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Blue skies thinking in the US, says John Thornton ...
Blue skies thinking in the US, says John Thornton

'If you got it right first time - you did not aim high enough,' explained the MIT professor in a relaxed New England drawl.

I have recently returned from a four day trip to Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I was part of a group of over 20 chief executives and senior advisers on e-government, drawn from across the public services. We spent the time being briefed and challenged by a similar number of professors as part of BT's Vital Vision programme.

The MIT media laboratory describes itself as a 'collision of deep technology with the arts, media, culture and every day problems'. In short, they have lots of very bright people who are good at using technology to develop innovative solutions. They have solutions to problems most of us haven't even thought of. Our group had ideas, problems and 'challenges'. The resulting 'collision' was immensely fruitful and stimulating.

Overall the study tour was about anticipating what the future might hold and just understanding what might be possible - aiming high. The rate of growth in computing capacity means that in many industries they expect to increase performance ten fold rather than by 10%. What should this mean for us?

In many ways the agenda felt very familiar even though the solutions were often very different. We looked at voting systems - MIT have experimented with voting via Play Stations; they are 'harder to hack' they explained. We discussed the digital divide - they put forward a persuasive case to show that there is not one, or at least it is much smaller than most of us imagined. We considered strategic partnering - what works, what does not and the lesson learned from supply chain management. Most of our party confessed to having 'more partners than Mick Jagger' - organisational partners of course. They therefore felt their success rate was often higher than some of the hi-tech companies which were used as case studies.

It is now possible to 'print' basic computing circuitry and so incorporate computing capacity inexpensively into labels. This means we can replace bar codes with radio frequency tags. This in turn means you can give an identity to an inanimate object and endow it with information. Couple this information with simple robotics and the robotic machines can tell you what the object is and what needs to be done with it.

A simple example quoted to illustrate the principle was the intelligent pizza. It tells the store when it has been sold. It tells the microwave how to cook it and for how long. It also tells the microwave if it is out of date, if it has not been stored properly or if it is damaged. Could this technology be applied to the control and storage of say drugs or blood?

We looked at wearable computing which could also be used for healthcare monitoring. As well as the possibility of building computing power into your shoes and using your body as a modem - this would enable you to pass or collect information through a hand-shake or a simple touch in the same way that you currently exchange business cards. This may all seem far fetched, but remember not that long ago a simple hand-held communicator was pure science fiction. Nowadays a tiny mobile phone will enable you to speak to almost anyone, anywhere on the planet.

What about those remote, but large, areas of the planet that do not have the infrastructure to support this type of technology? Well MIT is working on those issues too. In India, for example, they are experimenting with attaching wireless networks to local buses. When the bus arrives, the village is connected electronically once a day to the rest of the world as the bus drives through. This makes it possible to squirt large amounts of data to and from the village as the bus passes.

We also looked at issues around branding government services, trust-based marketing and 'data mining'. As well as how to manage change, the characteristics of successful organisations and how to use patterns of web behaviour to predict whether or not visitors to your website will use or purchase your services.

I returned with my head buzzing with ideas stimulated by both the briefings and the reactions of my UK colleagues. The challenge now is how to use some of these ideas to help to take forward the local

e-government programme and how to share these ideas with more of my colleagues.

John Thornton

Director of e-government , Improvement & Development Agency

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