FWD50 Co-Founder Alistair Croll is joined by Stance Global’s James Duncan.
James Duncan is no stranger to disruption. At 15, racking up long distance bills to dial into Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) in the US, he decided to launch his own Internet Service Provider in Hawkesbury, Ontario. His dad helped—a bit.
After a career in tech startups, he headed to the UK to serve as CTO of the Public Sector Network and a Senior Technical Advisor in the Government Digital Service, part of the UK Cabinet Office. Today, James is a founding partner of Stance.global, helping governments around the world tackle digital transformation.
I’ve known James for years, but hadn’t chatted with him until recently. When I saw him tweeting about software in government, I knew we were long overdue to catch up.
James describes his work today as “helping you cope with the 21st century.” In the first FWDThinking talk of 2021, we touch on restoring public trust; the need to consider not just launch but also maintenance and end of live in projects; the resistance to nationalized tech infrastructure; and why battleships need to be self-sufficient.
James doesn’t mince words: “Anything with a build and run phase is bound to stagnate,” he points out, suggesting that government hierarchies need to resemble the services they deliver. In the end, much of his work isn’t tech—it’s basic executive strategy: Know your mission; know where value is made; scale your ability to listen; and distinguish commoditized utility from strategic differentiation.
All opinions expressed in in these episodes are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the organizations for which our guests work.
Click to read the full transcript of this episode.
[00:00:00] Alistair Croll: Hi, and welcome to a 2021 edition of FWDThinking. FWDThinking is a semi-regular series of conversations we have with people who are shaping the future of digital governments. And I’m thrilled today to be joined by a longtime friend, someone I met years and years ago when he was starting a tech company worked in cloud computing, but has a background in digital governments over in the UK. Please join me in giving a very warm welcome to James Duncan. Hey, James.
James Duncan: Hey, Alistair.
Alistair Croll: It’s good to see you. I think we first met like at Bitnorth , North of Montreal 10 years ago or something like that?
James Duncan: Ya, I think it was 2009, I was wracking my brain yesterday, trying to work out when that would have been. Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was 2009.
So a lot of, a lot of stuff has changed since then. [00:01:00] The world has changed since then. And I’m, you know, I’m, I’m no longer in Montreal. I’m in the UK again, and it’s just great to see you again.
Alistair Croll: And you had a start as a, as a young technologist building one of the first ISP in Canada. Is that a fair assessment?
James Duncan: So I, so yeah, my, I got started when I was 15.
I helped set up a really small ISP in the, in the middle of rural Canada. And the reason why we sort of decided to set it up, like I had to start with my dad cause, cause obviously at 15, I couldn’t legally start a company. But I was like dialing long distance to New York city to get internet access and the phone bills were nothing that anyone was pleased about. And it would just be easier, probably, to start my ISP, bring in a frame relay line at the time.
Alistair Croll: Wow, I haven’t heard frame relay in so long. That’s amazing. And you were working for cloud computing companies, I think Reasonably Smart was the name of the company that you were.
Alistair Croll: So I’m going to leap right into it here. Before we get into all the questions and tweets and feedback and arguments that we’re going to have, because, you know, we have a bunch of things we’ve been talking about at FWD50 last year that I think you have a unique perspective on . Where are you now and maybe you can tell our viewers a little bit about the time you spent in government and how you’re helping governments today.
James Duncan: Sure. So I am one of three partners in a really small boutique consultancy called Stance and we work with, I mean, we’re, we’re happy to work with all sectors, public, private , third. But most of our time is spent [00:03:00] with the public sector and we really sort of go in the top of organizations who are struggling with ‘how to cope with the 21st century’, if you like, and and help them think through their organization from soup to nuts. And so we have a very sort of strong set of ideas about what makes an organization in the 21st century great. We help embed those ideas in the organization and help them reconfigure their organization around those ideas. And you know, to give you an idea of what some of those may be like in the very simplest it’s ‘know who your users are’, which is , sounds really simple, but so few organizations and then become, it goes all the way down to things like listening to your ecosystem and having sensors in your ecosystem to ensure that you’re responding in the right way.
And you can’t do that until you’re an incredibly sophisticated organization, a much more sophisticated than most and so forth.
Alistair Croll: I mean, you know, the old shopkeeper would certainly know [00:04:00] what the, they talked to everybody that came into their store and asked them what they wanted to put in stock and so on. Why is it that we are so bad at listening?
James Duncan: Well, you know, you, funnily enough, you use the example of a shopkeeper there. A shopkeeper is probably an example of an organization, a one person organization. And if you think about any organization, why do we have any organization? We have an organization because what we are trying to achieve is beyond the capabilities of one individual And at the same time, the burden of adding that second person, isn’t, doesn’t exceed the gains that you get from adding that second person. But as you add people, you do introduce communications burdens, process burdens, and overheads. And by the time you get to really large organizations, most government organizations are pretty large, you get away from knowing who your users are from, even if you have sensors, being able to act on those sensors in the ecosystem. So all that gamut of things that needs to happen in [00:05:00] between knowing your users to being able to to being able to do some incredibly sophisticated organizational things like Amazon do like Netflix do like, you know, Facebook does, it’s just, it’s just too vast and we have to be much better. The basics and the basics just looked different than the 21st century from what most people expect.
Alistair Croll: And it does seem like we talk a lot about how to scale an organization so it can push more, so it can have more force, so more impact. We seldom talk about scaling the inbound along with the outbound, right?
James Duncan: Yeah, and I, I think that’s, that’s definitely part of it. I think another part of it is just as an organization gets bigger, it becomes increasingly detached from the value it delivers, unless it’s very careful about that. And so, you know, the simplest question you can ask when you walk into an organization often is: “Can you introduce me to someone in this organization that adds value?”. And that sounds a little flippant, but it’s not, it’s how did this person have an interaction with the customer and add value to what that [00:06:00] customer needs or wants.
Alistair Croll: Well, does it add value to that? Like I worked on, on pricing stuff the other day. I certainly added value, but I didn’t necessarily add value to the user. So how do we, you know, how do you define the value that you’re trying to add? Is it to stakeholders, to users?
James Duncan: So the organization has to exist for a purpose. What is the purpose of the organization? What is the thing that it does, that is that it is therefore that no other organization is there for, and, you know, that’s probably easier in the public sector to be perfectly honest than it is in the private sector, right? Because for example, only in the UK HMRC is allowed to collect income tax from UK residents. It’s the only organization that can do that. So identifying where the value is derived from in that organization and what makes it unique, is really, really simple because no one else is allowed to do it.
Alistair Croll: Right.
James Duncan: That’s a little bit more challenging in the private sector, but I don’t think, you know, I think, I think that mission statement, the, its purpose should be identified and that’s where, [00:07:00] that’s where you need to start with that value. Everything else is sort of is, is extra it’s it’s it’s process burden on extracting that value.
Alistair Croll: So since we’re talking about the difference in public and private sector At FWD50. last November, I made the statement that government is a big tech company, it just doesn’t know it yet. And I think that may have been misconstrued a little bit. I wasn’t implying the government is up there to run surveillance capitalism and so on. But certainly this idea that you have legacy analog ways of doing things and modern digital ways of doing things. And the digital ways of doing things are fundamentally different in terms of risk and cost and scale. And the government needs to get on board that it is primarily a trafficker of information building digital systems. Am I right or wrong? Is government big tech or is it not?
James Duncan: So I think you are right. I, I think you are, if I may say so narrowly, right though, I don’t, I think in the, I think where I think, and this is [00:08:00] not a finished thought, but I think all organizations need to recognize that they are software organizations. So, you know, Marc Andreessen in 2010 said: “Software is eating the world.”, right? That’s a, that was a, a big thing and everyone stopped and said: “Well, hang on a second, that’s that’s interesting and new, what does that mean?”. Well, it means that organizations need to look radically different and that doesn’t matter if it’s a public sector organization or a private sector organization. I sort of think about it in somewhat, you know, so I think it was like, McDonald’s, wasn’t it, like they, there was that recognition that McDonald’s, wasn’t a fast food franchise, it was a real estate organization. I think a lot of companies and a lot of organizations on the whole government privates you know, public third, third sector, or whatever need to recognize that they are not, they’re not there to do the thing. They’re there to build software to do the thing. And if they were to start to have that recognition, they would conceive it differently. They would use it differently, that operate it differently, that manage it differently. They’d they run themselves [00:09:00] differently. And I think that’s that’s something that a lot of work and a lot of mistakes are made because of, because of that failure to recognize that fact.
Alistair Croll: So sometimes we have these conversations just because I saw a funny tweet. I figured it was time to reach out to someone I’m going to read one from you: ” There’s a vast difference between an organization that happens to have teams of people that develop software and an organization that benefits from the fact that it has teams of people that develop software and you want your organization to be the ladder”. Can you elaborate a bit on that?
James Duncan: Well, sure. I think that’s connected to what I was just saying in many respects. So a lot of the way that organizations think about software is, it’s a implementation detail. It’s something that happens further down the chain. So, you know, to tie this together a bit I guess like 2003, something like that, Nicholas Carr wrote “Does IT matter?”. Yeah. And so, so that was this big recognition that a lot of organizations are just using the same tools as the other organizations in the same space. [00:10:00] And so those tools aren’t giving them any competitive advantage. All they are doing, all they are, is a cost of doing business. And as a consequence, you want to push down your costs as much as possible. And that is the way you gain an advantage by pushing down the cost. And I think that is right up until the point that you recognize that software’s eating the world. And when you recognize that software is eating the world, you recognize that there is a set of technology that is your cost of doing business. And you want to push down that cost as much as possible, but there is another set which reference that’s your mission. And that, that set of IT is where you want to invest and unless you own the means of production, right? So unless you have the software engineers and they are your software engineers, and they are your ideas implemented in software, then you are not going to be truly taking advantage of it.
Alongside that comes a set of obligations. So it is no good as a public sector organization, for example, if you merely run a procurement to bring in an agency to do some software [00:11:00] development for a thing that you will then put on a server somewhere in the cloud, maybe if you’re really forward-thinking and you’ll leave it to run forever, right? That’s that’s not what it means to manage an own and take responsibility for a piece of software. And if that’s your approach, then you are not going to benefit from the software you are. That is just, you are treating it as a cost of doing business, drive down the cost. You are now, you are absolutely reflective of a 19th century organization. If you want to become a 21st century organization, you bring that software right into the heart of how your organization does things. You have a CTO that sits at board level that with the rest of the executive team and has the same set of obligations. You perhaps reorganize around services rather than this sort of traditional functional deployment of an organization. You reconceive what it means to be an organization, but, and you reconceive it around the heart, which is software, and I think that’s where things become very different. And I think that’s where that’s [00:12:00] the difference between those two things.
Alistair Croll: So most of the stuff you’ve said so far is like common wisdom for you know, MBA one-on-one. Know what your mission is know where the value in your organization is made and, and invest in that while commoditizing other things, scale your ability to listen and have sensors as a competitive advantag e, distinguish utility from strategic differentiators, right? These all sound like, you know, pick up any business textbook that’s what’s in it. But it doesn’t feel like people in government are looking at their models in that way.
James Duncan: Again, so I think they have a very functional view of the world. So a lot of the time, and again, this goes up private sector organizations, as well as public sector. You go into an organization and you sit with their executive team and their executive team have team members who are responsible for a particular function of the organization. So, you know, maybe HR, right. And so that HR person who runs the HR part of the organization has [00:13:00] a set of goals that they have for the HR part of the organization. That is largely disconnected from the set of goals that the finance part of the organization has, for example, and. That lack of connectedness across the organization, because the organization is just vast, means that you don’t get anywhere. And so these things are all simple business one-on-one, you know, basic things, but we just fail time and time again to do them in every organization. And that is largely because that top team is incredibly disconnected from where the value is being delivered and there’s no way to reconnect it and there’s no way to reconnect it just because the gap is too big. And so a lot of our work comes back to how do you reconceive an organization into different, into, into different shapes so that it can once again, be connected to the value it’s delivering.
Alistair Croll: Have you found a shape that works better?
James Duncan: So yeah, we do have some strong opinions on it. We think that [00:14:00] for the most part, large organizations should instead reorganize themselves around services. And if that means you have you know, functions. If yo u , if you remove the functions from the organization and instead built them around services that have, you know, multidisciplinary disciplinary teams, it’s sort of a really simple thing that people talk about a lot, but how do you actually do that, right? To build around those things and then where there is a service that is shared by another, by other services in the organization, again, dis-aggregate that build a team around it, let them finance themselves.
Alistair Croll: So it sounds like microservices is an org chart.
James Duncan: Well, indeed, indeed. And that’s, you know, I would hesitate to use the word microservices simply because that brings up other things. But at its heart, yes, that’s, you know, an organization works better that way.
Alistair Croll: Well, traditional executives at the top of that world, be okay with this aggregation. I’m thinking of like Amazon asked three, you know, give me a URL, I’ll give you an object, give me an object, I’ll give you a URL. [00:15:00] And you’re the king of that domain. You have huge impact, but that’s a small team of very smart people doing one thing extremely well, that doesn’t, that doesn’t have the same kind of roll up authority that people tend to see in a traditional organization. And there must be a lot of resistance, that’s from the executive teams there.
James Duncan: There, there often is. And so I think there’s a couple of things to recognize. One is that when you have that kind of when you have that kind of dis-aggregated organization that is, is built around the delivery of small services, really, really well. That takes care of the tactics from the service boundary down. And you give autonomy and responsibility for those tactics, but there still needs to be an actual strategic view of how you are going to grow, maneuver , change you know, adjust the network of services that your organization has. And that is the role of that is where the executive team adds value. And it’s, so it’s not through direct aligned management. Oh, I have 40,000 direct reports. It is through looking at the network of services, [00:16:00] understanding how those are treated within your own organization and how the market treats those outside of your organization and understanding how best to deliver those services. And then slowly nudging those services into a shape morph that is more effective for tomorrow than it is for today.
Alistair Croll: Yeah, I like the distinction that you’re automating the things that need to get done as part of your current business model, but the people who are trying to disassemble your current business model and improve it , that’s humans and, and Tim O’Reilly had a tweet last year that I thought was great. He was like, “you know, we have meetings to talk about what we should build next and what’s new. We don’t have meetings to justify why we’re still doing the old things the way we are”. And we never sit down and say, please justify the existence of this system and why you haven’t upgraded it.
James Duncan: Yeah, well, absolutely. So, you know, one of the things, oddly enough, one of the things we get services to do is to think about how they might go about decommissioning themselves. And so that should be thought about right up front when you’re, when you are commissioning the [00:17:00] service, you want to understand what the long-term impact of that service is and what taking it away might mean. Do that early, do it often. And I keep it up to date that’s so important.
Alistair Croll: That’s a great segue into my next question. Paul Glover and I were chatting last year about risk. And how digital changes the risk profile of, of things you’re trying to build. And I use the example of the fact that you can publish a digital service and then you can upgrade it tomorrow and you can roll it back to the previous version. So the risk profile is much lower than if you, for example, launch a battleship where, you know, I think floating in the sea, it’s very hard to upgrade and you probably can’t push the new version of the battleship, the MVP and so on. You think I’m not entirely right about that. Talk to me about battleships.
James Duncan: So, well, so I mean, if you look at navies around the world, they’re having to be more they’re having to recognize that they are more digital. The trick with a battleship is recognizing that anything is, that is on that battleship must be repairable by the [00:18:00] people on that battleship, because when it’s not a port, it might get damaged. And when it needs to come back to shore it, or it needs to be fixed if possible, without having to come back to shore. And so I think you’ll see that the. That will become a goal of navies around the world as that , as they mature and understand that they are running, they are not just floating lumps of machinery. They are floating lumps of software as well. And that floating lump of software has to be repairable. Just like anything else has to be repairable on that ship.
Alistair Croll: So it does seem like there’s, we’ve forgotten the fact that whatever we produce has to be serviced, maintained and then decommission that, that people look at an, a technology project, you know, and they don’t think so much about “how do we monitor it, how do we secure it, How do we upgrade it, how they maintain it, how do we decommission it, how do you export the data from it?”. How do we get people to realize that it’s, it’s not like, okay, the code is done, I’ve published it I can go on to the next thing now, but you have to build the support systems for this thing to exist in perpetuity?
James Duncan: Well, and that’s where [00:19:00] again, reconfiguring your organization around services rather than around functions really helps when, when you organize around functions, what tends to happen is , what does happen certainly in the public sector is, you spin up a project around the delivery of a new thing. The thing gets built. It gets handed to the people that run the thing, and then the people run the thing until one day someone decides they need something new. Or there’s a new project where you par a bunch of new people and they decide that they need to make a change to that thing. But there’s definitely a build phase and a run phase and anything with a build and run phase is guaranteed to stagnate. And so when you think again instead about services, you remove those build and run phases. What you have instead is a life enduring service that doesn’t go away. The people that build it will, well, some of the people that build it and at least will become the people that run it. And the people that use it on a daily basis, they will become aware of the changes that need to be made and they can make those investment decisions for themselves. It’s a, it’s again, a [00:20:00] very different way of structuring an organization, but getting away from that procure a thing or build or, you know, build a thing and then hand it to a bunch of people that will run it. That’s not the way forward and that’s not the way digital services work and that’s not the way any service really works.
Alistair Croll: So I’m going to start getting a little bit philosophical. This is fascinating. But, when people talk about tech and the need to regulate tech, or we’re a tech firm, I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice, you know, those cultures that have many words for snow, it feels like we need many words for tech. And I would argue that one of the first splits we need is cognition tech versus automation tech . Cognition, tech, I would say is something that, you know, Twitter or Slack or some other tool that can affect how we perceive the world, how we see the world because it allows us to aggregate data, you know, search tools, things like that. And those ones need a certain type of regulation because they change politics. They change free speech. They change, you know, this whole idea of regulation and governance that we all have free speech, as long as [00:21:00] it was our voice box. But now we need Twitter. At the same time, there’s automation, tech and the automation tech, I would describe as things that are replacing muscles with, with digital systems. I was talking to a friend of mine who I think, you know, who worked in a big mining. And he said that they’re ramping up automation because obviously the biggest risk in mining is that the mine collapses and someone dies and you can pretty much automate the entire mind now. In some countries when you get a mining contract, you have to guarantee that you will create a certain number of jobs. In other countries you don’t. And it certainly seems like whether we’re talking about the public sector and automation as you just said, you know, these digital systems are supposed to do many things over and over again, or we’re talking about dangerous jobs, like mining, that societies, how a society deals with automation tech, is influenced by it’s unions, whether it has universal basic income in place to supplement that. Are we going to be able to [00:22:00] survive tech using the government systems we have now or are, do you see that splitting into there’s lots of different kinds of tech and we need policies for all of them. And in the case of automation, we’re going to need UBI or some other form of compensation. In the case of cognition tech, we’re going to need regulation for truth and you know, free speech and so on. It doesn’t feel like we’re ready for this yet.
James Duncan: That’s a really, it’s a fascinating question. And it’s a fascinating question for so many reasons. And so I’m , I would be a proponent of something like UBI. However I am cognizant of the fact that I don’t work in policy and I don’t have the tools immediately available to me to perform a sufficiently deep analysis of the impact of something like universal basic income to make a blanket statement about.
Alistair Croll: Sure. And there’s constraints about inflationary results and so on.
James Duncan: All sorts of concerns. But yeah, this is what I know. And, and so I want to separate those two [00:23:00] things. What I believe, I believe something like UBI is a good direction to look in. What I know is the current set of policy makers in all governments that I have encountered, are disconnected from the capabilities of technology. Now, what I mean by that is, policymaking is always behind society by definition, right? So you know, the reason why we have education for all is not because people stood up one day and said, we want to make sure our kids are educated. It’s that as the industrial revolution took hold, all of a sudden, there wasn’t a need such a great need for kids to work anymore because there was automation. So we needed something for the kids to do. And so that’s, you know, at that point, education became a thing that people could, could accept. And so. Policy always follows, always follows society, but what’s happened is that technology and the capabilities that [00:24:00] technology unleashes double, right, as we know it more slowly, they double every couple of years. And whereas before that doubling was a tiny amount. The consequence of exponential growth of that technology capability is that that doubling now is just too vast. It doesn’t feel like we’re keeping up anymore. And that is true. We’re not keeping up. We never intended to keep up. And whereas before it didn’t matter so much because the capabilities that got unleashed we could catch up with over the policy-making period. Whereas now those, those capabilities are so far ahead that, you know, it’s not just our internal technology teams that can’t keep up, it’s the policy makers with society. And so the only way we are going to become able to absorb the changes and the capabilities of the technology unleashes into our public policy is by ensuring that our public policy makers have a grounding in technology.
Alistair Croll: That’s fair and kind of intimidating. How do we given these massive changes? We are obviously [00:25:00] going to have to set new policies. We’re going to have to make a radical shift in society to deal with the impact of ubiquitous digital technology. I mean, arguably 20 years old that most people or are a significant number of people in at least Western industrialized nations have access to all of the information humans have and perfect navigation and locational tracking and you know, video and audio recording that is accurate in their pocket. That’s a big change. That’s that, we’re not humans anymore. We’re now this human machine hybrid. When that happens, what we know of trust, changes dramatically, you know, in the, in the, in the old analog world, personalization was hard and there were like five big newspapers in your city. But , but veracity was easy. I knew I was talking to James Dunkin. I wasn’t talking to a deep fake of James Dunkin. Those things get flipped pretty quickly. You know, Facebook is generating a billion newsfeeds a minute [00:26:00] for its users who are pulling down and refreshing. But, and so we get personalized news is different for everybody, but I have no idea if something’s true without significant proof of work in the form of some kind of blockchain that’s, you know, grinding the power we could be using to do better things.
It feels like we flip these and we don’t have any idea how to restore the public trust in this new world. You know, we haven’t adjusted yet for what’s abundant and what’s scarce. Are we going to get there or is it going to take a revolution?
James Duncan: Man, like, yeah, simple answer. I don’t know. I have hope though. And the reason I have hope is that, you know, if we look at if we look at what’s gone on over the last couple of years some of the election battles that have been fought, you know. And some of the, so the, the fake news stuff that we, that we’ve seen, we’ve all seen in the media. I think it’s really interesting that like, when you look at where the demographics spread are, it’s the people that were warning us, that video games were going to turn us into crazy killers that have been affected by it. And I think, [00:27:00] I think we have to have some degree of trust that when you grow up in that environment, you are affected differently by it. Now, look, I’m not going to say that is not going to have an impact. Of course, it’s going to have an impact. That’s the point of advertising, right? No one would buy advertising if it didn’t influence people’s behavior. But I think that just as, when you look at an advert from the 1950s it seems incredibly naive to you. It certainly does to me . I think that when our children’s children look at some of the the approaches that the fake news media take on some of the, some of the attempts to influence the way we behave and vote and view the world, they will also recognize the naivety of it in the same way that, you know, even you don’t even need to look at an ad from the 1950s. If you look at the like local advertising on cable channels from, you know, the, the regional [00:28:00] CBS network in the 1980s, that wouldn’t influence me. And that’s like, that’s 30 years. It’s not, it’s not 60 years, right? Like where we were in a really different world. And I think, you know, we’re, we’re nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century. All right. So keep that in mind.
Alistair Croll: Andrew Shannon who heads up growth at Andreessen Horowitz has this line of. It’s called Chin’s law of shitty click-through rates. Basically that over time any medium eventually descends to zero. And, you know, the first banner ads got like 70% click-through and the first email got great open rates. And now we’ve done eye tests that show that our brains subconsciously filter out ads, which is happening right. Even before the visual cortex at the part where our brains are assembling dots into lines, into surfaces and objects, we’re already excluding ads without thinking about it. So yeah, brain plasticity is an interesting way to look at that.
James Duncan: Well, and I think the other thing to keep in mind is that. We, you know, we certainly, me growing up, me starting that ISP when I was 15 years old, the thing that I [00:29:00] saw with this vast possibility of democratization of information, and that’s probably a similar place that you came from, or certainly that was like the early hope for the internet, right.
Alistair Croll: I was running a BBS at that age too.
James Duncan: Yeah, there you go. And that was the, the sort of The the, the beauty of the bit, right? The, the, the freedom that was unleashed by the electron. But, but I, I think that with the best will in the world what we failed to recognize was that while information wants to be free, it needs to be paid for as well. And if you aren’t and if there is not an , a transactional exchange there, then there will be, they will find other ways to extract money from that. And the way that we have found up until this point has been advertising and we perhaps need to reconceive some of that and rethink it because it’s clear that that has unleashed a set of negative behaviors, right? There’s no way that the web that we have grown up with, if you like , which has been an absolute Wild West, [00:30:00] is going to last another 75 years. The web of 2100 is going to be very, very different from the web of 2000. Yeah.
Alistair Croll: Well, but if that’s the case, then that’s a strong argument for every country to have its own national infrastructure, you know, for reasons of sovereignty, for it to have its own Twitter, which it can control and regulate, and people have the rights to, as a form of free speech, but at the same time are subject to more governance. Like at some point, and I was talking to Pia Andrews about this at FWD50 that we’re fine with government building a highway. We’re not okay with the government building public tech infrastructure.
James Duncan: Well, that’s, that’s so, this is really interesting. And this is one that I’d love to get to the bottom of it. I’ve sort of thought about this in an essay a little, little while ago, because it sort of fascinates me and, and one of the things we’ve done, especially around that sort of thing, is we’ve decided that government only deals with things up to a certain point, right? Like they’re, this is the class of stuff that government deals with and we’ve included roads in that and [00:31:00] railways. But we have, sorry, in some cases we’ve, we’ve included roads in some cases we included railways, but that’s sort of the area, it’s roads, railways, sewers, that kind of stuff. But if I look at something like Uberfor example. So Uber is this way of connecting someone that wants to get something to another place. And the person that is able to do that, maneuver that moving. And that’s the same problem that Amazon have. It’s the same problem that Deliveroo has. It’s the same problem that lots of different organizations have. And there. The advantage would be for all organizations to share that technology. And that is normally where nationalization has the biggest impact. But no one’s talking about having a national mechanism of connecting drivers with goods that need to be moved. And I asked myself why not? And it’s because people have got this very 19th century idea of what government is supposed to do. And I’m not convinced that we’ve had the debate publicly [00:32:00] to ask the question “is government supposed to do just this set of things”, that stops, you know, around probably around 1880? Or is there another set of things that government should do that that are more compelling and more?
Alistair Croll: Yeah. I gave a talk to Transport Canada a little while ago and I asked them if they knew what the Tesla network was, because when you get your Tesla car, there’s a thing in the license that says you may not use this car in self-driving mode on anything in, on Uber or Lyft or anything like that, you may only use it on the Tesla network. And the Tesla network is basically I get home my car parks, and then I press a button say, go army money. And, and basically Tesla has deployed a fleet of cars that can go and service themselves and drive around and help other people. And you’re just, you get the car in your driveway because you decided to put it there. And if there’s a profit, great, you paid for your car. Well, but the fact that the, you know, this is a case where transportation has seeded navigation to Google maps. So Google is sending people down back [00:33:00] roads, you know, through school zones. And it’s a case where we we’ve completely abdicated the transportation ecosystem in that way because nobody’s asking, Oh, wait, you know, the government can’t be in that. It’s like the private sector and the government should never steal from the private sector. And I love the idea in Germany that the market is, it’s enshrined in the constitution. The market is in the service of the society, but it doesn’t seem like we’ve reached that conclusion everywhere yet.
James Duncan: No, and I think that, you know, there’s, there’s loads of examples so that, you know another great example of that sort of strange intersection between what we consider the provenance of government and what we consider provenance of the market is something like Citymapper. So Citymapper is really useful in London because transport for London make all this transport data available to city map macro who then take it and use it to suggest routes through the London transportation network. And they have data about people taking the routes through the London transportation network in ways that [00:34:00] TFL do not, right? And. So, but somehow we have this 19th century idea of property, which means because they collected this data that is publicly available because the public own the data. And then they decorate it with information that the public has given them in exchange for being advertised at, or paying a small fee. And then they have that data, which they then sell back to TFL. Well, that doesn’t seem right to me. And it’s not that I’m not, I’m not saying that I can say for sure that that is not right. It’s that I haven’t seen a compelling set of arguments on one side or the other happened. And I think those questions need to be asked because the world is different than it was in 1927.
Alistair Croll: Well, let’s , I mean these, but there’s like seven topics for debates that we should get to in November FWD50. So maybe we can drag you out of hiding to argue for one or the other of these sides. But I do think that there’s a lot of questions we’re not asking and we need to get [00:35:00] comfortable with asking those questions. Because digital is not just about writing code. It’s about the life cycle of that code, recognizing that that code changes you know, what the , how we manage these things, what their life cycles like over time. And then what that means for where we draw the line between the public and the private sector and how we continue to innovate and push these things forward. Particularly in a world where machines are doing more and more of the labor and thinking we haven’t really addressed this. And I guess we, it would be nice for us to happen to the future rather than just waiting for the future to happen to us, you know?
James Duncan: Absolutely. I think that’s the key question for us and anyone in, in this sort of strange intersection between the public and private sector is, do we want to conceive of the future we want to live in or do we want the future to happen by accident? And I think the former is where I come down.
Alistair Croll: Well, that’s your stance as it were. It’s really great to see you again. And I always love having these sort of wide ranging conversations. I feel like we just [00:36:00] scratch the surface of a few topics that we need to go over in more detail when we can have beers in the same cit y. James, as always really great to see you and eager to find out more about what you’re doing. You mentioned that you’d written an article on some of this stuff recently, a post on that.
James Duncan: Yeah, it just it all goes onto this dots website. Okay.
Alistair Croll: Well, we’ll put a link in the, in the comments for this video too and stance. What’s the URL for Stance ?
James Duncan: stance.global
Alistair Croll: Perfect. Well, it’s great to see you again. Thank you for the time and look forward to catching up again soon.
James Duncan: Thanks, Alistair. Good to see you.