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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Mass and Niche. Scale and Diversity.

Pitching the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit around has put me in rooms with very smart people. And smart people ask smart questions.

Like yesterday, when someone asked if Intersections, our foresight tool, would be limited to recognising the future for the mass market and might be blind to different futures for more niche propositions.

I gave what I hope was a decent answer. But the question left me thinking. So I decided to use the lens of Intersections to examine it. And it turns out the answer is really interesting.

Intersections is predicated on the idea that here and now technology is the biggest driver of change. By ‘here’ I mean the UK, but it’s arguably true for any stable, democratic, developed country. By ‘now’ I mean for roughly the next twenty years, though we tend to focus on change effects over the next five.

Technology isn’t the only driver of change. And it isn’t the answer to everything: this isn’t about techno-utopianism. But it is the best starting point when you want to understand what is changing our world today, and how it will look tomorrow.

Technology is changing the world through five ‘vectors of change’: Diversity,Agility, Performance, Ubiquity, and Scale. The two we’re interested in to answer this question are Diversity and Scale.

The Diversity rule says that technology lowers the barrier to entry at every stage of the value chain. Simply put, technology means more of everything.

So our niche player should expect to see more competition, even in their niche. From competitors addressing their market, or even subsections of it, with a diverse range of models and channels to market.

The Scale rule says that the friction is falling at the intersections between companies and markets. That means that it’s easier than ever to cross borders and address adjacent markets. But it also means that the structure of businesses is changing as it becomes ever easier to rely on external parties to provide chunks of your operational stack.

What this suggests for our niche player is that the market is going to look something like the diagram above.

Some of the mass market will be hoovered up by vertically integrated propositions who offer a ‘one size fits all’ approach to dealing with the most common needs.

The biggest challenge to these mass market players will come from an aggregation platform that helps people to discover the niche (or just smaller) players, and conversely, supports the niche (or small) players in reaching the market.

Finally, a small number of niche players will have large enough niches to maintain a direct relationship with clients and the market*.

Where this starts to get really interesting is when each of the players in this market — those actually providing services — start to stratify* their businesses and share common components horizontally. This would allow them to operate with a very low cost base and make small but profitable businesses out of very small niches.

Where are the two biggest opportunities in this market for super-scale businesses?

Firstly, to be the aggregation platform.

Secondly, to be the platform underpinning all of the niches.

The really smart companies? They will look to be both.

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*Note there’s always some generalisation here. No business, particularly in the service sector, operates in such a singular fashion. It’s always more fuzzy than that.
*Stratification is our framework for agile organisations, one of the principals of which is that the low friction defined in the Scale principal means that you can assemble businesses from building blocks, not all of which will be owned, with a lower overhead from ‘outsourcing’ than ever before.

 

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

TEDxManchester: You Are All Bionic Now

I gave the opening talk at TEDxManchester yesterday. It was a cracking event with a great range of speakers, covering everything from parenting in war zones, to freestyle dance, to online dating and musical coding.

Normally when I do a talk like TEDx I post my full script afterwards. But the reality is that my script for this talk ended up quite some way from the words I actually said. In this case the script was really just the bones of a talk against which I planned the slide deck. What I actually said when I got on stage added a lot more detail that only really fell into place during the couple of days before.

So rather than posting my script to accompany the slide deck, I thought I’d post a summary and a few interesting quotes from my research material. You can see the full slide deck here: TEDxManchester — You Are All Bionic Now

Navigate with arrow keys (or just scroll on devices that don’t support the javascript behind it). And read on for the thoughts behind it.

We Are All Bionic Now

The central argument of my talk was that we are all bionic now. All cyborgs enhanced by the power of pocket and remote computers to which we have happily outsourced the augmentation of our mental functions. Satnav for our sense of direction. Shared photo and video stores for memories. Calendars and digital assistants. Search engines increasing our knowledge and aiding our recall.

Because our mental image of a cyborg has been defined as the direct interface of man and machine at a physical level — the Terminator, the CyberMen, the Borg — we have missed the fact that technology has overcome the issues that obliged this physical melding when the term ‘cyborg’ was first created back in the Cold War. We now have very high performance interfaces to and between our machines. Not only can they accept rich data from a range of inputs, but they can use their processing power to make assumptions to fill in the blanks. And when they need more power they can access it on demand over fast Internet connections.

Today you no longer need to have a chip in your head or your brain directly connected to mechanical body parts in order to be a cyborg.

And that’s good because the challenges we are facing now are very different to the ones that scientists faced back in the Cold War. In a stable, developed economy like the UK our challenges are much more mental than physical. The places we need augmentation are not primarily in lifting heavy objects or surviving harsh extra-terrestrial environments. Or for that matter, war zones (though this issue drives the continued research of more physical cyborg applications).

We use our cyborg powers today to filter the morass of content that comes our way. To navigate a world that is changing ever faster. And to inform and enrich ourselves with knowledge and media, for pleasure or to help us tackle the challenges of our work.

The next step is for portions of our personality to break off from the physical whole and become semi-autonomous in the cloud and in other devices. In a total reverse of the original idea of a human brain in a robot body, fragments of human thoughts, experiences, preferences and needs will be encapsulated in code and allowed to roam across the Internet doing our bidding.

A limited micro-clone of you will be in your self-driving car, remembering your address, preferences and even preferred driving style.

Another micro-clone will handle mundane shopping tasks, ensuring that not only do you never run out of toilet paper, but that when your preferred brand isn’t available you get the next best thing based on an understanding of you.

Perhaps there should have been a moral debate about whether we want to be cyborgs. But the reality is that we are now. The question we have to address is how far we want it to go. And what we will all do with our cyborg powers.

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Research

I found these excerpts from academic papers/books looking at the subject of cyborgs really useful — and fascinating,

“The use of the term ‘cyborg ‘ to describe a human-machine amalgam originated during the Cold War. It was coined by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in Astronautics (1960) for their imagined man-machine bybrid who could survive in extraterrestrial environments. NASA, which needed an enhanced man for space exploration, sponsored their work. According to the original conception, the cybernetic organisms would remain human in a Cartesian sense; their bodies (like machines) would be altered, whilst their minds could continue their scientific research.”
TechnoFeminism, By Judy Wajcman 2004

“By including gender [in the Turing Test], Turing implied that renegotiating the boundary between human and machine would involve more than transforming the question of “who can think” into “what can think”. It would also necessarily bring into question other characteristics of the liberal subject, for it made the crucial move of distinguishing between the enacted body, present in the flesh on one side of the computer screen, and the represented body, produced through the verbal and semiotic markers constituting it in an in electronic environment. This construction necessarily makes the subject into a cyborg, for the enacted and represented bodies are brought into conjunction through the technology that connects them.”
How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, N Katherine Hayles, 1999

“I believe that these figures embody the libidinal-political dynamics of the consumerist ethos to which young peoplehave been systematically habituated during the contemporary period. …the Cyborg has incorporated the machineries of consumption into its juvenescent flesh.”
Rob Latham, Consuming Youth: Vampires, Cyborgs and the Culture of Consumption, 2002

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

This Connected Life

I’m back in the city after my last post — both physically and figuratively. While my last post was written on a train journey to Norwich, this one was started in London and finished in Manchester.

I was in London to talk about the future connected life with experts from Gemalto and other commentators from around the world, including Dan Kaplan and Helen Keegan. It was a cracking chat, ranging from connected cars to biometrics, wearables to security. You can catch some of it here: https://www.crowdchat.net/chat/c3BvdF9vYmpfMTkyOQ

Two of the key topics for me were about how we and our devices connect to each other, and how we control the flow of our personal data into this mesh of services.

On the former point there seemed to be general acceptance that 5G won’t be a single network standard but rather a collection of different services or technologies that together provide the right speed, latency and consistency of service for the application at hand. That might be a sensor that only needs an intermittent, low bandwidth connection to dump cached readings. It might be a TV or tablet that needs an incredibly high bandwidth connection to stream UHD content. Or it might be a user conducting a video (or even holographic) call on the move.

On the latter point we all seemed to concur that for true security and privacy, we need to return control of personal data to the individual. Today the social networks and other leverage huge value from our personal data and we have little control over how it’s used or what value is returned to us. Huge corporate stores of our personal data present incredibly attractive targets for hackers. This all has to change.

In order for this change to happen, there will have to be advances on a number of fronts: legislation, education, and technology: we simply don’t have the tools to broker access to our data as required right now.

In summary, life in 2025 is likely to be even more connected than it is today. Our clothes, devices, furniture, cars, even toilets will be online. But there’s a lot of work needed to deliver the connectivity this new era requires, and even more to secure our data.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

This (Dis)Connected Life

I was the target of some misdirected anger yesterday. Appearing as I seem to do most days, on a regional radio programme to explain some aspect of technology, another guest took issue with my answers.

Her anger was entirely righteous. She lives in a remote part of Scotland barely served with telecommunications services. Some might argue that this is the price you pay for choosing to live in such a place, but I’m pretty sure that smug opinion would only last until they found themselves on holiday there or somewhere similar. Unable to get WiFi for their Facebook fix, or more importantly, a phone signal to call for help, they would quickly recant.

The reality is that reliable, fast broadband service is now a necessity in life and in business wherever you are. That’s not because of the tyranny of some imposed system, but because technology presents such an advantage to everyone else — and to the people providing the services you want to consume — that not having it it places you at a distinct disadvantage.

This is part of the mechanism by which technology drives change. It creates this competitive pull while also through constant innovation in price, performance and most importantly, accessibility, allowing ever more people to develop their own advantage. Growing pull, falling friction. The effect is a long, slippery slope getting ever steeper.

The lady’s ire was misdirected at me because she didn’t like my suggestion that the best bet for her and her neighbours to get more reliable internet access is through the mobile networks, not through DSL. She argued, rightly, that Openreach, BT’s arm’s length company that is responsible for the final mile of copper wire that connects homes and businesses, should be obliged to improve the connections to her area. After all, the government made a big pot of money available for precisely this and BT won every single bid.

Unfortunately, some of us have been lobbying on this issue for a few years now, and we know that waiting on a company that has an effective monopoly across large parts of the country to do something that — even with the funding — is unlikely to make it any money, is futile.

Instead of waiting on the government to beat a company, armed with lobbyists, into doing what it doesn’t want to, we should look for competitive pressures to do what government won’t.

As it is, even the very shape of the market is in the government’s control.

Firstly, the way the rural broadband schemes were developed made it almost certain BT would win every bid. Any future schemes need to be more open.

Secondly, competitors still pay significantly more tax than BT on laid cables. Given their current dominance, the tax regime should perhaps be skewed away from BT, rather than towards them, especially where local start-ups or community interest companies are the alternative.

Should these things happen it will still take some time for more competitive schemes to emerge.

In the meantime the best bet for lots of people is the rapidly advancing mobile networks.

A combination of infrastructure sharing, new technologies, and new frequencies, should give the mobile networks progressively greater reach and faster service across the more remote parts of England, Scotland and Wales. Much better than the service they provide today in these areas, which can only generously be described as ‘patchy’.

It’s not a perfect solution. Not even my preferred one. But it’s the one I think that is most likely to deliver in the near term.

And the competitive pressure it creates may even spur BT into action.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Disruption: More Heat than Light?

When is disruption necessary, and when is it wasteful?

Should a start-up founder be naive, or informed?

I’ve been wrestling with both of these questions this week, and I’ve yet to reach satisfactory answers. But I know that the answers are linked.

The questions have been independently provoked by events inside and outside this company.

First, a new organisation launched in the UK offering to ‘galvanise’ the tech start-up scene across the North. As someone who has been involved in the tech start-up scene in the north for a decade I’m immediately sceptical of such launches. Do we need more lobbying? More networking opportunities?

Or would it be preferable for those behind the organisation to throw their weight behind what is already there?

Are they offering something genuinely new or are they just naive? Even if they are naive, should we be critical? Maybe creating competition will drive action from others? Maybe more people in the market is simply better? Maybe they will stumble on something that no-one else has?

Maybe. I don’t know.

Then, someone questioned my creation of a new organisation for futurists. Shouldn’t I be throwing my weight behind the organisations that are already out there?

When I started this company I was undoubtedly naive. I’d been writing and broadcasting about the future for six years. I had some experience of professional futurologists, having worked with a few. But I wasn’t experienced in the tools they used. I wasn’t even aware there were organisations of futurists.

But I could ignore that lack of knowledge for one simple reason: people were offering me work as a futurist. So whatever else was out there, there was clearly still opportunity in the market.

This was the leanest of lean start-ups: sales came before any sort of product definition.

Three years later and I have learned an awful lot. I’ve engaged with other futurists and futurologists. I’ve seen how they work. I’ve tried the established tools. I’m confident that what I’m offering with the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit is very different to what else is available. Not so much competition to what is there already, but more of a new market segment for a different audience that perhaps haven’t traditionally been served.

The point is that I’m not sure I would have got to this point if I hadn’t set out without hope and a measure of naivety. If I’d spent months researching the market before making the decision, rather than jumping when someone offered me a gig, I might have decided that there wasn’t such an opportunity. I might not have stumbled across the gap that I did.

So to the founders of this new networking organisation I say ‘good luck’. Maybe you’re naive, maybe you’re already confident about what the market needs. Your chances of success are likely even either way, as long as you keep learning.

 

Tom Cheesewright