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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

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

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