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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Solving whole problems

Listening to Yuval Noah Harari speak about his new book to the RSA recently, I heard him answer a question about climate change. He pointed out that with national governments we are trying to solve global problems and so far, it hasn’t been very successful. He also suggests that the 21st century might see entirely new forms of government emerge that are more fit for purpose in the new environment than the democracies of the late 20th century.

There are many whole problems we face today that we as a race are trying to solve in bit parts. Not all of them are global, like climate change.

Take one chunk of a larger problem: the health and social care of an ageing population. Some rough-and-ready maths based on this data from The Guardian suggests that by the late 2030s, people over 65 will consume more than half of the NHS budget. What the NHS looks like by this point is a different question. Assuming it still exists in something like its current form, it will require significantly more funding to support our ageing population.

Speak to anyone in the NHS and they will tell you that a lot of the cost of older people is not really down to medical care. Lots of the people who visit hospitals and end up staying a long time have conditions that aren’t acute and can’t be treated in hospital. But there is nowhere else for them to go. People turn up at doctors surgeries because they are lonely or have no-one to meet even their most basic needs.

The solution is not to pour more money into the NHS. It’s to address the problem as a whole: social care, independence, loneliness. There’s a political argument to be made about the funding for services that historically addressed these issues. But that argument is desperately difficult to make in a national context. Since putting the various services that would need to co-operate to solve it into a single coherent organisation and budget would produce a terrifying, unwieldy and likely, politically-unpopular beast.

Instead the problem has to be addressed at a manageable scale. The first experiment in this in the UK will be Manchester, with the devolution of health and social care budgets, and a plan to integrate their operations detailed a year ago in this document. The ideas are sound, encompassing a whole-life view designed to tackle the reasons people end up needing extended health care, not just the costs when it finally happens. It is hoped this will help the combined authority save the approximately two billion shortfall against the projected budget requirement in 2020/21 under the current system.

Unless you’re engaged in this programme there’s little evidence of it beyond the walls of the NHS so far. But the implementation phase is due to begin in October.

I will be watching with interest.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Phone Addiction

Deloitte’s regular survey of consumer use of mobile phones hit the headlines yesterday. As usual with such subjects, I got pulled in to comment on a few radio shows. The headline-grabber? Phone addiction. Just how much we use phones before and after sleep, and even in the middle of the night. The assumption — as usual with technology-based changes in behaviour — was that this was ‘a bad thing’.

To some extent, it is. Gym routines, yoga styles and diet fads seem to be frequent topics of discussion, even in the most unlikely places. I have vivid memories of watching a group of 40–50-something technology executives bond over the South Beach diet having failed to find any other common ground. Yet sleep has had much less attention, long neglected as a component of a healthy modern lifestyle.

There seems to have been a feeling, particularly in tech circles that you can ‘sleep when you’re dead’. You’re wasting time if you’re sleeping. Yet for mind and body, we know that sleep is vital. Perhaps it is my age (18 months from a rather large milestone) but I find I am increasingly conscious of my health. The mobile phone is a potential source of much disruption. It is the vehicle for many of the interruptions inherent in modern life and the encroachment of work into the home. Just looking at the screen’s blue-tinged light can screw up your body’s understanding of night and day.

But to make a judgement about how bad it is, we have to look behind the numbers a little. The largest group checking their phone in the night were checking the time. People disturbed by checking their clocks in the middle of the night may have been headline-worthy a hundred years ago but not today. The 3–4% checking messages, mails and social alerts in the middle of the night may be suffering true phone addiction. They may need to change their behaviour if they want a good night’s sleep, but this behaviour is skewed towards the young. They perhaps don’t need as much beauty sleep.

Those checking their phones last thing at night or first thing in the morning? If they’re anything like me it’s about knowing what tomorrow holds. Has that meeting been cancelled? Where do I have to be and when? What time train do I need to get? Knowing the answer to these things helps rather than hinders my sleep.

This isn’t phone addiction. It’s the acceptance of a valuable augmentation.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Service is universal, expectation is portable

How much does great service in one context affect your expectations for another?

Yesterday I gave a talk about the future of local government to an audience of lawyers working in that field. Not about the democracy but about the services that local government provides and how it will need to radically restructure in order to keep those services going in one form or another.

I talked about Enfield and the concept of Citizen-Centric Design that we built there. I talked about the debates we’ve had at the round table events I host for thinkers in this space. And I talked about the work we’re doing with Republic of Things to apply the Internet of Things to good use in this context.

I also talked about a concept that I’ve long discussed but haven’t blogged about before. A concept that I think is important for public and private businesses alike when considering the future of their interactions with customers (not that I like this term when used in the public sphere).

Our experience of service in one context affects our expectation of service in every other. There are no boundaries to this, particularly when our interactions are on digital channels where there is little to distinguish between contexts.

I don’t think this is a particularly original idea, yet when you explain it, it seems to make people sit up and think. People start to understand that the benchmark for service in their industry isn’t their immediate peers. It is the other services that their customers are interacting with.

In a council context this is particularly interesting. Bench-marking against other councils might be useful. But bench-marking against the BBC, Amazon, or Uber might be more valuable, even if the initial analysis is harsh.


In our last round table event discussing the digitisation of the relationship between city and citizen, there was absolute acknowledgement from the sector leaders around the table that they didn’t have enough exposure to the leading ideas from outside of their sector. I think this is a common problem. Most people in most organisations have limited visibility of what is going on outside, even in adjacent sectors. They may experience it as consumers but somehow they don’t make the connection. Yet what is happening in those sectors both sets customer expectations and threatens to disrupt their business.

This reinforces for me the need for a formalised programme, in every organisation, that forces leaders to look up, outwards and forwards. Not every five years on a strategy away-day to a nice hotel. But every six months for just a few hours. A few hours where the world, and the future, comes to them.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Change: amplitude & frequency

I read a really interesting critique of the idea of accelerated change this week. Actually, it was a rather appreciative review of someone else’s critique. But it contained enough information to compel me. It made me question a belief I had largely taken for granted. The belief that the period we live in now is seeing more rapid change than ever before, and that the rate of change continues to accelerate.

Having considered it for a few days, the conclusion I came to is that the world really is changing faster now. But we have to qualify that statement carefully. If you’ll forgive my engineer’s brain, I want to try to do that using the language of waves.

Cars and Computers

The criticism of the theory is based on the idea that changes of greater magnitude happened in previous eras. Robert J. Gordon focuses on the period from 1870 to 1970 (‘the second industrial revolution’) when advances in transport and domestic appliances transformed people’s lives. There were drastic improvements in mortality rates, and falls in the time taken to keep a household clean and fed. And much less horse manure on the streets.

It is impossible to ignore the magnitude of these changes. Has the impact of widespread internet access and the computer (in all its forms) been as great as the impact of the car? It’s hard to say without the benefit of historical perspective, and because perhaps we don’t yet know what will be the most important metric by which to measure the impact of these things.

But to try to argue that the computer is more important than the car is to miss the point. Here comes the science bit: it is to confuse amplitude and frequency.

Amplitude and Frequency

Amplitude and frequency are two of the characteristics of waves. Amplitude is how far the wave moves up and down from the baseline: how much does it change. Frequency is the speed with which it does so: how many times does it change in a given period.

The amplitude of changes like the advent of the washing machine is clearly very great. But the change happens slowly: the frequency is low. It takes a long time for such a product to be developed. For that design to iterate. For the public to adopt it.

Today, whatever the amplitude of the change, the frequency is much higher. We create, iterate, adopt and abandon new ideas and products at a much greater rate than at any point in history. We can see this in adoption curves for modern products versus those such as the washing machine: our hyper-connected societies spread these ideas much more quickly now. We can see it in the turnover of the stock markets: innovators displace incumbents faster than ever before.

Whether the impact of the computer proves to be greater than the car or not, only history will tell. But it’s an impact that happened faster. And when the next major world-changing innovation happens, that will change the world faster than its predecessors as well, however great the amplitude of that change.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Complex evidence, simple decisions

Which way should a pipe go around a building? These decisions are bound by a series of straightforward rules. But when you start to overlay all the elements of a building — structural and decorative, as well as the utilities — routing can start to get complex.

As this post from BuildingSP (shared with me by the ever-alert Matthew Kershaw) points out, detecting clashes between such building components used to be a complex, manual task involving light-boxes and annotated vellum.

The first generation of construction technologies automated the detection of such clashes. But the next generation avoids them altogether, by placing the routing design in the hands of software. Software that can take in the enormous volumes of information about the building and make design decisions within the limited range of options for pipes, cables and mechanical components.

This single example is indicative of some of the natural applications for what might loosely be termed AI technologies, or perhaps more accurately, algorithmic technologies. Applications where the range of evidence (‘big data’, if you like) might overwhelm a human being but where the range of answers is constrained by hard rules.

We’ve only seen the beginning of the application of technologies like this to everyday challenges. Most of the applications to date have been in purely digital situations: categorising images for social networks, personalising web sites or content services. But they have all sorts of applications in the physical world, from packing containers to routing busses.

Wherever there is that great asymmetry between evidence and decision complexity, there is a role for a machine.

*Some people object to this broad and general use of the term AI. But for me if it’s doing white-collar work that would other-wise be done by people, we might as well term it an AI in this context. I understand that the term may need to be used more carefully in other contexts — e.g. research.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Future language: precision matters

Life is (sadly) not like an Aaron Sorkin script. Whatever we may like to think about our own linguistic abilities, not many can spar with the wit and speed of his characters. Maybe Stephen Fry. But not most of us. We always think of the perfect retort three hours later.

Perhaps in the future we will be more Sorkin-esque. We certainly might wish we were. Because two things are happening that will raise the value of efficient, effective verbal communication.

Speaking machines

Firstly, our interface with machines is increasingly going to be based on natural language. We will talk and the machines will listen. And vice versa. The greater the speed, accuracy and range of our verbal communication, the higher the bandwidth of our interface to the machine.

This could take us in a number of directions. Witness the rise of txtspeak, a rich and highly efficient form of communication, even if it offends the eyes of the preceding generations. Or look at the syntax of really powerful web search terms, a mixture of human language and computer code. Constructing them well requires great skill.

I like to think that the depth of our long-evolved languages will prove superior to these hybrids, but future language will doubtless evolve in response to the new needs, as it always has.

The end of low-value interactions

The second thing that’s happening is that our low-value interactions are disappearing. For people like me who hate, and I mean HATE, administration, this is a huge bonus. Less and less will we need to fill out forms, interact with call centres, deal with post, or scan receipts. Because we will either allow institutions sufficient access to our personal data to let them find the answer. or we will have an AI assistant who handles these things for us.

There are serious issues with both these steps, around privacy, security and employment. How much do we want institutions to know about us — particularly states? How much are we willing to trade or risk in order to eliminate many of life’s major irritations? How many jobs will be lost as a result of the falling friction in our interactions — friction previously smoothed by human intervention?

Personally? I am concerned about just how much I might let go in order to never have to fill out a form again. For all my principles, I would give a lot for that.

Future language

As low value interactions diminish so the the importance of being skilled in high value interactions will grow, whether they are with machines or people. The better we can express ourselves, the higher the bandwidth of those interactions. I’m not saying every conversation is going to be like a Sorkin-script. But we might all start to place more emphasis on the quality of our repartee.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

‘Do nothing’ is not an option

As a species we don’t like change much. I’m sure there are all sorts of arguments from evolutionary psychologists as to why. More rigorous than my guess that it’s about fear: we can trust what we know. We can’t trust what we don’t. It might be a threat.

So we react negatively.

I write this on my way to chair a day of talks and meetings for an organisation that is going through a lot of change right now. I’m not driving any of this change for once: I’m just there to facilitate. But I’m reasonably confident it won’t all be smooth sailing. I know, for example, that this organisation has a very low turnover of staff. This could be the first time in years they’ve been asked to change. Those changes could be pretty dramatic for some of them.

This is all rather more important, if less dramatic (in its literal sense) than the changes announced last night. The changes to the iPhone. One well-timed retweet from our account last night (well done, Mason) ended up on Twitter Moments driving a huge amount of interaction — 154 retweets and 313 likes — more than any of our tweets in the past.

The phone itself felt like Apple playing catch-up: dual cameras? Done by Huawei. Waterproof? Done by Sony. But the decision to eliminate the headphone jack was what caused real uproar.

Most assumed that Apple’s motives were darkly corporate: to sell more of their own products. But I would be slightly more generous — and have been in recent interviews on the subject. There are plenty of good technical reasons to get rid of the headphone jack, as laid out here by Kevin Fox:

Removing the headphone jack was about moving on to what’s next.

I have no doubt that some of those in today’s session will believe that management’s motives are equally darkly corporate. They may be right. But what’s much more likely is that it is about moving on to what’s next.

While we might not like change, it is an absolute necessity for our survival. We can choose to evolve, bit by bit over time, in response to environmental stimuli. Or we can make rapid changes when the environment ultimately permits nothing else.

Beyond anything but the shortest periods, ‘do nothing’ is not an option

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Dear politician, what are you going to do about automation?

I went to see Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrats, speak yesterday. I asked him a question, about the growing divide between different areas of the country.

It was the wrong question.

What I should have asked him, and what I will ask every politician from now on, is what they are going to do about automation.

As far as Parliament is concerned, the jury is still out on whether automation will destroy more jobs than it creates. That appears to be the advice from this briefing note, published last month.

This is understandable. The evidence is slight for the argument that this round of automation is different. Every previous technological revolution has created an economic benefit so great it outweighed the jobs it displaced in specific areas — agriculture, manufacturing etc. Even a relatively recent Deloitte study suggests that technology has created more jobs than it destroyed just in the last fifteen years.

And yet. Looking from my position, at the technologies and trends that I do, I come to one conclusion. Automation will destroy many more jobs than it creates. Many of the jobs it creates will themselves be taken by robotic systems.

There will be areas of growth, some in job numbers and some in wages. Some in areas we haven’t foreseen yet. But what is hard to see is just how these sectors will create jobs on the scale that automation will destroy. Jobs in their millions in retail, banking, manufacturing, logistics, and professional services. Jobs like customer services, data administration, call centre operator, warehouse worker, fork lift truck driver, paralegal and junior accountant.

This is being acknowledged in some parts of government and its associated bodies. The last government committed to create a ‘leadership council’ to examine the issue (though it didn’t). Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England gave a stark warning last year.

And yet I don’t hear politicians talking about this issue. They still talk about the economy, equality, education, jobs and social mobility without the context of this impending challenge to all of those things.

Automation is not an inevitability. Nor are its negative effects. In many ways I would welcome automation wholeheartedly, if we had a strategy to deal with it. Why shouldn’t we hand the work to the robots? We just have to make sure that doing so doesn’t leave millions desolate and disconnected from society.

But if we’re going to do that, the time to talk about the issue is now.

So I’ll ask. “Dear politician, what are you going to do about automation?”

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Space is the next start-up battleground

SES is soon to become the first company to use a ‘second hand’ rocket to send a payload into space. One of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 boosters, which landed safely on a drone ship after delivering a payload to the International Space Station in April, is to take the SES-10 communications satellite into orbit.

This is a hugely important step. Re-usable rocket boosters could dramatically drop the cost of getting into orbit. And in doing so, increase the accessibility of space.

As accessibility increases, so the range of applications that people start to find for space will increase. In fact, many applications that have always been science fiction might start to become reality. Like space-based solar power, asteroid mining, zero-gravity manufacturing, and longer-range human spaceflight.

Right now the space economy largely consists of placing satellites in low-earth orbit. This is what most rockets spend most of their time doing. It’s a pretty unregulated economy up there — something NASA is concerned about. But today’s space economy will look positively conservative once the new gold rush really begins.

Cost per kilo into low-earth orbit is likely to fall from around $20,000 to $2000 in the next couple of years. When it does, the opportunity becomes much more tangible.

Some start-ups are already pushing the envelope of what’s possible. LikePlanetary Resources, gearing up to mine asteroids. But there will be many thousands more, each with their own idea about how to build a business out of the available resources.

The first businesses will be entirely Earth-focused. Like Planet, providing photographic coverage of the entire Earth. Imagine carbon-free space-based solar power. Or access to rare materials mined from asteroids. We weren’t joking when we made In The Future: asteroids might really save the earth.

But where things really start to get exciting is when space has its own economy. Fuel stations, for example. Someone will extract ice from asteroids. Someone else will use solar energy to split it into hydrogen and oxygen to power rockets beyond Earth’s orbit. Space factories building space craft and space habitats will need materials mined in space: bringing them up from Earth will be too expensive, even at the lower rates.

Someone will profit from all of these things. But be warned: this economy probably doesn’t provide a huge jobs boost. Space is a dangerous place. Everything that can be automated, will be — just as SpaceX’s launchers and landing ships are now.

Tom Cheesewright