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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Be plastic

Be plastic

What does the word ‘plastic’ mean to you? Cheap, colourful toys? Credit cards? Something fake?

It’s hard to see why I might exhort anyone to be any of those things. But plasticity is also the ability to take on a new shape in response to external forces. I’ve talked about this being an important characteristic for companies and organisations. I think it’s increasingly a critical quality for people.

We talk about resilience for people a lot. The ability to take pressure and rebound. But what if your resistance to that pressure is more damaging than accepting it?

I’m not arguing for unquestioning acquiescence. Nor against a level of conservatism: every change should meet resistance and challenge. Its value should be questioned and tested. But as far as possible, this testing should be objective. Certainly more divorced than it is currently from our tendency to cling to what we have, or what we think we know.

The Descent of Man

I’ve been reading (rather belatedly) Grayson Perry’s ‘The Descent of Man’ over Christmas. In it, he makes the point that much of our view of what is ‘right’ and rational is coloured by the perspective of the ‘Default Man’ — straight, white, middle-class.

Many people — mostly fitting this description — find it hard to accept this is true. They see it as a personal attack and worry that their position will be undermined by attempts to change it. You can argue that elements of the Trump and Brexit votes were both reactions to such attempts.

But as Perry also argues, for many there is much to be gained by accepting that the perspective they have held to may no longer be correct, if it ever was. It’s a hard thing to let go of closely-held truths. But is it any harder than the damage done by holding to them? The clearest victims of the Trump administration and the UK’s exit from the EU will be many people who campaigned for them.

War on Christmas

When we hold on to certain beliefs strongly, we tend to believe they are immutable laws of nature, whether they are gender differences, political truths or faith in the power of markets. What we often miss is how relatively recent these ideas really are, and how little it would mean, in the grand scheme of history, to leave them behind.

There is no time of year better than Christmas to consider this. When those of a particular persuasion are fighting against a wholly fake ‘war on Christmas’, few of them realising that our Christmas traditions are perhaps less than a century old. They are modern inventions, as much about marketing as religion, and even the religious traditions are a relatively recent (in historical terms) appropriation of pagan rituals.

This doesn’t mean I don’t love Christmas — I do with all my heart — but I accept it for what it is. I know that it has changed radically over the last hundred years and will continue to change radically over the next hundred.

Age of acceleration

Anyone who has seen me speak will likely have heard me paraphrase something I heard Professor Ian Morris say in a guest lecture once: “Change is accelerated when civilisations collide.” Combine this with the conclusions of Parag Khanna’s Connectography, showing just how hyper-connected all global civilisations are today, and we should not be surprised at the accelerated rate of change.

New ideas abound. Other people’s beliefs and traditions flow around us. We should hold on to what is best of our own beliefs but always be willing to weigh them against the challengers. To extract ourselves as best we can from our own comfortable prejudices and consider the options with the most objectivity we can muster.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Existential threats and exponential opportunities

Existential threats and exponential opportunities

“What is missing from your to-do list?“

Fifteen years ago, Donald Rumsfeld was somewhat ridiculed for his statement about ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’. But in the last fifteen years these terms have become increasingly widely-used. They describe neatly the reality for many planning business strategy: you can account for your experience and project forward based on known factors, but it’s much harder to incorporate things from beyond your own experience.

This is the role of the Applied Futurist: to bring a different, wider perspective. To bring information from beyond the experience of the client, and a framework to make it relevant to their specific environment and challenges.

ETs & EOs

What we’re really looking for is existential threats and exponential opportunities. Some more mundane, marginal ideas might drop out of the process. But it’s these super-scale challenges that come from left-field that are so often absent from the to-do list.

Until recently I’ve worried that too much of my work ends up being about threats, rather than opportunities. More than once people have said to me when working through the Intersections process that they only see the pressures on their organisation growing. But I’ve realised recently that you can rarely separate existential threats from exponential opportunities.

Is it a rocket, or a missile? Existential threat or exponential opportunity?

Few organisations are as unique as they think they are. What are challenges for them are almost certainly challenges for their peers. If you can solve an existential threat, you either gain competitive advantage, or create a valuable solution that you can share. Threat becomes opportunity.

What’s on the horizon?

So, what’s missing from your to-do list? Almost certainly the majority of existential threats and exponential opportunities. Time to think about scanning the horizon.

Next week I run my next course in Futurism for Business at the University of Salford. You can find more information on these course, and book online, at

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Building the Future Council

Building the Future Council

My recent post about the future council gained a lot of attention, so I thought I’d share more of the thinking that I’ve done so far. What might it look like when you re-orient a council around people and places, rather than services?

This thinking started with a question from a council chief executive a few years ago, but was actually refined through work with a medium-large (£250m turnover) corporate. Despite being very different organisations on the outside, once you got under the skin their problems were very similar. All of this work combined now forms the Stratification framework that is part of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit.

Fundamental units

The first thing to identify in the council’s case was that the fundamental unit of organisation was services. The whole organisation had been assembled by bolting services onto the side of the existing organisation, and even the radical transformations driven by austerity had not really changed that architecture. As long as it persisted, there would be massive ‘parallelism’ in the way the organisation operated, preventing efficiencies but more importantly, fragmenting data and adding friction to service, analysis and communication.

As I wrote about in the last post, the first and most important step was to re-orient the organisation around the citizen rather than the service. But we also had to recognise that this didn’t cover everything: a significant proportion of the council’s work is also place-centric, with granularity ranging from a single bin, to a building, to a whole street or park.

Hence we were left with two fundamental units that could be cross-indexed: people, and places.

Unifying the citizen interface

Unifying the customer interface

With the citizen at the centre of the organisation, it was clear that we needed to unify the customer interface. The multiple touchpoints of the old architecture were highly inefficient, creating confusion, cost, disparate data and a governance nightmare, with little oversight.

A unified customer interface means a common written language style, with content written to the appropriate standard for the majority of the audience. It means ensuring that there is a single answer to each question, not multiple, conflicting answers. It means using a common design language to help those with limited English or poorer vision to understand information, whether presented in a face to face, written, digital or video context.

A unified customer interface means a coherent view of that experience across communications channels, using insight from contact centres to drive digital development, and vice versa.

Ultimately it led to the proposal of new internal agency, equipped with the skills and resource to handle these tasks, where previously responsibility had been distributed across multiple teams.

Making services more transparent

Creating coherent service units

Behind the unified communications layer sit the services, the core propositions of the council: education, public health, adult social care, environmental services, highways, revenue and benefits — obviously these will vary depending on the type of council.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in the delivery of any of these services. But one thing was clear when looking at them and their interactions inside the organisation: it was hard for them to understand each other’s work and for leaders to really understand their performance.

As organisations grow and develop over time their activities often become more complex on the inside and opaque from the outside. Complex isn’t inherently bad: these teams are dealing with challenging issues. But the lack of transparency makes many things harder: partnering with other teams, reporting success, analysing failure, inducting new staff.

We created a template to help these teams revisit their understanding of their core processes, their inputs, outputs and key metrics so that the could be more easily communicated to others. Sort of a paper ‘API’, that described how you might interact with them. Ultimately, it would be good to turn paper into code.

Creating a common data layer

A common data layer

Underpinning the unified customer interface and more transparent interaction between services is a shared data layer. Once you acknowledge that there are only two fundamental units that the organisation deals with — three if you count numbers (finance) — it’s clear that the council needs many fewer software systems and databases than it has acquired under a service-oriented architecture (not this SOA).

The realities of the current estate, data protection legislation, and security choices may mean that you don’t actually condense everything down to a handful of systems. But as a notional vision, a unified data store of people and places is valuable because of the business value it can drive. Most people have few interactions with their council, and those they do have are relatively mundane — even automatic. But for those people who need more intensive support, more coherent information can drive much more effective intervention: earlier and more targeted, meaning better for the citizen and cheaper for the council.

External API

External interface wrapper

The nature of the post-austerity council is that much of its work is commissioning, either to third parties or to its own services companies. Streamlining these interactions is less important than streamlining the customer interactions, but nonetheless valuable. Building a largely-digital wrapper that allows the two way flow of information for commissioning, payments, the sharing of data, and the monitoring of SLAs, would speed the flow of information right through the organisation, and ideally improve the delivery of services.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Social Networks: Pub or publication?

Social Networks: Pub or publication?

Is Twitter a pub or a publication? I had this debate with Julia Hartley-Brewer on TalkRadio a few weeks back. I’m willing to listen to both arguments but I’ve largely come down on the ‘pub’ side of the argument.

The laws we have created to regulate the media are based on organisations that restrict, through recruitment, employment, training, who can publish through their outlets. There are multiple checks, for tone and legality, on everything they put out.

Socials networks are open to just about anyone, with — like a pub — some age controls. They are venues for debate where all are welcome. Some will speak to big groups, some to small, and some will take the mic and talk bollocks on open mic night.


The key thing about a pub is that while it may not have editors, it does have bouncers, or at worst a surly landlord (or lady) to eject anyone exhibiting bad behaviour.

Defining bad behaviour

What is ‘bad behaviour’? There are laws about serving people who are inebriated. There are laws protecting other people in the pub from verbal and physical abuse. There are laws about equal treatment, and inciting violence. And there are generally accepted standards of public behaviour. It’s right to expect the pub to enforce all of these on its customers. Some pubs might choose to go further with their own customers, just like Sam Smiths pubs have a no swearing policy.

Unless policies enforcing a standard of behaviour are enforced, and enforced on every denizen, then the pub descends in to a place of chaos. If this happens, something bad happens to the establishment. Fail to control behaviour for too long and you lose your licence to operate.

This is the way we should think of — and regulate — social networks. They cannot be responsible for checking everything that is published. And I don’t think we want them to be: they lose their value if everything said is subject to a strict editorial policy. As has been seen recently, the necessarily automated approach this requires at the scale of a social network results in a lot of mistakes.

We also shouldn’t expect them to eject everyone for a first offence, unless it is particularly egregious. The equivalent of a verbal warning from the landlady/lord should be all that is needed.

But, if there are persistent offenders, reported by the other denizens, then the pub needs to act swiftly. Eject and bar. The regulatory consequences should come if they fail to act. And they should be serious, as they are for a bar.

All of which means that at some point, Twitter is going to have to say: “Go home Donald, you’re drunk. And you’re barred.”

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Council of the Future

The Council of the Future

What would a future-ready local authority look like if you designed it from the ground up?

This is the question a client asked me a few years ago. The answer looked quite different to any of the organisations I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a few from the inside now.

Fundamental units

Each of the organisations I have looked at has suffered from the same problem: the fundamental organisational unit is a service. Each of those services has people attached to it. Those people have their own processes. Those processes are often captured in the service’s own technology. The service has its own interface to customers (citizens). And its own internal interfaces to the rest of the organisation.

This structure has resulted from the way that local government has grown: organically. Every time there has been a new demand, a new initiative, or a new legislative decree from the centre, a new function has been built to deliver or support it.

These services might sit under a management hierarchy, but that still leaves a huge number of internal interfaces to manage, with friction at every one. And more importantly — and expensively — a huge number of external interfaces to the customer.

Thin veneers

Attempts to rationalise these interfaces have been challenging. Common web or call centre interfaces have often been little more than a veneer over the existing structure. Any interaction beyond the most rudimentary, exposes this internal complexity.

For example, I once called my local council to report that my regular cycle path was overgrown, layered with leaves, and affected by fly-tipping. The web form couldn’t handle this complexity. Instead I spent 40 minutes on the phone as a call centre operative worked her way through three different systems, manually inputting my requests into three different systems with three different interfaces, to be addressed by three different teams.

Citizen-centric design

Imagine if you changed the fundamental organisational unit of the council. Instead of an organisation built around the services it provides, you build an organisation around the citizens and places it supports.

This might sound counter-intuitive if you’re trying to rationalise: there are infinitely more places and people than services. But right now, every place and person has multiple touch-points with the council. Each external interaction sets off a cascade of inefficient internal interactions.

This is problematic for the 80% of citizens with whom the council has relatively few interactions beyond the automatic. Regular tax payments, mass mails, use of the library or leisure centre, and the occasional issue with a lost bin. For the 20% or so of citizens with much more intensive needs, it is catastrophic.

Without this re-orientation around the citizen, it is incredibly difficult to build consistent, coherent support, and to do so at what might be a sustainable level of cost. It is even more difficult to begin to intervene proactively, preventing issues from arising rather than addressing them when they are acute. You just don’t have the connected data about people and places to be able to consistently identify — early — where interventions might be needed.

Construction not criticism

I have nothing but admiration for the leaders and workers in the councils I’ve encountered. They have shown incredible resilience and ingenuity to address staggering difficulties. Losing huge fractions of their budgets and many of their colleagues in recent years, they have coped by redoubling efforts, changing their operating models, and investing in new systems and technology, in order to maintain service — particularly for the most vulnerable. Nonetheless, most senior leaders that I speak to admit that the current situation is unsustainable.

People and places are the wholehearted focus of the councils I’ve worked with. But their operating models aren’t aligned to supporting those people and places efficiently.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Decoupling growth and jobs

Decoupling growth and jobs

At two events this week I have found myself speaking about jobs and automation. The people I have spoken to seem largely to be coming to the same conclusions: technology will drive productivity and increase net wealth, but it will also diminish the number of jobs available and increase the gap between rich and poor.

Not everyone reaches these conclusions. They’re still convinced that the next wave of technological investment will create more jobs than it destroys — as previous waves of change have. But the signs are not good for this view — like this article about state-funded investment in automation from China. Here, one factory cut its workforce by 80% and raised productivity by 60%.

Distinct paths

I think we have to start to accept that jobs growth and economic growth are perhaps no longer as tightly tied together as they once may have been. Translating new wealth into work for the many rather than the few, may require rather more active interventions than it has in the past.

This is the sort of talk that scares large corporations. It sounds like increased taxation. And in reality, this is likely unavoidable.

But it isn’t just about taxation. Only by thinking about these two problems distinctly are we likely to find real solutions. Any economic stimulus that only drives growth may well drive faster job losses, or as we are seeing at the moment, maintained wage suppression.

We have to be much more thoughtful and creative about what people will do. What industries can we nurture that will continue to engage people, as well as creating wealth? And how we engage those outside those industries in work that fulfils them and is valued by society?

Tom Cheesewright