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Future Gazing

December 3, 2023 by Alistair Enser

Obviously, there have been a lot of Cummings and goings this past week. As lockdown continues to be eased, the ramifications of our new normal continue to unspool. From today we will have greater freedom to visit people who have been locked away from for months. Premier league football will return on 17 June, initially to empty stadiums. But as fans are gradually allowed in – and this will happen in time – how will safe social distancing be maintained?

The pandemic is forcing organisations of all types to reconsider how they go about things. Only yesterday, Bristol University followed Cambridge in confirming that lectures would be online until Summer 2021, while tutorials and smaller seminar groups would still go ahead.

Online learning has proven its place over the last couple of months but is no substitute for one-on-one education and the wealth of experiences that university life brings. Allowing tutorials and seminars to go ahead is, in my view, right, but will require Universities to greatly reduce the number of people on campuses. How will they manage and facilitate that? As a custodian of the University, how do you ensure that your students remain engaged yet safe?

The answer of course is through a combination of common sense, good practice and technology. Access control and room occupancy could be used to ensure that foot traffic can be corralled in an effective way. Furthermore, video analytics can be used to monitor social distancing measures and can even support contact tracing measures by revealing which students have been close, at what distance and even for how long, should one of them become infected and it is necessary to trace those they have been in contact with. And if the Governments’ rumoured relaxation of the safe social distance from two meters to just one is implemented, then the system can be immediately adjusted to account for the new distance required. It’s scalable to meet changing requirements

Clearly, this technology must be used responsibly and in compliance with measures such as GDPR. I read with interest a recent report from the Ada Lovelace Institute, which warned of the damage to privacy that might accompany the arrival of a track and trace app in the UK. While I often disagree with the views of the institute, they do raise some fair and relevant points about the current pandemic and how the data that can help support its defeat will be collected, stored and used. It is a subject to which I will return in future.

Regardless, at the end of the day, the effectiveness of much of this tracing technology will not so much rest on users’ concerns about their privacy, but the usability of the app itself. It seems the recent trial of the app on the Isle of Wight has faltered on the basis that many of those that were willing to use the app were unable to do so due to device or operability issues.

This raises a second question, as we have seen with the buzz around thermal detection technology. The intention is correct, and the technology most certainly exists. But the execution, installation and correct use of the technology is important. It was interesting to see the USA’s influential Food and Drug Administration (FDA), weighing in on the subject recently – permitting its use but with a number of caveats and stipulations about its correct use.

Clearly, as we have said in previous blogs, thermal detection is not a silver bullet, and must be seen as part of a wider suite of solutions and procedures. It must be installed by a professional business with the expertise to put it together, with clear understanding and agreement of expectations and limitations. This is not the time for cowboys: incorrectly installed systems and false expectations are unacceptable when public heath is at risk. The path from the frying pan into the fire could be short indeed.

As I have said before, in the wider commercial sphere the new normal will encourage us to look more closely at how certain services can be carried out remotely, such as servicing and maintaining systems remotely. How often have we demanded on engineer on site, when the problem could have been fixed faster and at lower cost remotely?

But if we are to see a faster evolution towards technology and connected solutions, will the skills and competencies of the broader industry be able to keep up? This applies equally to the advice given by insufficiently qualified experts and designers, as well as the engineers who then have to make it work.

As we move to a new tech future, one of the key things we all have to determine is how the industry can upskill, implement and support its customers safely and securely. This is a great opportunity to be leaders and attract and develop talent into an evolving and exciting sphere.

At Reliance we have made significant investments in apprentices, IT, networking and cyber skills, but we know we must do more. Our industry must develop its apprenticeship programmes and personal development programs to build the skill sets of those it will increasingly rely on in the future. The industry is moving towards a new future at great speed; it’s important that everyone keeps up.

Stay safe.