From Ziggy Stardust to autonomous trains…

The Badger’s currently reading ‘How we lived then’ by Norman Longmate, a book about everyday life in Great Britain during the Second World War. It cost £1 from a charity shop and it’s a fascinating read. Written in 1971, it describes what life was really like for ordinary members of the public between 1939 and 1945. If you thought things were difficult during COVID, then think again! The Badger was attracted to the book because his parents rarely spoke about their young adult lives in the war years, and because it was written in 1971 at the start of decade of turmoil, transformation, and rich personal memories.

By the 1970s, life for young adults had changed dramatically to that in the 1940s when, for example, military or civilian war service, rationing, and music from the likes of Glen Miller or Bing Crosby provided its drumbeat. In the 1970s, life for young adults was unrestrained, independent, and full of transformations and diverse music like David Bowie’s 1972 album ‘Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’ and many other classics of the same year. You might be wondering, at this point, how you get from 1970s books and music to autonomous trains? Well, easily as it happens, because the 1970s was also a decade of transformation for our railways and today, some 50 years later, they are undergoing transformation again driven by government infrastructure investment, huge advances in digital technology, and changing passenger dynamics following the pandemic.

In the 1970s, diesel and electric locomotives had replaced steam, electronic signalling was in its infancy, electrification was limited, ticketing meant visiting a manned ticket office at a railway station and strikes and cancelled trains were commonplace. This short 1972 film provides a simple insight to the railways and its technology of the time. As it ends, it makes a crucial point, namely that railway people were in an industry that is ‘both old and new’.

Today the railways are providing a service to passengers with powerful smartphones in their pockets, with better quality rolling stock, with self-service ticketing using machines and online facilities, and with real-time passenger information at the same time as progressing a Digital Programme deploying high-tech signalling, train control, and safety systems to increase capacity, reduce delays, and drive down costs. As this signalling piece highlights, this is a complex, difficult and slow task because the railway industry is always going to be ‘both old and new’ making transformation a perpetual process akin to re-engineering a Jumbo Jet while in flight! Nevertheless, progress towards a digital future and autonomous trains is being made.

Transformations are often constrained by workforce factors rather than technology. With train strikes imminent, it’s depressing that workforce factors still get in the way of the railway industry speedily embracing the modern, digital, increasingly autonomous, world we all inhabit. Sadly, some things don’t seem to have changed much since the 1970s.

A retrenchment to globalisation…

IT offshoring to India gained momentum in the late 1990s helped by improved and lower cost telecommunications, the policies and actions of the Indian government, and a few major corporations who opened operations that tapped into the country’s huge young, lower-cost, graduate-level workforce. At the end of the 1990s the Badger was part of the due diligence team for the purchase of a small software product company in Bangalore. The purchase was a strategic investment to establish a presence in India that could ultimately grow into an offshore outsource and software development centre. Visiting India for the due diligence hammered home to the Badger that the true globalisation of  IT work was inevitable, and that India would a force to be reckoned with for outsourcing and software development.

Globalisation – the spread of products, services, and manufacturing etc, across borders producing ever stronger economic interdependence between nations – has been underway for the last two centuries driven by transportation and communication advances. The internet and digital technology, however, has accelerated it exponentially over the last 20 years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on global supply chains, for example, has highlighted that globalisation may have gone too far. It now looks inevitable that the pandemic, continued advances in digital technology and virtual connectivity, and changes to the world order due to the Russia-Ukraine conflict,  will trigger some retrenchment to globalisation as businesses and nations rebalance their risk and dependence on others.

The current level of globalisation has made us all extremely and rapidly vulnerable to events anywhere in the world. Globalisation will, of course, not disappear, but the Badger’s in no doubt that in the current decade we will see some retrenchment to address the vulnerabilities that have been exposed. A trot through the programme of events at this week’s 2022 World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos shows that deglobalisation and the impact of ever more advancing technology permeates most of the sessions, either directly or covertly. The WEF at Davos claims to have achieved much over the past 5 decades, but most people – including the Badger – are hard pushed to name any of its achievements and consider it to be a talking shop for global elites in the world’s most expensive country. However, when those attending Davos are discussing globalisation, then you know there’s something to worry about and change is ahead!

Over the last 20 or so years, the small software company purchased in Bangalore has grown into the broader capability envisaged in its original strategic goals. Since change is perpetual, however, it is not immune to retrenching globalisation or technological advances that enable IT work to be done economically without offshoring at scale. No sector is immune to retrenching globalisation, and this decade is already unfolding to be one of huge change on all fronts. Hold onto your hats, it’s going to be a bumpy ride…  

Describe the dynamics of today’s digital world in one word…

Would you find it easy or hard to describe the dynamics of our modern digital world in one word? Would one word immediately come to mind, or would you need time to think before deciding? Rather than decide yourself, would you prefer to converge on a word via a group discussion? What would your word be? An ex senior civil servant, in their eighties with a razor-sharp mind, asked these questions in a recent conversation. The Badger took the easy option, answered ‘don’t know’, and we moved on to other things. The questions, however, have bugged the Badger ever since, and so as Storm Eunice buffeted the windows, he settled in his study listening to a playlist of favourite music to decide his answers.

The answer for the first question was ‘it’s hard’. In fact, it took much longer than expected to decide on one word to answer the last question. The answers to the second and third questions came quick and were straightforward. They were, respectively, time to think rather than spontaneity, and deciding for himself rather than potentially succumbing to  groupthink’. The word the Badger ultimately converged on as the answer to the last question was ‘Creep’.

The word has enormous breadth. In materials technology, ‘creep’ is the movement and permanent deformation of a solid under persistent load ultimately leading to failure. Glaciers and lead on church roofs are simple illustrations of the phenomenon. ‘Scope creep’, when requirements drift away from agreed baselines due to client pressure and poor controls, is well-known to those running businesses, projects, programmes, or service delivery. This kind of ‘creep’ often leads to financial problems, commercial disputes, and serious delays. And then, of course, ‘creep’ is sometimes used to describe people who are unpleasant, untrustworthy, insincere, or are just plain odd in their habits, interests, and behaviours.

Creep’ seems a more realistic descriptor for the dynamics of our modern digital world than the word ‘change’. For example, our insatiable demand for resources and fossil fuels is producing creep deformation of aspects of our planet to the point of crisis and questions about our sustainability on it. Additionally, digital innovation and fast technological advancement represents a persistent stress on businesses, governments, and the public producing the erosive creep of personal privacy to the point where societal rupture is a risk. Similarly, the need for social media platforms to keep people engaged and active is causing the creep of fact, news, and sensible debate into just disinformation, misinformation, abuse, and entertainment fuelling growing distrust and antipathy. ‘Creep’, of course, can still be used to describe some people, and it seems particularly apt today for politicians and so-called elites!

Oh, and ‘Creep’, by the way, is a great song by Radiohead! What would your one word to describe the dynamics of today’s world be?

Observing the NHS…

Opening bleary eyes at 5:30am in a hospital ward bed to see the smiling face of a PPE-clad nurse wanting to thrust swabs into your nose and throat for a COVID test is an interesting start to the day! This test marked the start to each long, visitor-free, in-patient day that would eventually end around 10p.m. at night.

Patients were not allowed visitors until their stay surpassed five days. After that, one person could visit for one hour, but only once in every subsequent five-day period. No one grumbled. Instead, the Badger and fellow patients used video calls from personal smartphones or tablets to maintain contact with loved ones. The absence of visitors meant we experienced and observed ward operations performed without distractions, and we habitually shared our remarkably consistent primary observations during the quiet troughs that speckle an in-patient’s day.

Firstly, there was unanimous respect for doctors, nurses, and the ward staff who kept things shipshape (many of whom work 11 hour shifts with just a 30-minute unpaid break). Secondly, we observed that although the NHS is slowly transforming to the digital world, there’s still too much paper-based activity constraining efficiency. One nurse commented, ‘If someone borrows your drugs form before I get to you, it’ll take me half an hour to track it down’. Thirdly, we observed that nothing happens unless a busy doctor says so and signs a piece of paper, which they rarely do promptly. Telling a patient in the morning they’re being discharged, and then telling them in the evening that the doctor’s been busy and has gone home without signing the discharge paper is incredibly annoying and systemically inefficient!

There was also a consistent view that debates about NHS funding, a staple for media reporting, are red herrings because there’s much the NHS can improve itself that needs will rather than money. Its own Long Term Plan shows that it knows it must transform from a way of delivering health services that’s still locked into a model largely created when it was founded in 1948. It just needs to progress faster.

Finally, like most transformations, we observed that it’s the people and working practice issues of change rather than technology that is the biggest challenge. Transforming the NHS, the biggest employer in Europe and the world’s largest employer of highly skilled professionals with a headcount of 1.35 million, over half of which are professionally qualified clinical staff, is undoubtedly a massive task. It’s akin to reengineering a giant A380 plane full of passengers while it’s in flight, but it has to be done for the service to be sustainable. Even with its observable flaws, inefficiencies, and transformational strains, we all felt safe, in expert hands, and hugely proud that our country has the National Health Service as part of the bedrock of life across the population.

A change would do you good…

We can be happy, fulfilled, stressed, anxious, bored, and frustrated at work  all within the same day! It’s normal for our feelings to oscillate like this, but when we’ve endured months of feeling unfulfilled, bored, and frustrated with no improvement in sight our thoughts often turn to leaving our employer for pastures new. Thinking about leaving and actually leaving are, of course, different. It’s common to think about leaving  but circumstances and priorities in our personal life often stay our hand from actually resigning. Our subconscious also tends to persuade us to put up with the status quo for much longer than sensible in the hope that things will get better.

A few months ago, the Badger met someone wrestling with these dynamics. For the first time in a decade with their employer, they were thinking of leaving because their knowledge, skills, and experience had been under-used since a company reorganisation two years ago had replaced their respected boss with a new one. They were desperately bored and frustrated, and the relationship with their new boss had progressively become more distant. They asked the Badger how frequently he’d thought about leaving during his career, and whether he’d any thoughts to offer. After a sharp intake of breath, the Badger ignored the former question but delivered the following insightful words.

We all deal with thinking about and the decision to voluntarily leave an organisation differently, because psychologically we each deal with fear of the future in diverse ways. No one truly knows what the future holds for them. This uncertainty psychologically steers many towards staying in their comfort zone and avoiding risk. This means that when job satisfaction is low, we may well think long and hard about leaving but not actually take the ultimate step of resignation. So, if you’re thinking about leaving, first ensure you know yourself and what makes you tick. Make sure you not only assess all the pros and cons of staying objectively, but also consider matters in your private life that have a bearing on your decision carefully and honestly. Listen to  George Harrison’s song  ‘All things must pass’  because it’s a reminder that things never stay the same in life, and make a plan covering how and when you will resign before making your final ‘stay’ or ‘go’ decision,

Yesterday, the person called the Badger to say they’d left their employer and to thank him for words that made them realise they shouldn’t be fearful of the future because people adapt to the twists and turns of life. As the Badger felt quietly pleased at having helped in some way, ‘A change would do you good’ by Sheryl Crow started playing from a smart speaker in the background! We laughed, and agreed that strange surveillance sprits are at large monitoring conversations in today’s world…

The origin of the word penguin…

The Badger rang the call centre for help after experiencing problems using a company’s online mechanisms. After listening to a recorded message about covid and navigating the various options, the Badger joined a queue wondering if Blondie’s ‘Hanging on a telephone’ would be better music than Vivaldi. Eventually Bronwen came on the line. Her unmistakably Welsh accent and name struck a chord as she resolved the Badger’s problem. The Badger thanked her for her help and asked if she was actually in a call centre in Wales. Bronwen chuckled, said that many callers ask the same question, and then confirmed she was in South Wales and that the weather outside was typically Welsh!

Speaking to Bronwen triggered fond memories of visits to Wales,  a part of the UK with beautiful landscapes, a rich industrial heritage, and a strong cultural identity. It’s a country that’s seen a huge decline in its coal mining, steel, and slate mining industries over the last half-century. The Badger’s first visits to Wales were in his student days. The first was a weekend stay with his London flatmate’s family in Pontlottyn in the Rhymney Valley. The warm welcome was unforgettable. The second visit was part of the Badger’s degree course. It involved a week touring  metal production, casting, and fabrication facilities across South Wales. The highlight was watching the operation of a blast furnace, a Bessemer converter, and a rolling mill flattening giant red-hot steel ingots into 3mm strip at Port Talbot. It was an awesome experience!

Since that time, tourism, public services, customer support services, and light manufacturing in areas like electronics and technology have taken over from coal, steel, and slate as the mainstays of the Welsh economy. Today Wales has the largest data centre campus in Europe and it’s an attractive place for technology-centred companies to have operations. In the Badger’s student days, there was net migration of people seeking employment and a better quality of life outside Wales. This isn’t the case today. With modern service, technology, and digital businesses continuing to grow, Wales is seeing inward migration and growth in its population.

Twenty years after first visiting as a student, the Badger became a more frequent visitor  when his employer acquired a datacentre and IT service desk in South Wales. Welsh pride and values was encountered in abundance during these visits, and the Badger learned that if you build on rather than denigrate the character, culture, and heritage of a workforce then they will always rise to a challenge. As an English friend with Welsh family roots put it a few days ago, the word ‘penguin’ derives from the Welsh language which illustrates that the Welsh people have always made a mark on the world. A growing worldwide reputation in the arena of semiconductor technologies might have been a better illustration…

Transformation with chaos…

After a morning browsing High Street shops, the Badger and his wife popped into a well-known pizza chain for lunch. The number of empty shops and limited footfall meant that our shopping experience had been a sombre one with little atmosphere. As we waited for our pizzas, it was impossible not to listen to the amusing, interesting, and thought-provoking conversation of a spirited group of 30-somethings at an adjacent table. Their conversation seemed to centre on the importance of social media to free speech given Microsoft’s withdrawal of LinkedIn from China, the forthcoming COP26 climate conference, and transformation of the world! The Badger found himself silently oscillating between admiration at their optimism and idealism and dismay at their simplistic view of our globalised world.    

Three things in their conversation grated. The first was a belief that social media is a bastion of free speech. It isn’t. Free speech has existed in societies long before the advent of social media. Yes, social media is a modern channel for sharing information, but it’ll never be a bastion of free speech when people and organisations with nefarious characteristics or intent cannot be held to account. What keeps most people attached to social media, the Badger feels, is simply FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out – not free speech.

The second thing which grated was the view that it’s the UK government’s responsibility to ‘save the planet’ via COP26. It isn’t. The uncomfortable truth is that the UK can facilitate and be an exemplar on dealing with climate issues, but ‘saving the planet’ is more in the hands of the USA, China, Russia, and India than this tiny island. The final thing that grated was a view that the COVID pandemic has shown that our online tech has already transformed the world and that a green, tech-centric, utopia is just around the corner. That’s not the case! The pandemic has, in fact, highlighted that we’re entering an unruly extended period of global transformation which will affect every facet of our lives. Transformation with chaos will be a feature of the years to come!

Transformations succeed when everyone aligns and commits to common goals, plans, budgets, and so on. There’s little real evidence for such alignment and commitment amongst the major powers. The US, EU, China, Russia, and India all have their own economic and internal pressures. US relations with China show little sign of improvement, countries and companies are re-evaluating the strategic wisdom of extensive globalised supply chains, and the move away from carbon creates different tensions as demand for old commodities declines and demand for different ones rises. With this backdrop it’s foolish to think a green, tech-centric utopia is just around the corner.

As our pizzas arrived, the Badger’s wife said ‘There’s a generation whose entire lives will witness perpetual transformation and chaos’.  The Badger simply responded with ‘That’s life’

Has tech lost its association with ‘fun’ as a result of the pandemic?

The Badger recently witnessed a young mother struggling to deal with the noisy, stamping feet tantrum of her infant son at the school gates. The reason for the boy’s tantrum became clear on walking past; his mother had confiscated his mobile phone!  The Badger felt rather sad that such a young child had and was so attached to a mobile phone. It was also sad to see the lad’s mum making as much noise as her son by deploying shouting from the arsenal of parenting skills. My, how the world’s changed.

Should infants have their own mobile phones? Has modern tech infiltrated our lives to such an extent that it’s become unhealthily addictive for infants, children, and adults? Will society descend into anarchy if the internet suffers a catastrophic outage, for example, as a result of a solar superstorm? When tech has become such an important tool in our day to day lives then the answers to such questions are not as straightforward as Yes or No.  Tech was a boon during the pandemic, but the Badger senses that the more we used it the more we’ve come to appreciate that a) it’s a tool and not a lifestyle or ideology, b) it can be corrosive to well-being if used unwisely, and c) that we need real rather than virtual social interactions in our lives because they’re more important to our holistic well-being.  The use of tech during the pandemic has opened the eyes of adults, parents, and children to the downsides of letting it dominate our lives.   

One opinion expressed in The Register’s recent weekly debate on the motion ‘Technology widens the education divide’  was that ‘‘tech’ has massively overreached the point where it’s helpful, and is now obstinately wedged into every single corner of our lives, to the detriment of our ability to think and act as independent human beings’.  Harsh, but it’s a growing sentiment. Another interesting contribution to the debate came from Maria Russell, an early-years teacher in North London, who observed that when her young pupils returned to school, their attitudes had changed due to mixed experiences with technology during the pandemic.  Technology has lost its association with ‘fun’ and become less compelling for her pupils who now crave completely different things like climbing, playing with their friends, reading physical books, and having stories read to them.   

Does this mean we might see infants with mobile phones as the exception rather than the norm in the future? Who knows, but when early-years school children don’t consider tech as much ‘fun’ as they used to pre-pandemic, then a seed of change is germinating that could blossom into significant shifts in attitudes towards the tech in our lives as this generation grows up. Time, as they say, will tell.

London, millennials, a stag night, and immersive television…

The Badger spent last weekend in London attending a stag night.  Our party of 8, mainly millennials, had a great time without succumbing to a drunken stupor. The weekend featured a crazy golf competition, a great meal, a stay in the Hard Rock Hotel, a bowling competition, and many wide-ranging discussions during the quieter times. Although the Badger was positively geriatric compared to his millennial companions, he gained much respect by doing well in all the competitions!

The members of the group came from different backgrounds and parts of the country. Bonding was helped by the fact that it was everyone’s first stay in London since the start of the pandemic. Although initially apprehensive, we all relaxed when it was clear that all venues were applying covid-safe procedures rigorously, and that most people everywhere were complying with government guidance. It felt strange, however, to see that millennials were by far the dominant generation on the streets and on public transport, and also that no one gave the groom – dressed as Star War’s C3PO – a second look as he walked along Oxford Street! 

Spending a weekend with a group of millennials having a good time proved strikingly educational for the Badger. This is a generation whose lives have been impacted by a global financial crisis, a global virus pandemic, and enormous advances in digital technology.  Most of them don’t remember a time when they received a sensible interest rate on their savings. Most depend completely on their smartphone and use gaming or Netflix for entertainment rather than television. Most use social media heavily, only shop online, expect things to happen fast, and use cash minimally.  Over the weekend everyone used contactless payment for public transport and even to play air hockey in an arcade at one of the activity venues. Smartphones were used to order and pay for full English breakfasts at a table in Wetherspoons, at a fifth of the price for breakfast in the hotel. This is a generation of digital natives who know that continued rapid tech advances will dominate the rest of their lives. 

During one discussion that morphed from the limited success of 3D TV over the last decade, most in the group believed that television will shortly become immersive using virtual reality technology derived from gaming. Time will tell, but it’s a brave person that says they’re wrong.  It was discussions like this that made the Badger thoughtful on the way home. London’s Oxford Street is cleaner, the buses are hydrogen powered, many shops are empty, but the multitude of American Candy stores and the small number of the Badger’s generation out and about highlights that the world has changed and that millennials have the future in their hands. The Badger’s stag night companions were hungry to embrace every aspect of the digital future ahead.

Bank branches, the decline of the High Street, and risk with online-dependence…

Living in a town of 14,000 people, it’s painful to watch the decline of its ancient, characterful, High Street due to the impact of the modern online world. This week it was announced that the town’s last bank branch will close later in 2021. There were 6 major banks on the town’s High Street in 2015, all of which had occupied historic buildings for decades. In a few months there’ll be none and all the old buildings that housed them will be empty. The nearest bank branch will be 10 miles away, the town will have just 2 ATMs, and the local Post Office will be the only place providing basic banking services.  Apart from its empty premises, the High Street is already dominated by more coffee shops, eateries, hairdressers, and estate agents than appears sustainable. This is the same in many towns because the world has become online-first and our behaviour has changed.     

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of online-first for everything. The use of physical money – cash – for in-store purchases halved in 2020 and the downward trend is unlikely to change. As cash disappears, we’ll soon see people rattling charity tins for donations, tip jars on the counters of coffee shops, collection plates at church services, and funfair slot machines all disappear too.  Banks can’t be blamed for behaving like the businesses they are, or for adapting to the needs and expectations of their digital-native customers, especially those born since the 1980s, but the closure of physical branches does impact on society, as outlined by the parliamentary report here.  The High Street’s decline isn’t the fault of the banks, it’s a consequence of the internet, relentless progress in digital technology, and our own behaviour. The decline comes with a sting in the tail for completely digital-native generations as they get older, because the concept of local community is eroding and being replaced by the personal isolation that comes with total dependence on the online world.

A society that’s online dependent for everything isn’t free of risk. The pandemic illustrates just how disruptive a biological virus can be, so just think how troublesome a future global cyber equivalent – deliberate or accidental – could be if you can’t access your money or do anything online. It’ll never happen, you say.  Never say never, especially when 20 years ago people worried about a ‘millennium bug’, 10 years ago there was a global banking crisis, and recent cyber incidents have caused chaos with fuel pipelines and forced store closures. If a cyber-space catastrophe happened, there’ll be no point meeting anyone for coffee in the High Street, because the High Street won’t exist and there’ll be no means to pay for the coffee. It won’t be the fault of banks; it will just be the manifestation of one of the current risks in modern life that we don’t seem to think too much about.