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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Can technology really drive change?

Technology is a nebulous term. What does it mean to you? Is it digital whatsits like your iPhone and Fitbit? Or the product of all of our applied sciences?

In either case, can a loosely defined collection of materials, objects and processes be a force for change? It has no agency, no motivation. It’s not a person or a political movement with a cause.

I believe it can.

In fact I believe technology is the greatest change driver there is today. Not technology in the sense of shiny gadgets and cloud servers, though they’re very much part of the contemporary story. Rather technology in its broader sense: new materials and processes, the application of our expanding knowledge of physics and biology.

How does technology drive change?

To understand this you have to think again about what technology is. Yes, it comes from the application of our growing understanding of the physical world. But what is the motivation behind that application?

It is need.

Technology is a means to solve problems. It always has been. From the earliest stone tools to the most sophisticated gene sequencer.

What has happened to our technology as it has advanced?

It has become less expensive and more accessible. At a rate that most people accept has followed an exponential curve for the last fifty years at least, technology has delivered an ever greater bang for your buck.

What this means is that more people can access this technology and apply it to more problems.

With the cost barrier to accessing this technology having been lowered, people have been more willing to share their solutions rather than keep them quiet for competitive advantage. This has lowered the knowledge barrier that also may have excluded.

Since technology solutions to problems are now more widely available, companies have been forced to differentiate themselves on more than just capabilities or features. They have been forced to make their products easier to use, further diminishing the knowledge barrier.

The result is that it is now easier and cheaper than ever to apply technology to solving problems. To the point that anywhere technology can be applied to a problem, it will be.

Of course when one person in a market applies a technological solution that is shown to have a benefit, they create a competitive advantage. And they create an expectation in customers of that type of solution that others will follow suit.

So, applying technology to solutions is increasingly easy and cheap, and once someone in a market does so, everyone else has to follow suit.

But the changes that new technologies bring in a market are often not incremental, they are exponential. Music retail for example: on staff costs alone, delivering music digital is around a thousand times cheaper than delivering it physically. That’s before you take logistics, retail rents and everything else into account.

When this happens the pace and scale of change is proportionally faster.

So how do you see what’s coming? How do you have the foresight to understand how technology will drive change in your company or market?

You call an Applied Futurist. Or you become one.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Home Operating System

My house needs an operating system. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, then the OS is the core software that allows a device to operate, providing an accessible interface between applications and the hardware. It allows applications to communicate with each other and share access to all of the hardware.

I have a lot of hardware at home. Of course there’s the techie stuff (home cinema, games consoles, PCs, tablets, phones) but there’s also the more basic bits (fridge/freezer, washing machine, dishwasher, cooker, boiler, thermostat, blinds, lights, burglar and smoke alarms, gas, electricity and water meters). In time I plan to add more hardware such as CCTV and cleaning robots.

None of this stuff talks to each other at the moment. My home cinema system can’t close the blinds and dim the lights. But more importantly my boiler can’t tell my phone when the pilot light is out or the pressure has dropped, indicating a leak. My cooker can’t tell me that I left the gas on, or allow me to turn it off remotely.

Clearly there are hardware issues to address here: each device would need sensors, actuators, and some form of network connection to be able to share information and allow remote access. But more than that the problem is one of standardisation: some platform in the middle that can provide a single interface for us to all the hardware, and allow the hardware to talk to each other.

Currently companies are tackling these problems individually: I can check my electricity usage on my phone thanks to AlertMe. There are the famous internet fridges. There are lots of ways to make my home cinema system dim the lights and close the blinds. But today there’s no holistic approach to the whole system.

People are trying — mostly in the open source community. I’ve just started playing with LinuxMCE again, a product for which I have high hopes. There are other projects like MisterHouse and Minerva, though I’ve yet to try these. And there are projects like xPL trying to create some glue to stick it all together. Some people at Microsoft clearly recognise the opportunity, as shown by this white paper.

But none of these things are a consumer-ready single solution to the problem. And I think that this could be — and will be — an enormous market. What it needs is a standard: a standard way for devices to communicate back and forth, and a standard set of interfaces in the middle. It could be a commercially defined standard, as the PC was thirty years ago. Or it could be an open standard, like the internet.

Either way, this is a market that won’t truly flourish until it is in place. Until then it will just be hobbyists like me, playing around.

Tom Cheesewright