Why Hull has cream phone boxes (and why it’s relevant to tech today)

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Hull’s set to become the European Capital of Culture in 2017, cue visions of John Prescott cutting the ribbon looking as cultured as some bloke who’s just quickly pulled on his Sunday best.

The big moment is fast approaching, but it’s not only the city’s political leaders that might be in need of a face lift.

Despite being a significant trading hub as far back as medieval times, Hull’s telecoms infrastructure hasn’t kept pace with technological change.

Although Hull is reportedly the only city in the UK that is getting broadband officially described as “ultrafast” as standard, the leading local network provider KCOM hasn’t yet delivered.

Hull is the only city in the UK to have kept (until 2007) an independent, municipal telephone network provider, that’s KCOM.

Image credit: RM21/Wikimedia Commons
Image credit: RM21/Wikimedia Commons

And that’s why it has distinctive cream phone boxes and its residents received the White Pages telephone directory, rather than Yellow Pages.

But Hull was also one of only two places named in Ofcom’s Connected Nations report in 2015 where more than 30 per cent of businesses were stuck with sub-10 Mbps broadband.

In another report that flags poor connectivity as a significant issue for the citythe University of Hull concluded:

“Currently, the region finds itself towards the bottom of the league for most key metrics related to economics, skills, employment, social mobility, entrepreneurship and innovation.”

KCOM has committed to ramping up its roll out of Lightstream, which the company says is up to 25 times faster than copper cable broadband. It’ll be available to around three quarters of properties within its network over the next 18 months.

In the meantime, though, Hull is set to gain ‘Gigabit City’ status, thanks to a new, large-scale fibre roll out by CityFibre, which is partnering with young local KCOM competitor Pure Broadband.

Barack Obama likened the availability of super-fast, fibre-optic internet to that of “being the first city to have fire”.

He said that these internet speeds are akin to “unleashing a tornado of innovation” and many cities across the world are working out how they can get a slice of the action.

CityFibre claims its network offers speeds up to 1,000 Mbps (1 Gbps) and says its network is future-proofed to be able to allow for ever-greater capacity. It’ll soon be laying fibre across 62 km of the city to try to compete directly with KCOM’s effort.

The company has already upgraded most of the city to 4G, having installed fibre connections to mobile masts throughout Hull, in partnership with EE and Three.

Hull is now home to incubator and business innovation space C4DI and is a key city that could benefit from the government’s Northern Powerhouse initiative.

Let’s hope it doesn’t continue to be held back by the slow web speeds identified by Ofcom as Europe’s gaze lands there during its City of Culture year.

The University of Hull’s State of the Humber Economy report suggests that the city “plan to actively support entrepreneurship and innovation”.

If Barack Obama is to be believed, becoming a Gigabit City is most of the job done.

Linux is 25 years old today – so is it still the future of computing?

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Linux is probably the only operating system that all of us use every day, but only some of us actually know it.

Its creator, Linus Torvalds, first posted about his work on this new, freeOS back in 1991 but said it was “just a hobby, won’t be big”. How wrong, or perhaps humble, he was.

Everyone from Google to IBM, NASA to the New York Stock Exchange, uses the open source software in one shape or another. But, legend has it, self-effacing developer that he is, Torvalds initially shied away from using part of his name in naming this new product.

“I’m so glad it didn’t end up being called Freax,” says Martin Percival, senior solutions architect at Red Hat, probably open source’s biggest commercial success story, built right on top of Linux. “Had Linus got his way, Linux may not have become such a success with the companies that it has.”

One of those companies is, of course, Red Hat, which is credited with making Linux enterprise-ready with its Red Hat Enterprise Linux operating system. “If it weren’t for the rise of Linux, Facebook and Google and so many others would have had such a harder time getting scale,” Percival says.

For Red Hat, its distribution of Linux helped the company reach annual revenues of $1.79 billion last year. It’s a profitable, open source company that works on a subscription model – giving you the software for free in exchange for ongoing technical support.

As well as testing new bits of Linux to ensure they’re compatible with your existing infrastructure, that also means ensuring its users are protected from patent trolls who try to find companies accidentally using proprietary code.

Open source, open society, open job roles

As open source has grown, it seems to have happened in sync with society becoming more open. Indeed, these trends may well have fed off each other.

Red Hat’s current CEO Jim Whitehurst, author of The Open Organization, talks in public as much about openness in companies and society as he does about open source.

“Society has changed a lot over 20 to 30 years,” Percival agrees. “There’s a generation of folks coming through who connect more, are more open with peers, share more and that naturally flows through into the workplace.

“They’re confused by organisations that say ‘you’re not allowed to pull apart this thing we’ve provided and if you do, to fix a problem, we’ll sue you’. That’s an insane thing to say to an organisation that’s fixed a problem.”

And where big, historically proprietary companies are letting professional staff go left, right and centreopen source jobs are growing. Not least because so many enterprises now use open source in much of their operations.

“Open source has reached a point where it’s relied upon to do substantial amounts of infrastructure we rely on,” Percival says.

“It’s now good enough, robust enough, reliable enough, so why would most organisations go off and build giant teams to create solutions for themselves when they can build open source or on the public cloud?

“It’s not great for the poor folks who are being put out of business by robust open source software. But that just means they have to redeploy their teams in a more agile way to build software with a business value that sits on top of it.”

That feud

By the early 2000s, Dell, IBM, HP and Oracle had all already lent their support to Red Hat in one way or another. Indeed, Intel is the largest contributor of code to the underlying Linux kernel. That’s not least because the creation of this new OS profoundly shaped how Intel designed its chip sets. 

But Red Hat, and no doubt the entire open source community, did had a long-running feud with Microsoft around the principles that technology is built upon.

So much so that Red Hat’s first CEO Bob Young wrote in 2000:

“The software industry that Microsoft has been the role model for is built on the premise that customers are not to be trusted with the technology that they are building their organizations on.

“The legacy software industry is built on the proprietary binary-only model where not only does the user not get the source code he needs to make changes, but worse he receives the product under a license that essentially says that if you make any improvements to the technology you are using, if you solve a bug that is causing your systems to crash, or add a feature that your users or customers desperately need the vendor can have you thrown in jail. (If you don’t believe me, just read any shrinkwrapped software license).

“This kind of business model, where the customer is completely beholden to his supplier exists in no other industry in any free market that I know of. It harks back to the old feudal systems of 12th century Europe.”

Then, just two months ago, Red Hat made a historic deal with Microsoft. “That was unheard of and pretty unimaginable five years ago, ” Percival admits.

“Microsoft has come under pressure to respond to the challenges that open source has thrown up and now it’s going faster in this direction than it has for a long time. And everybody benefits.

“Innovations in the marketplace, companies like Hadoop and Docker, all of that has used open source. The challenge to companies selling proprietary software is: why have you not spotted this trend? Of course, it’s the innovator’s dilemma and there’s a natural tendency to cling on just too long.”

As a community, Linux dealt with the issues thrown up with the rise and rise of virtualisation, it also took a bet on containers two years ago and now they’re everywhere.

Perhaps its largest challenge today is that it’s so widely used, hackers are on the hunt for vulnerabilities. A flaw found earlier this month puts the world’s billion-or-so Android users at risk. And that really also means every organisation that’s built on Linux too.

Seeing Fuchsia

The latest from Google is that, unlike the Android operating system, its upcoming, custom-built OS Fuchsia will no longer be built on the Linux kernel. The Register’s analysis of what we know so far speculates:

“If it can create a fully optimized platform for each key emerging area of connected experience, and then marry them all together at the applications layer with the ubiquitous Android, it might achieve what Unix, Linux and Java promised, but failed to deliver all these years.”

Yes, Linux has done much for many, but now Google appears to be hedging its bets on a new approach to open source development. It remains to be seen whether developers would be willing to trust a company over the community-driven Linux effort.

So what’s on the horizon for the world’s most popular OS? Speaking to the criticism that it hasn’t quite built an ‘any device, anywhere OS’, Percival says:

“There will be tweaks to Linux to better handle stuff in the IoT space, but that’ll largely be handled in a layer above the OS that deals with more specialised problems. On AI, we’re working out how you build an AI layer that meets the needs of business: how do you make it fast enough? Do you really need it in the Linux layer?”

On launching its 25th birthday report, which found that 13,500 people from 1,300 have so far been identified as contributors to this highly ambitious project – that had surprisingly modest beginnings – Jim Zemlin, executive director of The Linux Foundation, said:

“Even after 25 years, Linux still serves as an example of how collaborative development can work, which can be applied to other open source projects.”

Whether the Linux kernel remains as popular as it is today in another 25 years, it’s surely the possibility of transparency, participation and community in tech and beyond that should be its lasting legacy.

Leading gay, lesbian and trans techies went to the White House yesterday – a great tech news story

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Amazon, New Relic and Netflix staff were among an audience of almost 200 leading technologists invited to the White House to talk about how the LGBTIQ community can help “tackle some of the world’s biggest challenges”.

The White House LGBT Tech & Innovation Briefing is sponsored by the (lesbian) US government CTO Megan Smith, who used to be VP of Google’s moonshot division [x], along with Lesbians Who Tech CEO Leanne Pittsford.

Speaking at the event, Smith said:

“Equality, diversity, justice, inclusion and innovation, all of these topics, which have always been part of our country and are very much live right now… are things that require all of us to be involved.”

This year’s event was designed to gather an audience that was 50 per cent people of colour, 50 per cent women and 20 per cent non-gender-binary people.

Smith urged techies to join the government, citing APIs and open-source as just two technologies the administration wholly supports. “Please come do that. Or add these things to your products,” she said.

She also flagged The Opportunity Project, which brings together US government datasets to help citizens and others can build data-driven community tools.

The group was there not just to discuss how tech and innovation can be used to tackle issues experienced by minority groups, though “LGBT and racial diversity inclusion in the tech industry” was one of the key topics.

.@WhiteHouse working together on tough problems that face #lgbtq in tech and inclusive policy #Fempire#WHLGBTQTechpic.twitter.com/HOZXdNCcxE

— Ana Arriola (@arriola) August 24, 2016

Preventing gun violence, big data and privacy, democratic representation issues, prison reform and environmental concerns were all worked on during the day too.

The event is building up to an inclusive innovation conference being created by Lesbians Who Tech this November.

Forget buying an artificial intelligence startup, here’s the real issue you have with AI

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Google, just like every other tech company out there, is focused on becoming an artificial intelligence company.

Its CEO Sundar Pichai has said as much and startup buying trends since 2011 have proven that if you’re not trying to integrate new companies and then innovating on AI, you’re wrong.

So what’s the biggest problem facing AI innovators everywhere?

According to Jeff Dean, head of the machine-learning team Google Brain, one of the company’s key research areas within the 1,000-strong Research at Google team, it’s diversity.

Speaking as part of a Reddit Ask Me Anything, when asked if he thought an AI apocalypse was linked to a lack of humanistic thinking, and a lack of diversity, he said:

“I am personally not worried about an AI apocalypse, as I consider that a completely made-up fear. There are legitimate concerns around AI safety and policy, and our group (in collaboration with a number of other organizations) has recently published an Arxiv paper about some of these (see Concrete Problems in AI Safety ). I amconcerned about the lack of diversity in the AI research community and in computer science more generally.”

Of a team of around 35, only three of the Google Brain researchers are women. There are, in fact, as many men called Jeff (OK, including Geoff) on the team.

There are perhaps 10 black or brown faces, however, using my rudimentary human intelligence, it isn’t easy to tell if any are from the LGBTIQ or disabled communities.

Dean is clearly aware of the shortcoming this creates, particularly as his team’s whole focus is to ‘make machines intelligent. Improve people’s lives’, the latter part of which is focused on creating good human outcomes.

Although lacking in much diversity, his team is interdisciplinary, with physicists, mathematicians, biologists, neuroscientists, electrical engineers, computer scientists and even has a philosophy grad.

Why is diversity important to him?

“In my experience, whenever you bring people together with different kinds of expertise, different perspectives, etc., you end up achieving things that none of you could do individually, because no one person has the entire skills and perspective necessary.”

He wants diversity not least because his team will perform better, particularly with more women in it, but because women are also more empathetic, which lends itself well to the social mission of Google Brain, and also because diverse voices add valuable experience.

The AI, it seems, is the simple part.

Via Re/code

Apprenticeship levy still getting lukewarm reception from business

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

The government has just unveiled more detail on its intention to apply a levy on employers with a payroll of £3 million or more in order to get more businesses training apprentices.

This is in a (reasonably arbitrary) bid to get three million people in England skilled up by 2020, but has been designed to tackle the fact that investment in this area has been inconsistent.

The compulsory levy represents a new tax on businesses, one that former Chancellor George Osborne reckoned would bring in £3 billion per year. And depending on who you ask, this a bad move, a good step, or something that just doesn’t go far enough.

Money back

Of around five million businesses in the UK, around two per cent, or 100,000, will fall into the levy system.

The 0.5 per cent tax on the total amount paid to staff working in England is expected to arrive alongside a credit that offsets the first £15,000 levied and a 10 per cent top up from government each month.

That would actually see those companies that only just pass the threshold paying nothing at all.

But for big businesses, take Vodafone, with annual staff pay of almost £500 million, and the bill is likely to run into millions of pounds each year. That doesn’t even cover the apprentice’s salary and if the levy fund goes unspent, it expires after 18 months.

In theory, the maximum cost of training is £27,000 per apprentice, depending on the role, with companies able to directly select what provider they pay for what training.

The Institute of Directors (IOD) has yet again called on the government to stop the plan, not least because of business uncertainty post-Brexit.

Last month, it was also joined by EEF, the UK’s largest manufacturing employers, the CBI and the Charity Finance Group, as third-sector organisations will also be hit, in urging the government to rethink.

“Our members are fully in favour of the levy in principle,” Seamus Nevin, head of skills and employment at the IoD, told NS Tech. “They know they have to step up to plate and train staff.

“But we’re asking for it to be postponed in order to allow time for the government to engage more with employers.

“We’re worried that the three million figure will just become a box-ticking exercise that sees three million apprenticeship starters, rather than people finishing apprenticeships.”

He questions whether quantity will be prioritised over quality, and points to anomalies that mean that things like charities and academy chains will be swept up into the system.

Boost for small business

For small businesses who aren’t hit by the levy, or those with insufficient funds built up to meet the cost of training an apprentice, the government is asking them to pay just 10 per cent of the cost and it will make up the difference.

This means for small businesses, the training for many digital apprenticeships would be 90 per cent funded by government up to the value of £15,000, £18,000 or £27,000, depending on the role.

All of the new apprenticeship standards have been created in consultation with business, so getting yourself a swanky new infrastructure technician, who’d be trained on a curriculum designed by the likes of Microsoft, IBM, Cisco and BT, would see the government cover 90 per cent of your costs up to £18,000.

Cuts to digital?

One criticism of the previous system has been that apprentice training costs have floated towards the top of the brackets assigned by government for different jobs, so new ones have now been outlined that it says will see “maximum value for the tax payer”.

But that means most of the recognised ‘digital jobs’ have had the maximum estimated cost significantly decreased, meaning training providers might be required to do more with less.

“We are disappointed to see that the introduction of the new banding has meant funding for a diverse range of IT apprenticeship standards has reduced significantly, in some cases by as much as a third,” said Lucy Ireland, deputy CEO of BCS learning and development, part of BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT.

“On balance, this is a big step forward,” Anthony Impey, CEO of Optimity, which helped design the new government apprenticeships.

“For a long time, the apprenticeship system has been stacked in favour of the training provider – and there are two losers in that – employers can’t get who they need and learners haven’t always had a great experience.

“Overall, we as employers have to take responsibility for gaps in job market – and because this kind of training has a direct benefit to us. I don’t take on apprentices as an altruistic effort, it’s good business.”

If a small business with fewer than 50 employees takes on an apprentice who’s aged 16 to 18, the government will waive payment altogether and give them an additional £1,000 to cover the cost of getting them up to speed.

This is designed to address concerns flagged by the Federation of Small Businesses that apprentices can represent a cost if it takes a lot of time to manage their new team member.

Not far enough?

Jonathan Clifton, associate director for public services from the IPPR, believes that the latest proposals, don’t go far enough.

“The government is absolutely right to introduce an apprenticeship levy. Following Brexit, British employers may not be able to rely on recruiting migrant workers to fill skills gaps – so we’ll need more apprenticeships to train up our domestic workforce.

“Today’s announcement is a step in the right direction – but it does not go far enough. The proposed apprenticeship levy will still only cover 2% of employers. In the long term, the government should expand the levy to cover all employers – because every firm has a role to play in training up the next generation.”

Interested parties have until 5 September to respond to the latest proposals, with a proposed October launch of the final plan.

Forget Hinkley Point, open data could save us from climate change

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

You might not be familiar with heat networks yet, but they are a key part of the government’s strategy to cut the UK’s energy use, particularly in London.

The idea is that you do away with individual boilers and instead have a centralised system that supplies a number of homes through a network of pipes.

District heat networks already supply the majority of homes in Denmark with hot water and heating from a shared boiler system. And, little do most people know, localised heat networks are heating around 2 per cent of people’s homes in the UK today.

The greener the fuel that’s used to power the centralised boiler, the greener the system. That’s anything from gas, to biomass or solar, even waste heat from industrial processes, like the London Underground.

By 2025, one quarter of all London properties are expected to be using this kind of system, largely because developers have to prove they’re providing low-carbon heating.

So what has all this got to do with tech?

Cleantech startup Guru Systemsreceived funding from the Department of Energy and Climate Change to explore the use of open data to make heat networks better.

Using the metering and monitoring technology in their networks, the company identified inefficiencies that, if addressed, could save the energy market 800,000 tonnes of CO2 – and £400 million – over 10 years.

“The majority of the £400 million in projected savings comes from a reduction in the over-sizing of networks as well as increased fuel efficiency across the lifetime of these new systems,” Casey Cole, MD of Guru Systems, said.

“Designers currently use an outdated model to calculate the most amount of heat needed at any one time and this has lead to networks being drastically oversized to meet demand they will never actually experience.”

Guru has now created a web-based platform called Pinpoint that displays network performance in real-time and works with a machine-learning algorithm to improve it. It can pinpoint a problem down to the specific house in the network and also suggest cost savings that could be made by tweaking the system.

The data from the initial project has also been opened up by Guru for housing developers to use, which it believes could save 30 per cent on the build cost of the network. Residents involved in the pilot saw their heating costs halved from 7.7p to 3.8p per kWh.

“It’s great to see this evidence of how the clever use of data and opening data to others can save money, enable new approaches and help us all to live lives that are more sustainable and efficient,” Jeni Tennison, technical director at the Open Data Institute, which also supported the project, said.

“Guru Systems is not only using data to bring benefits to its immediate customers, by opening up data they are providing information to the market as a whole that could have significant economic and environmental impacts on a macro scale.”

The government is currently conducting a consultation on heat networks and is set to invest £320 million into the development of these projects.

A full case study of the project can be found here.

£1.2m boost for CAST accelerator could help charities beat funding cuts

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

The Centre for Acceleration of Social Technology (CAST) has been awarded £1.2 million from the Big Lottery Fund to help it support third-sector organisations doing digital.

CAST has been piloting an accelerator model that pairs a top tech team with a charity in order to help them use their sector knowledge to build new and, crucially, useful tools.

The cash will be used to support 12 organisations through the Fuse programme over three years, as well as creating a set of best practice tools to help share knowledge.

Fuse has already helped Oxfam with the development of a digital payment service for people “on the cusp of food poverty” and supported Breast Cancer Care with the development of community app BECCA.

Speaking to Jo Wolfe, assistant director of digital at Breast Cancer Care, in June, she told NS Tech: “Yes, we need a response to digital in charities, but change can be more gradual. It needs to be sustainable, meaningful and long-lasting, because there are so many people who rely on us.”

Third sector organisations have been hugely affected by central government funding cuts, but are also facing increasing demand from people affected by shrinking local services.

Doing more, better, using digital could be the thing that keeps charities online in uncertain times.

Applications for the accelerator programme will open later this year.

Will the internet force the UN to become the world’s tax man?

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Earlier this week, for the first time in history, the world’s top five companies by stock market value were all US global technology firms. Apple, Alphabet (Google), Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook, to be more precise.

Hailing our ‘new tech overlords’, Bloomberg even created a handy graphic to show what a profound change this represents in what is starting to look a truly borderless digital world.


Unfortunately, the names of our new rulers have also become pretty synonymous with dubious tax arrangements in recent years.

That’s a fact that has not escaped MPs reporting this week on the future of the global tax system on our web-powered planet.

The Responsible Tax report takes a deep dive into the efforts currently being made by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) on country-by-country tax reporting.

And the ‘digital economy’ is the only industry that’s singled out as a key challenge to creating a responsible global tax regime.

And it’s no wonder:


  • In December 2015, the US Government claimed that Apple uses a “sophisticated scheme” to avoid paying tax on $74 billion (£496.5 billion) of revenues held overseas.
  • Tim Cook, Apple CEO, dismissed the claim as “total political crap”.
  • Apple was found to be using Irish tax laws that allow companies to be incorporated in the country without being tax resident.


  • In January 2016 Google struck a deal to pay £130 million in back taxes after an “open audit” of its accounts by the UK tax authorities.
  • The payment covers money owed since 2005 and followed a six year inquiry into the company by HMRC.
  • A spokesperson at Google said: “Governments make tax law, the tax authorities enforce the law and Google complies with the law.”


  • In June 2016 it was reported that Microsoft avoided up to £100 million a year in UK corporation tax by routing its sales through Ireland.
  • The corporation has sent more than £8 billion of revenues from computers and software bought by British customers to Ireland since 2011, as part of a deal with HMRC.


  • In June last year, it was revealed that the Amazon’s UK branch paid £11.9 million in tax on £5.3 billion worth of sales.


  • In 2014, Facebook paid just £4,327 in corporation tax in the UK.
  • Facebook said it made a loss of £28.5 million in Britain in 2014, after paying out more than £35 million to its 362 staff in a share bonus scheme.

Indeed, Amazon and Google even get special mentions in the MPs’ report, for unfair competition with local booksellers and the UK’s bodged ‘Google Tax’, respectively.

“The globalisation of business and changes created by digitalisation make it difficult to determine where value is created and which country should obtain the tax revenue,” the report says.

It states that a tax system designed almost 100 years ago cannot take into account the diffuse nature of sales being made by multinationals to customers living all over the world.

Although the report praises the OECD’s progress on building “international consensus” on creating new global tax rules, it says the current strategy “will fall short of creating the fair and transparent global system that is needed to tackle global tax avoidance”.

Despite the fact that 94 countries are now working together on specific areas of the OECD’s plan, tax havens like the British Virgin Islands and even the United States, are failing to get involved.

“The US is fiercely protective of their global companies and their corporate tax revenue. There are fears that in the wake of the BEPS Action Plan multinational companies will be tempted to move their businesses away from the US with their high corporation tax rate to Europe with its low corporate tax rates…

“Or that aggressive EU countries will lay claim to tax revenues that should belong to the US. The evidence, however, indicates that the US itself is by far the biggest loser of revenues due to the avoidance of US multinationals.”

As well as huge criticism of the UK government for saying one thing and doing another, there is also:

  • a lack of agreement on making the tax data publicly available;
  • an issue around how the complexity of the new rules will disadvantage poorer countries, which depend more on corporation tax;
  • a lack of legally binding rules;
  • a high bar to qualify for OECD tax reporting (£586 million in group revenue), meaning many multinationals will be exempt.

So, what to do?

As well as making recommendations to beef up the OECD’s current plan, which it calls a “sticking plaster”, the report makes a rather radical proposal based on the evidence it received:

“There was broad support for a unitary based tax system with formula apportionment overseen by a global body such as the OECD or the United Nations whereby each company would submit one report of consolidated accounts for the global group.

“The report would specify the group’s assets, the size of the workforce and sales. The overall profits would be then divided up among jurisdictions according to an agreed formula based on these factors. This would reflect the reality that subsidiaries of companies are not separate entities that trade with one another, but are actually all parts of one global company.”

It believes that country-by-country reporting is just part of a longer process towards “radical reform” that should ultimately see multinationals, powered by the internet, paying tax.

The OECD estimates that up to 10 per cent of global revenues from corporation tax is lost each year because companies shift their profits between jurisdictions. That’s roughly $240 billion.

A change like this could make a huge difference to those companies now dominating global investment markets – and the lives of people across the world too.

BIS committee chair: Industrial Strategy Inquiry “will certainly look” at digital infrastructure

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

This week, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee launched a call for evidence on Theresa May’s new (old) Industrial Strategy launched post-Brexit.

The new strategic approach to the economy was of such importance when it was announced the news even made the big screens over in New York’s Times Square.

The committee will consider the approach taken by previous governments “unseen since Margaret Thatcher” so said Bloomberg a few weeks ago, as well as looking at other countries’ efforts.

But what is an Industrial Strategy today without digital?

“We touched upon digital business, skills, talent and infrastructure in our Digital Economy inquiry,” the committee’s chair Iain Wright MP told NS Tech.

“However, given the importance of this agenda, and how I’m keen to see a UK industrial strategy provide coordination across areas like skills and infrastructure, I anticipate that we will certainly look at this.”

Submissions on the following items are being accepted until 27 September:

  • What does the Government mean by industrial strategy, and what does the private sector want from one?
  • How interventionist in the free market should Government be in implementing an industrial strategy, for example in preventing foreign takeovers of UK companies?
  • What tensions exist between the objectives of an industrial strategy and the objectives of other policies, and how should the Government address these tensions?
  • What are the pros and cons of an industrial strategy adopting a sectoral approach
  • Should the Government proactively seek to ‘pick winners’?
  • What criteria should be used to identify which sectors are supported?
  • Should the Government prop up traditional industries that it considers to be in the national interest?
  • If not a sectoral approach, should the industrial strategy have a broader objective, such as improving productivity?
  • Should the industrial strategy have a geographical emphasis?
  • How should an industrial strategy link with devolution initiatives aimed at devolving taxation and decision making away from Westminster?
  • What examples are there of interventions from central Government that have successfully supported economic growth away from London and the South East of England?
  • How should the industrial strategy work with local authorities and Local Economic Partnerships, reconciling a U.K.-wide strategy and local, regional and devolved nations’ priorities?

What would you include in a plan to create the modern, innovative and competitive UK economy we so desperately need?

This startup wants to defuse the pensions time bomb – and it’s nabbed Britain’s best connected woman to help

Written as editor of the New Statesman’s NS Tech and first published here.

Pensions are certainly not the most exciting conversation starter, but when you finally realise you should get on top of yours, Lady Barbara Judge is your woman.

She currently sits as the first female chair of the Institute of Directors and just stepped down from the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), the arms-length government body that helps save your retirement pot if something goes wrong.

Lady Judge helped bring pensions auto-enrolment onto the statute book, designed to get the millions of people in the UK without a private pension to start putting money aside.

Speaking to NS Tech, she says she was “delighted” that the government enacted auto-enrolment, but admits that many companies have found the new process a “pain in neck”.

That’s why she’s now offering her expertise and connections, which saw her make the Woman’s Hour Power List 2014, to HR platform Hibob as its new chairman.

“Auto-enrolment really takes a lot of work, particularly for SMEs, who’ve found it extremely difficult to set up the schemes, and to do all the paperwork and administration,” she says.

“Employees don’t understand it either. Most people just don’t think about having a pension, but people born today will live to 100 and many certainly won’t save for that.

“Instead of working out really well, it’s been quite problematic and I’m extremely concerned about what all this means.”

Lady Judge believes Hibob, which sadly won’t win any awards for the best startup name, is a way to solve that problem.

The platform is a cloud-based, data-driven HR platform designed for SMEs where they can onboard new starters, engage staff in the workplace, manage time off, and sort out benefits like healthcare, insurance and, of course, pensions.

Co-founder Andy Bellass explains that, to date, many employers and employees have seen automatic pension enrolment as “just another tax” and the lack of enthusiasm for it has seen many people opt out as early as possible.

“The general perception that the government will provide is increasingly difficult to believe,” Bellass says. “But most people have no idea where they stand on their pension and that’s a huge problem.

“The fundamental vision is to create an experience for the employer that the employee will be totally engaged with. Maybe we don’t even call it a pension.

“If we can start helping people understand where they are versus the norm, it starts to be something they can visualise and be proud of sharing.”

Bellass says Hibob has conducted research with SMEs that found huge swathes of them are using a series of humble spreadsheets to manage their people, which becomes pretty onerous the larger the company gets.

“We’re already working with more than 300 companies, up to around 1,000 people each, and it’s literally a case of dragging an Excel into the platform to let it suck out all the data. That takes about 90 seconds.”

You can automatically order a computer before new starters arrive, quickly pull management reports, integrate with relevant healthcare or insurance providers, and tailor staff benefits to the data they input around interests and hobbies.

Part of Hibob’s secret sauce is its’ company culture’ indicators created from that data, how many other mums you’re working with, how many people do yoga and more.

Hibob culture

Knowing more about what you have in common with coworkers, Hibob thinks, helps create those ‘great place to work’ vibes that younger workers in particular are yearning for.

One of the key features on the horizon is pension data monitoring, so users will be able to move their money easily, see how they compare to peers and up their contribution if they want to.

It’d be crazy if the company didn’t start helping advertisers connect with workers to sell in their various wares – but this has to be done without straying into creepy territory.

Hibob has received $7.5 million of investment in a round led by Silicon Valley’s Bessemer Venture Partners, which shows it’s already being considered as a pretty serious business. An early backer was Saul Klein, founding Skype exec team member, serial investor and now government adviser on GDS.

The cold, hard pension figures are pretty scary, even for those people who have saved, as companies like BHS, Tata and BT grapple with have huge black holes in their schemes.

It’s no secret, then, that pensions as we’ve known them no longer exist and young people are facing a poorer old age if they don’t start paying as much attention to this as they do Snapchat. So this is a problem – of course – but is it a problem that tech alone can solve?

Both Bellass and Lady Judge admit that part of the next challenge is getting the pensions conversation out into the wider public, but she’s enthusiastic: “Once people see Hibob, they will not fail to understand that it’s offering very important social contribution to our country.”

Hibob is by no means the first tech-powered HR department, but the combination of a slick user experience, with the team’s drive to help defuse the ticking pensions time bomb, is a pretty interesting combo. “If it’s ugly and horrible, nobody uses it,” Bellass agrees.

Let’s hope inertia and lack of time don’t allow this genuine and mounting problem to continue to swirl out of control for Britain’s workforce.