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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Dreams of flight

Dreams of flight

I used to dream about flying. A lot. The dreams were extremely vivid. I knew exactly where I was and when I woke I could still remember the mental trigger for my flight powers. A virtual muscle I had to flex to allow me to lift off from the ground. The disappointment I felt when it didn’t work in the waking world was crushing.

Last week, I flew. Not on a plane, though I did that as well, but on a theme park ride. Actually, it was loosely shaped like an aircraft, albeit one from the last-but-one Century, as apparently stitched together by ‘The Tailor of Ulm’, a man with (ultimately unsuccessful) dreams of flight.

The Hohenflug (and rides like it) is, for me, the best fairground ride in the world. It combines the usual thrills of speed and g-forces, with a measure of control: using two handles you can independently control each wing attached to your seat, allowing you to spin right around, barrel-rolling as you fly through the air. There is even a points system for the most rolls.

Why am I writing about this?

I find myself making two points frequently when talking about the future of digital entertainment. First, that even with our current sophistication in gaming and virtual reality, there is nothing to match the visceral thrill of physical motion. Secondly, the greater the proportion of our experiences that are digital, the more we will crave — and value — those physical experiences. I think we need to consider this more in education, culture and city planning.

I’m seeing more and more exercise trails spring up around urban parks, but these offer little in the way of an adrenaline rush. I wonder if we can’t incorporate more excitement into our cities, not just for kids but for adults — andI don’t mean what might traditionally be termed ‘adult entertainment’.

How about more adult-scale slides, zipwires, and abseils? Can we make the existing attractions — karting, laserquest, indoor snow slopes — more accessible to a wide range of people? Can we introduce kids to these things earlier, giving those who might not get access a taste of a wider range of physical activity? And can we make it more acceptable for adults to just take time out for a dose of adrenaline.

Digital entertainment is cheaper than physical entertainment in many ways. This is what undermines the frequent complaint from conservative commentators about people on benefits having a big TV. Of course they do: one TV provides hours of entertainment for the price of just a few trips out with the family once you factor in travel, food, equipment and all the other costs. If we are to avoid digital entertainment becoming the overwhelming choice, further feeding our current obesity epidemic, we have to ensure that the physical alternatives are not just available, not just accessible, but normal: a core part of our culture.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Google’s antitrust fine: facing platform fear

Google’s antitrust fine: facing platform fear

Google’s antitrust fine: facing platform fear

For most companies, the prospect of a £3.8bn fine would be an existential threat. For Google, it’s perhaps the cost of doing business, and at just a few percent of its cash reserves, an affordable one at that.

Google is being pursued by European authorities for throwing its weight around, applying the leverage of its dominance in smartphones to shore up its position of strength in search and browsers. Three numbers assert the scale of this dominance: Google takes over 90% of search queries, provides the platform for 80% of smartphones, and has 60% of the browser market.

It is a principle of our moderated markets that if one company becomes too dominant in one area, then applies that dominance to squash competition in adjacent areas, authorities will intervene on the consumer’s behalf, on the grounds that consumers lose out when competition is impossible.

This provides some hope for the direct competitors Google faces, in Europe at least. Their prospects of getting their own browser or search engine onto people’s Android devices may be improved. But such regulations have done little to settle the nerves of companies perhaps less directly related to the current EU campaigns.

I haven’t yet engaged a corporate client in a discussion about strategy without the global tech platforms — Google, Facebook, Amazon particularly, Apple and Microsoft to a lesser extent— being number one on the agenda, or thereabouts. Some are concerned about direct competition, in retail, media, or digital services. Some are worried about the power these companies command over the channels between them and their customers. All want to know what the the platforms are going to do next.

I can’t tell them of course, though I might point in certain directions. But I can tell them how to prepare for whatever it might be. The prescription always follows similar lines.

— First, pay closer attention to the future. Many of my clients run infrequent but serious looks at the 30 year horizon. All run detailed planning for the next twelve months. In between, things get a little fuzzy. I advocate a six-monthly foresight process focused on the next 2–5 years following a formal process designed to break people out of their blinkered view of the world.

— Second, get closer to your customers. People have higher-than-ever expectations of their suppliers and you need to be more responsive to direct and indirect signals. Increase your listening capability and either accelerate the flow of information to decision-makers, or even better, push that decision-making power as far to the edge of the organisation as you dare.

— Third, experiment more. Experimentation is cheaper now than it ever has been, and it’s easier to test and validate prototypes with good data. Test the things customers tell you they want, but crucially test the things they don’t yet know that they want. Do it consistently.

— Fourth, prepare the organisation for radical change. This has many components: structural, cultural, operational. It’s about transparency and comprehension: how well do you know how your organisation *really* works, and would you know how to change it when the time comes? It’s about attitude: do your people fear change because it threatens their role and their comfort? Are they prepared to learn? And it’s about process: How does information flow through your organisation and how much friction and risk is involved in that flow?

Ultimately, every company, and every leader, has to face their fear of the platforms. They can choose to do it today, or they can wait for the threat to become real.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

How different do you want the future to be?

How different do you want the future to be?

“Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.”

Ever seen that disclaimer on an investment ad? Despite this standard warning, history is often used as a weapon with which to fight arguments about the future. “It has never happened like that before so why should this time be any different?”

I’m all for a level of conservatism: every prediction (and particularly those with the most hype around them) should be subject to challenge and question. But as the Cambridge historian David Runciman says, “history is a poor guide”. Now is different to then, and tomorrow? Well, tomorrow could be anything.

The question is, how different do we want tomorrow to be? And how fast do we want the change to come?

The one lesson I do think we can take from history — and that has direct parallels in my original discipline, engineering — is that rapid change is often less stable change. When the pendulum swings too far, too fast, the resulting correction is often pretty violent as well.

This is in part why democracy has been so successful: it promotes a relatively slow and steady pace of change with regular swings back and forth. Two steps forward, one step back, but ultimately towards a healthier, wealthier population.

The ideal would perhaps be consistent slow steps forward. But how do we achieve this?

Competing ideologies

Democracy maintains slow progress because of the competition between two distinct ideologies. One government may reverse some of the steps of the predecessor and vice versa. But in business we should be able to avoid this oscillation.

Futurism — strategic planning in general — needs to be conducted at two speeds, or rather focused on two distinct intervals.

There is the long term, potentially a 25–30 year vision: what do we want to be, to see, to deliver? How do we believe our ability to deliver that vision will be affected by the influence of macro factors?

Then there is the near term: inside the agreed framework of our vision, how will we be affected in the next 2–5 years by macro factors? What will have the greatest impact — positive or negative — and how do we respond?

In the immediate term, there is a process of constant innovation, driven by the near-term challenges and opportunities identified. In theory we should be able to maintain most of the changes of direction within this process through experimentation and testing. Occasionally the whole company will need radical change. But if this innovation process is run consistently, and at sufficient scale, it should be possible to minimise these dramatic changes of direction.

Should and do

Of course, few people or companies operate like this. Change programmes are generally undertaken when there is a clear external motivation: falling profits or market share, mergers and acquisitions. It’s hard to devote a sufficient proportion of our time and effort to changing the business. I’ve rarely met a small business owner, large company MD, or frankly a CEO, who didn’t want to spend more time ‘on’ the business and less time ‘in’ it.

But somehow we must.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

What would Archimedes’ lever be made from?

What would Archimedes’ lever be made from?

What would Archimedes’ lever be made from?

“Give me a lever long enough, and a place to stand, and I will move the earth.”

So said Archimedes.

For me, Archimedes’ lever is a statement about technology as much as it is about this specific principle of physics. When humans want to change the world, we apply our understanding in a systematic fashion. We make tools, like levers, or language, or law. We codify our understanding into implements that enhance our powers, that give us leverage.

This, for me, is another reason why examining technology is such a good starting point when looking to the future. Understand the newest levers at our disposal, and you can extrapolate how we might choose to use them to change the world.

Material change

One of the areas of technology that excites me the most right now is materials science, and particularly the breadth of applications of 2D materials. This is why I was so delighted to become the resident futurist at the National Graphene Institute in Manchester.

2D materials — sheets just a single atom thick — have the most incredible properties, both on their own and when combined into layers. Thermally, mechanically, and electrically, they allow us to do things we haven’t before. Maybe even to make a lever strong enough to move the Earth.

2D materials will touch all our lives and businesses in the same ways that other technologies do, increasing choice, accelerating speed, amplifying our power and changing the shape of our organisations.

New options

Right now the application of graphene is still in its early days, but already its structural use is offering marked improvements in the performance of racing bikes and cars. Simply by stiffening the frame of a vehicle, graphene allows more motive power — whether from an athlete’s legs or a motor — to reach the ground.

As the technology becomes more accessible, and more widely used, and we solve some of the key manufacturing challenges, we can expect to see increasingly rapid improvements in these material properties. A wide range of composites will increasingly challenge established metals and plastics in a wider array of applications, making vehicles safer, faster, and more efficient.

Graphene is also being widely investigated as a means to boost energy storage. Here, an alternative material is supporting the use of alternative forms of motive power — particularly the shift from fossil fuels, always unbeatable for the density of their energy storage — to electricity.

Faster responses

Time increasingly seems to be the commodity about which we’re most precious. Technology gives us the leverage to do more in less time, but it also raises our expectations for what is possible.

In computing we are starting to hit the point where current technology can’t take us beyond our current expectations. There are hard physical limits on how small we can make microprocessors based on silicon. Here too though, 2D materials will bring change. Silicene, the two dimensional allotrope of silicon, may allow us to produce more efficient and smaller transistors. Stanene, tin’s two dimensional cousin, offers the properties to make supersmall wiring to connect these transistors together with minimal losses.

Augmented power

Like Archimedes’ lever, technology allows us to do more with less. 2D materials have the potential to further augment human capability, physical or cognitive.

Commercial exoskeletons are already on the market, allowing human wearers to lift more, more safely. The military will be adopting similar technology in the near future, but unlike their fictional counterpart, these will not be men of Iron. Composites, likely featuring 2D materials, will make up the stiff, light frame. Graphene is being explored as a material for armor plating, with great abilities to absorb energy at much lower weight than the ceramic plates currently used. The motors, batteries and electronics may all rely on 2D technologies.

More practically for most of us is the prospect of cognitive automation, via full-time augmented reality. It’s increasingly clear this is the direction of travel for user interfaces, but right now the technology is a long way off. 2D materials could allow us to build thinner, lighter, more stylish augmented reality glasses that are near-indistinguishable from their analogue counterparts. And to drive them with greater processing power and long life batteries.

Collaboration

What it will take to deliver on this promise is a great deal of collaboration. One of the defining characteristics of business in the 21st century is its increasingly networked nature. Even today’s behemoths, the Apples, Facebooks and Googles of the world, are deeply reliant on a hyperconnected web of partners and suppliers, often in two-way relationships. The mix of scientific skill, engineering knowledge, manufacturing scale, application nous and frankly, marketing smarts, to bring this new world together no longer exists in any single organisation, if it ever did.

Tom Cheesewright