Digital 2016 – the big write-up

The relentlessly helpful® blog by John Espirian

8 June 2016

On the 6th and 7th of June 2016, I attended Digital 2016 – a free conference organised by Innovation Point, which took place at the 5-star Celtic Manor Resort in Newport, South Wales.

This event offered a chance to meet some of the brightest digital talents in the local area and beyond, and to listen to a host of influential speakers from some of the biggest organisations in the world. With sessions hosted by BBC Click presenter Lara Lewington, Digital 2016 had been pencilled in to my calendar for months.

Here’s a bumper write-up of the sessions I attended over the 2 days. Ready? Let’s go.

Day 1

Day 2

Day 1

Simon BradleyAirbus

The conference kicked off with a talk from one of the largest aviation companies in the world. Simon’s presentation focused on the security threats against which Airbus have to defend themselves. In fact, the general theme for the early part of the first day was cybersecurity – one of the current buzzwords in tech.

An old adage says that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and Simon confirmed this with the following stat:

Dr Siani PearsonHewlett Packard Enterprise

The second talk came from a representative of another global heavyweight, Hewlett Packard (HP).

Here’s the memo I must have missed: HP split into two companies at the end of 2015. Siani now works for Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), which has a research lab in Bristol. Despite the growth of other markets, the UK is HPE’s second largest customer.

Siani shared another chilling cybersecurity stat:

If you thought that figure was high, note that HPE also logs 2.5 billion security events each day.

Richard HollisRisk Factory

This session had the curious subtitle of ‘Dance Band on the Titanic’. The description of the talk gave a taster of what was to come:

‘The vast majority of the sensitive data processed stored and transmitted every day has already been breached and we are wasting our time and money trying to protect it. What would a new security paradigm look like?’

Richard’s ‘grumpy old man’ routine (his words!) let us see his frustrations with the current approaches to security. An opinionated storyteller, Richard delivered a thought-provoking session.

He began by talking about the credit cards exposed by a hack on American retail giant Target. Amazingly, this attack was executed by breaching the heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) system. In total, 110 million credit cards were compromised – equivalent to one-third of the population of the US.

Interestingly, Richard proposed that the real threats don’t come from those with the traditional ‘black hat’ and ‘white hat’ profiles. The people with money – the so-called ‘gold hats’ – are the real threats.

A Reuters report says that the US government is the largest purchaser of zero-day vulnerabilities. And Richard put forward that governments in general are the largest hackers in the world. They have the time, money, expertise and patience to make large-scale, devastating attacks on other organisations and governments.

The figures for attacks were mind boggling. In the US alone, there have been more than 900 million publicly disclosed security breaches.

A final anecdote about an analogous security situation from many years ago was a good way to wrap up the talk. Richard told us about a decade-long campaign to have seatbelts fitted into American cars. During that pre-seatbelt era, car manufacturers resisted paying for what Richard described as ‘a $1 bit of leather that would help save thousands of lives per year’. These days, driving without a seatbelt would be unthinkable – it’s the security we all take for granted.

Richard’s ultimate call for action was simple and direct: demand security from your service providers.

Luke Beeson – VP, Security UK, BT

Luke’s talk was about managing risk and coping with escalating cyber threats.

Luke shared a bar graph that showed just how much coordinated attacks had increased in the past couple of years:

Threats to BT's business have increased since 2015
Threats to BT’s business have increased since 2015

The figures showed that BT has experienced an unprecedented increase in the volume and intensity of cyber attacks since the start of 2015. BT may have become an even bigger target since its recent takeover of EE.

Eric van der KleijENTIQ

As a former advisor to Number 10 on Tech Cities, Eric talked about FinTech and RiskTech, with the latter being particularly important to Wales.

Definitions: FinTech and RiskTech

Not being an expert in this field, I hadn’t come across these terms before.
FinTech, short for financial technology, is an economic industry composed of companies that use technology to make financial services more efficient.

RiskTech is similar to FinTech but instead applies to the technologies of risk management.

Of particular interest was the Financial Conduct Authority’s ‘Sandbox’, which was launched in May 2016. It’s a safe space provided to allow businesses to test new ideas and ways of providing innovative financial services, and it ensures that consumers are appropriately protected.

One experiment that might be tested in Cardiff is an ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT) network, using new antennas (not the same as those used by mobile networks).

Although Eric gave a cautionary note about new technologies, saying, ‘new methods of communication increase the threat canvas’, he also mentioned something exciting for the future: blockchain.

‘Blockchain is as important as HTTP’, was Eric’s bold claim, and he firmly believes the future of blockchain could open up new business opportunities.

A note on blockchain

I’m no expert on blockchain but I’ve mentioned it in a bit more detail in the day 2 blockchain panel session below.

Buzzwords are often a telltale sign of hot air and nonsense, but I’ll definitely be reading up on blockchain after this conference. In fact, for me this has been the key learning point of the whole event. I love finding a topic that looks like it’s going to be big and then trying to explain it simply and clearly. So, there might be a follow-up post about blockchain on my blog in the future.

Make sure you’re subscribed so you don’t miss an update to the blog (see the sidebar).

Liam Maxwell – CTO, Government Digital Service (Gov UK)

Liam’s session explained the steps government has taken and continues to take to help the public perform tasks more smoothly online.

Liam talked about breaking out of what he calls ‘the square of despair’ – a set of constraints that limit progress in running digital services.

In recent years, Gov UK has created a technology code of practice, set up open standards and removed friction by restructuring. Liam provided some examples of simplified structures run by Israel, New Zealand and South Korea.

The aim is to create a government of the internet, which sounds scary but means the creation and development of processes to the point where all common tasks can be carried out online. Liam’s primary role is to remove friction, producing simple-to-use public services that are smoother, quicker and cheaper than ever before.

Gov UK also wants to help business make their processes simpler so that, for example, it becomes easier to hire people.

All of the work here centres around the word ‘open’:

  • Open markets
  • Open source
  • Open standards
  • Open data

Much of this involved sharing best practices with other governments so that everyone can benefit from straightforward access to online services.

As an editor and advocate of simple language, I was glad to hear that work had been done to simplify contracts into plain English.

There was a fascinating look at Gov UK’s aim to lower the barrier of entry for small businesses to be involved in government procurement processes. Liam shared news about the government’s £1 billion of sales in the ‘digital marketplace’, with 52% of this amount going to Small to Medium Enterprises (SMEs). In 2010, procurement had involved only a tiny number of companies, but this had spread much more widely by 2015.

And guess what? There was another mention of blockchain:

Other highlights from day 1

With at least 3 streams running at once, it wasn’t possible for me to attend everything that was going on. However, the #Digital2016 Twitter hashtag provided a great way to follow progress. Here are a couple of interesting updates from other sessions from day 1:

About the polling system powered by doopoll

The sessions I attended were well presented and supported by a great new polling system. doopoll is a free service that lets users gather up to 1000 responses per poll, with paid plans to facilitate larger polls.

I was impressed by the simple user interface and thought it was great to see a Welsh tech startup form an integral part of such a high-profile event. I’m definitely going to be using this polling system in the future, and have been kindly invited to help with testing some new product features that are due out in the next few months.

doopoll – polling with a simple UI
doopoll – polling with a simple UI

How’s that for a taster of day 1?

OK, we’re halfway through. Now let’s move on to see what happened on day 2.

Day 2

Sir Terry Matthews, owner of the Celtic Manor Resort, welcomed us and encouraged everyone to look ahead and to put value in our teams. With that positive start, we were ready to get on with day 2’s sessions.

Mike GalvinBT

Mike kicked off the day by talking about BT’s plans for ultrafast NGA2/ broadband. Trials are going on in a small number of locations, including Swansea, which currently has 90 triallists. Results have been encouraging, with most customers receiving 300Mbps download speeds and 30–50Mbps upload speeds. Some customers have ‘Fibre on Demand’ speeds as high as 1Gbps.

BT’s 10-year vision is to have up to 500Mbps broadband available across most of the UK, with new ultrafast services reaching 10 million homes and smaller businesses by the end of 2020.

Stephen Kelly – Group CEO, Sage

Stephen talked about how jobs can be brought to Wales. He confidently asked, ‘How can Wales generate jobs and be the digital tiger, roaring again?’

A lucky audience member pocketed £53 for successfully guessing that 53% of UK businesses use Sage to pay their employees. The company is also a market leader in Canada, France, Spain and across Africa.

Stephen previously worked for the government to help revolutionise IT systems and promote the digital economy. He gave us some more interesting stats about how digital is a part of our home and work lives:

  • 90% of the world’s data has been created in the past 12 months
  • YouTube has 4 billion views each day
  • 81% of businesses are planning to increase their use of cloud computing

Stephen then brought the discussion back to the topic of digital jobs. With Welsh unemployment as high as 26% in some places, Wales needs to reinvent itself to profit from the digital economy, just as Newcastle, the home of Sage, has done. Stephen gave the positive example of the digital approach taken by the DVLA in Swansea. Similar efforts elsewhere can mean that Wales plays a part in the ongoing digital revolution.

I hadn’t come across Eleanor Beer before (this is why hashtags in tweets can be so useful), but I loved her visual representations of some of the sessions. Here’s her take on Stephen’s talk:

Dr Jeremy Silver – CEO of Digital Catapult

Jeremy Silver talks to Lara Lewington at Digital 2016
Jeremy Silver talks to Lara Lewington at Digital 2016

Jeremy had been CEO of Digital Catapult for only 5 days when he joined Lara Lewington for this Q&A session. He mentioned the common problem of businesses reaching a certain size and then no longer growing. His company helps digital businesses scale beyond that sticking point.

Jeremy talked about the changes that have been brought about by the new digital world. The existence of Spotify, for example, means that fewer people own their music. He said such examples really mean that digitisation is actually virtualisation.

That buzzword – blockchain – was mentioned again. Digital Catapult is now doing hands-on tests to see how blockchain could help other businesses, not only in FinTech but also in the gaming industry. Jeremy finished by telling us that we need to balance technology innovation with business model innovation.

More graphical finery from Eleanor Beer now:

Martyn BakerTwitter

This was a session I was particularly interested in, as I seem to be using Twitter more and more each day. Martyn talked about the huge growth in mobile use, reminding us that everyone now looks at their phones all the time (my wife will confirm that I’m all too guilty of this).

For many people, mobile is no longer a second screen – it’s their first. Social media conversations happen all the way through ‘social’ shows such as The Voice and Britain’s Got Talent. Other shows include spikes at the beginning, end and during ad breaks. All of this activity happens because of mobile social platforms.

Mobile creates discovery of TV shows. Hashtags on TV increase the numbers of people watching shows, because of the increase in engagement.

Martyn showed us a video of the always-impressive Dynamo as an example of how an audience has to stop and watch before resuming their tweeting. (PS. I now know how the trick in the video is done. Thanks, YouTube.)

We saw how Twitter had come such a long way since Jack Dorsey, the company’s co-founder, wrote his first tweet on 21 March 2006:

Just in the past 12 months, Twitter has seen incredible growth in video:

Here’s another really cool visual summary of Martyn’s talk:

Daniel BurlacuGoogle

This session delivered some unsurprising but no less impressive stats about the numbers of people using YouTube. Similar figures have often been bandied about, but here’s the latest news straight from the source:

Daniel told us that, in more than 800 studies, 65% of YouTube campaigns drove a significant lift in brand interest.

He offered a great example of a company that had spent thousands on TV adverts that had had little impact. Orabrush then paid $500 to create an ad that appeared on YouTube. It’s now been seen by 1.43 billion people at an overall cost of $0.03 per view (still a lot of money in absolute terms, but think of how many sales they must have made!).

Time for another visual summary (can you tell that I’m a fan?):

Phil DoyeKelway/CDW International

Phil founded Kelway, which has been in business for a quarter of a century and is now part of CDW International. He talked about what makes a fast growth company, and had the experience of someone who has previously built a billion-dollar business.

Phil recommends a business plan that is:

  • Simple
  • Relevant
  • Ambitious

Businesses should develop a set of KPIs that are in tune with their real strategy and that actually mean something rather than just pure metrics. They should also stay relevant to ensure that the company keeps developing rather than heading towards becoming obsolete.

Another cautionary stat: 75% of the Fortune 500 will not be in the Fortune 500 by 2027.

To grow a business, leaders must invest in things they know are likely to fail.

Phil asked us to enjoy the journey rather than just the goal. He must have had journeys on his mind, because he finished up with this:

Unblocking the blockchain – panel session

We finally got there! After hearing mentions of blockchain in a few sessions, this would finally be a chance to learn more about the topic.

This panel session comprised 4 blockchain experts, one of whom – Laura Bailey of Zerado – doubled up as chair.

Laura Bailey holds a real blockchain
Laura Bailey holds a real blockchain

Laura started by asking how many of the audience had heard of blockchain a few years ago. Few hands were raised, which isn’t a surprise as this really is a relatively new invention. But blockchain is based on existing tech that’s been around for a long time:

Paul Ferris of ObjectChain Collab talked about ‘sovereign identity’ and gave this definition:

Paul Ferris

Definition: sovereign identity

An open-source protocol for digital identity that is decentralised and puts the ownership of identity into the hands of the individual.

Paul Ferris

Paul also set out the 4 P’s of good identity attributes:

  • Personal ownership – individual legal control
  • Privacy – the ability to selectively reveal aspects of ourselves to others
  • Portability – to move our ID between providers in a competitive market
  • Power – should be dispersed with many possible certification authorities

Paul said we need an identity system that works equally well for real people, devices and other everyday objects. His organisation is working with regulatory bodies to find the right way to do things, but there is a problem with adoption.

For me, this comes down to education and awareness. Once people and businesses are better informed about what blockchain is and how it could protect them, I can see this technology being far more widespread. Indeed, the panel thought that in 10 years, blockchain might be so ingrained in our way of life that it would no longer be talked about, just as no one talks any more about separate internets – we just think of a single internet.

Phil Barry of Blokur has a background in the music industry. He is developing a blockchain platform for digital rights, specifically music rights and release strategies.

Phil defined blockchain as a shared ledger of rights ownership information, which, in his field, would allow for licensing and payment automation using smart contracts. His belief is that blockchain could be the ‘internet of value’.

Currently, intermediaries pass money around when musicians want to monetise their work. Phil compared this to old-world trading routes, and explained that it can take more than 4 years for artists to be paid for music sold overseas.

Phil Barry talks blockchain, with Laura Bailey
Phil Barry talks blockchain, with Laura Bailey

Meanwhile, Tomasz Mloduchowski, CTO of Zerado, suggested that blockchain is really an ‘internet of trust’.

Other highlights from day 2

As with day 1, it simply wasn’t possible to attend all of the talks on the final day of the conference. Here are a few other highlights from the day:


What a great free conference this was. Despite this post being a pretty long roundup of my own experience, it covers only a small proportion of what went on over the 2 days. For even more coverage of proceedings, look at the Digital2016 hashtag on Twitter.

In the interests of balance, I have to add that not everything was perfect. The Digital 2016 iOS app looked good but managed to lose the customised agenda I’d saved (I wasn’t the only person affected by this problem), and the session descriptions in the app were too brief to help delegates make an informed choice on which sessions to attend. Oh, and the lunch arrangements could have been improved. I hope someone will pick up a suggestion I made while standing in the queue:

But these are minor gripes in an otherwise excellent couple of days. I’m already looking forward to seeing what’s in store for Digital 2017. See you all then!

John Espirian, freelance technical writer
John Espirian, freelance technical writer

Did you attend Digital 2016?

If you went to the event, do please leave a comment and let me know your thoughts. Alternatively, you can catch up with me via Twitter.

And finally – need some writing help?

If you liked this post and would be interested in hiring me for writing work, please get in touch via my Contact page. I’m particularly enthusiastic about writing for digital businesses.

So, whether you’re a tech startup or an established player, drop me a line and let’s see how I can help your product or service shine. I’d love to hear from you.


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John Espirian

I’m the relentlessly helpful®️ LinkedIn nerd and author of Content DNA

I teach business owners how to be noticed, remembered and preferred.

Espresso+ is a safe space to learn how to ethically promote your business online and get better results on LinkedIn.

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