Future batteries might store more and charge faster, or they might be built into the structure of our houses or vehicles.Read More
Greater community engagement and peer support can’t replace our over-stretched services and crumbling infrastructure. But it can mitigate their effects.Read More
The Luddites smashed machines they could see that were taking their jobs. How will the new Luddites rage against invisible, ephemeral machines?Read More
The age of creativity is over, replaced by an unrelenting focus on optimisation that locks us into a cycle of failure based on business as usualRead More
Driving through the Italian countryside on the way back to Rome’s Ciampino airport, an ancient aqueduct becomes visible through the trees. Based on the few glimpses I could gather, its arches span hundreds of metres. Complete, it may have stretched for miles. Two thousand years ago, we had the technology to pipe fresh water from the mountains to our towns.
It’s hard not to look at the wonders of the Roman empire and conclude that the rate of our technological progress as a species has been uneven at best. Slow, slow, quick quick, slow. Sometimes even backwards.
Imagine if that hadn’t been the case. Imagine if every step forward had become the firm footing for the next step. If we hadn’t faltered but accelerated our understanding. Shared, taught, and applied each new piece of knowledge. Imagine where we might be now.
Maybe the answer is in ruins. After all, some of those quick-quick periods were times of war. But maybe we would be a space-faring species, based from a planet of abundance powered by clean energy. Maybe quantum physics and genetics would have been the scientific challenge of the last century, or even earlier.
We can’t change the past, but we can change the future and ensure that we keep advancing, and doing so in the right direction. Do we really want our descendants to be looking back the ruins of the 21st century and wondering why it took us so long to get to there from here?
Taking a break
This will be the last new blog you will read from me for a couple of weeks, and maybe the last one you will read here. I’ll probably still be writing but I need to give my marketing agency a fixed set of content to migrate to my new website, which will be going live in a short while. If you want to ensure you keep receiving my posts, head over to this link and fill out your details.
The new website will bring together all my various online presences into a single platform and will be the basis for the continued growth of my activities in the Applied Futurism arena, where I’m pleased to say demand just seems to keep growing.
Amazingly, this week marks the first time a client has asked me, formally, to look at Brexit. It has inevitably been part of my thinking since the referendum was first announced, included in talks and discussed in Q+A sessions. But this is the first time I have had to prepare a full talk on the subject.
My thinking remains the same as it was before the vote: we have taken the more difficult path to what is likely the same future. Leaving the European Union — should we ultimately leave — presents barriers to commerce and communication. The historical trend, which I fully expect to continue, is to bring these barriers down, not raise them. Yes, there are issues between the US and China, but those are largely down to the economic illiteracy of the current chump-in-chief. Whatever our actions here, we won’t reverse this global, long-term trend for low-friction communication and trade, and nor will he.
Stopping the tides
The likely outcome is rather well illustrated by the two stories of King Canute. I say two stories, because the version most of us know is not the version originally told.
Canute, (or Cnut) was the king of Denmark, Norway, and England. In the story we all know, he is presented as being so arrogant that he believes he can command the tides to stop. He is surprised and distraught at their unwillingness to respond to his commands.
I fear some of our political leaders are like this version of Canute, believing that the power of our state is still such that we can wield power without the support of our European neighbours. Like Canute in this case, I think they will be sorely disappointed.
Networks, not monoliths
The reality of today’s world is one of networks, not monoliths. Very little success is commanded by organisations that attempt to do everything themselves. And when you look inside those that do, you find that they have constructed themselves as networks, not old-school monoliths.
Critics of the European project see it as a new, larger, monolith, with power centralised to Brussels. There’s a little truth in this, but its much more important role is as a network, a set of shared protocols within which multiple nodes can co-operate with low friction.
We may still be a reasonably large economy, but outside of such a network, states are poorly-sized for many of today’s challenges. Too small for issues of trade, crime, research, and media, all of which are increasingly international. Too large and centralised (in our case) for the smaller issues of day to day life: healthcare, transport, waste.
The EU network offers us a much more appropriate scale of operation for many issues and sectors. Inside it both government and commercial entities can operate much more effectively. Outside of it, we are subject to the same change tides but with much reduced ability to shape their flow. A node isolated from its network fast loses relevance.
We can and will rebuild our network, but it will take time, and the network outside of the European project will inevitably operating with a less favourable set of rules to the ones we had before.
Humility and piety
The real story of King Canute, as first told by Henry of Huntingdon, is one of humility. Canute knows full well that he cannot command the tides. He is a pious man, and for him, the sea is the domain of a higher power. Canute wants to demonstrate this to fawning courtiers, who he feels think rather too much of him. So he plants himself in opposition to the sea, demands it halt and shows them how little notice it pays.
I fear some of our political leaders are more like this Canute, at least in their understanding that their will is insufficient to change the tides. They are going through the motions, not to demonstrate their lack of power but in a bid to cling to what little they have: the courtiers here are as likely to plant a knife in the back of the king as to praise him. As the tide rolls in around them, they will just repeat the mantra “It was the will of the people.”
This group may also claim piety, but I do not recognise their interpretation of Christian teachings, since they must also recognise the damage their actions will have on the lives of many.
Low friction future
Ultimately, the world will be one of low borders and frictionless trade. Not because of some grand free-market conspiracy* but because we are a planet that has been shrunk by technology — first transport and then communications. A huge proportion of our modern products and services can be conducted and delivered digitally. Rapidly advancing technology will mean that the transportation of others falls further in cost through automation, green energy and new materials.
In the meantime, the UK will be one of the highest-friction places to trade, with new financial, legal and logistical barriers. This will inevitably have an impact on jobs, compounded by the growing prospect of automation, from which we will not be insulated. We will be isolated from international research programmes — something that is already happening. And we know that we will struggle to meet the resource requirements for our health service.
Good reasons to leave
In theory at least, there might be good reasons to leave the EU, whether you come from the left or the right. On the left, you might believe that an independent UK can more easily nationalise some industries, increase worker protections, and pursue more aggressive tax strategies against international companies. On the right you might think we can lower trade borders even further, reduce labour costs, and make the UK a more attractive target for investment. Unfortunately, none of these theories survive very long when tested against reality.
For the left, EU law doesn’t prevent us nationalising some industries, when there is good reason to do so. Rather the EU is the conduit for World Trade Organisation rules: a larger, less favourably-weighted network. We would likely have much greater trouble nationalising industries without the insulation of the EU. Inside the EU many countries manage to pursue significantly greater state intervention than the UK, where three quarters of applications to apply state aid are waived through.
Worker protections have historically been advanced by the EU rather than limited by it: our own track record is arguably bettered by our neighbours. And on the tax front, we would probably have better luck with a co-ordinated international strategy rather than going it alone. It might be slower but it would have a better chance of success.
For the right, well yes, we could remove some worker protections and reduce labour costs. But that would have to be about ideology rather than a pragmatic strategy for economic growth. Who is going to labour without the migrants we have been so reliant upon in recent years, and in what industries if tariffs are adding so much friction to trade? Automation is already going to reduce labour costs anyway, and robots have no such protections.
All of this means for me, as backed by pretty much every reasonable analysis to date, leaving the EU means difficult times ahead for the UK, especially if we leave without a deal. Some of this risk could be mitigated with the right deal, though in many ways this would satisfy no-one: we would at least be inside the network but with no control over the rules by which it is governed.
So what should people and organisations do facing this rather gloomy analysis? The first thing to understand is that technology still presents a greater change-driver over the medium term than this political shift. Brexit will be a terrible shock but the pace of technological change continues at an astronomical rate and presents as great a threat to work and industries. Technology will continue to change our lives whether we are inside or outside the EU.
Just as technology has been used to circumvent barriers in the past, if we leave, so it will be used in the future. Expect to see large corporations finding workarounds for increased tariffs, and expect to see growing digital grey and black markets. Expect to see freelance workers here finding ways to continue to sell their services internationally.
Our businesses need to strive to be the best and the fastest at responding to change. This means maintaining a watchful eye on the near horizon and breaking the boundaries of their own thinking about what is possible: most of us are constrained in our imaginations by today’s reality in our company, sector and country. It means making good decisions more quickly, pushing power to the edge of the organisation or accelerating the flow of information through to decision-makers at the core. And it means reshaping the organisation as a network itself, able to be constantly rearranged to meet changing conditions.
As individuals we need to recognise the challenge that Brexit presents alongside the work environment that will continue to transform under any circumstances. We need to be focused on those high-value skills that insulate us from the threat of automation, but also to push for a welfare and education environment that gives the best chance of adapting to high frequency change.
The great and the unready
Canute conquered England and ruled it for nearly two decades. He came to be known as ‘Canute the Great’. He replaced ‘Aelthred the Unready’, via a short reign for Aethelred’s son. However the Brexit story plays out over the next twelve months, our current crop of leader’s seem more likely to be remembered as unready than great. For us as individuals and for our organisations, the challenge is to be ready for the coming uncertainty.
*By the way, it’s not exactly a conspiracy but there has been a general re-writing of the economic orthodoxy over the past fifty years or so leaving us with a general impression that markets are good and government spending is bad, when the evidence doesn’t really support this. See Ha-Joon Chang’s “Economics, The User’s Guide”, for a great analysis.
The modern motor car is really only 80 years old, or thereabouts. It was in the inter-war period that we settled on the combustion engine and ponton styling, that have defined cars right up until the current era. Only now are we beginning the shift to electricity as the primary drive source, and only with that technological shift will we likely start to rethink the shape of the vehicle. The new electric drivetrain should allow a much greater level of flexibility in the configuration of the car, and the way electric cars are used — particularly with the advent of fully self-driving vehicles — will mean different requirements.
Technology, alongside need, and style, shapes the car. But the car, and our other transport choices, also shape the city. In fact, they shape our lives. With a car we can travel further for work, or leisure. We can live further from our families and know we can visit them. We can transport heavy goods ourselves, shopping weekly instead of daily, purchasing our own flatpacks. Or we can have things delivered to our doors. All of these things change the very shape of our cities, even before you consider the direct requirements of the vehicles themselves.
There has been much talk about how self-driving and electric cars might reshape our cities, removing the need for parking, for example — at least in prime areas. They can drop off their passengers and then drive themselves to an out of town garage, or return home, or continue to serve other passengers across the city until they need charging. But there is also a very reasonable challenge that asks whether we should let cars shape our cities again. After all, the last time we allowed a single form of personal transport to shape our cities, it wasn’t all positive. Self-driving, electric cars propose to reduce congestion and pollution, but we already have other ways to do those things.
Railways and other mass transit systems should remain more efficient than even the most efficient powered personal vehicles, as long as investment in new technology can be sustained. These vehicles should get lighter, with the introduction of new materials. They should benefit from the auto industry’s investment in electric propulsion. Together these things should make them quieter, cheaper to run, and more reliable.
Cycling is becoming more and more accessible to all with the advent of electric assistance. I don’t think we’re far off adding some form of dynamic stabilisation technology to reduce the fears of those concerned about falling off. The risk can only really be reduced with more segregated cycle lanes, but this seems to be coming, slowly, to the UK, with a greater focus from programmes like that in Manchester, led by Chris Boardman.
Cycling is not only clean and quiet but tackles poor health, one of the great financial challenges of our time. The same is true of the walking implied in mass transit. The risk of self-driving cars is that they become like the floating loungers of Wall-E, carrying obese humans between meals.
A city shaped by cycling, walking and mass transit is potentially very different to one shaped by smart cars. Even the smartest of cars will present barriers to pedestrians, breaking down streets into two sides. Mass transit implies hubs around which services and people congregate. In a car-driven system the city can be much more evenly distributed: each has advantages and disadvantages. We seem to have a great fear of cyclists and pedestrians colliding in the UK, with heavy prosecutions under ancient laws for ‘wanton and furious driving’. But it is simply not an issue in other European countries where cyclists and pedestrians sharing the pavement is the norm. Because the behaviour is embedded, people know to pay attention and cyclists know the expectations on them to behave responsibly.
Without intervention, self-driving, electric cars will be the technology that defines the reshaping of our cities over the next thirty or forty years. We may decide that this is the route we want to follow. But it isn’t the only route, nor even perhaps the best one for the greatest number of people. The right mass transit strategy could have a dramatic impact on access to work, the affordability of homes, and the general quality of life for a larger proportion of the population. But such a strategy would require greater public investment at a time when capital is unlikely to be forthcoming.
There are many estimates of how many jobs might be susceptible to automation in the coming decade. Even those at the conservative end are in the teens. Exactly how many jobs might go is to be determined. It will depend on unpredictable factors of human behaviour. But in a market economy where profit is prized and shareholder value is the goal, and when public sector spending is squeezed for efficiency not focused on outcomes, it seems inevitable that cheap, reliable machines will displace some of the expensive, complex humans we employ today.
By ‘some’, I mean ‘millions’.
The typical response is that many new jobs will also be created. And they will. But I don’t believe that jobs, in the traditional sense, will be created in the volume that would be required to offer meaningful employment to the many millions of cab drivers, call centre operators, retail assistants, warehouse workers, lawyers and accountants, who might be displaced by technology.
This is different to saying that there won’t be work, however. But work is something very different to a ‘job’. A job means a mutual commitment with an employer. It means benefits and protections. These have already been eroded. There has been some pushback from governments around protections for those in the gig economy. But I think it’s only a matter of time before these rights are overturned — sometimes in the most dramatic way possible. After all, robot cab drivers will have no rights.
So what might future work look like?
One of the core tenets of my belief about the future is that technology is reshaping our organisations — public and private — from large monoliths into networks of smaller components. The smallest component is the individual, the freelancer.
This has been one of the fastest growing forms of work on both sides of the Atlantic in recent years, and I don’t see this growth slowing. I can see more and more people having a corporate wrapper around themselves that allows them to take on piecemeal work at a commercial, rather than employed, rate.
This might be bad news for those rates. And while some people might enjoy the flexibility, this is only a positive if you have the wealth to say no to work. For many, work saying no to you is a terrifying prospect, with a lack of income translating into a lack of housing in short order.
The good news is that there is plenty to do. And it is work that might be better suited to people than machines. A few examples:
In both the UK and the US, national infrastructure has faced decades of underinvestment. New build catches the headlines: HS2 and Crossrail for example. But there is an enormous amount of maintenance work to be done, on both public and privately held assets.
Though machines can augment every aspect of this work from the design process to the delivery, sheer human flexibility of thought, and motion, will remain in demand.
The more things in our world become digitised, the more we crave rich, tactile, physical experiences. A higher proportion of our spend goes on experiences over goods, we eat out more, when we drink it is lower volume and higher quality. We start buying vinyl again.
I think the demand for the human-made, the personal, the crafted, will continue to grow. Fashion will dictate that for every mass- and machine-produced item in your home or on your person, you demonstrate some personality with more crafted items. Digital consumption will continue to be balanced with experiences you just can’t get online.
Care is the oft-cited example of an industry that won’t be disrupted by automation, and that faces growing demand thanks to our ageing population. Care absolutely will see a measure of automation. But the bulk of the work will still be carried out by humans for now.
The problem with this is the low value we continue to place on care work, both formal and informal. We pay very little to those raising our children or caring for our parents, or anyone else who needs our support, for that matter. If redistribution of wealth is needed anywhere, it’s here.
Since the passing of the days of ‘Cool Britannia’, we have been very poor at celebrating the power of our creative sector in this country. And yet it remains a global powerhouse, turning out a disproportionate amount of the world’s stories, art, design, architecture, music, television formats and more.
The disruption of the traditional media channels threatens this industry, and our national strength, perhaps more than any other. But while we have this power we ought to recognise its value and promote it as a career path — not least because creativity is a critical and under-trained skill in other disciplines.
This is far from an exhaustive list, but I hope you get the idea: jobs may be disappearing, but there will be work available. The question is how do we support those in inconsistent work, how do we enable constant learning and reskilling to allow people to keep up with a fast-moving market for skills. How do we make this new world of work a positive for more people, not a terrifying world of risk.
It’s fashionable to knock email at the moment. Plenty of articles have been written about how it wastes more time than it saves, and many companies are now enforcing strict email management rules in a bid to reclaim productivity. But I don’t believe email is the problem.
We now have a wealth of communication tools and information resources at our fingertips. Every one of them is competing for a bit of our attention, distracting us with sounds, images, flashing lights and vibrations. Every one of the channels and tools available to us is generally well designed as a product in its own right. Few people struggle to use Outlook, or Skype, or a mobile phone, or Firefox. But the problem is that it is never an either/or choice in the modern life — we are constantly multi-tasking in a bid to keep on top of all the information coming to us.
Just looking at my desktops both real and virtual now, I have: a landline; a mobile; Skype and headset (for two SkypeIn numbers and my Skypename); Thunderbird (handling four email accounts); Outlook (handling a fifth email account, plus calendar and task list with pop-up reminders); VNC (for controlling my server and jukebox); and a Timesheet application (again with pop-up reminders).
Any one of these I can handle quite ably, even two or three at a time are fine. But there are days when everything seems to go off at once, or even worse, in a constant stream that prevents any work except talking for an entire day.
In the short term this means developing strategies to handle all the different media: ignoring some calls, putting Skype on DND, turning off pop-up alerts, and ignoring email for large parts of the day. But in the long term I think the technology has to change. While I am sure our brains will eventually evolve to deal with all the various inputs, why should we wait a few thousand years for that to happen?
Instead there needs to be a standard for communications tools to collaborate and share information about our availability — and willingness — to accept inbound information and communications requests. This extends right across the different media: if my Skype is set to DND, I also don’t want calls on my mobile or landline (unless I have specified otherwise — perhaps calls from a certain number, friend or family group). If I am in the middle of writing a long blog entry, I don’t want my anti-virus to pop-up while I am typing, or for Windows to ask me to restart because it has completed an update. In fact, I want an interface that actively helps me to concentrate by blocking out other distractions while I am working, perhaps only offering me contextual information, or messages that are relevant to what I am doing.
This ties in very much with the media filtering technology that is the ultimate goal of most search companies: they want to understand you well enough to suggest TV, books and articles that you might like and save you trawling the enormous oceans of data on the internet. That’s great for home, but if we’re going to stop the white collar classes becoming a nation of digital fidgets, some of that effort really needs to be directed at the workplace.
Who are you? How is that identity defined? What groups do you associate with? And which ones do you define yourself against?
These are the issues increasingly at the heart of modern politics, according to a recent article in Foreign Affairs magazine by Francis Fukuyama. No longer is the debate defined by who has what, but by who we are. Traditional class lines have been disrupted by signifiers that have taken on greater importance. Low-friction global communications have allowed us to build tribes that are no longer defined by geography, as I have written about before.
This last point is, in many ways, a good thing. As one Twitter friend put it yesterday: “Why would I want to associate with my neighbour? I’d much rather join a global group of people I actually like.” The freeing of communication has allowed us to find perhaps a truer sense of our own identities, by meeting like-minded people around the world who share our hobbies, interests, or deeper definitions of who we are. Other people who challenge norms and status quos and want to explore what it might mean to be human beyond historical limitations.
But increasingly digital as our lives may be now, there are still issues to grapple with that are defined by space and place. From the simplest issue of bin collections, to more thorny issues of rights, benefits, and education. How do we address these issues that are shared and contested among increasingly fractured communities sharing the same spaces?
Fukuyama suggests that common creeds form part of the answer. Shared sets of ideals around which countries are built.
For me there are parallels here in how shared systems like the internet are created: millions of components of both hardware and software, created by thousands of different companies, operating to a huge variety of different ends. And yet through a set of shared standards, somehow co-operating to achieve a sufficient level of coherence that it all works — most of the time.
The problem with Fukuyama’s solution for me is that it operates at a state level, and I am no longer convinced that we can maintain a shared state identity even in a country as small as the United Kingdom. Or rather, there may not be sufficient shared identity across the country to maintain coherence in that national community. Rather, we have to acknowledge that there is an increasingly devolved identity, just as we are — slowly — acknowledging the need for more devolved power.
I think we can create a sense of shared purpose across diverse communities in a shared space. But that sense of purpose can only be defined in part at a state level. What will be much more important is a sense of local identity that binds us to our neighbours around the things that matter that are inevitably defined by space. These people may not be our friends, they may form part of groups against which we choose to define ourselves. But we will have to accept a measure of compromise over the issues in which we have a shared interest.
That compromise is unlikely to be forced upon us. Communities of shared interest are rarely built from the top down. They have to be constructed from the bottom up. Doing this will require renewed efforts to overcome identity-based boundaries.
I’ve never liked the term ‘tolerance’ in this context. Surely we should be striving for more than that? Acceptance, understanding, or resolution. But these things take time, and in that time we will have communities with a proportion of shared interests that need to take action. They will need to get past their potential areas of conflict to work for their common good.
This sounds a little light weight: “all we need is peace, love and harmony”? Hardly a radical conclusion. But I come back to my position on the future: short term pessimist, long term optimist. The direction of travel for the human race is a positive one when it comes to resolving differences. More and more is handled by communication, less and less by violence. I think we can and will reach a situation where we can celebrate the rich diversity of our race while reliably building ad-hoc coalitions to achieve shared goals, even between groups with wildly different, and sometimes conflicting, ideals.
But it’s going to take time. The next few years will continue to be challenging.
Simplicity is hard. That’s why it is valuable.
I am subject to one criticism more than any other. That what I do, and what I write, is too complex, too difficult to understand.
I am rather bad at dealing with this criticism, for two reasons.
Firstly, accepting that what you do is too hard for other people to grasp feels like arrogance. Like you are showing off about your own intelligence.
This is, of course, nothing to show off about. Communicating in a simple fashion ideas that you have spent years understanding and expanding, is what takes the greatest intelligence. Accepting that you can’t properly explain the things you say and do is really an acceptance of failure.
Which brings me to the second reason I struggle with this criticism: it means more work. I have to go back to the drawing board and revise and refine what I’ve done. I have to think harder, work harder.
This has become a constant process for me. Right now I’m re-writing my executive training course in Applied Futurism, teaching executives how to understand and respond to this age of high frequency change. New dates will be announced shortly (drop me a line if you’re interested in attending).
It’s had good feedback to date, but this time it will be even simpler. And as a result, more accessible, and more useful.
Engaging with a process
Getting to this point has led me to think more about how humans engage with information, and particularly with instructions. Instructions need context — without it they are meaningless. But everyone in my training sessions, or using my tools, brings with them their own unique context, depending on their cultural reference points, role, seniority and more. How do I ensure the relevance of the instructions so that they connect with the greatest possible number of people?
So far I have found three options:
- Lowest common denominator
What are the social, cultural and workplace touchpoints with which the greatest number of people identify? Focusing on these means you should at least reach a large proportion of the audience. But there will always be people you miss, and always the risk that your experience is so different to that of the audience that you miss people.
2. Query their experience
You can take a question and answer approach to key instructions and information into people’s own experience, letting them fill in their own context to the process. This should reach everyone equally, assuming they can articulate their own experience, but it places a greater burden on the audience, and there is always the risk that their experience doesn’t fit your expected parameters.
3. Primal drivers
The third, and perhaps most brutal option, is to focus on the bottom tiers of Maslow’s hierarchy: the most fundamental human needs that we all share. If you can communicate your instructions as a way to address these fears, risks and needs, then you should be able to find a language that the whole audience can understand.
I’m sure there are other ways to reach a large proportion of the audience and make new information and instructions accessible. These are working well for me so far but I’m always open to learning new ways. How do you do it?
With the exception of the occasional pub quiz polymath, most of us have our specialist subjects when the microphone comes out on a Wednesday night at the local. As you might expect, I’m happy to have a crack at science questions. I’m also pretty good on 80s & 90s pop lyrics. But throw me a question on geography, history beyond the last century, or sport, and I will likely flounder.
We tend to think we are the subject matter experts in our own workplaces. We spend hours there each day, toiling away at the same problems, getting to know our own industries. Take a pop quiz on your industry and you would probably do pretty well.
But this presents us with two problems.
Firstly, everyone else in your industry is a subject matter expert too. How can you differentiate, personally or as a company, when you all have the same subject matter expertise?
Secondly, if the answers we need come from knowledge of our own sectors, why do we ever get disruption? Why do companies get defeated by new entrants and challengers, arguably with less accumulated knowledge?
In reality, many of the questions we face — and the answers to those questions — come from beyond our own sectors of specialism. Sometimes it’s new ways of working, systems or technologies, developed in an adjacent sphere that might be transformative to our own. It might be someone else’s solution to a very similar problem.
These are not ‘unknown unknowns’, but rather ‘unseen unknowns’: questions and answers that exist and are understood, but that are outside of our current domain.
When looking to the future, part of the challenge is imagining things that are yet to be, anywhere. But much of it is helping people to see the unseen, channeling lessons from adjacent spaces into their domain so that they can see how they can — and likely will — be applied.
The question is often not ‘if’ but when. And the answer only comes from looking beyond your own domain.