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Could Corrie Cause a Blackout?

Surprise surprise, our national generating capacity is a little shy of what it should be. This winter even with contingency plans activated, we will only be producing 6% more electricity than we consume. That’s not a great margin for error. Three years ago the figure was 17%.

To put this into context, a popular episode of Eastenders or Corrie can cause power consumption to spike by around 4.5% of the currently estimated peak capacity for winter (53.6 Gigawatts). I’m not suggesting for a second that the National Grid haven’t thought of this, or that blackouts are actually likely — most experts agree they are not.

But still: a single-digit margin for error on one of the most crucial resources to our physical well being, national security and economic activity is not exactly reassuring.

The National Grid has known for some years that this situation would arise, as is shown in this slide deck from 2009: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/few/2009/documents/presentations09/lewis_dale.pdf. What this also shows is the level of work required just to keep the lights on — literally. What it doesn’t show is that the very principles on which our national energy infrastructure is built are wrong.

180 or so large power stations and a giant grid to distribute the power they generate is an outdated model for this century. Domestic energy consumption has been falling slowly but steadily for the last few years, in part due to the economic downturn but also thanks to increasingly efficient homes and appliances. We can now generate an increasing proportion of our needs in a distributed fashion through solar and wind. What we need is a grid that supports our increasingly distributed generation and low energy needs.

There’s a lot of whining about renewable energy sources. Wind turbines are ugly. Solar panels aren’t as efficient as promoted. Blah blah blah. The debate sounds very much like the current one about the Human Rights Act. Who’d want to protect those, right? And who’d want a source of energy that renewed itself? That sounds like a terrible idea…

The economics of renewables are undeniable — particularly solar. All around the world solar energy generation is overtaking fossil fuels in cost effectiveness. Whatever your opinion on the matter, renewable energy sources are winning the fact war. Though it will be a long time until they are the whole story, to bet against them over that long term is plain daft.

Given that this is clear to anyone willing to look at the evidence, we should be making our bets as a nation there. Investing in a grid that supports distributed generation and particularly storage: the challenge of renewables is that you can’t spin them up when you want them like a generator, so we need means of storing energy — again in a distributed fashion. The answer could be batteries, it could be flywheels, it could be something we haven’t invented yet: a healthy dose of investment here would be very, very wise both for national security and international competitiveness.

With every home and enterprise in the country contributing its roof space to energy generation, and a sensible investment programme in the grid, we would have cheap, secure power for years to come. And no worries about whether one too many mid-Corrie cuppas would take the country offline.

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3D Printing: A Lot of Fuss About Everything

No technology, ignoring perhaps each new iPhone, has had as much hype over the last few years as 3D printing.

I’m as guilty as anyone. Nearly two years ago now I predicted that one of the big printer manufacturers would jump into the market and bring an entry level, sub £400 printer to the high street. I’m still waiting and I’m still baffled as to why HP, a company desperately in need of a win, has yet to take ownership of the consumer and small business 3D printing market. As I’ve suggested before, all I think it would take to succeed would be for

For all the demonstrations, few products beyond the prototype stage are 3D printed today. Much of our ‘stuff’ (a technical term) continues to be knocked out in factories loaded with human workers in lower-cost parts of the world.

Tonight I’m chairing a debate about 3D printing at Manchester Metropolitan University as part of Manchester Science Festival. Reading through the notes I sent the other panellists in advance, I realised something: my questions are resolutely positive. About the practicalities and the possibilities. They address the thinking behind the hype but not a crucial question: if the potential is so great, why isn’t this field a bigger deal yet?

Why has 3D printing been so heavily hyped? In part it is because of the sci-fi factor — the same reason that the Hendo Hoverboard got so much attention last week. 3D printers are the closest thing we have today to a Star Trek replicator.

But more than that is the scale of the opportunity. The opportunity to transform the economics of supply and retail. Imagine you can 3D print anything: clothes, cars, phones, windows and doors, tables and chairs. None of these things is beyond the bounds of possibility. Perhaps, I thought, it’s because of this huge potential that progress has been relatively slow.

Imagine what it does to the companies who currently supply all of these products if suddenly all the added value work happens in the consumer’s home or work place. If suddenly all they’re selling is intellectual property, and even that is hard to maintain in the face of open-sourced designs for everything from desks to double-glazing, houses to heart-valves. Imagine the changes in global supply chains if suddenly we’re moving a small number (but great quantities) of basic feedstocks instead of a vast number of finished items. What do shops look like if products are printed on demand? What do people do with less stuff to make, move and sell?

These are all pure hypotheticals based on a very black-and-white (i.e unrealistic) view of the future. The reality will be much more nuanced. For example, there are some products it will make more sense to manufacture in bulk in one place for some time to come. The imbalanced nature of global wealth means that human beings will remain cheaper than robots for some roles for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, even as a pure thought experiment it presents a terrifying scope. If a start-up were to approach a venture capital firm with this as their goal they would be accused of trying to ‘boil the ocean’. With big printing players like HP perhaps lacking in a little confidence after some difficult years, maybe they too are scared of tackling such a massive opportunity.

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Hendo Hoverboard Shows Tech Will Always Surprise

Much fun for the media this week as a start-up punted a prototype hoverboard onto Kickstarter. It’s not quite the tech as featured in Back to the Future, but it’s close enough to get excited about, and hence I found myself being interviewed about it for Business Matters on Radio 4 and the World Service.

What I didn’t mention is that I have been enormously sceptical about the possibility of this product ever becoming real. I’m not wholly wrong about this, yet.

There are two big challenges in making a hoverboard a reality. The first issue is the ground effect that enables it to hover. The second is the power required to keep it hovering.

In this prototype the ground effect issue is overcome by it inducing a magnetic field in a special material on the ground — typically sheets of copper. This means you need a sheet copper surface to use the board anywhere: that’s not particularly practical for commuting and it’s not quite like the version Marty McFly rode in the fictional 2015. But you can see how composite surfaces may be embedded with the right metals making wider use easier in the distant future.

By then we may have better batteries. Though they’ve come a long way since the 80s, the batteries in this prototype can still only power the board for a few minutes at a time: again not very practical.

Despite these limitations though, the Hendo demonstration is a lot closer than I thought we would be able to get to a genuine hoverboard by this point. Even when you spend all of your time looking at the future, the rate of technological advancement still has the capacity to surprise.

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Why is Daisy Going Private? It’s a Question of Agility

Around ten years ago I was working on the marketing for a US software firm, when its chief executive decided to take the company off the NASDAQ. The new burden of Sarbanes-Oxley regulations were costing the business large amounts of money, and its executive team lots of time. But more importantly than that, the CEO recognised that the business needed to go through a lot of change. Change that would be hard to communicate to the market — a market that likes stability and consistent growth, not radical transformation.

A few years later we all watched a big, listed company fail because it failed to transform. It’s an oft-used example (by me as much as anyone) but HMV was beaten by the orders of magnitude greater efficiency with which purely digital competitors could deliver largely the same products. I don’t believe its executive team were blind to what was coming. There are well publicised examples of them being told what to expect for their business (as well as some I know of that haven’t been made public). They even made some efforts (belatedly) in the right direction. Yet they couldn’t change course in time. Why?

I believe the reasons are the same. Being a publicly listed company gives companies an enormous weight of inertia. Risking shocks to the share price dissuades companies from making radical changes when they are required. Sure you can — and some do — manage change through gradual transformation, even in declining markets. But HMV would have needed to shed an enormous number of it staff and rapidly closed many of its stores (many of which were only relatively recently acquired) in order to survive. As a private enterprise that may have been possible, but its management may not have survived the shareholder’s challenges long enough to complete the surgery.

Daisy is not in the same position as HMV. But the market for minutes and megabytes is undoubtedly facing challenges. Every network provider, fixed and mobile, fears becoming a ‘dumb pipe’, eeking out a meagre margin on bandwidth it sells. Daisy has made acquisitions to move it up the value chain, but for me the next few years for the business as it completes integrations and polishes its proposition, will be absolutely crucial.

Completing this process in private hands will be much easier than trying to bring an army of shareholders along for the ride.

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Note: I have done work for Daisy Group PLC in the past, including speaking at its most recent customer event, but I am not currently engaged by the company and have no information about today’s news beyond what has been widely published.

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Bournemouth University: The Future of PR

Bournemouth University invited me along with two of its PR course alumni, Richard Fogg from CC Group and Sam Hall from Oracle, to give talks on the future of PR to its undergraduates. I decided to tackle the broader jobs market that they would be entering as well. You can see the full slide deck and read the script below.

View the Presentation

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The Oxford Martin school of Management predicts that 47% of jobs could be automated by 2032. Despite the rapid computerisation of so many industries in recent years it’s a prediction that retains the power to shock.

Nowhere have the changes wrought by technology been more visible than in the media. Today I want to walk you through the technology-driven changes we are experiencing across a variety of industries and talk specifically about their impact on the media.

I want to talk about how these changes have shifted the power dynamic, away from the traditional holders — at least to some extent.

I’ll talk about the people like me who have benefited from this power shift. And I’ll talk about how you will operate as PR people in a very different future.

Influencer Marketing

To introduce myself and my relevance to this topic properly, it’s important to know that I started in PR. Though unlike you I didn’t study it at university. I studied Mechatronic engineering at the opposite end of the country in Lancaster. But I realised fairly early on that I was better at talking about technology than designing it. While my friends went off to design wind farms and F1 cars, I found myself parachuted in to rooms full of engineers with a brief to translate the tech they had created into stories we could sell.

A couple of years into my time at Noiseworks, the founder Nick Hayes began working with former IDC analyst Duncan Brown on a new approach. What they called — fairly originally at the time — influencer marketing.

Nick and Duncan wrote the book on influencer marketing and I got to be the guinea pig for their ideas, helping out on early campaigns to identify, target and engage with a much broader range of influencers than the media and analysts we were used to. I’ll talk about this more later in the presentation.

After my time in PR I founded a series of technology-based businesses, most recently a venture-capital backed analytics software company called CANDDi, in which I’m still a shareholder.

These days I work as an applied futurist, helping a huge variety of organisations to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of the future.

That is a pretty varied role. I split my time roughly evenly between speaking at conferences, consulting, writing for myself and others, and appearing on TV and radio. This makes me a very good example of the type of new influencer I’ll talk about later in the presentation.

White Collar Robots

So now you have some context, let me begin properly. Robots. We’re all comfortable with robots in a manual labour environment. Yet somehow we have a blindspot to their increasing appearance in the white collar world.

What was the reason behind the tube strikes earlier this year that forced us three to get off our lazy arses and walk across the city? Robots replacing humans in a retail and customer service environment.

When HMV went bump a few years ago, what caused that? In the final year before it largely collapsed, HMV was turning over £900 million and employing 3,300 staff across its stores. Meanwhile in a posh little office just off Regent Street, 15 people were turning over around £1.7 billion (by my estimate). This was the total European workforce of iTunes.

I run my business on a piece of software called Freeagent. It costs me £30 a month, but it replaces an accountant. It reconciles all my transactions with the bank, calculates and even submits my tax returns for me.

Last year half of all large law firms merged or acquired another firm. What happened when they did? Thanks to the increasingly automated nature of the work that they were undertaking, they were able to shed many of the junior solicitors and trainees: the people they already had could take on more work because they were augmented by technology.

Automated Media

Now you look at the media in the UK. Think about all of the different professions that go into making a newspaper or magazine. Administration. Sales. Printing. Distribution. Channel management. All of the middle management. The best stat that I could find on the proportion of a newspaper’s budget that goes on editorial is 18–25%. And this is from 2008. Do you think that proportion has improved since then?

Now think about that stat from Oxford Martin. How many of those jobs can be automated?

This leads you to a simple conclusion: YouTube. Forget that one is print and the other is video. Think about all of the roles that YouTube automates for content creators: editorial workers. All they have to do is create.

This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Because it creates phenomena like PewDiePie. I’m assuming because you’re all half my age you’re familiar with PewDiePie? This comic Swedish games reviewer has 27 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. Advertising alone netted him $4 million last year.

Put that into context. The most popular British newspaper sells 1.7 million copies each day.

PewDiePie isn’t alone on the web in having attracted such incredible popularity. Because the web has democratised access to what one commentator called ‘weapons-grade marketing tools’.

I’ll give you an anecdotal example of how widespread access is to these weapons-grade marketing technologies. Back in 2010 I was involved in an online campaign for a supermarket, where members of the public could submit videos of themselves doing versions of their ad campaign. One woman really wanted to win and orchestrated a Facebook campaign to drive votes. She wasn’t some secret digital marketing specialist, yet she managed to drive so much traffic in the opening moments of the campaign that she brought the site down.

These days ISIS is putting a much darker slant on the term.

The New Influencers

Thanks to wide access to these tools you are seeing a new class of influencer, well outside the traditional media structures.

Take Liam for example. I met Liam at a consumer tech show this time last year. He’d won a competition to join the press jolly, but he arguably had more cause to be there than the rest of us. Because while Liam is a gas fitter by day, he is a YouTuber by night, with tens of thousands of subscribers to his game and gear reviews. He doesn’t make $4m a year but it’s a heck of a supplement to his income.

Liam is emblematic of a fundamental shift in media power. And this in itself is just part of a much bigger change that is happening, one that has been identified by the Venezuelan economist and political thinker Moises Naim.

In his book ‘The End of Power’ Naim notes that power is increasingly harder to win, harder to use and easier to lose. Where before media power was concentrated in the hands of a few extremely powerful proprietors and editors, now it is increasingly distributed and fluid.

Back in the early days of Influencer 50 we used to talk to clients about a model of influence that looked like this. Between you and the customers you wanted to reach was a small number of different influencers. The media, people’s peers, and the sales channel.

These days that picture is much more complex. People can find information for themselves online. Brands and celebrities have an increasingly direct relationship with their audience. And the influencers in between are much more diverse.

It’s not that the traditional media has gone away. Or even lost all of its power: just look at the influence the Sun and the Daily Mail continue to have over British politics. But they are now part of a much broader landscape.

It’s a landscape that some influencers use to great advantage. If you’re stereotypical students who enjoy daytime TV you may be familiar with my friend William Hanson. William is an etiquette expert who gets flown all around the world to train people in, well, etiquette. How to be proper. He also appears on a wide variety of TV and radio shows, writes books and newspaper columns. He is a multimedia player in the truest sense and one who takes maximum advantage from old and new media.

So to recap on what I’ve said so far, technology has fundamentally changed the economics of media just as it has so many other industries. The resulting redistribution of power and wealth has created a much more diverse media environment and a new class of influencer who take advantage of the media at their disposal to grow their profile and income.

The Three Cs

In this increasingly automated landscape, what roles will be left for human beings? I worked on some research with the Institute of Chartered Accountants last year and in the process came up with this idea of the Three Cs — three skills that I believe will grow in value and come to define the roles that humans retain.

  • Curation is about the ability to discover and qualify sources of information.
  • Creation is the ability to take these sources of information and synthesise them into something new.
  • Communication is the ability to sell this idea to colleagues and customers.

You can see that these skills have clear applications in both media and PR. Your jobs might be safe for a little while.

The Discovery Challenge

If you want to know how difficult curation is, just take a look at the recommendations you get on Amazon sometimes. Sometimes it works, and sometimes you look for wild rabbit and get offered thongs and tanks.

Lots of companies are struggling with this at the moment and huge amounts of venture capital is going into start-ups who think they might have an answer. But most of them ultimately rely on human intelligence to sort the wheat from the chaff and understand relevancy.

The challenge gets particularly acute for you as PR people when you are trying to qualify influence. Very often people mix up reach for influence. Most agencies and most clients would naturally rank media by the number of viewers, readers or listeners they get. But I think this has always been a mistake and it is one that is amplified in a more diverse media age.

Take some of my media channels for example. The most people I ever reach is when I’m sat on the BBC Breakfast sofa with 7m viewers watching. It’s reach like that that puts you on the radar of companies like Apple. But how much do I actually influence the people running around, getting their breakfast and trying to pack the kids off for school? If you judge it by the number of Twitter interactions I get when I’m on, not a lot.

Now compare that to Phil Williams’ show on 5live. I’m on after midnight on a weekday, with many fewer people listening. How much influence do you think that has? Well again if you take interaction as a measure, way more. The phones and Twitter light up. We have non-stop questions and calls for an hour.

Sunday Brunch? I picked up 350 Twitter followers the first time I was on.

How about how much influence I have right here? There may only be 200 of you watching but I hope what I’m saying is getting through.

The most influence of all? When I’m consulting. Dell kindly sort me out with hardware to use and at one point I was testing a giant 18in tablet. I used it to present to a couple of very senior people at a large multi-national. I won’t name them but it was for a potential project on the future of hairdressing.

I didn’t win the gig, but they decided they really wanted some of those tablets.

There are of course tools out there that purport to measure influence. But for me, XKCD has it just about right here as always.

Under Control

There’s also the question of control to consider. When you operate across different media like I do, you operate under a variety of different rules.
Presenting here today or writing for my own blog, I can say pretty much what I like, within the law.

But as soon I step into a radio studio the rules are very different. For XFM, what goes on is a negotiation between me and the presenter. For 5live there might be a producer who works with me to produce the script but ultimately the presenter may have final say. Even if there are two layers of negotiation before you even set foot in the studio, it’s live: the presenter may go completely off script or we may run out of time.

The new class of influencers may sometimes fall under the rules of more traditional broadcasters, but they also may be constrained by their financial arrangements. If I’m sponsored by Coke am I going to respond well to PR pitches from Pepsi? This is a grey area today.

Stories of Success

The next big challenge you face with the new media landscape is understanding what to measure. As Richard will tell you, clients whether internal or external can still be pretty one dimensional about what they value. They want their faces on the front of the glossiest magazines and their names in the newspapers their friends read. You are going to need both smart measurement tools to be able to quantify which media deliver real value to the businesses you’re working with, and a great ability to sell this back to your clients.

This ability to tell a story comes down to the second and third C: creation and communication. Great PR and great media will continue to be about the ability to build a compelling narrative.

There are people building computer programmes that can turn data from football matches in to newspaper copy. But I think it will be a while before they can really tell the story of a great match.

New New Media

The final thing I want you to consider is how your audience will be consuming media in the future. Google Glass has become a cliché but for reasons I won’t go into here, I believe it or something like it will take off. Some media will increasingly be about a form of digital peripheral vision, keeping you informed of what’s going on, while other media will remain an experience in its own right.

In summary then, I think the media world that you will be working in is one that is characterised by diversity. Many actors, many channels, many formats. Succeeding at PR in this environment will require a very clear focus on what success means. Too often clients and agencies alike lose sight of what the real goal is and thrash around chasing abstract numbers.

If you can qualify influence, learn how to tell a compelling story, and keep abreast of the diversity of media channels at your disposal, I think you probably have a bright future in PR.

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Through the Looking Glass: Tomorrow’s Office in the Post-Screen Age

Last week in Amsterdam I gave the opening keynote talk at the Office Products International conference. It was about the future of the office and the future of work itself. Below is a slightly edited version of my speech. You can see the slide deck in full here: Through the Looking Glass: Tomorrow’s Office in the Post-Screen Age

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If I say the word ‘bandwidth’, what does it make you think of? Broadband? Digital telly? Analogue radio? 3G, 4G?

Most of these are about communication. They can be measured. In frame rates and bit rates.

But what about a more short range of communication. The one between you and another person. Between you and your tools. I believe you can analyse the recent history of the office, and make some valuable assessments about its future, simply by looking at this physical and biological communications bandwidth.

My name is Tom Cheesewright and after fifteen years in the technology industry I now work as an applied futurist, helping organisations to answer a simple question: are you ready for tomorrow? My team and I work with a huge variety of organisations to help them to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of the future.

I’ll draw on evidence from them, and third party research, to present a vision of the future of the office to you today.

I’ll focus on four trends and opportunities.

  1. Enable Bionic Business
  2. Focus on Physical Space
  3. Supply Cognitive Prosthetics
  4. Reach Shared Spaces

The View from Your Window

There’s no doubting that today the view from your window today is not a garden of roses. Office products means a lot of paper, and though the promise of the paperless office is still some way off, slow attrition is getting us ever closer.

What is driving this?

The screen has consumed everything, becoming our primary interface with data, applications, and even other people.

There’s sound business sense behind this shift. Screens and the computing power behind them have made us more efficient. More effective. They have augmented the capabilities of human beings to the point where we are more productive than ever before.

The screen presents distractions of course. But look at recent headlines: we now have multiple, multi-billion dollar companies being built and run by under a hundred people. WhatsApp had perhaps just 60 people when it was acquired by Facebook for $19bn earlier this year. Instagram. Snapchat. All small teams running products supporting hundreds of millions of people.

You might argue that the valuation of these businesses in inflated. But there’s no arguing with revenue.

In the businesses I’ve run, we’ve been happy with turnover of £100k per head. According to some analysis by venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz, software as a service (SaaS) businesses typically operate with around one and a half times that.

By contrast, Google and Facebook turn over $1m per head.

How can they do this?

They can because their people are augmented by technology. They are hyper-productive because their capabilities, their processes, their interactions, their flow, is automated. These people are functionally bionic.

And they are not alone.

Like many other people I am now reliant on my digital prosthetics. I have always had a hopeless memory. I have no sense of direction. Without my smartphone and the cloud I would almost never be in the right place at the right time.

Bionic Business: The Automation Opportunity

Automation is happening. I will give some examples of how it is happening in various industries today later in the presentation. But there remains an enormous gap between the vanguard of this automation — the Googles and Facebooks of this world — and the rest of us. An opportunity that you can exploit.

Look at the tools and techniques that Google and others use: kanban, agile methods. Look at them and teach them to your customers. Then sell them the products that support these methods.

Some of these tools are digital. There are software as a service companies out there who would kill for your reach and trusted relationships. I know: I used to run one. It’s not the only opportunity though.

But a lot of the products that support the new ways of working are physical: white boards and giant post-its. Things you already stock. The opportunity is to give customers more reasons to buy them. Don’t try to sell more post-it notes, teach your customers how to use more.

Automation is coming and it is going to cost jobs and cannibalise some of your legacy revenues. But someone is going to have to sell the tools of automation to businesses.

Accelerando

I call myself an applied futurist because without the application, I would largely be a science fiction author. That’s not to knock the genre: sci-fi has been the source of some of the most coherent and compelling visions of tomorrow.

In his 2005 book, Accelerando, Charles Stross describes a vision of a computing device, worn as glasses, that is so completely tied into our senses as to be transparent. We forget where it ends and we begin, until it is taken away.

The technology that Stross describes is very much like Google Glass, ten years before this real technology will hit European high streets. I believe we will become as reliant on technologies like this as we already have on our phones and satnavs for memory and navigation.

There’s a lot of scepticism about this view. Google Glass certainly faces a design challenge. While they may look cool if you’re a model, the reality is somewhat more dorky.

This will change though. Already prototypes like this from design company Kopin are significantly more acceptable.

But the reason I believe this technology will take off is about utility not style. Imagine having a smart computer with almost direct access to your senses that can present you with the answer to questions you haven’t even formed yet. That can allow you to communicate instantly with anyone in your company. Imagine how much more productive that would make you?

Bad News

Right now you’re thinking this is bad news. Another screen. More technology. Fewer office products.

I don’t believe so. The key feature of feature of Google Glass is that we look through it, not at it. Technologies like this are becoming transparent, refocusing our attention away from the screen and on to the physical environment around us.

Glass isn’t alone. Check out this example from Thalmic Labs.

This shift to the physical might seem incongruous. Out of step with the general direction of technology. But I don’t believe it is. As technology has advanced it has increasingly come out of the darkened back rooms and into our world, enhancing our interactions with our environment and with each other.

Just look at Foursquare. Meetups. Checking in on Facebook. Just look at Tinder.

Focus on the Physical Environment

What does this mean for you? After years of investment in screens and keyboards, I believe the coming generation of technology, combined with the other trends I will talk about, will bring our focus back to the physical environment of our office space.

There’s a wonderful book on Generation Z by the trend forecaster James Wallman. He talks about how the generation now entering the workforce are more interested in acquiring experiences than material goods. I see it in my own younger friends and relations, who own a MacBook, a fixed wheeled bicycle, a beard and not much else, yet fill my Facebook feed with pictures of their holidays.

I believe this desire for greater experiences extends to the office. There will be a renewed emphasis on the space an employer provides, the objects it contains, how clean it is and what coffee they serve.

This is an opportunity.

White Collar Robots

That incredible productivity I talked about earlier with regards to Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and others, isn’t just restricted to Silicon Valley wonders. The automation that we have all been so familiar with in factories for decades is coming to call centres, retail, and even professional services.

With a product like Freeagent I barely need an accountant. If I didn’t hate admin so much, I wouldn’t have one at all.

In 2013 in the UK, half of all medium and large law firms merged or were acquired. What happens after this process?

The partners are fine. And actually the bottom tier of admin staff are fairly safe too: the firms largely like to keep local offices open.

But the acquiring business generally has a very effective middle: a cubicle farm of mid-tier workers, operating in a highly efficient, highly automated fashion. They don’t need or want another load of relatively expensive white-collar administrators: juniors and trainees. These are the people who get culled.

The lesson here is that if your job can be automated, it will be.

The Three Cs

The result of this automation, beyond the obvious reduction in the workforce, is that the nature of human work in the office is changing.

Office work is becoming increasingly focused on the tasks that remain uniquely human. These are what I suggested in a research project with the Institute of Chartered Accountants we should call the ‘Three C’s: Curation, Creation, Communication.

  • Curation is the ability to discover and qualify information.
  • Creation is the ability to synthesise something new from what you have discovered.
  • Communication is the ability to sell this new idea to your colleagues and customers.

These uniquely human skills can be augmented by technology in exactly the same way that our administrative skills are. But in this case, the technology is often very analogue.

Think about that measure of bandwidth again: bits per second. How fast can an idea be captured or communicated?

If you’re communicating exclusively to or through a screen then your bandwidth is sorely limited to just those few, flat pixels. Think about how much richer your communication is with the physical world. Every stroke of the pen, every scribbled word, every fold and crease.

Think about your interactions face to face: temperatures, smells, gestures, winks, pheromones and breaking bread. All your senses are engaged.

People wonder why it has taken so long for paper to disappear from the workplace but I think the reason is simple. It’s about bandwidth.

How often have you reached for a scrap of paper to scribble down an idea? Demonstrated a football formation with beer glasses and salt shakers? Dragged everyone around a whiteboard for an ‘idea shower’ or whatever the politically correct term now is?

Digital systems may be the best way to capture, store and share information around an organisation. But physical interactions remain more powerful ways to structure thoughts and quickly share an idea between two people.

A great example of this is in my last start-up, CANDDi. We had all of the digital tools we could want at our disposal, but do you know how we prototyped? With stacks of A4 and biros.

Cognitive Prosthetics

Today you can offer people more than pens and paper. There are so many cognitive prosthetics available to help people structure, capture and share ideas. To produce and prototype. Lego bricks, modelling clay to 3D printers.

These cognitive prosthetics are what human beings will increasingly need as they become ever more focused on the three Cs, the tasks of curation, creation, and communication.

Flexible Work

The other big trend in work in recent years has been flexibility. About where people work and when people work and how closely they are tied to their employer.

For some people flexibility is a bad thing and not a matter of choice: witness the growth of zero hours contracts.

But for others it is often a blessing.

Organisations like eLance are creating a global market for skills, enabling those in demand to drop in and out of work as their personal cashflow demands and driving up day rates for those with the right talents. The shortage of particular skills in this global market is driving up rates. In cities with a strong digital sector like Berlin and Barcelona, it is nearly impossible to convince a genuinely talented technologist to take a full time job because the freelance rates are so high. Geeks are getting paid the same as lower league footballers.

A culture of flexible work is building. Senior staff are being released onto more flexible contracts, allowing them to spend more time at home or taking on additional, perhaps charitable work. The old 9–5 is long dead, but in its place you find people who are more committed, more motivated, happier and healthier.

What is curious is where these people choose to work.

As we began to exit the downturn in Europe, construction on new office space ramped up rapidly again. But companies like Allied London focused on very different forms of office space: shared spaces for start-ups and freelancers are springing up everywhere.

Have you ever wondered how big cities could support so many boutique coffee shops? It’s because they are full of start-ups, freelancers and flexible workers.

Why?

A cynic might put it down to property prices and single households. People just don’t have any appropriate space to work in at home.

But a recent research report has proven what some of us knew intuitively to be true: proximity boosts productivity.

A study published in the Harvard Business Review recently showed that teams working in physical proximity complete projects 32% faster. They communicate 20% more, not just talking but via digital forms too. Working in physically grouped teams produced more ideas, more leaders.

Marissa Meyer’s policy of bringing everyone back to the office at Yahoo was not without grounds. Offices work.

This is why smart people choose to co-locate when they are starting new ventures, and it’s why organisations like TechHub, SpacePortX and HelloWork are building shared spaces for people to use.

Support Shared Space

The opportunity and the challenge for you here is to find a business model that allows you to reach the people in these shared spaces. You already sell to the serviced office providers, but what about the start-up spaces, the accelerators and incubators. What about the coffee shops? How about models that reach the inhabitants of these spaces more directly? I’m only half joking when I put up a vending machine.

Imagine the ability to buy pens and paper, but also lego bricks, modelling clay, white board pens, 3D printing supplies, coffee shots and oxygen cannisters, instantly and on the spot.

Interaction

While doing the research for this talk, I spoke to the supplier of a British supermarket chain. They used to supply them with 14 different grades and sizes of paper, before they finally rationalised down to the cheapest A4 they could negotiate. Every year, they use less.

I can’t suggest that any of the items I have suggested above will replace paper in this market. But they are all growth sectors that intersect with the apparent trajectory of office space and the changing nature of work in Europe.

The future of the office is much like its past: a place where human interaction drives financial growth. The challenge for this industry is understanding how best to support the changing nature of those interactions.

Tom Cheesewright