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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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Slow down to speed up

Slow down to speed up

Sometimes everyone needs a new perspective. Someone else’s take on your challenges. I’m a big advocate for bringing external perspectives into your business, but as so often happens, I had let my own arrangements slip. I fixed this last week.

In the first meeting with my new adviser, Penny Haslam, she questioned things that I’d taken for granted, offered criticisms I hadn’t considered, and helped me take decisions that I’d been equivocating over for far too long. She also pointed out (though she wasn’t the first) that I use a lot of long words like equivocating. Something else for me to look at.

Speed kills

One of the questions Penny asked was why I do two blog posts each week. I didn’t have a great answer. I started it because I thought amassing a rich array of content on the website would drive greater search traffic. Turns out I was wrong: my topics are too diverse and my keyword discipline too poor for that to work. It was just habit.

The problem with this is that two posts takes up two of the most productive hours of my working week. Sometimes they are aligned to work I’m doing anyway. But increasingly I keep things like my presentation scripts back for subscribers rather than releasing them for free. This means that to produce two posts I’m having to cast around for original thoughts beyond the issues I’m working on directly.

So this will be the last week that I produce two posts. I will still be trying to post new material for subscribers a few times a week, including all my slide decks, scripts where I have them, videos of my talks, and audio of media interviews where they’re relevant. But the public blog will drop to one post, and the podcast will hence move to fortnightly rather than weekly.

With the time released, I will work more on the material I do produce, ensuring it connects and adds value for you, the reader.

What are you doing too much of?

So often, habits form around our day to day processes, to the points where we stop questioning the reasons behind them. What do you do that no longer adds value? What are you doing too much of when you could be using the time better?

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The bandwidth between us and our machines is falling

The bandwidth between us and our machines is falling

There aren’t many people still working who remember passing instructions to machines via punched cards. But that’s what we used to do. Humans would go to great lengths to translate a problem into a format a machine could understand, encode it in punched cards, and ensure the machine had the contextual information it needed to produce an answer.

Since this time, our instructions to machines have become progressively less explicit. With the WIMP (windows, icons, menu, pointer) era we started to click on what we wanted and let the machine (and the developers) do the work translating commands into easily-recognisable icons.

This moved further in the touch era, with machines applying their growing power to interpret touches from our fat fingers into recognisable commands. Now with voice, we have reached a point where huge amounts of processing work goes in to make sense of our voice commands, and does it surprisingly well.

What is also clear with voice is that the return channel is also lower bandwidth. Where the 19in screen on my desktop PC offered a huge amount of real estate on which to display a response, and hence could give me choices, a voice interface can comfortably only really offer one option.

This again is the progression of a trend: building experiences for mobile devices has always been about maximising the value of a limited amount of screen space. Part of the value of personalisation technologies in a mobile context is that they can increase the chance that what is displayed on the screen is what the customer might actually be searching for.

The impact of this is that we are relying on machines to make more decisions on our behalf. We are trading choice for convenience, or trust that the answers being offered to us are right for us, and not the best answers for the provider of that information, service or product.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal there has been lots of discussion about what happens to our personal data, albeit it has little effect on people’s actual behaviour, as I predicted (with help). There has been lots of discussion about the narrowing of our circles of influence as we are increasingly targeted with search results and news articles that fit our existing views. But I’ve seen very little discussion of the levels of power we are giving up over our buying decisions. And I think it’s definitely an important conversation.

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This article is based on a talk I’m giving at the EpiServer Ascend London 2018 event. If you would like access to the full script and slide deck, check out my Patreon campaign at patreon.com/bookofthefuture

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TSB: When tech is everything, failure is only human

TSB: When tech is everything, failure is only human

There’s a new technology event coming to the North next year, and I have the pleasure of chairing it (watch this space for more information). This week, we brought together two steering groups to help us to shape the event in terms of its format and content.

In talking about the potential audience, one point came across clearly: technology is everything now. It permeates every aspect of business and life. It’s hard to discuss tech in isolation from its applications, and for a broad audience, it’s only the applications that are interesting.

Case studies

The success or failure of those applications — which everyone agreed is the most interesting part — is often little to do with the technology itself. It’s about how the technology is applied. It’s about how humans chose to develop, integrate and deploy it.

This reality has been brought into sharp relief by the ongoing TSB saga. Without getting into too much detail, TSB has left many of its customers with incorrect information and no access to banking by bodging the transfer from its old platform — leased at great expense from its former parent, RBS — to its new one, provided by new parent Banco Sabadell.

The old platform was famously poor, as evidenced by RBS’s own digital woes. The new platform looks better on the face of it, but transitioning nearly two million customers is no small feat. TSB appears to have tried to complete the process in far too tight a timescale, in a bid to end the fees it was paying to RBS more quickly.

The big questions

The questions I get asked on local and regional radio in the wake of these disasters are my bellwether for the mood of the nation. What are people really thinking, and who — or what — are they blaming? In the wake of the TSB disaster (though incredibly, it’s still not over as I write), their answer is in part the company, but also the technology. People’s existing scepticism about online banking and our general reliance on technology is amplified and validated.

The point I always try to get across in these cases, is that the failures are human. Technology always has vulnerabilities to failure or corruption. The more we use, the more vulnerabilities we will have. But there’s a reason why we use these technologies: they allow us to do more and be more. The benefits outweigh the risks, as long as people do their jobs in mitigating them.

Technology is not a weakness, it’s a strength. In fact it’s arguably the defining strength of the human race: the systematic application of our understanding of the world. We can do it well or we can do it badly, but that’s on us, not the inanimate (for now) objects.

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Life in a quantum world

Life in a quantum world

We live in a Newtonian world. One constructed largely on the basis of an understanding of physics established over three hundred years ago.

There are many exceptions to this generalisation. Living examples of Gibson’s note that the future is unevenly distributed. From the nuclear weapon to the phone in your pocket, we unknowingly bear witness to the rising quantum age on a daily basis.

But, as the song goes, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

I spent a couple of hours on Friday afternoon listening to talks by academics at the National Graphene Institute, where I am taking up a six month informal post as ‘resident futurist’. I plan to spend a half a day there every few weeks, interviewing researchers and writing about the possibilities presented by two dimensional materials.

Friday’s talks were not designed to be easily digestible. I was probably the only person in the room without, at the minimum, a Masters degree in physics. There was at least one Nobel prize winner. I found myself scribbling down terms and acronyms for later research.

Changing reality

Despite my lack of understanding of the terminology and some of the fundamental concepts, I found the talks absolutely fascinating. One thing was absolutely clear: we are rapidly gaining a much greater level of clarity about the fundamental building blocks of matter, how to manipulate them and apply their properties. In the next few years we will be using that understanding in a much broader range of scenarios, transitioning us to a truly quantum age.

What I mean by that is that we will see greater changes in the physical reality of our world, not just in its digital overlays (though the boundary between the two will be increasingly blurred by connected devices and mixed reality). The materials from which we make our world will continue to change, shifting the dimensions of our world and disrupting long-embedded technologies that have served us well for centuries.

Of course, this will not happen overnight. It seems absurd to talk of rapid change in the media of our environment while sat in a 150 year old house, with a cracked and pot-holed road outside revealing its original cobbles. But in those areas of our life with relatively high turnover: clothes, consumables, packaging, even cars, expect to see some new and unexpected shapes, and properties in coming years.

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Data may be big, but information moves slowly

Data may be big, but information moves slowly

12 weeks. That is how long it took for information to wind its way through the corporate hierarchy and reach a decision maker, and for the response from that decision maker to become action. This figure was based on analysis of an early client organisation. We looked at the hierarchy of its management, the committees, reports and spreadsheets, and realised that it had no hope of becoming an agile organisation unless this changed.

Not only did the information take a long time to reach the decision-makers, it was tainted and obscured when it did. Tiny, arse-covering acts at multiple levels of the hierarchy, had progressively distorted the information in such a way as to often limit its impact. People too often heard what they wanted to hear and reported that up the chain, not the raw facts.

Analysing Analytica

I was reminded of this when preparing my response to the Cambridge Analytica story for the radio. My friends Dan Sodergren and Steve Kuncewicz have been doing a fantastic job handling the bulk of the commentary duties on the BBC, but I still found myself doing four or five interviews over the last few days.

Speak to anyone in the digital industry about the Cambridge Analytica story and their response is one of bafflement. Though the BIMA (British Interactive Media Association) dinner I spoke at this week was under Chatham House rules, I don’t think the attendees will mind me revealing this: when asked if anyone was surprised by what CA had been doing, no-one raised their hand. Yes, CA may have breached the terms of use of the data it had (or it had been supplied that data by someone who didn’t have the rights to do so), but beyond this, the core of the story is basically ‘digital marketing firm does what digital marketing firms do’, just for a political cause rather than a brand.

I don’t mean the parts about blackmail and prostitutes: that all came later. I mean utilising personal information to better target campaigns to the audience. Not only is this what marketing agencies do, it’s the very core of Facebook’s business model. If there is a surprise in this whole story, it’s that more people weren’t aware of this.

Ear to the ground

Alongside the more high profile national stuff, I continue to do a lot of local radio. That’s where I started and I like to keep supporting it when I can spare the time. This has the added advantage that I both get a sense of where the conversation is at, for the person in the street, and have to constantly practice tailoring my explanations for a non-expert audience.

Even given this, I was surprised at the level of outrage about Facebook’s behaviour. The phrase “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product”, and variations thereof, has been around for at least forty years. I figured this had sunk in to the general consciousness now. That people knew of Mark Zuckerberg’s enormous wealth and realise that money had to be coming from somewhere.

Clearly not. This morning I was asked: “Is sharing our personal data the price of being on Facebook?” YES! Yes it is!

Somehow, this information had moved very, very slowly through the populace. Or, people had heard what they wanted to hear.

Change is coming…or is it?

In my first interview on this subject, I suggested this might be the bucket of cold water that wakes a sleeping population. Actually, I’m not so sure. Yes, Facebook is already losing users in some demographics and this is only likely to accelerate this process. But as one person responded, they may just roll over and go back to sleep.

 

 

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Political choices in the face of rising automation

Political choices in the face of rising automation

Human beings don’t act out of naked self interest. Given the choice, we prefer to pursue a fair outcome rather than one that leaves one side with everything. This was amongst the findings of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky in their work that came to define the field of behavioural economics. (The pair are the subject of a new book, The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis, author of The Big Short — well worth listening to his interview with Adam Buxton).

Large companies don’t have this compunction. Allowed to do so, they act in the interests only of their shareholders. In fact, they are compelled to do so. The only question is whether they are looking to maximise returns over the short term or the long term. The longer term the thinking, the more likely it seems the interests of shareholders and the rest of the planet might align, though this is hardly a firm rule.

That they are focused on profit to the frequent exclusion of social good isn’t a criticism of companies or their leaders. Much as we might dislike their behaviour sometimes, they’re playing the game by the rules. Given multiple opportunities, we’ve chosen not to change those rules and perhaps for good reason. There’s at least a solid argument to be made that the game to date has been a net positive for most of us.

The question is whether it will continue to be so in the future.

The great divide

While many might — legitimately — question whether the current technological revolution will be different to the past, in destroying more jobs than it creates, there are some worrying signs. Large companies now operate with many fewer employees than they used to, with Apple, Alphabet (Google) and Facebook all making north of $1m per employee. Though employment is at historically high levels in many places, the quality of the work being created is often low and highly precarious. Levels of self-employment have risen dramatically.

The risk is a growing division between rich and poor, with a shrinking number having access to the security of employment, or a freelance skillset that provides a reasonable income, and a growing number surviving on a mixture of benefits and gig-economy work.

This scenario is at least plausible based on the current track. What might policy responses be to such a reality?

For me there are two clear routes of intervention. We can regulate employers to force them to better look after the interests of their workers. Or we can let take a laissez-faire approach to regulation, but raise taxes to build a state system that supports people without or between employment.

Regulating employment

As the ongoing battle between Uber and its drivers shows, action is already being taken to reign in the more extreme employment practices. In fact, this is just one of many cases challenging the ‘contractor’ model common in the gig economy. Should Uber lose, it will be forced to ensure drivers receive minimum wage and other entitlements, and be subject to a much larger tax bill. But its drivers will also be subject to much tighter controls: no more logging on, as and when you want to.

Ensuring minimum standards for workers in the gig economy doesn’t come without costs to the flexibility of the model, either for workers or for customers. But it’s also not without limitations as a move: should it lose, Uber is likely to accelerate its already-rapid drive to bring in self-driving vehicles with no drivers at all. All other gig-economy driving jobs will likely follow.

You can argue that much of the work in the gig economy only exists because people are cheaper than machines right now. But we know the cost of technology only goes in one direction, and ultimately people can’t compete on price.

What about a more extreme intervention, enforcing employee representation at board level (common in places like Germany) and even perhaps some form of employee ownership? This may well improve practices over all and is likely to raise living standards for those in employment. Though it’s no guarantee of employment levels remaining high: mutually-owned John Lewis was forced to lay off many staff last year to focus on “better jobs, for better performing partners, on better pay.”

The result may be better lives for those with jobs, but it’s unlikely to do much for those without. If automation is rising, the ratio between those groups will continue to worsen.

Rebuilding the state

Another option is to accept that market-generated employment is unlikely to provide support for large portions of the population, at least at some point in their lives. If corporate profits are rising, and a smaller proportion of people are holding more wealth, then there’s an argument for increasing taxes and distributing the proceeds in a variety of forms.

Part of this might mean creating work by investing in infrastructure. Crumbling roads, a desperate shortage of affordable housing, an ageing power network and limited generating capacity: there are many places the UK could use a large state investment in improvements that would benefit citizens and businesses alike.

Part of it might mean tackling the holes in our health and social care systems: massively overworked doctors, underpaid nurses, and a critical shortage in trained care staff — only likely to worsen post-Brexit.

We might look at pushing the price of education back into general taxation and raising standards across the board, with increased investment.

And yes, we may ultimately have to look at some form of universal income, albeit one that accounts for complex differences in need. The savings from eliminating the administration of the current benefits system represent a fraction of the hundreds of billions that a universal income at any sensible level might cost.

Third ways

Of course, these routes are not mutually exclusive. We’re likely to see more of the former option in the short term, as governments stick with what they know and try to maintain the status quo. But personally, I’d like to see us put more time into considering the latter.

Taxing corporations is complex, particularly in our globalised economy. High corporation tax rates may look scary to businesses. But states generally deliver services like healthcare (and travel) much more cost-effectively than smaller-scale private options (just compare UK and US costs). Surely companies would want to invest in countries where they know their obligations are met with a single bill, rather than a complex legal framework of employee support?

Thought, if nothing else

I’m not a political scientist, or an economist. Posts like these are about exploring ideas rather than advocating them. But what I will advocate is consideration. I believe that automation threatens employment as the basis for an economy. I’m willing (and hopeful) to be proven wrong, but right now, the signs don’t look good. And beyond the surface conversation about universal basic income, I see very little consideration about what this means for the future.

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How will automation affect the third sector?

How will automation affect the third sector?

Yesterday I spoke at The Gathering, the annual event for Scotland’s charities and third sector organisations, run by SCVO. Alongside me on the panel were Dr Kendra Briken from the University of Strathclyde and Rhodri Davies from the Charities Aid Foundation.

The question we were posed was, ‘How will automation affect the third sector?’ We all came at it from different perspectives and I found myself furiously scribbling notes on my phone as Kendra and Rhodri spoke.

Here’s (roughly) what I said.

What defines your organisation? Is it the mission? Is it the values? Is it the culture and behaviours?

The coming wave of automation is going to make you think very hard about these questions again. Because the choices you make won’t just about technological possibilities, they will be about your strategic priorities.

Automation is nothing new. Since the first Australopithecus afarensis sharpened a rock three and a half million years ago, we’ve been applying our understanding of the world to make our lives easier. We are a race of toolmakers and as our tools get more sophisticated, they can take on more of our work for us.

In every wave of technological advancement in the relatively recent past, from the agricultural revolution through the industrial, technology has enabled economic growth, which has in itself created more work.

But it looks increasingly like this will not be the case this time. General purpose computing can be applied so widely to such a range of tasks that it is hard to see how it doesn’t result in either large scale unemployment or its modern equivalent, the further degradation of high quality jobs into gig economy work.

Let me give you some examples:

In China, the government’s Made in China initiative promotes the rapid automation of its industries. Some cities, like Dongguan, are even offering grants for companies to invest in machines that displace people. The results have been dramatic. 87,000 workers were replaced in Dongguan between 2014 and 2016. Apple’s largest supplier, Foxconn, replaced 60,000 workers in a single factory with robots.

This is physical automation, something we have been familiar with for centuries. But it is newly enabled by the cheap availability of computing power. These robots aren’t just mechanically sophisticated, they are digitally smart.

This intelligence translates into automations that will potentially be very relevant to the third sector.

The first is what is happening in stores, with systems like Amazon Go. Here, tills are eliminated by a network of cameras placed around the store. People tap their phones on a terminal on the way in, and then whatever they pick up and put in their bag, they are charged for.

This may look like it will only be available to high tech stores like amazon or maybe the big supermarkets. But the hardware required is actually very simple and cheap. The likelihood is that Amazon and others will offer such systems as a service to retailers at a relatively low monthly cost.

That cost may still be more than a volunteer. But as more and more shops adopt this technology, queuing at a till to make a purchase is going to start to look pretty archaic. Like the 20MB data limit on the wifi, on my train here. Stores using this technology are going to know a huge amount about their customers or supporters. It will also facilitate very rapid pricing and stock taking.

The second big physical shift that may be relevant is the advent of autonomous vehicles. This class of automated transport and delivery systems will range from the pavement-roaming Starship drone to the driverless car. And they will likely be here sooner than you think. This drone has already been trialled on the streets of London.

Less anthropomorphic

When we think about automation, it’s natural to think of physical tasks and machines that in some way perhaps resemble us. After all we have been replacing humans with machines in a manufacturing and agricultural context for a few hundred years. But what about automating more cognitive and interactive tasks. Like call centres.

Amelia is a virtual member of staff that can interact with people via voice or text. She doesn’t need to be programmed with answers. You feed her information, connecting her to your CRM systems, etc, and she finds answers based on the questions she is asked. She is sensitive to emotion, and tailors her responses accordingly.

Amelia can answer every call on the first ring. She can typically answer 80% of queries. And scariest of all, people often prefer dealing with her to dealing with another human — particularly when dealing with potentially embarrassing issues.

In the back office

Amelia is a particularly visible kind of automation, but there is a much less visible kind as well. The automation of document and data processing. An incredible amount of work in most office environments is still devoted to re-keying data, reproducing documents that are very similar to those that have been produced in the past. It has taken much longer than anyone expected, but this friction in day to day operations is slowly being eliminated. The barriers between different systems are being broken down. The production of reports and documents is being automated.

This isn’t so much automation as augmentation. Few whole roles will be eliminated by this type of technology. But with it, fewer people can achieve more, meaning you don’t need as many people in total.

Structural change

Automation as a general rule more greatly affects the lower levels of the hierarchy, where work is more often repetitive. As you climb the hierarchy and work becomes more about creativity and adaptation, automation becomes augmentation: a smaller number of people equipped to do more. This has the potential to change the shape of the organisational hierarchy: low down a small number of people augment and maintain a largely automated workforce. Higher up there may actually be more people in those organisations that successfully make the transition to a more automated world. Their creativity and relationships with customers or partners may be the bottleneck that limits growth. Ultimately though, we return to a pyramid at the top.

The response

In the next few years, you can undoubtedly apply capital to reduce your operational costs through automation. Success is a question of good design as much as the right technology, but it’s a realistic prospect and the investment levels required to start to have an impact are actually relatively low.

The question comes back to your priorities. Are you here to achieve your mission at all costs? In which case, there’s a strong argument you should be pursuing every solid prospect for automation and augmentation reducing your costs and increasing your efficiency.

Or is your charity also a vehicle for wider social good? Is it important that you create employment?

Finally, where do volunteers sit in this mix? How much do they actually cost you? And could their work be done, or at least supplemented by machines? This might be the trickiest area to assess.

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The Catalog of Tomorrow

The Catalog of Tomorrow

Spontaneous gifts are perhaps the best of all. A few weeks back, my friend and former colleague Adrian Bentley of Just Good Ideas gave me a book he had stumbled across. Produced by TechTV, the Catalog of Tomorrow is a more grown-up Book of the Future (the 1979 version), bringing together predictions from a range of experts across a variety of fields. Published 15 years ago, the predictions it contains feel ripe for revisiting.

The book features a foreword by Paul Saffo, an expert in forecasting who teaches at both Stanford and Singularity University. In just a few hundred words, Saffo offers some of the smartest statements about futurism and forecasting that I have yet to read. For a start, he points out that forecasts will almost always be wrong, for if it were otherwise, we would all be bystanders, watching a pre-determined path unfold. Rather, we are active participants in shaping our future. The purpose of futurism is not always to say what will be, but to show what can be. To light the paths, not fix the route.

Saffo also points out that even those who have been famously wrong in their predictions have gone on to profit from the unfolding reality. Tom Watson of IBM, who predicted a market for just a handful of computers, is a notable example.

The point is that we should not be afraid of making forecasts. Nor should we be afraid of being wrong — try though we might to be right.

Saffo also refers to another issue to which I often point: predicting ‘what’ is generally easier than predicting ‘when’. As he puts it, ‘most ideas take 20 years to become an overnight success’. The direction of travel can be absolutely clear, but the speed of the journey is determined by many variables: legal, societal, technical and more.

My first experience of this was five years ago, when on BBC 5live on New Year’s Day I predicted that there would be a consumer-grade 3D printer on the high street for under £300 by the end of 2013. I was wrong — it took a couple more years.

In fact, I have only around a 50% hit rate from the predictions from that show. I don’t think any of the predictions are wrong, but half are yet to come true:

Gesture Controls

I predicted commercial applications by end of 2013. That’s technically correct but this really hasn’t taken off in a big way yet.

Verdict: WRONG

Better Batteries

I thought we’d be charging our phones weekly, not daily by now. Battery tech has improved but not to the point that it can feed our power-hungry devices for more than a day at a time.

Verdict: WRONG

Divergence

I predicted more wirelessly connected gadgets starting to take over some of the functions of the phone. Again, I think I’m technically correct here, but beyond headphones and fitness trackers, this is yet to be a major trend.

Verdict: WRONG

Ultra High Definition

I proposed that 4K would succeed where 3D failed. Nailed that one at least.

Verdict: RIGHT

Health Sensors

I predicted the expansion of fitness trackers out into other connected health sensors. This isn’t totally mainstream yet but loads of people have sleep monitors and blood oximetry sensors, so I’m counting this one as a win.

Verdict: RIGHT

Electric Cars

I suggested that in 2013 we would start to take electric cars seriously. Yesterday I found out that second hand hybrids and EVs are selling for more than their original purchase price. So yeah, I’ll claim that one.

Verdict: RIGHT

Predictions are fun. But they are a tool. A way to make people think about what might be.

Make some predictions of your own. You might not get them all right, but in the process of making them, you’ll probably think harder about the future than you have in a while.

Tom Cheesewright