We need a new digital philosophy to keep people smart.

Designed right, digital technology can enhance the quality, efficiency and accessibility of service and build the human capacity of customers and staff alike. Designed wrong, it makes us less efficient and dumber, while costing a huge amount of time and money. The key difference is not in the tech itself, but in thinking. This is not a 21st century Luddite rant, a call to break the digital frames. Rather the message is a hopeful one: if we understand why attempts to exploit digital technology are often a let-down, we will build better principles that keep us and our organisations smart.

How can we discriminate between smart tech and stupid tech?

At the Santa Fe Institute, Professor of Complex Systems David Krakauer describes technology in terms of its ability to help us think, reason and problem-solve more effectively. The abacus is a ‘complementary cognitive artefact’, because using one regularly alters a user’s neural pathways to create a ‘virtual abacus’ in the frontal cortex, so that experts can perform calculations without needing the physical object to hand. The abacus makes people smarter.

Some technology has the opposite effect, reducing cognitive capacity to become a ‘competitive cognitive artefact’. Calculators erode the ability to do mental arithmetic and long division. Maps and sat-navs are respectively complementary and competitive navigational technologies – one builds intelligence, the other reduces it.

Stupid tech

The insight that technology can directly affect intelligence exposes some common problems in technology use in services and gives a clear direction for better design. As an example of dumb-down tech, consider a physiotherapist friend’s unhelpful and fractious visit to A&E with a suspected broken ankle:

Nurse practitioner, studying script on computer screen: ‘I need to manipulate your ankle because I have to work out what pathway to put you in.’

Patient: ‘That will damage my ankle! I’m a physio, I know that I need an X-ray first to figure out whether my ankle is broken or not…’

‘But I need to manipulate your ankle. Are you refusing treatment?’

‘No, I’m trying to get my ankle fixed – please don’t touch it, just send me for X-ray.’

After the X-ray, happily with no sign of a break:

Nurse practitioner, still driven by IT pathway scripts: ‘So it’s not broken, now I need to manipulate your ankle to its full range so I know what pathway to put you on.’

‘Don’t touch my ankle, you will damage it even more if you do that! I could end up with a permanent problem. Now that we know it’s not broken, I know what to do to rehab myself – I told you I’m a physio.’

‘But I need to manipulate your ankle so I can put you in the right pathway – are you refusing treatment?’

IT-driven assessment and pathway tools are common in UK health and social care. They have become a disabling technology because they cause professionals to act in ways that stop them understanding and absorbing the variety of presenting demand. The IT-driven scripts, standardised assessment tools and workflow timescales and rules make them more stupid, and has the perverse effect of increasing demand into services and damaging outcomes.

Smart tech

Here are two examples of complementary cognitive technology – tech that makes us smarter:

  • In financial services a multimillion-pound automated workflow management system was decommissioned and staff focused on improving the flow of mortgage applications through a physical process. Technology was then realigned to support information capture and processing needs of the staff, so that they could understand what mattered to each customer and manage cases accordingly. Failure demand and time from application to final offer halved, productivity went up by 50%, Net Promoter Score doubled, revenue increased and staff morale improved.
  • In one housing repairs organisation, focusing the physical flow of work on enabling a ‘one call, one visit, one fix’ response to incidents led to a 50% reduction in costs fell by 50% and dramatically better service. The technology was redesigned to display workers’ current location and estimated availability for the next job, enabling call takers to match workers to jobs and arrange mutually agreeable appointment times. The new IT system was orders of magnitude cheaper than the old one, and was deliberately designed to help tradespeople take responsibility for doing good work.

To a mindset that assumes that all tech is beneficial, these designs are counterintuitive. Yet in a complementary versus competitive perspective, the logic is clear. It is to design technology with the aim of enabling staff to do good work: to think, reason and problem-solve effectively.

 A new digital philosophy

It is very easy to create tech solutions that make performance worse and us dumber. We need a digital philosophy that keeps us smart and enhances not only the effectiveness of our service organisations, but also the human capacity of customers and staff.

Dumb tech assumptions Principles for smart tech
Technology will improve our current situation Design for value first, pull technology second
  Develop the discipline of designing tech that helps us better create value by anchoring all design decisions not in annual plans but in a deep understanding of and redesign of processes according to what matters
Digital by Default – all tech is useful Smart tech to help us think, reason and problem-solve more effectively



Only use tech that complements human activity, that enhances our cognitive and social capacity, and that eliminates tedious, tiring or dangerous tasks

Projects destined for success Decision-making integrated with work

Leaders facilitating emergent change

  All design and deployment in the discipline of experiment, test and learn… all change designed as experiment, allowing agents to cope with emergence and continually challenge assumptions

The answer is simple and hard at the same time. Simple because all we need are new principles. Hard because these principles challenge received wisdom, disrupt long-established custom and practice, and require us to re-wire and de-commission organisational structures and systems. The good news is that when people start the journey, improvement begins to flow, staff, managers and customers alike love the results, and momentum builds.

By Jeremy Cox.