Ed Vaizey, the UK’s digital economy minister, has asked for input on the government’s digital strategy by 19th January 2016. Following a dinner discussion in London with various interested parties, convened by Nico Macdonald under the auspices of ‘BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation’, I’m contributing the following thoughts and 7 recommendations. Please note that while the impetus was UK-centric, the gathering’s outlook was rather broader and may also interest those in the international MEX community addressing similar issues in their own countries.
Progress occurs most rapidly when we consider how we can each make a unique contribution or where, through collaboration, our individual skills might combine with others to become greater than the sum of their parts. Applied to the government’s digital strategy, this logic requires we identify where government itself is uniquely equipped to help citizens derive benefit from digital and how it can facilitate a collaborative environment in which others are empowered to act more effectively together.
The potential of digital challenges us to think bigger than traditional boundaries of industry sectors, government departments or even national geographies.
The potential of digital challenges us to think bigger than traditional boundaries of industry sectors, government departments or even national geographies. Indeed, it is when digital technologies enable previously disparate entities to unite that they are most potent in bringing benefit to citizens. For example, the race among consumer electronics manufacturers to develop tiny camera sensors for casual smartphone photography had the wonderful side effect of producing a supply of cheap and plentiful components allowing for more portable, lower cost medical devices.
Examples like this, when expertise is freed from previous confines within specific industries, countries or job roles, offer a blueprint for future innovation.
To bring meaning to the notion of ‘Digital Britain’, the government should recognise the greatest benefits to citizens will come if it strives to transcend this term. ‘Digital’ should not be an aim in itself, but rather employed as a platform for progress when it is shown to be most effective. With the word ‘Britain’, we should recognise the national interest is furthered by embracing the notion digital enables citizens to access new global opportunities, perhaps quite different to the familiar benefits of being members of individual nation states.
My unique privilege has been to spend 20 years observing and collaborating with a community of digital pioneers drawn from widely varying sectors and countries. This network, which has become known as ‘MEX‘ and meets at twice yearly events in London, thrives on diverse contributions ranging from students to CEOs and performance artists to data scientists. For all this variety, the network shares a common interest: better digital design through deeper understanding of human behaviour.
I would not presume to speak on behalf of all those who’ve participated in the MEX community over the years, but my views have inevitably been shaped by what I’ve learned from these contributors.
I believe government should pursue 7 objectives to bring digital benefits to citizens:
- When digital progress brings existing regulations into question, government should improve the speed at which it can safely and efficiently re-evaluate policy. For instance, developments such as ‘drone deliveries’ – cited in the government’s request for input – raise necessarily complex questions spanning numerous areas from public safety to air traffic control. New approaches may be needed to ensure government is responsive to evaluating change and therefore capable of responding to citizens’ desire for progress in a timely fashion.
- Recognise that the legacy of policies in rapidly evolving areas like digital will impact future generations with fundamentally different understandings of technology. By definition, policies on ‘innovation’ will be implemented by those who perceive these matters to be novel; however, it is future generations, for whom these ‘innovations’ will simply be seen as a natural part of everyday life, who will live with the consequences.
- Encourage digital skill sharing across traditional boundaries. Breakthroughs occur when seemingly intractable problems are illuminated by tangential learnings. It should become routine for those in, say, aerospace to apply digital best practices from another sector like pharmaceuticals.
- Discourage protectionism within specific industries and geographies. No industry should presume it will be artificially isolated when digital progress offers better alternatives for citizens.
- Expedite policies which allow traditional arts and crafts to evolve and contribute, not whither. The rich history of creative expertise in Britain is invaluable and as integral to citizens as future technology. It is best preserved by encouraging collaborations which ensure it remains alive, continually evolving and included with new digital developments.
- Encourage wider dialogue between education, industry and government at every level. For instance, both industry and universities would be better served by ongoing collaboration to pre-emptively adapt undergraduate courses before digital skills shortages can occur. Similarly, companies should be incentivised to ensure ongoing career professional development of digital skills is a routine expectation.
- Encourage public services to lead by example in digital usability. This approach should embrace best practice methods at all stages, from the latest co-creative user research methods, to interface design. No public service should launch without applying the most rigorous user-centred design methods or without a remit for the kind of long-term, iterative usability enhancements digital can facilitate.
With thanks to Nico Macdonald and ‘BIG POTATOES: The London Manifesto for Innovation’ for encouraging participation and convening a diverse, informed group for discussion of these matters (kindly hosted by DigitasLBi).