The challenges and opportunities facing the tech community in Swindon were discussed by experts of international repute during the inaugural TechSwindon Summit.
From the future of the physical workplace to the possibility of Swindon becoming a smart city, tech experts offered thought-provoking insight throughout the five-day event.
Originally planned as a one- or two-day physical event, the summit – billed as a “call to action” to focus on innovation and how tech can support economic recovery in 2021 – moved online due to coronavirus restrictions.
However, the move online meant experts from around the world could be invited to participate, while for more than 1,000 attendees, joining one of the 32 webinars was as simple as clicking a button.
The speakers included a talk by Dr Nicola Millard, principal innovation partner at BT, on the future of the workplace – a topic she’s been talking about for 10 years, although it “only became trendy seven months ago.”
The pandemic, she said, presented “the first opportunity we’ve had to study at scale remote working.” This unofficial study found productivity increasing – people worked by an average of 48 minutes a day longer – while collaborative innovation was made more difficult. And many people, she remarked, were missing the social aspect of the office.
The future of work, she suggested, would be a hybrid model of working from home, and meeting to share ideas. Businesses might close large, expensive offices in London, Birmingham and Bristol in favour of regional hubs. ‘Second cities’ like Swindon would benefit.
And cities will be changed by tech, suggested Neil Madle, city manager for CityFibre, which is investing £40 million in bringing full-fibre internet to Swindon.
Full fibre digital infrastructure, he said, is “the catalyst for economic growth and prosperity.” He explained how the full-fibre network would support the roll-out of 5G and enable self-driving cars to use Swindon’s streets. There would be less congestion, better air quality as CCTV, sensors and smart signals managed traffic flows, and courier firms took to the skies with delivery drones, while e-health and e-learning – the delivery of health and education services via the internet – would also be supported.
The investment, he said, would create £500 million of economic benefit in Swindon over the next 15 years.
Alex Healing, senior research manager at BT Labs where he is responsible for the Future Cyber Defence programme, described how that critical digital infrastructure would be protected by cybersecurity.
Cybersecurity – a field that has been identified as a potential growth industry for Wiltshire thanks to the Cyber Security Operations Centre at MoD Corsham – was described as an “arms race” with cyber criminals constantly looking for new ways to attack businesses, while cybersecurity experts trying to stop them.
Increasingly, said Alex, artificial intelligence (AI) was being used by cyber criminals to identify and exploit vulnerabilities in systems and software, while data analysts used AI and machine learning to identify suspicious behaviour before an attack could be successfully launched.
And how AI will change the world of work was the topic of conversation in a webinar presented by Adam Thilthorpe, director of external affairs and Brian Runciman, head of content and insight at BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, which is headquartered in Swindon.
Brian presented research showing that 55 per cent of BCS members were already using artificial intelligence, with a further 31 per cent ready to use AI very soon in tasks like assisting decision making, predicting outcomes using data, and the automation of repetitive tasks.
And while AI was a world away from the robots – good and bad – of science fiction, they are already having an impact on our lives, Adam explained.
He pointed to the exams fiasco, where AI determined students’ grades in the absence of examinations. Public school students fared well, while high-achieving children from state schools were penalised due to what he described “biases built into the algorithm.”
And while Deep Fake videos and Cambridge Analytica had made AI front page news, he argued artificial intelligence could be a force for good: a successful track and trace system would be rooted in effective AI, which was able to dive into huge amounts of data to identify trends, correlation, and causation he said.
Meanwhile, with concerns about jobs being lost to ‘robots’, BCS found that while some roles could be made obsolete – telemarketing, receptionists, and commercial drivers topped the list – it would also create a new industry of programmers, AI analysts, behaviour interaction specialists, and ethicists.
The jobs of the future will require training and retraining – and there was good news for Swindon on that front as Carole Kitching, principal and chief executive at New College Swindon, gave an update on the Institute of Technology, which will open at the North Star campus next autumn.
One of 12 in the country, the £21 million government-backed IoT will offer qualifications from A levels to degrees in a variety of STEM subjects, to students who will enjoy new facilities including a film studio, science labs, engineering workshops, and digital labs.
The TechSwindon Summit will return next year as a hybrid event, with a mix of online and real-world events. Meanwhile, events will be held throughout the year. Details can be found at www.tech-swindon.com/events