Tomorrow is the Question! My new role as Futurist for Jisc


Most of my regular co-conspirators will be aware by now that I will shortly be moving on from Loughborough University to a new job with Jisc, as their resident Futurist. But who are Jisc, and what does a Futurist do anyway? I'll try to answer both of these questions in this post, which goes all the way from jet packs and holidays on the moon to legal and contractual frameworks and information assurance requirements for cloud services. Buckle up - it's going to be a wild ride!

[Photo CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flickr user creatrixtiara]

Even distributions and level playing fields


William Gibson famously observed that the future is here, but it isn’t evenly distributed. We can see this graphically with next generation technologies that are on the cusp of mass adoption such as wearable computers (see my posts on hacking smart watches), drones and driverless cars, 3D printing, personal genomics and the quantified self.

The trend towards increasingly personalized "big" data is particularly relevant to the education sector, with the growth of interest in learning analytics and MOOCs. Tomorrow’s students will be quantified learners, with an expectation of rolling 360 degree feedback. And like it or not, but our venerable institutions are already more Silicon Roundabout than dreaming spires.

New and emerging technologies that are presently the domain of hackers, enthusiasts and early adopters are also opportunities to show (or develop) technological leadership. 

Those same technologies can also become ubiquitous in a very short space of time, sometimes with disastrous "disruptive" consequences for incumbents – e.g. the modern smartphone and tablet revolution can be dated back to the launch of the iPhone in January 2007, has all but destroyed previous industry leaders, and also led to a quiet revolution as we all now walk around with tiny permanently connected Unix workstations studded with sensors in our pockets.

As an example of a disruptive new technology, driverless cars might seem speculative to some - but will be launched in Milton Keynes in 2015 by the Transport Systems Catapult. How long before our kids are learning to code for autonomous vehicles (or DNA!) in school? Turns out they already are...

What is Jisc, and what can it do to help?


Jisc is a registered charity championing the use of digital technologies in research and education, and providing a wide range of shared services for Universities and Colleges in the UK.

Notable Jisc successes have included Janet6, a world leading National Research and Education Network, groundbreaking content deals with publishers under the Jisc Collections umbrella, and breakthroughs in Access and Identity Management such as the IETF standards track Moonshot project and JANET Roaming (now eduroam).

Jisc has also sponsored pioneering work in Open Educational Resources, Open Access and Open Data which have helped to prepare the sector for its impending transition to being "open by default" - with the Jisc funded Digital Curation Centre providing vital support as institutions work towards implementing Research Data Management. Most recently, through Janet Reach, Jisc is piloting interconnectivity between institutions and their industrial partners.

[Jisc also employs an army of small people to keep your smartphone screen clean and smudge free ;-]

What's next?  Some potential interventions...

The crux of my job at Jisc will be to float new ideas, from the FE/HE community but also originating more widely, to see whether they have enough traction to be worth pursuing. I will be Jisc's "professional instigator", working as a member of the Jisc Digital Futures team to line up the appropriate people to take the idea forward as a new project, product or service.

As I've spoken with people around the community about my impending move, I have had lots of immediate feedback with potential ideas for future Jisc interventions.

Here are some examples, but I'd also love to hear from you - what would you like us to do next?
  • Equipment sharing - how do we best build on, Kit-Catalogue and related initiatives to help institutions share high value equipment with each other and industry? Should Jisc work with the Tech Britain community to raise awareness?
  • FutureLearn is great, but what would a MOOC platform for institutions that are not part of FutureLearn look like?
  • What support could Jisc provide for a Continuing Professional Development (CPD) based approach to further and/or higher ed that led to recognised academic qualifications? e.g. from tools for online summative assessment to test centres that candidates would attend in person.
  • HPC services - following recent e-Infrastructure investments there is now a vibrant landscape of regional and national supercomputing service providers. Can Jisc help service providers and potential users to collaborate via a common technical, contractual and information assurance framework? [I covered some of this territory in my Cloud-SIG presentation last December]
  • Shared procurement for corporate systems - at present most institutions independently go out to procurement for key corporate IT systems like HR, Finance and CRM (see the UCISA CIS Survey) yet only a very small number of systems end up being selected in each major category. This suggests that there are massive potential efficiency savings for institutions and potential suppliers alike. What would a more co-ordinated approach look like?

  • Institutions sometimes develop innovative software that is of general interest, but then struggle to devise a sustainability model (support, hosting, community building etc). Is there something Jisc can do by way of an "Incubator" to sustain them post project funding?
  • The recent furore over the project to open up NHS patient records ironically follows many years of thoughtful discussions about how researchers can work with clinicians, and investigations into what the underpinnings of such a system might look like. Lessons from prior work like the Jisc funded BRISSkit project are likely to be of particular interest as we all look to open up previously closed data sets. Can Jisc usefully play a role in initiatives like and the Connected Digital Economy Catapult's Trusted Data Accelerator project?
And the big one, from my own perspective:

Advanced computing skills are a crisis area for the UK. We hear a lot about teaching school children to code, but as Ian Livingstone notes in the Next Gen report, we are already struggling to fill hundreds of thousands of UK tech vacancies in parallel with having 1 million young people not in employment, education or training (NEET). I will be very interested to see whether there is something that Jisc can do in collaboration with major tech firms and the likes of the Skills Funding Agency, Software Carpentry, FutureLearn and Code Club to help create new opportunities for the "missing million".

What about the jet packs?

They promised us life in space, flying cars, and jetpacks but all we got were pocket-sized rectangles containing all human knowledge. FAIL.  -Jason Kottke,

From ubiquitous Internet through tablets and smartphones to driverless cars, commercial spaceflight and Google's smart contact lenses - all these things are really just the tip of the iceberg. Recent years have seen a flurry of activity that really could be described without hyperbole as a new industrial revolution. Consider the discovery of graphene, the realisation that we could use DNA for data storage, and the development of genetically engineered oncolytic viruses as the delivery mechanism for therapeutic payloads.

We are but a small island. Where new technologies originate here, such as graphene, DNA based data storage and the Skylon project, we are in a unique position to work together to shape the future.

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