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05 October 2016

Catherine Howe

Robots vs humans and the rise of the network individual

The public sector needs to embrace a key change: commit to designing services with citizens and the way in which they live their lives today.

Marshall McLuhan is attributed with saying that ‘we shape our tools and thereafter our tools shape us’.  Never has this been truer than in a digital age where the potential diffusion effect of technology can drive rapid and viral shifts in behaviour.  Amazon has transformed retail, Facebook has destroyed the traditional media model and the banks are slowly but surely training us to do their job for them.

But change like this is not sweeping through the public sector. Why not?

Public services may be teetering on the edge of major change without knowing which way to fall, but how many times can we claim that business as usual is not sustainable and then continue to do what we have always done? 

Gazing down the barrel of austerity it’s easy to end up focusing solely on financial sustainability with the hope that you can achieve this with minimal harm.  

In a commercial world, designing for something new is less of a challenge. Consumers change behaviour and businesses follow those – or in the case of rare businesses like Apple (with a visionary leader) – shape them. There is no responsibility to look after customers who don't want to shift with the businesses as long as new customers are replacing them. The private sector will 'pivot' – change strategic direction towards new opportunities – when the evidence shows them that their commercial success depends on it. The larger the business, the more difficult this is, but the commercial imperative provides great impetus to this change.

But there is one pivot which is obvious and which public services can and should embrace right now – commit to designing services with citizens and the way in which they live their lives today.

The age of the networked individual

We have talked about redesigning services around the citizen from the point of view of austerity, but few people have taken the plunge. User-centred design is starting to come to the fore – GDS has been prominent in championing this approach, and the recent Wachter report on 'making IT work' for health cited user-centred design as one of the key recommendations.

And it does save money - Southampton City Council is currently in the middle of a large-scale digital programme that is on track to deliver significant savings.

But designing around the citizen is not enough. We need to design for the citizen to empower them if we want to shift the dial around the demand management and behaviour changes needed to make public services sustainable and relevant in the 21st century. It's the right thing to do not just because it saves money, but it reflects how the 21st century networked citizen wants to live their lives.

In the background, at least as far as technologists are concerned, the discussion in many fields has been converging on the idea of redesigning public services around the citizen in different ways.  

Social care has been developing views on strength-based practice, community development teams are embracing asset-based working and the shift to considering the co-production of health with patients has become mainstream. User-centred design can accelerate all and any of these methods.

The missing component to this citizen-centric approach is participation – and, as Brexit and recent events have shown us, it is also the need to show people that the changes that they are seeing in society are inclusive and relevant to them. Questions of digital divide are acute, but we have to move past the idea that digital exclusion is a matter of access – it is even more essential that we provide digital literacy and not just well trained customers who can fill out forms.

It is not a coincidence that we are seeing convergence of methods in different fields towards person-centred thinking – the 21st century is going to be the age of the networked individual.

Arguably health and social care integration will be the first domain where this adoption of citizen centred thinking can and should be fully embraced. The creation of new platforms such as ChooseCare, an online portal developed in partnership with a local authority, providers and people who use care services is a great example. The platform puts people who need care in control of the services they use and clearly demonstrates what can be done if we design from the point of view of the citizen and connect this back to the organisation. 21st century tools are designed to empower the individual.

Humans vs robots

But where do the robots come into all of this? We are about to see the rippling effects of automation tools and technology shifting to mainstream adoption and this will present us, as technologists, with some choices about what we want to automate and what we want to preserve as human interaction and activity. Adopting a citizen-centred approach across multiple disciplines will help shape and inform these decisions, as well as get us better prepared for the next wave of disruptive change which will continue to amplify the centrality of the networked individual.

With any pivot, the question is, ‘who will invest in the disruption that will bring these ideas to life?’. We are already investing in citizen-centred approaches – we are just choosing to do it in a scattergun way in different parts of the organisation and in different disciplines. If we want to accelerate change, how about joining these together?

This article was first published in Government Computing.

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Catherine Howe

Digital innovation director, Capita

Catherine is an expert in how communities embrace digital innovation, be it in smart cities, digital democracy or social change. She has over 15 years’ experience, throughout the UK and Europe, looking at how new technologies can best benefit individuals and communities and how the Networked Society can prosper from the coming innovations that will impact where and how we live and work. Working across the public sector she is currently helping deliver projects such as the ground breaking NHS Citizen initiative as well as digital leadership programmes within local government.

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