Professor Julia Sutcliffe, was appointed Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Business and Trade in February 2023. Previously, she spent 26 years at BAE Systems where she focused on innovation, aerospace, defence and security. Here she talks about what has inspired and driven her career. This includes the great feats of engineering she saw as a child, the huge potential of the explosion in computer power, and the ability to collaborate with leading experts across many technologies.
Robin Christopherson is Head of Digital Inclusion at AbilityNet, the pioneering UK charity that aims to make the power of digital technology available to everyone, regardless of ability or age. He was brought up to believe that blindness need not be a barrier in life. Both his parents had demanding jobs despite being partially blind, setting a strong example to their three visually impaired children.
As his condition worsened, Robin learned to adapt, moving gradually closer to the front of the class at school. At Cambridge University an early talking laptop running DOS helped his engineering studies. Robin took inspiration from Prof Stephen Hawking, who overcame physical disability to provide profound scientific insights by nudging a switch
He co-founded AbilityNet in 1996, specialising in adaptive and assistive technology, helping people gain qualifications and design software that is easy to use for all. It has centres all over country, but has never received government funding, although many of its services are free.
Upcoming advances in adaptive and assistive technology that he lists include smartphones that help people find keys, shoes, or a dog’s harness, check clothes are suitably colour co-coordinated and use lidar to bleep when it is time to move forward in a queue. AI-enabled biometric authorisation will obviate the need to remember passwords and there is huge potential in smart glasses and headsets, he says.
Uninspired by her teachers, Dr Juliet Webster left school to take a secretarial course. She also signed up for A’level sociology — a subject not then on the school curriculum.
It was the beginning of a lengthy and prolific academic career studying the gender dynamics of job automation, digital labour, and how employment has evolved since technology began to appear in the workplace.
“What drew me in was the sociology of industrial relations and the Marxist theory of capital,” she says. “I was really interested in the lessons for the twentieth century from the early introduction of machinery.”
Topics she has examined in her many academic papers include virtual work, the gig economy, equal pay, people skills and social sustainability. She is particularly interested in how technology has impacted women’s lives.
Juliet’s career has also spanned practical action in NGOs, and policy making, including for the European Commission Directorate General for Employment. She currently has her own consultancy in London,Work & Equality Research, and is Adviser for the Gender and ICT Programme, IN3, at the Open University of Catalonia.
Juliet does not discourage young women from careers in technologies such as computer science. But she is concerned about the current trend towards flexible working, which includes an increase in short-term contracts, content farming and offshoring. “These practices blur the boundaries between work and home life, and can erode pay and conditions,” she says.
Ashish Dasgupta MBE spent 32 years working for Philips on its European operations, he therefore provides a unique view of this giant of European technology. He has consolidated operations, spun off some, and turned others around. One of his greatest achievements was opening a new factory in West Bengal for the manufacture of telecommunications equipment. It was also a major mistake as the project was not successful for many reasons.
The youngest of six children, Pamela Cook was born in a Birmingham slum with no electricity or indoor sanitation. But the family was re-housed when she was three and she describes her childhood as very happy.
Her lack of enjoyment at school and the need to earn money from her early teens, gave her an understanding of the working world and a will to survive. But she also inherited her parents’ strong sense of moral ethics, making her determined to try to do good in the world.
Pamela has achieved that goal as CEO of Infoshare, a data technology company which creates accurate single views, for example, of people, places, addresses and objects. When she took the helm in 2010 she re-mortgaged her house to fund a major company restructure. Since then, she has tried to re-shape the business to use its technology and position to benefit vulnerable people, from children at risk and victims of crime to those likely to be most badly affected by Covid-19.
“What I have discovered is being able to make a real impact on people’s lives,” she says, whether they are at risk, need early intervention or are trying to disguise their true identities.
Pamela is also a magistrate in Thames Valley, and sits on the Cabinet Office SME Panel, fighting for the rights and fair treatment of small businesses in the UK. She is a popular speaker on successful information sharing, protecting citizens and the implication of legislation on data sharing and analysis.
She was named the Female Entrepreneur of the Year in the 2019 Enterprise Awards, and listed on the 2020 DataIQ 100 people in data, and on the 2020 Global Top 100 Data Visionaries.
The early experience of rejection gave Jeremy Brassington a drive which led through impressive exam results to studying chemistry at Oxford. Despite a well-received thesis on blood proteins, he found academic research unappealing, and instead qualified as an accountant. Describing auditing as “the dullest subject on earth” he turned to banking, eventually focusing on tech venture funding and turning around failing businesses such as Oxford Molecular. “It taught me how not to run a business,” he says.
In 2003, Jeremy moved into Assistive Technology, redesigning an assistive listening device for the hard of hearing. Having had learning difficulties himself, he realised could help students with dyslexia, language problems and other disabilities. “It was the first time I had run a business that was doing good,” he says. He managed it for the next 15 years, launching in 30 markets worldwide.
In 2019, Jeremy founded Habitat Learn, an Edtech group which combines automated note-taking and transcription with a smartphone app that helps disabled students take notes in lectures and is now pioneering digital education for all students. He hopes it will become a unicorn.