Wearable technology: next big thing?

It's man and machine, not man versus machine.

As the hype around wearable technology gathers momentum, and the first working examples of such devices are released to the world, business leaders are beginning to consider the impact that they might have on the enterprise. Mostly, such considerations are focused on the fast-moving sectors of marketing and e-commerce; however, I would argue that the influence of such technology could potentially be much greater.

What wearable technology represents is the ability to augment the capability of the human brain with that of a computer, and to allow the two to work more closely than has ever been capable in the past. With ideal connectivity and supporting infrastructure, the technology offers the ability to search and display any information that is available to the enterprise right in the eye-view of a worker. Not only that, but because the technology can see what the worker sees, and hears what they hear, artificial intelligence at the back-end could potentially suggest information that would be useful to the actual task in hand.

At its most extreme, that represents a hybrid of man and machine, with the capability and creativity of the former augmented by the knowledge and computational power of the latter. In some industries, this could have an impact that is not just incremental, but also transformational; in fact, it could be so significant as to completely destroy the business models upon which some sectors are based. The productivity gains are potentially so great as to have a perceptible impact on the economy at a national, regional and even global level. 

This applies equally from the highest to the lowest skill levels in the economy. Consider, for example, the management consultant, tasked with improving a company’s overall profitability – as she makes her way around that company, not only everything she hears, but everything she sees can be recorded, analysed and then compared with the information she already has about the company. Not only that, but the same would be the case for the other member of the team – and, as they work, all this information could be automatically compared to the proprietary economic models that the company holds. Equally, consider the customer service assistant who, as he or she looks at you, can have all the information about your history with the company presented in their eyeline, as well as information about you available publicly. Online retailers already provide service in this way, but the ability to replicate that personal experience offline would give high-street retailers a powerful tool to enhance the experience of their customers.

The possibilities are endless, and other industries that could benefit include the law, accountancy, medicine, engineering, logistics, retail and many more. Yet the two examples above, however, should have aroused the critical instinct in any alert reader. Even with what has recently been a dramatic reduction in the instinct to privacy amongst consumers, most would find these situations somewhat less than natural. Much as all the technologies in these scenarios already exist, combining them in the manner suggested could well be considered unsettling by a majority of the general public.  Furthermore, there are notable technical difficulties, particularly around connectivity, and the storage of information in such a way as to facilitate near-instant access.

Tackling the legal and privacy issues will almost certainly take priority – while societal attitudes are changing fast, for a long time there will remain a significant minority who do not share these attitudes, and businesses will have to be sensitive to that. That means developing business processes, policy and compliance to seek consent where possible, and doing everything possible to prevent misuse of the technology. The real-time nature of the assistance that wearable technology can provide means that connectivity is similarly crucial and businesses will need to make sure that every link in each and any network they use is as fast as possible. That will need to be complemented by a new approach to the IT infrastructure on which corporations store information, with disk technology and management software designed to minimise response times, allowing information to be recovered without noticeable delay.

Social media, data analytics, mobile devices and cloud computing are already recognised as disruptive technologies, with the potential to transform the way in which businesses can be run. Wearable technology is the next step in that process, which can bring all these technologies together, in real time, in a personalised manner and with minimum user effort. However, the obstacles for early adopters to overcome are many and significant, and the process of its development as a tool for business will not initially be rapid. That means that there is time for businesses to properly consider how their industry might be affected and to prepare to take the opportunity that these technologies offer.

Photograph: Getty Images

Ved Sen is mobility practice head, UK and Europe at Cognizant Technology Solutions.

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As children face a mental health crisis, should schools take the lead in fighting it?

There is a crisis affecting the mental health of England's young people. As Children’s Mental Health Week gets underway, the government must put schools at the heart of mental health services.

Three children in every classroom have a diagnosable mental health condition. Half of these are conduct (behavioural) disorders, while one third are emotional disorders such as stress, anxiety and depression, which often becomes outwardly apparent through self-harm. There was a staggering 52 per cent jump in hospital admissions for children and young people who had self-harmed between 2009 and 2015.

Schools and teachers have consistently reported the scale of the problem since 2009. Last year, over half of teachers reported that more of their pupils experience mental health problems than in the past. But teachers also consistently report how ill-equipped they feel to meet pupils’ mental health needs, and often cite a lack of training, expertise and support from NHS services.

Part of the reason for the increased pressure on schools is that there are now fewer ‘early intervention’ and low-level mental health services based in the community. Cuts to local authority budgets since 2010 have resulted in significant erosion of these services, despite strong evidence of their effectiveness in reducing escalation and crises further down the line. According to the parliamentary Health Select Committee, this has led specialist child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) to become inundated with more severe and complex cases that have been allowed to escalate through a lack of early treatment.

This matters.  Allowing the mental health of children and young people to deteriorate to this extent will prevent us from creating a healthy, happy, economically productive society.

So what part should schools play in government’s response?

During the last parliament, the government played down the role of schools in meeting pupils’ mental health and wider emotional needs. Michael Gove, during his tenure as education secretary, made a conscious decision to move away from the Every Child Matters framework, which obliged local authorities to work with schools and health services to improve the ‘physical and mental wellbeing’ of all children in their local area. He argued that schools policy needed to focus more heavily on academic outcomes and educational rigour, and references to children’s wellbeing were removed from the Ofsted framework. This created a false dichotomy between academic standards and pupils’ mental health - why can’t a school promote both?

But since Gove was replaced by Nicky Morgan, a new window of opportunity for meaningful reform has opened. Following her appointment in 2014, Morgan has called on schools to promote resilience and protect pupil’s mental health when problems first arise. The Department for Education has made tentative steps in this direction, publishing advice on counselling in schools and announcing a new pilot scheme to link schools with NHS services.

However, much more needs to be done.

The only way to break the pressures on both mental health services and schools is to reinvest in early intervention services of the kind that local authorities and the NHS have been forced to cut over the last few years. But this time around there should be one major difference – there is a compelling case that services should be based largely inside schools.

There are strong arguments for why schools are best placed to provide mental health services. Schools see young people more than any other service, giving them a unique ability to get to hard-to-reach children and young people and build meaningful relationships with them over time. Studies have shown that children and young people largely prefer to see a counsellor in school rather than in an outside environment, and attendance rates for school-based services such as those provided by the charity Place2Be are often better than those for CAMHS. Young people have reported that for low-level conditions such as stress and anxiety, a clinical NHS setting can sometimes be daunting and off-putting.

There are already examples of innovative schools which combine mental health and wellbeing provision with a strong academic curriculum. For example, School 21 in East London dedicates 2.5 hours per week to wellbeing, creating opportunities for pastoral staff to identify problems as early as possible.

There is a huge opportunity for Nicky Morgan – as well as Labour’s shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger – to call for schools to be placed at the heart of a reconstructed early intervention infrastructure.

This will, though, require a huge cultural shift. Politicians, policymakers, commissioners and school leaders must be brave enough to make the leap in to reimagining schools as providers of health as well as education services.

Craig Thorley is a research fellow at IPPR, where he leads work on mental health. Follow him @craigjthorley