Yesterday’s my Public Services conference, organised by the redoubtable Patient Opinion, started with an arresting analogy from James Munro.

It is well known that the iron bridge of Ironbridge was the first of its kind in the world.  It was less well known (at least to me), that it was assembled as if the pieces were wood, with the iron components joined by dovetail joints.

The message is clear: the fact that a new technology exists does not mean that people have worked out how to use it for what it can do differently. On the contrary, we are all liable to get trapped into using the new thing in old ways and for old purposes. In fact the story is even better than that: it turns out that the first iron bridge was massively over-specified, using about twice as much iron as was being used in equivalent and larger bridges just a few years later.

So the mood of my Public Services was a dizzy combination of creativity, optimism and frustration.  People who had learned to build in steel, to weld and to rivet, and who did so with creative imagination and a deep respect for the users of public services found themselves trapped in a world  which had just discovered iron and was busy applying the techniques of woodworking.

Ironbridge is an immense technical achievement.  But it isn’t how we cross rivers any more.

Picture by apdk licenced under creative commons.


  1. However it did help herald a huge cultural change – understanding that is what matters, because the technology will evolve around how we change our relationships with each other.

  2. Nice post – and I think you’ve put the idea across with more clarity and eloquence than I did on the day. (Your picture is nicer too!)
    I do feel we’re still at the stage of not-quite-seeing what we can with these new tools, so we fall back on old words and techniques like “collect data”, “get feedback”, “provide information”. But we’ll learn as we go.

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