The Brutal Simplicity of Disruptive Technologies

These are revolutionary times. The digital technology revolution is happening at break-neck speed, made possible only because those leading the charge are the millennial generation that grew up in a world mediated by mobile software systems, behind which the physical world of maps, routes and timetables are mere data sources.

It is a global phenomenon. No country – and the UK invested early in the digital revolution (remember tech city?) – can presume its own efforts won't be near-instantly mimicked. An early lead can rapidly disappear. In this area in particular, our nascent Industrial Strategy needs to emerge rapidly from the Green Paper stage and get put into action. Restrictions on employment across borders need to be resisted.
In our own sector, a key change is the move to thinking about mobility rather than transport. Concerns of environmental campaigners – encouraging mobility means more travel/more pollution – are brushed aside. Millennials, after all, are far less likely to be car users. Their insouciant insistence on also speaking of the joys of disruptive technology might irritate – but really, everything does change, and it is disruptive.
Think Űber and the end of the taxi trade; think shared ownership and the end of the mass-market car industry; or data feeds that mean customers know what's wrong faster than service providers; think of the wholesale replacement of routine jobs – in auditing, for example – leading to job losses and a major surplus of office space. And as Driver Assistance technology migrates into connected autonomous vehicles, the loss of traditional jobs across the transport sector too.

Don't think that the fine of €2.4bn imposed on Google by EC Competition Commissioner Margrethe Vestager (yes she of the green dress and the supposed inspiration for the TV Series Borgen) will slow down the major players: owner Alphabet had profits of $23.7bn in 2016.
Nor should it be presumed that cyber-attacks will slow the advance of the digital majors. As Evgeny Morozov put it, writing in the Observer earlier this year:
'Essentially, the complexity of modern cyber-attacks has become so enormous that the only actors capable of shielding us from them are the likes of Google, Facebook and Microsoft.'
But do worry that the digital space and use of algorithms and large-scale data trawling creates the opportunities for monopoly power of which earlier generations of entrepreneurs can have only dreamed. Morozov again:
'Every time you read that something is offered as a service – as in "cloud as a service" or "mobility as a service" – it is almost always a bland euphemism for legalised rent extraction that has a large tech company as a middleman.'

'These business models are brutal in their simplicity: firms such as Google and Facebook use advertising to pay for the provision of relatively trivial services, like search or email, in order then to extract and deploy the user data to develop non-trivial products or services such as self-driving cars or advanced health analytics capable of diagnosing diseases early on.'

Some developers actively seek to avoid dependency on the dominant Silicon Valley companies, but the odds are stacked against them. Beate Kubitz, a Director of the Travelspirit Foundation based in Todmorden is championing the notion that Mobility as a Service (MaaS) must avoid being based on proprietary and monopolistic systems. While MaaS may not be new (the National Bus Company examined it in the early 1980s) it is only now becoming feasible. It will change the way transport is delivered, and it needs to be made open. That way the ingenuity of start-ups and the prospects for new UK-based jobs will be all the stronger.
Some disruptive technologies venture beyond digital into hardware: think Hyperloop, drone delivery systems or the multiplicity of ways being examined to replace carbon-heavy engines.

Across this swathe of disruptive change three points stand out for policy-makers:
1) The need for refreshed clarity on measurable targets for policy outcomes on key measures such as air quality, safety and congestion; made applicable to developments such as connected autonomous vehicles
2) The need for new types of market regulation because of the tendency towards monopoly in digital and data-based service provision
3) The need to ensure protection against cyber-crime and to maintain public safety.
On the last point, remember that the recent ransomware attack on the NHS (amongst others) was halted by a 22-year old blogger from Ilfracombe who activated a 'kill switch' in the malware by registering a specific domain name hidden within the programme.
Maybe too the disrupters should be subject to their own medicine. Perhaps alongside open systems, we need to think about whether is truly desirable to be single-minded (primitive even) about the use of mass data and centralised, cloud-based computing. Perhaps unconnected autonomous vehicles could be best at achieving safety and security objectives, just as could driver-based systems with ever improving technology and infrastructure.