Who will be the next generation of technology millionaires?

(Image: “IT is innovation” by Frank Allan Hansen)

A few years ago I attended a dinner debate hosted by the British Computer Society about the future of technology careers in the UK. At the time, I’d recently written a report for IBM UK on the subject. The common motivation was to explore the effect of globalisation on the UK’s IT industry.

Despite the continuing emergence of high quality technology industries around the world, the local demand for technology skills in the UK was then, and is now, increasing. The secret to understanding the seeming contradiction is twofold.

Firstly, consider which specific skills are required, and why. To cut a long story short, the ones that are needed on-shore in countries with high wages such as the UK are the ones most closely tied to agile innovation in local economic and cultural markets, or to the operation of critical infrastructures (such as water, roads and energy) or operations (such as banking and law enforcement).

Secondly, the more fundamental point is that we’re living through an Information Revolution that is increasing in pace and impact. That means the demand for science, technology, mathematics and information skills is going through the roof across the board. As  evidence, consider this article from McKinsey on the hidden “Information Economy”; or the claim that 90% of the information in the world was created in the last two years (widely referenced, e.g. by this article in Forbes); or that IBM now employs more mathematics PhD holders than any other organisation in the world.

At the BCS debate, a consultant from Capgemini introduced the evening by describing his meeting that morning with a group of London-based internet entrepreneurs. These people were young (20-25), successful (owning and running businesses worth £millions), and fiercely technology literate.

Today, I wonder if the same meeting would be held with internet entrepreneurs? In ten years time, I certainly don’t think it will be – they’ll be genetic engineers, nano-technologists, or experts in some field we can’t imagine yet. Of course, there are already many early entrepreneurs exploring those fields, as was shown in Adam Rutherford’s recent BBC Horizon documentary “Playing God”  (see this video or this review).

I’ve blogged recently about the importance of skills, education and localism to the future of our cities’ and country’s economies. This leads me to believe that more important than addressing the UK’s shortfall in IT skills (as reported by e-Skills last year) is understanding how to systematically integrate the teaching of technology, science, creative and business skills across schools, universities and vocational education. Further, that needs to be done in a way that’s responsive to the changes that will come to the sciences and technologies that have the most power to compliment the unique economy, geography and culture of the British isles.

This is already a problem for the UK economy. The e-Skills report found that UK businesses are nearly 10% less productive than US ones; and that 80% of that gap is down to less effective use of technology. Their research predicts that closing the technology gap could contribute £50bn to the UK economy over 5-7 years. But their finding that the British Education system provides less than 20% of the technology skills we need today means that closing the gap will be hard.

As the information revolution proceeds, the problem will get worse. And unless we do something about it in an enlightened way that recognises that the science and technology skills we’ll need in 10 years time are not the IT skills that are familiar to us today, we’ll fail to address it.

I was born in 1970; for me, the Tandy TRS80 computer my family bought in 1980 was a technological marvel, with its 16k RAM and graphic resolution of 128×48 pixels (all of them green). Today, my 3 year old son is growing up with a high resolution smartphone touchscreen as an unremarkable part of his world. By the time he’s of working age, the world will be unrecognisable – as will the skills he’ll require to be successful in it.

From the earliest years, we need to be exciting children in the mixture of creativity; abstract thinking and modelling; mathematics, technology, art and entrepreneurialism that are apparent now in such forums as TED. (www.ted.com). Whatever their interest and acumen, we need to give them the opportunity to find their own niche in that range of cross-disciplinary skills that will be economically valuable in the future. If we don’t, they won’t be ready to find jobs in the industries of the future when the computer programming industry, and others as we know them today, disappear.

Smarter Regional Priorities in Mature European Economies

(Photo of Sunderland Civic Centre at night by Paul Boxley)

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent weeks thinking about “Smarter Regions”. Smarter Regions are similar to the “Smarter Cities” concept shared by IBM and many other organisations; but they’re different in one obvious way and one not-so-obvious way – particularly in mature economies such as those of Western Europe.

A lot of the focus in Smarter Cities is concerned with instrumenting and interconnecting physical systems – such as utilities, transport and buildings – with the intelligence represented by IT systems, especially operational control and decision support tools. Solutions based on those ideas can deliver tremendous benefits, such as the congestion charging system that IBM and our partners have implemented for Stockholm.

However, in European cities, the business cases for investing in such systems are complicated, to put it mildly. Transportation, utilities and buildings are often operated by private sector organisations subject to a plethora of contractual and franchise obligations and oversight regimes; whereas the benefits of such systems – for example, reduced environental impact of city systems, and reducing the barriers to economic and productivity growth – often relate to medium to long term goals of local government organisations. Those cities – such as Stockholm and London – that have made such investments tend to be driven by what could be called “survival” concerns. They have identified a clear and pressing threat to their city systems and economies – in these cases, severe traffic congestion limiting economic growth – that must be addressed.

Smarter Regions are similar to Smarter Cities in that they seek to exploit advances in our ability to integrate and analyse information from a rich variety of systems and sources. But they are different in two ways:

  • Firstly, and obviously, whilst all cities are regions, not all regions are cities. Regions are broader, more diverse economic, geographical, political and social systems.
  • Secondly, in mature economies at least, regional priorities are concerned with a different set of systems. Their priorities are often economic growth; supporting ageing populations; and reducing the cost of their administrative, financial and public service operations whilst improving the outcomes that they deliver

Examples of initiatives addressing these priorities include IBM’s work in Bolzano, Italy, providing remote home monitoring and healthcare services in sheltered accommodation; our work with Medway Youth Trust in the UK, helping them to transform youth services to a predictive, preventative model; our “Smarter Cities Challenge” project in the city of Glasgow investigating fuel poverty; the Municipal Services Cloud that IBM Research developed for the State of New York to help small councils across the State reduce costs and implement “joined-up working”; and, of course, the Cloud Computing platform that IBM and Sunderland City Council announced last week, that will be used to deliver services and capabilities to stimulate growth and innovation in the City’s economy and public services, and that I blogged about recently.

In recent years, we’ve seen terrific pressure on regional administrations in the UK driven by the overall cuts in public sector budgets. Financial pressures in the Eurozone  area create similar drivers on the continent; and in the US the rising costs to public organisations of healthcare and pension liabilities to past and current employees created by ageing populations cause huge cost pressure too.

Despite all this, global competition for private sector investment and job creation are causing regions to seek ways to invest in addressing these challenges. Slowly but surely we are learning how to build business cases to justify those investments – often based on technologies that can both reduce internal operational costs and enable improved external outcomes (see this set of examples from IBM’s customers, for example).

There’s no panacea or silver bullet here; every region is different in its economic, social, political, financial, geographic and environmental characteristics (not to mention others that I’ve forgotten). All of those have to be taken into account when constructing business cases for Smarter Regional solutions.

But I have a sense that we’ve passed a tipping point in the build-up of momentum in this area; and I think we’re going to see a lot more exciting projects and initiatives announced by Cities and Regions in Europe over the next year.

It’s a great time to be a technologist working in local government.

The need for technology and mathematical skills in a Smarter Planet with Open Data

In amongst all the great discussions of Smarter Water, Smarter Transportation, Open Data and other themes at this week’s Science of Smarter Cities Colloquium in IBM’s new Research Lab in Dublin, an interesting theme has emerged that’s been on my mind for some time.

Many discussions have focussed on the huge importance of processing, analysis and acting on data and information in the Smarter Planet that’s gradually emerging around us as more and more of the physical world is instrumented, interconnected and automated. Imperial College’s work on disruptive business platforms includes the new commercial opportunities – some of them highly disruptive – that this information is making possible. And McKinsey recently wrote a fascinating paper on a similar subject – the emerging “Information Economy”.

A vital consequence of this is renewed – or even wholly new – demand for the skills required to manipulate and understand information. I’m talking about mathematics, statistics and computer programming here, amongst others. Unless it’s prepared by a numerate communication expert, data is often very difficult to understand and interpret. And communication experts may also have their own agenda in determining how they prepare data. And quite simply, we need more people able to undertake that sort of work – people with mathematical and technical skills. Some of the speakers from transport organisations at the colloquium this week have spoken directly of needing more of those skills.

The problem is that in the UK, we’re not producing enough of them. Google’s Chairman Eric Schmidt recently lambasted the British Education system for not producing enough computer programmers to feed demand in the creative industries vital for economic growth; and the recent Nesta report on the UK’s computer gaming industry cited the same issue as a reason for that industry’s recent decline in the global market.

City leaders understand this; Hanna Zdanowska, the Mayor of Lodz in Poland, spoke this morning of the importance of young skilled people to city economies, particularly as european populations age. (Lodz have amazing plans for regenerating their physical infrastructure and optimising their city systems, by the way, it was a great talk).

So what can we do about this? In yesterday’s Open Data discussion, Christopher Gutteridge, who’s behind Southampton University’s Open Data programme, said that we needed to encourage more “playful coding”. I think that phrase hit the nail on the head.

Our world is at the stage where technologies that can be manipulated by any human being who learns the basics of computing programming are becoming terrifically powerful. At the same time, the information that those technologies control is the lifeblood of our economy and society. For us to educate people without giving them the ability to participate in that system is surely a terrible folly for our children and our economy.

A fellow visiting academic at the University of Warwick, Jonnie Turpie who’s the Digital Media Director of Maverick TV, introduced me recently to the Birmingham Ormiston Academy. BOA is a new school that’s intended to teach creative and digital arts by exposing young people directly to small enterprises in that industry. I think it’s a great idea, and an example of the sort of way we could teach young people the skills to exploit information and technology in a way that’s exciting, challenging – and directly builds the skills we will need for the future.

%d bloggers like this: