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Stop Redesigning the Web. Start Redesigning the World.

Friction ignites innovation.

The examples are all around us. Take banking. I tried to send money abroad this week. Urgh. A thoroughly 20th century experience, replete with long acronyms, complex codes and lots of cost — 25% of the amount I was trying to send.

It’s no surprise that finance, banking and payments are hot spaces for innovation, from crowd funding and peer funding, to merchant systems, to whole new currencies. Organisations like PayPal, iZettle and bitcoin are tackling a staid old system that has failed to move truly into the internet age.

That age is characterised not just by technology but by culture: openness and sharing, of hardware and software, interfaces and protocols. A culture of speed and action.

Increasingly that culture is moving out of the digital world and into the physical. The new hardware categories — wearables, smart home, 3D printing — are much more open than their predecessors. If the hardware itself is not an open design, based on off-the-shelf components, then the software usually offers an API. Having had my Nest smart thermostat installed, I can’t wait to start playing with its API, integrating it into my own home automation system.

That system, Project Santander, has itself been built on these internet principles: rapidly prototyped using off-the-shelf hardware and shared software components. The most challenging part of its construction? The core software.

This software has been created using the simplest of web technologies: PHP, MySQL, HTML, CSS, Javascript. Because I don’t know anything else — in fact I barely know this. As I will happily concede to anyone, I am no coder.

Imagine what you can do with greater skills. Imagine the problems you can tackle. For me what is exciting about the ‘Internet of Things’ is the application of all those internet principles and skills to physical world problems. Skills of design and code that used to be confined to tackling problems in the virtual realm can now be applied to the physical. Energy, safety, health, fitness, food, education, and much more; the possibilities are endless.

This theme has a particular relevance and resonance in Greater Manchester, a place where great leaps forward in the science and technology of the physical world and the virtual have been made. Officially there are 45,000 people in the digital and creative sectors in Greater Manchester.

Imagine what we can do with the world if our digital skills are increasingly applied to physical problems.

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The New Digital Divide: Makers and Consumers

I have a new laptop, at least for the length of this trial. The team at Dell have loaned me an XPS and I have to say it’s flippin’ awesome. OK I don’t have to say that — it wouldn’t be much of a trial if I did — but it’s true.

In between trials of new machines I operate on a five year-old desktop or a six year-old laptop. Both are perfectly functional but limited. The laptop performs admirably for its age, thanks to a lightweight Linux OS, but unfortunately its frame is anything but lightweight: more luggable than portable. The desktop is very comfortable to use with its big screen and a posh mouse and keyboard (thanks to a never-ending trial from Logitech). But a lack of RAM means it becomes a little ponderous when running lots of Chrome windows or anything else taxing.

By contrast this new laptop has everything: slender metal frame, Core i7 processor, buckets of RAM, and a battery that lasts so long I’ve stopped bothering to carry the charger. Even if I use the laptop to charge my phone and other devices it seems to get me through days of work.

I can’t definitively say this is the best machine out there for the money — it’s not that sort of test. But its sheer capability has reminded me of something: the dramatic difference that remains between a ‘real’ computer and a tablet or smartphone. For me this is an increasingly important frontier in the digital divide.

Makers and Consumers

Because I’m using this machine as my main device for the period of the trial, I’ve had to install my regular software stack on it. I could automate this process and probably will in future, but it’s actually quite interesting to install things as and when the need arises. It makes you very aware of the software on which you’re most reliant. In the past this approach has also made me very aware of the (un)availability of an internet connection when you need one. But on my second trip over the Pennines in as many weeks, I find myself happily downloading hundreds of megabytes of software over Three’s 3 and 4G networks. There’s a reason I have an unlimited contract…

The software I have installed started with a browser or two: Chrome (for browsing, mail and apps) and Firefox (for web design and testing). Then a text editor (Bluefish) and version control (Git). Then an office suite or two — LibreOffice and MS Office. And finally the Arduino IDE for more development on my home automation system and robots. I’ll probably add GIMP and Inkscape at some point but I haven’t needed them yet.

Now, browsing I could do on a tablet. Email too. I’m pretty adept at typing on a screen and have a nice dinky Logitech (again) keyboard for my iPad Mini. But code? Version control? Spreadsheets? Document design? Presentations? None of these are things I would like to tackle on a tablet today. For these things a laptop or desktop is ideal. In fact, they are necessary.

Consumption not Creation

Tablets and smartphones today are tools of communication and consumption, not creation. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the interfaces. Ancient though it may be, the keyboard and mouse combination remains our best interface to most of the tools of digital creation.

The exceptions are audiovisual: tablets can competently capture audio, video and images, and using a stylus designers and artists can draw on them. But for most other tasks the touchscreen interface lacks fidelity: even if you can capture your words, manipulating the documents you’ve written is a massive PITA.

This is not just the fault of the screen and fat fingers: the user interface trades off capability for ease of use. This is the second reason that touchscreen devices are limited. The operating systems and apps that sit on them are designed to be incredibly intuitive and usable with a few touches and swipes. This is great, but it means they are usually simplified to some extent, leaving you without the power and control that you might be used to on a desktop or laptop. The power and control you need to be a true digital creator.

The Real Digital Divide

The digital divide is generally accepted to mean the gap between the connected and the unconnected. Those with and without access to the internet. Today in Britain 83% of households have some form of internet access, with the majority of those that don’t reporting that it is lack of need/desire that stops them, rather than a lack of finance or skills. A large proportion of those are over 75. In short, over the coming years the digital divide by this measure is likely to narrow significantly, leaving a hard core for whom skills, disability and cost are the issues. These are issues that can and should be tackled, since it is increasingly hard to navigate modern life without internet access. Not having access can put you at a significant disadvantage from a consumer perspective, as much as anything else: things bought online are often cheaper.

With my futurist’s hat on though, I am more concerned about a different digital divide. That between digital consumers and digital creators.

Putting a connected tablet or smartphone into someone’s hands and equipping them with some basic skills may enable them to participate in digital life. They can use eGovernment services, shop and ‘join the conversation’ on social media. But they can’t make an awful lot — at least not anything of business value. As I pointed out above, these devices are great for audiovisual media but YouTube and Instagram are awash with wannabe Spielbergs and Baileys. Only so many people can succeed in this field as Jamal Edwards has.

The digital divide we should be measuring is that between those with access to the skills and the technology to create new products and services, and those with the capability to consume them.

The Three Cs

This is a much harder measure. But I think it is possible. In discussions around the future of work and skills, I have come down to a simple ‘Three Cs’ of skills that are vital for participation in tomorrow’s increasingly digital economy. And no, one of them is not ‘Coding’ (at least not exclusively).

Curation is the ability to find, qualify and absorb information. It’s about search skills and fact checking, knowing the difference between something being written and something being objectively true. It’s about being able to put that new knowledge into context. The ability to do these things fast, effectively and reliably is vital.

Creation is about synthesis and ideation. The ability to take information that you have discovered and use it to create something new. That might be code, it might be language, it might be design, it might be a new 3D-printed or micro-controlled product.

Communication is about your interface to the rest of the world. People remain at the heart of an increasingly digital society and economy. You need the personal and technical skills to be able to make your arguments and ideas compelling.

All of these skills can be taught and tested.

Breaking Barriers

If we are to break down the true digital divide, the one that threatens to bar many from economic participation in the growing digital society, we need to focus on issues greater than simple connectivity. We need to recognise that the increasingly dominant touchscreen devices that are becoming ever cheaper and easier to use, will not in themselves help us to bridge the gap. In fact they threaten to widen it. As touchscreens give way to voice and gesture interfaces, and we are further abstracted from the underlying technology, the threat only increases.

At home, at work and in education we need to understand the true nature of the digital divide and change our behaviour accordingly. The Three Cs can be taught and have to be, not just at school but beyond and throughout life.

We need to ensure that everyone has access to the tools of creativity, as well as consumption.

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Never Trust Someone Who Offers the Same Answer to Every Question

One of the challenges of being a futurist is communicating the difference between what you believe to be true, and what you would like to be true. I try to maintain a good distance between the two.

Last week I was speaking at the Wired?14 customer event for Daisy Group PLC, about the impact of technology on our personal and working lives. I highlighted that the link between economic growth and employment has been broken since 1999, referencing The Second Machine Age. After centuries where mechanisation and automation has been part of a cycle of creative destruction that ultimately generated greater overall wealth, digital technology seems to be concentrating wealth in the hands of few and destroying more jobs than it creates.

I could be accused of being a bit of a cheerleader for technology: I believe that it has been a huge factor in our increasing health and wealth over the recent past. But I’m not suggesting that it is an unalloyed good: technology presents issues we have to tackle.

I was collared after the event by someone who took issue with my analysis. He believed markets would solve the jobs problem — in fact he believed markets could solve every problem. I suggested the state would absolutely have a role to play and intervention would be required at some point if we were not to have a deeply unequal society (even more so than today). My challenger scoffed and painted me as on old-school socialist in favour of some form of centrally-planned economy.

Arguing against what you would like someone to be saying is often easier than arguing against what they are saying.

I was raised in a fairly lefty household and retain a lot of the values that I absorbed there, particularly around the role of the state. I’ve since spent nearly fourteen years entirely in private business — nine of those self-employed and growing my own businesses. I recognise where the market can do good things. What I don’t believe is that the state can solve everything or that markets can solve everything. To me either of those views is a kind of dangerous fundamentalism, little different to the worst excesses of religion.

Believing that there is one answer to many problems is generally a huge error.

Being Charitable

At the end of the week, I headed off to Edinburgh to run a workshop on the future of charities for the SCVO. Here I highlighted the growing role of technology in work and home life, and how it is transforming each. As often happens, this was taken by some as an argument for the increasing role of technology in both of those spheres. “But human contact is important. We can’t do what we do unless we’re face to face,” is a refrain I hear often in these sessions.

This may be true. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are other organisations competing in the digital sphere for the same funds and few seconds of attention that are the lifeblood of many charities. The evidence would suggest that we have a limited reservoir of mental and financial capital to donate. Though they may not be able to deliver their most important services digitally, charities have to compete digitally in the worlds of campaigning and fundraising if they are to maintain their support, and therefore the ability to conduct their work in a face to face manner.

More than that, the current financial climate would suggest that charities need to find ways of introducing digital means into their most fundamental operations. Because they may well be trying to support as many or more people with reduced resources. Anyone can fund-raise now. JustGiving and other platforms give individuals the campaign tools that would only have been available to established charities in the past. Campaigns like the #NoMakeUpSelfie or Stephen Sutton’s appeal, show the incredible speed with which new media can attract funds — funds that will then not be given to other causes that might historically have received them. More than one charity has told me that their individual donations are going “off a cliff”.

One Size Does Not Fit All

In each of these sessions and others, for businesses, local government and charities, I have talked about Stratification: my model for how successful modern businesses increasingly seem to be organised, and a model I believe can be applied to lots of different organisations. What I don’t propose is that there is a single template that can be simply copied and pasted between different charities, businesses and councils. There might be a common idea that can inform the approach in each case, but each case must be handled differently. Just like the answer is not always market or state, the answer is not always “What would Amazon do?”

This is the reason I’m currently exploring ways to expand my consultancy operation — without building a traditional consultancy business. There’s lots of demand for people who can apply original thinking to challenging problems, particularly people who are literate in the current and next generation of technology-driven change — i.e. applied futurists. While my focus is on research and writing, I really like the ‘applied’ part of applied futurism: tackling challenges and driving innovation.

There’s also a broader point here: consultancy is a time-based business. One that it is hard to scale, completely in contrast to the software product businesses that are driving the current wave of automation — and arguably widening the gap between rich and poor. In consultancy you largely get paid for the work that you do just once. If you create a successful commercial software product, be it Facebook or Microsoft Office, you get paid many times over. In industry parlance, product-based businesses scale better than time-based businesses.

As products are increasingly commoditised and standardised, and even made open source, I can see the (im)balance between product and service beginning to change. There will always be new products to be created that can be sold at a high margin — I’m not naïve enough to believe that we have approached the point at which everything has been invented (and I’d be very disappointed if I thought that were true). The market is probably the right way to price, and incentivise the creation of, these new products.

But perhaps there will be an increasing base of products, devices, software and services that will be either free or cheap, because they are open or in highly competitive markets. Products and services where the only real money to be made is in the customisation, consultancy or personalisation. This is arguably already the case for the web.

Technicolour Riot

Unless the last fifteen years of data is a blip — and that’s possible — I don’t think the market is likely to solve the onrushing jobs challenge. I don’t think governments can either. Nor can the open source movement, standards bodies, charities or anyone else.

Alone.

The joy of this planet is that the answers are rarely black and white. They’re not even shades of grey. They are a glorious technicolour riot of diversity. Any ideology that suggests one answer to the multitude of challenges and opportunities facing us, is guaranteed to be wrong, whether it proposes human beings or technology, markets or states.

If someone tells you they have one answer for everything? Don’t trust them.

Tom Cheesewright