How Web3 and Immersive technologies can deliver the Public Sector of the future

Rory Daniels
08-Jul-2024

As a former civil servant with a background in health and education, I’m acutely aware of how the public sector views and treats future technologies. 

For some directorates and departments, they’re considered a prerequisite for getting the job done. After all, what is Defence without its semi-autonomous drones or Health without its life-saving MRI scanners? However, the reality is that for many others, they’re often a nice-to-have: the first proposal to be drawn up in a surplus and the first to be shelved in a deficit. 

The recent UK General Election, complete with the subsequent influx of fresh faces and thinking, serves as an ideal opportunity to readdress this balance. This includes inspiring a renewed focus around putting the ‘innovative public sector’ strand of the 2023 UK Science and Technology Framework into practice.

This article sets out two types of future technologies that have the potential to drive significant improvements in trust, productivity, and service delivery across the UK’s public sector: Web3 and immersive. 

Web3


Web3, trust and making pilots permanent
 

‘Web3’ is the next evolution of the Internet in which new and existing technologies, including digital tokens or currencies and (self-executing) smart contracts, come together to enable a vast web of decentralised applications. 

These technologies and applications all share one common feature. This is that they are enablers of trust. Many remove the need for gatekeepers or intermediaries, giving users more control over their data and leveraging algorithms to make processes automated and predictable. Others make private information public, boosting transparency and shining a spotlight on fraudulent behaviour. 

Given that 2023 saw 57% of UK citizens report they had low or no trust in Government, these new ways of ensuring citizen confidence and buy-in matter now more than ever.  

When it comes to adoption, some countries are ahead of the curve. In 2007, Estonia leveraged the cryptographic properties of distributed ledger technologies (DLT) (of which blockchain is one) to authenticate birth and marriage certificates. Unlike traditional databases, distributed ledgers don’t centrally store or administer data, making them less prone to manipulation by malicious actors and easier to verify by multiple stakeholders.

So far, the UK’s taken a cautious approach to the adoption of Web3 technologies. As such, we’ve seen a collection of trials and pilots (producing limited data) rather than a holistic approach to the evaluation and deployment of Web3 solutions at scale. 

 Examples include HM Land Registry’s Digital Street initiative, a 2018 research and development project which explored how the use of blockchain and smart contracts develop a faster, simpler and cheaper land registration process. Whilst the trial was ultimately considered a success, it was wound down the following year. This meant no further research or data gathering and no wider rollout. 

Such outcomes represent a multitude of missed opportunities. They forgo the chance to build trust among citizens; a particularly crucial task given that a third of the English public claim that a loss of trust in Government is the largest threat to democracy. They make it harder to break down individual agencies’ data and information-management silos; a key inhibitor of cross-Government coordination and collaboration. They also hinder the UK’s ability to deploy the advanced Internet infrastructure upon which future technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, robotics and 5G, will come to depend. 

The truth is that it's citizens who ultimately suffer the consequences of this siloed approach to public sector data, with millions of people having no choice but to interact with a complex patchwork of services incapable of coordination or dialogue. 

One solution is the creation of data ‘pods’ or ‘personal data accounts’. The founder of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has suggested that these could enable users to take their data with them when moving between different services, public or private. In 2021, the Government Digital Service (GDS) began exploring this approach as it developed a new digital identity system.

Another solution is to begin by embracing the principles behind Web3. Thankfully, many of these, including the storage of data in consistent and readable ways, are already UK Government priorities. The next step, as techUK’s upcoming campaign will assert, is to view them through a Web3 lens. 

Only by recognising the potential of Web3 technologies to foster trust, collaboration and innovation across Government can the UK begin to build the public sector of the future. The UK is leading the way when it comes to trialling these technologies. Now it must turn pilots and research projects into permanent programmes and reforms. 

Immersive service delivery 

Whilst Web3 technologies constitute the foundational infrastructure of the future Internet, immersive technologies will increasingly utilise a range of senses to improve how everybody from citizens to policymakers engages with it. 

The most immersive of these technologies is Virtual Reality (VR). This is an entirely digital, computer-generated and three-dimensional environment. In addition to sight - enabled by a headset or head-mounted display (HMD) - users typically experience sound (via earphones) and touch (via controllers or haptics). Companies are increasingly developing ways to incorporate smell and taste too. 

A less immersive alternative is Mixed Reality (MR). This utilises a combination of virtual and augmented reality to blend the physical and digital worlds. Hardware includes cameras that constantly map the wearer’s environment whilst software enables the seamless integration of virtual assets such as directional arrows mapped onto the user’s view of the world. 

User adoption of these technologies, collectively known as Extended Reality (XR), has only accelerated in recent years, with significant growth still to come. This was largely driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, which proved their utility in specific use cases, most notably in games and entertainment.

XR

One example of a successful deployment is the military’s immersive training system. Launching in 2022 and costing £7.2 million, this enables personnel to train alongside NATO allies anywhere in the world and with a range of weapons and equipment. The VR system integrates with external simulators and complements the use of physical exercises.

Immersive technologies could also play a key role in strengthening public service delivery. Improved data visualisation capabilities can empower civil servants to make more data-informed decisions whilst more engaging and personal interactions with officials could build citizen trust and satisfaction. 

However, the task for the public sector is to now harness this trend and ensure that much like with Web3 technologies, it’s not limited to trials, pilots or a handful of successful deployments. Concepts such as LOTI’s Local Authority Sandbox, complete with procurement and implementation support, are a positive step in the right direction. 

Throughout this process, Government must prioritise alignment with its principles and priorities. For example, whilst the cost of headsets continues to decrease, Government can continue to prioritise digital inclusion by developing XR applications (such as holographics) that are smartphone-first. Specialised hardware can then come later, provided this is likely to deliver a significant improvement in user experience. 

Looking to the future  

These technologies will only continue to become more sophisticated, affordable, and integral to how citizens experience the virtual and real world. 

Parts of the UK’s public sector have taken significant steps towards building this future. For example, in May, Wales became the first UK nation to launch a metaverse experience. Defined as the convergence of physical and virtual space accessed through computers and enabled by immersive technologies, the metaverse is already enabling countries and companies to trial the use of future technologies and explore new ways of reaching younger audiences. 

However, we must now turn pilots and trials into deployments at scale if the UK is to be truly prepared for what comes next. 

techUK’s latest campaign explores how the UK can lead on the development, adoption and commercialisation of Web3 and immersive technologies. Running from July to December 2024, this will feature articles, workshops, roundtables, panel discussions, tech demos, networking sessions, and a flagship report. 

Contact rory.daniels@techuk.org to find out more about contributing, collaborating, or techUK membership.