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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

One Step Beyond: WhatNext 2016

Over two hundred student entrepreneurs in a room is a sight to behold. A reassuring sight. It was in this company that I spent this Saturday, at the 2016 WhatNext conference, very successfully organised by Manchester Entrepreneurs, a student society.

I say it’s reassuring because what I told the audience when I spoke wasn’t all positive. I showed them the forecasts from the likes of Martin Ford, Michael Osborne & Carl Benedict Frey, and Boston Consulting. They are graduating into a job market where there is a whole new class of competitor: general purpose artificial intelligence. Pretty much every prediction sees huge swathes of today’s jobs being taken by automatons of one form or another.

Right now, we can’t see what is going to replace these jobs. What new classes of employment there could possibly be that will provide an alternative to the 900,000 plus retail jobs that were only this morning forecast to disappear. Or the millions of other roles that can be competently and more cheaply delivered by machines.

I’m not optimistic about us finding new sources of such large scale employment. But the scale of the attendance at Saturday’s event, drawn from just a few universities, suggests that there’s plenty of people willing to try.

That was the reassurance.

What I would challenge these enthusiastic entrepreneurs on, is where they are looking for inspiration. Where they will find the big ideas that will change the world.

The focus right now remains on all things digital. Particularly on Uber or AirBnB-style business models that leverage the lower cost of interaction that the Internet provides to create aggregators for services and resources.

While there’s clearly still mileage in the digital revolution, I think it’s time for more young entrepreneurs to be looking beyond and engaging with scientists outside of the computing department.

There are trends happening in energy, biotech, materials science, and arguably in political science, that might eclipse the current generation of digital start-ups in terms of their scale and scope. These trends have implications for the way our world looks, transforming the materials from which our clothes, homes, cars and cities are made, and making possible the construction of never-before seen objects. They have implications for the very structure of society: how we live, work and govern ourselves. And they have implications for our food, health, waste, longevity. What it means to be human.

Almost every start-up I meet right now is a combination of wannabe CEO and a coder. What I’d love to see at future meet-ups is more bioscientists, chemists and materials engineers, physicists and yes, political scientists.

Combine them with some of the enthusiasm and drive I experienced on Saturday and we might really be on to something.

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.


*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

The Ubiquity Test: Accessibility, Cost, Performance, Compatibility

I had a meeting with some of the Republic of Things team this week. They are bright people and as ever, they got me thinking. This time about the nature of Ubiquity.

Ubiquity is one of the five Vectors of Change that we use to forecast the future. These vectors form one part of our Intersections methodology.

What we mean by Ubiquity is that wherever technology can be deployed to deliver real advantage, someone will deploy it.

But in order for that to happen — in order for a technology to be truly ubiquitous and find all the niches in which it can deliver advantage — a number of things have to happen.


Firstly, the technology has to be cheap enough. Niche applications are found through experimentation. Experimentation by its very nature means failure: not all of your investment will deliver the hoped-for returns, even if it delivers valuable learning. If experimenting is hugely capital intensive, there will be fewer experiments and hence fewer niche applications found.

Even more simply, if a technology is cheap as well as useful, it is likely to returns in many more applications where it just wouldn’t make sense if it was expensive.

Rule of Thumb: If you can get started with pocket money (or in corporate language, less than the discretionary limit for expenses), then a technology is on the way to being ubiquitous.

Examples: SaaS CRM is probably a good corporate example, which in my experience made its way into many workplaces as a credit card purchase for the sales director. The per-seat licensing meant that they could get their teams up and running on SalesForce or similar without going through a big procurement exercise.

The IoT explosion is another one. At Republic of Things we reckon you can connect just about anything to the internet for £3 using off-the-shelf parts. Much less if you’re producing at scale.


If a technology is wildly complex, or even dangerous, to deploy, then its applications are going to be limited. For similar reasons to the cost. If fewer people can play with the technology, fewer experiments are going to happen and fewer niches are going to be found.

Rule of Thumb: If you need a PhD (or at the least a CompSci/Engineering degree) to get to grips with a piece of tech, it isn’t ubiquitous. If a passionate amateur, or even a school kid, can learn the fundamentals in a few hours, or copy and paste together something that works, it’s on its way.

Examples: The web is a great example of this: anyone can build and deploy a functioning web page in a matter of minutes.

From a hardware perspective, the Arduino team has done an incredible job of making microcontrollers easily accessible to the masses.


A technology is never going to be ubiquitous, however cheap and accessible it may be, if it just doesn’t deliver reliably. In other words, price and accessibility aren’t absolute, they form part of a value ratio against performance.

Rule of Thumb: A technology has to be surprisingly capable for the cost and deliver with sufficient reliability to be trusted in a real application.

Examples: Consumer-grade 3D printing fails the Performance test right now. Though the cost and accessibility has improved exponentially in recent years, the results just aren’t reliable enough for the mass market.


We live in an age of networked technologies. Nothing works in isolation. For a technology to be truly ubiquitous it has to easily interact with our existing systems and services.

Rule of Thumb: Standard and open? Good. Proprietary and closed? Bad. Unless that proprietary ecosystem is so large that it can create an impression of wider openness inside its boundaries (hello Apple).

Examples: I’m currently watching closed, proprietary systems inside client organisations being swept away by open, standards and web-based alternatives.

Right now it is closed-ness that is preventing home automation technologies becoming truly ubiquitous.

So, pick a technology and run it through the test. Is it ubiquitous or does it fall at one of these four hurdles?

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.



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:

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.


Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Citizenship in a Republic of Things

I’m giving a talk today at DACAS (Data and Cities as Complex Adaptive Systems) about the future city. It’s based around a theme I’ve been strumming for a little while now: that the future city is essentially a live environment that shapes itself. Here’s a cut down version of my script:

“Today the majority of physical change in a city is down to manual interventions by us knocking structures down and building new ones. There’s lots of revolution and little evolution (sorry for the cliché).

In the future I believe that structures equipped with sensor networks (nervous system), computers (brain), and a variety of actuators (valves, switches, 3D printers, construction robots, and active materials — all making ‘limbs’), will be able to evolve much more iteratively to meet the needs of their inhabitants.

They will make both transient decisions and structural ones. Sharing resources, and creating new ones as required.

Transient decisions might include:

  • Lighting offices on one side of the building at the ground floor if the building identifies that the passageway to its side is dark and there are pedestrians
  • Venting stored heat towards an adjacent bus stop when temperatures are low
  • Releasing excess generating capacity from solar cells on the roof to a neighbour in a reciprocal arrangement.

Structural decisions might include:

  • Changing the shape of an entrance way to smooth traffic flow based on an analysis of people’s movements
  • Partitioning a meeting room based on utilisation
  • Moving entry points to place them in proximity to public transport

Each of these decisions will require an interaction with third parties. Some of those interactions, such as with planning and safety regulations, can be relatively easily codified today. But others will require a much more nuanced approach: how do you allow smart buildings with multiple owners and stakeholders to interact for everyone’s benefit?

This isn’t an answer I’m afraid, but here’s a series of areas that need to be considered.

Responsibilities: How do you key a structure into the needs of its inhabitants and those that only experience it from the outside? Those with which it has no explicit relationship but towards whom it should still behave as a ‘good’ citizen?

Resources: How do you represent to a machine the resources that it can access, both material and human? The reality is that human beings are likely to be the most adaptable functionaries for these smart buildings for some time to come, given the state of the economy. How can it both communicate to its peers the resources it can share, and carry instructions to those that support it?

Rights: How do you tell a building what it is allowed to do? Safety is a clear consideration but so are planning regulations, and perhaps most problematic of all, aesthetics. Is there a future discipline of generative design that establishes rules by which something acceptable and in keeping with building’s architecture will always be produced?

Interaction: Codifying these things only has value if it can be done in a form that allows the structures of a city to interact with each other, and with the stakeholders in their work: human citizens, government, public bodies, and private.

For this to happen we need to establish an open platform for conversation between entities. A single space for interaction with a common set of rules that everyone follows: a true internet of things.

The challenge I leave you with is a big one: how do we create this? Most of the conversations I have seen to date about the policy of the smart city has been about defining human control and interaction. We need to start thinking about policies for the new citizens of our smart cities.

The citizens of the republic of things.”

Tom Cheesewright