Change…

What a year it’s been! There can’t be many people across the globe who haven’t been touched in some way by personal, social, or economic impacts from the Covid-19 pandemic.  It would be very easy, as a New Year approaches, to not only indulge in hand-wringing sadness, regret, and despondency about the events of 2020, but also to speculate – with or without optimism – about the future. But there’s enough of that in the traditional media, on the internet, and on social media platforms, so the Badger set himself a challenge over the Christmas holiday to sum up both the last year and the future using just one word!

That word didn’t take long to emerge. It was streaks ahead of the alternatives. The word was ‘change’.   

This year has seen ‘change’ in nearly everything – how we shop, the structure and the nature of industry sectors, the profile of scientists, technologists and health and care professionals, the way we work, travel, and interact with other people, the shape of the economy and our cities, and our awareness of how the world really works. We now all know that rather than bombs and guns, things you cannot see which don’t respect geographic boundaries can wreak real havoc to our lives and threaten our species. We have also all seen just how dependent we are on global supply chains, digital technology, the well-being of the planet, and – indeed – on each other.

Change doesn’t stop, so the word ‘change’ is more than apt to describe the future. The First World War and the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago were triggers for major personal, societal, and economic change, and so its highly likely we’ll see the same once the Covid-19 pandemic abates but this time much, much faster.  Why? Because the pandemic has made us face the reality that the old ways really were truly unsustainable.

The Badger thinks we have all been reminded of one thing this year, that you can never be certain in life of what’s around the next corner.  Predicting the future is fraught with risk and disappointment, especially with the world continuing to be in a very difficult place. But with ‘change’ inevitable in 2021, the Badger thinks there’s only one New Year resolution for sensible people to make and that’s to  ‘embrace rather than resist the changes ahead’.   Whether we like it or not, change is a perpetual aspect of our lives. History shows that resisting it leads to disadvantage, avoidable anxiety, and ultimately personal, societal, and economic collateral damage that serves no one well. And on that point of philosophical reflection, the Badger wishes you well and that you have a better 2021 than 2020.

Millennials; 100 years ago and today…

When the Badger entered the graveyard of the pretty, 13th century, English village church to put flowers on his mother’s grave, he was intending to write about the financial results of the tech giants. By the time he left, however, this intention had been consigned to the bin. Why? Because of thoughts triggered by seeing 318 white headstones of WW1 Canadian soldiers amidst the graveyard’s maple trees and acers in autumn colour. Most of these soldiers had  survived the Great War but were victims of the 1918-1920 Spanish Flu pandemic while waiting in a local military camp to be repatriated back to Canada.  Reading their inscriptions is always poignant, especially as most were aged between 18 and 30 when they succumbed so far away from home.  Their graves in this quiet corner of England are wonderfully maintained. If you’re interested, you can find who from the Great War is buried in a graveyard near you here.

The spectacular autumn colours, the rows of white headstones, and the fact that the Badger’s grandfathers served in and survived the Great War and the flu pandemic, triggered thoughts about just how different life was a 100 years ago. There were no anti-viral drugs and no antibiotics. There was no National Health Service, no television, no radio, no telephones for the masses, no electricity in the vast majority of homes, and – in the UK – the vote for all men over the age of  21 had only just been granted through an Act of Parliament in 1918. Life was tough, much tougher than most today have endured, but people got through it even though > 200,000 people died in the UK alone during the 4 pandemic waves between 1918 and 1920.

Today we are in the midst of another global pandemic but with tools and capabilities at our disposal that would have been pure science fiction 100 years ago.  Yet Western democracies are struggling to cope, politicians are arguing and scoring points off each other rather than standing shoulder to shoulder, broadcast and social media is full of scaremongering, selectivism, and naysayers spreading gloom and confusion, and economies are crumbling. Behaviour underpinned by the modern digital capabilities available through our smartphones, tablets and laptops has contributed to polarisation and disruption!  Yes, today’s tech gives everyone a voice, but what use is that if rationality and common sense is in the minority and society can be seen to be progressively fraying?  The Badger’s in a strange mood. Perhaps he’s being unfair.

Staring at the grave of a 20 year old soldier from Ontario, a millennial of the last century, the Badger wondered what the soldier would think about his counterparts today and the world they live in. Hmm. However, as the Badger left, a small group of millennial cyclists stopped to look at the graves. They started chatting about this very thing. From what the Badger overheard, there’s hope for us all yet…  

Is the death of the physical desk finally nigh?

The Badger’s lucky because he has an ‘office’ at home – a room complete with a desk, storage cabinets, and IT.  It’s the Badger’s space for creative thinking, working, and administering modern life. It has a proper desk, one with character and scars that shows that it has been at the heart of creativity and endeavour for years.  The IT sits neatly on it, just like the pen, notepad, and the other odds and ends that personalise the space.

This week, while sitting at the desk, the Badger found himself reflecting on commentaries about how employers offices will be impacted after the remote working of white-collar staff during the pandemic. It soon dawned on the Badger that the longest tenure he has had with any desk is with the one he was sitting at!  The Badger realised that during 35 years in the IT industry he had occupied many different ‘desks’ in employer/client offices, and that he had experienced numerous transformations of office environments. Indeed, the Badger was often part of the decision-making teams that initiated these transformations!

Having an office format that would attract new staff, help employee retention, and support changing business needs were always factors in decision making, but reducing overheads by increasing the density of staff in the same floor area was always a dominant factor. Thus, over time, proper physical desks and filing cabinets in discreet rooms gave way to ‘Open Plan’ with smaller ‘table’ surfaces and wheeled under-desk units, which in turn gave way to  Hot Desking’ where a surface in a long lines of regimented identical ones, with no storage space, had to be booked to be used.  The Badger, and most in the IT sector, never found such transformations too problematic because remote and flexible working – anytime, anyplace, anywhere – has been part of work patterns for many decades.  However, for white-collar people and their employers in other sectors, see BP for example, the pandemic has triggered a structural shift in work patterns and a big rethink by employers of the role, form, and scale of their offices.

Long before the pandemic, ‘Open Plan’ was giving way  to more ‘agile’ environments, and now the pandemic has skewered  ‘Hot Desking’ too – see here and here , for example. Time will tell, but many employers now have under-used offices and their white-collar employees know they can work remotely and productively without commuting to an impersonal worksurface at their employer’s office. Change is inevitable.  So, is ‘the death of the physical desk’ finally nigh? The Badger doesn’t think so. Why? Because, like so much in today’s world, there will be a hybrid solution to the future of work with much more flexible working.  Having a physical desk that you can call your own will feature in this future because it has psychological, functional, productivity and practical merits which complement the virtual desk that your laptop and cyberspace constitutes.  Just don’t look to your employer for one. Have your physical desk at home and be amazed how quickly you get attached to it!

ITER – Another step forward to the world’s new normal

The announcement that the assembly of ITER, the world’s first device aiming to produce net energy from nuclear fusion, has started put a spring in the Badger’s step. Why? Because it’s an international joint experiment that will ultimately benefit everyone on the planet, and also because it has the support and cooperation of world powers who, in the wider sphere of global politics, often spend more time antagonising each other.  Perhaps naively, the Badger feels ITER provides a twinkle of light in the current sea of sour relationships amongst the world’s largest powers.

ITER will move us closer to the ultimate goal of large-scale carbon-free energy. It also represents a ‘moment’ for the Badger who has had a long-standing interest in the science, engineering, materials, and information technology aspects of workable fusion reactors. It’s a massive ‘Build & Systems Integration’ project and the software system that makes it function is just as critical as everything else in its construction. But ITER is also something else; it’s yet another illustration that 2020 is heralding a decade of enormous real change in what constitutes ‘normal’ in life across the world.  The ‘normal’ of six months ago has disappeared and a new ‘normal’ is evolving fast.   Change is very much in the air. Just ask those you bump into in the local supermarket and you’ll find they feel it too.

SpaceX’s recent success, missions to Mars, satellite networks,  health and wearable technologies, video technology for consultations with health professionals, battery and hydrogen powered vehicles, 5G, robotics and artificial intelligence are all examples of an enormous wave of technological advancement that is rippling throughout the world with extra momentum in 2020.  Reliance on fossil fuel is declining. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown that life goes on and the environment benefits with less planes in the sky and vehicles on the roads, that high street retail has changed for ever, and that working remotely from the office is effective and productive for many people.

Bosses and workers alike are now questioning the need for expensive offices in city centres and the daily commute. Cities and their transportation infrastructure are accordingly likely to change over the next decade.  The world order is changing too, with the USA and China jockeying for position as top dog and the EU in decline. The election of the oldest president in US history in the next few months doesn’t look as if it will change anything. The world order is increasingly distrustful of each other and the United Nations is largely toothless.

Everything above shows transition to a new ‘normal’ is fully underway. ITER is just one of many indicators of this and the speed with which world change is happening. No one can predict the future, but the Badger is certain of one thing. The first fusion plasma in ITER, scheduled for December 2025, will happen before fully autonomous vehicles are in widespread use on UK roads!

Cyber attacks on the ‘Middleman’…

Elexon announced last week that their internal IT had been impacted by a cyber-attack. Specific detail about the attack was not, understandably, released although there has been some speculation in the media. Elexon plays an important role in the UK electricity market by operating the Balancing and Settlement Code (BSC) and facilitating payments between generators, suppliers and brokers. Although the ‘critical national infrastructure (CNI)’ systems at the heart of electricity market operations were unaffected, the incident is nevertheless embarrassing for this ‘middleman’ organisation.

Coincidentally, the incident caught the Badger’s eye just after reading the UK Department of Digital, Culture, Media & Sport ‘s March 2020 Cyber Security Breaches Survey. Broadly, the report concludes that with Board attention on cyber security and the advent of GDPR, organisations are becoming more resilient to cyber-attacks and faster at recovering from breaches, but less likely to report the negative impact and cost of breaches. The report also reiterates that the nature of cyber threat is continuously evolving and that organisations are experiencing attacks more frequently than 5 years ago. Essentially, progress is being made but there is still lots to do and no organisation can be complacent.

The Elexon incident is yet another reminder that organisations and the public in today’s digital world can never be immune to cyber threat from ‘bad actors’ of any type. It is a reminder that personal and organisational cyber security awareness, diligence, discipline, and professionalism are essential if threats are to be minimised, attacks repelled, and security, data, and privacy preserved. The fact that the Elexon incident did not impact the electricity market systems per se, or the ability to keep the country’s lights on, is not surprising because CNI systems are obvious targets for ‘bad actors’ and their protection is taken very seriously by complying with good advice and guidance from national authorities.

A couple of days ago, a conversation with an acquaintance about the Elexon incident took an unexpected turn. They said if they were a ‘bad actor’ like Blofeld out to destabilise an entire country, they would unleash a simultaneous cyber-attack on all ‘middleman’ organisations similar to Elexon and DCC (for Smart Meters) in all key sectors. Why? It would be easier and simpler than going after CNI systems per se, because the ‘middleman’ is likely to have more weaknesses in their cyber defences. National turmoil would ensue without damaging the CNI itself. Just think, they said, what knocking out all ‘middleman’ organisations simultaneously would lead to in terms of pressure on the government, business frustration, social media backlash, loss of national confidence, political turmoil, international embarrassment and so on. The door would be open for a new regime!

The acquaintance sensed the Badger becoming concerned and suspicious. They quickly pointed out that they were not, of course, actually Blofeld! And, just in case you are wondering, neither is the Badger…

Time for a ‘Smart’ National Healthcare System…

Some years ago, the Badger led part of a national UK programme for trading wholesale electricity. The national programme was struggling to stay on plan, a fact increasingly obvious to all the industry, supplier and public servants involved. Delay was inevitable, and most organisations involved inevitably manoevured to avoid being blamed and being exposed to the associated commercial ramifications. The Regulator asked the Badger for an honest view of the programme’s status. The Badger set out the facts and said a delay was inevitable. The Regulator smiled, and said ‘I know, but there needs to be ‘an event’, dear boy, before our masters will accept the need for any change’. Experienced large-scale programme, project or service delivery leaders will recognise the truth of the Regulator’s words.

The COVID-19 pandemic is ‘an event’ that has challenged national healthcare systems across the world. In the UK, for example, the National Health Service (NHS) has moved faster to overcome embedded bureaucratic, administrative, structural and operational issues in the last two months than it has ever done in its entire history. This imperative has rapidly changed the way things currently work for General Practitioners (GPs) in the community, hospital managers, doctors, nurses and other clinicians in hospitals, those providing goods or services in supply chains, and of course patients alike. Everyone, including patients, are realising that speedy change for the better is possible and that technology is nothing to be frightened of when used intelligently and properly.

The Badger saw such enlightenment first-hand last week. A very elderly neighbour was fretting because their routine hospital outpatient appointment had been changed to a telephone consultation. However, after the telephone consultation with the same doctor they would normally have seen face to face, the neighbour’s anxiety had completely evaporated. They were overjoyed to have avoided travelling twenty miles for a face to face meeting that would rarely be on time and last only a few minutes. They were also very keen to try a video call for the next appointment, as suggested by the doctor, even though they have neither broadband nor a smartphone!

The pandemic constitutes ‘an event’ and an opportunity to trigger permanent change and improvement. If we have ‘Smart Meters’ and ‘Smart Motorways’ isn’t it time we had a truly ‘Smart National Healthcare System’ that embraces the different ways of working suited to today’s digital world? Our leaders must ensure we emerge from COVID-19 with a stronger national healthcare system. It would be a travesty to revert to old ways, especially when this ‘event’ has shown that technology is not the barrier for a truly ‘Smart National Healthcare System’…it’s the willingness to change long established operational and functional practices.

Robots in Nursing Homes…

The Badger’s immediate priority in 2020 so far has been dealing with the health and care of a frail, 91-year old, father in moving to a nursing home after a lengthy stay in hospital. This transition went better than anticipated and the Badger’s respect for all the health and care professionals involved has reached new heights. They have been magnificent. A transition to a nursing home becoming ‘home’ is, of course, difficult for any person, especially when they have medical, mobility and dementia issues but still desire full independence, but the staff have been great and have eased the process for everyone.

If you have dealt with a similar scenario then you’ll know that it makes you aware of little things that can improve the patient’s quality of life and the bigger things that would help carer’s in their work. Useful items of simple technology are available that can help with the former – see here and here, for example – and robotic pets might ultimately help some people in the future! Regarding help for carer’s, however, the Badger’s observation is that technology that helps to safely move the human body during the daily routines of life will provide the biggest help. There has been robotics research in this area for some time, and robot advances in nursing home settings is moving apace in Japan, gaining more momentum across the developed world, and receiving investment from the UK government. If the Badger becomes resident in a nursing home in a few decades time, then a robot will inevitably play a role in getting him out of bed!

A young digital native in the Badger’s family made the following comment after the Badger’s father had been in his new home for a week:

‘There’s no point in me having a laptop, tablet, smartphone, Alexa or online games when I get old because I’ll forget what they are and how to use them. Talking to someone will be more important’.

The Badger wouldn’t put it quite that way, but the comment was very insightful!

The right robots will undoubtedly help in a residential care environment, but in the Badger’s opinion they will never replace the humanity shown by the special people who really care for their vulnerable and high-dependent residents. The Badger ’s father readily responds to people who engage him with encouraging words, a touch of a hand, a smile, a wiggle of the nose or a wrinkle of the face, and a joke or some banter. Robots  that help care staff should get more profile and investment, but it’s people and the humanity of their interactions that really makes a difference in our twilight years. So, bring on the robots, but not as a replacement for the special people who look after us when we can’t look after ourselves…

A new decade…’Sustainability’ will be its key word…

It’s Christmas and time to celebrate in a way that’s appropriate to your beliefs, budget, and personal priorities. Christmas often brings to the fore anxiety associated with spending, presents, and the people dear to us, especially those with health or other vulnerabilities, but it’s also a time to look to the future with optimism and hope. That’s what the Badger household’s doing, especially as a new decade beckons. In fact, Badger’s household (who’ve all grown up with technology, entertainment and information at their fingertips) has already been speculating on what life will be like in 2029!

The Badger household has already agreed that our approach to Christmas has significantly changed over the last decade. There’s been a significant shift away from materialism and a much stronger emphasis on doing the right thing for those vulnerable people around us who, for whatever reason, need support. The household all agree that while giving and receiving gifts is good, it’s also silly and a waste of money if they quickly end up in the back of our cupboards! Interestingly, everyone no longer takes much notice of the marketing and advertising machinery that encourages us to spend on ‘gadgets’, and none of us believes this will change when new ‘must haves’ arrive over the next decade.

So, what will life be like at the end of the next decade? How will tech shape the future? What will really impact our lives? Predictions abound, as you’ll see here, here, here, here, and here. However, forecasting the future is a fool’s game, especially when 10 years after the 2008/9 global financial crisis it’s not really clear if lessons have been learned. So, has the Badger household converged on a view on life at the end of the next decade? No. However, it has agreed that ‘unexpected events’ will determine whether any current predictions are delivered!

The Badger household has also agreed that the word ‘sustainability’ will dominate our lives through the next decade. Why? Because demographic changes in the world’s population means the global population is getting older. Older people tend to focus on their ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’, and they know these are best met by a sustainable balance between wealth creation and the finite nature of the planet’s resources. ‘Sustainability’ will thus be a theme driven by aging ordinary people, and woe betide any politician that doesn’t listen!

So what’s your key word for the next decade? Why not debate this over the aftermath of a Christmas meal? It will at least remind you that old-fashioned sustainable communication has not been killed off by technology! Have a great Christmas, a prosperous 2020, and a fulfilling and sustainable next decade…

Has ‘Tech’ made life ‘better’ today than it was at the time of 9/11?

9/11 happened 18 years ago. Most people will always remember what they were doing when it happened. The Badger was at work dealing with a major IT programme when the phone rang. It was the Badger’s young son wanting reassurance that his father was safe and not working in a London skyscraper! Reassurance was given, and the Badger then visited the BBC’s news website and was horrified by what he saw.

This year’s 9/11 anniversary and a recent BBC radio interview with Brad Smith from Microsoft triggered some musing on how far digital tech has changed life since that auspicious day in 2001when:

• There was no Facebook, Twitter, or Google News, Gmail, or Google Maps.
• The USA had only just made GPS signals available for civilian use.
• Microsoft XP and the first Apple iPod had just been released.
• There were no Apple iPhones or Android phones and digital cameras were rare.
• Satnavs didn’t exist and there were no Smart Meters or Smart Motorways.
• Drones were the domain of the military and were not available on the High Street for the general public.
• Music and films were purchased mainly as CDs or DVDs.
• The first commercial 3G mobile networks were only just becoming available.
• The dot.com bubble was bursting.
• Widespread IT outsourcing and offshoring was in it’s infancy.
• Our data was very much in our own hands.

How things have changed! Think for a few minutes and it’s apparent that tech and social media proliferation have provided ‘convenience’ for the average person but at the expense of privacy, disruption and perhaps freedom. Are we freer with a better quality of life today than in 2001? Life is certainly different, but it’s difficult to answer ‘yes’ when instant misinformation, manipulation and distortion abounds, and giant organisations know where you are, what you sound like, what you buy, your likes and dislikes, and sell your data for commercial gain. Ethics and regulation have not kept pace and so it’s heartening to now see Microsoft’s President saying sensible things about ‘tech firms stopping their ‘‘if it’s legal, it’s acceptable’ approach’ , AI ethics and weaponization. But will anything really change with such powerful vested interests involved? Let’s see.

It’s sobering to realise that those born at that time of 9/11 are now entering the workforce, or going to University, as fully-fledged digital natives whose life data is already extensively in the hands of others. That wasn’t the case for 18-year-olds in 2001. Tech and social media have made the lives of today’s youngsters ‘different’ to the 18-year-olds of 2001, but are their lives actually any ‘better’? Has tech really made the world a better place than it was in 2001? Try debating that at a dinner party if you want some fun. The most interesting views will emerge after copious amounts of wine…

Smart Meters; Hardly a success…

If you’ve worked extensively on major technology-intensive programmes then you’ll know to expect bumps in the road as new hardware, software, communication networks and processes are introduced to users in the real world. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the UK Smart Meter programme is in the press again!

The target for every UK home to have been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020 isn’t going to be met. Rollout is stalling. Just look at the Q1 2019 rollout numbers! It isn’t credible that the target can be met, but the relevant government department ‘remains committed to ensuring every home has been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020’. This has to be taken with a pinch of salt when even the CEO of Citizens Advice – a charity helping citizens resolve life difficulties with free, independent, confidential advice – thinks the target is unfeasible and must be delayed to ~2023!

Delay means more cost, and the published estimates of consumer bills reducing by £300m/year in 2020 and £1.2bn/year by 2030 will inevitably be revised down. Who pays? The consumer. Although many technology professionals have worked very hard on this programme to get the new software, hardware and communication networks in place, the overall programme has the whiff of white elephant territory and it’s a struggle to see it as a good advert for major ‘Smart’ government initiatives.

Who’s at fault? No doubt many entities will point fingers at each other, but – as the November 2018 National Audit Office’s report noted – the buck stops with the government department that currently still ‘remains committed to ensuring every home has been offered a smart meter by the end of 2020’. The Badger has a simple view. The numbers don’t fib. The costs are ever rising. The business case must be stressed. Fault is rarely with a single entity; it rests collectively. What’s needed now is less rhetoric, spin and defensiveness, and more honesty, realism and greater respect for the end consumer in the roll out.

The 2018 Smart Meter Progress Report ends with the statement ‘the Government has committed to update the cost-benefit analysis for the Programme and complete a stock take of consumer benefits in 2019’. The outcome from this – if it happens – may be the uncomfortable reading that produces a trigger ‘event’ for ‘revision’ of the programme. Time will tell. Meanwhile the Badger not only saves money and the climate without a smart meter, but also avoids the higher tariffs levied by suppliers when consumers exercise their right not to have a smart meter. These may be digital times but one thing’s clear. £11bn and counting, stalling rollout to ambivalent consumers, delay, questionable cost/benefit and the whiff of white elephant are hardly success indicators…