Innovation in a tea shop, whatever next?

In recent weeks, I’ve seen this quote crop up in several places:

“US Bureau of Labor Statistics states that 50% of the jobs we will have over the next six years have not yet been created.”

I haven’t seen the original source, but it certain made me stop and think.  And, whilst pondering that thought, I came across an excellent article by John Lamb talking about the 60th anniversary of business computing in the UK, in a tea shop of all places.

The article caught my attention as the company that deployed that computer ended up being part of ICL which of course became part of Fujitsu Group – i.e. it’s part of my corporate history. The quote certainly resonates when you think about how many of our  jobs can be attributed indirectly to the implementation of the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) in November 1951 at the London head office of J Lyons & Co.    The team including John Pinkerton and David Caminer brought LEO in to existence and its first job was to calculate the Lyons weekly bakery distribution run.  I would argue that David Caminer became Britain’s first Systems Analyst – and how many of those roles or the various modern variants are there in the business world today?  Well, to look at it another way, I’ve just seen a tweet suggesting that in India there is an estimated 2.5m people working directly or indirectly in the IT industry. That may be aA small number compared to the total population but it’s hugely significant in the wealth creation contribution to that economy.

Of course it would be a wonderful talent to foresee the importance of events like the LEO deployment as they happen rather than in retrospect.  I’m not claiming to be that visionary but I do think it is clear we are genuinely living through an inflection point in how information technology enables and drives our world.  If we look at the developed world, information technology is pervasive in our daily lives with smartphones, laptops, tablets, internet connected televisions, games consoles, etc. – and a huge infrastructure to support their use.  6 of the top 10 in Interbrand’s 2011 global brand table are technology companies. I think we would all agree that our world has become inescapably and increasingly pervasively digital.

I think we can see a potential advancement that may become as significant as the LEO in the today’s supercomputering arena.  The potential implications of the raw computing power of the Fujitsu K Supercomputer (the most powerful computer in the world today), are immense and fundamental to how our digital world is evolving.  I will return to this topic in my next blog post to outline my case for this bold assertion!

Clearly LEO was just one key milestone in the dawning of this computing age – we should also remember the world’s first computers at Bletchley Park (indeed, Ian Mitchell recently wrote about remembering the work of the Bletchley Park pioneers).   Key innovations tend not to be isolated to single events and it is true that the LEO came to life because of the team’s research visits to the USA where they met people working on the ENIAC (US Army Ballistics computer) and on returning to the UK they supported the work carried out at Cambridge University on the EDSAC.   Innovation is an important aspect of our world that needs to be nurtured, respected and funded, because the other way of looking at that US Department of Labor quote, is to ask which jobs will not be around in six years’ time?

In the current economic climate it is all too easy to become short-sighted and cull initiatives that lead to innovations that enable revenue and profit of the future.  I would dearly love to have my place in a key milestone innovation that is recognised in the future, probably unlikely but not impossible. So think forwards, act to create the future; what will be your LEO story?

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