Navigating the new industrial revolution

We’ve been living in an increasingly digital world for twenty years: it’s almost impossible to live a life anywhere that is not somehow impacted by “digital”. As Bill Gates said :”The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don’t really even notice it, so it’s part of everyday life.” We’ve moved from treating “digital” as a thing in itself, to realisation that it is simply a means to an end – in fact, to most ends.

Agile, reactive iteration

Entrepreneurs and private businesses have long embraced digital tools, and we’ve done so with agility and reaction times that have kept up with the rapid shift in technologies. It’s often been tempting to laugh at the efforts of government and the public sector to fit technology into their lengthy procurement and project management processes.  Comparisons between steering oil tankers and powerboats have been made.  However, it looks as if this is changing – and changing fast. At the 10th National Digital Conference in London last week, it was a breath of fresh air to hear Matt Hancock MP talk about the Government’s goal to be in step with or even ahead of the private sector, not lagging behind. The big bang project culture is being replaced by agile, reactive, iteration. At Thinking Digital 2015 in Newcastle earlier in the month, Russell Davies, head of the Government Digital Strategy, talked about “iterate, then iterate again”. The remnants of the old processes are being swept away.

A new industrial revolution

We solve problems in different ways now, simply because we can. The digital revolution has surreptitiously changed the way we communicate, research, work and play. I can’t imagine going to a library to find a microfiche to read a news article (under 30? Email me and I’ll explain). I can’t recall the last time I posted a business letter. Our brains are rewarded when we surf the web, producing oxytocin and adrenalin and building that feel good factor. We are in the middle of an unstoppable new industrial revolution, and it’s time for transformation. Matt Hancock likened the modern data infrastructure to the network of canals and rail that supported the last industrial revolution. This time, our canals are fibres carrying superfast broadband – although already ultrafast broadband is being trialled just up the road from us in Newcastle.

Pave the paths most travelled

The challenge for everyone from government to micro-business is to ensure that simplicity is the end in mind. Don’t over-complicate things and blame the result on digital tools. As with every process, observe behaviour and respond. If you try to impose a structure for people to follow, they won’t: people don’t behave rationally or predictably. Ever wondered why every park has beaten paths across the grass? Those paths most travelled should be paved. Good design of online tools follows user behaviour, rather than the other way round; it also uses digital tools to manage risk and simplify the user experience. Not everyone is happy about this revolution; not everyone can navigate the new canals. It’s up to digital leaders to deliver simplicity, to pave the paths most travelled, so that all of us can reap the benefits.