Mark Brett, public services expert at PA Consulting, explains how the Government could use the fourth industrial revolution to make sure no-one is left behind
All governments talk of regional investment, technology transformation and opportunities to drive societal growth. Now, fresh from leading the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the public sector has an opportunity to shape the recovery. As organisations accelerate their digital transformations, and as employees and citizens adapt to new working and living habits, government has been presented with a renewed imperative to respond to the fourth industrial revolution and create a positive human future.
Big data, machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics and automation can all transform society and the economy. We’ve seen how some of these tools enabled ingenious approaches to tackling COVID-19, such as using AI to gather disease-related data and test the viability of potential solutions. When vulnerable people were asked to shield, our experts developed a wellbeing automated call system using an AI-driven chatbot for one council. The system enabled 50,000 calls to be made in a fraction of the time it would otherwise have taken, enabling the council to focus on the 20% of individuals most in need.
So, these technologies can solve very human issues. They also raise very human questions. Any advancements in technology must be understood from a human perspective, and correlated to societal gains. We’ve identified three actions for government to unlock technological and societal advancement in parallel:
With £800m committed to the UK equivalent of the US Advanced Research Projects Agency, known as UK ARPA, government must ensure any investment is focused on society’s grand challenges, rather than building solutions in search of a problem. This requires a detailed understanding of the relevant opportunities and disruptions, and a mindset is needed that depoliticises innovation, accepts failure and approaches funding from a new perspective.
Government needs to focus on outcomes with long-term impact, not an abundance of smaller short-term initiatives. This means accepting a long-tail of projects and breaking the link between tomorrow’s innovations and today’s election cycles. Just look at how the moon landings survived two presidential reigns and widespread negative public opinion before reaching its goal.
Partnering with universities and academia will be vital. First, to identify potential areas of interest, and then to spin-out and scale-out innovations and build the market for future applications. We’re currently working to develop quantum technology with the University of Birmingham, which is exploring a range of potential opportunities to use quantum, including the detection of defects in-out-sight assets to improve highway and infrastructure maintenance.
As regulators continue the transition from enforcer to enabler, technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning will bring a raft of challenges and opportunities. The right balance will need to be struck. Embedding regulators with designers and manufacturers risks the regulator becoming too close and losing objectivity. However, they need to be close enough to provide information, expertise and support to ensure that knowledge gaps in technological application doesn’t stifle innovation. Ofgem, for example, is encouraging innovation by offering funds to innovators via a competition. Entrants must outline how they’ll develop new technologies and how these will contribute to the nation’s low carbon economy objectives – to benefit customers, business and the planet.
Beyond helping industry innovate, regulators must also turn the innovation mirror on themselves and ask how new technologies can help them challenge convention and regulate better. We’re using machine learning to examine the returns a regulatory body receives each week from entities in its remit. Without human intervention, the technology is able to pick up on market signals and flag anything unusual or market shifts in a fraction of the time it would take humans – and this hints at the incredible potential of these technologies for the future of regulation.
Empower local leaders
While the present moment presents an opportunity for government to play a more central role, local progress will require clarity on the respective roles of national and local government. Local authorities demonstrated their responsiveness and resilience during the crisis and must now be trusted to apply the lessons to local growth initiatives within a national framework, incentivising research with academic intuitions and rewarding local business for partnering with public authorities to upskill communities. Providing equality of opportunity for communities will incentivise innovation and economic revival in our new working world.
Adult social care is one area where big advances can be made. Across Hampshire, we’ve helped hundreds more people live independent lives by delivering a range of care technology solutions. This included the use of GPS fall detectors to ensure that vulnerable people are safe, and a European-first pilot of collaborative robots – or ‘cobots’ – that strap around the waist and lower back to protect carers as they deliver care and handle service users. For Hampshire County Council, a technology-enabled care approach has been recommended by 98 percent of vulnerable people and realised net benefits of £9.8 million over five years. Approaches such as these can provide the economic and social support to supercharge regions – and the nation.
Technology alone can’t solve our greatest challenges. We need public participation and belief that the fourth industrial revolution will bring a shared focus on people, planet and profit.
The ingenuity we’ve seen in response to COVID-19 proves what the public sector – and the nation – is capable of when we use technologies in the right way. We now have an opportunity to use the fourth industrial revolution to create a positive human future.
It’s an opportunity we can’t ignore, for those who neglect opportunity can rarely command it a second time.
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