We live in a world where the skills needed to thrive are changing fast. A combination of the rise of digital, artificial intelligence and the move to a global economy means that many previously ‘safe’ middle-income administrative jobs have either been offshored or computerised. Consequently commentators predict a hollowing out of the economy, with a greater number of low wage, low skill roles at the bottom and a smaller number of highly paid jobs at the top of the pyramid. This growing imbalance – and the potential social issues it brings – has been analysed and written about by a number of leading economists, such as Thomas Piketty, in his surprise bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
Despite what the nostalgic might think, this process is irreversible. Globalisation is accelerating and we can’t put the genie of artificial intelligence back into the box. So, how do we ensure that the UK workforce, and UK companies, are able to cope?
Go.On and On?
The key start point is to understand that the traditional model of learning a particular trade or profession and then spending your entire life working at it is no longer valid. Kids at school today will have multiple jobs during their careers, many of which may not even have been invented yet. Given that you can’t teach someone about a profession that doesn’t exist, the best approach is to provide the skills for lifelong, independent learning, such as self-reliance, adaptability, collaboration and other thinking skills.
The other vital element is to have an understanding, and mastery of, technology. To be fair, most children are miles ahead of their parents in this regard, and initiatives such as re-introducing programming to the school curriculum and low cost machines such as the Raspberry Pi are helping to drive these digital skills.
But the risk is that the current adult generation is falling behind. Research by charity Go.On UK has found that 12 million people (roughly a quarter of the adult population), lack the basic digital skills required today. 23% of small businesses also don’t have these skills. Go.On defines these skills in 5 areas:
- Managing information (finding, storing and managing online information)
- Communicating (communicating digitally, interacting online)
- Transacting (shopping/selling online, managing finances digitally, registering for government services)
- Problem-solving (using online resources to learn and solve problems)
- Creating (basic content creation, such as writing a social media post)
For many of us, these are not particularly complex or challenging, but failure to learn them not only hurts the chance of a good job, but also financially impoverishes people. If they aren’t able to buy goods online, they may well end up paying more, while they will be increasingly cut off from family and friends. At the same time a significant number of people are being held back, such as by slow internet access speeds, poverty and a lack of technology.
To show the scale of the problem Go.On has created a digital heatmap of the country, which combines local factors (infrastructure, education, demographics), with the percentage of those with digital skills. This shows the areas that are at risk of being left behind – “digitally excluded” – in the future. What is stark when looking at the map is how few regions and local authorities are safe – the vast majority have a medium to high likelihood of exclusion.
The Go.On findings must act as a wake-up call and a way of focusing efforts on increasing digital skills. My concern is that there doesn’t seem to be one body responsible for this – it is left to a combination of local authorities, central/regional government, schools, colleges, charities and even the BBC. While everyone should be responsible for learning basic digital skills, it needs a co-ordinated effort to level the playing field. Otherwise the imbalance shown in the Go.On map will actually widen, rather than shrink, hurting both individual prospects and the overall economy. It is time for rapid government-led action, and it needs to happen quickly.
The Raspberry Pi is a quintessentially British invention. It was originally created because the University of Cambridge Computing Department felt that new students hadn’t a high enough level of programming experience when they began their studies. So a cheap, accessible machine was designed, using off-the-shelf components and plugging into available devices such as USB keyboards, SD cards and TVs. Like the webcam, another Computing Department invention (it was trained on the filter coffee machine at the other end of the building to avoid wasted journeys if the jug was empty), it combines technology with quirkiness and the British love of tinkering.
From these humble beginnings over 3 million have now been sold. To put this in context it is double the number of sales of the BBC Micro, the original government-backed home computer of the 1980s, and not far off the 5 million Sinclair ZX Spectrum machines that spawned a generation of programmers back then. It has even been shown to the Queen at Buckingham Palace, with founder Eben Upton ticked off by the Duke of Edinburgh for not wearing a tie.
However, the impact of the Pi has gone far beyond sales figures. It has created an ecosystem that spans everything from desktop arcade machines to funky cases. It is also being used within a whole range of other projects, from weather balloons to creating a pirate radio station. You can even run Spectrum games on it, linking back to the 1980s. And all of this from a non-profit company, that is now manufacturing in the UK.
And I’d argue that it has actually had a major hand in putting programming back at the heart of UK education. From September all primary school pupils will be taught programming, as opposed to how to use word processing applications. This will introduce a whole new generation to writing their own programs.
Even if just 5% go on to forge a career in technology, it will deliver a vast new workforce to the sector in the UK – as well as giving the other 95% some basic skills that will help them thrive in a world run by software. The availability of the Pi means it will be central to delivering these lessons, and the community has already created a huge volume of materials for teachers.
Once lessons start I’d expect many more parents to invest in a Pi (either driven by pester power or because they want to help their children succeed) – and at 20 quid for the most basic version it is within the majority of families’ budgets, at less than the price of a new PlayStation or Xbox game.
So I’d argue that the Pi’s rise to prominence hasn’t even really started yet. The combination of its community support, simplicity and the growth of programming means it will go from strength to strength. If you’ll excuse the pun, the Pi really is the limit…………..
I’m a passionate believer in getting more people to learn to code. Like a lot of those my age I grew up with a ZX Spectrum and learned basic programming on a BBC Computer at school. Not only did it reap benefits then (my horse racing game was a triumph, albeit not a financial one), but it gave me an idea of how computers worked that removed any fear of them when I went into the workplace.
And, as my career in PR has progressed, more and more of what I do has a technical element to it – whether that is getting a WordPress site up and running or stitching together data from different tools to measure the impact of campaigns. Not understanding technology or being unable to use it would significantly impact my productivity and my overall job prospects.
When I look back, comparing my childhood to now, the world has changed dramatically. On the plus side we’re now in an era where geekiness is cool and entrepreneurs are celebrated for their ideas. But the opportunities we have to code have been lessened – rather than ZX Spectrums we have gaming consoles that cannot be programmed, except by studios with multi-million pound budgets. Yes, we have the iOS and Android ecosystems where anyone can create an app, but the majority of us are consumers, not programmers.
Clearly there’s a need for change, and initiatives such as the Raspberry Pi and the inclusion of coding in the National Curriculum from September are helping accelerate this. However the fiasco that is the government-backed Year of Code project is an unwelcome bump in the road to the future. For those that haven’t heard of it, the Year of Code is supposed to be an umbrella organisation to encourage everyone to learn to code in 2014.
Unfortunately so far it appears to be a PR-led initiative to muscle in on the work that is already being done. Backed by venture capitalists, and the TechCity community, its main claim to fame is the ill-fated appearance of its executive director Lottie Dexter on Newsnight, where she earned the ire of Jeremy Paxman by admitting that she didn’t actually know how to code. More importantly it appears to have alienated many people who have been working in the space for years by simply not recognising what has already been done.
And, judging by its website, apart from a promotional film (warning – contains footage of George Osborne) and a commitment to “banging the drum for all the fantastic coding initiatives taking place over the course of year and helping many more people engage with technology and access important training opportunities,” it isn’t actually going to do much that is concrete. Essentially it is PR spin on a serious subject, trying to take the lead in the same way as the government has decreed that TechCity is the only viable tech cluster in the UK. It is jumping on a bandwagon and trying to take the reins from those that know what they are doing.
Coding is essential to our competiveness and the future of our children – it is simply too important to be left to a slick marketing machine that is imposed from the top down. Time for the Year of Code to be switched off and then on again to remove the bugs from the system.
This week BBC director general Tony Hall launched a slew of initiatives designed to reposition the beleaguered broadcaster. The aim is to show that the BBC is central to meeting the needs of consumers now and in the future, and to draw a line under an annus horribilis for the corporation, which has been plagued by scandals from Jimmy Savile to excessive payoffs for senior managers.
Amongst the news of a BBC One + 1 channel (by my maths that’s BBC Two), and expansion of iPlayer, one thing that caught my eye was a pledge to “bring coding into every home, business and school in the UK”. As someone who grew up in the 1980s it made me misty-eyed with nostalgia for the last time the BBC got involved in technology, with the original BBC Micro. Essentially the BBC put up the money for the machine to be given to every school in the UK, as well as producing TV programmes and courses on coding.
While I never had a BBC (I was a Sinclair Spectrum diehard), we used them in at school and it did help me learn to code. It really was a golden age for UK computing, as it introduced a generation to computers they could play games on, but equally program and learn with. Programming your own creations was a viable alternative to just treating these machines as games consoles – particularly as a Spectrum game took about 10 minutes to load (and often mysteriously crashed just before it should have started). I was incredibly proud of my amazing horse racing game (complete with betting and flickering graphics), even if my programming days are now long behind me.
Not only did the BBC/Spectrum age produce a generation that wasn’t afraid of coding, but it also helped shape the UK IT industry. Acorn, the makers of the BBC Micro, spawned ARM, now a world leader in chip design, while countless games companies developed from bedrooms into multi-million pound concerns. You could easily argue that Cambridge wouldn’t be the technology powerhouse it is today if it wasn’t for the BBC.
But then IT became marginalised as a school subject – essentially replaced with learning to use desktop applications rather than program. In a global economy where companies compete on knowledge, the need to rekindle that interest in coding has never been greater. The BBC is not the first to understand this – the Cambridge-designed Raspberry Pi has become a global phenomenon as it brings back the spirit of adventure and exploration to children weaned on iPads and Wiis. There’s also a new computer science curriculum for schools and coding courses are becoming increasingly popular across the UK.
So where does the BBC fit into this? There’s a lot of hyperbole in the announcement about “using world class TV, radio and online services to stimulate a national conversation about digital creativity”, but very little detail. The challenge for the BBC is to pitch whatever it offers in a way that doesn’t replicate what is being done in the private sector and doesn’t dumb down coding to a simple point and click level. As seen in the 1980s, the backing of the BBC can be a major force for good, but it could equally stifle the innovation and creativity that it is trying to encourage. The jury’s out, but I hope it can turn the undoubted niche success of the coding revival into a mainstream movement – working with the industry to create the Acorns and ARMs of tomorrow.
The High Street at Christmas is a loud and particularly garish place. With fewer and fewer physical shoppers retailers have to shout at the tops of their voices to attract attention. Which is probably why I’ve not really noticed the rather catastrophic rebrand of EE (previously Everything Everywhere), the owner of Orange and T-Mobile.
Everything Everywhere was quite obviously an appalling name – although it did give rise to the wonderful FT headline Everything Everywhere disappoints analystswhich pretty much summed up the performance of the telecoms conglomerate. But as a holding company it was fine – you had two strongish brands, Orange and T-Mobile with defined markets so why confuse matters with a third umbrella brand? In a similar way when BA and Iberia merged the new holding company was called International Airlines Group (IAG) – not fancy, not competing with its existing well-established brands, but just providing a name, a website and a name for the stock market.
But EE has decided in its infinite wisdom to essentially bin the Orange and T-Mobile brands. I switch on my phone and it says EE, even though my contract is with Orange and the previously recognisable high street storefronts are now a drab blue grey that looks like it has come from the Farrow and Ball catalogue (my money is on Hague Blue). Given that Orange became successful by being a new, interesting and involving brand that people wanted to be part of and that T-Mobile screamed value to countless students it seems ludicrous to write off that amount of goodwill in a stroke. As Nils Pratley points out in The Guardian it looks more like a dull but worthy European quango than a leading edge telco.
But does it matter? Many people in the technology industry don’t really bother about branding, focusing on building advanced products and services and giving them involved names made up of lots of numbers and Zs and Xs. However while that may work for deeply technical audiences if you want to get mass market appeal you need an appealing and non-threatening brand that is clear and easy to understand. Apple is the obvious example, but looking around the tech industry you can see plenty of others. Even in the telecoms world there has been a lot of effort put into building global brands – from the clever (O2) to the limited (3) and the mundane (Vodafone).
Ironically at a time when it has the UK’s only 4G network, rather than talking about technology advancement, EE seems to be embracing the safe and boring. It may claim that rebranding has ‘re-energised the organisation’, but in a crowded market it looks more like a retreat than a step forward. Apple, Raspberry Pi, Banana Republic – EE should have stuck to fruit………….
I grew up with a ZX Spectrum, and while my programming efforts may never have been up to much (a flickering horse racing game where you could bet and a pretty much mythical hotel booking system for a Duke of Edinburgh’s Award project) it got me interested in IT, and probably has a lot to do with my becoming a technology PR person. More successful programmers went on to essentially create the billion pound UK games industry and provide a generation of tech-savvy workers for the sector.
Now I’ve got kids of my own I can see the same curiosity about technology but the opportunities for casual programming seem so much more limited. They happily use computers but don’t necessarily know how they work or even that you can program them and make them do what you want.
So I’ve been following with interest the progress of Raspberry Pi, the Cambridge-based project that aims to create a cheap ($25/£15) stripped down computer that is affordable for all and aims to develop a new generation of programmers. Based around an ARM processor and Linux, what I like most about it is the deliberate focus on keeping it simple. The idea is to create an ecosystem of partners around the computer itself, adding additional hardware or software to fit specific needs. Add together the cheapness of the computer and its openness and the potential uses are pretty much endless – from education to embedded projects. In a stroke of marketing genius the first 10 beta boards are being auctioned on eBay, to raise funds for the charitable Raspberry Pi Foundation – and they are selling for thousands of pounds.
Both OFSTED and the likes of Eric Schmidt of Google have complained recently about how ICT and programming is taught in UK schools. The advent of Raspberry Pi provides the start point to address these issues – providing the tools to interest and teach a whole new generation of kids. Obviously making it central to the ICT curriculum will take work (and a case), but given the government’s oft-repeated desire to provide young people with the skills a 21st century economy needs, it’s time for David Cameron to put some investment into putting them into every school before we fall further behind.
- Resurrection of the BBC Micro (rasremmos.wordpress.com)
- $25 Raspberry Pi Computer Prototypes Selling for $3,000 (blogs.wsj.com)
- Raspberry Pi Credit Card Sized Computer Will Handle 1080p Video for $25, Due Out Next Month (inquisitr.com)
- Raspberry Pi, a Tiny But Powerful $25 PC, Coming Soon [VIDEO] (mashable.com)