A Year of Living in the Future

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This article looks through the eyes of Jisc's futurist at how the organization is playing an increasingly catalytic role in connecting the UK's research, education, and skills communities. Ever wondered what being a futurist entails? Now's your chance to find out!

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Martin Hamilton, Futurist, Jisc

My name is Martin Hamilton, and I work for Jisc in London as its resident futurist, a position I've held for just over a year. EDUCAUSE Review kindly invited me to explain my work and what it entails. I thought a good way of doing this would be by keeping a diary for a week. Read on for a glimpse of my typical schedule and duties.

Thursday, May 14: London

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Figure 1. Bloomberg terminal at London City Airport

Today I was in London for a meeting of our horizon-scan group. Later in 2015 and into 2016 we plan to publish a series of reports covering tech trends and new technologies, looking at what Jisc could do to help accelerate (or ameliorate) their impact. Today's was one of a series of meetings to discuss topics to cover and compare notes on progress. Our first horizon-scan report will explore how we can achieve the potential of cloud computing in research and education. We've already had some useful input from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, and conducted a sector-wide survey to help establish where our sector is with cloud. The early draft looks promising, and we'll soon have a version ready to share with a few critical friends for feedback.

After our meeting finished I flew up to Edinburgh — my first trip from London City Airport. The airport's target demographic was instantly clear from the ubiquitous Bloomberg terminals and giant screens showing stock tickers (figure 1), and I felt a little out of place.

On arrival I took my first trip on the Edinburgh trams (figure 2), which opened for business around a year ago. I generally travel within the UK by train, but London to Edinburgh is a journey of around four and a half hours, against an hour and a quarter by plane. I stayed in a budget hotel just off Princes Street, incongruously right above the Edinburgh Apple Store. It had some quite impressive décor and views for an inexpensive hotel (figure 3).

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Figure 2. Aboard the Edinburgh tram

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Figure 3. Home away from home

Friday, May 15: Edinburgh

I co-chair something called the Project Directors Group (PDG), which brings together the heads of scientific computing from the UK's national e-infrastructure projects and services. This includes representatives from the Francis Crick Institute, the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), GridPP (the UK's Tier 1 and 2 sites for the Large Hadron Collider), STFC DiRAC (high-performance computing for particle physics and cosmology), and other major initiatives. We are trying to establish core common technical standards and procedures so that researchers can more readily collaborate across disciplines, share facilities, and avoid reinventing the wheel wherever possible. This should make it easier for new initiatives, such as the recently announced Alan Turing Institute, to get off the ground.

The PDG is busy right now with a number of activities, including work to explore public and hybrid cloud for research, and our annual inventory of high-performance computing and big data facilities and expertise — the National e-Infrastructure (NeI) Survey. The 2014 NeI Survey report informed the Research Councils UK (RCUK) national e-Infrastructure Roadmap. I'm delighted to be presenting the results of the 2015 NeI Survey at a joint UK/US HPC workshop later this summer, organized by the UK's High Performance Computing Special Internet Group (HPC-SIG) and the US Coalition for Academic Scientific Computing (CASC).

Our workshop today at the Edinburgh Parallel Computing Centre (EPCC) specifically targeted the potential transferability of a piece of software that EPCC had developed to manage accounting, reporting, and usage monitoring for the UK's national supercomputer facilities. In an ideal world this would be a "middleware" service that facilities and projects could simply pick up and reuse. Despite many unanswered questions, we saw promising signs from successful reuse of the EPCC software with STFC's Hartree Centre and DiRAC service.

After the workshop I flew back to my home in Loughborough, Leicestershire for the weekend. It provides a convenient base to work from, practically in the dead center of England and close to major road and rail links. It's also just a short drive from Nottingham East Midlands Airport, which has a good range of national and international flights.

Monday May 18: Working from Home

Today I worked from home, catching up and preparing for an internal presentation on potential applications of wearable technologies the following day. I find it invaluable to work from home a day or two a week, as this gives me the time and space to work through ideas undisturbed. It's also great to spend time with my kids, particularly walking, scooting, and cycling with them to and from school.

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Figure 4. My daughter's vision of the
(Minecraft-based) school of the future

I find it fascinating to think about the world that children like mine are growing up in — the iPad generation are now at school, as I wrote in a recent piece for the Jisc website (see figure 4 for a teaser). What will post–compulsory education look like for the first generation in history that has had open access to the sum total of human knowledge? Will our traditional campus-based models of education seem increasingly irrelevant to someone used to "binge watching" whole TV series over a weekend?

We need to recognise that we now inhabit a world where you can go off and learn all about a subject from open online educational resources (OERs), including material from world-leading institutions like MIT, Harvard, Oxford, and Cambridge. Missing until recently, though, was the ability to be assessed on this self-paced, self-directed learning. With developments such as the UK's FutureLearn partnering with Pearson to assess tests, I think we will start to see that potential alternative education model.

Tuesday, May 19: London

Today I travelled into London to attend our quarterly Digital Futures (R&D) team meeting. We tend to alternate these meetings between Bristol and London, as most of our staff report to one of these two offices. London works very well for me — it's a short bike ride to the train station, then I can generally catch a fast train and do the 113 mile journey in around 75 minutes. In US terms this is comparable to travelling from San Francisco to Monterey. The journey time will drop as the line is electrified over the next couple of years; sadly, there is no Hyperloop on the cards for the UK as yet.

It's increasingly common to have Wi-Fi in trains, buses, and even the Edinburgh trams, and soon it will be free on most public transport. I remember bringing my laptop on the train years ago and feeling like a total nerd; it's fascinating to see how completely this has reversed — anyone not staring at a screen now stands out. We also generally have power outlets on intercity trains, although never enough for all the gadgets. Figures 5 and 6 show lifelogging of my travel.

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Figure 5. Lifelogging the cycle ride
to Loughborough train station

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Figure 6. Lifelogging the train journey to London

Many of our staff travel a lot and hot desk when in the office rather than having a traditional desk or cubicle. It's helpful to gather quarterly for a show and tell session, coupled with briefings on important developments. We recognized a while back that quarterly meetings can't be the only way of sharing knowledge and information, so most weeks we have a stand-up meeting using Blackboard Collaborate. Staff members share their plans for the week and any breaking news that will help others plan their work. The notes from these meetings are e-mailed around as a quick information burst for those people who couldn't attend. We also use collaboration tools like Yammer and Basecamp extensively for internal communication and planning, Jisc's own Vscene conferencing and telepresence tool (based on Vidyo), and social media. I've curated a Twitter list of Digital Futures team members that you might want to follow.

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Figure 7. Google wearable tech

At today's meeting I led a session on wearables with my colleague Lawrie Phipps. We talked about research and education applications for the major types of wearable in general circulation (loosely speaking, smart watches and health trackers — e.g. see figure 7), along with emerging technologies such as smart tattoos and implantable or ingestible devices. The Rogers Research Group at the University of Illinois and Proteus Digital Health [http://www.proteus.com/] have some particularly interesting examples in the latter category. It's quite a fascinating exercise to project ahead what jobs will be required in the future, and hence what our institutions should prepare to train people for. Consider that, unless energy harvesting takes off, there might well be significant demand for people to work in areas like "Internet of Things power engineering" — if only to go around replacing batteries in iBeacons and sensor networks. We also spent some time talking about the ethical issues around personal data and where it can end up — Google knows what makes your heart beat faster, as I wrote in a piece for our technology foresight blog.

Wednesday, May 20: London

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Figure 8. London St Pancras Station

Today I was back in London for the second of three visits this week. As my meetings didn't start until lunchtime, I was able to take the kids in to school, and then catch a cheaper off-peak train and work en route (on this article, among other things) using the Internet via the train's Wi-Fi service. As soon as I arrived at London St Pancras station (see figure 8), it was time to duck into a coffee shop to talk to one of my colleagues about next steps sharing and processing the results of some of the survey and market research work described above. We often use Skype for these quick chats, but today the technology let us down; luckily we still have mobile phones, for now! At Jisc we increasingly use Tableau software for this sort of stats processing and visualization, and we are working with the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) to create a facility whereby institutions can combine public data such as statistical returns with their private institutional data — you could think of this as business intelligence as a service. (Find out more on our Business Intelligence project page.)

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Figure 9. Café in Covent Garden market

After we finished, I caught the Underground Piccadilly line down to Covent Garden (see figure 9), for the short walk across the Strand to Jisc's London offices at Brettenham House, just next to Waterloo Bridge and Somerset House. This is where most London-based Jisc staff work. We also have an adjoining meeting room suite that is heavily used both for internal meetings and by our stakeholders and partners. My first meeting of the day was a one-to-one session with my boss, Jisc Chief Innovation Officer Phil Richards. Phil and I sit down together or meet online at least once a month to check on progress against my objectives and agree on next steps. This time around we principally discussed the horizon scan and PDG activities I've already described, and followed up on some work that we have done to accelerate equipment sharing between institutions and with industry. This initiative has led to over 10,000 items of publicly funded research equipment worth over £200m being made available for sharing, including some £60m of publicly funded supercomputing facilities and expertise. We have some exciting news in this area that we will share in the coming weeks, but I can't talk about it right now!


Next I met with a venture capitalist and an edtech accelerator based in London. We have been talking to a number of VCs, accelerators, and incubators about how best to take new ideas forward and turn them into products and services. This multifaceted problem includes standards (core Application Programming Interfaces, micro services, and data formats), procedural aspects (e.g. procurement), and also finding ways for institutions to trial new services and solutions that Jisc could potentially underwrite.

Thursday, May 21: London

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Figure 10. The Innovate UK "Class of 2015"

Today I was in London for my third visit of the week, attending an Innovate UK event to celebrate the success of its Learning Technologies – Design for Impact program. Innovate UK is a sister organization to Jisc, funded by the UK government to accelerate the translation of R&D into products and services. This is principally done through a competition process, after identifying a gap in the market in a particular area. Last year Innovate UK issued its first call for learning technologies, offering projects seed funding of up to £80K out of a pot of £1.1m. The call was massively oversubscribed, with 297 submissions received and 15 projects selected to receive funding.

All of the successful projects were on hand at a celebratory gathering today to present short explanations of their work (figure 10), with a number of product demos available for visitors to experience (figures 11 and 12). As one might expect with an edtech event, there was a lively conversation both online and offline, of which I captured the highlights using Storify [https://storify.com/martin_hamilton/cn15learningtech?utm_medium=sfy.co-twitter&awesm=sfy.co_f0cA8&utm_content=storify-pingback&utm_source=t.co&utm_campaign=]. I also took the opportunity to use Periscope for the first time to stream the product pitches to my followers online — it was interesting to see from Twitter Analytics that my tweets from the event were viewed nearly 9,000 times, which is a lot for a comparatively niche subject area.

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Figure 11. Maker Club and Seeper Innovate
UK exhibits

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Figure 12. Anarkik3D Innovate UK exhibit

A big thrust of Jisc's work over the last couple of years has been to help institutions understand both what it means to be a digital student in terms of expectations and student experience, and how lecturers can best exploit modern digital technologies in teaching and learning, research, and enterprise. In the UK we are teaching a whole generation coding and computational thinking at school. Today's college students are adept at using the technology, but have only a hazy idea of how it functions. Tomorrow's students will be young digital makers, in the words of a recent Nesta report. I was delighted that Nesta's Oliver Quinlan was able to present at the Innovate UK event – his statistics on young peoples' views and experiences of digital technology were a particular highlight and set the whole day in context for me.

Every year Jisc holds a Summer of Student Innovation competition, which offers further education, higher education (FE and HE), and work-based–learning students the chance to create solutions that could change the education landscape forever. Students submit their ideas for improving the student experience and changing the education landscape. EDUCAUSE Review readers may have come across some of our "graduates" who have achieved international success, such as Call for Participants.

Friday, May 22: Working from Home

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Courtesy of SpaceX (public domain)

Figure 13. SpaceX Mars
holiday poster

After a hectic few days, today I am working from home again and preparing for an invited keynote speech next week at a conference in Warsaw, Poland: Open Research Data — Implications for Science and Society. I'll be looking back from 2030 in an "open science retrospective" on the potential impact of the decisions we are making today around open working practices such as open lab notebooks and sharing research data and software. One of my slightly tongue-in-cheek scenarios is that in 2030 the six sons of Elon Musk become the first humans to set foot on Mars. Musk's SpaceX looks set to transform the sector by making most rocket components reusable, thereby vastly lowering the cost of space travel. Key in this is their current work to successfully land and reuse the first-stage booster rocket. This might ultimately lead to people taking the holiday of a lifetime on Mars, as the fictional travel poster in figure 13 shows.

For me this joining up between public and private is absolutely crucial to our work at Jisc. It is vital that researchers and educators maintain good links to the industries that would employ our students, or build products based on our ideas and inventions. I hope this diary has given you a glimpse of how we are working with these diverse communities to accelerate innovation, and I would be delighted to discuss this further with EDUCAUSE Review readers. Let's go back to Elon Musk for one last observation: It's particularly telling for me that Musk has chosen to freely share a vast bank of patentable ideas and inventions across his activities in the space, energy, and transport sectors. In years to come I think we may come to regard this legitimization of sharing as his greatest legacy. It's time to see what we can do when we all come together around grand challenges like the race for Mars.

About Jisc

Jisc offers digital services and solutions for UK education and research. The charity does this to achieve its vision for the UK to be the most digitally advanced education and research nation in the world.

Working together across the higher education, further education, and skills sectors, Jisc provides trusted advice and support, reduces sector costs across a shared network, digital content, IT services, and procurement negotiations, ensuring the sector stays ahead of the game with research and development for the future.

We calculate that Jisc saves the sector some £259m per annum, around three times our operating costs. Our Janet network has over 18 million users and recently celebrated its 30th birthday. Our content program includes national licensing deals for e-journals, databases, and other online content. We have also brokered offset deals on article processing charges with major publishers, which drastically changes the economics of open-access publication. Find out more about Jisc from our website, or get in touch with me.