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Innovate 2016 - time for a reboot?

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From a technology perspective, we live in exciting times.

There are four huge technology tsunamis heading our way:

  1. Artificial Intelligence (AI)
  2. Robotics
  3. Big Data
  4. the Internet of Things (IoT)

These are the four key technologies that power Ocado’s end-to-end e-commerce, fulfilment and logistics platform. They are also centric to many of the presentations at this year’s Innovate 2016, including mine!

Where these forces collide with one another and with us, they will create an explosion of new opportunities and industries, not to mention the disruption of others.

However, many businesses appear to remain oblivious to the scale of the impact these forces will have as they wash over them - often too busy talking about digital transformation rather than actually making it happen at scale.

It’s like standing around a swimming pool debating the best way of learning to swim as the tsunami approaches.

AI is becoming more accessible

Artificial intelligence

When looking at the tsunamis I mentioned above, AI is particularly interesting. In the recent past, building AI into your applications used to require hiring specialist engineers with PhDs, pizza stained t-shirts and wet towels wrapped around their heads.

Some specialist applications of AI still do.

However for other applications, the advent of cloud-based services has completely disrupted accessibility to AI, made it a commodity, and in so doing has redefined the baseline for smartness.

Now for a few cents you can call a cloud API, pass in some data and get back a smart prediction or insight.

If your applications are not taking advantage of this new smartness, then they will probably not be best of breed.

Easier access to intelligent hardware

But it’s not just software that is getting more accessible. Over the past few years, there has also been an explosion of low-cost, easy to use embedded hardware platforms (e.g. Edison, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, micro:bit) - now almost anyone can be an IoT player.

Access to relatively low-cost 3D printers and CNC routers has also lowered the barrier to enthusiasts building robotic assemblies.

A start-up mentality with a global attitude

The rise of mobile app stores and cloud services democratised the art of the software start-up, making it genuinely possible to setup a multi-million (or even billion) dollar worldwide business from your bedroom.

In a similar fashion, the battles to exploit these transformative technologies are, I believe, going to be fought with asymmetric warfare.

While technology giants still have a big role to play, it’s the SMEs, start-ups and even the Maker movement who will be the ones to watch.

As I type, this type of experimentation is going on in a teenage bedroom above my head!

UK has potential to become technology start-up capital of the world

The UK has most of the raw ingredients necessary to become a (if not the) technology start-up capital of the world, capable of rivalling Israel, Berlin or Silicon Valley.

We have many of the classic assets that create the right environment for innovation, including our:

  • access to capital
  • geography,
  • international language
  • innovational prowess
  • education system

But, enough raw engineering talent is in short supply

Young engineer

But the ingredient that we are in short supply of is enough raw engineering talent.

As a technology business, at Ocado we feel we have to do what we can to help the next generation acquire the digital skills they will need.

For my children’s generation, the ability to code will be what literacy is for my generation

In other words, a skill needed by everyone and not just by those who intend to become authors.

Code for Life – facilitating the next generation of UK coders & teaching data literacy

This is why we created an online resource for schools, teachers and students called Code for Life. Our engineers volunteer their time to create the applications and teaching materials, and the Ocado supplements this with some permanent headcount and paid internships.

Code for Life was started by building a game called Rapid Router to teach KS1/ KS2 children to code, which was released to coincide with the launch of the new primary school computing curriculum in September 2014.

Rapid Router is currently being used by over 1,300 schools, nearly 3,500 teachers and over 65,000 students.

We have now created a new game to help students studying for their Computer Science GCSEs to learn more advanced coding techniques, which is due for release later this year.

But it’s not all about learning to code.

The next generation also need to acquire skills in manipulating, visualising and gaining insights from data.

They also need at least an awareness of how such data will be the food of the artificial intelligence systems that will inevitably transform their lives.

Therefore, Code for Life is also engaged in creating resources to help teach data literacy, and for older students, machine learning too.

Literacy in coding & data science should be on a par with English & Maths


UK plc needs to be doing more in terms of bold and visionary leadership.

For example, it’s not enough to introduce a Computer Science GCSE but then make it optional for schools to offer it and not ensure there are enough properly trained teachers to deliver it.

I believe we should be mandating literacy in coding and basic data science alongside literacy in English and Mathematics.

And then there are the ongoing challenges of how to get more women into technology and greater adoption of STEM subjects.

Finally there are all the other meta skills we should be teaching our children such as:

  • mind mapping
  • memory techniques
  • goal setting
  • touch typing
  • financial management
  • entrepreneurship and beyond

It’s not necessarily about replacing the existing subjects, but rather how we can stitch these new literacies and skills into them, so as to prepare the next generation for the digital and entrepreneurial future that awaits them.

We need to find the plug for our education system, switch it off at the wall and reboot it!

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