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I was listening to the radio this morning and on came a debate about the governments proposed change to the minimum threshold of voting to allow strike action, the government want a minimum of 40% of eligible voters to support strike action for it to become legal. Now that is a debate in itself but the interesting part for me was a representative from the TUC speaking about their proposal for greater involvement by their members that included online voting, the government minister was less than enthusiastic.

This got me thinking about the less than universal approach government has to the use of technology. The unwillingness to allow online voting whilst embarking on a policy of digital by default, universal access and moving services online appears at best a missed opportunity and at worst a suspicious manipulation of the system. You either believe in universal access and the migration to a digital by default environment or you don’t, choosing digital to provide savings for government but not for extending inclusion in the democratic process looks like political tinkering to me. Currently you can vote in person, by post or via a proxy but not electronically.

Embracing technology to enable greater involvement in both national and local politics feels like a sensible next step and long overdue, after all there is an acute problem in this country with political participation. Voting in elections is at a record low, the vote for Police Commissionersbarley reached 20% in most instances, seriously undermining the legitimacy of those who take office with such a low level of endorsement. Right now, less than half of 18-24 year-olds vote and the results for the 2010 general electionshow a huge discrepancy between voting and age. 

Only 44% of 18 – 24 year olds vote against 76% of over 65’s, leading to policy making that will inevitably favour older voters. The government is spending billions of pounds of tax payers money rolling our superfast broadband and committed to substantial reforms in the way it delivers services with almost no support for those who will find their services going digital. According to Go On UK, nearly 20% of adults lack basic digital skills and the largest single demographic of this group are those aged over 65. 

The practical arguments for not introducing online voting don’t stack up which makes this a purely political choice. Online voting would almost certainly be cheaper and extend the democratic process to segments of society that are currently disengaged, there is no reason why security and identity assurance issues can’t be overcome, other countries do it and we have already agreed that you can perform other transaction with government online, why not extend this to voting?

My suspicion is that the governments reluctance to introduce online voting could be perceived as a way of maintaining the status quo for those in power, after all the system is set up to overly represent an older demographic and introducing a system that is potentially more representative of the population and not just those to vote would be hugely disruptive and force policy makers to address a much wider range of policy issues and make potentially unpopular trade offs. 

Surely technology presents the opportunity for a different kind of political debate and the tempting possibility of extensive participation in politics.

Lets not just put government services online, lets put democracy online.

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Smart Islands in a Dumb City

SMART - Easy Vision – Tough Reality

‘This blog was first published in 2013’

Councils and cities across the country are turning to technological solutions to try and increase the efficiency of their environments whilst delivering cost savings at the same time. A tough trick to pull off at the best of times, let alone with huge budget pressure and competing priorities.

The concept of a smart or future city has been around for several years now. We have all seen the video that shows how our journey to the airport will be transformed in the future, with transport systems that are not only fully integrated, but intelligent enough to respond to changing circumstances and demands.

These visions offer a utopian view of a world that adapts to the needs of the user and automatically and seamlessly adjusts the various systems to optimise and prioritise the competing needs of different users.  Although these visions provide an interesting and easily accessible interpretation of what may be possible, it isn’t yet realistic. For the first time in history, the vision and the reality are starting to align, but they aren’t there quite yet.

The motivations are increasing for independent organisations whether public or private to invest in smart infrastructure. But the business models and platforms that enable collaboration across very diverse organisation types are still elusive. There is a genuine risk that in the short term we end up with a multitude of smart islands in a dumb city, in other words, individual clusters that are intelligent within their own boundary but that simply do not relate to each other or the environment within which they sit. Consider the scenario, you have two developments on either side of a road that are independently intelligent but do not connect to one other, or relate to the very street that passes in front of them. The risk of this scenario in reality is that the nirvana of a total city infrastructure that optimises resources will remain elusive. The benefits that are much cited will remain out of reach as these islands develop proprietary standards and differing business models. The impact will become evident to the people moving between these environments as the experience, quality and level of service changes or becomes unavailable.

Currently several global technology giants are investing in the smart city concept, this is to be encouraged but there does need to be attention paid to standards and interconnection between these deployments. The recent announcement of Glasgow as the winner of the TSB cash to pilot an integrated smart city is a great example of the momentum in the market at the moment, what we can’t afford to happen however is that this substantial investment doesn’t resolve some of the more difficult integration and business model challenges that exist.

One consideration is whether the model being developed is purely business to business or business to consumer. One requires a clear business plan comprised of cost analysis, stakeholder engagement and all sorts of other elements that make business feel comfortable, this can be done largely without the consideration or engagement of the public and will focus on infrastructure and cost reduction, these benefits are easy to identify but may lead to poorer service for the users. Once the needs of the individual users are placed front and centre and engagement plans for participation are considered, the priorities and process are very likely to change.

There needs to be a sustained effort to develop business models that work across organisations that have never collaborated before, let alone had a formal relationship. There will need to be some political leadership; for instance, there is little or no incentive for a water company and property developer to co-develop especially where investment will be needed. Policy makers will need to decide the priorities, establish frameworks and provide assurance and incentives for business to invest over the long term. This won’t be easy, but if the opportunities are broken down into small steps and we don’t allow proprietary solutions to distract and divert resources, then this can be a very exciting opportunity to bring together systems and entire industries that have never worked together before.

If we want to make a smart city a reality, then we are first going to need some smart thinking on how we can make this possible.