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Three Substitutes for Five Minutes Thought PDF Print E-mail
Written by David Brunnen   
Thursday, 12 February 2015 07:38

Bernard Leven - pic from BBCWhen the late, great, Bernard Levin was writing in the 1970’s for The Times, he dismissed repeated calls for the return of capital punishment as just ‘one of the popular substitutes for five minutes thought’.  That phrase suggests he had in mind plenty of other substitutes worthy of his ire.

Now, more than two decades on from his passing, the death penalty that he might have raged against is the likely death of an economy where governance has lost its bearings. 

There’s no knowing, of course, what ‘popular substitutes’ he would nowadays have selected for his brilliant brand of incisive criticism, but current fascinations with all things digital suggest at least three – these being prompted by the growing evidence of the economic impacts of infrastructure investment and the impending tsunami of data being unleashed by video technologies.

1.  Technology Neutrality.

 As regulatory principles go, this one is close to a dereliction of duty. 

It means that the regulator (in this case Ofcom) simply has no concern for the future of the economy and the wellbeing of consumers - citizens and enterprises.

It might perhaps be argued that, as an arms-length economic regulator focused on market efficiency, the duty of care lies elsewhere in government.  That line is already ‘one leg dis’ as telephone engineers used to say.

What that comfortable, fence-sitting, Technology Neutrality means to a regulator is that they really needn’t care if the main providers choose technologies designed to hobble competitors, limit new market entrants, maximize the burden on the public purse and fall way short of your economy’s long-term needs.

Maybe (perhaps) Technology Neutrality would be fine if we already had adequate competition – but the prospects for that ever occurring are diminished by the ‘hands off’ approach to driving forward – and anyway, in the matter of utilities, the notion of competition is a chimera, detuned to accommodate a charade of faux choices and trade trickery.   People, businesses, cities and communities deserve better.

2.  Superfast Fibre Broadband

To sanctify something that is absolutely not Super, not Fast, not Fibred and not Broad, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority demonstrates a linguistic agility conformant with deeply embedded British Values – where the accent is on the second syllable, ish. 

Ish defies the absolute.  It is in many circumstances the golden key to our culture’s tolerance – a delightful approximation that fits with the language’s scope for ambiguity.  But when it comes to product definition this is simply not ‘Up To’ snuff. 

  • To be Super you’d need to offer low latency.
  • To be Fast you’d need >150Mb/s – and preferably extensible at the flick of a switch.
  • To be Fibre you should find the fibre terminating at your premises. 
  • To be Broad the connectivity should be symmetric – two-way, both-way, up and down like real conversational life, rather than some prehistoric notion of download demand and upload trickle.

Which part of this do you not understand?

In Hong Kong, users of the FTTP service are reported to upload more data than they download.  In olden colonial times we apparently spoke to the natives slowly with a loud voice – and didn’t expect them to answer back.

What would the ASA say if a Mobile Operator advertised its service as Fibre Mobile on the obvious grounds that the core network backhaul from the nearest cellular node was connected by fibre?  Or maybe, the Operators could argue that the vast volume of ‘mobile’ connectivity is achieved via WiFi and that faux-fibre broadband?  Fibre Mobile – more than you ever thought possible whilst standing still.  

For a supposedly modern economy not yet appearing in global rankings of Fibre to the Premise (FTTP) connectivity, Superfast Fibre Broadband is surely  a myth-take.

3.  Smart Cities

For all their hype, the proliferation of Internets of Things, Surveillance Societies and half-open public data, what’s so very smart about your city? 

Has it embraced the sharing economy?  Do you sense any determination for resilience planning?  Does your Local Authority have the skills for Municipal Enterprise?  In a global context, will your place ever be listed in the ranks of Intelligent Communities?  Is your local infrastructure designed to grow the local economy, improve the environment, attract skilled people, enable artistic endeavour and retain its young folk?

The only thing that’s currently certain is that in most places we face an uncertain future.  To run fast we must first learn to walk and Smart Cities (or even slightly smarter cities) will not happen without smart people who take time out to understand the imperatives.

Smart Cities - a popular substitute for five minutes thought?  Don’t believe the hype.  Defining truly intelligent communities with the resilience needed to cope with and recover from the unexpected – anything from severe weather induced by climate change to skills shortages caused by youth migration – is no small deal.

Scratch the surface and you’ll find that overnight stardom often takes seven years.  The real impacts are only just beginning to be seen in places that started on their digital journeys a decade ago.

Most were provoked by a crisis.  First they were shaken and only then they were stirred into action.  But does your place need to wait for a crisis?

That’s why, to counter each of these delusions, we are doing two things. 

First, the 2015 Digital Challenge Awards.

Now in our 5th year, nominations are coming in for projects that will, once again, end up as case studies to be shared to inspire others in applying their imaginations. 

Mainstream media are fascinated by big brands and even bigger numbers.  So a small town imaginatively using crowd-funding to build free public WiFi to boost the local economy is rarely mentioned.  Similarly there are multiple projects all over the place that are winning through despite the hurdles of regulation, incumbent dominance, municipal sleepwalking and media indifference.

Nomination is, as ever, free of charge.  The Open Call closes at the end of May. Finalists will be announced in June and Awards presented in November.  Whatever has impressed you - the projects that have sparked imagination – don’t hesitate to nominate them.

Secondly we’re pushing off to Toronto. 

Why Toronto? 

Our Study Tour delegates will meet mayors and civic leaders from around the world gathered for the Intelligent Community Forum’s global summit – and mingle with pioneers in Municipal Enterprise, Sharing Economies and Multi-Cultural Diversity.  And, on that last point, note that, underscoring their economic growth, Toronto’s proudest boast is that over 51% of the inhabitants were born outside of Canada.


But back to The Blessed Bernard. 

Like Milton, he should be living at this hour – England hath need of you.

The stagnant waters of austerity are no excuse for not asking, ‘Is this all I’m ever going to get – is this [expletive deleted] all you’re ever going to give?


Graphic credit: BBC



Last Updated on Thursday, 12 February 2015 13:18

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