Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership recently kick-started a Hertfordshire wide conversation to support the development of a Local Industrial Strategy for the county at its State of the Economy event. Businesses, academia, not for profit and public sector organisations contributed to discussions on emerging priorities to grow the economy, drive up productivity and embrace new technologies to support innovation.
One presentation that provided masses of food for thought was delivered by Paul Clarke, Chief Technical Officer, Ocado, who shared his thoughts on the future of mobility, why the country needs to pull together to achieve future goals and how education holds the key to long-term success.
“The government’s Industrial Strategy, and the four associated grand challenges, are for me a great step in the right direction,” Paul Clarke, Chief Technical Officer at Ocado told delegates at the Hertfordshire Local Enterprise Partnership event recently. “However, if we are serious about building a truly smart and prosperous UK then I would argue that we need to think bigger, much bigger. We need a grand vision for what a smart UK might look like and the infrastructure to support it.
“The future of mobility, one of the four grand challenges, is a good place to start,” he continued in a presentation that provided plenty of food for thought for the public sector – including local government. “For me, the future of mobility is about a smart distributed interconnected ecosystem. It’s about vehicles powered by electricity, hydrogen and possibly other clean fuels. It’s about advances in the enabling technologies such as batteries, motors, 5G, lidar, microprocessors and many others. It’s about autonomy and the basket of AI technologies that makes this possible. But it’s also about the intersection, collaboration and orchestration of all manner of different autonomous machines, including cars, delivery vehicles, drones and robots. And sitting on top of this mesh network or ecosystem of autonomy will be a host of smart services delivering the efficiency and service level gains, unlocking the network effects, disrupting traditional business models and sector silos, addressing the scaling challenges, providing monitoring and oversight, keeping us safe from accidents and other threats.”
Paul outlined how he thinks autonomous clean-energy powered vehicles are going to transform and disrupt the movement of all sort of atoms around our planet, most notably:
- Across sectors, for example in factories, hospitals, construction sites and homes.
- Across supply chains and the last mile.
- On our roads, pavements, cycle tracks, railways and under the ground too. On and under the sea. In the air and even in space.
- In cities, rural communities and extreme environments where humans would rather not tread.
But this is not just going to be a technological transformation, it’s going to involve significant business model disruption too:
- Logistics companies will become taxi firms and vice versa
- Postal companies will become retailers and retailers may perform delivery and collection services on behalf of other companies.
- Car manufacturers will become internet search, entertainment and accommodation providers.
- Hotels and other businesses with inner city properties, may provide services for the storing, charging, servicing and dispatch of car-sharing and autonomous vehicles.
- Automated hubs that store customer orders close to the last mile will enable us to move from a push model where goods arrive when you are out, to a pull model where they arrive on demand, just in time, when you want them.
“This will be a Russian doll model of autonomy,” commented Paul. “Planes, trains and ships will hand off to large vehicles, large vehicles to smaller ones, small vehicles to swarming vehicles or drones and the final 25 metres will become the domain of the robot, either dispatched from a swarming vehicle or robots that live in your building, that you trust, and which understand the navigation of your local space.”
New models of collaboration
But it’s not just the machines that must get smarter about how they collaborate and play nicely with one another. So must we, according to Paul.
“We need to evolve new models for collaboration, across sectors and across missions, including between would be competitors. Because if everybody just carries on “doing their own thing”, we will not make best use of our finite resources such as energy, time, land and transportation network bandwidth. At the same time, we will fail to minimise the unintended consequences such as pollution, congestion, accidents and waste. Roads full of half empty single-minded autonomous vehicles will not be a good outcome.
“We need to learn what role smart infrastructure may play in this future. Imagine walking around an airport you have never visited before which has had all the signs removed. You probably could find your departure gate eventually, but clearly the signage really helps. Similarly, a little bit of smart infrastructure may make autonomous vehicles cheaper, safer and more efficient. This infrastructure, and the associated core services and interfaces, are definitely areas where diversity will not be our friend.
“It’s really great what Transport for London and others are doing to open up their interfaces and data, but we need common standards across the whole country so that the solutions we build can be rolled out everywhere. For example, pay per use parking spaces for the increasing number of online delivery vehicles, priority lanes on motorways to incentivise companies to use the bandwidth more effectively, smart scheduling of electrical charging points, support for platooning of LGVs and so on.”
Paul continued: “To answer these questions, we need to get the learning going now. Learning about the intersection of autonomous vehicles, drones, smart infrastructure, robotics and smart services. Learning about the interaction of people with these technologies. Learning what it takes to make a smart automated city really hum.
“That’s what Google decided to do when it came up with the concept for Sidewalk Labs in Toronto, which I visited last month. This is a bold plan to create an incubator for innovation within smart communities and cities in order to kick-start the learning and share the outcomes with the rest of the world. For example, affordable housing, sustainable living and a stronger sense of community, all supported by sensing, data and smart services. But we need to create these living labs in the UK too and Ocado is working on some exciting plans to make that happen across the country including in Hertfordshire.
“As I have said already, the vision needs to be much bigger than just the future of mobility of people, it’s the future mobility of all sorts of atoms around our planet in clean, efficient and sustainable ways. For example, our supply chains are currently fragmented and inefficient. We need a vision for creating an internet of freight. First, we need a shared digital internet for atoms to provide shared frameworks for governance, traceability, regulation, security, monitoring, standards, interfaces and so on.
“The need for this digital public cloud for freight will become even more important in the light of Brexit. Then we need a physical internet for atoms to provide a rapid transit network for freight, in order to get that traffic off our roads.
The need for education
Underpinning the future smart world, according to Paul, is education, because grand visions for creating this smart future will come to nothing without the necessary skills to implement it.
“One of the key challenges the UK faces in responding to the opportunities related to AI and robotics is the skills deficit. Data Science and AI lie at the most overheated end of the software engineering skills spectrum and there is a massive shortage of graduates and postgraduates emerging with these skills. What is not talked about enough is the fact that these skills lie at the end of a digital literacy pipeline that stretches all the way back to primary school.
“There is a massive amount more that government, NGOs and business could do to help manage the flow along the entire length of this pipeline and to plug the leaks. If we want a larger and more diverse set of graduates emerging at the end of this pipeline, then we have to do much more at the early stages. For example, investing in more properly qualified teachers for these subjects, mandating schools to offer these digital literacy subjects up to A-level, and making these subjects mandatory within the curriculum at GCSE level just as we do with Maths and English. These are essential transformative skills not just for those who may go on to become software engineers but for everyone.
“But true digital literacy is much more than just teaching children to code. We also need to teach them to be data literate. To understand how to organise and manipulate data, to gain insights from them, to visualise them, to build models from them, to understand the dangers of bias and so on. We also need to help our children understand the amazing possibilities and current limitations of technologies such as AI and robotics, the important ethical and philosophical questions around their applications, what it means to be human and so on.”
Paul continued on to say that the country needs to find ways to maintain the level of interest in STEM subjects demonstrated by girls of primary school age, which currently decays as they progress through the educational system.
“We need to be weaving this digital literacy throughout the curriculum,” he commented. “However, this pipeline must not stop at college or university. It needs to continue on into the workplace, and here we need to do much more to incentivise organisations to invest in continual learning, particularly when it comes to subjects such as AI. We need to fuzz the boundary between education and work life and disrupt the current linear path: Go to school, go to college, go to work, do not repeat.
“If education is all about preparing the next generation for their future life and instilling a love of learning, then I believe we are failing in terms of the structure and curriculum of our current educational system. The current relentless focus on exams, tests and the regurgitation of mark schemes is consuming all the educational oxygen, leaving teachers with little or no time for spontaneity, for sharing their love of a subject and for just pursuing the curiosity of their students to see where it might lead. If we allow education to switch our students off the joy of learning, then we will do them an incalculable disservice.
“On the other hand, if we enable our children to leave school having learnt how to learn, full of curiosity, armed with a set of future proofed skills and with a joy of ongoing learning, then they will be well equipped for their life ahead.
“So, I believe we need to completely rethink our education system from the ground up and in so doing, future proof the underlying curriculum. This is going to be a long-term game that we need to start playing now because it will take 20+ years to work its way through the educational pipeline. That’s why I believe we need to follow in the footsteps of Finland and remove the educational football from the political playing field because this is a game that needs to be played in a radically different way.”
Paul’s comments highlight just how the big the challenge is to enterprise partnerships like Herts LEP and the UK as a whole. The UK Industrial Strategy is a good starting point – but much more needs to be done if we’re to successfully embrace future technology.