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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Tomorrow’s cars will reshape our cities

Tomorrow’s cars will reshape our cities

Tomorrow’s cars will reshape our cities

When I’m explaining the idea of today’s phenomenon of high frequency change, I often refer back to examples of change of great magnitude from the last century. One of my frequent reference points is the shift from the horse and cart to the car.

This was an enormous change, not least for the horses, nearly a million of which were made redundant in the UK alone. The advent of accessible car ownership shaped our cities. Cars required parking, both residential and commercial. Our easy range of travel increased. Families could spread out and remain physically connected. Stores could be larger and more geographically distributed. Commuting distances could be extended.

Not all of these things has proven to be a net positive.

What replaces the car will also reshape the city. And a large part of what replaces today’s cars will be, well, cars. But we often underestimate how different self-driving, electric cars will be to their human-steered, oil-fuelled counterparts.

Cleaner & quieter

For a start, there is the pollution. Electric means zero fumes but also dramatically less noise. Cars will be much nicer to have around when they are all electric. Proximity to a road for housing, cafes, and bars will be much less of an issue. Properties on busy roads may start to appreciate. Pavement culture can expand.

Semi-pedestrianised areas should be a safer prospect with self-driving cars, at least at some point in the future where their ability to deal with complex, fast-changing environments is well-developed and proven. We can build more of a ‘pavement culture’.

Free space

Though I have questioned the validity of the fleet model in the past, it still seems most likely to me that we will largely relinquish ownership of cars, particularly those of us who live in large cities. This releases huge amounts of space at the front of properties and in garages. Space that might be used to accommodate multiple generations of the same family, if house price inflation can’t be addressed. Spaces that might be used for growing fruit and vegetables that may become more expensive in the face of climate change. Space that might be used for collecting and storing energy as the grid becomes more distributed.

In city centres, parking lots may be turned over to housing. But this presents one of the less obvious potential impacts: parking is a major source of revenue for companies and councils alike, as my client Tim Devine from A J Gallagher pointed out at the Alarm risk management conference this week, where we were both speaking. It won’t just be drivers who see income disappear as machines take the wheel.

Alternative transport

Fewer cars parked on the streets will clear pavements and make crossing safer. And they will ease existing, and free space for the addition of, bike lanes. Bikes and other personal transport should be safer around self-driving vehicles than humans. Self-driving cars will give cyclists more room on the road, and they won’t get aggressive. They shouldn’t fail to notice cyclists with the same frequency as drivers.

If there are more cyclists on the road, then perhaps we can expand bike lanes beyond single-width, creating space for other forms of personal transport. I still find it depressing that our cramped roads and narrow pavements mean we have largely closed ourselves off in the UK to balance boards, electric scooters and other novel forms of personal transport. They have their issues but I would love to see us create both the physical and legal space for experimentation.

Mass transit

Self-driving vehicles combined with other new forms of electric personal transport potentially add value to mass transit systems. A self-driving pod or electric scooter may be a good and cheap way to get from rail station to destination. But this will be a very different proposition to using a self-driving car for intercity travel. People are rightly questioning investment in new rail with self-driving vehicles on the horizon. Could they carry people between cities more efficiently?

I think this is unlikely, at least in the medium term. Given the recent performance of our rail network, a car that whisks you from door to door is incredibly attractive right now. But fix some fundamental issues with the rail network and it should remain the best prospect for rapid transit between most urban centres, and in many cases, around them.

As we make the transition from human to machine control — with full autonomy in a mass market car, licensed for the road, probably still a decade or more away — the roads will still be congested, and parking will remain a problem. It will take time for the fleets to build and their proposition to become a normal part of everyday life.

Secondary effects

Autonomous, electric vehicles will have many other effects on our cities. Small garages and MOT centres will likely disappear as these vehicles will need less servicing and what they do need will mostly happen at fleet centres. There will be some form of charging infrastructure, though where that will be and what it will look like will depend on battery/fuel cell advances in the next decade. Taxis as we know them will likely be eliminated or at least drastically reduced in the long term.

All of these changes will take place, but the fact of them will slow the transition. Every change will have people lobbying against it. Long after the technology is ready we will still be arguing about whether should make the changes that we can.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The distributed home

The distributed home

The BBC has analysed the rapid growth of city centre living, putting numbers to the anecdotal evidence of growth provided by the forest of cranes across British cities, and the towers that spring up beneath them. City centre living in Liverpool, Leeds, Birmingham and Manchester is growing near or above 150% a year.

This is a trend we should encourage and expand in the future, but to do so, I think we have to reassess what we expect a home to be.

Shrinking accommodation

Houses are shrinking. They have been since the 1970s. I don’t mean that the bricks dried out and shrivelled like a sponge. The houses we build now are significantly smaller than they were. Living rooms down 32%, kitchens 13%. bedrooms 10%. There are fewer bedrooms as well: down from an average of 3.53 to 2.95. We now have the smallest footprint for homes in the EU at under 100sqm.

Despite this, we still cling to the idea of a home being something with all of these components. And of a certain size.

The micro home/tiny house movement has boomed on both sides of the Atlantic, albeit actual sales probably don’t warrant the noise about them on YouTube and Instagram, where their clever, compact features and cute aesthetics have become a hit. Despite this the number of truly micro homes that we have built remains relatively low, with a huge amount of opposition from planners and campaigners.

In 2015, the government introduced a minimum space standard of 37sqm for single occupancy and 50sqm for two bed homes, though this standard isn’t truly enforcedand has been relaxed for repurposed properties — typically converted offices.

The space standard is not totally arbitrary. There is evidence that people need space and light for their mental health. We need to escape others sometimes, and we don’t want to be in claustrophobic spaces, squeezed between walls and furniture.

But I think we need to keep those standards under review.

Shared services

Micro homes make most sense in a context where people are well served with other amenities, and despite the woes of some major restaurant chains, city centres are increasingly densely packed with quality ‘third space’. There are the ubiquitous coffee shops, from the boutique to the chain. There are the gyms, the private members clubs (much more affordable when your home doesn’t consume half your income), and actually the workspaces. The blending of home and work life in a positive way, as the formal office environment starts to break down, actually might make us feel less inclined to escape to our homes.

We can think of all of these third spaces as extensions of our ‘distributed home’, with the space in which we sleep, wash, and dress just being a single component.

Reshaping the environment

These arguments don’t work for everyone living in a city. When you’re young, single and at the start of your career, perhaps you need fewer opportunities for true isolation. As we age we naturally want more space, not just for kids, and we are inherently less flexible. But technology may start to offset some of the other space challenges.

Firstly, materials may change. I am a little obsessed at the moment with the possibility of changing the materials from which we construct our world. Imagine if we could get the strength and other properties we need in furniture and appliances with drastically-reduced dimensions. Imagine how much space could be freed up, especially if these items could be collapsible. Truly micro homes (under 15sqm) rely on clever folding items but this requires the occupant to constantly reconfigure their homes for different times of day. This becomes much easier if the furniture reconfigures itself around you. Smart materials could fold and unfold themselves into a variety of shapes – sofa, bed, table — perhaps even cleaning themselves and changing their hardness for different circumstances, a stiff table becoming a soft bed.

Secondly, a growing proportion of our physical environment will be virtual, with the advent of mixed reality and — perhaps — holographics, for those times when we’re not sporting a headset. Our physical environment becomes deeply mutable at this point. We can flatten the four walls to reveal any environment we wish. Ensconce ourselves in a game or just live in a virtual forest, beach or mountaintop. Now the distributed home isn’t just split across a city, it’s networked across the world.

Those already worried about time spent gaming may be sceptical, despite the absence of any real evidence this causes harm. And it’s true, there is no substitute for physical space: as we pack our cities more densely, the demands on public planners to integrate and improve shared outdoor spaces get ever greater.

But in the coming years we have to find places for people to live that they can afford and that suit their lifestyle: an experience culture inherently supports a smaller home with fewer goods in it, at lower cost to release cash for personal pursuits beyond the material. Perhaps truly micro homes are the right thing for people at certain points in their lives. Perhaps we can engineer micro homes to be truly luxurious, even with a tiny footprint.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Spellcheck for truth

Spellcheck for truth

I’m at a conference in Prague, bringing together the sales team for my client, BTC Europe, from across the continent. Everyone is speaking English, fluently. But will that be the case in thirty years’ time?

Live translation technology is so good now that remote conversations can be held in two languages now with a digital intermediary processing the translation in near real-time. It’s never quite as good as the staged demonstrations, of course, but it is nonetheless impressive. When everyone is sporting compatible hardware (mixed reality glasses), will we even bother to learn a foreign language?

Sadly, I think fewer people will bother. Those that do will recognise the value that it adds: the understanding of structure and nuance, as well as the ability to connect with someone more closely.

Beyond translation

In a world where machines can live-translate our words into any language, what else will machines be able to do in real-time with our communication? Given the proliferation of fake news recently, I wondered if we might also have a ‘spellcheck for truth’ built into our written and spoken communication.

This could work both ways. When we’re speaking, or writing, our personal digital assistant (renewing an old acronym, PDA to describe an assistive AI) might highlight inaccuracies, reviewing what we have written against sources from across the web. I can imagine a subtle red glow at the edge of your field of vision when you say something a little off, through to a migraine-like pulsing if you tell a total porky*.

Of course, these sources themselves will need some sort of accuracy rating, and some people might decide such ratings are themselves a conspiracy and turn off any analysis. After all, some people still insist the world is flat.

Our PDA will also be able to analyse the information we receive, underlining written sentences in a new colour — I suggest a bovine waste shade of brown — to highlight when they’re untrue. Or we could have some sort of animated overlay on someone’s person, since we’re operating in mixed reality. ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire’? That could be entertaining.

Absolute objectivity

Of course, there is no fact-checking source for some lies. But we will all have access to other indicators when someone is not telling the truth. Every pair of mixed reality glasses could, in theory, analyse someone’s voice patterns, heart rate, breathing, and perhaps even their sweat levels, and provide a level of lie-detection. Would we find this too invasive? The technology largely exists today but I’ve not noticed anyone discussing the prospect.

Then there is the question of whether we want absolute objectivity. I think if we tried to pursue it, we would realise a lot of our lives are based on small fictions. There is some analysis of reason that suggests it is entirely retrospective: we take decisions and then retrofit a narrative with facts to justify them. If this is true, deep analysis of the narratives of our lives that we tell ourselves could be deeply uncomfortable.

As always, I think reality will end up somewhere away from either extreme: today’s reality where untruths seems to have incredible power, and a tomorrow where a fact-driven reality is a little too cold and hard. But that is still an incredible shift to come in the next thirty years.


*’Porky pie’ = lie, if you’re unfamiliar with the vernacular

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What does a practical commitment to innovation look like?

What does a practical commitment to innovation look like?

I went back to the city where I grew up yesterday, though it wasn’t a city when I lived there, just a humble old town. I didn’t go to see family but to see an organisation that has interested me for a while. One that appeared to have a real commitment to innovation and change.

On closer inspection, it does.

This isn’t a tech start-up, a cool retail business or the next Deliveroo. Bromford is a housing association, albeit a very large one, operating around 30,000 homes across the UK and turning over around £170m a year. This is a fairly big business, but not a flashy one. And in its unflashy way, it has in place one of the simplest and smartest programmes for innovation that I have seen.

Here are some of its key features that I learned about yesterday.

Separate ideas from evidence

One of the first things I learned about Bromford’s Lab, is that they have divorced the testing of solutions from their design and development. A separate team validates proposed ideas as they flow through the development process, assessing the validity of the need and the viability of the solution at each stage. This ensures that each project is properly assessed on its merits by people with a more independent perspective, and that investment is staggered and justified.

Invest consistently but conservatively

Bromford invests less than 1% of profits in its lab and insights team. But it does so consistently, maintaining small, full-time teams to run both functions. This ensures that innovation isn’t an occasional push in response to an identified threat or opportunity, but a continuous programme of company-wide development. The effect of this is that lots of people are engaged in change and that it becomes normalised: there’s no shock and resulting resistance when they want to change how things are done.

Align efforts to strategy — but not too closely

Bromford’s Lab team, led by Paul Taylor, has been acutely aware of balancing the need to tie innovation to corporate strategy, while not being so closely bound to it that innovation becomes only incremental improvements to the status quo. Paul acknowledges that in the past their attempts have been too haphazard and disconnected from strategy, and also at times too defined by it. Today they seek to strike a balance, addressing core issues that support company strategy but also assigning time to more left-field projects that might deliver step-changes in performance if they succeed.

None of these features is revolutionary. They are, you might think, common sense. And yet I see efforts like this so infrequently on my travels through organisations in both public and private sectors. Consistent investment, dedicated teams, proper evidencing of decisions, alignment with strategy. A simple but critical recipe for innovation in future-ready organisations.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The privilege of stability

The privilege of stability

Can you make good decisions when you’re on a burning platform? It’s eight years now since Stephen Elop’s famous (infamous?) memo to the staff of Nokia, highlighting their precarious position. The evidence from that saga would be that it is certainly challenging to make good decisions under duress.

A burning platform may be an overstatement of the situation for many right now, but it’s certainly true that people and organisations alike are sensing a growing instability. And I’m concerned what this means for the future: are we making bad decisions now, and will we continue to, out of this sense of pressure? A feeling that our footing is already weakened.

A little life

What started me thinking about this was not the anniversary of a memo, but a piece of fiction. Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel, A Little Life, tracks the lives of four college roommates, before and after their meeting. It addresses many themes, but the one that really stood out to me was the privilege of stability. The characters are divided by the various instabilities they all faced growing up: economic, cultural, family, identity, and these early issues play a huge role in shaping their later lives.

I come from a position of enormous stability, both growing up and now, and recognise the privilege that represents. And it makes me very conscious of the lack of stability others are forced to address before they can begin to move forward. My concern is that this basis of instability is growing.

Economic instability

The host of a BBC local radio show on which I sometimes appear tweeted this week that two thirds of people think life was better in the past. The source is a survey by Sky Data and Demos, as referenced in this story. I questioned what people preferred: higher mortality and inequality?

The most interesting response was that it was about inflation:

The degradation in available spending power, particularly for the young, is well documented. But this set of statistics makes it particularly stark. Economic stability, historically represented by home ownership, is an increasingly distant prospect for many.

Stability of identity

One of the primary effects of technology that I talk about often is the choice it brings. By connecting communities and cultures across the world, it gives us access to more ideas, information, products and services than we have ever had before. This is mostly a good thing, in my opinion, but it’s not without its challenges.

In a world where your cultural and identity options were defined by the sources accessible in your immediate surroundings, usually the town or village where you grew up, there was little choosing to do. However uncomfortably it fit, most people slipped into a defined identity shared with the people around them, or at least shared many common cultural touchpoints.

Today we are much more free to define our identities, joining the dots between global cultural touchpoints. On the whole I think this is very positive. But it isn’t always easy. Choice is challenging, especially at the ages we have to make many of these choices, as teenagers and young adults.

Managing instability

There are many more examples of instability currently. I haven’t even touched on politics, for example. So what do we do, as people and organisations, to deal with this environment of instability?

I think there are three steps we can take.

  1. Think about the future: We really don’t think about the future, in any formal sense, with sufficient frequency. Live in the moment by all means, but take time frequently to think about where you want to be. Not necessarily in 20 years, but in five, two or even one. Do it often: every six months for organisations, maybe every two or three for individuals.
  2. Link goals to activity: Once we have a view of the future, we’re often poor at connecting our targets back to our day-to-day behaviour. This is particularly true of organisations that struggle to make consistent behaviour change in the pursuit of goals, but I think it’s probably true for people as well. Always refer back to your goals when planning your immediate activities.
  3. Learn to love change: This reality is not going away. The VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) environment is here to stay for the foreseeable future. Nostalgia for more stable times in the past does us no favours. Instead we need to accept change and learn to welcome it. As Leonard Mlodinow pointed out in a recent talk, we are all neophiles when change is positive, so we have to try to steer the changes in our lives and businesses and make them positive.
Tom Cheesewright