Connected Nation: John Baird, EPSRC

Supplementary content information

John Baird is Head of the UK Research and Innovation Digital Economy Theme at the EPSRC.

John Baird, EPSRC

EPSRC has been, over the last few months, trying to put down a sort of outcome-based framework, if you like, to try to explain the benefits of long-term research; how you invest in research to make the UK prosperous nation, a successful nation? [Police siren]

So the Connected Nation is one of those four aspects we’ve got; a connected nation, a healthy nation, a productive nation and a resilient nation. So ‘connected’ is all around the digital infrastructure and making the most of the digital economy, and the ICT, and the maths and the data analytics there. So through the course of lots of iterations with our advisory bodies we've come up with basically five, I guess you could say, priority areas.

So they range from, sort of, quite heavy Maths and ICT in terms of Big Data and Big Data analytics and how you can exploit Big Data to give you information and knowledge, which then could be exploited by companies to get to give the market advantage. To the Internet of Things, where particularly we’ve focused on the security aspects and trying to design in privacy from the start.

Looking at the whole ethical and people dimensions to do with Internet of Things, because; what's it like to live in a society where everything is connected, and every moment, and every movement is being tracked and monitored? It would even know whether you're picking up utensils to cook a meal and that sort of thing. Then, of course, you’ve got the whole thing about autonomous vehicles, and autonomous robots, and robots autonomously doing stuff that might be hazardous, or to help people live in their own homes, as an assisted living type thing. So there’s a whole load of ethical things around that, about who designs the software; who takes responsibility for if an accident happens? What are the insurance models? Has anyone thought that the business models for that sort of stuff? You know, huge interdisciplinary challenges there, not just the technology stuff.

Then, of course, another big area in the Connected Nation is this whole trust, identity, privacy, security arena, that covers everything from cybersecurity to the ethical dimension, responsible innovation; the whole thing to do with, what's it like to be in a society where you are being monitored, and what does it feel like? And can we do things better that are ethically better for people? And then finally, all those things sort of wrap up to; what it would be like to live in a society where, in the future, we expect seventy percent of the world's population to live in cities? Where you’ve got, perhaps, new digital currencies?

You might have distributed ledger technologies, enabling people in communities to have more democratic rights, and voting, and things much more easily. But distributed ledger technology - which is the technology behind Bitcoin, the virtual currencies - means that you could actually engage with people more closely and better, and more effectively. So you’d have local democracy, digital civics if you like, and so we think that's a huge opportunity. How do people in the future, how will they live in a smart city or a future city? How will digital civics be used? How will future virtual currencies be used? How will you do your business in a digital environment?

So that’s the last one, the digital society thing really. So at the moment we’re just waiting to try and develop those themes further, and to try and hope that in the implementation phase of our delivery planning, that we can go ahead and really nail down some really exciting and compelling science over the next five years, that will then galvanize the UK academic community together with the users, and take that forward.

To me this event has been a culmination of, probably, several years of activity, because it all came from a review of the impact of the research we’d funded. We started off looking at that in 2012 with an impact review panel led by Andrew Herbert, who unfortunately isn’t here today because of some tragic circumstances, but then we asked Andrew again to do an update of our impact review to try and see where we had gone in the, sort of, two and a half or so years since our initial impact survey.

So what we did was we surveyed the academic community would were funded through the Digital Economy, and got them to say what did they think were the major impacts on their work, and what did the users who they work with think of it as well? And from that we had Andrew and Carlos, who was at the time from Aberdeen and is now at Glasgow, actually distil down some of the key projects; the projects that seem to have become exemplars across the themes and the Digital Economy, and also ICT, and they’ve been showcased today. It's actually really hard to pick out some, or one.

So I was talking to Mark a few months ago and he wowed the impact panel a few years ago by his mapping of the Dar es Salaam slums, using mobile phone data, Dar es Salaam are these slums in the country of Tanzania. Dar es Salaam didn’t have any maps beyond 1961. So that’s a major thing where you can actually find out where people live and work. But probably one of my favourites, if I had to pick a favourite Digital Economy project - and maybe it's because Chris Speed is such a showman - but probably Chris Speed’s Tales of Things with Electronic Memories, the TOTEM project. It's really interesting, because not only did it come out of a sandpit - and a sandpit is where you bring together lots of people who don’t necessarily know each other, from different disciplines, different backgrounds, and they all work together over the course of a week on some really wacky problems, it’s really high risk research - and that the issue that the sandpit was addressing was design in the digital world.

We’ve heard a lot today about design, and so the design in digital world sandpit produced lots of actual projects, but the TOTEM project was, to me, a highlight. And the reason it was a highlight, was because it was a real Internet of Things type project, but it had a real commercial use at the end of the day; because the idea of the project was to associate memories with artefacts. So in other words, if you had a dress, right, and you work with Oxfam, and Oxfam wanted to sell that dress to make money.

How would you give it more value? So the case in point, was that Annie Lennox, who wore a dress to Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday, she donated the dress to Oxfam. She recorded a little vignette, a little video, to say what her story was with this. The TOTEM project then allows not just that story to be captured, but you to add your story to that. So you could have gone into the Oxfam shop, scan the QR code with it, up on your phone pops Annie Lennox telling you how she wore that dress to Nelson Mandela's 90th birthday; but you could then add your memory to that as well; “I bought this dress ‘cause I’m the world's biggest fan of Annie Lennox and the Eurythmics, or whatever, and I love Nelson Mandela, or whatever”. So you then start tagging electronic memory with that artefact, which gives it more value.

Therefore, for Oxfam, that’s more value, therefore more sales, more money and so on. And Oxfam have commercialized that work that Chris Speed and his colleagues did, and it’s called Shelf Life, and it's now been deployed in Oxfam shops. So it's an example of high risk research that’s interdisciplinary, but applied; actually focusing on a problem, how can you design in electronic memories to things? And then it's gone out into the market and is being used. Now not every project works, research is risky, that's a really good one. But there are hundreds more, and, you know, I could spend all day saying what they were. That's why we’ve produced a document about the Digital Economy and the highlights there.

So from my perspective the Digital Economy, say, the Digital Economy in its broadest sense has come out of nowhere really. Five years or ten years ago, people didn’t really talk about it. When I took over the job four years ago, people were still saying; “Well, what is the digital economy?” And now everything's digital, and what isn't digital these days? So when you extrapolate that, and you think about the things that have come up now - I’m talking about Big Data, and the opportunities that the digitization of things - enable lower transaction costs, enable information to be shared more easily, enable whole new forms of information to be passed about; whether it's just videos of cats on YouTube, or whatever. People are creating content now, they’re distributing it. There are whole new business angles coming up, whether it's people bringing home the stuff they brought from the shops and putting it on video, and Google pay them for their clips and stuff.

This whole new business model has been created, whole new ways of doing business, whole new ways of delivering services, whole new ways of engaging with communities and people, and whole new opportunities to do things better, cheaper, more effectively. You really give the UK a competitive advantage - if we fund it properly. And if we work together, as we are doing, with other agencies like Innovate UK, the Research Councils like AHRC, ESRC et cetera, and agencies like the Digital Catapult. And we’re doing all that stuff now, but we just need to build on that, build on the priorities we've identified, and try and work together, coherently, up and down the exploitation pathway and across the disciplines. So it could be good.

So to try and engage with researchers, I mean, the standard answer from EPSRC is we publish Grants on the Web so people can go and search them, there are things like Research Fish and Gateway to Research. But the other thing is; we are there, you know, we are people and we’d love to talk. I think that’s one area where EPSRC has made a real niche for itself; is this ability to go out and to engage with the community, make some really good interactions with users, and we work really powerfully and closely with agents like the Knowledge Transfer Network, with the Digital Catapult and the other Catapults.

So we're trying to create an ecosystem where people can tap into, at various stages, and some of our calls we put out, we have a requirement to engage with users. So we’re putting the onus on the universities to then, when they go into the call, to actually go out and bring users in. So there are lots of opportunities for users and others to engage; but yes if it all comes to an issue, just pick the phone up or send an email, and say, you know; I’m an SME and I’d like to engage, what’s appropriate? It could be anything from an innovation voucher, to a Knowledge Transfer Partnership, to a research grant, to just putting someone in touch with someone for a little bit of almost free or cheap consultancy in the academic base.