The inaugural CSW Innovation Lecture considered the importance of cross-sector working to realise the potential of new technologies. Charlotte Newbury reports
Photos: Tom Hampson
The 2017 Industrial Strategy set out the government’s aim of becoming “the most effective champion and partner of business in the developed world”. It identified four “grand challenges”, each with specific objectives, to put the UK “at the forefront of the industries of the future”.
From these challenges, government has set out several missions aiming to stimulate innovation. They range from using artificial intelligence to improve healthcare to creating a net-zero carbon industrial cluster, and will require government and industry to collaborate to find solutions.
The grand challenges provided the focus of discussion at CSW’s inaugural Innovation Lecture in January. The event, which was sponsored by BT Enterprise, saw experts and policymakers gather to share the latest advances towards meeting the goals of the Industrial Strategy.
Five speakers provided context around each challenge, and set out some of the problems which industry and government will face in addressing them (see box-out below for more details on the talks).
“We don’t innovate on our own,” Dr Nicola Millard, principal innovation partner at BT, said during her talk addressing the challenge of an ageing society. She recognised diverse, collaborative workplaces as one safeguard in ensuring the Industrial Strategy delivers a future which works “for everyone”.
She stressed the need for diversity of thought and encouraged collaboration with innovators of emerging technologies – which have the potential to support all the grand challenge areas. For example, as society ages, technology such as automation and AI will become even more important, she said.
“We’re looking very closely at a lot of these trends that are shaping the future of work,” Millard said, and went on to outline the initiatives BT is supporting across its network of university partners, start-ups and research centres.
During his talk on AI in healthcare, Dominic Cushnan, special adviser in AI and digital health at NHSX, spoke of a similar attitude within his organisation, which was recently launched to boost the digital transformation of health and social care. He said NHSX considers collaborating with private sector organisations, researchers and policymakers as key to having capability “built into the system”.
Although AI is Cushnan’s particular area of expertise, all the speakers talked of its immense potential. “If you look at what humans are good at, and what machines are, there’s actually very little intersection,” Millard said. Therefore, the hope is that these technologies will give some freedom back to those in the workplace, by performing time-consuming tasks that would otherwise be left to a human, leaving employees more time for interesting tasks.
Speakers (from left to right): Matt Sexton, Fotis Karonis, Professor Paul Taylor, CSW editor Suzannah Brecknell, Dominic Cushnan and Dr Nicola Millard
As well as taking some of the load from workers, technology can also encourage deeper collaboration between professionals. During his talk on mobility and connectivity, Fotis Karonis, enterprise and 5G executive lead at BT, explained how new technology enables people to work together in new ways.
He explained how advances in connectivity will transform the way we work, driving efficiencies and enabling us to re-think how people and goods are moved about. He presented evidence of mobility and connectivity working in tandem at the Belfast Smart Port, which uses 5G technology to enable the work of remote engineers, and at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, where a 5G-enabled virtual reality system is used by paramedics to allow those in the hospital to see patients while the ambulance is still in transit.
The system allows for “massive connectivity”, he said, which not only saves valuable time, but actively presents opportunities for better collaboration between specialists.
Of course, the success of any innovation is dependent on its reception, and public buy-in can be particularly difficult to obtain in projects involving AI or large amounts of data. This is especially evident in digital health initiatives, said Paul Taylor, professor of health informatics at UCL.
Taylor – who pointed out that personal data is fundamental to the success of many digital health projects – gave an academic view of the progress in digital healthcare, and said that without citizens opting into data-sharing, the tools are simply unable to function as intended.
“It doesn’t make the headlines when people die because the IT is crap,” he said, “but it does happen.” For this reason, he was keen to stress the importance of clear communication with the general public, and spoke of the need to “demystify artificial intelligence,” saying, “we have to make it seem a little bit less like black magic and a little bit more like high school maths.”
Before we can discuss what solutions are being used, however, innovation requires clarity and transparency about the problems being addressed. Simple issues such as a lack of clear terminology often can cause confusion, said Matt Sexton, chief strategy officer at Futerra, when speaking of efforts within the Industrial Strategy’s Clean Growth mission.
“We have people talking about climate positivity,” he said, as well as “carbon debt,” “carbon positive,” “climate positive,” and “carbon negative” – the last of which, he stressed, “is technically correct, but sounds really bad.”
Transparency is also needed in the interactions between government and industry, which are often much more complex than they need to be, Sexton said. He explained that “a lot of the people sitting in boardrooms find the policy environment for bidding arcane and distant.”
Government “could do a lot more” to make the paths of engagement clearer, he said.
“We need to demystify artificial intelligence, and make it seem a little bit less like black magic and a little bit more like high school maths” Professor Paul Taylor, UCL
Clear communication is an important step towards securing a productive partnership between government and industry, especially in areas such as Clean Growth, where the lack of stability and rate of change can mean industry is nervous to invest, Sexton added.
He acknowledged that creating a sense of certainty in rapidly changing sectors is not easy, but if government can “make the external environment stable, and prevent any undue buffeting, then businesses will be as innovative and as agile as we need them to be”.
There has been a “marked shift”, he added, in the way sustainability is being treated by businesses now, but one thing which unifies them is that “they don’t truly know how to get there”. For this reason, communicating policy between government and the boardroom will be “key” in encouraging further innovation.
This is an attitude that NHSX has particularly embraced, Cushnan said. The unit “went out to the market” before setting out policy aims, in order to understand what might be feasible. “We asked – what is in the market? What are people actually doing? What’s in the research?” he said. This way, “we help industry tell us where they are in the lifecycle”.
And with a project firmly grounded in what is possible now, Millard said there was no harm in being prepared for the future too. She said it was important to “stimulate thinking” around rapidly changing sectors and suggested that government and industry should be working together to “look at a number of possible futures” so that they would be “prepared if any of them starts to emerge”.
It is therefore clear that a close relationship with industry is important to stimulating innovation, but government must also balance this with its role as a regulator.
In the weeks following the Innovation Lecture, BEIS announced the formation of the Regulatory Horizon Council. It will be chaired by Cathryn Ross, former civil servant and BT’s director for regulatory affairs. The council has been given a remit to “look at reforms to the UK’s regulatory system and advise government on how to remove barriers to innovation”.
Back at the event, Cushnan said improvements are already being made in this area. He said that, within NHSX, the question being posed was: “How do we create the right amount of regulation without being restrictive?”
When it comes to policy, Cushnan said he was starting to see “some positive signs” that bringing operational delivery into commissioning conversations, as well as the creation of units like NHSX, was finally “mixing these two world s together”.
We may still be some way from definitive responses to the grand challenges, but government and industry are certainly on the road to success. As Cushnan said: “I think we’re starting to ask the right questions in the right room.”
Missions Possible: The Four Grand Challenges
Mission: HM Government aims to harness the power of innovation to help meet the needs of an ageing society
In this talk, BT’s Dr Nicola Millard explored how government, industry and society will need to adapt to support an ageing workforce. She spoke about the potential for artificial intelligence and automation to better support those in work, saying: “We’re looking at augmentation rather than replacement.” Millard also discussed the effect living longer will likely have on current education timelines, suggesting that the “front-loading of education” would eventually be untenable. “One of the things we are looking at is the fact that, because careers are getting longer and longer, we probably need to retrain and reskill,” she said.
“How do we reskill a workforce that is working longer, and which will potentially have some roles taken over by machines?” she asked. “Who pays for that training? How do we make sure that we have people working, but also working well?”
Mission: HMG aims to maximise the advantages for UK industry from the global shift to clean growth, through leading the world in the development, manufacture and use of low carbon technologies, systems and services that cost less than high carbon alternatives
Matt Sexton of Futerra spoke about low carbon technologies and their role in the move to cleaner economic growth. He said that the efficient use of resources is one of the greatest industrial prospects of recent years, and that the drive for sustainability across business suggests industry is ready and willing to adopt greener policies. He said: “What we’ve seen in recent times is a snowballing in the level of interest in decarbonisation and how we can decouple growth and economic value from environmental impact.”
He also spoke of his time working with Formula 1 on its decarbonisation strategy after the company pledged to be carbon neutral within 11 years and noted that, when it comes to sustainability, “the race is on”.
Artificial Intelligence and Data
Mission: HMG aims to put the UK at the forefront of the AI and data revolution, using data and AI to better diagnose, treat and prevent chronic illness – as well as considering the wider context of using AI in health and social care
NHSX’s Dominic Cushnan highlighted the steps taken by the NHS to put AI into practice within the healthcare system – including through the creation of NHSX itself. “The role of the NHSX lab is to promote the UK as the leading place when it comes to AI in healthcare,” he said. “All we ask is, across the civil service, we make sure we’re in a continual learning cycle, working together.”
In his talk, Professor Paul Taylor explored the academic implications of artificial intelligence in healthcare, demonstrating new technologies which are better able to identify anomalies in medical scans than even their human counterparts. He did, however, state that healthcare professionals need not worry about being replaced: “I can’t see AI replacing the GP. Quite where the boundaries of what it can and can’t replace are… we don’t yet know. But it can give us the gift of time.”
He added, “What people came into medicine to do was talk to people, care for them, look after them – not to spend time on boring administrative duties.”
Mobility and Connectivity
Mission: HMG aims to become a world leader in shaping the future of mobility
In this talk, Fotis Koronis from BT explored how the future of mobility will be affected by advances in connectivity, which will both transform the way we work and live, and allow for innovations in how we monitor, plan and deliver transport services. “It’s a very complicated puzzle,” he said, but added that better mobility, and better connectivity between experts, means that it’s easier to ask: “What are the main priorities to resolve? And then, how can technology resolve these issues?”
He added that as well as helping to improve customers’ experience and drive efficiency, better connectivity in health-related mobility also has an impact on the environment. “It’s got a very important impact on the carbon footprint, believe it or not,” he said. “For example, in the greater Birmingham area between Monday and Friday, 15% of traffic is related to health movement.”