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29 Feb 16

It’s impossible to prepare for all future technologies – but thinking about what issues can be worked on now will reap dividends

Every 60 seconds, 103 hours of YouTube content is uploaded, and 4.1 million Google searches, 347,000 tweets and 461,000 Facebook logins are made. We are using and developing technologies rapidly.

Once, technology was very expensive and only large organisations could afford the latest kit, but those days have long gone. The consumerisation of technology has made it relatively inexpensive, and governments and public services are now struggling to keep up with citizens. They seem to be constantly on the back foot as citizens’ take-up and expectations of technology outstrip the public sector’s ability to use, regulate and exploit it.

Our privacy laws, for example, were not developed with an expectation that you could secretly video someone in private and immediately upload it and share it with the world. Similarly, our taxation and intellectual property laws did not envisage a world where you can instantly access and play millions of songs, or buy and download a product that is owned, delivered and invoiced by a firm that is resident in the UK but pays no UK tax.

Part of the answer must be for the public sector to use the analytic skills and networks already available to better anticipate the types of changes coming over the horizon and prepare now.

Without doubt, unimagined, disruptive technologies will appear over the coming years but there are many issues that can be thought about today. Cloud computing, big data, analytics, mobile computing, the Internet of Things and social media are already here – do we understand how best to exploit them and spot potential dangers?

Take the Internet of Things (July/August 2015, bit.ly/1SSSAeW). In every town, there will soon be thousands of sensors collecting data on climate, air quality, traffic flows, transport, energy use, flood control and much more. Do you know what information is available or will soon be collected by other organisations that might help you to plan and monitor services? Do you have standards and protocols for sharing and publishing? Are there things you shouldn’t be sharing? Are you looking at ways to build automated monitoring and communications into projects and services?

Looking slightly further forward, there are predictions that call centre staff will increasingly be replaced by question-answering systems, big data analytics and pattern recognition software. Are there areas of your business where you can safely begin to experiment with these types of technologies?

Gazing even further over the horizon, there are fast-developing plans for driverless vehicles, drones for civil reconnaissance and the possible use of robots to assist with health and social care. There are potentially massive implications for infrastructure planning, regulation and public safety as well as for cost reduction, new ways of working and innovative services. Who is thinking about these?

Many in public services will say they have to stay grounded and don’t have time for such fanciful thinking as they are too busy dealing with today’s problems of underfunding, rising workloads and a lack of resources. I understand and sympathise, but investing a little time now could provide a big payback. It could be like investing in a sprinkler system when you spend a lot of time fire fighting.
 

  • John Thornton
    John Thornton

    John Thornton is the director of e-ssential Resources and an independent adviser on business transformation, financial management and innovation.

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