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Two steps forward, one step back

Two steps forward, one step back

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.


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Save your career. Get a new hobby

Save your career. Get a new hobby

Up there with the most frequent questions I am asked is this: “What should I be teaching my children to give them the best chance of a good career in the future?” Or for those people who have 20+ years of their career ahead, and who are concerned about the rise of robots, the question is “What should I be learning to save my career?”

I have a stock answer to this that I’ve articulated a few times on this blog. In short, I believe that the more processes and interactions we automate and digitise, the more value we will place on uniquely human capabilities. And that throughout our careers we will need to adapt frequently to changing markets, skill needs, and opportunities. I also think we are increasingly likely to have portfolio careers as the traditional job that employs you nine to five, five days a week, 50 weeks a year, for 40 years, increasingly looks like a thing of the past.

Given these beliefs, what are the core skills that are most important? The Three Cs:

Curate: discover and qualify information

Create: synthesise something new

Communicate: listen and share ideas with others

The question is, how do we develop these skills? We’re all busy people. The answer, I reckon, is to get a new hobby.

Hobbies are fantastic contexts for self-driven learning, a critical component of the ‘curate’ skillset. You need to identify the gaps in your knowledge and abilities, source and absorb materials to help you overcome those gaps.

Hobbies are also often creative. I don’t mean that we all need to take up painting or writing. Sports are creative. Coding is creative. Games are creative. The critical creative skills are more about practice, repetition and refinement than they are about lightning-strike great ideas.

And hobbies almost inevitably involve communication, whether you are chatting on shared interest forums, strategising with team mates, or negotiating at a swap meet.

Personally, I took up rollerskating two years ago. It was a humbling experience, being surrounded by kids — my own included, having introduced me to the sport — who knew more than I did. It has taken an enormous amount of practice, and a few injuries (including a broken rib and a very squishy elbow) to get to the stage where I feel pretty competent at a few tricks.

I’ve learned by watching others, watching YouTube videos, and practicing, over and over again — creative iteration. It has been a great exercise for these critical future skills, as well as for my general fitness. But perhaps just as important is that humbling. One of the most valuable things to be reminded of, is just how little we know outside of our own domains.

If you want to improve your future career prospects, go and get yourself a new hobby. And get humbled.

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Brexit & the two Canutes

Brexit & the two Canutes

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.

Facing Brexit

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.


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Transport technology has shaped our cities, and will continue shape them in the future

Transport technology has shaped our cities, and will continue shape them in the future

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.

Mass transit

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.

City choices

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.


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We need to differentiate between future jobs and future work

We need to differentiate between future jobs and future work

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.

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Is our future fractured or diverse?

Is our future fractured or diverse?

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.

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Simplicity is hard. That’s why it is valuable.

Simplicity is hard. That’s why it is valuable.

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:

  1. 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?

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Every question is easy when you know the answer

Every question is easy when you know the answer

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.


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