I count myself as a child of the first digital revolution. My grandfather, a retired engineer, was fascinated by emerging computer technology in the 1970s and introduced me to binary systems, programmable calculators and early home computers such as the ZX81.
In 1981, before going to university, I worked for GEC’s research lab, writing code for a computer the size of a room to simulate the effect of sending digital signals down fibre optic cables. I was paid in cash each Friday and had to sprint to the bank to pay my earnings in before it closed at 3.30 for the weekend.
Now, 35 years on, our world is unrecognisable. I am, I admit it, utterly dependent on my smartphone. The phone part is entirely subordinate to a range of other functions, from travel planning, to tweeting, to paying for stuff (no more sprints to the bank!). In pretty much every part of government services, we have moved away from paper forms to online as the default route – while recognising that we mustn’t exclude those who don’t have access to reliable internet.
Back at GEC in 1981, we had no idea where my fibre optic simulations, or a colleague’s early work on voice recognition, would take us. But we were laying the foundations on which today’s everyday experiences are built. That’s quite a thought, as we stand on the brink of another revolution. Profound shifts in how we gather, analyse and use data are underpinning advances in forecasting, manufacturing and monitoring.
Conservation, food protection, farming and all the other sectors that Defra deals with are huge generators and users of data, and there are many examples of how data is transforming our work. Drones monitoring flood defences. Satellite mapping that helps restore ancient river courses. Sequencing equipment that can tell us whether newts have been in a pond without the need for lengthy surveys.
My heart is lifted by the opportunities I encounter that improve people’s lives by supporting productivity and the environment. Precision farming, using data to determine where fertilisers should be applied or to target pesticide on individual blades of wheat, saves money and reduces the risk that run-off from fields will pollute our rivers. That’s a real win-win.
But technological advance doesn't just happen. It needs people with the right abilities and attitudes to come together. It needs 'imagineers', people who can imagine things beyond the boundaries of current knowledge, and keep trying until they find out whether they are possible or not. It needs early adopters who are prepared to take a risk, to invest or to go out on a limb when others want concrete evidence of benefits. And it needs other people, too.
People to see opportunities and make connections. People to set frameworks so that innovation happens within publicly acceptable bounds. People who can anticipate and prepare for the consequences of technological advance, including the human impact on jobs and skills. And people to create an environment of open collaboration where all these things can thrive.
Technology really is all about the people.