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Never Trust Someone Who Offers the Same Answer to Every Question

One of the challenges of being a futurist is communicating the difference between what you believe to be true, and what you would like to be true. I try to maintain a good distance between the two.

Last week I was speaking at the Wired?14 customer event for Daisy Group PLC, about the impact of technology on our personal and working lives. I highlighted that the link between economic growth and employment has been broken since 1999, referencing The Second Machine Age. After centuries where mechanisation and automation has been part of a cycle of creative destruction that ultimately generated greater overall wealth, digital technology seems to be concentrating wealth in the hands of few and destroying more jobs than it creates.

I could be accused of being a bit of a cheerleader for technology: I believe that it has been a huge factor in our increasing health and wealth over the recent past. But I’m not suggesting that it is an unalloyed good: technology presents issues we have to tackle.

I was collared after the event by someone who took issue with my analysis. He believed markets would solve the jobs problem — in fact he believed markets could solve every problem. I suggested the state would absolutely have a role to play and intervention would be required at some point if we were not to have a deeply unequal society (even more so than today). My challenger scoffed and painted me as on old-school socialist in favour of some form of centrally-planned economy.

Arguing against what you would like someone to be saying is often easier than arguing against what they are saying.

I was raised in a fairly lefty household and retain a lot of the values that I absorbed there, particularly around the role of the state. I’ve since spent nearly fourteen years entirely in private business — nine of those self-employed and growing my own businesses. I recognise where the market can do good things. What I don’t believe is that the state can solve everything or that markets can solve everything. To me either of those views is a kind of dangerous fundamentalism, little different to the worst excesses of religion.

Believing that there is one answer to many problems is generally a huge error.

Being Charitable

At the end of the week, I headed off to Edinburgh to run a workshop on the future of charities for the SCVO. Here I highlighted the growing role of technology in work and home life, and how it is transforming each. As often happens, this was taken by some as an argument for the increasing role of technology in both of those spheres. “But human contact is important. We can’t do what we do unless we’re face to face,” is a refrain I hear often in these sessions.

This may be true. But that doesn’t change the fact that there are other organisations competing in the digital sphere for the same funds and few seconds of attention that are the lifeblood of many charities. The evidence would suggest that we have a limited reservoir of mental and financial capital to donate. Though they may not be able to deliver their most important services digitally, charities have to compete digitally in the worlds of campaigning and fundraising if they are to maintain their support, and therefore the ability to conduct their work in a face to face manner.

More than that, the current financial climate would suggest that charities need to find ways of introducing digital means into their most fundamental operations. Because they may well be trying to support as many or more people with reduced resources. Anyone can fund-raise now. JustGiving and other platforms give individuals the campaign tools that would only have been available to established charities in the past. Campaigns like the #NoMakeUpSelfie or Stephen Sutton’s appeal, show the incredible speed with which new media can attract funds — funds that will then not be given to other causes that might historically have received them. More than one charity has told me that their individual donations are going “off a cliff”.

One Size Does Not Fit All

In each of these sessions and others, for businesses, local government and charities, I have talked about Stratification: my model for how successful modern businesses increasingly seem to be organised, and a model I believe can be applied to lots of different organisations. What I don’t propose is that there is a single template that can be simply copied and pasted between different charities, businesses and councils. There might be a common idea that can inform the approach in each case, but each case must be handled differently. Just like the answer is not always market or state, the answer is not always “What would Amazon do?”

This is the reason I’m currently exploring ways to expand my consultancy operation — without building a traditional consultancy business. There’s lots of demand for people who can apply original thinking to challenging problems, particularly people who are literate in the current and next generation of technology-driven change — i.e. applied futurists. While my focus is on research and writing, I really like the ‘applied’ part of applied futurism: tackling challenges and driving innovation.

There’s also a broader point here: consultancy is a time-based business. One that it is hard to scale, completely in contrast to the software product businesses that are driving the current wave of automation — and arguably widening the gap between rich and poor. In consultancy you largely get paid for the work that you do just once. If you create a successful commercial software product, be it Facebook or Microsoft Office, you get paid many times over. In industry parlance, product-based businesses scale better than time-based businesses.

As products are increasingly commoditised and standardised, and even made open source, I can see the (im)balance between product and service beginning to change. There will always be new products to be created that can be sold at a high margin — I’m not naïve enough to believe that we have approached the point at which everything has been invented (and I’d be very disappointed if I thought that were true). The market is probably the right way to price, and incentivise the creation of, these new products.

But perhaps there will be an increasing base of products, devices, software and services that will be either free or cheap, because they are open or in highly competitive markets. Products and services where the only real money to be made is in the customisation, consultancy or personalisation. This is arguably already the case for the web.

Technicolour Riot

Unless the last fifteen years of data is a blip — and that’s possible — I don’t think the market is likely to solve the onrushing jobs challenge. I don’t think governments can either. Nor can the open source movement, standards bodies, charities or anyone else.

Alone.

The joy of this planet is that the answers are rarely black and white. They’re not even shades of grey. They are a glorious technicolour riot of diversity. Any ideology that suggests one answer to the multitude of challenges and opportunities facing us, is guaranteed to be wrong, whether it proposes human beings or technology, markets or states.

If someone tells you they have one answer for everything? Don’t trust them.

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Tom Cheesewright