A couple of new stickers I have had printed.

Design, Make, Learn and digital socialism stickers

The first carries a Design-Make-Learn loop. These were designed a couple of weeks back during my sabbatical.

We had drawn a diagram to explain the lean design loop, and just wrapped the words round a circle. Time in Illustrator: 15 minutes. Someone knew a decent localish printer. Sent artwork at 3pm, picked up early the next day. We did them as a leave-behind, a reminder of smaller, quicker thinking-making-feedback loops which we were doing in a place that didn’t do that too much. Something something transformation something something. The visual design is not bang on, but done is better than perfect, eh. It was also fun to see which word people chose to put at the top. Design, make, or learn. (Or at least I try to tell myself that their choice means something.)

Anyway, I posted a pic of the sticker on Twitter after we got them. People wanted some. So I have done a run of them.

You can get one here.

The second: I recently read Kevin Kelley’s The Inevitable. If you don’t know who Kelley is, he was one of the founders of Wired. The Inevitable is a great book.

In one of the chapter’s Kelley brings up Clay Shirky’s idea of “digital socialism”, the hierarchy of sharing, cooperation, collaboration, collectivism. The theory is cribbed from Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. (Sideline: Shirky’s Little Rice is one of the best shorter reads I have taken in over recent years.)

On first read of this chapter in Kelley’s book I thought I was re-reading the chapter. Did I read this last night when I was really tired and forgot? But then I remembered I’d read Kelley’s original piece on Shirky’s thoughts in Wired years ago. You can read Kelley’s piece online here. I realised that because I searched my Evernote notes. Cribbed notes on this – and a loose idea for a poster I’d forgotten. I’ve just lifted the design, squared it out a bit, and got it printed onto a clear background.

You can get one here.


Original source – Simon Wilson

Automation is just one facet on the broader spectrum of AI and machine intelligence. Yes, it’s going to affect us all (it already is with the increasing emergence of intelligent agents and bots), but I think there is a far deeper issue here that – at least for the majority of people who haven’t become immersed in the “AI” meme – is going largely unnoticed. That is, the very nature of human knowledge and how we understand the world. Machines are now doing things that – quite simply – we don’t understand, and probably never will.

I think most of us are familiar with the DIKW model (over-simplification if ever there was), but if you ascribe to this relationship between data, information, knowledge and wisdom, I think the top layers – knowledge and wisdom – are getting compressed by our growing dependencies on the bottom two layers – data and information. What will the DIKW model look like in 20 years time? I’m thinking a barely perceptible “K” and “W” layers!

If you think this is a rather outrageous prediction, I recommend reading this article from David Weinberger, who looks at how machines are rapidly outstripping our puny human abilities to understand them. And it seems we’re quite happy with this situation, since being fairly lazy by nature, we’re more than happy to let them make complex decisions for us. We just need to feed them the data – and there’s plenty of that about!

This quote from the piece probably best sums it up:

As long as our computer models instantiated our own ideas, we could preserve the illusion that the world works the way our knowledge —and our models?—?do. Once computers started to make their own models, and those models surpassed our mental capacity, we lost that comforting assumption. Our machines have made obvious our epistemological limitations, and by providing a corrective, have revealed a truth about the universe. 

The world didn’t happen to be designed, by God or by coincidence, to be knowable by human brains. The nature of the world is closer to the way our network of computers and sensors represent it than how the human mind perceives it. Now that machines are acting independently, we are losing the illusion that the world just happens to be simple enough for us wee creatures to comprehend

We thought knowledge was about finding the order hidden in the chaos. We thought it was about simplifying the world. It looks like we were wrong. Knowing the world may require giving up on understanding it.

Should we be worried? I think so – do you?

The post The depreciating value of human knowledge appeared first on Communities & Collaboration.

Original source – Steve Dale online


Instead of a new buzzing civic hub as promised in 2006, Cambridge Station development has ended up as a place where Cambridge Police now have to direct extra resources – at taxpayers’ expense.

In 2006 this was what was promised – and got planning permission.

Then the original developer (Ashwells) went into administration, a new developer emerged from the ashes (Brookgate), and the next thing we know the commitments for the public civic square evaporate and we’re left with a site that has crammed in as many people as possible onto a small a site as possible, and to no one’s surprise, local council meetings now regularly have reports from the police about criminal activities in the area.

T/DI Nick Skipworth reports about women being trafficked into ‘pop up brothels’ on the CB1 estate by Cambridge Railway Station.

At the same meeting (see the papers here), we heard how the same developers had applied for funding to mitigate the problems created – ones that should have been designed out rather than as they had done, designed in.

Sam Davies’ questions to Cambridge councillors in South Cambridge. 

Two former Mayors of Cambridge, Cllrs Rob Dryden and Russ MacPherson were scathing in their attacks on the developer Brookgate, stating that Brookgate should pay for the mitigation themselves.

Angry – Cllr Rob Dryden (Labour – Cherry Hinton)

Former Conservative councillor for Coleridge Ward Chris Howell blogged back in 2008 about the problems of the various designs of the buildings around the station.

A tragedy he was ignored. See his blogpost here.

Furthermore, Richard Taylor also wrote extensively about the problems of the developments – see here. See also the various posts by local historian Allan Brigham on his FB page Town Not Gown Tours.

I noted the corporate investors behind the CB1 development are these:

Post-development evaluations

One of the things I’ve not seen much of is any evaluation of the new developments in Cambridge – in particular surveying the people who move into the new developments. One thing I’d like to see councillors commissioning are evaluations of developments. For this one given its scale and given the issues raised by the police repeatedly in recent times, there need to be some serious soul-searching and lessons not just learnt but applied by the various institutions concerned – including housing ministers and The Treasury.

Profits 2015 & 2016 from Group of Companies Accounts Jan 2017

Because in somewhere like Cambridge, the financial incentives are as such that it’ll happen again and again.

Original source – A dragon’s best friend

This piece on “Imitating people’s speech patterns precisely could bring trouble” in the Economist caught my eye. It mentions a new technology that means

any voice—including that of a stranger—can be cloned if decent recordings are available on YouTube or elsewhere

To emphasise the problems this creates, it goes on to mention that

When tested against voice-biometrics software like that used by many banks to block unauthorised access to accounts, more than 80% of the fake voices tricked the computer.

Not exactly welcome news for those organisations that assume voice recognition can be used to identify users. Back to the drawing board time. Again.

This development is not surprising. It was, in fact, entirely predictable. I anticipated this happening some 11 years ago (see below). It’s part of the well understood, and inevitable, process of commodification and diffusion that I wrote about in King Canute, diffusion and the Investigatory Powers Bill.

My concern is not that a development such as this has happened – but that little seems to have been done to prepare for it and to mitigate its impacts. It was only a matter of time before a disruptive technology such as this entered the mainstream.

Yet there seems to be a general failure across both private and public sectors to anticipate and prepare for such inevitable developments. If we’re going to better protect and secure the future of our increasingly technologically-dependent society, we also need to ensure there is much better analysis and understanding of the impact of technological innovation, including processes such as diffusion.

This need to anticipate and prepare for change is becoming particularly acute in an age where we all leave pervasive digital footprints – including potentially sensitive personal data, both biographical and biometric – in our wake, for others to mine and potentially abuse. Governments in particular need to become far better at understanding, anticipating and mitigating these inevitable processes.

This latest voice synthesis technology may not itself be the end of biometrics as part of the process of identifying users, but it is potentially the beginning of the end of the naive trust placed in biometrics as some flawless, wonderful panacea.

As I say, none of this is anything new. The Economist’s article reminded me of a blog post I wrote back in August 2006. As my old blog engine is no longer available, I’m reproducing that 2006 post below. Nearly 11 years on, it still seems to raise valid concerns.

biometrics: enabling guilty men to go free? Further adventures from the law of unintended consequences

[Originally published August, 2006]


Dateline: the near future

Setting: the Old Bailey. A tense, invitation-only event. A spectacle of the kind that London has made its own since long before the days of Newgate Prison and the macabre carnivals of the public hangings at Tyburn Tree.

Outside, armed policemen, guard dogs and riot barriers prevent the curious crowds pushing too close. On the office rooftops – police marksmen. In the Victorian drains below the courtroom – boiler-suited bomb teams, knee deep in London’s toxic wastes.

This is a trial that must not, cannot go wrong. The media has been in a full-on, Fleet Street frenzy for months. Driven by political rhetoric, media pressure and public concern, the police and intelligence services have been running faster than they have ever run, worked harder than they have ever been worked. Dawn raids, arrests, releases. High hopes, false hopes. Trails hot and trails turned cold.

And now – victory. The alleged perpetrators of the terrorist bombing caught. Remanded behind bars. Charged. The prosecution case a year in the making. Finally, today is their day in court. The evidence is compelling. Justice will be done.

The court room quietens. The judge enters, takes his seat. A quiet, insignificant-looking man. But his record tells another story. He is sharp, shrewd. Prosecutors and defending counsel alike respect him.

And so the case begins

The prosecution case is damning. It silences the court.

Item 1: transcripts and computer disk recordings of phone calls made by the defendants. Backed up by expert forensic voiceprint analysis. The calls and their transcripts damn the defendants out of their own mouths. Chilling, deadly, inhuman, hateful spite. Clear evidence these bombing attacks were ruthless in both planning and execution.

Item 2: fingerprints found in the bombers’ flat. Fingerprints on detonators and fuses. Matched by both computer and expert human analysis.

Item 3: CCTV footage showing the bombers’ movements. Time and day recorded. The collection of the components. Their assembly at the bomb scenes. Painful, but compelling to watch.

Item 4: DNA recovered from the bomb site. DNA that matches beyond any doubt two of those who now stand accused in the dock.

The prosecution’s case is damning. Brilliantly assembled and executed. It appears yes, invincible. After weeks of evidence, the prosecution team sit down, convinced their job is done.

But wait: what has the defence team to say? It seems a mere formality. The media have written the headlines, news stories and analyses already. The defence is a mere inconvenience, a routine formality to be endured, little more than a legal hesitation before a verdict already known can be delivered.

Yet what is this? The defence counsel start to ask strange questions, start to probe and find holes in the prosecution case, holes that only moments before seemed not only unlikely, but impossible.

One by one the pieces of forensic evidence are questioned and – impossible thought – undermined.

Item 1: the computer-captured and analysed voiceprints of the defendants. Doubts quickly turn from ill-formed ghosts into hard, awkward facts. They turn out not to be such a damning indictment after all. The defence team rapidly establish that copies of the defendants’ voiceprints are held on computer systems in over twenty different call centres, from banks to budget airlines and catalogue shopping companies. And are held not only in the UK, on UK-based computer systems, but scattered around the world. Each automated call centre operates under a different legal jurisdiction. Many of their data security procedures are evidently questionable at best laughable at worst.

It is, as the defence team soon demonstrate, a simple matter to use another person’s voiceprints in the fabrication of fake conversations, in the fabrication of evidence making them appear to say anything. The prosecution’s voiceprint evidence is undermined. Worthless. Struck from the record. Struck from the prosecution’s case.

Item 2: the fingerprints. Now surely we are on safer ground, surely these will be unassailable as evidence? But doubts now start to form and grow. Fingerprints in a pre-digital age were rarely forged: whilst occasionally they might be maliciously lifted and re-used to falsely incriminate others, the odds were against it. And experts could often detect such basic efforts to subvert evidence.

But, as the defence counsel establish, our world is now very different. Our fingerprints are now stored in tens, maybe even hundreds of different computer systems. From Disneyworld to border control systems, from school library book loans to car rental systems. And many of these systems are run and operated by regimes unlikely to win any awards for their security or human rights reputations. Fingerprints are now so ubiquitously stored on computers around the world, they can be accessed, replayed, planted and generally misused at will. Their reliability as evidence is gone.

Strike 2.

Item 3: now surely the defence counsel cannot undermine CCTV footage? Surely this is irrevocable evidence of the defendants’ guilt? Ah. Chip, chip, chip. Precision questioning from the defence team once more. There is no evidence that the date and time stamps on the digitised footage can be relied upon. That the defendants’ visits to the crime scenes happened when the prosecution claim. In fact, there is no proof to suggest that they were carrying anything more than an instant dinner from Tesco. The evidence wobbles, but stands – although behind it also now stands a large, worrying question mark.

Finally, item 4: DNA. The jewel in the crown of the prosecution case. DNA that matches two of the defendants. Found on fragments of the bombs, found at the crime scene. A clear, accusatory pointing finger of guilt. Unassailable.

Let’s see what the defence counsel will make of this, smile the prosecution team, confident, assured.

But wait.

The defence team establish that our DNA is hardly a secret. Like fingerprints and other biometrics, DNA itself can also easily be obtained and just as easily planted. In fact, two of the defendants – the very ones whose DNA is alleged to be on the bomb fragments found at the scene – are shown to be participants in a major medical trial that involves publication of their entire genome sequence on the Internet. And, as an expert scientific witness for the defence points out, one of the risks of the project has always been that someone would take a volunteer’s details, make synthetic DNA corresponding to the volunteer and plant it at a crime scene.

There remain legal formalities to be gone through, weeks of arguments and counter arguments – but the outcome is clear to all but the most partial observer long before the judge pronounces “Case dismissed”.

After months of fevered speculation and sobering evidence, the headlines and analyses need to be re-written. The courtroom becomes a madness of racing reporters, of victims’ families and relatives in tears, of the defendants’ families rejoicing. The trial of the century has been thrown out. It will fill international press and TV news coverage for days, weeks to come.

But who is right? Have guilty men gone free? Or were innocent men set-up? Is it possible that the vital cornerstone of our criminal justice system – the forensics of DNA, of biometrics, from fingerprints, to voiceprints – could become too contaminated by the ubiquity of their acquisition and storage in computer systems to be regarded as any kind of evidence at all?

A science fiction future?

Consider this. The Personal Genome Project is no science fiction future, but an established reality at Harvard University. And the project does indeed warn participants that they run the risk of someone taking a volunteer’s details, making synthetic DNA corresponding to the volunteer and planting it at a crime scene.

More and more organisations, more and more regimes, are demanding and storing our biometrics in more and more computer systems. We know no computer system is 100% infallible.

In a world where our biometrics are acquired and stored by all types of regimes and organisations, we must be rigorously analytical of the risks involved and where they may lead us. If we do not do so, I believe we run the risk of losing our best evidence, our best defence against organised and serious crime: the very opposite of what was intended. These are not outcomes we should countenance lightly.

What will happen in a world where more and more computer systems capture and store our biometrics and even our DNA? What happens when every time we travel, to any regime and country, or deal with retail, entertainment and other organisations, copies of our biometrics are captured and stored on computer systems over which we have no control, no guarantees? We know from experience no system is 100% secure, that all systems bleed and leak.

We need to think very carefully indeed about where this simplistic belief that biometrics will be a universal panacea to issues of identity could lead. We know that the law of unintended consequences will always undermine our best intentions. And, if that were to happen, there would be no way this particular genie could ever be put back into the bottle. We only have the one set of biometrics, one set of DNA.

If these important issues are not thought through clearly, if we do not have a proper discussion – including of the international dimension – about the way in which biometrics and our DNA are acquired, stored and used, our ability to investigate and prosecute criminals based on forensic evidence could be lost forever.

Could we ever let this happen? I hope not. It would be an unacceptable outcome, a violation at the very heart of the way our society works. Yet if we are to avoid it doing so, we should already be planning and reaching consensus on the way in which biometrics and DNA samples are acquired and stored in computer-based systems.

It’s time that debate started to happen. The topic of biometrics is one I’ll be addressing from various perspectives, before, during and after my participation in and closing keynote at Biometrics 2006.

Please join me in this important debate.

[Note: I am in the process of aiming to re-host my older blog posts, such as the one above.  More news as and when this happens.]

Original source – new tech observations from a UK perspective (ntouk)

We’re currently in Florence, Italy, where TICTeC, the Impacts of Civic Technology conference, is in full swing. But as if that wasn’t exciting enough, TICTeC will be hitting Taipei for a spin-off event later this year.

TICTeC@Taipei, hosted by the Civic Tech Fest, will run on 11 and 12 September: you can expect the same insightful sessions on Civic Tech and its efficacy.

Registration and the call for session proposals are both currently open, so if you’d like to be part of TICTeC@Taipei, act now.

Original source – mySociety

mySociety is funded in a variety of ways: our work is supported by the commercial services that we offer to councils and other organisations; by donations from individuals; and currently, in largest part, by grants from an array of philanthropic funders.

We were delighted to receive news recently that the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation will continue to support us — and not only to support our research activities, as they have generously done for the last two years, but with a new grant of $1.2m over three-years that will help fund our core operational costs.

This is enormously welcome, and a timely acknowledgement of our efforts to build the evidence base around civic tech, not least as we continue to keep all the various mySociety plates spinning across our work in our three practice areas: Democracy, Freedom of Information and Better Cities.

On the eve of our third The Impacts of Civic Technology Conference (TICTeC) in Florence, it’s great to know that this generous sum will ensure that we can continue to support our research team, as we explore the role that such activities have in the creation of flourishing communities and how best we can extend the benefits of these approaches to more disadvantaged individuals and marginalised groups.

But we are well aware that we’ll also need to seek additional funding from elsewhere. Significantly, over the past five years our grant from the Omidyar Network has been a game-changer for mySociety: it has allowed us to expand our team, work with more partners around the world to help them run citizen-empowering sites, and launch our own new projects such as Every Politician and Alaveteli Pro.

Our Omidyar grant comes to an end early next year, and so despite the support of funders such as Hewlett it is essential that find new and additional sources of funding in order to continue our work at scale.

As we seek to find a sustainable business model for Civic Tech we will keep developing appropriate commercial models within each of our practice areas – the recent changes to our Better Cities team have meant that we’re in a good position to increase the proportion of our income that comes from our commercial services.

However even if we are successful in securing new commercial revenues, we’ll still face a funding gap, compounded by the delicate tightrope we’re forced to walk as we balance our commercial and charitable responsibilities.

And so, the next few months will be a period of exploration, for me and the team, as we investigate the best way to meet our objectives to hold power to account, more important than ever in such volatile and unpredictable times.

If you represent a funding organisation active in this space and are looking to better understand the role that digital has to play in supporting and enriching the lives of those in disadvantaged communities, do expect to hear from us – or rather than wait, please get in touch for a chat.

Image: Bart Busschots (cc)

Original source – mySociety


Make it easier for community reporters to film & interview your candidates & activists, and you too could get a stack load of free footage that works away while you sleep

Being a community reporter is a surprisingly lonely business even when you are surrounded by lots and lots of people. I counted nearly 30 people who turned up for a canvassing session for the Romsey Labour Party in Cambridge – Romsey Town historically being a working class community in Cambridge where you had lots of people employed on the railways, people who worked in agriculture and also as I found out, a sizeable membership of the co-operative movement. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was scheduled to pay a visit, and Romsey Labour Party tweeted me in advance.

Emily Thornberry MP and Romsey Labour, Cambridge. 22 Apr 2017

Some of the people who turned out to meet Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry MP on Mill Road, Cambridge.

My video interviews

As I’ve stated before, my interview style is to inform the interviewee of the questions I’m going to ask before recording. This is because I want interviewees to give informed and extended answers without interruptions from me. I could have gone in with a series of hostile questions and an aggressive line of questioning, but that’s what the mainstream media does. I try to be different and go for the challenge of putting politicians and holders of public office in a more positive light – especially given the state of our democracy.

I saved the three interview clips with Ms Thornberry in the playlist of Labour election videos here. As I mentioned at the start of 2017, my deal for local candidates standing for election in and around Cambridge is an offer to film free short introduction videos. (I now have videos from four of the five parties standing in Cambridge). At the same time I also encourage people to donate to help cover my filming expenses.


So if you can afford it, please do. (Also, ***a big thank you*** for those of you that already have – your support is extremely welcome and helps promote democracy (and an improved understanding of it) across our city). From the Petersfield hustings and the campaigns today, I’ve had over 200 views of videos I have uploaded, so people are watching. For the whole of 2014, so nearly four months, I’ve had over 13,000 views and over 35,000 minutes of footage viewed – an incredible figure given the relatively small geographical area I cover.

Asking about the post-EU Referendum period

The Foreign Affairs Select Committee was scathing about the failure of the Government to do any contingency planning for a Brexit vote – as this newspaper report explains. The select committee itself wrote as follows:

“The previous Government’s considered view not to instruct key Departments including the FCO to plan for the possibility that the electorate would vote to leave the EU amounted to gross negligence. It has exacerbated post-referendum uncertainty both within the UK and amongst key international partners, and made the task now facing the new Government substantially more difficult.” [Para 19]

So I invited Ms Thornberry to comment.

The Shadow Foreign Secretary on the lack of contingency plans for leaving the EU

Open question, allow interviewee to respond at length, publish, publicise – and then let the viewer come to their own conclusion.

Enabling the public to hear candidates in their own voices, and having an historical record of senior national politicians visiting and speaking in Cambridge

It’s easy to forget that in reporting on all of this, I’m not just trying to be a sort-of-journalist, but also I’m creating content for the historians of the future. I intend to be long gone before the historians of 100 years time and beyond try to work out what was happening around the time of the UK leaving the EU. Perhaps one of the reasons for this is because my heart’s sort of in tears because we have no video or audio recordings of the Cambridge Heroes such as Eglantyne Jebb and Florence Ada Keynes in my Lost Cambridge project. It wasn’t for a lack of technology at the time.

Lots of photos, tweets, and video footage for local campaigners

We live in a world where mainstream and local publications are shrinking in terms of readership and funds to pay for qualified full time journalists. Incredibly sad I believe for civic society generally. It also means that there are fewer journalists and publications targeted by the same – if not growing number of institutions for press releases. Basically if you’ve not got that in-house capacity to create your own content, you need someone else to do it for you. Furthermore, the intermediary will also influence how the public judges the content – ie if it’s from an official party source or if it’s from someone independent of those parties.

Pioneers in and around Cambridge

Over the past few years it has been the Cambridge Green Party that has been the most innovative, open and accessible when it comes to media access and content creation. They now regularly create their own video content on mobile phones and upload them directly to their Facebook page.

Not surprisingly, other parties are beginning to pick up on this – most recently some of the Liberal Democrats in Cambridge such as Nicky Shepard standing in Abbey Division. Both parties have noticeably started using paid targeted social media pitches for their video content. It’ll be interesting to see what impact this has at a local level.

I may be an insecure, attention-seeking politics junkie at the best of times, but I don’t want and don’t need to be everywhere

Not least because my health won’t let me. I generally take the view that if someone else is filming a hustings or political debate, especially in the run up to an election, then I don’t need to be there. The nicest feedback I get from people is when they tell me they were able to watch the footage of a meeting that I had filmed. Generally it only needs a handful of people to watch such footage for me to feel that it was well worth attending, filming, editing & publishing. This is because I know there is a high chance that the viewers are going to act upon what they have heard/watched. No one sits through a 2 hour council meeting video and does nothing with what they heard. Whether it’s a conversation, an email, a contribution to a meeting, it’s these hundreds of ‘micro-actions’ that strengthen our democracies.

Message to local political parties?

Just give me a little advance notice and more often than not I can rock up with a camcorder and create some video content. What a lot of you miss is some of the coaching and retakes that I also take interviewees through. I want good quality footage just as much as the interviewee. If the footage is really poor, I won’t publish it. The advantage of video for candidates is that it’s your face and your voice that’s doing the work potentially while you are asleep. Take Lib Dems candidate for Petersfield, Emma Bates below.

Emma Bates of Cambridge Liberal Democrats, standing in Petersfield Division for the Cambridgeshire County Council elections on 04 May 2017.

Over 30 views in the first 24 hours of the video being uploaded, and even more on Facebook where it’s also been uploaded to party pages. Given that the average viewing time of my videos hovers around the 2 minute mark (and was at this level before I started making these short election intro clips), a short intro video is often all that is needed for residents to decide if they want to give your candidate a further hearing or not, and/or whether the candidate is someone they would want to vote for. It may sound like a very small number of views, but remember we are talking a very short space of time, a technique still in its infancy, institutions not embedding social media in mainstream communications, an election where the winner doesn’t end up with a huge amount of power, in a geographically confined area at an event that had very limited publicity. As time progresses, these variables will inevitably change.

It’s not the stuff that’ll replace door-to-door, but it is the sort of content that can easily appear in people’s social media feeds for people to watch/listen to when in a cafe, on a bus, in a waiting room etc. And every other person under the age of 30 seems to have headphones on these days – the very cohort conspicuous by their absence in local democracy.



Original source – A dragon’s best friend

For obvious reasons, we will be going quiet on our blog over the next few weeks. Ok, so it’s hardly been noisy recently. To be honest, we’ve been busy doing stuff and we’ve got a little bit out of the habit. But it does mean we should have plenty of material for future blogs.

We will get better. The election period means some of our research and engagement work will need to be put on hold. So we should have a bit of space to collect our thoughts – to think about what’s worked best in our projects, and the things we need to improve. We know one of those things is our communications with you.

The Lab is expressly established to build capability and share learning across the civil service.We work with thousands of civil servants each year in our projects, workshops and training sessions. We know from the feedback to Vasant’s blog last month that people are using, adapting and developing the tools across government. And digging out our trusty ‘hopes and fears’ cards a few weeks ago, I was surprised by a participant remarking, ‘oh yes, I saw these in a workshop with our Minister last week’. How often would the phrase ‘a workshop with our Minister’ have been heard in government even three years ago?

We’ve probably been less successful, though, in telling you about our projects. Our introduction to the Lab tells you what we’ve worked on, and about our different techniques. But we know it can still be hard to understand what happens end-to-end. Sometimes we simply can’t say much when they’re live. But we will get better at writing up and sharing what we can afterwards. Like this summary of the homelessness project with the Department for Communities & Local Government, the ideas from which are now being picked up and tested by local authorities funded by the homelessness trailblazer programme.
So we’ll be back in a few weeks. And our silence doesn’t mean we can’t listen – we’d love to hear from you about what you’d find most useful. In the meantime, we’ll be enjoying some of our own favourites – our friend and former colleague Cat Drew at Uscreates, the endlessly thought-provoking strategic design blog Dark Matter and catching up on everything we need to know about the Future of Work. Happy reading, and see you in June!

Original source – Policy Lab

Imagining the future: lessons from the Jetsons

‘Meet George Jetson’.  George and his family – the Jetsons – were a 1960s view of the future.  They can teach us something about policy futures too.

In the 1960s, the makers of the Jetsons imagined the future to be an idyllic suburban 1960s American family – but in the sky.  George goes to work in a spaceship.  Jane goes shopping in the sky.  The two children go to floating high school.  There are lots of space pods.  When Jane goes shopping she uses green cash bills – not plastic and certainly not a mobile phone.  George sits at his futuristic-shaped desk, but works with pen and paper. There’s not a screen in sight.  

How did they miss so much? Probably because in visualising the future, we basically take what we know now and put it into a future context – why wouldn’t we? The creators of the Jetsons weren’t able to imagine the huge range of possibilities: mobility was the great innovation of their time, so the future would see exponential growth of that (and more things in the sky).

More things in the sky was also the overriding theme of a recent exhibition at the London Transport Museum, which looked at how people imagined the future of transport over time. In the early 1900s it was horses and carts, in the 50s, flying cars.  They didn’t envisage  open APIs giving people access to transport data, or social media consultations on how networks would run. How could they?  

So how do we push ourselves to think about 2050 beyond better iPads and bigger blockchain? How do we avoid our own ‘Kodak moments’ – pursuing the policy equivalents of mini-discs or delivering DVDs faster?

In the Lab, we worry about this because we spend a lot of time trying to help policy-makers think about the future. We think one way is to use speculative design techniques, which, as Cat Drew has previously argued, allow us to think about the future more expansively, and perhaps more profoundly.

Speculative design helps us play with different variables – stretching them into possible, probable and plausible futures. It encourages us to think about a much wider set of possibilities, rather than imagining we can predict what will happen.

In our speculative design experiments we create ‘artefacts’ that help us explain and explore those futures, and elicit responses from people. Having things that you can see and touch, whether they are train timetables, mocked-up robot repair shops or the euthanasia watch (a Lancaster Imaginations project), act as a time machine. They transport people into the future of their imagination. What would a world be like with this in it? How would I feel? What else would be happening? The world instantly becomes a more real and human place.

Of course (and if 2016 taught us anything), there will always be what Nicholas Taleb describes as ‘Black Swans’ – random and unexpected occurrences. But we can still improve the way we think about the information we do have. We think autonomous vehicles will be a thing and look at them through the lens of transport policy. But what about the social, health and environmental implications? What might life with these vehicles really look like, and what else will be going on at the same time?

Transporting policy-makers into the future helps them think more creatively. But also more profoundly and personally. The provocations help them better understand what they do hold dear, the values that guide us. So we’re not trying to accurately predict the future – we can’t. But we’re developing a shared sense of the possibilities, and the principles that should guide us in navigating them.

As the Jetsons teaches us, the future is hard to imagine. But the things we can do to prepare ourselves better are not rocket science.

Original source – Policy Lab