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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?
How will business change in the future?
What we’re really looking for is existential threats and exponential opportunities. Some more mundane, marginal ideas might drop out of the process. But it’s these super-scale challenges that come from left field that are so often absent from the to-do list.
Until recently I’ve worried that too much of my work ends up being about threats, rather than opportunities. More than once people have said to me that they only see the pressures on their organisation growing. But I’ve realised recently that you can rarely separate existential threats from exponential opportunities.
Few organisations are as unique as they think they are. What are challenges for them are almost certainly challenges for their peers. If you can solve an existential threat, you either gain competitive advantage, or create a valuable solution that you can share. Threat becomes opportunity.
The unknown unknowns
In 2002, Donald Rumsfeld was somewhat ridiculed for his statement about ‘known knowns’, ‘known unknowns’, and ‘unknown unknowns’. But in the last fifteen years these terms have become increasingly widely used. They describe neatly the reality for many planning business strategy: you can account for your experience and project forward based on known factors, but it’s much harder to incorporate things from beyond your own experience.
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.
A wider perspective
This is the role of the Applied Futurist: to bring a different, wider perspective. To bring information from beyond the experience of the client, and a framework to make it relevant to their specific environment and challenges.
Where in the past we have talked about futurist consulting, I now realise that this term encapsulates three different elements of a service that helps organisations to ‘see, share and respond to’ a vision of the future.
The first element is Foresight. Clients want us to tell them what the future looks like for their organisation, industry or segment. We do this in a couple of ways, facilitating programmes like Scenario Planning or running our own Intersections methodology on the client’s behalf.
A futurist must also craft narratives that compel people to act. That catalyse change. The skills of communication are clearly required by our clients and so they are a defined part of this service. They find their outlet in strategy documents, and marketing campaigns, or in me sitting in front of a camera or microphone or standing on a stage as a futurist speaker.
The third part of what was our consulting proposition addresses the inevitable follow-up question that comes when you tell someone about the future. It doesn’t matter if that future is bright or dark, they want to know: “What do we do about it?” The first step in answering this question is to make the organisation fit for change. Few are. The aim is to help them respond faster, not just to the current set of challenges but to future challenges as well.
The unseen unknowns
When looking to the future, part of the challenge is imagining things that are yet to be. But much of it is helping people to see the unseen, channelling 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’ change will come, but ‘when’. And the answer only comes from looking beyond your own domain.
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Twice this week, people have relayed to me incredible promises for the power of blockchain and how it will change the way we do everything. This is quite some feat for a technology that few people understand, even in principle, and even fewer can describe with clarity.
I have a number of issues with this idea. It’s not that I don’t think blockchain has great potential. There’s a clear attraction in the robustness of its distributed nature and the potential for transparency that represents. I can see how it might be valuable for managing contracts and deeds — matters of public record that don’t necessarily have tight privacy concerns around them.
But blockchain is an architectural choice, not a technological solution in its own right. It is one way we might choose to tackle particular problems, and one of many. It is suited to some situations and not to others — like the storage of personal data.
However well encrypted it may be, you cannot store personal data in a blockchain-based system and comply with the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR). The regulations may change, though I’m not totally convinced that they should. Even if they do, it will take a long time.
Why Blockchain is not like IoT or AI
It’s great that people are enthused by the idea of a technology and its potential applications. But blockchain is quite different to other technological buzzwords doing the rounds at the moment, like AI and IoT (internet of things).
These are much broader classifications of groups of technologies (at least in the way that the terms are commonly used — academics might object to broader uses of the term ‘AI’). This leads to criticism that they are nothing more than marketing terms, and sometimes that is fair. These terms don’t define single architectural choices, but rather opportunities to tackle new problems, or address old ones differently. Within these definitions your solution can be endlessly tailored to the challenge at hand.
But say you’re going to apply blockchain technology to a particular problem and you are dramatically narrowing your range of choices — perhaps beyond what is wise.
Blockchain will change some worlds
There will undoubtedly be some industries for which blockchain is a revolutionary technology. Some people will get incredibly rich off the back of it. Ultimately, perhaps it will prove to be a good basis for alternative currencies. But it isn’t some universal technological panacea that will solve everything. While it might changes some worlds, it won’t change every world.
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