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2016: Year of the Niche

On Saturday morning, 2nd Jan you can see me on Channel 5’s Saturday Show. One of the questions I’ll be asked is ‘what’s big for 2016′? In case I don’t do a very good job of answering it*, here’s what I hope is a better attempt.

In 2016 it will become clear that the niche trumps the trend.

Fashion is a funny concept. The idea that people of a whole range of shapes and sizes, tastes, cultures, colours and personalities will each season choose to sport the same set of styles? I’m sure you could make sense of it with some pop-evolutionary psychology: that it’s a status marker, or creates a sense of belonging. In fact, a quick google search throws up a number of academic papers and presentations to this effect.

But in a globally connected age, with access to so many different options and influences, do we all need to dress the same?
Our sense of belonging doesn’t need to be established with the people who are geographically close to us. Or more likely, we can suffice with a smaller group of local peers if we know we’re a part of a larger tribe online.

With access to global supply chains, we can source the fashion to suit our style at any time, and suppliers can find a market for products that previously may have been too niche to manufacture economically.

This rule doesn’t just apply to fashion. It applies to music, film, and television. We may all get swept up in Star Wars fever but at home we’re watching a hugely diverse array of programming.

The same rule applies at work as well. The low-friction nature of international, digital commerce seems to be dividing companies into ‘platforms’ and ‘players’. Platforms are horizontally relevant (across industries), high volume service providers that connect and support others: Google, Amazon, Facebook. Everyone else is a player: small, niche companies offering high value in small volumes, to an increasingly global market**.

Fashions and dominant trends, in any sector, are not going away. But I believe their importance will decline as the oracles that we each follow begin to diversify.

* Let’s just say I’ve seen the future…
** This makes the middle ground much harder to occupy, something I will write about more.

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Why piracy is a scale problem

Last night on LBC I was asked to comment on the latest video piracy figures from TorrentFreak. For the second year running, Game of Thrones was the most pirated TV show, with more than 14 million downloads for the season finale. This is a significant increase from around 8 million for last season’s finale in 2014.

The point I made to LBC’s Olly Mann last night is that this increase has to be put into context. There may have been 6 million more downloads than last year, but there are around 300 million more internet users. Somewhere between three and four billion (it was 3.2 billion in May according to the UN).

The nature of the internet means that a huge and growing proportion of these users will have been exposed to the hype and discussion around Game of Thrones. People want to know what the fuss is about, and even with all of HBO’s efforts to simultaneously release the show across 170 countries and deliver it direct via its HBO NOW app, there are a huge number of people unable to access the show that they have heard so much about.

Or to do so at a rate that feels reasonable.

The cheapest way to watch the series in the UK legally is with a Now TVsubscription at £6.99 a month. There’s no arguing that this is good value, especially if you binge on the whole series in a single month, or enjoy all of the other content it has to offer. But there’s no ‘snack’ price for single episodes available in a low-friction fashion that might give people a direct alternative to torrenting. And there’s no way to watch the content offline, as you can with a download — a popular option judging by the number of people you see watching GoT on their laptops while travelling between London and Manchester*.

People are not inclined to criminality. If you don’t believe this, take a peek outside your thin, fragile window and see if there’s a rampaging horde out there coming to smash it, kill you and steal your possessions. There isn’t. The vast majority of people follow the rules we’ve all laid down, not just by law but more importantly by shared convention over thousands, even millions of years.

The crime of internet piracy is not as visceral as straightforward theft because we are physically detached from any victim and unconvinced of the impact. Our evolved conventions are much more powerful than our imposed laws in shaping our actions: a few keyboard taps just doesn’t feel like a crime without an object to be removed and without our peers to witness it. Especially since we are not ‘removing’ anything: we are simply copying. ‘File-sharing’ is technically a much more accurate term.

The pirating of TV shows and films is a crime that I believe many people would not commit if there was a truly direct alternative that was available to the whole, global internet community equally and offered the same possibilities as the download experience.

*It’s worth pointing out that many people who do torrent Game of Thrones and other shows may have paid to access them legally in other ways. What if someone has a Now TV subscription but wants to watch GoT on the train? Torrenting is the obvious option. Likewise if someone has purchased a DVD or Bluray but wants to watch a film on their tablet: should they be expected to buy the same intellectual property many times over for different devices? Industry attempts to address this issue (like Ultraviolet) have not been very slick.

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The Next Star Wars Might Be Real

As the cost of reaching space falls and the rewards rise, tension will mount. The next cold war could be in a vacuum.

On Tuesday the top story for many of the UK’s news outlets was not about ISIS or immigration, flooding or welfare, murderers or paedophiles. It was about a man going into space. An unequivocally British man* heading to the International Space Station on board a Russian spacecraft, with a Russion pilot and an American as a fellow passenger. Everything went to plan (well mostly).

The biggest news in the country was good news.

There has been a lot of space news recently and much of it has been good. After years of stagnation in the progress of our ability to leave the atmosphere, the interest of a few billionaires has sparked a new space race. We can expect the price of getting to space and back again to fall dramatically in the coming years.

So what then? It may not all be good news.

People want to go to space for very different reasons. Countries and corporations all have what may be conflicting ambitions: exploration, expansion, acquisition, tourism, and security. Not everyone is going to play nicely.
Just look at what is happening now in the South China Sea, where China has effectively annexed large parts of the territorial waters of the Phillipines and Malaysia by building naval bases on reefs. Such actions are explicitly against international treaties that they have ratified.

International treaties of the type that also address claims to space.

China has a big space programme. As does India. Both countries are likely to be economically and militarily our superiors for years to come. Corporations may well have greater access to space than we do, and they aren’t always keen to toe the line when it comes to international law.

There’s a reason that the UK’s first national space policy outlined this week was strong on national security, as well as commercial opportunities.

Today we are already deeply reliant on access to space for all manner of services as well as our security. Access to space is going to be increasingly important in the future, as mining and manufacture move out there and colonisation of space becomes a realistic prospect.

More and more rockets will be going up. Which means there will be more and more tension.

The next cold war could be conducted in a vacuum.

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*Though not the first Briton in space by any means — nor the first on a space station, That honour goes to Helen Sharman all the way back in 1991.

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Four Fears for the Future of Drones

I’m talking to Sky News later today about the future of drones — the domestic variety rather than the military ones. I think there are four areas we really need to consider: safety, security, privacy and pollution.

Safety

Put simply, what goes up, must come down. Let’s do some very rough maths.

The highest you can legally fly a drone in the UK is 400ft or about 122 metres. A drone like a DJI Phantom 3 weighs around 1.2kg. I don’t have one to measure but I’m guessing it’s cross sectional area when flat is around 0.2sqm — though it would likely tumble as it fell.

I’m going to suggest it’s like to be travelling around 110mph or 50m/s at the point it lands on someone’s head, delivering 14KN of force, assuming their head moves by about 0.1m as the drone comes to rest on it. Or rather in it: that’s plenty to crack your skull.

At least I think it is: there’s a reason I never became an engineer.

Drones have all sorts of safety measures built in to stop this happening. Like returning to base when their battery is low. But people tinker and tamper all the time. And go way beyond the technical and legal limits.

Drones don’t need to fall to cause damage. They could interfere with a driver’s concentration, or get sucked through the engine of an aircraft. And that’s all before…

Security

…people choose to use them to cause harm. The payload of a drone is more than enough to carry explosives. Explosives are fairly easy to make. And even if you can’t, you might only need a naked flame to cause some serious harm. As our military has shown, drones can be used as weapons and consumer grade drones almost certainly will be repurposed as such at some point in this country.

Even if they’re not blowing things up, many drones have high-grade cameras built in as standard. More than high enough resolution to capture secrets, though they are noisy enough that it might be hard to do stealthily (see below).

Privacy

It’s not just state secrets that we will need to be concerned about. We are already the most photographed age in history by many orders of magnitude. Drones allow people to put cameras where maybe we don’t want them: over fences and up to first floor windows. Frankly even in the high street: we all have a right to privacy and drones are a spectacular way to breach that right. I doubt your average user flying a drone over a park is collecting consent forms from everyone.

Pollution

Though drones are yet another disposable collection of heavy metals and oil-based plastics, my concern here is not primarily about thousands of drones filling up landfill. It’s about noise.

Drones make one hell of an irritating noise. This is good in some ways: it makes it harder to use them to breach security and privacy. But when drones become a fact of every day life it is going to be seriously problematic.

There are moves to address this with clever changes to the rotor design and the number and performance of engines.

But for now, drones? They drone.

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Is Clutter for the Chop? Obsolescence, Obsolete?

The ‘cultural forecaster’ James Wallman published a book last year called ‘Stuffocation’. In it he suggested that we should increasingly focus on things we do over products we buy. Be more experientialist than materialist.

The book was in response to the increasing problem of consumer clutter weighing us down. But I’m not sure how long this is going to be a problem. Because much of the stuff we buy is either being digitised, or rented, or it is becoming more robust.

Media Digitisation

Much of the stuff around our homes is media of one form or another: books, films, games, newspapers, magazines. But these things are increasingly served up digitally to a device rather than consumed in a physical medium. The result is lots of digital clutter — a challenge in its own right — but though gigabytes may fill up your hard disk, they do not fill up your home.

Of course even the digital stuff doesn’t become clutter if you rent it rather than own it. You just have the challenge of discovering and accessing the stuff you want, when you want it — a different challenge altogether — as Spotify and Netflix demonstrate (and invest heavily to overcome).

Asset Efficiency

It’s not just media that is increasingly rented: there’s a strong argument that any asset that gets underutilised will increasingly be borrowed rather than owned. Uber is aiming to do this with vehicles, one of the most under-used assets and one that, with the advent of self-driving cars, will be ripe for attacking with an alternative business model.

We increasingly share and rent our homes later in life, with more people already owning their homes outright than having a mortgage. Though social rentals are declining, by 2025 more people are expected to be in private rentals than have a mortgage.

Our phones are effectively leased, or at least are on hire-purchase. As are many of our other devices these days.

There’s a limit to what we actually need to own.

The End of Obsolescence?

The devices that we do own appear to be lasting longer rather than shorter times. We may not behave like this culturally, but the reality is that many of our devices are highly capable long after their prescribed window of value.

I recently bought a ten year old car (see here for my bangernomics practices) that drives like it is new. I have a seven-year-old laptop that is still more than capable for all the things that most people use a PC for. Because so much of the content and services we consume now exist in the cloud, the demands on the devices at the edge are often not that great.

As the business model for homes, cars, and digital devices shifts, the imperative to build in obsolescence starts to disappear. As the company financing the purchase you WANT the products to maintain their function and hold their value. If you can’t convince a manufacturer to make you products that fit your brief then the chances are that you will make your own: the barriers to entry for designing and manufacturing all of these products are falling.

This theory doesn’t address all categories of clutter: clothes, for example. But imagine if we could find a way to incentivise the production of jeans that last a decade. Shirts that don’t succumb to stains or wear and tear.

None of this helps with the coming jobs apocalypse that seems to be looming. But it may help us to save the planet. And if Wallman is right, to be a bit happier.

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The Tools to Shape Tomorrow

I’ve become a little evangelical in the last few months. The more clients I engage with, the more I realise that we have a real mission ahead of us to change the way business is done in this country — and beyond.

Put simply we, as a business culture, have spent the last fifty years learning how to optimise.

The next fifty will be about learning to transform.

Technology has stripped away the friction from the movement of information. That friction was the primary means by which business models were defended: it was hard for someone else to know what you did, how you did it, and replicate it. It was characterised by limited access to information, high start-up costs, and strong geographic boundaries.

These barriers are all falling.

Now competition proliferates at every stage of the value chain, from supply to customer communication. And there’s not just more, there’s more variety. New, better, faster, cheaper ways of doing things are emerging all the time. A sustainable business can no longer defend the position it has.

It must seek to capture new positions all the time.

The best businesses are now places of constant experimentation. Rapid expansion but also rapid contraction. They know how to recognise failure, accept it and learn from it with minimal cost and pain. They accept uncertainty and expose themselves to it in order to learn.

The tools of business that we have relied on for years are no longer fit for purpose. We need a new way of doing things that is fit for the future.

That is what we have developed.

We call it the Futurist’s Toolkit.

Today it consists of three tools:

  • Intersections: a fast and focused Foresight tool to identify immediate threats and opportunities
  • Arcs: a Narrative Planning tool that shapes an organisation’s story of tomorrow, communicating the need and compelling action from the audiences that matter
  • Stratification: a framework for Agile Organisation Design that centres businesses on customers’ needs, speeding the flow of information and embedding adaptability

To fulfil our mission we know we need to share these tools. To equip an army of Applied Futurists to take on the mission of advancing business across Britain.

So from January 2016 we will be licensing them to marketing agencies and management consultants, business coaches, accountants and lawyers. Forward-thinking people who support established businesses across the country and help them to improve.

If you want to be amongst the first to access the Futurist’s Toolkit, sign up for our email list at bookofthefuture.co.uk and we’ll email you when the service is live with an exclusive discount code taking 20% off your subscription for the first 12 months.

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Don’t Work For Money

This isn’t another self-help piece, exhorting you to do what you’re passionate about. Good as that advice is, for those privileged people who have a choice, I’m not in the business of motivational speaking.

Rather it’s about why we work.

Probably the most famous study of our motivations was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s a much-criticised study, but it’s simplicity (diminished over years of refinements) has secured it’s place in blog posts and PowerPoint presentations around the world for over 70 years. The Hierarchy suggests that have to fulfil our base motivations — survival — first, and only then can we start working towards the ultimate goal of ‘self-actualisation’, via safety, social and self-esteem needs.

You can replace ‘self-actualisation’ with ‘doing something you’re passionate about’.

Less well-known are studies connecting employment and poverty to crime. Simply summarised, there is a stronger negative correlation between employment and crime than there is between wealth and crime.

If you’re poor and in work you’re less likely to commit crime than if you are richer and out of work.

What this speaks to is the importance of work in the definition and reinforcement of our sense of identity. Our value. Or as Maslow would likely put it, self-esteem.

Being usefully engaged in work gives us an engagement in society, and a place in it. It gives us rewards for a job well done, not just financial but social. If we’re usefully engaged we can stand up straight and be proud. We know who we are and where we stand.

Note the caveat here: ‘useful’ work.

Take bankers, for example. A much maligned class of worker, and perhaps for good reason. A study last year showed that bankers were more inclined to dishonesty but only when decisions were placed in the context of their work.

Is this perhaps because much of the work of banking isn’t socially useful?

In the next few decades the total number of jobs available seems likely to decline with increasing automation. Having listened to Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne expound on their research first-hand, I’m increasingly convinced of this. Listening to Richard and Daniel Susskind talk about the future of the professions only reinforces this view.

Without a radical shift in the way we value work, many of the jobs available to humans are going to remain poorly paid: social workers, care workers, nurses and more. Jobs that are undeniably socially useful and unlikely to be displaced by automation, even though they will be enhanced with technology.

We will have to consider rebalancing this distribution. And we will have to consider what the rest of us will do to remain socially useful.

The risks are high if we don’t. At the extreme, Charles Taylor points out that an ‘identity crisis’ is a major factor in the recruitment of young men to join ISIS/Daesh.

If we don’t find new ways to engage more people — usefully — in work in the coming years, we could find that there are many more dislocated, disenfranchised people finding such causes to take them in.

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Three Things I Want from Engineered Evolution

At the How To Change the World conference this week we heard from a range of speakers who talked in one way or another about the control we will soon have over our own physical development. It included the application of stem cells and other techniques in the regeneration of human tissue and organs — even to defeat ageing. And the use of psychedelic drugs to consciously expand our own thinking and change our brain plasticity to enhance learning. The options are many.

Whether through biology or technology — and frankly the boundaries between the two are blurry, given the importance of quantum physics in both — we are now in control of our own evolution. Natural selection is no longer the force it was. What traits we want to select, we have to choose, or even design. At the conference, Professor Julian Savulescu termed this ‘evolution under reason’, but you could equally call it ‘rational selection’ or ‘engineered evolution’.

This throws up a number of ethical dilemmas, particularly around the prospects for inequality, as today’s debate around gene editing is highlighting.

Assuming we can address those to the satisfaction of most — at least the rational portion — the prospects are rather exciting.

I’ve always been rather squeamish about human modification. Tattoos and piercings are not for me. And no, I’m not interested in the spam adverts for other forms of male enhancement. But there are certainly aspects of my abilities over which I would like greater control. Particularly the mental ones.

Here are three examples that are top of my wishlist.

Focus

Like most people there are particular times of the day when I am at my best. The exact hours change between summer and winter but it’s always first thing in the morning. It’s not always possible, or desirable to be at my desk by 7. And if I miss my window, which may only be three or four hours at most, then my day can be deeply unproductive. I might still plough through some expenses or achieve the rare feat of clearing my inbox, but I likely won’t create anything, and that’s largely what I get paid for.

There are other periods in the day when I get bursts of creativity, but these are less predictable. Even the usual methods of seeking distraction, or inspiration, or just letting my brain freewheel on a walk, often don’t give me more than a few minutes of renewed focus.

But what if I could turn this mind state on and off. With a switch or a pill? What could I achieve then?

There are a few options here today for this. I could try drugs like Adderall and Ritalin, but these are both illegal without prescription and have serious potential side effects. Similar drugs pop up as ‘legal highs’ but these carry all the same risks and more. If I were going to pop a pill I’d want it to be very well tested and regulated.

I could also try Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation or tDCS, an increasing popular alternative to drugs for DIY brain hackers. But again the science on this is in its early days. While there are enthusiastic proponents, my natural scepticism leads me to want some solid trials before I start to experiment.

The answers aren’t there yet, but there are clear opportunities.

More RAM

Computers have a neat way to deal with a shortage of short-term memory. They dump a chunk of it into long-term memory and then retrieve it when it’s needed.

Humans do something similar. Some can do this with their own minds, with pretty reliable recall. I am not one of those people. Instead I rely on tools: notebooks, apps, my calendar, photos.

I once tried to replicate the computer’s process more precisely. I maintained what I grandly called a ‘livepad’. A single cloud-stored document, always open, on which I could record notes, ideas, my todo list, unfinished blog posts. It worked for a while but my limited interface to it (the keyboard), unreliable connectivity, and simple lack of discipline meant that I dropped it after a while.

Imagine something similar, with a better interface, and a level of intelligence to it. A place where you could record ideas that could be replayed back to you at the right time. The added intelligence in the pad may even help you to find coherence and commonality in those ideas, as well as assisting you with more mundane tasks, like remembering where to be and when.

High Bandwidth Interface

I think in words, more than pictures. Language is my preferred interface, and the way that I record and share language most frequently is via the keyboard.

The keyboard has proven to have incredible longevity. It is perhaps three hundred years old, based on the earliest patents. But it has limitations. I can only communicate words with it (for the most part). It is not that fast — certainly not in my hands.

I could try to learn to touch type, but even then I am limited to a relatively cumbersome interface. I can’t capture my thoughts on the move (though I do a decent job of writing blogs with my thumb while travelling on packed Tube trains). I could use a voice interface, but this isn’t exactly private and could be very annoying for those around me: I talk loud.

Instead I want the words to flow straight from my brain to the page, or the storage system.

This is some way off unfortunately. Though we are reaching the point where we can control artificial limbs with thoughts, the understanding of the brain on which this incredible achievement is based remains limited. For all our comprehension it is still largely a black box to us.

Evolution in Our Control

These are examples of what we might be able to add to human physiology in the years ahead. Even the drugs could be added to new glands as they are in Iain M Banks’ Culture novels. But they are elective and trivial compared to some of the choices we will have to make soon. We will have the capability to eliminate some genetically-carried diseases by selectively editing people’s genomes.

With that sort of power in our hands, we all need to think about the implications*.

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* If you want to make a start, you could do worse than to watch this video from Professor Julian Savulescu:

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The Hive Mind is a Commons

In a recent LSE lecture, the historian Ian Morris noted that the greatest progress in human history often happens when civilisations bump up against each other. They might exchange slings and arrows, or bombs and bullets, or for that matter, bacteria and viruses. But they also exchange goods, ideas, foods, culture and technologies.

If this is true then you could argue that one of the reasons for our current accelerated rate of progress is the now constant overlapping of civilisations. We interact with others from around the world at multiple levels.

This globalisation has positives and negatives that have been well documented and oft-debated. But one that seems to have become accepted is that a natural result of globalisation is the domination of a small number of ideas — most notably in the form of brands.

You could call upon any high street around the world as evidence for this. Familiar brands populate the prime spots.

But for me these brands are relics of the pre-Internet age. It takes a long time to build up the scale and reach to place a branch of McDonalds or Zara in so many locations. In the low-friction digital environment, companies might achieve this scale much more quickly but that presence will be much less durable.

I’ve long been a sceptic about the durability of companies like Facebook, and I remain so. But even if they do sustain, it’s somewhat irrelevant to the wider point: systems like Facebook are platforms over which others ideas are shared, more than ideas in their own right. The ideas they allow to be shared are more diverse and numerous — and visible — than ever. Not singular and homogenised as previous iterations of globalisation might suggest.

Just take a look at the diversity of topics that form tumblrs, the array of themes on deviantart, or the bewildering range of conspiracy theories. All of which can be expressed and find an audience like never before.

These ideas are competing. And we can only hope that some of these ideas lose that competition, whether its fundamentalist terrorism, or the misogyny of trolls.

But if and when they do lose, I don’t believe the diversity of ideas will diminish. The more rapid integration of global ideas may help us to find consensus in some key areas. But such is the freedom we now have, to access knowledge and to synthesise and express new ideas based on what we have found, that I think the diversity of ideas will continue to grow, not shrink, for some time to come. While some ideas are defeated, or at least returned to a small minority of minds, others will continue to co-exist, and still more will be introduced.

The hive mind that the Internet has created is not a recipe for homogenisation, as earlier forms of globalisation may have been. It is a commons, a space in which many ideas — creeds, brands, behaviours, interests, cultures — can and will co-exist.

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These Are the Droids You’re Looking For

My generation of geeks was raised on Star Wars, Transformers and Terrahawks. OK, maybe I’m the only one who had nightmares about Zelda, but these shows were important. They defined for us the robot as something physical. A creature of action and interaction, hewn from steel and silicon.

Today the robots that excite us most continue to follow this model. From Boston Dynamics’ Atlas to the new Star Wars’ BB-8. Lifelike androids and sleek drones.

But these will not going to be the robots that have the greatest impact on our lives in the near future. Instead, these are the droids you’re looking for:

1. The Office Bore

The first place you’re really going to notice robots in the next few years…

Actually scratch that. You probably won’t notice them at all. You’ll just notice that half your colleagues have disappeared. And not because some Hal-esque machine is bumping them off.

The Office Bore is a limited artificial intelligence that cane be rapidly programmed to replicate many human tasks: administration, customer service, reconciliation, data entry and correction. All the sorts of white-collar busy work that should have been eliminated the first time around in the digital revolution, but wasn’t because none of our systems talked to each other properly and we designed the user interfaces so badly.

A limited AI can overcome problems like a lack of interface between systems by pretending to be a human being when it needs to. Because processing power is so cheap now, the efficiency overhead in this is less of a problem.

The Office Bore lives in the machine, never sleeps and just quietly gets on with the tasks it has been set, forever. It won’t kill you, but it might take your job and you’ll never see it coming.

2. The Phantom Pilot

Human beings are an expensive, and let’s be honest, unreliable way to pilot machines. As I often point out, we’ve long known that machines can fly and drive better than we can: the US Navy first handed landing on aircraft carriers over to machines back in the 60s. It’s only a matter of time before machines replace us in the drivers seat altogether.

Self-driving cars that carry passengers will be held back by regulation. But small parcel delivery drones — on wings and wheels — will likely be here before too long.

Human beings do have the advantage of being good, general purpose units: once we drive a truck somewhere we can then get out, find the right parcel in the back, take it to the right door (sometimes) and find the right person to give us a signature. Robots that can do that are still some way off, but the sake of cheap, reliable delivery we might be willing to do some of the work ourselves or engineer alternative solutions.

3. Jack of One Trade

If there’s a repeatable task, physical or mental, then the chances are a machine can do it faster and more reliably than a human. As the cost of technology falls, you’re starting to see highly-specialised machines enter all sorts of trades. Like the variety of models of robot bricklayer entering the market now that can allow one person to do the work of many, and do it faster.

It’s estimated that the construction industry needs a million new recruits by 2020 to meet the housing targets laid out before yesterday’s increase to 400,000 by George Osborne. Not all of those million new recruits are likely to be human.

4. The Thin Controller

It now costs a tiny amount of money to connect something to the internet. With Republic of Things we do it for under £3, just using off-the-shelf parts.

The cost of cloud-based hosting and processing power is also trending towards zero. Which means that you can now put a lot of intelligence into just about anything for very little money. Book of the Future’s ‘law of ubiquity’, one of our five Vectors of Change, says that if there is a competitive advantage to be had from the application of technology then someone will do it. And competitive pressures will force everyone to follow suit (as long as the advance proves attractive to consumers: no-one needs a connected kettle).

There will be little pieces of smart technology in just about everything before too long: ‘thin controllers’, sensing data, learning and responding, like a Nest heating system. Doors that self-shut and lock if you forget. Tables that detect and charge devices. Lights that control themselves.

5. Pepper Potts

With all these slightly-smart devices around, and a wealth of information sources vying for your attention, you’re going to want some help controlling everything and filtering the signal from the noise. This is where your personal assistant, Pepper, comes in.

Pepper is also cloud-based but with access to all your personal information: contact books, banking, social networks, calendars, communications. She knows you better than you know yourself and interfaces with the digital devices and services that surround you to optimise them to your needs. She can control your environment, organise your diary, even shop on your behalf.

Now Iron Man fans may think this sounds more like JARVIS. So why have I called her Pepper? Because Pepper ends up running the company…

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The Nonsense of the Knowledge Economy

The phrase ‘knowledge economy’ has always raised my hackles. Maybe because it’s usually spoken by a politician whose knowledge of work doesn’t stretch much beyond campaigns and committees.

My rather flippant response has always been to question the value of a knowledge economy when most facts can be discovered with a few taps on any smartphone.

In preparing a talk for the annual conference of the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships, I have found myself developing the argument somewhat beyond the facetious.

Not another commodity

On one level, my instinctive response was right. The issue is in treating knowledge as facts, and thinking that those facts in themselves have a saleable value.
If the fact in question is a new scientific breakthrough or piece of service or technology design then it does have a value that can be traded.

But in this accelerated world the value of this knowledge differential is smaller than ever.

For a start, some of the most powerful facts in the world are increasingly shared: just look at the technologies that underpin so much of our lives. They are open, shared, and as a result their is no value in knowing them, only in the skills to utilise them.

You can’t sell someone HTML but you can sell them your time to manipulate it.

Even if the fact you have discovered or the design you have created is unique and defensible, its lifetime is now shorter than ever. The rate of progress means that in short order it will be replicated (legally) or superseded totally.

If you are to monetise your knowledge you have to do so quickly.

Platforms and Players

The narrow definition of knowledge as a collection of facts is clearly problematic. But I believe that even a broader definition of a knowledge economy incorporating skills and experience is limiting.

Picture a ‘knowledge economy’ built on this basis and you imagine two primary forms of industry: intellectual property and the human services around them. Neither of these things on their own or when combined describe the transformational businesses reshaping our world today: platforms.

Increasingly it appears the world — both public and private — is being divided into ‘platforms’ and ‘players’.

Platforms are collections of services that span multiple horizontal sectors or service large populations and use this super scale to do so at small marginal cost. Amazon, Facebook and Google are good examples, though they themselves are supported by the global collectively-owned platforms of the Internet and the Web.

Players operate above, below or between these platforms, adding a measure of value — usually on a per-hour basis — to a much smaller audience. but at a higher margin.

To me, today’s definition of a knowledge economy does not provide for the creation of platforms. Only players.

Agile and Diverse

So what’s the alternative to a knowledge economy? The advice will be familiar to anyone who actually pays attention when doctors give sensible advice about healthy eating.

A balanced diet.

If we are to have a competitive economy, one that creates platforms as well as players, then we need to ensure that we develop two characteristics. Agility and Diversity — words that will be familiar to any regular reader of this blog.

Firstly, we need to ensure that what new knowledge we develop is applied fast. That the relationship between education and enterprise is closer, allowing us to leverage advantage in the small window that it provides us with a differential. We need our organisations to have greater foresight and the agility to act on what this foresight shows them.

Secondly, those organisations need to be diverse in nature. The coming wave of automation will likely hit the white collar jobs hardest, first. All of the ‘knowledge industries’ on which we have prided ourselves — finance, law, accounting, and even technology — are ripe for massive disruption. They need to be balanced with manufacturing, energy, farming.

Platforms can only scale if they can support large, diverse customer bases. Without exposure to this diversity in our domestic market we are unlikely to develop platforms that can then grow globally*.

No More Prescriptions

The reality is that any political prescription for the type of economy we need — knowledge or otherwise — is going to be wrong. Reducing this complexity to the size of a soundbite will always leave the proposition sounding one-dimensional.

And a successful economy will always be an ecosystem, not a monoculture.

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*I concede this may seem to be in conflict with my earlier post about Unicorns. To some extent this is a question of timescales. While we have the economy we do, we want it to be a success. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be seeking to disrupt its foundations in the longer term.

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Learn to Learn Faster

The Three Cs are all you need to know: Curation, Creation, Communication. As I’ve explained on this blog before, these are the three sets of skills that I believe will stand anyone in good stead for their future career. In an age of accelerated business and widespread automation, people who are strong in the Three Cs will remain in demand.

Having written about Communication recently, I thought I’d tackle Curation.

What I mean by Curation is the skill to discover and qualify information. This is slightly different to the way the word may be used in the context of content marketing or an art gallery or museum.

I’ll take it in two parts.

Discovery

Discovery is about knowing how to ask the right questions in a number of contexts. It’s about the ability to identify a problem and even from a very small knowledge base, begin exploring it until you can start to find a solution.

This is challenging because when facing a completely new problem you often don’t know the language to use to shape the question. The language in which the answer is written may be as unfamiliar to you as the problem itself. But through an iterative process of asking questions, absorbing answers, and using the new knowledge to ask better questions, you can begin to explore.

This is perhaps best illustrated with search strings. The first place most of us turn for an answer these days is to a search engine. But what do you type to get the answer if you’re exploring something completely new? You start with your best-guess approximation, learn from what it returns and progressively refine until you find the answer.

Qualification

When you find that answer, the skills of qualification kick in. How do you know you can trust what you have found?

Too often people take what they have read on face value and compound the error or untruth by sharing it to their own networks. The skills of qualification are about building tests in your own mind based on your existing knowledge and what you can glean from other sources around the topic you’re examining.

Some of this may become almost intuitive: inaccuracies often just ‘feel’ wrong to those with a sceptical nature. Some of this may be based on acquired knowledge: a quick bit of maths can often tell you that a reported number must be false. But sometimes the qualification can only come through rigour and discipline, double and triple-checking with reliable sources.

Self-Directed Learning

Together, discovery and qualification represent Curation, a fundamental skill for self-sufficiency in the future workplace. In a fast-changing environment we will all need to learn to learn faster and there often won’t be people who can teach us because we are the first — in our own organisations or anywhere — to do what we are doing. The ability to recognise a barrier, define it and scale it, is invaluable in that situation.

So ask yourself: how good are your curation skills?

Tom Cheesewright