Systems expert, university professor, government adviser, fintech entrepreneur, data scientist, public educator. Perhaps the easiest way to describe polymath Sir Anthony Finkelstein is ‘business engineer’. He tells Stephen Hyams about his wealth of important work
Professor Sir Anthony Finkelstein CBE comes from a remarkable family. His Jewish parents both escaped the Holocaust in Eastern Europe and found refuge in the UK, which had a profound impact on them.
“They felt a tremendous sense of loyalty and patriotism, and there was a strong encouragement to public service within the family,” he explains, noting that his academic father became a world authority on measurement and control engineering, while his mother was a chemist and information scientist. “Both my grandfathers were involved in public life, and both my children are too. This tradition runs deep.” One of his grandfathers established the Wiener Holocaust Library in London.
Finkelstein is president of City, University of London and a leading practitioner and academic in software systems engineering. His association with the university goes back to his youth, as it is where his father worked for many years in a senior capacity; he describes it as being part of him.
“I recognise in myself many of my father’s traits and interests,” he goes on. “We did a series of papers together and the first of them won a prize. He inspired me and I learnt a great deal from him. I also credit my mother. Science and quantitative things were very much part of the family discourse.
Finkelstein has been fascinated by how things are made since he was young. After gaining an undergraduate degree in manufacturing systems engineering, he did a masters in systems analysis, reflecting his interest in computing. He next did a doctorate in design theory at the Royal College of Art and then got an appointment at Imperial College, London in the Department of Computing, being very interested in how computers can be used as a tool in systems design and computer program design.
In terms of his own priorities, Finkelstein calls himself “an engineer who happens to be an academic, rather than the other way round. It is as an academic that I can have the most impact on engineering problems that interest me.”
National security adviser
He is perhaps best known for having spent more than six years as the government’s chief scientific adviser on national security, stepping down from this role in 2021. He describes his time in the job as “a fantastic opportunity to do something important that I believed in while working with some incredible people”. Here, he was again following in the footsteps of his father, who during the Cold War advised the government on the UK’s response to the threat of nuclear attack.
Each major area of government has a chief scientific adviser.
“I used to have to explain to people what the role entails, but after Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty appeared so much on television during the pandemic, it is now widely understood,” says Finkelstein.
“National security is the defence of UK democracy and the citizens of the UK and its allies. I provided scientific insight into strategic governmental decisions in that regard.
This includes counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence, counter-espionage, counter-proliferation and strategic advantage, which means understanding the intent of those who wish our country ill.”
The job involved overseeing the operation of science research and innovation programmes across the national security community, as well as the practical contributions they could make. He was also responsible for ensuring the scientific community shared insights and supported each other’s problems: for example, working with Chris Whitty on issues such as mental health and terrorism.
“You have to be scientifically open minded and to be able to listen to the operational teams,” he says. “You’re working collaboratively to solve problems, which means making decisions involving judgment calls while recognising that there are complex value-based decisions to be made and science is just one factor to consider.”
Digital played a major role, but there was also a wide range of other things, such as nuclear, drones, physical protection and sensors. There was also plenty of interest for actuaries, involving modelling risk, simulations and understanding the most efficient ways to deploy scarce security resources.
When it comes to cybersecurity, Finkelstein is an optimist. “While our societal vulnerability to cybersecurity threats is increasing, the tools we have to combat them are improving radically, as is our collective understanding of those threats. With attack and defence now largely automated, it’s usually the people with the biggest data and the biggest computers who win, and that tends to be the good guys.”
He also notes the importance of work undertaken on cognitive and behavioural sciences, which can help address human vulnerability to cyber threats. Is he concerned about the Internet of Things? “The diversity of these devices produced at low cost presents a risk, as does the fact that they are embedded in the environment and can be tampered with. It is not always fully understood, though, that the underlying software platforms on which many of these devices operate are largely in common, so the situation may look worse than it really is.”
Business and technology
Finkelstein’s long association with business and cutting-edge technology has its origins in his early university days. “I became involved in the nascent tech start-up scene and developed some ideas with others,” he explains. “A former student, then workingat an investment bank, thought our ideas could be helpful to his employer.” This encouraged Finkelstein and his colleagues to launch a successful fintech company called Systemswire, subsequently Message Automation and now part of Broadbridge.
Finkelstein has since advised and supported a couple of other spin-offs, such as artificial intelligence (AI) technology company Satalia, which was recently acquired by communications firm WPP. He continues to work with small high-tech companies and has provided advice to a wide range of companies, including many household names.
“The conventional view is that academics do research and throw it over the fence for industry to exploit,” says Finkelstein. “That’s not how it works. I used to joke about the so-called technology pipeline being more like a Jacuzzi. I have found the dialogues with industry to be deeply stimulating, often bringing me problems that I was unaware of, or framing them in a way that yields interesting insights.”
Finkelstein was also one of the founding trustees of the Alan Turing Institute, which aims to concentrate UK expertise in data science and AI. Largely funded by the government initially, it has since expanded its range of funders in both the public and private sectors. Its initial remit was data science, with the AI element being introduced two years later. Finkelstein regards this as a cosmetic change, as the body’s work has always been about data science, machine learning and computational statistics. He is not a fan of the term ‘AI’, but accepts that it is fashionable and has good marketing potential.
“I think the institute’s establishment was an excellent step,” he says. “It runs a broad range of interesting and exciting activities, including defence and security, and the application of AI to engineering.”
Systems within systems
Finkelstein is a strong advocate of systems thinking: “The modelling approaches and analytical frameworks have been an intellectual bedrock for me.”
The origins of systems thinking go back to the post-war military industrial work carried out by RAND Corporation in the US. Finkelstein believes the field got a bad name due to the conceptual excesses of early practitioners but it is now having a renaissance as people seek to understand increasingly complex systems. Climate change is a challenging example. “There are complex, interlocking dynamic behaviours, and systems within systems,” says Finkelstein. “Even at a high level, there are complicated interactions between climate, transport, health, economics and so on, to which systems thinking can be applied.”
Finkelstein notes that systems thinking concepts are core to the business studies undertaken at City, and has a particular association with the field of instrumentation and control.He is a great believer of promoting public interest in engineering by helping people understand its role and what it involves. “Engineering and technology are central to our society – for example, in addressing health and climate change challenges,” he points out.
He is concerned that the UK is under-supplied in engineering talent, as not enough people are entering the field. He is also keen to see more female entrants, although numbers are slowly and steadily increasing.
“I’ve done a whole range of things to raise the profile of engineering, including public speaking, blogging and tweeting,” he says. “While at UCL, I supported a large campaign to promote public understanding, and was involved in various initiatives regarding engineering education.” To have a real impact, he suggests, we need to focus on primary school children – as well as their parents, who will be influential.
‘While our vulnerability to cyber threats is increasing, it’s usually the people with the biggest data and the biggest computers who win, and that tends to be the good guys’
As president of City, University of London, Finkelstein is heavily involved in education. In a crowded market, he recognises the need to be distinctive; for City, this means emphasising its longstanding focus on business and the professions. He cites Bayes Business School, where the university’s Faculty of Actuarial Science and Insurance is based, as a particular strength.
In 2022, following wide consultation, the university implemented an eight-year strategy built around three key themes. The first of these is “to build leaders for the world of work,” he says. “The second is undertaking research that is deeply informed by and relevant to practice. The third is about being the opposite of an ivory tower: a place that’s open and comfortable with partnership. There’s an excellent team across City, and I’m confident in our ability to deliver to that vision.”
What’s his advice to young professionals starting out in their careers? “Firstly, keep learning,” he says. “Then, look for problems and don’t chase trends. Finally, identify what you do uniquely well – your ‘superpower’. If you’ve got the insight to identify your superpower and the means to use it on deep problems, then you’ll be successful. And that is likely to make you happy.”