Software’s unbalanced diet

I’ve been thinking a bit more about what’s going on in the economy and its relationship with technology. It was Albert Wenger’s post about whether the rise in consumer debt had something to do with technology’s effect on the economy that got me thinking although I’d been wondering for a while whether technology had something to do with the rise in public sector spending.

Marc Andreessen writes that ‘software is eating the world’ but I’ve started to think that it’s eating a very strange and unbalanced diet which is having nasty consequences. The fact that we’ve used technology to only revolutionise certain industries is a bit like just eating all the fatty, sugary stuff and skipping the healthy parts. The reason we haven’t really noticed that software has avoided making great leaps forward in some of the most important sectors is that they’ve actually been improving without it.

Take education, which in the UK seems to be getting better and better. The statistics are of course a bit controversial, but one example is that 11 year olds have gone from 49% reaching level 4 or above in 1995 to over 80% in 2011. However education is also getting a lot more expensive. It’s doubled in cost since 1997 and some forecasts I’ve seen show it continuing to increase over the coming decades simply because of the increases built into the current system (buildings needing to be replaced, teachers getting more expensive as they get more experienced and qualified etc).

Likewise, healthcare. Between 1997 and 2009, the National Health Service made a 20 per cent reduction in the mortality rates of cancer patients aged under 75 and a 40 per cent reduction in mortality rates of heart disease patients under 75. But, again, it’s getting a lot more expensive. It went from costing £50 billion per year to £120 billion between 1997 and 2011. That increase went into new buildings, new staff and better pay and conditions for those staff. It also went on technology but in such a terrible way that it likely made the system more inefficient overall.

You could blame the increase in cost of both of these on the Labour Government but I think it’s much more systemic than which flavour of politician is in power. Other countries saw similar trends and even in the US where healthcare is run outside of the public sector, the costs rocketed in both real terms and as a percentage of GDP. The truth is that we’ve entered a period of history where we need good education and need good healthcare but compared to the efficiencies that technology has created in other parts of the economy (see Race Against the Machine), healthcare and education remained almost untouched. Even worse, the changes that technology has created in other parts of the economy, left us unable to raise the taxes to pay for the rises in costs.

Now I think if we have any chance of retaining the improvements in quality we need to make public services radically better and cheaper. Some work that Mastodon C did during the BGV programme found over a quarter of a billion of unnecessary overspend in GP prescriptions. Another of our companies, Dr Doctor,  is looking at how missed and cancelled appointments affect the NHS and has found another £900 million of potential savings. The problem is that IT has been seen as a cost in the NHS for the last 20 years whereas we actually should only be using it to save money AND improve outcomes. I think things will get better and I’m bullish about health and education because I know that good people are already working on them and investors are moving into them as areas as well. But there are services that are getting worse and more expensive which I really worry about —  social care, prisons and the courts for example.

Another worry I have is that no matter whether the economy starts growing or not, we’re still going to have a really difficult time creating more jobs. Andrew McAfee and Eric Brynjolffson’s research points to this but this piece for Planet Money is even more stark — economists just can’t find a future scenario where US employment will return to pre-2008 levels. Put simply — society is going to get better but we’re going to have less jobs. On the one hand, that sounds great (we’re going to have to work less). But society just isn’t set up for it (if you don’t work, you don’t count). I can’t pretent I have an answer to the conundrum but for me it means that what your startup does is a much more important decision than it used to be. Software isn’t eating the world, it’s eating the unhealthy bits and unless we rebalance our efforts to use it to make publicly valuable sectors vastly more efficient, we’ll be in even worse trouble than we are now.

The City as School

This is roughly what I said at Be Bettr on Friday 14th January 2011 at the Conway Hall in London. Thanks to Matt Jukes for organising!

1) When we hear the word education most of us think of a classroom, of a teacher standing at the front, of kids sitting at rows of desks. Perhaps the slight smell of a distant canteen. Of course not all schools are like that but when it comes to learning throughout life we hold on to the metaphors and images we grew up with. It’s very hard for us to think of an education system for adults that doesn’t mirror those that are basically drawn from our own experiences, but I think we need to, and perhaps in doing so we could end up rethinking education for everyone, including that of children. For me it’s about how you reorganise the system — I’m not so interested in content, I think the demand for that comes from people anyway. So today I want to talk about a few hacks to the system we’ve tried with School of Everything and why I think we can reclaim some old ideas in modern times.

2) First a couple of pieces of context to what we’re doing. The human race tipped over to be majority urbanised in 2008. Nearly 90% of the UK population lives in an urban area. Since this is where the people are, this is where the ideas, knowledge and skills are concentrated too. While cities have been the great drivers of society and economy, they of course have their faults. They massively lack the social infrastructure of old. When Michael Young and Peter Wilmott wrote in detail about Family and Kinship in East London in 1955, what they found was a world rich in social relationships, networks of dependence and mutual support that helped them face the adversity of insecure and low-paid employment. They charted what would now be described by government types as “social capital” and how it made urban neighbourhoods function effectively.

3) A whole raft of factors set about gnawing away at those bonds throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s. While there were improving levels of health and education, other factors like urban planning changed the way people related to each other. And as Clay Shirky points out — television sucked up our cognitive powers. While TV did open up new learning opportunities — Michael Young himself went on to create the Open University based on the sophisticated new technology of the time (BBC 2) — it also eroded social time and diminished the amount of time that people spent in civic spaces and activities. The car also enabled people to speed through their own local area, avoiding their neighbours. So to my mind, the car and television made urban areas lose some of the efficiency they had developed in relation to learning and building relationships with other people.

4 ) I think it’s only now that we’re just beginning to invent ways of making the city as efficient as it could be. Silently the city is becoming connected to the internet. We are teaching the internet about the real world, geotagging cafes, adding data about hospitals through Patient Opinion. Telling it where people are with mobile phone signals. Technology is just starting to become a layer of the real world, as roads and sewers did before. It’s not the cables and transmitters that matter but the representation of useful information that can be connected. As Clay Shirky says, technology only becomes interesting when it becomes boring.

5 ) Over the past 3 years we’ve been working on School of Everything. We started out with a simple proposition — that we could use technology to connect people who had something to teach with people who wanted to learn. What we built was a listings service where people could say what they could teach and students could provide feedback and ratings of that teaching. Most of the learning going on was one-to-one and it’s worked pretty well. We’ve helped tens of thousands of people find learning opportunities in their local area and as time has gone on we’ve added features. January is always our busiest month as people learn something new as a resolution.

6 ) But in the middle of last year we started to feel there was something missing from our plan. We started to see that there was real power in learning in small groups rather than just with a teacher. It coincided with the economic crunch and us seeing people often having a bit more time on their hands but willing to spend less on learning stuff. As we started to explore, we came across the idea of Study Circles in Sweden or studicirkeln as I’m told they’re called. They developed over the course of the last century and have gradually become the predominant form of adult education. Today there are roughly 300,000 of them. It turns out there is some heritage in the idea in the Young Foundation as well. In the 1970s Michael had the perfectly sensible idea of running them on trains and so throughout the 1970s and 80s it was fairly common for people to meet up on the 17.18 to Stevenage or any one of 100 other trains across the country to learn something new for the 30 mins of their journey home.

7 ) We started five Groups in Bethnal Green. Each group had 6–12 members and covered a different subject in a different kind of space — we covered everything from cookery to code, art to accounting. We met up regularly, sometimes bringing in people who knew more than we did, sometimes just getting together with people who were interested in the subject. Of course we realised this was going on all around us already whether through church house groups, book groups or other subjects in peoples homes. What we found was that it works — it helps people learn new things and build new relationships.

8 ) This week we’re opening up the system to other people and we need people who are willing to make things happen. Self organisation needs a little bit of organisation. Call them community organisers, learning champions, whatever you like but they are people who give self organisation the nudge it needs — they set the patterns. We hope what we’ve built fits the needs of organisers, making their lives simpler and enabling them to have greater impact. We’re looking for people who want to back the organisers — who want to support networks of groups. Whether they’re local authorities who want to see more self organised learning in their areas, companies who want to see their staff learning from one another or campaigns that want to create networks of groups meeting up regularly to learn about an issue.

9 ) Sugata Mitra says “Education is a self-organising system where learning is an emergent outcome.” When you think about it a university campus is just a collection of facilities with a bunch of people who are motivated to learn new things come together. The organisational infrastructure of a university is possible to recreate using technology. I suppose what we’re trying to create is the invisible, yet practical university. No quad, no clock tower, no vice chancellor’s suite, but full of people who want to learn and people who can help them. We just provide a way of seeing and organising that layer of learning opportunities. We want to see neighbourhoods becoming schools. Putting to use underused buildings and encouraging people who have something to teach, to share with other people.

10) Hacking is about simple interventions that change everything. Using the weight and momentum of what exists to help change its direction. It’s Jujutsu with ideas and code. We’d like your help to use this simple hack — the idea of the learning group, to try and revolutionise adult learning. Thanks for listening.

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