Five for Friday (2/6/17)

Here’s five dollops of interestingness I’ve spotted this week:

  1. There’s a few interesting digital (and non-digital, for that matter) jobs going at London City Hall.
  2. Digital Transformation: Why Tech Alone Won’t Cut It – a useful reminder that digital and transformation are not necessarily technical terms. Human behaviour and culture are key.
  3. Where terrorists go to chat – thoughtful stuff from Hadley Beeman on security, encryption and the role of government
  4. Not even wrong – ways to dismiss technology – nice long read on technology adoption and why predictions around what will be the next big thing are often (not even) wrong
  5. Lessons from piloting the London Office of Data Analytics – Eddie Copeland talks about data issues at scale:

These have mostly all been tweeted during the week, and you can find everything I’ve found interesting and bookmarked here.

The Innovators – lessons from the digital revolution

innovators

I’ve just finished a rather excellent book, The Innovators by Walter Isaacson.

It takes a wonderfully long term view of digital – starting with Charles Babbage and Ada Lovelace and ending with Larry and Sergei in more recent times. I thoroughly recommend it.

At the end is a magnificent concluding chapter, identifying the lessons that the history of computers offers to those wanting to innovate themselves. They may, perhaps, be surprising.

Firstly, creativity is a collaborative process. The notion of a lone innovator is essentially a myth. Individuals do have ideas of course, but to make them happen they need to be a member of a team. Solo brilliance just isn’t enough.

A good (or, rather, bad) example of this in the book is William Shockley, a brilliant mind who made several vital intellectual leaps in the development of the transistor, but whose personal style meant he was unable to take people with him and was a poor collaborator.

The team needs to bring together people with different skills and complementary styles. One common arrangement is to have a visionary paired with a great operations person – the two Steves at Apple are a classic example of this. Jobs provided the vision and Wozniak did the actual doing.

Another lesson from the book is that truly innovative ideas take root when nobody seeks the credit – whether as organisations or as individuals. The internet is a great example of this. When Vint Cerf and colleagues were writing the specifications for the protocols that would establish the Internet, they called them ‘requests for comment’ rather than anything more formal. It made all those involved feel ownership of the process and so encouraged them to fall in line.

Third, money is not always the primary motivation in digital innovation. The digital revolution was spurred on by three main groups – government, private enterprise and communities and each was as important as the other in the story.

The US government in particular, through the military, provided the funding for the research to take place to develop new ideas. private enterprises then sprung up to develop them into products. Meanwhile, others through a process of what Yochai Benkler refers to as “commons based peer production” helped to figure out what all this meant for individuals and communities, which created the use cases for the technology and also developed new ideas themselves.

Only one of those groups has profit as its primary motivation. That’s not to denigrate private enterprise’s role at all – it is vital and few if any of the innovations would have worked without it. However, societal and community focused benefits matter just as much and are an important part of the mix that generates disruptive change.

Finally, and perhaps most interestingly, many of those involved in the digital revolution were not “just” engineers, or scientists. A common thread is an appreciation of the arts as much as the sciences. Perhaps best exemplified by Steve Jobs’ idea of Apple being at the “intersection of technology and the liberal arts”, artistic creativity is a core driver of innovations. This takes us all the way back to Ada Lovelace and her description of Babbage’s early computer as being “poetical science”.

This creativity is still the one thing that humans can do much better than machines, which leads us to another of Isaacson’s lessons, which is that people and computers working together in a kind of symbiosis is where the real sweet spot in digital innovation lies, rather than in artificial intelligence. Instead of trying to make machines that act like humans, we should leave the computers to do what they are good at – crunching through data and calculations – which frees up the people to do the creative, intuitive bit that machines struggle with so much.

Great innovation, then, is a balance – between art and science, between individual brilliance and collaboration, between humans and machines. Something well worth thinking about and bearing in mind as we head into a new year.

Episode 6 – Esko Reinikainen

The podcast is back, BACK, BAAAAAAAAAAACK!

I’m joined in this episode by Esko Reinikainen, of the Satori Lab.

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Here’s a link to download the original mp3 file if you would like to do that.

If you would like to subscribe to the podcast in your favourite podcasting app, the feed is http://davebriggs.libsyn.com/rss or you can find the podcast on iTunes.

Show notes and related links (in a slightly jumbled order):

Hope you enjoy it!

Accelerators, intrapreneurs and changing organisations for the better

Lucy Watt shares an excellent, honest post on the FutureGov blog about their learning from the PSLaunchpad project.

Having regularly spoken to one of the teams on the launchpad, Martin Howitt and Lucy Knight from Devon, I’m aware of the transformative impact the experience had on them, and their attitude to work.

As Martin himself reflects in one of his own blog posts about the Launchpad, there are some pretty big takeaways for local government as a whole from a process like this.

There is undoubtedly a tension between existing Council culture and the sort of thinking and process that accelerators typify. I don’t personally believe that there will be another PS Launchpad that involves local government in the same way. I think we are more likely to see a specifically local government version of it instead and this is something I would strongly advocate and be keen to be involved with in some capacity.

Lots of the conversations I am having with people across government – but particularly in councils – is about how traditionally bureaucratic, process heavy organisations can move quickly: make speedy decisions, get new products and services out faster, learn from feedback and respond in a timely fashion.

Being in a process like an accelerator such as PSLaunchpad provides many of the skills and experiences needed to answer these questions. Being told you have to ship something in two weeks, being advised from feedback that you’ve built the wrong thing and need to pivot quickly, having the authority to make decisions and plot a course accordingly yourself, without lengthy governance processes.

But not everyone can spend weeks out of the office on a programme like this – in fact, it’s probably impractical for many more than a handful in any one organisation.

Perhaps the answer is to run this type of programme internally, to embed it into people’s work. Got a change project on the go? Run it within an internal accelerator. Set some boundaries and some rules, put those working on it in a different room and let them get on with it. Put them in touch with potential mentors who have completed similar projects before, in the same sector and in different sectors.

It doesn’t have to be difficult, it doesn’t have to cost any money. It’s just a case of trying something different and not doing things the same way they always have been.

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

A red tape challenge for public servants? Or an internal GDS?

At the DH digital champions summit on Tuesday, during the afternoon open space session, an interesting discussion broke out. One among many, I’m sure!

Anyway, what was being discussed was the sheer unusability of government systems and processes. Only, not the ones that the public uses, but the ones that civil servants use.

I’ve worked in enough local councils, quangos and central government departments to know that the vast majority of IT systems in use are pretty dreadful. Clunky, and rarely fit for purpose, they seem to exist just to make life more difficult for those using them.

Likewise those processes yet to be digitised. How hard is it to bring in a temporary member of staff to get a job done? Sometimes the paperwork is so over the top, it’s quicker to do whatever it is yourself rather than get the extra body in.

It’s absurd and clearly must be a factor in the difficulty in getting stuff done within government.

The Red Tape Challenge is a crowdsourced effort within government to get rid of the burden of bureaucracy on businesses and citizens. It appears to have had some success in identifying areas where things could move a little quicker, smoother, and maybe with fewer dockets.

There’s also been a lot of focus – rightly – on the user experience for citizen and customer facing interactions. The work that GDS is doing in this area shows that it can be done.

I do wonder though whether a similar approach ought to be being taken to internal systems, across government. Maybe a red tape challenge style thing, where public servants can identify the particularly crappy systems and processes that make their lives a misery – and get them fixed.

Or maybe we need a black ops style skunkworks, wielding the knife on some of the more monstrous forms of obstructive paperwork and dreadful databases. Taking a similar user-focused approach to that which GDS – and many other public facing services – are using to such great effect.

There must be at least much opportunity here, to improve efficiency and save money, as there is in making things easier for the citizen?

Update: This here looks interesting – via @pubstrat

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to:

Link roundup

I find this stuff so you don’t have to: