnical theories have attempted to describe the interrelatedness of social and technical aspects of organisations. One of the main principles is that the interaction of these factors creates the conditions for successful (or unsuccessful) organisational performance. These interactions tend to be complex and non-linear and often lead to unpredictable relationships and outcomes.

Optimisation of either aspect alone (social or technical) tends to increase not only the number of unpredictable and un-designed relationships, but can be damaging to the system's overall performance. What matters is joint optimisation that takes into account multiple perspectives and 'minds the gap' between the social and technical domains.

It is for these reasons that the BCS Engineering and Technology Forum and the BCS Management Forum are jointly launching the FutureTech.FutureSoc initiative to develop new socio-technical perspectives of the future. The main objective is to help IT professionals as well as public policy makers to navigate the future and translate new insights into the design and implementation of ICTenabled systems.

This initiative builds on the IT-2057 project launched in 2007 by the BCS Management Forum, chaired at that time by Gill Ringland. The project brought together experts from around the world to make a series of short films looking forward in time over the next 50 years and the role of IT in shaping the world of 2057. Themes included:

  • What will the world be like in 2057?
  • What will be the IT challenges in health, transport, education and enterprise?
  • How will they impact on the individual and society?

The success of the project demonstrated the need for more future-focused activities and led to the creation of FutureTech.FutureSoc.

Visions of the future

According to Philip Hargrave, chair of the BCS Engineering and Technology Forum, the BCS, as the leading professional body in the world of IT, should be debating, forming and promulgating a vision of the future. FutureTech.FutureSoc will run alongside the many other future-focused activities in the BCS and will aim to draw these together and to supplement them.

In order to develop views of the future that are continuously updated the project team, chaired by Carl Bate - VP and CTO of Capgemini UK, has decided to launch the project as a blog led by a group of four experts. Philip Hargrave comments that using blogs is an exciting idea as we will be using our own technology to work out our own futures.

Blogs are taking off all around the world and are finding practical applications. The advantage of a blog is that it allows a dialogue to take place. Many position and futurology papers involve sending out a draft, obtaining a number of responses, processing these through a series of drafting iterations and converging on a fixed view or alternative scenarios.

In contrast with this approach, using a blog will maintain a divergent approach that continues to bring in fresh thinking. People will continue to agree or disagree and either a consensus or majority view will emerge. This will be continuously under review and we might even see views changing over time. That would enable us to track how and why views are changing - something that would not be achieved with a single paper or report.

The blog will be open to all members of the BCS to read and comment on and possibly extended further once it has taken off. It needs to be inclusive and to bring in as many different viewpoints as possible.

Getting to the untapped views Carl Bate explains that the idea behind the FutureTech.FutureSoc initiative aims to access the untapped professional views of BCS members and to help other groups share their views and ideas of the future. Starting with a blog it may evolve into a number of communities with common interests.

Each blogger will have an over-arching topic within a general framework of themes. These will be aligned with their own areas of interest and specialism. Initially, these are likely to cover topics such as complexity, business and society, web sciences and hot topics from BERR and the Technology Strategy Board.

The founding panel of four bloggers, each a leading expert in a different but related area of ICT, will be constituted as follows:

Dave Cliff - professor of computer science at the University of Bristol whose career includes working as a research scientist at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, HP labs and Deutsche Bank. He is also director of the UK Research and Training Initiative in large-scale complex IT systems.

Zoe Lock - lead technologist for information and communications technology (ICT) at the Technology Strategy Board. Activities include the development of a UK technology strategy for ICT which was launched in Oct 2008. Formerly a senior researcher at QinetiQ, interests include innovation in ICT and benefit for the UK from socio-economic perspectives.

Kieron O'Hara - senior research fellow at the School of Electronics and Computer Science, University of Southampton. Interests lie in the philosophy and politics of technology, particularly in the semantic web, organisation of knowledge and effects on society. Author of several books including Plato and the Internet.

Chris Yapp - senior strategy consultant at Capgemini. Former roles at Fujitsu-ICL, HP and Microsoft involved acting as a senior advisor to ministerial and parliamentary think tanks. He has been responsible for the development of strategies for major ICT-related projects in education, public sector reform and creative industries.

This powerful team of experts will lead the FutureTech.FutureSoc ongoing discussions on our socio-technical futures to build new and fresh visions of the future. 

Edward Truch is past Chair of the BCS Management Forum.

The FutureTech.FutureSoc initiative aims to access the untapped professional views of BCS members. The main objective is to help IT professionals and policy makers to navigate the future and translate new insights into the design and implementation of ICT-enabled systems.