A football stadium, ambient living — and the digital challenge

It’s not every day I find myself invited to a football stadium – but yesterday that’s where I found myself, speaking at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton.

I was talking at the North West Development Agency’s event to explore the ‘digital future’, part of the widespread activities happening across the country in response to the Government’s Digital Challenge – aimed at driving innovation and better use of technology by local authorities in meeting the needs of their communities.

With up to £7m potentially available for the winning proposal, the Challenge is focusing a lot of minds and generating a lot of constructive, innovative ideas. The best thing is I suspect, whether they win or not, a lot of these great ideas are going to happen anyway. So the Challenge is proving a great catalyst in helping drive forward the UK’s use of technology in ways that connect with local people.

My talk was about the coming ambient age – and aimed to communicate its relevance in ways that bridge technology and policy to meet community leads. In the first wave of digital initiatives already in existence the focus has been primarily on the “virtual” world – and, by and large, about Websites and electronic forms of publishing. But we should be thinking at least as much about the impact of technology on our real (bricks and mortar if you prefer) communities too. Ambient assisted living, for example – independent living enabled by technology. (An illustration of this is technology enabling the elderly to continue living in their own homes as long as possible, living independently under their own control with a higher quality of life).

Another theme I’ve become engaged with recently, following discussions with the DTI and the Building Research Establishment, is that of ‘intelligent environments’. Buildings, for example, which provide much better, smarter management of services such as lighting, heating and security. Systems that sense when you’re there (and when you’re not) and adjust themselves accordingly. This is not just about smart gadgets for their own sake: but in a world where we need to conserve and use energy better, vital components in the way we can help make that happen.

The emergent Web 2.0 is about a resurgence of creativity and the consumer (citizen) as both producer and consumer, with clear implications for the government’s agenda to place the citizen at the centre and provide personalised services. What better way than the approach offered for example by mashups? Providing users with their services the way they want them? A great definition of personalised services – and avoiding the problem of someone at the centre trying to second guess the way citizens will want to interact with the available services.

There’s a marked divergence at present between personal and business use of the Web. When you look at the online social networks, discussion groups, personal blogs, content sharing websites, podcasts, use of mesh networks, prevalence of mobility and the move to the edge that’s taking hold, even the first generation of Web-based digital public services clearly need to be fundamentally reviewed and updated. Layer on top of this new ways of using technology in our real, physical communities, and the Digital Challenge could produce some truly world-class breakthroughs in helping ensure the vitality, viability and sustainability of our communities across urban and rural environments.

If employees too can be empowered to work in new ways, spending less time in arbitrary physical offices and working from where suits their role best (home and other, community-based locations) and spending more time on the front line, we could see a whole range of benefits. Not just for the employee (who can devote more time to the enjoyable, productive parts of their job and less in wasteful and irritating distractions, such as admin and traffic jams). But in terms of reduced commuting, reduced traffic congestion, reduced energy waste in terms of over-heated ‘head office’ buildings.

I sense we could help make some real breakthroughs here in proving that technology truly can transform – not just embroider – services and the very fabric of the way our communities organise and evolve.

Provided of course that we also make the transition to technology and policy being co-ordinated and co-developed at the inception of policy itself – not as an after-thought.


This blog post originally appeared when I hosted NTOUK on SimpleBlog. It’s one of several I’m retrieving and posting here to bring together my posts in one place. The content, date and time shown for this post replicates the original. Many links are, inevitably, broken: where I can, I’ll substitute ones that work, particularly where the Internet Archive Wayback Machine has captured the content originally linked to.

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