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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s fashionable to knock email at the moment. Plenty of articles have been written about how it wastes more time than it saves, and many companies are now enforcing strict email management rules in a bid to reclaim productivity. But I don’t believe email is the problem.
We now have a wealth of communication tools and information resources at our fingertips. Every one of them is competing for a bit of our attention, distracting us with sounds, images, flashing lights and vibrations. Every one of the channels and tools available to us is generally well designed as a product in its own right. Few people struggle to use Outlook, or Skype, or a mobile phone, or Firefox. But the problem is that it is never an either/or choice in the modern life — we are constantly multi-tasking in a bid to keep on top of all the information coming to us.
Just looking at my desktops both real and virtual now, I have: a landline; a mobile; Skype and headset (for two SkypeIn numbers and my Skypename); Thunderbird (handling four email accounts); Outlook (handling a fifth email account, plus calendar and task list with pop-up reminders); VNC (for controlling my server and jukebox); and a Timesheet application (again with pop-up reminders).
Any one of these I can handle quite ably, even two or three at a time are fine. But there are days when everything seems to go off at once, or even worse, in a constant stream that prevents any work except talking for an entire day.
In the short term this means developing strategies to handle all the different media: ignoring some calls, putting Skype on DND, turning off pop-up alerts, and ignoring email for large parts of the day. But in the long term I think the technology has to change. While I am sure our brains will eventually evolve to deal with all the various inputs, why should we wait a few thousand years for that to happen?
Instead there needs to be a standard for communications tools to collaborate and share information about our availability — and willingness — to accept inbound information and communications requests. This extends right across the different media: if my Skype is set to DND, I also don’t want calls on my mobile or landline (unless I have specified otherwise — perhaps calls from a certain number, friend or family group). If I am in the middle of writing a long blog entry, I don’t want my anti-virus to pop-up while I am typing, or for Windows to ask me to restart because it has completed an update. In fact, I want an interface that actively helps me to concentrate by blocking out other distractions while I am working, perhaps only offering me contextual information, or messages that are relevant to what I am doing.
This ties in very much with the media filtering technology that is the ultimate goal of most search companies: they want to understand you well enough to suggest TV, books and articles that you might like and save you trawling the enormous oceans of data on the internet. That’s great for home, but if we’re going to stop the white collar classes becoming a nation of digital fidgets, some of that effort really needs to be directed at the workplace.
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.
The continuing enthusiasm for start-ups and their associated culture suggests that Joseph Schumpeter’s idea of Creative Destruction remains in vogue. Schumpeter suggested that the constant cycle of destruction of the old and creation of the new was the very essence of capitalism. And that innovators — entrepreneurs and start-ups — were its engine.
Though these days this idea is usually associated with free market ideologues, Schumpeter wasn’t quite so positive about its ultimate meaning. He believed that eventually Creative Destruction would destroy capitalism itself.
After all, he developed the idea through analysis of the works of Marx.
There’s an interesting debate to be had about whether Schumpeter was right. About whether without radical intervention, the ongoing automation revolution will ultimately make economies based on mass consumption unsustainable.
But with my applied hat on, I’m more interested in the short term. In efficiency and value.
So a question: are start-ups the best way to create new value?
Think about it.
Start-ups are necessarily new, small, hungry companies. We have seen over the years that established businesses are largely incapable of innovating at the same rate. Very rarely do they release a truly disruptive innovation. Once you are of a certain scale (and that scale doesn’t have to be very large in my experience), change becomes challenging.
Certainly, radical change of the nature that true innovation often requires.
So instead large companies defend their sandcastles for as long as their marketing machines and lobbyists can hold back the tide.
Eventually of course, those empires of sand get washed away and a new entrant starts to build their own.
My problem with this, is that the new empires look very much like the old. Sure, the new entrant will do some things differently. They might have a different culture, better technology, a stronger brand. But so many of the fundamentals of the business are the same: capital, HR, finance, customer relationships.
Knocking these things down only to build them back up again just seems incredibly wasteful.
So what’s the alternative? We solve the change problem.
Imagine you could put an established business into a permanent ‘Phoenix State’, in which it goes through constant reinvention. Always rising from its own ashes. Instead of change being something painful that happens periodically, it becomes something natural that happens iteratively. Not constant refinement of the old model, but an acceptance and application of new models as it becomes clear they are the future.
How would you do this?
For a start you would have to find a way to break the organisation down into comprehensible ‘blocks’ with clear inputs and outputs. Doing this carries an efficiency penalty in its own right, but it’s a worthwhile trade for increased agility. Transforming a monolith is nearly impossible — like trying to hew a new sculpture from an old one. Rearranging building blocks (or changing, adding or dropping the blocks themselves) is much easier. Especially when not all of the building blocks of the business need to owned.
Secondly you would have to ensure transparency across the organisation. You can’t expect everyone to know what everyone else is doing, but someone has to be able to join the dots to recognise opportunities and efficiencies.
Thirdly you would have to find a way to expose leadership at every level to influences outside of their own walls. Institutional blinkers fall fast and blind leaders to even the largest most transformational trends in adjacent and relevant markets.
There are other issues too. Being listed on a stock market makes change harder, since you may have to convince a huge community of shareholders of your radical plans. And most of all, there are human issues of culture and communication, which cannot be underestimated.
But from a structure and process point of view, I think we’re starting to get there with a framework for how you put a business into a permanent Phoenix State.
We know now how to redesign an organisation around its customers, so that at the very least, it listens to them. We know how to break it down into functional units that can be assembled and reassembled to meet new needs. And we know how to expose leaders to external change drivers and help them to plan a response in an efficient fashion.
These tools are all now part of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit. Others are successfully tackling issues of culture and communication.
This can be done.
So the question is, do you want to build a sandcastle, or a Phoenix?
Last week I gave the closing keynote at the enormous RESI 2017 residential property conference, sharing a stage with the housing minister Alok Sharma, the BBC’s Mark Easton, Dame Eliza Manningham-Buller, and Blur’s Alex James.
I wrote a talk for the event, but the night before I decided it was all wrong. Closing keynotes need to be full of energy — especially when people are still jaded from the previous night’s gala dinner. They need to give people some simple points to take away. And while they can summarise, the last thing people want to hear is a repeat of what has come before.
Looking at the agenda for the previous days I decided I needed to come up with something fresh. This is what I wrote. Though it was written for a property audience, I think it has wider relevance. Have a read and see what you think.
I’ve been asked to talk to you today about disruption. In the next twenty five minutes I want to talk about ten things that are going to completely disrupt the physical world. Your business, your home, and everyone’s lives.
But first I want to talk about what’s driving that disruption. Right here, right now there is one change driver that is bigger than Trump, bigger than Brexit, bigger than climate change. And it’s technology.
Technology is driving change both more consistently and more persistently than any of these factors today. You may be able to roll back whatever decisions a politician makes, given enough time. But you can’t un-invent the smartphone, or the atom bomb — unfortunately, given the sabre rattling from a certain chubby dictator.
The appliance of science
When I talk about technology, I’m not talking about the phone in your pocket, though that’s part of it. I’m talking about technology in the broadest sense. The appliance of science. We are a race of tool makers who have been applying science since the first caveman or woman picked up a rock and realised it was a more efficient way to stove in the head of whatever animal they were trying to catch. Technology is maths, wheels and language. Which I guess makes Shakespeare a coder.
Throughout our history technology has done one thing. It has lowered friction. Technology allows us to do things we couldn’t otherwise do more efficiently, quickly, and painlessly.
But that gives whoever has that technology a competitive edge. Because if someone else has that edge, then we want it. It doesn’t matter if it’s countries competing in an arms race, companies competing in a market, or you trying to keep up with the family at number 42 with the nice new Merc.
It is this competitive tension that keeps driving technology forward. The last ten years have seen technology transform our world. The next ten will see transformations of even greater magnitude.
1. The end of possessions
Technology has eliminated so much of the matter in our lives. Newspapers and magazines, books, paper in general. CDs, DVDs, Blurays and all the various paraphernalia needed to play them on.
This has coincided with a shift to a much more experience-led culture. Expenditure on food and drink and holidays is up. People are focused on what they can do, not what they can own.
There’s still huge — perhaps increasing — value in tactile experiences like vinyl, in the face of mass digitisation. But the larger trend is clear: we can achieve the same or greater experiences through fewer physical objects.
2. Personal AI
We outsource memory to other people in our lives. How many times have you relied on a partner or family member to remember someone’s birthday, the MOT, or home insurance renewal? Why shouldn’t we outsource to machines as well?
The reality is that we already do. GPS has become our sense of direction, calendars and photos our memories.
The next step is letting them filter the world, and even take buying decisions, on our behalf. Right now we put this power in the hands of third parties like Facebook, and subscription shopping services. When it should be our own personal AI, intimately familiar with our preferences and insulated from the influence of external parties.
3. Frictionless administration
With a personal AI hosting aspects of our identity, finance and vital documentation, we can look forward to truly frictionless administration. No more endless reams of paper or multi-page forms for every insurance policy, remortgage or investment. Our assistants interact with the APIs of any intermediary, in turn interacting with providers and third parties. Blockchain may play a role in providing a more secure and transparent record.
4. Everything is smart
Our personal AIs will be driven by data captured from the world around us, and able to shape that world to our needs. Because everything will be connected. It costs less than a couple of pounds to add WiFi to anything these days — a few cents to do it at scale. Eventually the cost of doing so falls below the return — however slight it might be. And so everything gets some level of smarts, for sensing or control.
5. Distributed energy
We can power this smarter world because three things are happening. First, the consumption of each unit is declining: desktop PCs consume around 400 watts, laptops 75w, tablets and phones just 10. Appliances get more efficient all the time.
Second, our ability to generate electricity cheaply and cleanly is improving — particularly at small scale with solar. Wind is already markedly cheaper than nuclear, as the last round of bidding for UK energy supply shows.
Third, we can now store energy better. The next generation of batteries approach the energy density of petrol and are made from cheap and readily-available minerals.
6. Everything is electric
Because of this, gas starts to look as unattractive as a home fuel as coal does to us now. Dangerous and dirty, people will bother less and less with installing gas supply in new developments, as electricity becomes the preferred technology for heating and cooking, transport and travel, as well as all of our digital appliances.
7. Autonomous construction
Machines can already lay bricks and pour concrete faster than people, with large-scale 3D printers now producing whole buildings near-autonomously from a recycled slurry. As this technology advances it will change the nature of construction and maintenance. Autonomous machines will follow digital instructions to create and complete whole structures, utilising new materials and modular techniques.
Then machines will respond to sensor data to adapt those buildings to current need, within the parameters laid down by the original architects.
8. Dynamic addressing
Your phone is increasingly your address, enabling you to share your location with a high degree of accuracy with third parties. The incredible WhatThreeWords gives a unique address to every few square metres of the earth. Given these capabilities, why do we have everything delivered to a fixed physical address? New fraud controls mean we should be less reliant on address as a validation of someone’s trustworthiness. Why not send goods to wherever they want them — whether that’s where they are or where they will be?
9. Life through a lens
Yesterday’s Deloitte figures showed we spend an incredible amount of time staring at a screen. Tomorrow we will stare through it. Augmented reality enables more natural, human interactions with the digital world, and equips us with a general purpose sensor — the head-mounted camera — that enables a whole range of applications. I genuinely believe that in just ten years we will spend 10–12 hours per day in augmented reality, witnessing the world through a digital overlay. One that expands our senses, enhances our memory and cognition, and personalises our world. This isn’t a vision without risk, but I think it’s realistic.
10. Joy is paramount
One of the insights about the ‘millennial’ generation that I actually accept is the rising priority placed on experiences over possessions. While widely pilloried I think this can only be seen as a good thing in retrospect. We should enjoy life if we can, and our spaces and places, services and service, need to be shaped around that priority.
I recently spent some time at Raspberry Jamboree, a day of education and sharing, based around the credit-card sized low-cost computer, the Raspberry Pi. The demographic here is wonderful. Yes, there are the middle-aged men with beards you may have expected. But there are also plenty of women and children — boys and girls. The atmosphere is inquisitive, open and discursive. Everyone is learning. People point to the various components on sale to accessorise their little computers and ask strangers: “What does that do?”
I had a great time.
Two weeks later I got a phone call from the BBC. Will I come on and talk about Theresa May’s plans for the internet following the London and Manchester attacks?
Here we go again, I thought.
Theresa May, like many politicians, likes to talk about ensuring that terrorists can’t communicate beyond the surveillance of the state. It sounds pretty reasonable to the uneducated — which is most people when it comes to the inner workings of the internet. Why would Google, Facebook and Apple want to allow terrorists to communicate? Surely they can allow GCHQ a little peek into people’s messages if it will prevent a tragedy?
Of course, it isn’t that simple. There are all sorts of reasons why it just isn’t practical — or desirable — to give the security services a key to our secured communications. Cory Doctorow sums them up best.
To put it even more succinctly, interfering with encryption would collapse many of the services on which our modern lives are increasingly dependent, while leaving terrorists free to access a separate range of entirely secure technologies.
The problem is, most people don’t understand this. They’re ill-equipped for the technical argument, let alone the moral one.
This is why events like Raspberry Jamboree and the wider initiative to educate people about technology is so important. Yes, digital skills are crucial to the economy, but they are also crucial to all other aspects of modern life.
Participation isn’t just about the skills you need to access services, it’s about a reasonable proportion of the population being able to make informed choices about the controls placed on those services.