I have a chest infection. I am sure of this without tests because I get one pretty much every year. I’m asthmatic, which makes me more susceptible to infections, and means that they tend to take hold. One year I was taken to hospital in an ambulance when the oxygen reaching my blood got very low. Not a situation I want to repeat.
This morning I called my GP for an emergency appointment to be told they were trialling a new system: triage by phone before handing out appointments. Ten minutes after I called, my GP called me back. This is pretty much our conversation, constructed from memory and edited only for brevity.
Doctor: “What seems to be the problem?”
Me: “I think I have a chest infection again. I’m coughing up some unpleasant day-glo stuff, and wheezing a lot at night and in the morning. It’s been going on for about two weeks and I’ve been doubling up my preventer and taking six to eight blasts of Ventolin each day. My peak flow isn’t down too far but I think that’s only a matter of time.”
Doctor: “Are you allergic to penicillin?”
Doctor: “OK. I’ll prescribe you five days of antibiotics. The script will be ready at the front desk.”
Me: “When can I pick it up?”
Doctor: “It’s there now.”
I’ve cut out a brief conversation about whether I needed an appointment and me requesting an extra inhaler but you get the idea. My (always excellent) GP dealt with my problem quickly, and kept me out of the surgery saving time and money.
This process is made easier by the fact that I present my GP with evidence when I say there’s something wrong. I keep a decent record of my inhaler usage and my peak flow. I’m also recording my physical activity at the moment and sometimes (when trying to lose weight) record my calorie intake and daily weight. If everyone could present their GP with this sort of data, we could probably save a lot of time. And money. And lives.
Imagine if there were a cut down version of the device on my wrist (an Oregon Scientific Dynamo) in each of my inhalers. Instead of supplying a new body with each inhaler as they currently do, you get one with your first prescription that contained a tiny low power Bluetooth chip. Every time you took a blast it would sync up to your phone and store the data locally or, if you were happy to share it, in the cloud where it could be accessed by your GP.
You could set flags on this data to take action even before a patient has called in. Much cheaper to intervene when a situation can be controlled than to see that patient land in A&E. For example, if it’s winter and my inhaler usage goes up by a certain percentage, it may be worth giving me a call or even dropping me an email or text, prompting me to call in if I feel unwell.
Whether you like the privacy implications of this or not, the chances are something like it will soon be a reality. The reasons are the simple economics that we hear about every day: we have a large, ageing population who are likely to live a long time and be very expensive to support. We need to do what we can to a) improve their quality of life and b) reduce the burden they place on the health and care services. Monitoring people’s health and intervening early when the outcomes will be best and the costs at their lowest will play a large part achieving this aim.
I’m a strong believer that when it comes to start-ups, ideas are cheap. Because the people with the gumption to turn the idea into something real are few and far between. I simply don’t believe a business idea on its own is worth very much.
That’s why I’m always sceptical when people ask me to sign an NDA before they’ll tell me their idea. What do they think I am I going to do with it? Find a team and build a business myself faster than they can? Sell the idea to the hungry crowd of waiting investors who will drop millions on the strength of a few words? Anyone who has witnessed the reality of getting a new start-up off the ground will know that the idea is a small part of the recipe for a successful business. Important, but in itself, inconsequential.
I wish this were not the case. Because I am full of ideas. If I could sell each good one (where I determine what is ‘good’) for a few quid I would be a wealthy man indeed. But sadly that is just not the way business works.
So instead I have decided to give my ideas away. They are yours, freely released under a Creative Commons Attribution licence. In other words: use them, mix and mash them up, make millions if you can. All I ask is that if you do, you give me the credit for being the originator.
Here are the first two, the second of which just came to me over lunch with a fellow (and soon to be very successful) entrepreneur. If they already exist, forgive me. I am not omniscient and it is too time consuming pretending to be so.
Social Seller App
There are lots of ways to sell online. From eBay, Gumtree and Craig’s List to Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. Just like managing lots of social networks takes time, so does trying to list and sell items across these various networks.
Wouldn’t it be great it there was a Buffer-style app for listing goods across multiple social networks? One that handled the hosting of pics, the collection of payments (on those platforms where this was not integrated), communication with buyers, and the withdrawal of items from all networks once it had sold on one.
You could even use it to schedule items across different platforms to get maximum returns: e.g. “try auctioning this on eBay but if it doesn’t hit its reserve, withdraw it and put in on across these platforms at a fixed price.” Wouldn’t that be useful?
The app could make money through fees on transactions, advertising on the hosted image pages, and subscriptions for pro level users at a variety of tiers.
Personalised Shopping Mag
Discovery is ugly in eCommerce. It’s great when you know what you want, but there’s no good equivalent of the idle browse of a bookshop or record shop that leads you to unexpected purchases. I do get some geeky pleasure browsing cars or electronic components on eBay, but this is not the niche on which multi-billion dollar businesses are made.
Flipboard has made browsing social networks a much more pleasant experience by turning them into an interactive magazine. Couldn’t someone do the same for online shopping? Take feeds of people’s favourite sorts of item and package them up with pictures and reviews into a personalised shopping magazine/catalogue?
The business model — affiliate fees — is simple and probably lucrative. And the technology isn’t that complex, it just needs a good design job.
As I’m fond of saying, we are all bionic now. We have offloaded memory, navigation and other functions to our smartphones and cloud-connected devices. What wearable technologies really represent is the second wave of mass-adoption bionics. How we adapt and respond to this rapid advance is going to need some thought.
This morning I was up at the Beeb, talking about Peaches Geldof’s Twitter gaffe. It was striking that someone apparently bright and educated, who has worked in the media, can have the nous to acquire 160,000 followers but not to recognise when her Tweets might be illegal. And worse, that they might be damaging to the future lives of two innocent infants.
But I don’t necessarily lay all the blame at her door.
Digital social media is a new technology. We are still adapting our behaviours to its existence and learning our way around its flaws, laws and possibilities. Arguably we haven’t yet got to grips with email — also a social media by many definitions. Etiquette for this now-antiquated form of digital communication continues to evolve, driven in part by changing modes of access.
Writing on the wall
Every new media has had a challenging introduction. Read Tom Standage’s excellent ‘Writing on the Wall’ for the full story, but from the advent of the letter through the printing press, it has always taken time for societies and governments to catch up with the implications of new technologies.
Hence the fear generated by Google Glass and other coming wearables. It took Peaches Geldof seconds to tap out a series of law-breaching tweets. But at least she had to withdraw the phone from her pocket first and unlock it: a small window in which to consider her actions. Imagine what she could do with a camera strapped to her head and the ability to tweet a stream of consciousness straight from her lips.
Life on camera
I don’t think people are scared of the possibility that someone wearing their tech could be surreptitiously streaming pictures straight to the web. I think they’re scared of the fact that people will. It is going to take at least at least a decade after wearable tech becomes the norm before we get to a recognisable set of rules, defined enough for us to be able to say confidently what is acceptable and what is not. Codifying those rules into laws will likely take another decade.
If that sounds like a long time, bear in mind it is now a decade since the launch of MySpace and I’m still regularly asked to advise and instruct on the use of social media. Though Facebook is ubiquitous, Twitter and LinkedIn are used by fewer than a quarter of people in the UK. I see behaviour I think is odd on all three networks all the time, but rarely do I consider the incidents so clearly outside any accepted ‘rules’ as to upbraid the perpetrator. Others are either more confident or happier to sit in judgement, but the fact remains: we are still learning.
Wearable faux pas
I was one of those people who happily rocked a Bluetooth headset back in the early noughties, until I realised (and others gleefully pointed out) that I looked like a dick. Unless you’re a secret service agent, you do not need to be in hands-free contact at all times. I will also sport any wearable tech I can get my hands on until we decide as a society what works and what doesn’t, what is cool and what isn’t, what is acceptable and what is beyond the pale. I will do so in the knowledge that it is a learning process and mistakes are part of that process. And while everything settles down, I won’t criticise others for their errors, as long as they don’t repeat them. Even if I think, as in the case of Peaches Geldof, they really should know better.
Disintermediation was one of the biggest buzzwords of the first dotcom boom. It means ‘taking out the middle man’ and that’s exactly what the first wave of internet and web services did.
Websites gave customers much more direct access to suppliers, enabling lower prices in the process. No need for a distributor or wholesaler and a network of retailers if you can sell products directly from your factory warehouse online. Publishing information became so cheap that it was cost-effective to publish everything rather than just a selection of content chosen by an editor (another middle man).
This has been great for choice, with the near-infinite ‘long tail’ ensuring products and content to fit almost every niche.
The advantage of middle men (and women) is that they aggregate and filter, cutting out the crap and highlighting the gold. In doing away with the intermediaries we lost a lot of this function. But it is returning, in new, more efficient forms.
It starts with the creators of content, be they vendors, retailers, advertisers or media. Increasingly they are trying to personalise the content they deliver to customers using acquired or built profiles. Land on their website and you are likely to see content tailored to your interests: shoes in your style, stories about topics you have previously shown interest in, adverts for products you have previously examined.
Then there are the curators: human or automated intermediaries assembling coherent feeds of information. This could be users if twitter, focused on a single topic. It could be topic-based aggregated feeds in apps like Flipboard or Feedly.
Then there are the smart user agents: programmable software that does the search on our behalf. Think Google Alerts as a basic example. A piece of software that we own or that sits in the cloud, that will take some parameters and get to know us like a supercharged global TiVo. One that pro-actively filters the morass of content available online and brings us only the most relevant morsels to our interests.
This has its risks: it could be easy to hide in a bubble of selected information, ignorant of world events. But I know plenty of people for whom this is life today. Those of us who like to be informed will remain so.
These new middle-men, women and robots represent one of the most interesting new business opportunities on the web. The most important question is who will own the very personal data collected about our preferences? The profiles that these smart agents will collect — across media, over the course of years — will be incredibly rich.
Will we let the cloud giants — Google, Amazon — own this data? Or will we insist on holding it ourselves?
Investment managers will always tell you that past performance is no guide to future share prices. But history can always teach us lessons. Let me tell you about the future of the smart city by starting with a little story about the history of the internet.
13 years ago I was working with a company called Exodus. It was worth 37 billion dollars. It had built or bought a good chunk of the internet: the hardware infrastructure that you and I rarely see, fibre optic cables and data centres around the world.
Twelve months later it was bankrupt and being acquired by Cable and Wireless for $800 million.
A lot of capital had been sunk into Exodus and a number of other, similar companies. They too hit the financial buffers and their assets were broken up and sold off cheap. Together the assets these companies built represent a significant fraction of the internet we use today.
Exodus went bust in part because it built its business plan on forecasts from Gartner Group and other analysts about demand for internet services. Like lots of things in the dotcom bubble, these forecasts were inflated. They were accurate in their scale but not in their timing: demand just didn’t scale fast enough to justify the colossal investment.
In fact demand didn’t really take off until about five years later when YouTube and others came along with services that made maximum use of the new broadband access networks. YouTube and other content companies benefited massively from the capital that had been sunk into rolling out infrastructure. Hence why we now have debates about Net Neutrality.
What’s the relevance of all this to smart cities? The people who spend the money to build the platform aren’t necessarily the ones who benefit from that investment in the long term.
A New Internet Bubble
Scroll to 2013 and the new hype is about smart cities. For me a smart city is defined by four characteristics:
Collect: A sensor network to harvest data on environmental and service variables
Connect: A communications network to get this data back to a hub
Process: The ability to turn this data into information and publish it in useful formats
Act: The capability to react to this data to make meaningful change
The reason there’s lots of hype about smart cities is threefold.
Firstly and most nobly, measuring activity and environmental factors, and responding appropriately could mean cutting energy usage and CO2 emissions.
Secondly and somewhat less nobly, public services are under pressure and there’s a belief that data can help to optimise resource use and reduce costs.
Thirdly, and with very little nobility, the big technology vendors and service providers see a new market opening up.
The enthusiasm of companies like IBM and Telefonica for smart cities has fuelled a lot of scepticism about the digitally-driven smart city concept. But it’s a scepticism that I don’t share.
Today this is a position of faith: nobody is sufficiently advanced in these projects to show hard empirical proof of success. But it makes sense to me that if you can monitor lights left on and turn them off, you can save energy. If you only send a truck to empty bins that are full you will save fuel. If you monitor the humidity of soil and only water grass when it needs it, you will save water. As long as the capital and operating costs are in line, I believe there is a return on investment to be had for the city.
Those costs come down to one particular feature of the smart city. Here’s a breakdown of the major components.
I flew back last night from two days visiting Santander’s smart city project. This is one of Europe’s and probably the world’s most practical smart cities. They haven’t achieved a huge amount yet in terms of ROI, but they are at least doing real stuff on the ground and testing it, in a project led by Telefonica.
What you can see here is one of the standard sensor units used throughout the city to monitor temperature, noise, humidity, air pollution etc. If you’re a geek you might recognise some of the internals. It’s all off the shelf parts that in total cost a few tens of pounds. The most expensive sensor they use in this project is 130 euros and that one is buried in the ground to detect whether a parking space is full.
The whole 12,000 sensors they have deployed to date have cost less than a million euros. Bear in mind that they were developing these sensors as they went and early prototypes cost twice as much as the final models.
This is not a lot of money to invest.
All of the sensors are linked back to base by a network of aggregators and gateways that ship data via various unlicensed wireless standards, fibre that the city owns or 3G. In total across the whole 12,000 sensors the city is only shipping and storing 5MB of data per day.
Once you have the capital expenditure of the sensor network paid for, the operational cost for this is going to be low. And that million euros above? That included most of the communications hardware.
At this point in my tour of Santander I was wondering what Telefonica is doing. There is almost no money to be made on hardware or connectivity, the bread and butter of telcos. So why was this enormous, smart global company so interested in this proof of concept project?
The processing. Once you have all this data flowing in you need a platform to turn it into useful information. This is the hard part, and this is where Telefonica and its competitors see the opportunity for revenue.
Telefonica is developing a cloud-based platform under a European initiative called FI-WARE that enables companies to collect, process and visualise all of the data from their sensors. To make the smart city work you are going to need a platform like this.
The final piece of the puzzle is owned by the city and its contractors. It’s about what you do with the data. This could be straightforward daily decisions about when to collect a bin or turn on street lights. It could be a third party application. It could mean better planning decisions — ultimately the biggest source of potential savings.
So, what is the future of the smart city? Here’s the situation I see.
Financial pressure will drive councils to adopt smart city thinking, and they will buy the vision being peddled by the technology companies. Shared procurement Guidelines will help councils to limit their exposure to risk. They will take investment from Europe and central government where they can but most of the capital will come from enterprise. Big integrators and telcos will fund investment as part of multi-year build and operate deals. Service suppliers will be obliged to incorporate smart features in their tenders for waste collection etc.
These providers won’t suffer like the first investors did in the dotcom crash. But they also won’t be the big winners. As appears to be mandated by the EU development funding, open data will be the norm, with common, open standards for data structures. As long as we can avoid fragmentation, this will support a thriving development community building new apps and services on top of the public data.
Though I accept it is a position of faith today, I believe that making cities smart can deliver both financial and environmental benefits to government and citizens. And I believe that if they are properly executed, they could also provide an exciting new platform for third party innovation and development.
I just signed up to thread.com and had a consultation with a personal stylist. A pretty eminent one too. She asked me some questions about what I wear, and the brands I like, and she looked at some pictures of me (poor woman). Then she recommended some outfits.
The result: I liked most of what she plumped for. In fact I already owned a couple of very similar items. Clearly I have a better sense of style than I thought…
The site already had my sizes. I handed over my credit card details and picked my favourite items. I’ll try them on at home, and if I like them, keep them. The site — and my stylist — take a margin on the transactions.
It’s a very personal service: even mediated via webchat you know you’re dealing with a real person. It feels premium, yet it costs you nothing. But most important are the recommendations.
Amazon has reportedly spent millions of dollars building its recommendation engine — the software that drives the suggested purchases at the bottom of the page. Yet I find I am much more likely to find something I want to buy on a walk around Waterstones.
This is a problem both for the online retailer and the high street.
The online retailer would like to replicate the feel of a premium high street store where an attentive shop assistant helps you find what you want and recommends suitable purchases. Why? Because you will spend more.
Doing this economically usually means automating the recommendations. This is not something computers are necessarily good at — hence why Amazon has spent so much.
The high street has a problem because more and more of us are discovering what we want on the high street and then buying it — usually cheaper — online. So-called ‘showrooming’.
Thread.com has avoided the multi-million-dollar development costs by giving stylists a way to earn a few extra bucks. Work as a stylist — I can believe — is not 9–5, Monday-Friday. It is intermittent: frantic weeks followed by frantic worry. With a few minutes here and there, and an internet connection you can earn some cash just by doing what you do from the comfort of your home, your bed, coffee shop or local bar.
This is a prime example of the sort of secondary income that I believe many of us will need and have in the future. But it is also evidence of the current limitations of personalisation technology and recommendation engines.
One of our long-term goals with CANDDi was to recreate the local shop experience, where the retailer knew you just well enough to create a personal, engaging shopping experience. We can do a lot of great stuff with the software, but we can’t do that — yet.
Even when we can, personal recommendations will retain a premium value. Dealing with a real human being will be something we pay for, either directly or via a margin as with thread.com. High street stores may start to offer virtualised personal shoppers — real people but communicating with us remotely — as a way of providing more support in-store but with a lower cost (and potentially more knowledgeable service) than a body in-store.
Whether they are recommending boots or books, gadgets or grub, human recommendation engines are here to stay.
Years ago I was invited back to speak at my school. I’d only been working a couple of years. In the period since I’d left, the head had introduced presentation evenings and it was at one of these that I was asked to speak.
What I talked about was getting a job. I’ve been asked to speak about the same topic a few times since, and my message has barely changed. In fact, I believe the advice I gave back around 2002 will be even more relevant in the future, when there will be very few ‘jobs’ around and people will be increasingly responsible for finding their own income from multiple sources.
The advice I gave was that qualifications aren’t enough. It doesn’t matter if you have GCSEs, A-Levels, a degree or a PhD, none of these will get you a job. Because all they do is put you on a level playing field with thousands of other candidates.
What gets you a job is all the other stuff that you do. Given the choice between two candidates with similar qualifications, I will always choose the one that is a world-class athlete, a published author, or just captain of the local hockey team. It shows they have passion and commitment. It shows that they have drive.
If the future pans out as I expect, with the number of steady 9–5s diminishing in most sectors, lots of us will be looking to turn our passions into profit. We may hold down one or two regular jobs (work is increasingly part-time), but we will likely use our skills and interests as another income stream.
Liam Biggs, the man behind Cazuall.co.uk is a great example of this. I met Liam at IFA this year and got to find out a little about his background. Liam’s passion is gaming, and he has carved out his own niche in that market — first as a professional gamer, then running gaming organisations and teams, and now with his YouTube channel and website. Liam does this alongside a ‘full time’ job. When your hobby is bringing in income, you can usually find time.
Liam’s passion has made him an influencer in the market for games, consoles and accessories, to the point where major companies are sponsoring his website and flew him out to Berlin for the show. This isn’t a position of privilege he was given, it is one he created.
Most of us have a passion or a hobby. Whether it’s style or science fiction, food or football, there’s usually a business angle to our expertise. In the future more and more of us will need to exploit it.
Meet Tomislav. Tom is my perfect model of a future worker.
Based in Zagreb Tom works at the cutting edge of web development, maintaining expertise in the technology platforms underpinning the next generation of online applications. Few of his customers are in Zagreb, or even Croatia. They are in San Francisco, Basel and yes, Newcastle.
I met Tom when he contracted for us at CANDDi. It’s the gig that started him down the path of being an ‘elancer’, but it’s a life he has adapted to rapidly. Now he’s one of the most extreme examples I know of this new breed of knowledge worker.
Tom finds work through forums like Hacker News and dedicated matching services. Having tried the automated job boards like Elance he now prefers a human-curated matching service based in Silicon Valley called TopTal. Here he is matched with projects that suit his high-end talents, ones that are well managed and intellectually stretching. He also earns money by introducing and qualifying other developers of similar calibre and helping to match them with projects of their own. It has become a significant secondary income stream — not his only one.
Like most people operating in this fashion Tom maintains multiple sources of income, contracting, sourcing other contractors, and running his own projects.
Eventually he would like to run his own start-up but he’s pragmatic about the timing. There’s little capital in Zagreb and he’ll need some of his own funds. And he’d like to move to a city with better peer-support. Brighton’s on his short list, another city he has been able to spend time checking out.
But at the moment the rent in Zagreb is cheap, leaving him with disposable cash and the flexibility to work on the projects he enjoys. And for tomorrow’s elite elancing knowledge worker, that’s an important part of life.
Over the last three generations housework has changed from a full time job to an occasional chore. The 63 hours we used to spend each week on cleaning and washing is now just two hours per week for the average Brit.
These figures come from research conducted on behalf of LG Electronics for a campaign on the ‘Evolution of Domesticity’. As well as looking backwards the research looked to the future, asking people what technology they want to see in the home. I participated in the campaign, explaining to the media which of people’s desires were practical and which might remain science fiction.
For me those remaining hours of housework look pretty intractable. Barring the introduction of robot vacuum cleaners — number four on people’s wish list and something I think will be increasingly commonplace in the next few years — it is going to be hard to automate the remaining tasks. We will still need to load and unload the dishwasher and washing machine for example, however good those devices get.
Instead the next few years of evolution will be about reducing waste and improving quality of life in other ways.
Take for example the number item on the public’s wishlist: a fridge that can keep food fresh for longer. This sounds a little mundane but given that we waste around 20% of the food we buy, pretty sensible. Modern fridges have already advanced a long way, becoming quieter and lower maintenance; when did you last have to defrost a freezer compartment? But now companies like LG are adding features like vacuum compartments, minimising oxidisation and contaminants to enable foods to last even longer. Combine this with high efficiency pumps, more eco-friendly materials and improved insulation and you can see how new appliances can be shaped to save us money — and reduce environmental impact — in a number of ways.
In addition to this focus on efficiency, there will be one major addition to appliances in the next few years. Or more precisely three:
Awareness: Devices will be equipped with more and more sensors so that can collect information about their environment.
Intelligence: Devices will be increasingly smart so that they can make better decisions based on the data they collect.
Connectivity: Devices will be able to communicate with us and each other in a number of ways.
The classic example of these features is the ‘internet fridge’ — a bit of a running cliché in technology circles when discussing the home of the future, but one that has become a reality in other parts of the world.
Sensors tell the fridge about the food it contains. Intelligence allows it to track when things are due to run out or go off. And an internet connection allows it to order replacements, alert you or add things to your shopping list.
This type of aware, connected intelligence could help you to use up food before it goes off, or make sure you never again have that moment where you make a brew only to find the milk has turned lumpy.
Vint Cerf, one of the contributors to the creation of the internet, has estimated that it now costs less than one pound to put a connected computer into an appliance. Expect to see more smart, aware and connected devices in your home over the next 20 years.
Ah those wonderful binary choices born of radio phone-ins. I spent this morning defending social media following its shocking abuse in the Criado-Perez affair.
Is social media bad? Of course it isn’t. Normally I’d say something along the lines of “It’s technology. It has no agency. It can’t be inherently good or bad. It’s how it is used.” But I’m not sure that’s entirely true in this case.
For a start the platforms themselves may be all bits and bytes. But they are operated by companies that do most definitely have an agenda, encapsulated in everything from their user interface design to their usage policies. These policies for a long time led Facebook to justify removing images of breastfeeding while leaving untouched images of domestic abuse. Clearly while there is no agency in the technology, there is in the people behind it.
There are many examples of the powers of social media being abused, beyond the Criado-Perez threats. There is the daily trolling, the torrent of threats and abuse that regularly seem to arrive at the accounts of prominent women, and also the bullying that takes place on more closed social networks like Facebook. As a teenager being victimised there are few places to hide these days.
But you have to balance all of this against the good that social media does. And not all of this can be put down to people doing good using social media. Some of it is intrinsic in the technology’s very concept.
This comes down to democratised, disintermediated, decentralised, distributed publishing and communications. The ability to communicate with one person or many without limitations of cost, state or editorial control. These things are a fundamental part of the architecture of social media. There are weaknesses in this model — the lack of verification for example, or the power put into the hands of those wanting to abuse — but these for me are far outweighed by the good.
The power for communities, political and protest groups to self-organise faster, across greater geographies and without restrictions. The ability for people with shared niche interests to connect across the globe. The chance for families and friends distributed by the nature of our globalised world to stay in close contact. These things are almost immeasurably valuable and in 99% of cases are not abused.
Positive use of social media dramatically outweighs the negative. That’s why stories like the threats to Caroline Criado-Perez make the news. Change needs to happen to protect people in her position and prosecute the criminals abusing those threats. But we have to make sure that the great things about social media are protected when we make those changes.
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