Four years ago, the founders of inQube recognised that new technologies would have a pivotal role to play in the future of public services and that these technologies and the manner of their use would be fundamentally different to those currently employed, being focused on citizens and making use of the latest advances in software and hardware.
They therefore set up a specialist software company pumpco Ltd to develop a new type of technology platform (a “social co-operating system”) to deliver systems for the normal man and woman on the street.
The birth of anthropos
The platform was called – anthropos – (classical greek for man) as it was of the scale of a operating system, but primarily aimed at connecting up people via their devices, rather than computers and their peripherals.
Equally it was built on lots of independent and distributed components, some of which are simple and others rather more intelligent, but all of which communicate, co-operate and recruit others to achieve what is necessary.
In other words, as well as implementing all sorts of software design patterns, pumpco took many of their design patterns from nature, mirroring the co-operative ecosystems they were hoping to build in the real world.
On top of anthropos, they built sector-specific functionality, which was packaged up into plugins – healthpump and justicepump – to make it even easier to support sector-specific needs.
This focus on the citizen was on the basis that, due to demographic changes and financial constraints, the future of public services was likely to become largely “do it yourself” wherever possible in the near future, supported increasingly by one’s family, friends, community and 3rd organisations and only pulling in help from the statutory sector (e.g. health, social services, probation etc.) when it is really needed.
Determined to be citizen-driven, PumpCo worked from the outset in in citizen-focused, cross-sector collaborations between statutory sector (e.g. health, social services, probation, education, sport and leisure) and a variety of third sector organisations as well as international partners, so that the platform developed was grounded in the needs of real citizens and those working with them in a wide variety of settings.
Having initially prototyped in India, the founders assembled a very experienced UK-based development team to build out the core platform and application building blocks working with citizens as diverse as probation service users, carers, older people with multiple health problems and gypsy travellers, as well as many of the diverse people and organisations who work with them, in order to prove the suitability of the technology to a wide variety of users and situations.
The need for a change in approach
One of the reasons IT had not fulfilled its promise to be the much vaunted “catalyst of change” was due to the way in which it was procured and delivered. The average public sector procurement took two years and followed on from a long period of writing output-based specifications describing what “experts” thought was needed.
As it was normal for pretty radical changes in priorities and direction to happen every six months, what was described typically became wildly out of date long before it was due to be delivered and therefore extremely costly change control procedures were often invoked before delivery followed by even more expensive legal wrangling, despite which, what eventually was delivered was often an expensive “white elephant”.
Technology building blocks
A critical success factor was the turn around time from initial concept to delivery of what was really needed. Obviously, from a software development perspective, this meant a move from traditional waterfall development to user-centred agile development, but even the most radical agile development methodologies were incapable of delivering at the required speed of change.
Since an optimal cycle time for small cycle change was a few weeks, the supporting technology would have to be produced in the same timescales, so that the change could be implemented and its value assessed in real use.
The first solution to this problem was architectural and technical – pumpco needed to be able to quickly assemble solutions to support a wide variety of citizens’ priorities from highly adaptable building blocks – Lego™ style.
Continuing with the Lego™ metaphor, all building blocks which were the right shape (conformed to the same pattern) would fit together, no matter who had produced them and when. Larger assemblies, built from several building blocks could be adapted by swapping out individual blocks and substituting others without breaking the assembly of which they were a part. Equally, as new versions of building blocks were produced, their introduction should not break existing assemblies.
Extending the metaphor, each building block would itself be extensible (being built on a fractal pattern) such that its internal functionality could be simply employed by other building blocks without having to recreate them. Where entirely new functionality was required, which could not catered for by the any of the existing building blocks in the toolbox, new and adapted building blocks would be produced, which would then be used to simplify and speed subsequent developments. All building blocks and the entire toolbox would be constantly refined, simplified and enhanced to take advantages of the latest advances in technologies.
Open and embracing third-parties
The second solution to this problem was attitudinal and commercial, pumpco needed to enable all those with a good idea to get their idea into the hands of those who might benefit from it as simply as possible. This meant that unlike typical software companies, especially the larger ones, rather than trying to do everything themselves, “eat everyone else’s breakfasts” and aim for “world domination”, pumpco would rather “focus on their own knitting” namely constantly harnessing new technologies in the platform and making it really easy for other developers to make use of the platform to contribute their unique pieces of the jigsaw.
Having built enough of the initial platform and core building blocks, pumpco therefore hired computer science graduates straight from university and put them to work building apps and further building blocks, to test the approach. As a result, they were able to refine the core platform, core building blocks and further simplify the development approach.
As well as co-producing and integrating third-party software platforms and tools, employing international standards where these exist (e.g. HL7 and IHE) and creating them when they don’t, pumpco is also working with a large number of technology collaborators, both local and international, co-producing new hardware devices and integrating a wide range of existing devices, from assisted living, through fitness and wellness, health and medical, to new types of device such as Google Glass™.
Vision to Value – fast!
As well as a radically new type of technology, a new bottom-up, rapid and iterative new ways of working with citizens was also required, which worked toward creation of dynamic and sustainable ecosystems, rather than implementing systems top-down. It was for the latter reason that inQube was set up as a community interest company, to focus principally on people and process elements, whilst PumpCo would concentrate on technological enablement.
For more details on the inQube approach see the agile co-production section.
The net result of inQube’s bottom-up, rapid and iterative approach coupled with the use of pumpco’s technology platform and building blocks is that citizens and those who serve and support them, typically get to use the solutions that they co-produce for real within 3-6 weeks rather than the months and years that is normally the case.