David Dunbar has enjoyed a varied career, starting with a degree in electronics in 1986, followed by a BA in psychology and an MBA. He has focused on engineering, but also has experience in psychology.

Edinburgh-based David has worked at BT, introducing flexible and agile working practices and relevant technologies, before moving to the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) Digital, the UK’s largest government department, in February 2018.

At DWP Digital, David is Head of Digital Workspace, with his remit including computers, desktop, identity, accessibility, mobiles, engineering environments, and areas linked to identity like certificate management, privilege user access management (PUAM), and role-based access control (RBAC).

At DTX Manchester, taking place on 22nd and 23rd May at Manchester Central, David will appear in a panel session titled "Exploring the value of AI in the modern workplace".


The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What will you be speaking about at DTX Manchester?

We’ll be exploring the value of artificial intelligence in the modern workplace. The three key areas we should focus on are, firstly, how organisations can effectively operationalise AI in their physical and digital workplace strategies.

Secondly, we must consider the critical elements of building a solid business case for AI investments in the modern workplace.

Thirdly, it’s vital to understand the main opportunities and threats posed by AI in the workplace.

Q: How would you assess where we are now with AI in the workplace?

We must recognise that machine learning is very different from true AI, in the Turing sense, which is distinct from the current hot topic, large language models.

These three aspects play different roles in workplace design and other areas. Machine learning has been used to determine people flow, occupancy, and facial recognition.

Gathering this data is an area where AI can play a significant part. Machine learning comes into play when you have the data and are trying to make useful, iterative designs based on it. This is currently underdeveloped in the workplace design space.

Q: In which areas have you seen machine learning deployed effectively?

I’ve seen machine learning best deployed in security rather than design areas. Workplace design is still a very personal and architectural domain, and we’re not quite ready to hand that over to machines because it’s centred around humans and the desired environment.

In security, machine learning excels at analysing large datasets, identifying normal patterns, and flagging anomalies for human attention. The challenge is that if the machine flags everything, you’re overwhelmed. If it only flags the initial parameters, you can’t keep up with the evolving attack surface.

Machine learning allows the system to learn what to flag based on feedback rather than constant reprogramming. This approach is used in medicine, security, and IT operations but not so much in workplace design yet.

Q: How do you see the potential of generative AI and large language models in workplace design?

Our experimentation shows that these models are superb at summarising data, finding information, and answering straightforward questions about the data.

They can effectively summarise meeting notes or produce template business plans based on a presentation. However, when asked to be more creative or modify the output significantly, the results become less coherent.

At the current state of the art, AI is beneficial for data mining, bypassing structured query languages and making them accessible via human questions.

In the DWP’s job centres, we see the potential for AI to quickly provide pertinent information to work coaches, optimising their limited time with each person and ensuring they don’t miss critical red flags.

So, in the workplace, AI can help make collaboration time as productive as possible.

Q: If you could offer three takeaways from your speaking session, what would they be?

Firstly, operationalising AI is a big piece and a challenge for everyone. I can explain what we’re doing in general terms, but it would be interesting to discuss with the audience to gather various opinions.

Secondly, the business case for AI is linked to operationalisation but separate. Understanding how to justify AI investments is crucial.

Finally, we must consider the opportunities and threats AI poses in the workplace. Having a balanced view of the potential benefits and risks is vital.

Q: How do you see AI adoption progressing in the public sector, especially considering potential budget constraints?

We have set up a governance board and a lighthouse project in DWP Digital to explore various AI use cases and conduct focused experimentation.

Regardless of who is in power, the economic situation prioritises making the most efficient use of available funds. AI can play a big role in saving money through increased efficiency, so there’s a compelling “spend to save” element.

Additionally, managing ever-increasing information from less trusted sources and keeping up with an AI-driven threat landscape becomes an absolute priority. The only way to address this is by using tools matching the threat landscape.

For these two reasons – efficiency and self-protection – AI has to play a significant role next year. We’re laying the foundation for that this year.

Q: Why should people attend DTX Manchester?

DTX Manchester is a large-scale conference that breaks the London-centric mould, which is essential for those of us based outside the capital.

The eclectic event has a wide range of suppliers, stalls, and subjects, creating a real buzz. Last year, I actively engaged with people rather than just meandering through the stalls.

In our session, I hope to learn more than I share. AI is a topic where everyone is still learning, and while some may have more expertise than others, there are few true experts. I’m on the same learning curve as everyone else, and if I can learn something from the discussion, I’ll be delighted. It’s almost impossible not to learn from such an exchange of ideas.

David is speaking at DTX Manchester in a session titled: “Exploring the value of AI in the modern workplace.” DTX Manchester takes place at Manchester Central, M2 3GX, on 22nd & 23rd May. Register – for free – here: https://www.dtxevents.io/