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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:

Infrastructure

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.

Craft

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

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.

Creativity

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.

Posted by laura on

Sensory Overload

Sensory Overload

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.

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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.

Posted by laura on

Put Your Organisation in a Permanent Phoenix State

Put Your Organisation in a Permanent Phoenix State

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?

Posted by laura on

Ten ways to disrupt tomorrow

Ten ways to disrupt tomorrow

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.

 

Posted by laura on

Teaching technology isn’t about the economy, it’s about democracy

Teaching technology isn’t about the economy, it’s about democracy

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.

Posted by laura on

Raise your game

Raise your game

Do you play tennis? I used to. Badly. But I was always better when I played someone good. Sure, I got thrashed, but I did so with a lot more style than when I was playing someone more at my level.

We’re all getting thrashed at the moment. Facing a constant volley of 100mph serves. But it’s not balls flying at us, it’s information.

Self defence

In our personal lives we are blessed/assaulted with more information than ever before, streamed at us across diverse channels from a thousand sources. Every one vying for a fraction of our attention. But we’re starting to raise our game. Building coping strategies for the email deluge — still a constant topic of discussion in business circles— rationing our own social media access, and sourcing opinions from the crowd about which media are worth our time.

We don’t have a solid set of good answers, but you can see the progress. There are threats and risks, and a grain of truth in the preachings of the doom-mongers of the digital world. But nonetheless, I’d argue the direction is positive.

Working it

At work we are starting to do the same, but the natural inertia of organisations means this process of adaptation is a lot slower. New organisations cope better than old, evolving as they have in a world of accelerated data. Their people, infrastructure, processes, products and services are themselves products of this environment. It’s the established organisations that face the challenge. Shifting the great weight of their embedded processes and behaviours into a new gear.

How do you begin to tackle this?

There is a natural human response. One that humans have relied on for millennia. To collate and categorise, sort and sift. It tends to start with the desire to bring all data sets into one. To build a giant warehouse for all this information.

Pre-emptive filtering

This isn’t necessarily wrong. But it’s not an answer in itself. Often the strategy is: “Let’s get everything in order, then we can worry about what we do with it.”

This isn’t the way that those native to a high-frequency environment operate. They know — often instinctively — that there is too much noise around the signal. The waste involved in filtering the whole stream is simply to great to be feasible.

Instead you have to filter preemptively, directing your limited supplies of attention to what matters, not trying to absorb everything before you filter.

Your last ten steps

One great example of this came from Rama Ramakrishnan, SVP of data science at Salesforce Commerce Cloud, whom I interviewed as part of the Future Ready Retail programme I worked on. He points out that while many companies are busy gathering your shoe size, football team and newspaper preferences, you can personalise a shopping site to a high degree just by looking at someone’s very recent browsing history — just the last ten clicks.

Raising your game in this high frequency environment does not mean doing more of what you used to do. Collate and filter is a 20th century approach, expensive, ineffective and inappropriate to a 21st century environment.You need to push the intelligence out to the front of the process. Your supplies of attention — individually or corporately — are limited. Make the most of them.

 

Posted by laura on

Design is the enemy of work (and stress)

Design is the enemy of work (and stress)

I’ve just been through the arduous process of remortgaging. For various reasons, my remortgage was more complicated than most, which meant more interactions with the lender’s solicitors than might otherwise be required.

It was painful.

Just writing about this now I can feel my tension-levels rising. By the end of the process I started to get irritated as soon as a new form dropped through the door or another piece of correspondence pinged into my inbox.

Why?

I hate form-filling at the best of times. Were I wealthy, my biggest luxury would be to never touch another piece of administration. But I can just about cope if the forms, and the rules behind them, are well designed.

These were not.

Every instruction and interaction was confusing, non-specific and poorly designed. It was clear that the rules that they were trying to satisfy through this appalling bureaucracy were also somewhat archaic and arcane.

There was just no need.

Even accounting for the ageing laws behind the process, good design could have contracted the process by three quarters and cut the number of interactions by about 90% (in my very rough estimation).

But what would this do?

This would cut down the amount of work involved for the firm of solicitors conducting the process. As I mentioned in a previous piece, some organisations like friction. It’s where they make their money. Law firms are one of them. Friction equals time, and time is what they bill for.

Ultimately though, this sort of white-collar busywork is unsustainable. Friction starts fires — in other words, friction is always an opening for disruption. Eventually someone of sufficient scale will do this so much better that everyone else will have to follow.

I don’t intend to be remortgaging again any time soon. But for the next person, I really hope that day comes soon.

 

Posted by laura on

Technology in every application

Technology in every application

The fifth of the five key effects of technology-driven change that I have been writing about, is about the penetration of technology itself, into every aspect of our lives. Technology accelerates its own application.

We all know that technology is more present in our lives now. But unless you’re familiar with the extended Moore’s Law arguments and singularity theories of the likes of Ray Kurzweil, you may not be aware of the extent to which it is present or how fast it is spreading.

This ubiquity is a factor of the price of technology falling and the accessibility rising, to the point where there are fewer and fewer applications to which it cannot be, and is not being, applied. As long as the application of technology confers an advantage on the applier, and subject to a limited set of restrictions at the more dangerous edges, what can be, will be.

The appliance of science

Right now this effect is most obvious with digital technologies, but these are not the only technologies to which it applies. Rather I am talking about technologies in the widest sense: the appliance of science.

Mechanical technologies like the combustion engine are now produced on such a scale that usable cars can be picked up for a few tens of pounds. Basic genetic engineering capabilities can now be acquired at the cost of toys. Where I had a chemistry set it’s entirely possible my kids will have a genetic engineering set at some point in the next few years.

But perhaps it is digital technologies, hard and soft, where this effect is most extreme. On the tech markets of China you can pick up a 4G-enabled smartwatch for $5. Even with shipping you can connect anything you want in your house — or your business — to the internet for a few pounds. Cheap, or even free, software confers huge power on the wielder, to create, communicate, and if they want to, disrupt.

One effect, many impacts

This all has an impact — in fact many.

It has a potential impact on our security and our privacy: what is connected can be tracked, and hacked. It has an impact on our livelihoods: through technology we almost invariably come up with a way to enhance or improve on human capability. Not in the round but in narrow, specific applications, shaving chunks off single roles or whole workforces. It has an effect on our media: many connections means many choices. Many cameras means many broadcasters — the diversity effect I talked about before.

Technology is finding its way into almost every niche, even those — like journalism — that may have looked immune to such a threat only a few years ago. However closed you think your niche is to the advance of technology, the lesson of the last few years is that you are probably wrong.

 

Tom Cheesewright