Withered / Weathered Technology

Whilst Shigeru Miyamoto, the public face of Nintendo, is rightly regarded as the leading light of the video game industry, there is another, unsung, hero, also of Nintendo: Gunpei Yokoi.

He pioneered what we loosely translate as “lateral thinking with withered (or possibly weathered) technology” – taking electronic components (be they chips, LCD screens or whatever) that were no longer leading edge and were, in fact, far from that position, and using them to create affordable, mass produced gadgets.

Gunpei Yokoi was behind some extraordinary hits including Game and Watch and then the Game Boy (an 8 bit, black and white, low resolution handheld gaming console released at a time when every other company, including Atari and Sega, was already moving to colour, high resolution displays – if you know the story, you know that the Game Boy dominated the market for years; total unit sales of some 120m and 26 million copies of Tetris, alone).

Arguably that very thinking is behind more recent products – perhaps Nintento’s Wii and Apple’s iPod shuffle.

In the modern rush to harness new technology capability – be it blockchain, machine learning and artificial/augmented intelligence, new databases, new coding languages, new techniques, voice recognition etc – we sometimes forget that there are proven technologies and capabilities that work well, are widely understood and that could be delivered at lower risk.

Real delivery in government requires large scale systems that are highly reliable – you’re front page news if it goes down after all – and that do what’s needed.

Is there, then, a case for putting the new and shiny to one side whilst experimenting with it (of course) to assess its potential, but not relying on it to be at the core of your new capability until it’s ready.

The core systems at the heart of government are definitely both withered and weathered; they’ve been there for some decades. They need to be replaced, but what should they be replaced with?

Technology at the very leading edge, where skills are in short supply and risks are high, or something further back from the bleeding edge, where there is a large pool of capability, substantial understanding of performance and security, and many existing implementations to compare notes with?

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