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oneaday#52: The day I asked the Prime Minister for computer science

I should have written this up at the time, I drafted it, half finished, half dusty.

Having just read Eric Schmidt’s MacTaggart lecture from the Edinburgh Festival today, it took me back to a brisk winter morning in Oxfordshire. It was Thursday 1oth March 2011. It turned out that this was a very special day for Kirsty and I. We had been invited to the opening of the UK’s first National Accessible Games Centre in Charlbury, and I was to address the Prime Minister, Mr David Cameron no less. On the way to the opening, our hearts sank, when we heard on Radio 4 that ‘Prime Minister Cameron was on his way to Brussels to meet feillow European leaders to discuss the escalations of civil unrest in Libya’.

‘That’s us done for then Kirst’ I said, ‘the PM won’t be coming to Charlbury today to open the centre’

‘Yes, what a shame’ said Kirsty, ‘still let’s make the best of it after all Matt Hampson is guest of honour and it is a big day for SpecialEffect (the charity that had built the centre)

So we carried on and I was less nervous about my speech, given I knew Matt and the SpecialEffect team.

However, when we got to the National Accessible Games Centre, it was crawling with all sorts of men in black, complete with ear pieces and military style gaits. The word from our hosts was that Mr Cameron was coming after all. He duly arrived and I made the following speech in a small room pretty much one to one, we were literally 3 feet from each other.

I am extremely proud and honoured to be asked to say a few words on this momentous occasion on behalf of the UK video games industry. I am thrilled that SpecialEffect are opening the National Accessible Games Centre here in Charlbury and is a tribute to the hard work put in by the whole of the SpecialEffect team.

This Centre is the first of it’s kind in the UK and we believe in the world and it is a real landmark not only for this wonderful charity, but for the video games industry in general.

The video games industry prides itself on providing true interactive entertainment. But it was only when this very special charity reached out to our industry, the multinational corporations and the smaller businesses, when they nudged us if you like, that we realised that that we could do so much more and make our games truly accessible to those
people with disabilities.

We feel that video games and interactive entertainment products offer a unique opportunity to level the playing field so to speak, to allow all people with or without disabilities to compete, play and enjoy games with each another. We are in an unique position as an entertainment industry and through interaction with initiatives such as SpecialEffect we can
truly start to ensure that we make games that are inclusive.

Our industry charity, GamesAid of which I am chairman, has been massively impressed by their work. So much so that for two years running the members of GamesAid have voted to support SpecialEffect.

Indeed the highlight of the UK’s premier consumer games show, the Eurogamer Expo last September in London was not Assassins Creed Brotherhood, Dance Central or Gears of War 3, it was the work that SpecialEffect showed wowing media and gamers alike. SpecialEffect certainly left a massive impression with their amazing Eye Control technology allowing everyone to play Need for Speed with nothing more than their eyes.

I would also like to say a few words about the synergies between the UK games development industry and SpecialEffect as these
are important to us all.

Driven by a technical expertise, fuelled by passion and commitment and often against all the odds and without a book of rules to follow, the UK has produced some of the greatest video games ever produced. From Elite to Grand Theft Auto to Fable to Little Big Planet, the UK has shown a propensity for technical innovation and awesome gameplay. In short we have punched above our weight on the world wide stage and our UK games developers have contributed and will continue to contribute significantly to the creative industries sector.

In the same way, SpecialEffect led by Dr Mick Donegan and his wonderful team have showed exactly the same approach to their cause. They are doing amazing work, writing the rules as they go, innovating and pioneering along the way. They have showed true leadership and are a massive asset to UKPLC.

Today is the day that SpecialEffect have taken an important step on the road to building this very special place – it really is a little big accessible games centre, built for games and above all open to everyone.

The Prime Minister gave his response, which was straight off the bat, without notes and highly impressive. There were some pictures and then we were instructed to move outside for more pictures. At this point Mr Cameron asked if the industry was getting behind SpecialEffect, and ‘are there any stragglers that I need to help along?’. I said that the industry had got behind the initiative and support was forthcoming and from multiple sources.

He then asked me if there was one thing he could take back to his Government to make a difference to the computer and video games industry. I paused, thought about it, and then said ‘yes, as a matter of fact there is one crucial message you could take back to your Government. Please ask Mr Gove to consider putting computer science back on the National Curriculum’. I referenced the recently published Livingstone Hope Report on skills for the computer and video games and VFX industries, commissioned by Ed Vaizey at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport and that it had called for 20 recommendations, the
first of which was to put computer science back on the map. Mr Cameron asked why we should do this. I couched it in simple terms.

‘Prime Minister, we are very creative nation and the creative industries are an example of where we are winners. We have an amazing music, TV, film, and games industries and are
respected the world over. One of the many reasons for this is that we own the English language and it gives us and other English speaking peoples a unique advantage. It is almost a code which allowed us to create art and entertainment relevant to the 20th century. But now in the 21st century, we are all touched and influenced by technology beyond our wildest expectations. Technology requires a different language – the language of computer code if you will. If we do not equip our children to both read and write code, then they will only
ever be consumers of that technology, not inventors. Our culture and economy will be threatened and we will lose
.’

‘But we teach IT in schools’ said the PM.

‘Yes, but that teaches children how to use Word, Excel and Powerpoint. It does not teach them how to design, develop and build those products. Think of it as the equivalent of being only
able to read and not be able to write. Communication is one way and we have no ability to express ourselves culturally and thus economically’
.

‘I see, that is interesting. In fact it reminds me of the Baltic Conference I attended recently. There was much talk of the big technology companies eyeing Estonia, Lithuania, and Latvia as possible sites for expansion. I was told all of these countries have skilled technicians and education standards in the science , technology, engineering and maths (STEM) are high. ‘ said the PM.

‘Yes Prime Minister, they all have a greater command of the new languages, the code, than we do.’

Our conversation ended and we had a series of pictures for the media and guests , before the Prime Minister left in a car, headed for an aircraft to take him to the important European summit on Libya. But before he left, I shook his hand, tapped my nose and said ‘Prime Minister, don’t forget it’s all about the code’.

Mr Cameron looked me in the eye, tapped his nose and said ‘yes, it is all about the code’.

And so to today, Eric Schmidt chairman of one of the world’s greatest technology companies, Google, spoke at the Edinburgh Festival about many things – but the line that did it for me was that the country that
invented the computer was “throwing away your great computer heritage” by failing to teach programming in schools. “I was flabbergasted to learn that today computer science isn’t even
taught as standard in UK schools,”
Schmidt said. “Your IT curriculum focuses on teaching how to use software, but gives no insight into how it’s made.”

Let’s hope our leaders listen up and take some action. If we don’t, then Britain may not have talent for too much longer.

Full articles on Eric Schmidt’s speech can be found at www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/aug/26/eric-schmidt-chairman-google-education#start-of-comments

and

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-14683133

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#oneaday 28: Carpe Diem and other coded languages

I have had a really interesting couple of days. On Tuesday I visited my friends Railsim.com who make Railworks and Rail Simulator and are an example of a wondeful British technology company. They are based in the Historic Naval Dockyard at Chatham and are very much at the cutting edge of computerised train and railway simulation. The Dockyard is a little bit rough round the edges nowadays, but no one can doubt its provenance and the part it played in Britain’s technological past and now, hopefully present. Surrounded by history and with access to talent from the University of the Creative Arts which is part of the University of Kent, these guys will hopefully be contributing to our creative digital industries not of the future, but of now.

Yesterday, I attended a really interesting presentation yesterday at Portcullis House, the place near The House of Commons that MPs use to conduct day to day business, about Creative Clusters, titled ‘Critical Mass – growing creative clusters’ . It was a report produced by the uber clever people at NESTA ( those who worked tirelessly with Ian Livingstone and Alex Hope on the Livingstone Hope Review) and looked at the data that supported the establishment of clusters of creative businesses and creative people throughout the UK. It was supposed to be chaired by Louise Bagshawe MP, but she could not make it. It was  supported by MPs who represent the creative industries via the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Comittee. Don Foster, Damian Collins and Ivan Lewis.

They conducted a reasonably structured debate once they had each got their speeches made and out of the way. I use the word reasonably for one simple reason, namely politicians cannot help themselves from being party political. Instead of debating the subject and suggesting creative ways of helping foster our wonderful creative industries, they insist on political point scoring. The debate masquerades as a robust and comprehensive piece, but actually ends up as a crescendo of mainly red and blue noise, with a hint of yellow. You just end up with a murky brown almost a rusty effect.

Clustering is not an unusual concept in life, indeed humans love clustering in their work life and within their social life. Think pub, office, sports stadia, gigs, restaurants, demonstrations, Singstar, the internet. But clusters become places where the action is, where ideas are exchanged and ultimately where money or other commodities pass from one place to another. Indeed Parliament is a massively important cluster for us all as it is where the real business of government takes place.

 The role of the State in the evolution or development of clusters is a tricky one. Like most things in life we all need balance. Our eyes and our ears help up balance ourselves. Our voices should reflect what we see and what we hear and what we think as  a result of those stimuli. Free markets and a bit of chaos theory, if left unchecked end up with Big Business at the helm. Equally top down State control ends up with the so called Big State and that can be equally extreme. For me neither work because they do not actually represent everyone and thus cannot be democratic, they cede power over many into the hands of few. But if the State exercised no control or intervention then Parliament would not be so vital and knowledge share and debate would become far more polarised.

 The point I am trying to make is that sometimes the State needs to decide to stand up to other Sovereign Nations, who are the ultimate self interest groups and look after it’s people. Britain has proud history of democracy, of Sovereign and State working together via the people. A mix of State intervention and free market principles came together in an almost perfect way to build the Royal Navy over a number of years. This was the ultimate fighting machine, multi cultural and multi faceted. Well led in comparison to The Army, it was the ultimate meritocracy. It was both a tool for trade, protection and sometimes national aggression. It saw the development of so much hi-tech during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries that arguably it both fuelled and led the Industrial Revolution. And it stood undefeated for 200 years. The point was, it was an example of almost perfect balance, yet the State was always carrying  a debt which in turn put pressure on growth (colonialism) and taxation of the people. This is how life works. Sovereign powers have been replaced by multi national globalised businesses and tax is still tax. The new colonies are run by the multinationals and that is life, our job as citizens to figure out how to work within a system and effect change if the will of the majority is there.

Back to yesterday. Two of the politicans had conducted a mini political debate,  using the English language in a wonderful way. It was most enjoyable, even if it was actually unproductive. The gathered audience was asked for questions, so I put my hand up. I cannot actually remember exactly what I asked, but it went along these lines:-

I really enjoyed your verbal jousting,  something built on the wonders of the English language. Indeed do politicians realise that the traditional bulwark of our creative industries is the English language – think music with lyrics, TV, film and publishing of books – grounded in Britain and the USA. Do you realise that in the creative industries and especially in video games and interactive entertainment, where art meets science, the key driver is not English words, but code. It comes in several different languages of course, but code is fundamental. Yet we have a Department for Education which is headed by people who do not believe that computers should be anywheer near schools, let alone computer science being part of the National Curriculum and espouse the introduction of Latin as a language of the future (see recommendation 1 in the Livingstone Hope Review that states ‘Bring computer science into the National Curriculum as an essential discipline – see http://www.nesta.org.uk/home1/assets/features/next_gen ). How can the you agree with this, and importantly how can you influence the nation’s need for better skilled citizens?

Needless to say, the answers were political. I made the point, let’s see if we can all influence the outcome. The English language is becoming a universal language. Let’s hope that our nation can keep abreast of the languages of the future. Not only do we need to think different, we need to speak different. Carpe Diem and all that.

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