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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What do you mean by human-centred design?

What do you mean by human-centred design?

People often ask me how I keep up with everything. There’s two answers to that.

The first is this: I don’t. I keep up with the specific things that people are paying me to look at. It just happens that this covers a broad spectrum of topics, from search engines to super yachts.

When you do research on such a broad range of topics, you gather a lot of context along the way. That helps you to get your head around other stuff, or at least makes you sound passably knowledgeable about a lot of things.

Shelagh Fogarty once described me as ‘a man who knows a lot about a lot’. ‘A lot about a little, and a little about a lot’, might be more accurate.

The second answer is that, as a rule, I listen when I walk and write when I sit. To my shame this largely excludes books from my intake. Instead, I consume a huge amount of material through podcasts. This lets me get the sense of the arguments in the big books of the day — frequently from talks give by the authors themselves.

I always intend to buy the books as well, or listen all the way through on Audible, but often it doesn’t quite happen.

Design thinking

Walking through London to a meeting this week, I was listening to a podcast from the RSA, a talk given by one of the partners at IDEO, Sue Siddall. It was on the subject of ‘design thinking’, a subject of great interest to me right now as I am redesigning some of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit in advance of the next Futurism for Business course at the University of Salford.

At the end of the talk, as usual with the RSA’s excellent events series, the host invited questions. The first voice was very familiar to me. Even though he didn’t give his name I knew straight away it was my friend, the designer Johnny Grey. He asked what Sue had meant when she talked about ‘human-centred design’ — not because he was unfamiliar with the term, he explained, but because of a sense of caution about its use.

The answer revolved around addressing not just the needs and challenges facing the end customer but the needs of those people delivering the service as well.

This got me thinking.

Intersections

When I first designed the Intersections foresight tool, it was to fulfil a need that I had. I wanted to structure my investigations into the near future of the different markets I was being asked to address.

The Five Vectors of Change had already emerged from the projects I was working on: five consistent trends that seemed to be affecting every sector, whether public or private, local, national or international. What I needed was a way to connect these trends to the realities of a specific sector I was addressing.

I realised looking back at the projects I’d worked on that the places where the incoming five trends caused the most dramatic change, were where there was already pressure:

If there is stress on your margins then greater diversity in the supply chain can dramatically improve the situation.

If your customer service is poor, then rising consumer expectations of performance are going to be more problematic for you than others.

If you are a deeply vertically-integrated business, then you might struggle to adapt to an increasingly networked economy.

These are Intersections, the points at which incoming trends collide with existing Pressure Points.

The view from your window

Back when I was in marketing, our new business pitches always used to include a section called ‘The View from Your Window’. It was a few paragraphs that told the client that we understood their business and their market. When it was a big pitch we used to interview members of staff in the business to get this insight.

I realised I needed a similar process.

Over time, I’ve refined a set of questions that can be re-used across industries to understand the Pressure Points that companies are facing. It’s amazing how often issues that are widely recognised in the lower ranks can shock management. Organisations are often a lot more opaque than we think.

Pressure Points are human

I’ve always talked about my toolkit as being about structure, not people. I’ve left the more human elements of strategy and change to specialists in that area. I’m an engineer by training and I have a strong belief that there are structural design solutions to a lot of the problems that my clients — whether companies or industries — are facing.

What I realised from Johnny’s question and Sue’s answer is that actually I have been addressing a human component all along.

The questions that I ask people to find the Pressure Points, are about their feelings: what frustrates them, how they rate their own performance and that of the people around them. This has proven to be a very effective way to find problems in the core of a business, but it also speaks to their more human needs. To the changes that will improve their experience.

Now when people ask where the human element comes into my views on the future, I can give a much clearer answer.

The needs of the user

There’s a second constituency that Sue Siddall mentioned that I haven’t addressed, and that’s the needs of the user. The people actually applying my toolkit for themselves, as consultants or leaders in their own business.

One of the most valuable pieces of feedback from the first course at Salford was that people wanted the tools to be more usable on a day-to-day basis, not just for projects. They also wanted them to be simpler: I’m learning you can almost never make things too simple when it comes to designing tools.

For the next course I’m taking the five or six steps in each of the two tools taught on the course, and making each one into a ‘micro-tool’ in its own right. For example, one little tool can be used to prioritise the Intersections that you focus on, or it can be used as a format for a to-do list to prioritise your work. One that can be used to understand future impact, can also help you to prepare for a meeting with a new constituency — perhaps a client or a different function within your business.

Strategy and storytelling

The most human development of all to the toolkit over the last few months has been to the way that I communicate what it is. With due thanks to Phil Lewis, Applied Futurism is about strategy and storytelling.

How do you set strategy in an increasingly fast-moving world? How do you communicate your vision for the future to all the audiences that matter? How do you build an organisation that is truly future-ready?

These are the questions that Applied Futurism seeks to answer.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Five trends for the future high street

Yesterday, I joined a retail round table discussion hosted by my client Freeths solicitors. Senior executives from a range of big retail brands joined us for two hours of conversation and cracking food.

I kicked the discussion off with a little provocation. Here’s the five bullets I used to get people talking.

In the future…

…augmented reality personalises every space

The first thing you need to know is that our physical and digital experiences will continue to collide. In ten years I believe we will spend 10–12 hours each day experiencing the physical world through a digital lens. That is to say, in ‘augmented reality’ (AR) or ‘mixed reality’ (MR).

Initially this will mean that everyone starts to wear smart glasses containing a smart-phone-scale computer, a pair of digital lenses, and a front-facing camera, as well as a variety of user interfaces: eye-tracking, bone-conducting microphone and speaker.

There’s much scepticism about this idea, in the wake of Google Glass. But I think a lot has changed in the nearly five years since Glass launched. For a start, the amount of hours we spend glued to screen continues to rise, with the latest Deloitte figures showing many of us walk right across roads while staring at our phones. Secondly, our acceptance of cameras everywhere has grown. They’re now on many car dashboards, on cycle helmets, on drones, and in kids hands as little action cameras — every beach is peppered with people shooting in high definition. And no-one bats an eyelid.

This technology changes everything — particularly the front-facing camera. Now our machines can see what we see, and combined with all the other sensor data, including location, develop a hugely rich picture of our physical world interactions, as well as our digital interactions.

…more and more shopping is done for us

I’ve argued before that many of our low-engagement purchases will be handed over to a personal digital assistant. Toilet roll, tinned tomatoes, that sort of thing. No-one enjoys shopping for them, but no-one wants to run out. So why not let an AI-driven assistant ensure that you are kept supplied and never think about them again?

Increasingly I’m convinced that more of our high-engagement shopping might be taken over as well, or at the very least, assisted.

Right now, clothes shopping online remains a lottery. Inconsistent sizing, even within single brands, means that neither men nor women can shop confidently without trying goods on. And reverse logistics — the returning of goods — is an expensive nightmare for brands, especially when dealing with low-cost ‘fast fashion’.

Both of these issues can be solved. Manufacturing data could be applied to give the most detailed fit data, and supplemented with shared data from people who have tried goods on. With a digital personal assistant holding your measurements — updated daily every time your head-mounted camera catches a mirror — you could buy with extreme confidence something will fit.

Or your personal digital assistant could buy for you. Everyone loves surprise post. And we’re increasingly signing up for subscription-based purchases for everything from pants to organic vegetables. Why not give your AI some discretionary spend to surprise you with a new item of clothing every month — or even week.

With the rise of autonomous vehicle — including the rolling drones trialled in Greenwich last year — automated warehouses, and better integration of offline and on, the costs of reverse logistics start to fall. Brands can be more confident sending out goods that will fit and suit their clients. And know that if things do need to come back, it won’t cost the earth.

…but the tactile experience grows in value

All this suggests that there will be more damage to an already-challenged high street. But speak to 16–35 year-olds and it becomes clear that they have an enormous attachment to the high street and the physical experience it offers.

According to research I was involved with for the Salesforce Future Ready Retail programme, the high street is an important social venue for many (29%). 28% say they go for ‘something to do’ and 43% say they go just to get ‘out and about’. This trend is likely to increase: we have growing multiple occupancy in shrinking homes. People need a third space to escape to, so footfall shouldn’t be a problem.

But will they buy? Most of this cohort say they go to the high street to research or make purchases. 58% want to try items on or test them out. 54% want to touch or feel items before they buy. 51% value the high street for the instant access it provides them to goods. 38% are seeking ideas.

Altogether, 96% say they still like to visit actual shops on the high street and in shopping centres. The challenge though, is connecting this physical activity to digital commerce.

…necessity connects physical and digital

The reality is that many people try offline and buy online. Not only are the prices potentially better, but the convenience is increasingly greater. With rapid fulfilment, why lug your shopping back when it could be delivered to you, neatly packaged, by the time you arrive home?

As the figures above show, the offline experience is crucial to the buying process. The challenge is demonstrating that with enough confidence to continue investing in it. The widespread acceptance of augmented reality devices could solve this problem. The data will be there to track someone through a physical interaction with a product right through to their digital purchase. However, two problems remain.

First, we will not be able to make a causal connection, only a correlation. This shouldn’t be too much of an issue though: there is rarely a causal connection between physical advertising and the purchase, but nonetheless we continue to invest billions in it.

Second, there is no obvious mechanism for paying the provider of the physical world experience for the digital purchase. Should one retailer pay another because an online purchase was spurred by an offline experience in their store? Not likely.

More likely is that brands will start to have to foot the bill for physical exposure, and find ways to map the investment in one back to the returns in the other. In this scenario, department stores have an enormous opportunity, aggregating the costs of physical exposure and charging brands for the privilege. We may yet see the renaissance of the department store as a venue for people to touch and feel goods, even if their purchases are ultimately offline. Some may feel this is already what they have become, but in the future it may be a sustainable business model.

…in-store the focus is on product and service, not transaction

For those investing in stores, they will want to ensure that they can maximise the value of that investment. This means focusing on product exposure and service quality and not on the space currently devoted to transactions. Tills will largely disappear, replaced perhaps by RFID systems, but more likely in the long term by computer vision systems tracking goods around (and out of) the store — as seen with Amazon Go.

Human staff will be augmented by virtual assistants, powered by the full range of data captured about each shopper and what that shopper chooses to share from their own digital assistant.


Five trends for the future high street was originally published in Book of the Future on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Do we need a robot tax?

Do we need a robot tax?

Jeremy Corbyn has called for a new tax on robots.

I’m delighted to hear a politician engaging with the coming challenges from automation. But I don’t think this is the right idea. Because we already have a tax on robots. It’s called Corporation Tax.

Taxing efficiency

Corporation Tax is a tax on profits. The more you make, the more you pay.

Companies invest in robots primarily because they increase profits. They do jobs more quickly, more cheaply, and more reliably than humans. Hence companies can produce more at lower cost. In theory then, those companies investing heavily in automation ought to be making disproportionately greater profits, and paying more tax.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that.

The dodge

Analysis by the House of Commons Library (with the caveat that this was commissioned by Labour) suggests tax avoidance costs the state around £2.2bn per year. This does not include the re-routing of profits internationally into lower (or zero) tax destinations.

If it did, the figure would likely be much, much higher.

The global companies investing the most in automation are also those with the scale and capability to avoid tax most effectively.

The headlines

A tax on robots sounds good. It plays to our deep-seated fears of being displaced by machines. Fears that go back centuries: the Luddites weren’t against technology, they were against losing their jobs to it.

But this is the problem with so much of modern politics. The answer to everything has to be a new policy, because that sounds good in speeches and looks good in headlines.

Taxing robots also sounds a lot more palatable to half the electorate than cutting down on tax avoidance. Talking about tax avoidance —as Labour has done — leads half the population to think that they will end up paying more tax. Rather fewer people think they will be affected by a robot tax. And it may well be the wrong people.

A brake on progress

Taxing robots specifically targets those companies that are driving innovation. They may well be the same companies investing the most in tax avoidance, but that doesn’t mean that automation is inherently wrong. Automation may cost a lot of jobs, but many of them will be ones people would rather not do. The question is perhaps not whether we should be protecting bad jobs but working out what people are going to do instead.

Every listed company is obliged by its commitment to shareholders to operate to its best potential. Sometimes this means their leaders prioritise short term success over sustainability — a mistake that hurts us all. But over the long term, without a fundamental change in our economic system, we have to accept that the duties of leadership to shareholders means that companies are going invest in automation.

If that switch is inevitable, do we want the companies here to be the last to make that switch, because we make it expensive? Do we want companies in the UK to be the last reap the benefits of automation, or the first?

Software and hardware

Think about the types of robots that are being employed. Some of them are bound by location. These are primarily physical robots: drones for delivery, self-driving cars and trucks, warehouse operations. Still, many of the physical robots in manufacturing and production can easily be moved anywhere offshore — likely close to a port in a country with cheap electricity.

The real challenge is how you tax software robots. These will outnumber the physical robots by an order of magnitude. The digital systems that replace accountants, solicitors, call centre workers, retail staff, administrators. How do you tax those?

You can’t do it explicitly because counting them would be near impossible. The closest analogy today is the investment that large software companies make in counting the licences for their tools used by corporations. This investment is enormous and the technical expertise considerable.

I don’t think it is practical for any state tax collector to tackle this challenge across all of the possible types of software robot, many of which will never be identifiable as having captured part or all of one human role.

The answer is international

What we have to return to then is a tax on a principle, rather than a tax on a particular aspect of business. If you make profits, it is because you have access to the infrastructure and assets of a nation — including its people. There is a cost to that access, and it is corporation tax.

What we might consider is creating bands of corporation tax based on the relative profits a company makes compared to its employment base. Huge profits but few employees might see you pay a higher rate than a company with low profits but many people. This might have the negative drag effect I decried earlier, but set at the right level and introduced progressively it could start to offset the losses from personal tax and employer contributions (PAYE and NI).

None of this is feasible without international co-operation though. As I have said, the companies investing the most in automation are usually those with the scale and scope to move profits around the world to minimise their tax bill. Only greater international co-operation can make this harder and close the tax gap for each nation.

Robots not androids

When we talk about robots, particularly in the context of work, we naturally think of machines that look like us. If they look like us, then they can be counted and taxed like us. This is a fallacy.

The robots that replace many of us at work will look nothing like us. In fact they might not look like anything at all. Just a few million lines of code in a server somewhere in the world. They might never be bought or sold, but created in house from a collection of open-source components, so they can’t even be taxed at point of sale.

We can’t tax robots. Which leads us to the difficult but obvious conclusion: we have to get better at taxing profits.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What’s next?

What’s next?

You can time travel.

In twenty years you find out you can come back and give yourself some advice. But you don’t have long. The machine can only keep you in the past for a minute.

What do you say?

Ignore, for a moment, the possibility of time paradoxes, and the sheer unlikeliness of time travel. Strip away the specifics: that relationship you should have dodged, next week’s lottery numbers. What would be the most common advice we would come back and give to our younger selves?

Here are some ideas:

Learn to learn

“The next twenty years are going to see change like never before. Keeping up is going to be a challenge, both at home and at work. Your best prospect for success is to be the fastest to adapt.

Learn to recognise the gaps in your skills and your knowledge and how to find the resources to fill them.”

Scepticism is your best defence

“The ability to broadcast information is growing much faster than your ability to verify it. You can’t rely on the sources you once could. There will be attempts to solve this with technology, but they will only ever be half an answer.

You need to learn to question everything you’re told and sold. Accept and challenge your own prejudices. Scepticism is your best defence: from salespeople, politicians, and yourself.”

Cling to your privacy

“People will tell you that data is the new oil. It isn’t. It’s the new prison.

The less control you have of your personal data, the more you are trapped in the expectations of others. Whether it’s brands and the things they want to sell you, insurers and their willingness to protect you, or employers and their willingness to hire you. Even friendships and relationships can be jeopardised by a digital history out of your control.

Don’t withdraw. Enjoy the advantages being offered in return for your data. But ensure you are informed and make every sharing decision consciously.”

What do you think you would say?

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You can find more on these ideas in these posts:

Learn to learn: https://bookofthefuture.co.uk/learn-to-learn-faster-84882399034f

Scepticism is your best defence: https://bookofthefuture.co.uk/sort-fact-from-fiction-faster-9bb11b2af8c6

Cling to your privacy: https://bookofthefuture.co.uk/your-privacy-or-your-life-2b5391e541de

 

##

BTW, here’s me, time travelling…

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Mum hasn’t gone to Iceland

Mum hasn’t gone to Iceland

Have you heard of transactional memory? It’s the outsourcing of memory to other people around us. You don’t remember your nephew’s birthday because you know your other half will. You don’t need to remember to get the car MOT’d because you know your other half will. By outsourcing this way we can store much more than we can fit in our own heads.

Human beings have always been looking for ways to be more than our own biology allows. We’re a race of toolmakers, determined to turn every material we can find to our advantage. Whether it’s a stone axe or a smartphone, we’re keen to augment ourselves to be more than we could otherwise be. Do more than we could otherwise do.

This deep and ingrained comfort with transactional memory, and our own desire to augment ourselves, is why I think we will so happily accept AI extensions of our own selves. A transactional relationship with software agents that extend our memories, our processing power, and give us the ability to do what every busy person has always wanted: to be in two places at once.

Hold that thought.

For the time being, the biggest battleground in digital marketing is still search. What this means is people spending billions of pounds and using all sorts of sneaky means to ensure that when you type the relevant words into Google or Bing, theirs is the first brand that you see.

You may not think it, but Google and Bing are your friends here. Every day its engineers go to bat to make sure that what you see when you search is not what someone else wants you to see, but objectively the most relevant answer to your question.

On the other side though, every day, every brand’s agency is working to do the opposite. To ensure that whether you’re searching for car insurance or cat food, it’s their clients who appear right at the top of those search results.

Two sides locked in a constant battle.

Hold that thought.

Tell me: do you enjoy buying toilet paper? Really? Or tinned tomatoes? Or washing powder? All those things that make up a good chunk of your weekly shop. Things you really need, but honestly, do you really want? Do you lust after them? Are you fulfilled by finding that perfect pack of triple-ply?

What if you could have a transactional relationship with an artificial intelligence who ordered those things for you. Ensured that you never had to think about them again. They would always just be there. You would never run out of washing up liquid, or dog food, or nappies again. It has access to your credit card and an online store, and limited scope for discretionary spending against a list of key items.

Outsourcing plus tools.

Now imagine the battle that is going on behind the scenes. Today that battle is between marketing agencies and search engines. But what happens when you stop searching? When you allow an AI to do the searching for you? Imagine how much effort will go into influencing your AI to buy a particular brand. This is the next big battleground and there won’t be a single human on the front lines.

Personalised marketing engines will suck in huge amounts of data about you and your peers and serve endless offers at your AI, only for it to bat them back. 99% of them will be rejected. But every now and again, based on appealing to the criteria that your AI has been given, or learned, it will change your brand of toilet paper, cat food, shower gel, or, yes, cereal.

What might that data be? Let me give you some ideas.

For a start, we will all be wearing cameras on our heads, all the time. Your AI won’t just know what brands you buy, how much you use, and when you need more, it will know what your friends and family buy and use. People like you bought things like this? Imagine Amazon’s recommendation engine turned on its head and brought into the physical world.

Your smart glasses won’t just know what you ate elsewhere, they will know how much you enjoyed it. Heart rate monitors, breathing, galvanic skin response, even an EEG reading brain activity. All this is today’s technology the output of which can already be used to reliably interpret emotion by an AI. Sampled a different cereal elsewhere and liked it? You may find a box in your next order.

But only if it’s good for you. Your personal AI will know a lot about your health. We already pump data into systems like MyFitnessPal, recording our diets and streaming data from our Fitbits and connected scales. A few years ago I made a programme called ‘In the future, toilets will be our doctors’. I wasn’t kidding. You can learn a lot about what’s going on inside you by looking at what is coming out of you.

We are already on this journey. We have outsourced our memories to digital calendars. Our sense of direction to GPS.

We are increasingly comfortable with subscription-based shopping models for everything from films to food, razors to pants.

The future of retail — at least large chunks of FMCG — is automated. Decades of marketing to humans will increasingly be turned on the AIs that assist us, trying to game them into switching our brands. This is the new brand battleground.

Mum hasn’t gone to Iceland. Nor has dad. And they haven’t sent the kids. The AI has done the shopping and it has bought you exactly what you need.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Ten ways to disrupt tomorrow

Ten ways to disrupt tomorrow

Last week I gave the closing keynote at the enormous RESI 2017 residential property conference, sharing a stage with the housing minister Alok Sharma, the BBC’s Mark Easton, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, and Blur’s Alex James.

I wrote a talk for the event, but the night before I decided it was all wrong. Closing keynotes need to be full of energy — especially when people are still jaded from the previous night’s gala dinner. They need to give people some simple points to take away. And while they can summarise, the last thing people want to hear is a repeat of what has come before.

Looking at the agenda for the previous days I decided I needed to come up with something fresh. This is what I wrote. Though it was written for a property audience, I think it has wider relevance. Have a read and see what you think.

I’ve been asked to talk to you today about disruption. In the next twenty five minutes I want to talk about ten things that are going to completely disrupt the physical world. Your business, your home, and everyone’s lives.

But first I want to talk about what’s driving that disruption. Right here, right now there is one change driver that is bigger than Trump, bigger than Brexit, bigger than climate change. And it’s technology.

Technology is driving change both more consistently and more persistently than any of these factors today. You may be able to roll back whatever decisions a politician makes, given enough time. But you can’t un-invent the smartphone, or the atom bomb — unfortunately, given the sabre rattling from a certain chubby dictator.

The appliance of science

When I talk about technology, I’m not talking about the phone in your pocket, though that’s part of it. I’m talking about technology in the broadest sense. The appliance of science. We are a race of tool makers who have been applying science since the first caveman or woman picked up a rock and realised it was a more efficient way to stove in the head of whatever animal they were trying to catch. Technology is maths, wheels and language. Which I guess makes Shakespeare a coder.

Throughout our history technology has done one thing. It has lowered friction. Technology allows us to do things we couldn’t otherwise do more efficiently, quickly, and painlessly.

But that gives whoever has that technology a competitive edge. Because if someone else has that edge, then we want it. It doesn’t matter if it’s countries competing in an arms race, companies competing in a market, or you trying to keep up with the family at number 42 with the nice new Merc.

It is this competitive tension that keeps driving technology forward. The last ten years have seen technology transform our world. The next ten will see transformations of even greater magnitude.

1. The end of possessions

Technology has eliminated so much of the matter in our lives. Newspapers and magazines, books, paper in general. CDs, DVDs, Blurays and all the various paraphernalia needed to play them on.

This has coincided with a shift to a much more experience-led culture. Expenditure on food and drink and holidays is up. People are focused on what they can do, not what they can own.

There’s still huge — perhaps increasing — value in tactile experiences like vinyl, in the face of mass digitisation. But the larger trend is clear: we can achieve the same or greater experiences through fewer physical objects.

2. Personal AI

We outsource memory to other people in our lives. How many times have you relied on a partner or family member to remember someone’s birthday, the MOT, or home insurance renewal? Why shouldn’t we outsource to machines as well?

The reality is that we already do. GPS has become our sense of direction, calendars and photos our memories.

The next step is letting them filter the world, and even take buying decisions, on our behalf. Right now we put this power in the hands of third parties like Facebook, and subscription shopping services. When it should be our own personal AI, intimately familiar with our preferences and insulated from the influence of external parties.

3. Frictionless administration

With a personal AI hosting aspects of our identity, finance and vital documentation, we can look forward to truly frictionless administration. No more endless reams of paper or multi-page forms for every insurance policy, remortgage or investment. Our assistants interact with the APIs of any intermediary, in turn interacting with providers and third parties. Blockchain may play a role in providing a more secure and transparent record.

4. Everything is smart

Our personal AIs will be driven by data captured from the world around us, and able to shape that world to our needs. Because everything will be connected. It costs less than a couple of pounds to add WiFi to anything these days — a few cents to do it at scale. Eventually the cost of doing so falls below the return — however slight it might be. And so everything gets some level of smarts, for sensing or control.

5. Distributed energy

We can power this smarter world because three things are happening. First, the consumption of each unit is declining: desktop PCs consume around 400 watts, laptops 75w, tablets and phones just 10. Appliances get more efficient all the time.

Second, our ability to generate electricity cheaply and cleanly is improving — particularly at small scale with solar. Wind is already markedly cheaper than nuclear, as the last round of bidding for UK energy supply shows.

Third, we can now store energy better. The next generation of batteries approach the energy density of petrol and are made from cheap and readily-available minerals.

6. Everything is electric

Because of this, gas starts to look as unattractive as a home fuel as coal does to us now. Dangerous and dirty, people will bother less and less with installing gas supply in new developments, as electricity becomes the preferred technology for heating and cooking, transport and travel, as well as all of our digital appliances.

7. Autonomous construction

Machines can already lay bricks and pour concrete faster than people, with large-scale 3D printers now producing whole buildings near-autonomously from a recycled slurry. As this technology advances it will change the nature of construction and maintenance. Autonomous machines will follow digital instructions to create and complete whole structures, utilising new materials and modular techniques.

Then machines will respond to sensor data to adapt those buildings to current need, within the parameters laid down by the original architects.

8. Dynamic addressing

Your phone is increasingly your address, enabling you to share your location with a high degree of accuracy with third parties. The incredible WhatThreeWords gives a unique address to every few square metres of the earth. Given these capabilities, why do we have everything delivered to a fixed physical address? New fraud controls mean we should be less reliant on address as a validation of someone’s trustworthiness. Why not send goods to wherever they want them — whether that’s where they are or where they will be?

9. Life through a lens

Yesterday’s Deloitte figures showed we spend an incredible amount of time staring at a screen. Tomorrow we will stare through it. Augmented reality enables more natural, human interactions with the digital world, and equips us with a general purpose sensor — the head-mounted camera — that enables a whole range of applications. I genuinely believe that in just ten years we will spend 10–12 hours per day in augmented reality, witnessing the world through a digital overlay. One that expands our senses, enhances our memory and cognition, and personalises our world. This isn’t a vision without risk, but I think it’s realistic.

10. Joy is paramount

One of the insights about the ‘millennial’ generation that I actually accept is the rising priority placed on experiences over possessions. While widely pilloried I think this can only be seen as a good thing in retrospect. We should enjoy life if we can, and our spaces and places, services and service, need to be shaped around that priority.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Your personal data space

Your personal data space

Your house is leaky. It’s not an issue about what comes in, but about what goes out.

When it comes to privacy, I’m something of an optimist. I am entirely aware of the trade-offs that I make to access the variety of social and cloud-based services that I use. For the most part, I accept that they will use my data and sell it to advertisers and those interested in my habits. In return, the service doesn’t cost me any cash — at least not directly.

For personal services like Facebook and Twitter, it’s fine for us each to make this judgement call for ourselves. But when it comes to home automation and security services, we need to be a little more considered. Because most of us share our homes. Not everyone in them will share our relaxed attitude to trading our personal data. Some of them may not be old enough to make an informed decision.

DIY

I’ve become more and more aware of this as I have progressed through the latest iteration of my long-running home automation project.

A few years ago I got fed up with products from different manufacturers not talking to each other and started to build my own system. It worked, in a limited fashion, giving me data on energy consumption, turning a few lights on and off automatically, and monitoring just how absurdly damp parts of my house were.

But in truth, it was a kludge. My coding skills weren’t up to building a really solid core platform. And it was reliant on some hacked-together integrations with commercial products: HomeEasy sockets and switches, AlertMe energy monitoring. After a while, some of the commercial products I was getting sent to test started to creep in and replace my home brew kit. Fibaro’s excellent HomeCenter 2 became the heart of my system with a variety of Z-wave connected components around and about, plus a few odd extras bolted on such as bulbs from Belkin’s WeMo range, Somfy’s security system, and my Nest thermostat.

Then at the start of this year, I started getting sent lots of connected cameras. Netgear’s Arlo, the Blink range, and Panasonic’s Home Control system. In my excitement, I started thinking about where I’d mount them before I thought about whether I wanted cameras around the house.

Then it occurred to me: I’m very conscious of how much information I share about my children. Do I really want to risk storing endless hours of video of them in the cloud?

Decision spur

The answer, of course, was no. The cameras are back in their box. But I didn’t stop there. I started thinking: what’s happening to my energy consumption data? What’s happening to my heating data — and presence data that the thermostat also collects? What about the lights?

Individually, each one of these things may tell the world little about me and my family. But there might be 20 different cloud-connected devices in my house — maybe more. I’ve not even mentioned Alexa or the streaming media devices yet. Combined, how much of a picture can they build up of me? And more importantly, what do they already know about my family.

The result is that I have returned to the DIY route with renewed zeal, installing the excellent Home Assistant at the heart of my system and building my own switches and sensors using the incredible NodeMCU.

I realise this is the sort of geeky speak that will switch off the strategists reading this. But this stuff is important.

Social Chain

I met with some of the chaps from global social media superstars Social Chain last week. They showed in a presentation a storyboard of personal information being collected from a private WhatsApp chat and being used to drive targeted advertising on Facebook. At every opportunity our personal information is being captured, and it is being analysed and processed with increasing efficiency and accuracy. Data like your home temperature or energy consumption may not feel like it has a huge value to third parties. But for somebody, somewhere, it is gold.

I have no problem sharing this data for an appropriate return. But I realise now, when it comes to data about my home, this isn’t just my decision to make.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

You are a guinea pig

You are a guinea pig

In a time of high frequency change, we are all guinea pigs. All working tirelessly to interpret, codify and normalise new ideas, objects, media and behaviours. To lay down a shared set of rules for how these things should be discussed, applied, accepted or rejected.

It can be exhausting, even for those who relish the challenge.

Not everyone embraces change. There is even an argument for some conservatism in this period, a braking force to prevent us rushing headlong into an uncertain tomorrow. But this conservatism has to come from the right place. Objective caution is one thing. Forceful rejection of the loss of relative privilege is quite another.

Millennial mauling

Old vs young is an old story, most recently retold in the mauling of millennials over the past five years. This cohort born from 1980 onward has been accused of being workshy, over-sensitive and laden with excessive expectations. There’s little evidence that any of it is true — or at least more true than it was for previous cohorts. Certainly millennials don’t job hop any more than previous generations.

Millennials have come of age in a time where they are expected to pay their way up from a young age. Where a large proportion will enter the workforce already in debt. And where the work that they find is increasingly insecure. Facing all this perhaps they are entitled to ask for more than their predecessors?

But millennials have an advantage as guinea pigs that galls their seniors. They have had young minds, biologically more capable of adaptation, throughout the most recent periods of accelerated change. They have adapted their behaviours and working styles while others feel left behind.

Perhaps this drives some of the mauling they have received.

Science scepticism

Another group that has been vilified over the past five years is scientists, and technologists. Yes, we celebrate the superstars of Silicon Valley (though they too receive their share of brickbats). But the scale and volume of the movements that reject science, in many forms, has been growing.

For a start, there’s the conspiracy theorists. The flat earthers, the climate change deniers, the anti-vaccination lobby. Those who prefer, for whatever reason, truthiness to truth.

There’s the alternative health lobby, determined to undermine empiricism to promote their beliefs or their products, whether it’s ‘superfoods’, supplements, or pointless — sometimes even dangerous — treatments.

Fear drives a lot of these groups. Fear of things they don’t understand. Fear of losing parts of their lives they value — even their livelihoods. There’s nothing wrong with fear — it’s entirely natural. But the right response to fearing things you don’t understand is to examine them. Accept your knowledge deficit and ask questions. Don’t hide from the facts, however uncomfortable they may be.

Diversity deniers

I caught up with Lorna Fitzsimmons of The Pipeline yesterday. Inevitably, we talked about gender in the workplace, and how we are still so far from addressing the equality of women.

52% of the (potential) workforce are still significantly disadvantaged, underpaid and under-represented. Yet we know — hard fact — that changing this has a range of benefits with which few can argue. Benefits to productivity, growth, profitability. Benefits to society.

Despite this, many men — and even women — are unaware of the situation or unwilling to act to change it. Some even aggressively resist it, knowing that though it may be in the company’s interest, it may not be in their own.

That self-preservation instinct is understandable. But ultimately, it’s unsustainable.

Be scared

In a time of accelerated change, it’s OK to be scared — we naturally fear what we don’t understand. But it’s not OK to be wilfully ignorant. In the long term, it won’t serve you well.

This period of high frequency change is not a blip. It’s probably the new norm, at least for some time to come. No political battle is going to disconnect us from increasingly shared ideas, media, brands and channels of communication.

Unless you want to spend the next few years afraid and struggling against the tide, it’s probably time to embrace change. Or reject it, by all means. But if you do so, do it from an informed standpoint. Otherwise the tide is likely to wash right over you.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

How smart does a vacuum cleaner need to be?

How smart does a vacuum cleaner need to be?

With my gadget-man hat on, I had a demo this week of the most spectacular vacuum cleaner. It arrived in an array of cases with multiple components and a trained demonstrator to walk me through it.

This is not the Rolls Royce of vacuum cleaners. That would imply conspicuous expenditure. This is more a boy scout in a BMW: beautifully engineered and prepared for anything.

I’ll be writing up a full review of the Vorwerk VK200 over on The Loadout, but what struck me most about this system was its smarts. This is a highly intelligent vacuum cleaner.

Smarts in action

This was made clear at two points in the demonstration, one deliberate, one less so.

The first occasion was in showing the transitions from carpet to hard floor. The cleaner head has ultrasonic sensors to not just detect this transition but to understand how deep the carpet might be and adjust the suction and profile accordingly.

Impressive.

The second occasion was when the unit started misbehaving. I felt for the demonstrator, having been in that situation. It’s uncomfortable. But I didn’t read too much into it: these are products with a 17–25 year lifespan. The worst is bound to happen in a demonstration.

What surprised me was his response. Not “I’ll have to fix that,” but “I’ll have to reprogram that.” This is a vacuum cleaner smart enough to be fixable by plugging in a USB cable.

Ubiquity

The processing power required to support such capabilities is hardly spectacular by modern standards. But nonetheless it struck me that yet another formerly dumb item is now smart. Not just because it has a small digital brain but because it can sense its environment and respond.

When you’re looking to the future, one of the critical things to understand is just how far and how fast the price or technology falls, and its accessibility increases. The more widely used and deployed a technology becomes (often a factor of price), the more shared knowledge there is about how to deploy it. This drives further application and the price falls again, continuing the cycle.

The result is that we see technology in all sorts of applications where previously it may have seemed unrealistically expensive or complex to implement. Sometimes that’s frivolous — the WiFi Kettle being a good example — and sometimes that smarts is put to good use, as in the VK200.

This ubiquitous application of technology — in all its forms — drives competition, often from unforeseen sources. People with a problem recognise a technology-driven solution and see that it can be constructed with relative ease. They then launch themselves into a market that may have seen little new competition in decades.

Unless your peripheral vision is alert to incoming technologies and the challenges they might carry, your business is at serious risk.

Tom Cheesewright