Innovate 2017 – Optimism tinged with concern
Fowlam‘s CEO Frances Brown has a particular interest in tackling the difficult problems that technology and innovation present, using evidence based methods and research. Here she gives her impressions of Innovate 2017 and talks about the problems that need to be solved for innovation to be of true benefit to everybody.
On the 7th and 8th of November I attended Innovate 2017, hosted by Innovate UK at the NEC in Birmingham. The event was attended by around 2,500 people including inventors, researchers, business owners and investors. Its theme was ‘Discover the Future of Industry’ and, as you would expect, there was a large emphasis on technology.
While it was fascinating to see examples of innovation, my real interest was in understanding the attitudes and ideas that exist around the way in which industry is changing. As a user researcher, my focus is always on the impact developments have on humans and on how they work, play and socialise with each other.
There was a lot of optimism in the opening presentations about the positive impact that technology can have on industry, in terms of productivity, efficiency and profitability. However, in many of the panel discussions and presentations the outlook wasn’t so rosy.
Some key concerns came up again and again, namely: a lack of skills and training among the existing workforce and among people due to come into the workforce in the next ten years; the general lack of productivity in the UK, in spite of technological improvements; the reluctance for some sectors, such as construction, to embrace technology fully; and the potential for automation and AI to reduce the number of jobs available.
There was some excellent discussion about these topics. What particularly interested me was the suggestion that the traditional model of education, where people go to school and university then get a job, needs to change. It was argued that due to the rapid pace of change in all industries it is imperative to switch to a model of lifelong learning, where workers are regularly reskilled and redeployed as needed. One panellist suggested that lifelong learning will become compulsory for people who want to stay employed. The difficulty, the panellists acknowledged, was in providing the educational infrastructure required to cater for the needs of such a large and diverse range of people across their lifespan. A definite innovation challenge, given that the education system has barely changed in the last 200 years.
The potential impact of AI and automation provoked inevitable disagreement among panellists. While some, such as Hamad Mughal of Rolls Royce, believe that innovation will mean greater interconnectivity, increasing the value of relationships and softer skills, Noel Sharkey from the University of Sheffield warned that these relationships will exist between those at the upper ends of the hierarchy, with the danger that those lower down in organisations will lose their jobs to machines. CognitionX co-founder Tabitha Goldstaub made the very important point that we need to look carefully at who is designing AI and automated systems, because if they are all designed by one race and one gender there is a genuine danger that racial and gender biases will appear in their programming. The panellists had no doubt that AI would play a greater and greater role in the future of industry but they were undecided on the precise impact it would have on people. The audience was split almost 50/50 in their opinions on whether AI would lead to more or fewer jobs.
While discussions about AI suggested a high-tech future, other sessions highlighted the difficulties of getting some industries to embrace even the most basic of technological advances. It seemed to me from these sessions that while innovation is happening at high speed, a lot of businesses, smaller ones in particular, are getting left behind due to a lack of knowledge and a fear of investing in expensive systems. This situation reflects the reality of what I’ve encountered in my own work with a range of different companies – often the will to embrace technology is there but the knowledge and skill sets aren’t.
Another issue discussed that was familiar to me was the difficulty of improving very complex systems such as public transport. While the importance of including users in understanding and improving these systems was emphasised, it was clear that, as in many industries, the maturity and sophistication of the user research being carried out was lacking. I was pleased to hear Teresa Jolley of DEFT153 comment that there is great potential for high quality user research to make a difference – the next stage is to follow that up with action and investment.
I came away from a tiring and enjoyable two days with a feeling that there is a lot of energy and optimism out there, and a great desire to drive innovation forward. However, the event also reinforced my concern that innovation has become so synonymous with technology that in many cases it is technology itself, rather than innovative ideas and action, that has become the main focus of attention. One of the significant dangers of this focus on technology is that more knotty problems that technology can’t solve tend to be avoided and forgotten. Because technology can provide the ‘wow’ factor, it often draws attention away from more complex human problems that require less spectacular but equally vital innovation that involves the rethinking of old ideas or the rebuilding of systems that are no longer fit for purpose. Another danger of this situation is the development of technology for the sake of it. Technology that doesn’t serve people is at best useless and at worst dangerous. In the short term there is a danger that technology for the sake of it becomes directionless – it is absolutely vital that companies to look to the users of technology to give it purpose, so that it is solving real problems in a helpful, positive way.
The potential for innovation is clearly enormous – it was great to see such energy and appetite at this event and the great work Innovate UK have done in sparking and supporting it over the last ten years. It is also clear that a lot of hard work needs to be done to ensure innovation is sustainable and provides benefits to the maximum number of people in the long term. There is a recognition of that need, but perhaps not the structure or understanding in place to provide it. We at Fowlam are hoping to do our part by providing solid, detailed user research that allows innovation to fit with human needs. What part can your company play in sparking, supporting and sustaining innovation?