A conversation with David Gentle, Director of Foresight and Planning at Fujitsu
David, perhaps you could start by telling us a little bit about yourself and your role at Fujitsu
I come from a technology consulting background – for most of my career I have been working with customers implementing technology projects. I spent a very interesting couple of years working in Azerbaijan in the Caspian region building technology infrastructure and I’ve also spent a lot of time working with financial services companies in London. About six years ago I started to do more consulting work with CIOs around strategy and looking at the big picture – how they can bring innovation in, how they can use new technology and respond to new technology trends.
My title is Director of Foresight and Planning and what that means is I look at technology and market trends and reflect those back into our business. The idea being we can intersect the future market. I am also part of the team that creates the Fujitsu company vision and there is an internal and external side to my role. Externally, we use the vision to engage with customers at events and conferences and internally as a means to align all of the different things we do. The external role is about going out and talking about where we are going and the latest trends. The internal role is about helping to shape the direction of the company and to make sure we are doing things that are relevant.
Fujitsu is the largest company in Japan and the fourth largest IT services company in the world.
We are going through a technology threshold
Technology is enabling us to create value on a much wider scale than was ever possible before. You can use technology in a social context where in the past it was very difficult to reach that many people. An example of that is a technology we have called SPATIOWL.
This is a technology which is an information management service – it is able to take information from lots of different sources and handle it in real time and identify correlations and patterns. The first implementation of this technology was in Tokyo where we put sensors in 2,000 taxis around the city and they were pulling in information from these taxis. That gives you a very rich real time picture of traffic in the city. People can start to leverage that information. It is very easy to put a logistics company in touch with that information and they can use it to help schedule the best deliveries. We can put a municipal authority in touch with that information and they can use it to work out how to phase traffic lights. We can quite easily now create solutions on a wide scale that you couldn’t even imagine ten years ago. This is why we think this idea of Human Centric Technology, technology that can empower people is quite important.
We created the K Computer and for a while it was the fastest computer in the world. We have found very good uses for this technology. A really good example is the University of Toyko who have been using it to simulate human organs. They have got a heart simulation created on the computer – what you can do is bring it down to the cellular level where it can simulate something like half a million cells. This means that surgeons can model various scenarios on this simulated heart and make decisions before they operate on someone. It is shifting the threshold of what is happening. It’s a very exciting time. There are tremendous opportunities.
Culture and technology
The team which produces the company vision is based in Japan and I represent the rest of the world to make sure the vision is relevant outside of Japan. There are different cultural influences – in Japan for example, there is quite a big focus on society. I think it is a lot to do with the national identity in Japan, it is an island nation that has limited natural resources, limited agricultural land and it’s very mountainous. Japan has a very cohesive society, a society that believes that the group is stronger than the individual. Whereas in the West we are the opposite of that – it’s very much about the individual.
There is an interesting technological side to this. In Japan people are very interested in technologies that can empower society whereas in the West we see technology that can empower us as individuals. For example, citizens are alerted within seconds to their mobile phones if a serious earthquake has occurred. Which is kind of incredible – the infrastructure required to be able to do that.
Our vision has elements of the Japanese cultural identity in it. Our vision is based around Human Centric Innovation. It’s about how we can use technology to empower people and bring useful information in to people’s everyday lives.
IT challenges organisations are facing
We are moving into a much more digitalised world and it’s a challenge everyone faces at the moment. The rules are being re-written. For technology there’s a traditional set of technologies that lots of IT players have grown up around – ERP systems, CRM systems, directory systems and data centre services.
There’s this new style of technology that is emerging – we are talking about the Internet of Things, social technologies and mobile technologies, it’s quite a significant shift.
We have got an interesting challenge around how can we make ourselves relevant for a new type of customer, while at the same time developing skills, capabilities and offerings around the new types of technologies.
In any large organisation particularly now, there is a challenge around how you change culture and how you adapt. It’s a really difficult issue. There is a lot of risk associated with change. People have a lot invested in how they have done things in the past. But you have got to be mindful of what is the greater opportunity.
Innovation is constant
There is a real significant shift. We used to think about innovation being this exceptional thing – now we have got to adapt to the thing that innovation is a constant. You have to innovate radically – questioning your business model and value proposition. If you are not willing to change you could be in trouble.
I think for businesses generally we are really having quite a radical shift. The pace of innovation at the moment is extraordinary – there are a huge number of new companies starting. Underpinning this is that it is very easy to get access to the building blocks you need to create a business – you can just go to the cloud for certain services.
Anyone can be an innovator: the maker movement and Fujitsu
We are moving into the era where innovation is becoming ever more accessible. Fujitsu have just entered into a partnership with an organisation called TechShop, who provide maker spaces. This is a phenomenally interesting area – with TechShop you can go into this place and make anything – you’ve got 3D printers and laser cutters. What’s great about it is that it puts people with ideas in touch with the means to create prototypes. It gives you a very rapid means of prototyping.
The partnership we have entered into with TechShop is not a pure commercial opportunity. It’s more about recognising the importance of innovation and encouraging people in our organisation and outside of our organisation to recognise the importance of innovation. Regardless of who you are in a company, anyone can be an innovator.
There is a social side to this to. We have created a mobile maker space which is attached to a truck which is aimed at school children.
We talk about business innovation and social innovation. Social innovation is not a traditional area of business – it is quite new, we are discovering it ourselves. Our traditional customer base has been the business customer, but now we are looking at forming new relationships, for example how we can partner with universities or city authorities. For example, we are doing a piece of work now with the Singapore Government around their vision of being a smart nation. We have been talking to them about using our SPATIOWL technology to help them manage urban mobility. Social innovation is a growing area, it is an area which is very important to us as it is a strong means to delivering value above and beyond what we would have been able to in the past.
Involving the user
A piece of work we did in California involved a technology we produced in our R&D Lab. It’s called Sprout – it is a device that is able to take information wirelessly from wearable and mobile technologies.
We were engaged by the Veteran’s Association in the US. A number of service personnel who had returned home from serving in Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. If you are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, even driving to work can be a problem as when you are driving you may constantly be looking out for potential IEDs.
We applied this Sprout technology and trialled it with a number of veterans to monitor their stress levels throughout the day. You could get a very good proxy for the level of stress by looking at and comparing different pieces of data that was coming out of these wearable devices so things like heart rate, how quickly people moved, blood pressure and all this information is aggregated to this Sprout device which connects to a smartphone app. This gives you a log of someone’s stress levels over the day – it was about trying to understand the condition and draw insights from it. That was all about the individual.
People are becoming less aware of technology
With Human Centric Technology you are becoming less and less aware of the technology itself. For example, we have just unveiled a biometric technology which does a scan of your iris. When you pick up your phone it will validate your identity through scanning your irises. You can just pick up your phone and if it sees you it will unlock. There’s no transaction there you are aware of anymore. You don’t even have to press a button. These technologies are driven by the user need.
The hyper-connected economic era – delivering personalised experiences at scale
Things are changing – we are entering a new business and economic paradigm. We call it the hyper-connected era, it’s enabled by digital and connected technologies. It means you can deliver things which are highly personalised at scale and at a low cost. If you think of your smartphone it is unique to you. You won’t find another smart phone in the world which has the same combination of apps and content as yours. In order to get this device which reflects your lifestyle needs you have to be able to customise that incredibly cheaply with the apps and content. By having a digital platform and connected technology underneath it you are able to deliver things at scale that are highly personalised.
A new type of transaction changes the boundaries of privacy
If we think about digital technology it enables a different type of transaction. The traditional model of a transaction is based around money: you give up some money to receive goods or a service.
In the digital era privacy comes much more into that transaction. You are actually giving up some of that privacy to receive that service. An example might be if you have got a smart machine in your home, a smart washing machine, a smart thermostat, the potential is that organisations will know a lot about your daily movements. A smart light bulb – you will have the information when someone is in their house or not, so people might feel uncomfortable about that information going into the wrong hands. But at the same time new services will be innovated around these things.
Take the washing machine example, you might be able integrate your washing machine with your smart meter so it automatically washes your clothes when electricity is at its cheapest. There is some inherent value in the services which will be created around this. It’s no longer a simple binary – I pay you this and I get this. You have to kind of think about the privacy angle. I think younger people are probably more savvy about this.
Future opportunities and technology
It’s like moving from a tennis court to a football pitch, you are moving to a different playing field in terms of the size of the opportunity. In the past the way in which we have used technology has been constrained – in other words you implemented some technology in a physical context, for example, in a building and it’s always had this almost tethered characteristic.
I think increasingly the opportunity is that technology is becoming totally fluid, so there’s no situation where you can’t conceive technology being applied. We are no longer limited by thinking that technology sits in a backroom somewhere with some sort of flashing lights on it. I think that’s the really exciting opportunity.
What springs from that really is technology becoming ubiquitous in the physical world and that then drives the creation of information. Again in the past we have thought of information as this thing you kind of control – you store it on your servers and put a perimeter around it. I think we have to think of information as being more like air or oxygen. It’s all around and it’s being created by the growth in technology services and devices. There’s a tremendous opportunity there – what insights can you deliver from that information. Information when you link it to other pieces of information, that’s where you get the value from.
Ultimately if technology doesn’t provide value it doesn’t succeed. It’s not about the technology, it is about the value it provides.
If you would like to take part in this series of interviews please contact Richard Linington.