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Virtual Data, Physical Impact: BIM and Smart Cities

Yesterday I gave a talk at the Pinsent Masons BIM conference. For the uninitiated (and the BIM community was described as a ‘priesthood’ by one attendee at the conference), BIM stands for Building Information Modelling.

BIM means many things to many people. Its value and its implications are very different depending on where you sit in the value chain, and it is a field that is constantly evolving. But fundamentally it is about improving the process by which spaces and places are designed, built, operated and ultimately, destroyed and recycled.

My interest in BIM comes from its role in the future city and this was the theme of my talk, an exhortation to the audience to think beyond the immediate challenges of cost savings and collaboration, to a world where buildings and infrastructure come alive and play an active role in a responsive city environment

Normally I’d share my script from such a talk, but the truth is that my words were themselves evolving right up to the moment I stood on stage. The script as written doesn’t bear a huge amount of resemblance to what I actually said. So here’s a précis. You can view the deck here (if you’re interested it’s built in HTML and CSS using the impress.js framework).

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My interest in BIM stems from an interest in smart cities. ‘Smart city’ has become a bit of a dirty phrase recently, tainted by excessive marketing hype from the large tech companies. But I remain a fan, convinced that making our cities smart is crucial.

In the short term it is crucial because we need to run our cities cheaper. We cannot afford to be profligate with energy, water or building materials.

In the medium term smart cities are important because they present us with the chance to live with less impact on the planet. Cities are already the greenest way to support large populations. Smart cities can be greener still.

And in the long term, perhaps most importantly of all, I believe smart cities can be better places to live. Not because we are protected by unending surveillance that seems to be the current trend, but because the city itself learns from our behaviour and adapts constantly to improve our lives. In transport, accommodation, planning and other ways.

This vision cannot be realised without BIM. And not BIM as the computerisation of what has gone before. Not BIM as a way to do things cheaper — the overwhelming narrative in much conversation on the subject. But BIM as a way to give living DNA to buildings and infrastructure in a way that make them evolve and respond, change and react to our needs. That enables the buildings to interact with the other components of a smart city ecosystem to mutual benefit.

This idea presents many challenges. In this symbiotic relationship between citizen and city, building and business, we each must be willing to share much more than we perhaps have before. Particularly data: data about our behaviour as individuals. Data about the performance of our buildings. Data about the construction and operation of assets.

I don’t have answers these questions yet, but the vision I believe justifies the search to find them.

The first step may be to re-establish what we mean by a smart city. The term has become controversial due to technology-driven experiments around the world that have arguably focused on efficiency over humanity. It reminds me of the old teacher’s joke: “school would be great without the children.” Cities without citizens would be incredibly efficient, but clearly pointless.

Architects, artists and those of a more cultural bent have pointed out the soulless nature of many new-build smart cities. They don’t feel like places we’d want to live — and we won’t. Most of us, at least in this part of the world, will live in developments of existing cities.

The furore around mechanisation and automation ignores an important reality. That there is a desperate need to make our cities more efficient today. To ensure that in construction, operation and maintenance we waste as little as possible, both for the sake of the finances of the city and more importantly for the sake of the health of the planet.

Technology presents us with a way to do this. A way to minimise our use of resources, and maximise their re-use.

Today retro-fitted smart cities like Santander are starting to see real results. Bin lorries saving fuel through dynamic routing to bins that need emptying. Parks consuming less water because they’re only watered when needed, not on a fixed schedule. Citizens able to park minutes faster thanks to smart spaces that let them know when they’re empty. And of course the ubiquitous lights turning off automatically.

To the naysayers, I say ‘be patient’. For me the optimised city is just the first step. The drive for optimisation is simply providing the financial cover for us to add a nervous system to a currently inanimate city. This is the first step in bringing our infrastructure alive.

Sensors, switches and data networks may be a form of nervous system but it is at best an analogue for our autonomous functions. The only intelligence there is embryonic at best. But before we get to that, we need to give the building some sense of identity. We need to return to the building its DNA.

Imagine a building, equipped with the self-knowledge embedded in its DNA, and with sensors that give it real-time information on its use and performance. Intelligence in the building could begin to make suggestions for its own enhancement. Moving doors or partition walls here or there based on the flow of people and heat. Not just optimising but enhancing.

Imagine with new materials it starts to gain the ability to make those changes itself. Living constructions and 3D printers.

Now imagine that building playing a role in a city that is itself equipped with the systems to understand and respond to our needs — at the very least informing planners and governments with much more empirical evidence on what is required than has ever been available before.

Some people are even going a stage further. Believing that the combination of this data with a degree of direct democracy might give us the tools to see into the future. Imaging roadtesting planning decisions on a virtual version of our cities before they are implemented for real.

This may seem like the stuff of science fiction today. Clearly there are some immediate challenges to address when the latest Pinsent Masons survey suggests so many people won’t meet the 2016 deadline for reaching Level 2 BIM. But now is the time to have this discussion. To consider the issues of contracts and confidence, privacy, data and schema, that will need to be addressed if this idea of a living city is ever to become a reality.

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If you’re interested in booking futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright for your event, you can find more information here.

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What Does Futurism Do For You?

So, I had a sore head from banging my head against the internet. That’s where I left things in this post. Trying to move Book of the Future from a time-based, to a product-based business, I had failed miserably to find a message that connects with the audience.

Then a few things happened.

Firstly, I had a meeting with my mentor. As I’ve said in this blog before, if you don’t have one, get one. My mentor, as ever, got to the crux of things with a few simple questions: “who are you selling to?”

The key word in this question is “who”. Our strapline has been for a long time: “We help people and organisations to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of the future.”

We mention ‘people’, but that’s pretty impersonal and non-specific. And none of the products we have developed so for have been for people. They’ve been for companies. However much you care about your company — whether it’s your own business or your employer — it’s hard to get emotional about tools for your company.

Tools that help you though? Maybe that’s different.

Features and Benefits

The next thing I realised is that perhaps I have made a schoolboy error for an experienced marketer. I’ve confused features, with benefits.

‘See, share and respond’? These are all functions. Features. Things that we do. Not benefits.

We need to better understand the value that we bring to a business — and most importantly to you — by doing these things.

Kawasaki

In the meeting with my mentor, we also discussed the emotional connection that our products make with prospects. How do we appeal not just to their logical or practical need but to their desires? Clearly at the moment we don’t do a great job.

Guy Kawasaki talks about this a lot in his tenth book, Enchantment. Thanks to Blinkist I got the digested tips from this last night.

Bringing it Together

Part of my message since I started Book of the Future has been that businesses can no longer set a direction and follow it blindly for years at a time. Constant evolution is required. This is clearly most acute in the start-up phase, but two and a half years in, my own business remains a living example.

This latest evolution is a big leap: from time-based to product-based revenues. My previous experience trying to spin a product company out of an agency told me this would be hard and I wasn’t wrong. But I’m beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

We have to show people — individuals — a vision for a new way of working. One that makes them more effective. That makes their work more fun — a crucial component I believe. And that makes their company more sustainable in the face of an increasingly uncertain trading environment.

Watch this space.

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Google: Is The Mission The Problem?

Yesterday, in a moment of calm in an otherwise whirlwind schedule, I found myself reading a section of Jaron Lanier’s first book, ‘You Are Not A Gadget’. I do love it when companies have a great bookshelf in their waiting area (note to self: buy a bookshelf and a sofa for the new office).

In it, Lanier paints a very negative picture of the web’s — and particularly Google’s — reliance on advertising revenue. He suggests that a web that was working well wouldn’t need advertising to make it work: “a working, honest, crowd-wisdom system ought to trump paid persuasion”.

This was a very relevant thought, given that I was spending the day bouncing between TV and radio studios commenting on the EU deciding to pursue an anti-trust case against Google.

Use or Abuse?

The EU’s argument is that rather than always working on the consumer’s behalf to deliver the optimum result to any given search query, Google has unduly prioritised its own products — maps, music, shopping comparisons, flight times etc. Given the importance of search (various studies suggest that upwards of 80% of some purchase categories now start with web search) and Google’s dominance of that space (60–90% depending on market), this is unfair and limiting to competition and innovation. And ultimately damaging to the consumer — though this last bit is inferred. Whereas in the US, the effect on the consumer would be the test for abuse, in the EU it is enough that through using/abusing its dominance, Google has limited competition.

Using Periscope, I asked people for their feedback on this issue throughout the day. They were understandably split: some people thought that in a capitalist system a company should be unrestrained from using its success in one area to dominate others. That ultimately if other people offered better products, the consumer would choose appropriately. And that there was evidence of reasonable competition in both the search market and the others that Google was being challenged on.

Others believed that markets only ever work with due regulation, and that companies must always be restrained from abusing their dominance in one arena to dominate another.

Not ‘If’ But ‘When’

I fall somewhere in the middle. I do believe that competition will win out in these situations. Nature shows us that monocultures are not very sustainable. Business history shows us that large companies usually fail to innovate as fast and as well as small companies. I come back to one of my favourite quotes on this, from Princess Leia: “the tighter you clench your fist, the more systems will slip through your fingers.” If Google tries to grasp all of its adjacent markets too tightly, it will rapidly lose its hold on the consumer.

But competition, like democracy, can be a very, very slow process. The intervention of a regulator is perhaps not about ‘if’ a company’s dominance and abuses will be challenged, but about ‘when’, and the damage that might be done in the interim.

What You Mean and What You Want

I think this presents an interesting parallel between the regulator’s intervention, and Google’s decision to get involved in the markets it is now being challenged on. Go back to Google’s original mission. Not ‘Don’t Be Evil’ but rather its mission to deliver ‘perfect search’. Larry Page described it as a system that “understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want.”

You could make a very strong argument that Google’s integration of information like maps, flight times, and shopping prices is a natural extension of this mission. By removing the extra click between your query and your answer, Google does indeed come closer to giving you ‘exactly what you want’. And its investment in these services has advanced their quality faster than might otherwise have been the case.

Fiction Faster Than Fact

This brings me back to my original point — or rather Lanier’s. That Google’s advertising platform (which delivers 90% of its revenues) represents a failure of the system. I don’t think that it does.

I can launch an advert on Google now and have it appear on the front page of a set of search results the same day. To do the same waiting for the algorithm and the wisdom of the crowds to do the same might take weeks or months. That’s true even if my page is the absolute most relevant page to what the person is searching for.

The fact that Google and the web as a whole has an alternative navigation route that is based on paid advertising is not an indictment of the Web as a system. It is a recognition that algorithms, democracy and the wisdom of crowds do not necessarily move quickly. Sometimes we need (or at least want) a means to go faster. The means are often flawed, but you can understand the need or desire.

Advertising exploits this gap between fast and slow. Just as, I believe, Google’s intentions in getting involved the markets it is now under scrutiny for, were about delivering against it’s vision faster.

The Verdict

Does that justify Google’s behaviour? I’ll leave that up to the EU.

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Nothing Sells Itself

I have a sense of déjà vu. It is not pleasant.

After I joined CANDDi full time (I was a founder but still engaged in another business in its early days), I spent a long time searching for that elusive thing: product market fit. The emotional trigger. The unfulfilled need.

Call it what you want. It is the most important thing in any business. The ability to connect what you have with what someone wants. What they will pay for. To make that crucial connection with a prospect and convert them.

I’ve never found this easy, despite all my years in marketing. I don’t think anyone does, though I’ve always found it easier from outside than in. Struggling to connect your own product with the market is intensely painful. Every failure extremely personal.

I’m going through it again right now.

If this business is to scale, it can’t be based on selling time as it does today. I’ve been there before, running an agency. It’s a grind, carving out new project opportunities from one month to the next. The early days of Book of the Future have been somewhat the same. Thanks to the profile I have these days and the novelty of the proposition, there’s been a fair amount of business just turning up at the door. But even with some active business development, it’s still uneven — feast and famine. I’m looking for something more stable, as well as more scalable.

To scale this business based on time alone, I would need to start recruiting and training other futurists. Without wanting to blow my own trumpet, it’s a rare skill set. I can think of a few people who I would like to employ — some of them know who they are. But every hire would be high risk and deliver — at best — incremental, and relatively low-margin growth.

I’m looking for a little more than that. And in any case, as any agency boss will testify, growing a time-based business is a rocky road, strewn with obstacles and with only a shallow wall to stop you from going over the side. You’re only ever a few bad months from disaster.

So it is that I find myself moving to a product-based model, deep in the world of search and social advertising, landing pages, and analytics. I wish I’d spent more time listening at SASCon.

I’m experimenting to try to find a connection with the market for Intersections. This is the tool I’ve developed to help busy executives and business-owners to think about the future in a time-efficient way.

Where exercises like Scenario Planning might take months of research and wipe out an executive team for a day or more, Intersections can be completed by an individual in a matter of hours. Instead of vague and debatable outcomes it gives five clear priority issues for a company to tackle. Instead of something you run every five years, it’s something you can — and should — do every few months.

Everyone to whom I’ve given a copy of Intersections loves it — and these are critical people.

But that’s very different to convincing someone to pay for it.

If the message isn’t right, if it doesn’t resonate, then even convincing people to give up an email address is hard.

As an intermediary step in the promotion for Intersections, I’ve offered a cut-down report on the current five macro trends on which the system is based. To get the report you hand over an email address. But without a resonant message people won’t even do that — even when they have clicked through an advert with the same message.

This all sounds very downbeat. And this is where I was at earlier this week.

But I think there’s an answer. And it’s to do with emotion…

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Everybody’s Talking (and Streaming)

So Periscope huh? That’s become a thing real fast hasn’t it? Probably the most common notification on my phone over the last week has been someone else launching a broadcast. It has also been the most common call from the media looking for comment.

It’s the latest step in an incredible power-shift away from the centralised media and towards the individuals. And in the growth of an incredible problem around discovery and verification.

Let me be clear: the big broadcasters and media owners remain incredibly powerful. But this power is increasingly reliant on their ability to discover, curate and qualify other sources — sources that don’t begin and end within their walls. This places their power on a somewhat unsteady footing, and leaves them much more open to challenge.

Imagine someone creates a way to attribute the trust carried by The Times, The Guardian or the BBC to a solo blogger or self-broadcaster. Like an eBay seller ranking for news or original content. Something that says: these facts are checked, this content is original. This is at least in part what the Google search algorithm has been trying to do in part for many years. Imagine they make it explicit: ‘this site has a trust rating of X, a quality rating of Y, and an originality rating of Z’.

Imagine if someone creates a way to curate stories from around the world with the reliability and scale of a major broadcaster or newspaper. Again, there are lots of attempts to do this, either automatically (Yahoo News Digest) or manually (Flipboard). Back when CANDDi was on the Difference Engine, Postmates Basti Lehman was working on a curation app — plenty of VC money seems to be going into similar ideas.

The irony is that it is the legacy media owners who are in the best position to deliver something like this. They have the reach. They have the trust. They have the capital. Some of them have made moves in this direction: blog networks and the like. But today these seem more like cheap traffic-drivers than a strategic attempt to reinvent the media and roll with the changing realities.

This is a space we’ll be watching as part of our ‘Future Communications’ segment.

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A Sucker for the Game

It’s happened again. A game has got its claws into me.

The recipe is not unfamiliar. Yes it is sci-fi and superhero-based, aspects that will always catch my attention. But it’s also about the mechanics. Turn off your dirty minds for a second, but I like to grind.

With few exceptions (I remain a demon at Street Fighter 2), I am not a talented gamer. I am reminded of this every time I try to play against another human and get my ass handed to me. Repeatedly. From Goldeneye on the N64, to Counterstrike, to COD, it’s fair to say I suck at gaming.

So when there’s a game that allows me to progress through sheer persistence, it tends to appeal. If it involves virtual currency and upgrades — whether its to skills, ships, cars or in this case, champions, I tend to get hooked.

It just so happens that I am trying to get hooked on some more productive ‘games’ at the moment. For a start, I am back on a diet. After using an app (MyFitnessPal) very successfully two years ago to lose a couple of stone, I found to my horror a couple of weeks back that I had piled much of it back on (that’s Christmas for you). So I’m back to logging: all my food, all my exercise.

Now some of this (steps) is automated, but you still have to remember to log your food. MyFitnessPal has done a very good job of making this as painless as possible. But what if it was as rewarding as I find playing Contest of Champions?

The concept of gamification has been much discussed over the past few years but I think there has been a missing ingredient: personalisation.

Imagine if you could buy a series of game-based skins for apps like MyFitnessPal — or even more boringly, your time tracking or expenses applications? The same mechanics as with the games that seem to have such mass appeal but with the underlying ‘grind’ mechanisms being powered by tasks of real value?

I can force myself to complete my timesheets and food diary because there are real benefits. But wouldn’t it be great if it was fun?

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Four Segments of the Future

With spring finally here, it’s planning time for many businesses, including Book of the Future. Now’s the time to pull out those futurism tools folks. What do you mean you haven’t subscribed to the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit yet*? Go get it.

As part of our transition this year, we are changing the way we break down our business. I’ve already written about changes in the way we communicate our consulting proposition. We will also be changing the way we break out our different content streams.

Increasingly (following some tweaking to the website), we will be focusing on four key segments: Future Human, Future Business, Future City, and Future Communications.

Future Business

Book of the Future looks at tomorrow’s business, from the micro start-up to the world-spanning corporation. How will money move one way and products the other? How will organisations change and how will they change their environment? What skills and talents will be valuable in tomorrow’s enterprise, whether it’s for profit or for charity?

Future City

Book of the Future looks at tomorrow’s towns and cities in every aspect. How they are built and governed. How we live in them and move through them. The technology that powers them and the environment that surrounds them.

Future Communication

Book of the Future looks at the networks that connect us. Telecommunications and media, social, physical and digital. How are they changing and how will those changes, change us? Our behaviours, our opportunities, our governments and our workplaces?

Future Human

Book of the Future examines what it will mean to be human in the future. From careers and culture, to health and happiness. We look at the changing nature of society and our participation in it, and the technology that increasingly surrounds us, and may soon become part of us.

*Note this link has been updated to point to the latest iteration of our futurism tools.

Tom Cheesewright