To paraphrase the shortest verse in the Bible1, I cried. Well, an emotional tear or two came to my eye anyway. In part this was down to pride and, in part, from reflection. Pride as my daughter starts a new life at university and reflection as I wonder where the last eighteen years went. However, her new found independence was briefly punctured as she phoned home to be talked through the practicality of connecting her computer to the internet. This got me thinking about the difference between knowing how something works and knowing how to use it – the latter being where my daughter can teach me a few tricks.
Take cloud computing for example; the government’s G-Cloud program – the cloud computing initiative that will, amongst other things, reduce public sector IT costs through data centre consolidation and a single applications store – will become a hot topic for debate in IT circles and, no doubt, in the media. But Telecom TV recently reported the findings of a survey2 that revealed only 22% of US consumers are familiar with the term ‘cloud computing’. This despite 76% of those surveyed admitting to using cloud based services. This sparked a flash debate amongst my colleagues with the predominant view being that, for consumers in general, it’s more important for them to know how to use a service than it is to understand the nuts and bolts of it. I tend to agree though maybe not for the same reasons as my colleagues. And that reason is innovation.
There’s no doubt we are indebted to the brilliance and inventiveness of our engineers but I contend that innovation rests as much with the user communities who push the limits of existing technology and with the visionary person whose aspiration lies beyond current technological boundaries as it does with technologists. After all, JFK’s goal to put a man on the moon was not based on what was technologically possible when he made his speech in 1961. However, his vision was responsible for a culture of innovation across much of the following decade.
The UK public sector can rightly claim to push the boundaries in terms of scale, but I question if it’s using the clout its £16.5BN3 annual ICT spend gives it to set visionary goals that force the pace of innovation in our industry. Professor Andrew McNaughton, the chief Engineer of HS2 Ltd, in giving evidence to the Transport Committee, tells a cautionary tale against ‘designing to the limits of the day’. In essence, long term projects should assume there will be advances in technology and factor these in at the design stage. But, as the JFK moon-landing vision demonstrated, to really drive innovation the constraints of today must be challenged head on.
Earlier this year, the Cabinet Office published nine documents in support of its G-Cloud Programme. The Founding Principles paper elegantly outlines the financial case for moving to a cloud environment and it’s important to seize the opportunity to make savings. But, as my colleague Nigel Stephenson points out in his blog, the cloud is about more than just reducing cost. Nigel infers a balanced cloud equation must also look at how it can change the user experience. Despite a nod to the fact that better citizen services will result from cloud services, the Cabinet Office strategy does not paint a vision of what these might look like. Consequently, these services will become constrained by the limits of today’s technology. The opportunity to force innovation has been missed.
Some might hold up specific public sector IT programmes as an argument against government innovation. But I’d argue this is more about getting adequate protection through the right contracting vehicle. I’d also argue the public sector should set more creative goals and demonstrate that innovation is not the sole province of technologists. When the online gaming company OnLive came to Juniper Networks with a revolutionary new concept for online gaming and a desire to create something that didn’t yet exist, it was their vision that helped to fuel further innovation in our new network. I believe the public sector can learn from this kind of experience and become more adventurous in their vision for the delivery of online citizen services four or five years out.
What role should government have in driving innovation? How, as citizens, can we influence the public sector to become more innovative? And how bold do we feel as online citizens anyway? What is the balance between technology driven innovation and user driven innovation? What is the case for service innovation versus cost savings? Can we afford to invest in innovative solutions in times of austerity?
1 King James Bible, Gospel According to John, chapter 11, verse 35.
2 NPD Group, Press Release for the NPD group Digital Software and the Cloud Report 2011, August 2011.
3 The Cabinet Office, Public Services Network web page, 2011.
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