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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The new hedonists

Renting over buying. Experiences over acquisitions. These trends formed a good chunk of the conversations at a scenario planning session I joined on the future of mobility last week.

These are themes I first came across in James Wallman’s ‘Stuffocation’ but they seem to have entered the general consciousness. A confluence of fashion, technology and harsh financial reality has created a generation that is more focused on what they can do that what they can buy. At least that seems to be the accepted wisdom.

Gen X?

As always it’s more complicated than that. There is no such thing as a generation, for a start. We do not grow up in discrete cohorts but rather as a continuous stream of overlapping lives. I’m notionally ‘Generation X’ but coming at the tail end of that invented cohort, I can’t say I totally identify with its supposed characteristics. I expect many early ‘millennials’ feel the same about their younger counterparts.

However, the perception of a move away from ownership and towards experience rings true. It fits with so many recognisable and measurable patterns of change.

Financial reality

Firstly, the financial. We know that it is increasingly hard to own your own home unless you are already on the property ladder. Wage stagnation, relative to rapidly-inflating property prices and tougher controls on mortgage lending, mean that fewer and fewer young people can buy. So they are obliged to rent. How long before a financial necessity becomes a cultural norm?

It’s not just houses that are increasingly rented: it’s true of many big capital assets. Cars, computers, even phones are acquired on various forms of leasing and finance.

Lower friction

Secondly, there’s technology factors. Technology lowers the friction in interactions, removing one of the drivers for ownership. If you can get a car of the right size, on demand, with none of the associated hassle of ownership, then why wouldn’t you? The only reason is status, or a hobbyist interest. I’ll address these below.

Right now, I think there’s still a good friction-based argument for ownership: it’s not quite as easy — or even as cheap, as I’ve demonstrated with my bangernomics experiments — to rely on Ubers and car sharing schemes. But the strength of that argument is diminishing all the time.

In areas other than transport, the rental vs ownership argument is long over. For the most part, it’s just not worth owning music, film, or books.

Status symbols

This leaves the personal aspects. Status. Hobbyist interests. Love of the medium — totally understandable with books or vinyl.

Status is the only one of these that might have been truly pervasive, and it’s easy to see how the markers of status shift in a digital age from the car you drive past your peers, to the pictures of your amazing holiday they see on Instagram. Experience rapidly trumps ownership in an age of digital media.

The new hedonists

There’s something rather pleasing about this. As someone of a rather utilitarian bent, I’m happy to accept pleasure as a reasonable measure of utility. Yes, there may be a narcissistic edge to some of the oversharing and staged presentations of people’s ‘perfect’ lives.

But if we’re going to be competing over anything, I’d rather it was about the fun we’re having rather than the sheer quantity of goods we’ve managed to accumulate, often at little benefit to our own well-being and at great cost to the planet.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

See the future, hear the future…

I’ve launched a podcast. Which should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me: I am rather obsessed with the medium.

You can listen and subscribe at the following places:

MCR Live (the brand new podcast stable that I have joined) https://www.mcr.live/podcasts/book-of-the-future/

iTuneshttps://itunes.apple.com/gb/podcast/book-of-the-future/id1207555747?mt=2

ACASThttps://www.acast.com/bookofthefuture

PocketCastshttp://pca.st/cuyJ

Each week (life permitting — I’ll get that caveat in now) I’ll be talking about the work I’m doing and discussing it with guests — when I can get into the studio. The first couple of episodes have been recorded on the road so they are a little rough and ready. I’m looking at options on equipment now that will help me do a better job with on-the-go recording.

The podcast story

How the podcast came about is a bit of a story in itself. A couple of months ago I posted a question on Twitter

I was only half thinking of doing a podcast at this point. The question was as much driven by listening to the output of Radiotopia and wondering why Manchester — a vibrant city, packed with creatives — didn’t have an equivalent.

The question led to a discussion and a thought process: what would I need in terms of support if I were to produce a podcast? I’d need two things: production support and a revenue stream. I can record and edit a podcast, but I’d rather just be responsible for content and let someone else handle production and distribution. And while I will enjoy doing a podcast, ultimately it will need to justify the time investment. Once I realised I might be able to find both production support and a revenue stream, it was pretty nailed on that I would do it.

Production support is coming from UTC MediaCity, a college set up to produce the next generation of radio and TV professionals with a full suite of recording studios and an enthusiastic team of mixers and editors.

Distribution is via the new MCR Live digital radio station and podcast network, that I found out about just a few days after posting my question on Twitter. They were still in development then and launched with my new podcast as one of the first titles. We’ll be working together to source sponsors — get in touch if you would be interested in sponsoring the podcast.

E: hello@bookofthefuture.co.uk

P: 0161 850 0460

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

No more taxi queues

I got wet last night. Really wet. So wet that my shoes are still sodden this morning. Which is a problem, because I’m in a hotel and I only brought one pair.

I’m at Cambridge University for a panel on the future of mobility, bringing together futurists, designers, energy and policy specialists to understand the direction of travel, if you’ll forgive the pun.

The irony of arriving at such an event, my shirt translucent from the water, looking like I’d just emerged Darcy-like from a lake, because of a lack of transport from the station, was not lost on me. Nor was the evidence it provided for what is wrong with our current mobility systems, particularly when affected by inclement weather.

Walking not waiting

The first thing I noticed when leaving the station was an enormous queue of people waiting to get into a taxi. One that stretched well beyond the available shelter. The queue of taxis waiting to pick them up was relatively much smaller. The line of people was barely moving at all because of the time taken to get people into the taxis and for the taxi to move off was so long.

I quickly decided that I would get just as wet walking as waiting.

Once I saw the traffic down the main street, I was fairly confident this was the right decision. Only bicycles were making any real progress, but with the pouring rain and darkness this felt like a hazardous mode of transport. I could have caught a bus, if I could have worked out which one to board, but again that would have meant waiting: in line in the rain, then inside in the traffic.

As I approached my destination I came across a taxi rank. Full of cars. And with no-one queuing.

By this point it was too late.

Three changes

It could have been so different.

Information about train arrivals and their likely cohort of disembarking passengers, is not difficult to acquire. Provisioning sufficient cars to collect all those wanting them should be relatively straightforward, given the caveat below.

As should creating a boarding system that doesn’t introduce so many delays.

The caveat is that you can only provision cars that can make it back to the station through the traffic to pick up new passengers having deposited their previous fare. How do you solve the traffic issue? Take a lot of the private cars off the road and hand the piloting of all vehicles over to connected intelligences. They will speed flow, eliminate blocking behaviours, and ensure the traffic keeps moving.

Technical reality, human possibility

All of this could be made real tomorrow. Nothing I have described is unfeasible with today’s technology. We are the only barriers to making it happen. Not without good reason, in some respects.

We like control. It’s hard to hand trust over to machines that will, inevitably, fail at some point and cause injury and death. But I can tell you now: they will save many, many more lives than they take.

We like ownership. Of our vehicles, our portable palaces, particularly. Though I think this feeling is in decline. I still love what cars represent but I am less and less attached to the hunk of metal on my driveway, choosing to travel by bike, bus or train at every opportunity.

I don’t think I’m alone.

Even those who love their cars increasingly choose to rent them, in one form or another, rather than buy them outright. This is one important mental step along the way to accepting mobility as a service rather than as a poorly-utilised asset.

There are clear job implications for replacing drivers with machines. There are around 300,000 taxi drivers in the UK. Tens of thousands of bus drivers (I couldn’t find a good figure for this but it’s fair to guess it’s a multiple of the 36,000 buses).

There’s also the issue of a loss of stories. How would I have started this blog post if every journey is smooth, perfect and efficient? It seems a frivolous point in the face of the above, but there’s a lot to be said for the variety and narrative value of our lives.

Slow not stop

These things only affect when the change will come. The future is pretty certain at this point: we will hand control of our mobility over to machines. They will be more efficient. They will be safer. The orders of magnitude improvements in safety, cost, time loss, and pollution, make it inevitable.

Human factors will slow this transition. But they will not stop it.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

How to beat the low energy state

This isn’t a post about lethargy in our political system. Frankly right now, a little more lethargy may be welcome. Rather it’s about what seems to be the default position for human beings: we want to expend as little energy and time as possible to achieve our ends. We’re both lazy and impatient, an odd combination when you think about it. We want things done quickly but we don’t want to expend the energy to make them happen.

We’e invested billions to lubricate commerce #ukpunday

This is particularly evident in shopping, a market I’ve spent a lot of time looking at in the last couple of years. Back when I started my digital agency about ten years ago, we used to talk about the seven second rule: people wouldn’t wait more than seven seconds for a website to load. Now Google’s Accelerated Mobile Pages load in around a tenth of that. On top of this raw page acceleration, we’ve seen drastic enhancements in search, on-site personalisation to surface the items we might want, and checkout processes so lubricated that we can slide through in a single click.

Though most of us may never consider this shift, once highlighted it is easy to recognise. What people don’t recognise so easily is the more general shift that affects every aspect of commerce — and life more widely. It doesn’t matter if you service citizens for a government, or sell professional services to the business elite, you are going to be affected by this trend.

So what do you do?

This is the subject of my talk at the Prolific North Live event this week. I’m offering three tips.

Openness

The first tip is to be more open. Specifically, to expose your business to deeper integration with the many channels of communication and commerce now available.

This point was highlighted for me through a conversation with the owner/manager of a lower-medium-sized (25m turnover) local business. He manufactured products that he sold through distributors to the trade and niche retailers. I asked him if he had listed those products on Amazon. He thought I had totally misunderstood his business and got quite frustrated when I pressed the point: “No, no, no. We sell B2B not to consumers.” Eventually I convinced him to go on to Amazon and type in some keywords for his products.

He quickly found his competitors on there. I think it was a shock. Just like every other, his industry had been disintermediated by the long-tail ecommerce markets and he hadn’t even noticed.

He’s not alone. And few people realise how far this trend will spread. I can call an Uber now by asking Alexa. I never touch a website, or my phone, or a Yellow Pages (let me know if you’re under 30 and need that concept explaining). How long before I ask Alexa — or its peers, voice-based or otherwise — to find me an accountant or a solicitor?

Companies need to be open to integration with these platforms, which are increasingly the de facto means of discovery for consumers and business buyers alike, whether that means selling goods through an online marketplace, integrating with AI assistants or whatever comes next: AR, in-network etc. A search presence is just the beginning.

Transparency

How long does it take information to move through your organisation? Imagine a customer request, or feedback from a bunch of customers, that needs to reach the CEO or someone who can take a strategic decision about addressing it. Does it take an hour, a day, a week or a month to reach the decision-maker? I’ve heard as much as three months before.

What happens to that information along its journey? How much is it polluted by processing as people translate it in a multi-stage game of Chinese Whispers?

This pollution can be innocent. It can be people covering their own arse. The results can range from inappropriate or non-existent responses to important challenges, all the way to fraud. See: BT, Volkswagen etc etc etc.

This issue only goes away if pathways are cleared. If information travels quickly, widely and untampered with through organisations. Of course this means you have to be selective about what information you collect: too much information is as bad as no information at all.

The trend right now is to collect everything and hoard it in massive data stores for notional retrospective analysis. This is expensive and obstructive. There’s nothing wrong with big data stores as long as you know why you’re collecting it.

Information should be shared widely through an organisation and beyond because this empowers those at the edge to respond, it reduces the opportunity for fraud (though not eliminating it — most people are busy doing their own jobs), and it increases responsiveness. But only if the right information is being collected shared.

Performance

Customers won’t wait. The way the buying cycle has shifted, it’s likely that buyers increasingly have the information they need to make a decision at the point at which you — as the seller — first encounter them. This is a major shift from two decades ago when the vendor was often the primary source of information for the buyer.

Any opportunity to strip friction from the purchasing process should be examined, whether your audience is consumers or corporates.

Consumer tools for this are well established: site performance and personalisation, one-click payments etc. But it’s less well understood in corporate environments, particularly those more familiar with a consultative sell.

The challenge is choice: we’re used to presenting customers with choices, when actually too much choice is a growing problem these days. People want answers, not more questions. You need to really understand your customer in order to be able to present the answer they want, even if they can’t yet properly formulate the question.

This is something with which I’ve struggled personally in this business: cobblers shoes and all that. Your own business is always the hardest one about which to be objective. I think I’m starting to crack it now though.

Fast & open

Successful businesses in tomorrow’s world will move fast and operate in an open fashion. They will share information with customers, partners and crucially, their own staff. They will act to optimise their interfaces with all of these groups.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Invisible luxury

On stage at the Superyacht Design Symposium this week, I proposed three ways in which technology is going to transform the superyacht in the coming years. You may have no interest in these playthings of the hyperwealthy. But the same trends are going to transform the more mundane world the rest of us inhabit.

Hidden Intelligence

The first transformation is the ubiquity of connected computing combined with highly powerful AIs. The history of computing is a history of shrinking devices with ever-improving user interfaces, taking us from alien mainframes that forced us to communicate on their terms, to sensor-laden devices that try to interpret our behaviours. The next obvious step is devices that vanish into the environment around us and interact by anticipating our needs and responding without any manual intervention.

In a yacht context this likely means smaller crews, as in every other field of work. But it also means much more responsive machines. Spaces that transform themselves, fully autonomous lighting, heating and entertainment — all increasingly normal as part of any smart home. But imagine a boat that automatically orients itself to the sunset based on where you’re sat.

Energy Revolution

My research into energy for a report I’m assembling with the law firm Nabarro, has made it abundantly clear that the future is solar and electric. Combining next generation solar cells with advanced battery technologies makes for incredible changes in the possibilities of yacht design.

Metal-air batteries will have energy densities comparable to fossil fuels. With high performance solar cells, much smaller reserves of energy will be required. And what there is will be much more flexible in terms of layout. No more fuel tanks — sometimes measuring hundreds of thousands of litres. Instead batteries can be incorporated into the structure and distributed throughout the hull. Motors too can me much more efficiently placed, will be lighter, quieter and simpler to maintain.

There are solar yachts right now but they are the G-Whizz’s of the water-born world. What’s coming is more like a Tesla.

New Materials

Perhaps the most exciting opportunity is in new materials. Like other industries focused on high performance, the yacht industry has been fast to adopt new carbon-based materials. But these are a mere first step towards the incredible possibilities presented by various forms of graphene, and other recently-discovered and nano-engineered materials.

Integrated functions like heating, or panel displays, will save huge amounts of space and weight. Exponential increases in strength to weight will enable the realisation of incredible designs, to date unfeasible.

Invisible luxury

Together these three technological transformations will change the perceived impact of technology on the design and operation of superyachts, as it will on the infrastructure of all our lives.

Technology today is intrusive: garish screens, noisy engines, over-sized structures. Tomorrow’s technology is not only finer, lighter, and quieter, it actively works to get out of our way. It doesn’t need manual control to work on our behalf.

Tom Cheesewright