I returned to Mobile World Congress for the first time in five years this week. Its sheer scale is quite overwhelming. Over 100,000 people are expected to visit the event over the course of the week.
That may not sound a lot if you’re used to covering sports games or protest marches. But this is people in suits (or increasingly, jeans and blazers). These people don’t often congregate on this scale. And they’re here to talk about the future of the mobile communications industry. Everything from the next handsets your network will sell you, to what standard the next networks will be built upon, plus everything in between, and beyond.
That people in an industry committed to communication at distance choose to meet physically says a lot, and reinforces something I’ve always said: the bandwidth of face-to-face communication remains unbeatable. If you want a rich, emotional interaction — and the multi-million pound deals signed at these events are often very emotional — then nothing beats doing it in person.
The same is true of experiencing what the show has to offer. The best bits of MWC are often not on the big glitzy stands. Huawei has taken over most of a hall to itself this year, exhibiting the expected (phones) and the unexpected (drone taxis). But I often find the coolest stuff is on the start-up stands. A quick dip into the first couple of halls (there are eight on one site, and more a shuttle bus ride away), found 360 degree camera neck bands, various robots, pocket sperm testers, and a smart shower (it sounds rubbish, I really want one). You can see endless videos and photos of all this, but it’s much more fun climbing in to the VR car demos, sticking headsets on, and having a good old play (I didn’t test the shower).
Physical and virtual
One noticeable common factor across many, many stands, is the presence of augmented, or virtual reality technology (xR). Most of these applications are in a corporate context right now: design aids, immersive experiences of prototypes, remote control, and human augmentation. My own client and host for the week, Accenture Digital, is showing a variety of demonstrations along these lines.
What I haven’t seen yet — and nor had John Keefe of Draw & Code / SwapBots, who I briefly caught up with — is much in the way of consumer applications of xR. I’m a big believer that this is coming, for lots of reasons. It represents a natural continuation of the line of evolution of the user interface that we’ve seen for the last fifty years. It represents a truly colossal business opportunity. And it’s one of the few applications that we can already see that would take advantage of the high bandwidth and low latency capabilities of the planned 5G networks.
I’ll keep exploring. One day, I’m confident the killer application for xR will appear.
Yesterday I spoke at The Gathering, the annual event for Scotland’s charities and third sector organisations, run by SCVO. Alongside me on the panel were Dr Kendra Briken from the University of Strathclyde and Rhodri Davies from the Charities Aid Foundation.
The question we were posed was, ‘How will automation affect the third sector?’ We all came at it from different perspectives and I found myself furiously scribbling notes on my phone as Kendra and Rhodri spoke.
Here’s (roughly) what I said.
What defines your organisation? Is it the mission? Is it the values? Is it the culture and behaviours?
The coming wave of automation is going to make you think very hard about these questions again. Because the choices you make won’t just about technological possibilities, they will be about your strategic priorities.
Automation is nothing new. Since the first Australopithecus afarensis sharpened a rock three and a half million years ago, we’ve been applying our understanding of the world to make our lives easier. We are a race of toolmakers and as our tools get more sophisticated, they can take on more of our work for us.
In every wave of technological advancement in the relatively recent past, from the agricultural revolution through the industrial, technology has enabled economic growth, which has in itself created more work.
But it looks increasingly like this will not be the case this time. General purpose computing can be applied so widely to such a range of tasks that it is hard to see how it doesn’t result in either large scale unemployment or its modern equivalent, the further degradation of high quality jobs into gig economy work.
Let me give you some examples:
In China, the government’s Made in China initiative promotes the rapid automation of its industries. Some cities, like Dongguan, are even offering grants for companies to invest in machines that displace people. The results have been dramatic. 87,000 workers were replaced in Dongguan between 2014 and 2016. Apple’s largest supplier, Foxconn, replaced 60,000 workers in a single factory with robots.
This is physical automation, something we have been familiar with for centuries. But it is newly enabled by the cheap availability of computing power. These robots aren’t just mechanically sophisticated, they are digitally smart.
This intelligence translates into automations that will potentially be very relevant to the third sector.
The first is what is happening in stores, with systems like Amazon Go. Here, tills are eliminated by a network of cameras placed around the store. People tap their phones on a terminal on the way in, and then whatever they pick up and put in their bag, they are charged for.
This may look like it will only be available to high tech stores like amazon or maybe the big supermarkets. But the hardware required is actually very simple and cheap. The likelihood is that Amazon and others will offer such systems as a service to retailers at a relatively low monthly cost.
That cost may still be more than a volunteer. But as more and more shops adopt this technology, queuing at a till to make a purchase is going to start to look pretty archaic. Like the 20MB data limit on the wifi, on my train here. Stores using this technology are going to know a huge amount about their customers or supporters. It will also facilitate very rapid pricing and stock taking.
The second big physical shift that may be relevant is the advent of autonomous vehicles. This class of automated transport and delivery systems will range from the pavement-roaming Starship drone to the driverless car. And they will likely be here sooner than you think. This drone has already been trialled on the streets of London.
When we think about automation, it’s natural to think of physical tasks and machines that in some way perhaps resemble us. After all we have been replacing humans with machines in a manufacturing and agricultural context for a few hundred years. But what about automating more cognitive and interactive tasks. Like call centres.
Amelia is a virtual member of staff that can interact with people via voice or text. She doesn’t need to be programmed with answers. You feed her information, connecting her to your CRM systems, etc, and she finds answers based on the questions she is asked. She is sensitive to emotion, and tailors her responses accordingly.
Amelia can answer every call on the first ring. She can typically answer 80% of queries. And scariest of all, people often prefer dealing with her to dealing with another human — particularly when dealing with potentially embarrassing issues.
In the back office
Amelia is a particularly visible kind of automation, but there is a much less visible kind as well. The automation of document and data processing. An incredible amount of work in most office environments is still devoted to re-keying data, reproducing documents that are very similar to those that have been produced in the past. It has taken much longer than anyone expected, but this friction in day to day operations is slowly being eliminated. The barriers between different systems are being broken down. The production of reports and documents is being automated.
This isn’t so much automation as augmentation. Few whole roles will be eliminated by this type of technology. But with it, fewer people can achieve more, meaning you don’t need as many people in total.
Automation as a general rule more greatly affects the lower levels of the hierarchy, where work is more often repetitive. As you climb the hierarchy and work becomes more about creativity and adaptation, automation becomes augmentation: a smaller number of people equipped to do more. This has the potential to change the shape of the organisational hierarchy: low down a small number of people augment and maintain a largely automated workforce. Higher up there may actually be more people in those organisations that successfully make the transition to a more automated world. Their creativity and relationships with customers or partners may be the bottleneck that limits growth. Ultimately though, we return to a pyramid at the top.
In the next few years, you can undoubtedly apply capital to reduce your operational costs through automation. Success is a question of good design as much as the right technology, but it’s a realistic prospect and the investment levels required to start to have an impact are actually relatively low.
The question comes back to your priorities. Are you here to achieve your mission at all costs? In which case, there’s a strong argument you should be pursuing every solid prospect for automation and augmentation reducing your costs and increasing your efficiency.
Or is your charity also a vehicle for wider social good? Is it important that you create employment?
Finally, where do volunteers sit in this mix? How much do they actually cost you? And could their work be done, or at least supplemented by machines? This might be the trickiest area to assess.
The book features a foreword by Paul Saffo, an expert in forecasting who teaches at both Stanford and Singularity University. In just a few hundred words, Saffo offers some of the smartest statements about futurism and forecasting that I have yet to read. For a start, he points out that forecasts will almost always be wrong, for if it were otherwise, we would all be bystanders, watching a pre-determined path unfold. Rather, we are active participants in shaping our future. The purpose of futurism is not always to say what will be, but to show what can be. To light the paths, not fix the route.
Saffo also points out that even those who have been famously wrong in their predictions have gone on to profit from the unfolding reality. Tom Watson of IBM, who predicted a market for just a handful of computers, is a notable example.
The point is that we should not be afraid of making forecasts. Nor should we be afraid of being wrong — try though we might to be right.
Saffo also refers to another issue to which I often point: predicting ‘what’ is generally easier than predicting ‘when’. As he puts it, ‘most ideas take 20 years to become an overnight success’. The direction of travel can be absolutely clear, but the speed of the journey is determined by many variables: legal, societal, technical and more.
My first experience of this was five years ago, when on BBC 5live on New Year’s Day I predicted that there would be a consumer-grade 3D printer on the high street for under £300 by the end of 2013. I was wrong — it took a couple more years.
In fact, I have only around a 50% hit rate from the predictions from that show. I don’t think any of the predictions are wrong, but half are yet to come true:
I predicted commercial applications by end of 2013. That’s technically correct but this really hasn’t taken off in a big way yet.
I thought we’d be charging our phones weekly, not daily by now. Battery tech has improved but not to the point that it can feed our power-hungry devices for more than a day at a time.
I predicted more wirelessly connected gadgets starting to take over some of the functions of the phone. Again, I think I’m technically correct here, but beyond headphones and fitness trackers, this is yet to be a major trend.
Ultra High Definition
I proposed that 4K would succeed where 3D failed. Nailed that one at least.
I predicted the expansion of fitness trackers out into other connected health sensors. This isn’t totally mainstream yet but loads of people have sleep monitors and blood oximetry sensors, so I’m counting this one as a win.
I suggested that in 2013 we would start to take electric cars seriously. Yesterday I found out that second hand hybrids and EVs are selling for more than their original purchase price. So yeah, I’ll claim that one.
Predictions are fun. But they are a tool. A way to make people think about what might be.
Make some predictions of your own. You might not get them all right, but in the process of making them, you’ll probably think harder about the future than you have in a while.
When we were starting to grow my last business, CANDDi, ‘growth hacking’ was still a very new term. This much-hyped idea covers a raft of techniques that start-ups use to drive growth, blending agile methods (also known as rapidly learning from your mistakes), creativity and data analysis.
Strip away the hype and you can argue this is what marketing should be: taking advantage of the increased customer insight and reduced creative friction that technology offers, to add more science to the marketing mix. Testing, learning and homing in on what works.
The challenge for start-ups is getting enough data to be able to learn from. Where do you get those first few thousand interactions to learn from? How do you avoid making such a terrible impression on your first outing that you put off all those you touch, or worse, create a campaign that goes viral for all the wrong reasons?
Established businesses don’t have this issue. They might have tens of thousands, even millions of customers that they interact with frequently. Large companies have a different problem: it’s not an audience they lack, it’s knowing which questions to ask.
Six honest serving men
Growth-hacking for start-ups is largely a series of ‘what’ questions, starting with ‘what drives the greatest engagement?’ Any foothold you can get at this stage is valuable, so you probably spend less time asking why people do what they do, and just pursue the path that yields the greatest results.
Large companies can afford to be a little more circumspect and try to understand why people behave the way they do. After all, they’re not looking to radically change the behaviour of most of their customers. They want to know how to make other people think like their customers, or change the mindset of the low spenders to be like the high spenders.
A new labs partner
Asking the ‘why’ questions is at the heart of growth hacking for grown-up companies and it’s an approach being pioneered by the second addition to my ‘labs’ network, Soul.
An early subscriber to The Applied Futurist’s Toolkit, Soul is now working with partners with expertise in psychology, personalisation and digital marketing to provide ‘Customer Mindset Mapping’ — an approach to understanding why customers buy for a variety of purposes: helping companies to grow, reduce churn, or jump into new markets. With years of expertise working with one of the largest holders of customer data — Avios — Soul is already attracting attention for this approach from a range of brands.
‘What’s the future angle on this?’, you might ask. For me it’s about Acceleration and Performance, two of the five vectors of technology-driven change.
Acceleration is about the increased rate of strategic change required from established companies to keep up with high frequency shifts in competition across all its dimensions. The better attuned to your customers you are, the more likely you are to be able to bring them with you as you necessarily change direction.
Performance is about a more rapid operational response. Understanding customers better means you go one better than reacting: you can predict, surprising and delighting customers by fulfilling their needs before they even ask. We know (ask me if you want evidence for this) that low friction and deep personalisation is what customers want, and this understanding is a great way to enable that.
Put simply, being better tuned into customers and your market is one of the critical components of being future-ready.
In 2050, ‘trucking’ is nearly synonymous with ‘hitch hiking’, and truckers have become one of the most extreme examples of the gig economy.
Technology has transformed the haulage industry through two distinct but parallel advances. Rising levels of autonomy in vehicles, and the move from fossil fuel to electric.
Autonomy has brought predictability. The greater the number of autonomous vehicles on the road, the lower the number of accidents and delays — at least on the motorways and larger byways that are the major routes for the trucks. This has made stock holding practices even leaner, to the point where the average truck size is smaller, standardised around the 20ft shipping container. Automated warehouses hold stock inside vertical stacks of these containers before breaking them out for picking and packing.
Electric drive played a big part in bringing down the sizes. With lower servicing and fuel costs, there’s less need for the efficiency of large loads. And the smaller requirements and different drive technology have permitted a much more streamlined and efficient design, with the load low to the ground between independently steering pairs of wheels. Articulated vehicles are much less common.
There’s still a cabin at the front. But the person inside isn’t driving. The law requires a responsible person to be inside the vehicle in case of incident or breakdown. But the law requires no formal training beyond a simple introductory video and a set of processes that the person can be walked through by a digital assistant.
These truckers use the haulage network as a low-cost form of transport and small secondary income, with the minimum wage rates the job attracts paid only while they are en-route. At their destination, they hop out and use most of what they have earned to journey the last mile via autonomous taxi.
Technology didn’t destroy all of the driving jobs. But it diminished a huge proportion of them.
The latest episode of the ever-excellent 99% Invisible podcast tells the story of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse being moved half a mile to save it from collapse. The island on which it stood has been progressively eroded by the tides over the last 150 years and the foundations of the lighthouse were at risk. As an important tourist attraction in a national park, it was felt necessary to preserve the lighthouse and hence, following much intense debate, it was decided to relocate it, a giant feat of engineering.
The podcast uses this story to question how we might react when we have to move more structures away from rising seas. Not just structures in fact, but potentially whole cities. Tides are rising as the world warms and many of our most densely populated areas are along coastlines. Moving a 4800 ton structure will look positively straightforward compared to relocating a whole population and all the infrastructure to support them.
Food, space, population
Compounding the issue is the continuing population rise. The latest UN figures suggest the population will reach nearly 10 billion by 2050 and clear 11 billion by 2100. Climate change will also have potentially catastrophic effects on some of the world’s most productive farming regions. So, more people, in smaller spaces, with less food and diminished water resources.
Not a happy story.
How do we tackle this? The good news on climate change is that where good intentions have failed to make a major dent in our world-destroying behaviours, science and economics are starting to fight back. Fossil fuels, the cause of so many of our current issues, are looking increasingly unviable from a pure cost perspective. Trump’s efforts to hold back this particular tide will ultimately look rather Canute-like. Wind and solar will win out, balanced with battery storage and maybe backed by some new nuclear.
But these changes will not undo the damage already done, nor will they happen fast enough to avert some scale of disaster.
So what is to be done?
Reality and fantasy
The likely reality is a slow, expensive and reactive response to the challenges. As I often say, I’m a short term pessimist but long term optimist: we will find a way through. But a proactive response might be to look again at the opportunities for living in space.
Human beings are ill-suited to life beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Space rather lacks many of the things we need: air, water, and gravity for a start. And then there’s the radiation. But these issues can be overcome. And space has a few advantages: ready access to solar energy, for example. And zero gravity allows new industrial processes and the production of new types of material.
There’s ready access to materials from the moon and elsewhere, for a start. Manufacturing in space means we aren’t manufacturing on earth, releasing more carbon. Yes, there’s an argument that having spoiled our planet we shouldn’t be moving on like locusts (like the aliens in Independence Day). But we’ve learned a lot: space colonies would likely be run entirely on renewable energy and largely vegan, given the inefficiencies of raising animals in space.
Moving into space might also provide jobs. Lots of them. This would be a new environment, one for which it might be rather complex to build automated systems, at least in the earliest days. Having human potential — both mental and physical — on tap would be critical to the success of these colonies.
This all looks pretty unrealistic right now. But one thing makes it potentially more likely. And it’s a strange side effect of one of the most negative trends affecting us right now: growing wealth inequality.
It’s almost 100 years since the first sketches of a realistic space habitat were made. But back then the only prospect of building them was large scale government, or even international projects.
Today, access to space is increasingly in the hands of private organisations like SpaceX. They might rely heavily on government budgets, but they have demonstrated a willingness and ability to kick-start space innovation, which had stalled under collapsing government budgets and a falling appetite for risk. Billionaires can decide to launch a space colony, not quite on a whim, but with much less consideration than a government might require. As the space race between Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and others heats up, they just might.
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