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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

If I could call a referendum…

The lecture series shared by the RSA and the LSE are two of my favourite sources of input. That these two institutions share, for free, the thinking of some of the brightest minds in the world should be lauded, and if you don’t take advantage of them already, I’d highly recommend it.

Listening to one such lecture, on crime and why people commit it, I had a thought.

We are all surrounded right now by noise from both sides of the EU debate. It tends to be more heat than light, emotion than fact. Even the ‘facts’ are somewhat suspect, cherry-picked and skewed by each side in a clumsy attempt to sway the floating voter.

The debate is highly ideological because no-one really knows what would happen were we to leave. My strong suspicion* is that after a couple of decades we would end up in largely the same place either way. It’s just that one route would be rather more painful than the other.

The point is that there is sufficient uncertainty about the result that people can, and do, make impassioned and sometimes compelling arguments on both sides. And facts alone cannot settle who is right.

This is not the case in all areas of policy. Sometimes we know what works. What approach will help us to achieve the most desirable outcome.

I’m not talking about ‘big P’ politics here: left and right, high tax or low tax, public services or market economy. Rather I am concerned with the ‘small p’ political decisions. In many ways, the ones that really matter to people’s lives. More operational decisions about how we handle issues like crime reduction and public health improvement.

Here there are often tested and proven strategies. Science offers us answers.

Unfortunately these answers conflict with people’s instinct and ideology. For example, better sex and relationship education doesn’t increase sexual activity in young people, but it does reduce risky behaviour leading to pregnancy and STDs.

Likewise with crime. As Tom Gash points out in his talk, and book, we know that offenders given a role with status on leaving prison are much less likely to re-offend. But instead our conversation is always about harsher sentencing.

Now I don’t think many people would disagree that cutting the number of unplanned teenage pregnancies and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is a good thing. No-one wants to increase their chances of being a victim of crime. Nor do they want to bare the enormous cost of the people we keep in jail (around £65,000 to first imprison someone and then around £40,000 per prisoner, per year).

And yet, we are not doing the things we know would deliver these universally desirable outcomes. Because they are counter-intuitive, or go against our deeply held — if ill-informed — beliefs.

So here’s my referendum question for the public. One I think would improve all our lives much more dramatically than being in or out of the EU:

“Given a prevailing weight of scientific evidence, subject to rigorous standards of validation, should the government implement policies that can be shown to improve public health or reduce crime and its impacts?”

Sounds daft when you put it like that, doesn’t it? Of course they should.

It’s far from a perfect question. You could probably add an ethical oversight dimension in there. That’s not without risk, but it’s also not beyond governments to select the science that suits them to rather unpleasant effect.

If you were brave and confident, you could broaden the scope. But imagine if, just within the confines of public health and crime, the government was effectively obliged to follow proven approaches rather than engaging in ideological banter with its opposition.

Wouldn’t that be a better world?

*Much as I’d love to, I can’t afford the time to do a deep dive on this right now unless someone asks/pays me to do so. What the whole issue does show is that organisations need a great level of agility and the ability to run their own foresight processes in order to deal with so much uncertainty.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

GeoBusiness: Location is the key to synchronising our two worlds

I’m giving the keynote at the GeoBusiness conference at London’s Business Design Centre in Islington this morning. Followers will know that the built environment has become a bit of a hot topic for me. Smart cities, BIM (Building Information Modelling), and more.

As someone looking into these fields as an observer rather than practitioner, what I try to do in these talks is get up above the weeds and give an overview, looking both at today and — importantly as a futurist — at tomorrow.

When looking at the geospatial information space, what I realised is that location is the key to synchronising our physical and digital worlds.

Right now we inhabit a primarily physical world, and interact with the digital world through tiny windows: our smartphone screens and laptops. Our interactions are very manual, sometimes clumsy and always narrowband: there’s a hard limit on the richness of our communication.

A series of technological steps in the coming years, sometimes sequential, sometimes in parallel, will transform our interactions with technology. The division between our digital and physical worlds will disappear.

Firstly, we will begin to be immersed in digital worlds through virtual reality. This is a technology that is not without limitations but it is a great step towards transforming our expectations when it comes to interacting with data.

For me a much more important step is augmented reality. The overlaying of our physical world with digital objects. The demonstrations by Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens have been truly astounding. I think it’s only a matter of time before we exist almost permanently in a mixed reality like this. If you think about the amount of time we spend in front of screens today, it is only a natural extension that the screen becomes a permanent appendage. I’m not saying this is objectively a good thing (nor bad) but likely.

Third though, and arguably most important, is the bleeding of digital reality into our own physical space. Call it what you like, but formerly dumb objects all around us are getting smart. Buildings, cars, trolleys, cupboards etc etc etc. I’ve proposed the idea before that we are equipping our built environment with many of the qualities of life, and I truly expect it to ultimately become semi-organic in its behaviour, evolving and adapting. If we get it right, it will evolve and adapt to our needs.

None of this is possible without location data. What is where, to a very high degree of accuracy. Location in three dimensions is the key to synchronising our physical and digital worlds. You can’t create a virtual representation of the physical world, or an entirely digital one, without an understanding of space. You can’t locate digital objects in physical space. And you certainly can’t give digitally-driven devices autonomy.

Eventually all this information will be self-reported by smart objects, or captured by autonomous ones. But until that point, the geospatial information industry looks pretty healthy.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Diminished but not dead

I talk a lot about diversity in my work. Not in the sense of a more balanced and equal workplace or society, important though that is. But rather how technology has lowered the barriers to innovation and market entry, inviting more competition at every stage in the value chain.

This is one of our five ‘Vectors of Change’ that form part of our Intersections foresight tool.

Sometimes the rapid innovation of new entrants will completely kill off incumbents. In describing one of our other Vectors of Change, Agility, we give lots of examples of this. Companies that were so bound to their way of doing things that they couldn’t change when the time came, even if they saw it coming. Kodak, Blockbuster, HMV. There are many more.

Most of the time though, new entrants don’t completely destroy the incumbent. They just diminish them. Limit their opportunities for growth.

Like physical music sales in the face of digital. Often when I’m speaking to an audience and talk about digital music destroying HMV, people retort that HMV has returned from administration and is now profitable again. That vinyl sales are on the up.

These things are true, and I give my hearty congratulations to Hilco, which has turned HMV around. But this success needs to be put into perspective.

Over the last year, worldwide revenues from digital music sales — downloads and streams — significantly overtook those from physical sales. 45% to 39%In the UK, streaming climbed 82% with digital formats now representing 54% of all UK music consumption. Vinyl accounted for just 1.7% of album sales, albeit it saw significant growth. CD sales fell (as did downloads) in the face of streaming growth.

When you take into account other physical format sales, like video (down 15% by these figures), the future does not look bright for large-scale high-street media stores. That’s not to say that there won’t be retailers of physical media, but they will probably be relegated to cheaper back-street locations where the economics make more sense.

Low-friction, digital formats increasingly hoover up the mass market — half a billion music streams a week just in the UK. But the physical formats still have a place. Their retailers will still be in the market in the future, but will represent a small proportion of it, catering to one niche in an increasingly diverse economy.

The caveat to this is experience. Based on some research I’ve been doing for a client recently, there remains a big demand for the physical shopping experience. People like to experience goods and socialise around shopping. The challenge is translating this experience into revenue, but solve that problem and our high streets may stay a little more diverse.


Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

It’s not about human vs machine

I find myself talking a lot about automation, both as part of the talks I give and in answering the questions that follow. It’s a polarising issue. Some people believe that the robots will replace us all. Others are dismissive of the idea. Each side cherry-picks facts and ideas that support their belief, or desired headline.

As usual the reality is somewhere in the middle. But that doesn’t mean it will be any less devastating for many people — or any less advantageous for others. Because the battle is not between human and machine. It is between humans augmented by machines, and those that aren’t.

It’s hard to make this argument without sounding like an old-school class warrior, so note that I imply no judgement in the following statement. But the reality is that this is about capitalism.

In a capitalist system organisations and their leaders are incentivised towards decisions that maximise profits. In our current iteration of capitalism, we incentivise profit creation over a relatively short term, performance being measured year-on-year or quarter-on-quarter. Any opportunity to increase that performance is generally taken, sooner or later. The companies that don’t take those opportunities are displaced by competitors that do, at an accelerating rate.

Many tasks can be accomplished by machines at a lower cost per unit. They may lack many valuable human characteristics but when measured against short term profit metrics, the machines often beat humans by many orders of magnitude.

The exponential falls in the cost of technology, and particularly information technology innovation inside organisations, means that more companies can start to experiment with more automated ways of doing things. When those experiments work, they have a competitive advantage. Which enforces more rapid adoption on the rest of the market.

Put simply, wherever machines offer an increase in profitability, they will be deployed. The caveat to this is those organisations with a social motive or a more long-term perspective on value creation, who can afford to challenge the status quo. But these organisations are not the majority.

The result is that many human jobs are naturally taken by machines. Or to put it more accurately, one human being augmented by machines can do the work of five, ten or more others.

Take the call centre as an example, a sector that employs around a million people in the UK according to Unison. Imagine that each one of the 5,000 call centres in the UK introduces an artificial intelligence agent on its front line. Not the ‘Press One to lose your mind’ systems we have had to date, but conversational, smart systems that can interact in a near-human fashion. Imagine no queues: every call answered in two rings. Imagine 80% of queries answered first time — an estimate from existing AI customer service deployments in the US. Even once you add a generous number of staff to maintain the AI, that’s probably two thirds of the jobs gone. You’ll still need second line support for the queries the machine can’t answer. But because it learns, that proportion falls every day.

To a greater or lesser extent, the reality is the same across many industries. It’s not all the human jobs that get replaced. Rather a smaller number of humans can do the work of many. It will be the same in every industry from logistics to law, accounting to advertising, manufacturing to financial markets. New jobs will undoubtedly be created, but it’s hard to see them being in the same volumes as those that are automated.

Is this sustainable? No, I don’t think so. At least not in our current economic system. But it will take time for that system to change and adapt — much longer than it takes for companies to adopt these technologies. So while the incentives remain the same, we will see mass automation. Or perhaps more accurately, mass augmentation.

And that presents a whole new — or arguably very old — set of problems.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Leaders: What’s your foresight schedule?

How often do you look up from the day-to-day and spend time thinking about the future? Once a year when budget time comes around?

What process do you follow? Look at the last year and extrapolate from there?

Do you think that is frequent enough? Rigorous enough?

I can tell you that for most organisations I have dealt with over the last four years, the planning cycle is typically annual, and typically very ‘shallow’. It’s a chore to be dealt with. Last years numbers plus a few points. Maybe a couple of new ideas sprinkled in from the more enthusiastic members of staff.

In reality, it’s often hard just to keep things ticking over. There are always issues to take your attention. Even with the best of intentions, years often pass without a formal exercise to step back, take stock, and look beyond the walls of the business to see what’s happening.

Part of the problem is the simple expense of doing this. The time. The number of people you need to take out of their day jobs.

Another issue is the output. More often than not I’ve watched corporate planning events return results that are just too nebulous to be really useful. Everyone has a nice day away from the office, when they can put their smartphones down. But not a lot really changes.

Negative view? Maybe. But often accurate.

So what’s the answer?

Firstly, you need to understand that foresight doesn’t need to be an expensive process, in time or cost. Half a day of your time (if you’re the boss) every six months. Plus a couple of days of someone else’s.

That’s the second point: get help. Set a schedule with whoever you trust to advise you. They can prepare, capture, and feed back on the session. The only qualification they require is this: they have to be independent of your business. No-one inside is going to have the right perspective. We can provide them with the tools if they need them.

The third part of the answer is equally simple: act. A good foresight process will show you things you need to deal with. So deal with them. Even better: let the people around you do it. You won’t always know what the answer is, so experiment. Test. It’s cheaper than it ever has been today to prototype new services and approaches. Make an educated guess and get your customers to tell you if it’s right.

Over-simple? Yes. But nonetheless, important.

We live in a fast-changing world. Run with your head down for more than a few months today and you’re likely to hit an obstacle. Hard. Get your head up frequently and you can avoid it, or even better, use it as a springboard.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Connected Health: Will we trust a digital doctor?

For the last week I’ve been largely wiped out with flu. This is particularly problematic for me as an asthmatic. (Yes, I fulfil many geek stereotypes).

Fortunately, being a geek, I can address this problem scientifically. I know from repeated experiments — albeit ones enforced upon me by bacterial infections, how to respond.

If my peak flow (a measure of lung function) drops by more than 30%, I need antibiotics. Because it’s not long then before my blood oxygenation is going to tumble.

And then I end up in hospital. Like I say, I’ve done the experiments.

Now, to get the antibiotics from my normal doctor, I just need to phone her.

Me: “Hey, my peak flow’s down 30%, I’m using my reliever eight times a day, I think I need antibiotics.”
Doc: “Yes you do. I’ll have a script waiting for you at the front desk in half an hour.”
But when my regular doctor’s not available, I have to go to the surgery. That means I have to leave my sick bed, share my germs around and take up the valuable time of a doctor who could be seeing someone else, when it’s clear what I need.

Why? Because while my normal doctor knows that I know how to manage my condition, another doctor doesn’t. My patient records don’t tell her that. She can’t see the readings from my peak flow meter, or pulse ox meter.

This will be different in the future.

Firstly, all of my medical devices will be connected. Secondly, I will be able to choose to share their data with my doctor. Thirdly, my devices, or some personal AI connecting them, may have picked up on the pattern of my infection earlier than I was able to, and ordered antibiotics even quicker — assuming we still have any functioning antibiotics at this point.

This all implies a lot of change. The connected devices, the piece that most people seem to be working on developing and getting excited about, are really the least challenging aspects of making a vision like this, real.

We will need a radical shift in the way we store data, moving it from the healthcare provider to the individual.

We will need to change the way we provision (and buy) the cloud-computing intelligence to handle tracking and diagnosis, from ad-supported centralised services to paid and personal distributed ones.

And we will need to place a lot of faith in the decision-making capabilities of machines — faith that we don’t have today.

In twenty years time when self-driving cars are the norm, we may be a little more willing to let machines prescribe our medicine on a doctor’s behalf. But I don’t think we’re ready to make that leap just yet.


This blog post came out of my preparations for the Tug Life event in London next week. Tickets are still available if you’re interested here:

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future of Law: Do not go gentle into that good night…

Legal futurologist Dr Richard Susskind gave a talk at the Law Society’s law management conference recently. He told the audience they had ‘five years to reinvent the legal profession’ before the advent of general purpose artificial intelligence systems brought massive disruption. It was up to them to do the disrupting, or be disrupted, seemed to be the message.

The talk was covered by the Law Society Gazette. The comments below the article are enlightening. Suffice to say, they are not positive.

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light…

Respondents variously insult the speaker, dismiss the power of technology to handle complex cases, and highlight the current growth rather than decline of the legal market.

None of this does much to counter Susskind’s original arguments. And I would agree with much of what he and his son suggest in their writing.

From my perspective, the first transformation that the legal industry will see — like every other professional industry facing automation — is not the removal of people. It’s their augmentation.

Artificial intelligence won’t replace people altogether. But it will allow fewer people to serve more customers, more efficiently, and more effectively. Augmented firms can undercut rivals while maintaining quality of service and margins, or chase higher margins.

Either way this means consolidation. Those spending their time raging at reality are unlikely to be on the acquiring side.

The second transformation is more fundamental though. Because much of the business of law is a business of artificial friction. All of the human factors wielded as evidence by the naysayers, should be much less of a factor than they are in many scenarios. It’s just the nature of our system that we have continued to operate the law in a very manual fashion.

Once we start to introduce alternatives, like blockchain-based ‘smart’ contracts for many of our more mundane legal interactions, the human workload falls again.

You can choose to fight these things. To dismiss futurism/futurology as a made-up non-job, as many of the respondents to this article do.

Or you can choose to grasp the advantage that comes from embracing them. To open your eyes. To look, in a formal fashion, at what’s coming and prepare your response.

It’s a straight choice.

Tom Cheesewright