Nearly three years ago, when I started this business, it was as a vehicle to keep doing the things that I loved. Writing and speaking about the future, on the page, on the stage and on air. Helping clients with interesting challenges.
Through those interactions I came to develop a belief. That as individuals and as organisations, few of us are equipped to cope with the increasing pace of change that we all face.
That belief gave rise to a mission. To provide people with the tools and skills to adapt and thrive through uncertainty. To find new modes of operation that are fit for purpose in an exponential age.
Now I want to grow the community of people who recognise the same problem I have, and are looking for solutions. So over the coming months, Book of the Future will become a membership organisation.
It will be an iterative process but the first steps are happening now. Existing members/subscribers will see changes to the way we communicate and the way in which we share content. We will be creating means for interaction between members so that they can share thoughts and best practice. And we will look to offer more opportunities for training and development.
We will still do all the things we have always done: I will still be speaking, writing and consulting for clients.
The mechanisms for this are yet to be defined. But watch this space.
The Daily Telegraph covered Britain’s energy shortage recently with the headline “Britain could face blackouts if the wind doesn’t blow”. Clear about where the responsibility lay for the small margin between our generating capacity and consumption, the article went on to state that “the margin has eroded in recent years as environmental regulations force the closure of old coal-fired power plants.”
In case you didn’t know, since I wrote this piece last year, the forecast margin between our peak consumption and demand for electricity has fallen to 1.2%. To cope, National Grid has taken a number of emergency measures to boost this to 5.1%, such as paying large consumers to reduce their usage at peak times. But as The Guardian pointed out last year, “The now dismantled state-owned Central Electricity Generating Board at one time used to argue that a minimum capacity to cope with peak demand should not be less than 25%. “
How did we get into this situation? Well you could point to environmental legislation: the EU Large Combustion Plants Directive has played a role in the recent closure of coal and oil-fired power plants. But few would argue with the reasoning behind it — to cut emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxides. As the DEFRA website puts it: “These pollutants are major contributors to acid deposition, which acidifies soils and freshwater bodies, damages plants and aquatic habitats, and corrodes building materials. Nitrogen oxides react with volatile organic compounds in the presence of sunlight to form ozone that can adversely affect human health and ecosystems.”
Those evil Eurocrats. Who would want to stop that?
Of course it is not only coal and oil fired power stations that have shut, or are scheduled to shut. By my count (using this source and news stories), two nuclear stations have closed already and a further six are due to close in the next ten years.
Is this more green Eurocracy?
Nope. The LCPD doesn’t apply to nuclear power stations. So what do these stations that are closing or scheduled for closure have in common with the coal and oil plants that have shut?
The newest of these plants began delivering power to the grid in 1988, 27 years ago. The oldest? 1967.
When companies say that they have had to shut their plants because of environmental legislation, what they mean is that the technologies at the core of these stations is so old that it is uneconomic to control their very harmful pollution.
The reason we might not be able to keep the lights on is this: whether or not the wind blows, we simply haven’t built enough generating capacity in the last twenty years.
Now what happened twenty years ago that might mean we stopped building so much generating capacity? Privatisation.
This isn’t a tirade against privatisation — I try to stay away from the ‘big P’ politics in this blog. Rather it is a statement of fact: the state no longer has the powers it needs to keep the lights on for its citizens.
It’s not for lack of trying. Take the first new nuclear plant to be built in the UK, scheduled for completion some time in the mid 2020s at Hinkley Point in Somerset. The government has had to guarantee the operator of this plant a minimum price of £92.50 per megawatt hour, inflation linked, for 35 years. Similar prices have had to be provided to renewable energy companies to support their investment. Yet every year the margin of safety seems to fall.
It appears the private sector doesn’t want to take the risk on the long term returns a power station might provide. The government doesn’t seem to be able to offer sufficient guarantees to the private sector to make it attractive. And even when it does, it faces challenges over state aid rules.
Well we already import energy from Europe. And most scenarios produced by National Grid recently suggest this will continue.
But the big increases? It looks like it’s going to have to come from us folks: small scale generation. Combined heat and power. Community waste projects. Solar panels on your roof and batteries in your basement(Elon Musk will be delighted). And, of course, the continuing decline in demand.
This all presents a big challenge for the grid, which wasn’t designed for energy storage or distributed generation and will need major investment to transform. A level of investment the private sector will bear? That’s a post for another day.
I’m always looking for better ways to tell the story of applied futurism. The story itself is always evolving. If you’re a follower of this blog, you’ll know this. Every now and again I have another run at telling the story in a post.
It’s by Andy Raskin, a man with plenty of experience helping start-ups tell their stories. In it he analyses Elon Musk’s pitch for the Tesla Powerwall as a means to highlight the five key steps in any pitch.
Given that our business model is still evolving, I’m going to say Book of the Future still qualifies as a start-up after nearly three years (ignore the previous six years it existed as a blog).
Here’s a written version of our pitch, following these five steps.
#1 Name the Enemy
Our enemy is failure. In an increasingly uncertain world, in a constant state of technological transformation, organisations fail fast.
We beat failure by helping leaders to see their destiny early, and change it.
#2 Why Now?
Years of business theory has been based on doing what you do, just better. Iterative improvements in process, cost and quality. This is fine when your business model is going to survive twenty or thirty years.
But what if it only survives two or three years?
Every optimisation locks you further into what you do today. Every investment in the status quo makes it harder to fundamentally change the organisation.
Tomorrow’s successful leaders will build organisations that are engineered for constant transformation.
#3 The Promised Land
Imagine an organisation comprised of operational Lego bricks, interlocking components that can be rapidly reassembled to meet each new challenge.
Imagine a leader empowered with the tools of foresight to see challenges early.
We aim to provide leaders with the tools and training to create and run these organisations.
And we’re already half way there. We’ve built a completely new foresight tool to help leaders see the future, and a tool to help them tell that story.
Most importantly, we’ve created and tested with real companies a framework for building agile organisations.
Applied Futurism makes people uncomfortable. People don’t like change and we’re telling people that change is not an event now, it’s a state. It’s constant.
Applied Futurism isn’t something you can buy to solve a problem once. It’s something you have to do. And behaviour change is hard.
But we believe the realities of the market — and the public sector environment — will leave leaders with little choice. They will either adapt, using our tools or others, or they will fail.
We’ve now trained over 150 people in using our foresight tool, through the Institute of Leadership and Management and direct client engagements. Some of those people are self-taught, having purchased the tool direct from our website.
We’ve just used our Stratification framework for agile organisations to re-design a £200m business.
Our tools are gaining acceptance. And more and more leaders are coming to accept the nature of the environment in which they will be operating for the next few decades. An environment that demands a new approach. Applied Futurism.
In each engagement I find myself asking the same questions of clients to challenge their thinking. Here’s a small selection that are worth asking to your organisation. Each one represents one aspect of our five ‘vectors’ of technology-driven change.
Q1. What’s your next business model? (Agility)
It used to be that if you had a business model that worked, it would probably keep working for a few decades. The nature of your product, your customers, your supply chain and your channel was unlikely to change radically for some time, unless you were unlucky enough to start your business on the cusp of some major revolution.
Now those revolutions seem to come ever more frequently. The internet, mobile, affordable computing have all wiped out some models. AI, drones, self-driving cars, look set to wipe out many more.
How safe is your current model? Probably not that safe.
So what are you going to do next?
Q2. Can you name all of your competitors? (Diversity)
Researching the future kitchen recently I went on Ali Baba and found hundreds of Chinese companies selling kitchen units. I bet most British kitchen makers don’t know they exist. Or that they now have a direct route to the UK market.
Technology lowers the barriers to entry and increases the reach for suppliers, competitors and channels to market.
Are keeping a close eye on them all?
Q3. How fast does information move from the edge of your organisation to the centre? (Performance)
And is it untainted along the way? I ask this question every time I start work with a new client. The answer can be as much as 12 weeks. And on that journey the data has been translated, reformatted and ‘polished’ so many times that most of its meaning has been lost.
Just like a gymnast, an agile organisation needs close connections between its senses and its ‘muscles’. This can be achieved by pushing the power out to the edge of the organisation. Or by smoothing the pathways of information to the centre.
Q4. If there’s a technological advantage to be had in your sector, will you be the first to have it? (Ubiquity)
If you don’t take it, someone else will. And there’s almost always a new advantage to be found.
The way to stay at the forefront is constant experimentation, something too few companies invest in.
How experimental is yours?
Q5. Are you sure of your market’s boundaries? (Scale)
Every organisation seems to be competing across borders these days, one way or another. Retailers increasingly find themselves by foreign competition selling online. Brands find new brands gaining a global following before they’ve had a chance to respond. Even small, niche businesses are finding the long tail models of the marketplaces bring competition where none was expected.
Are you going to be challenged or be a challenger? Do you understand the tools and the traps of international communication and commerce?
LinkedIn recently revoked API access for most people. What does that mean? Other apps can no longer communicate digitally with LinkedIn in order to access its features and interrogate its data. You can no longer choose to share your data that you have stored in LinkedIn’s network with other apps in an automated fashion.
For me, this is a pain in the arse.
We had a nice integration between LinkedIn and our CRM system, Capsule, using Zapier. Every time I made a new connection on LinkedIn their details were added to our database and I was set a bunch of tasks to follow-up with them to see if they might be an interesting lead or partner. When LinkedIn turned off its API access, this slick automation died and we had to rig a rather uglier replacement.
Annoying, but there’s more than personal frustration here.
To me this is an example of a company being a poor net citizen (‘netizen’), and making choices that are likely to hurt rather than help it in the long term. The history of the web shows that companies who try to lock users into a closed platform tend not to fare so well.
First, it’s important to understand why LinkedIn decided to shut down access. From its statement from February this year: “…we’ve taken steps to refocus the Developer Program from primarily open APIs to partnership integrations that we believe provide the most value to our members, developers and business.”
The key words here are ‘our’ and ‘business’.
As Linkedin puts it in the same statement, “While many [applications] delivered value back to … LinkedIn, not all have.”
LinkedIn’s leadership clearly believes that applications like Zapier don’t add value to its business — even detract from it. I don’t think they like the idea of people programatically accessing the data in other applications that don’t necessarily remind the user of the value that they’re getting from LinkedIn’s service. Fair enough: I’m pretty sure my scraping all of the contact’s data into my CRM system was about as bad an application as they could imagine.
But what’s the alternative?
What the statement suggests is that people will only access LinkedIn’s data and services via its own apps or those of partners that it selects.
Look at the list of partners to date and you can see that you need deep pockets to partner with LinkedIn. The range of functions available is limited. Innovation is explicitly limited. No Zapier and no apps like Lowdown, pulling together all your meeting information (the apps remain, just not using LinkedIn data).
The people making these apps and hacking together integrations like mine won’t stop. They’ll just start to look elsewhere for useful sources of professional data.
LinkedIn may seem like a big beast but I’d argue that its critical mass isn’t so great that it couldn’t be displaced — relatively quickly once the momentum shifts. And moves like this definitely shift the balance to some extent.
The question is what will people move to? Will it be a LinkedIn clone that simply has more open policies around sharing? Maybe in the short term. But long term I think LinkedIn, and all social networks, are susceptible to a very different threat.
Think about the web page. Do we all build web pages on the platform of a single provider? No. We choose our hosting provider and our platform and we build web pages that conform to an agreed set of shared standards.
Think about email. As a gmail user can you only send messages to other gmail users? No. We all conform to a shared set of standards so that we can interconnect, whoever is providing our email service.
Why should something like LinkedIn be any different? Or for that matter, Facebook?
Imagine that when you buy broadband, take out a mobile phone contract, or set up a website, you’re offered a standards-based ‘page’ that replicates the capabilities of a social network like Linkedin. But rather than all being owned and controlled centrally, with one company making profits off your data, it’s distributed. Peer to peer. You own the data. You choose who can interconnect, manually or programatically.
It’s not an idea without flaws. But if you look at the history of the web, open has almost always beaten closed. Standards of one form or another have almost always beaten proprietary.
For me, this is what kills LinkedIn in the long term. And by closing its API, LinkedIn has only brought this end a fraction closer.
My take from digesting the works of these incredible thinkers is that we are entering a world of loosely coupled smaller entities, collaborating and co-operating when it makes sense to do so, and perhaps competing at other times. This is in contrast to an era of large monolithic entities, trying to aggregate power and purpose and maintain coherence at a grand scale.
That means power being devolved from states to cities; from CEOs to people at the edge of organisations. It means those organisations being typically smaller, interacting with external resource as needed. It means distributed infrastructure, not centralised.
Following these ideas through, from an energy perspective it seems likely that the fast pace of innovation in distributed generation and storage will outpace problematic large-scale generation.
In urbanisation, the solutions are unlikely to come from national policies or initiatives: rather cities and communities will find ways to solve their own housing/city centre issues through local innovation and the application of planning laws and devolved powers around tax and incentives.
Public spending will continue to be devolved and outsourced to the third and private sectors. If the current cuts regime persists (and I believe it will, into the next government, whatever flavour it is), I think we’ll see grassroots alternatives to welfare springing up, perhaps following pre-welfare/pre-NHS forms like saturday funds. You could argue the growth in food banks already demonstrates this trend.
These are initial thoughts than well-worked through analyses. I’m using them to provoke discussion at the ICAEW events.
I’d love to know what you think.
If you’re interested in booking futurist speaker Tom Cheesewright for your event, you can find more information here.
There’s a moment when I’m giving talks when I choke slightly. I have a little trouble getting the words out.
It’s when I tell people that I believe technology will be a bigger change driver than anything, including climate change.
I believe this only for a specific geography (the UK and some other northern/western developed countries), and within a specific time frame (the next 20 years or so). But even though I believe it strongly, I still find it a challenging idea, given the devastation that climate change will likely cause elsewhere within that timeframe.
The idea rarely gets the reaction in the room that I’m feeling inside. Are people so comfortable dismissing the effects of climate change? I’m always hoping to be challenged on this but never have been.
To be fair to the audiences, they’re not alone in paying scant attention to the threats. In a recent study of the risks facing major corporations, climate change didn’t even rank in the top 19 concerns for chief executives.
This survey was conducted by PwC, where a different division gave this stark assessment: “At current rates of de-carbonisation we would be heading towards the worst projected scenario of the IPCC, leading to significant chance of exceeding 4 degrees of warming.”
This is accountants talking science. Their language is extraordinarily tempered and conservative. But what they are talking about is floods in some areas and wars over water shortages in others. Drastic falls in crop yields. Extreme weather events and raging wildfires.
But we don’t like to think about that. And we probably won’t.