Book of the Future Are you ready for tomorrow? Thu, 18 Dec 2014 09:35:33 +0000 en-US hourly 1 May You Live in Uncertain Times Wed, 10 Dec 2014 08:46:29 +0000 The markets are ‘fragile’ says Robert Peston, on the day that shocks from Greece and Shanghai sent markets tumbling. On a global scale this is not, yet, anything like a robust recovery. But is that the only factor? Are we more broadly living in a period of uncertainty about our future?

There are arguments on both sides. Some would say that we live in a period characterised by accelerating change, and they can point to convincing evidence. The exponential progress of technologies. The diminishing life of dominant stocks that once would spend decades at the top of markets and now spend a matter of months.

There are those who point out the decay in formerly resolute power structures, whether they are states or religious leaders. As Moises Naim (whom I am very fond of quoting) points out, power is harder to win, harder to use, and easier to lose.

There’s uncertainty around the climate. Not whether it is changing, or who is causing that change (it’s us, if you were in any doubt). But what impacts that change will have and how soon.

Then there are those who make the counter arguments: human history has been characterised by periods of rapid change, often driven by the introductions of new technologies. Things changed very quickly following the introduction of steam and internal combustion. The same is probably true for wheels and even fire.

I lean toward the former argument. For the simple reason of connectivity: when change comes, it spreads faster than it ever has. Each change catalyses another. This network effect makes our future not only one of accelerating change but increased uncertainty. Who can plot the impact of these intersecting influences, or when that impact will strike?

We can try, and we do. We try to see through the fog to give some level of guidance, while acknowledging that there is often as much value in the process of looking as there is in the ultimate predictions. But most of all we tell people to prepare for uncertainty. To build organisations that are agile, flexible and responsive.

Delivering success in the face of uncertainty is likely to be our over-riding message for 2015. And we’ll be building the tools to help our customers to achieve it.

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Top 5 News Stories 2014-11-28 Fri, 28 Nov 2014 16:09:39 +0000 Every day on our social media feeds (FacebookTwitterGoogle Plus) we share a variety of stories about technology and the future. These were the five stories that proved most popular with likes, retweets, shares and comments this week.

  1. SnapJet lets you print your smartphone snaps as Polaroids
  2. Why Virtual Reality Is Happening Now
  3. Zano Is A Sky Selfie Micro-Drone That Flies Itself
  4. The world’s largest solar power plant is now up and running
  5. European Union wants Google to extend ‘right to be forgotten’ worldwide
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Top 5 News Stories 2014-11-21 Mon, 24 Nov 2014 14:55:22 +0000 Every day on our social media feeds (FacebookTwitterGoogle Plus) we share a variety of stories about technology and the future. These were the five stories that proved most popular with likes, retweets, shares and comments this week.

  1. Driverless cars could face threat from hackers trying to cause road chaos –
  2. Amazon uses Snapchat to send exclusive deals  –
  3. Twitter: now friends can search everything you’ve ever posted –
  4. These ARE the droids you’re looking for this Christmas –
  5. These close-up photos of a comet from the Rosetta-Philae mission will touch your soul –
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Top 5 News Stories 2014-11-14 Fri, 14 Nov 2014 11:12:49 +0000 Every day on our social media feeds (Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus) we share a variety of stories about technology and the future. These were the five stories that proved most popular with likes, retweets, shares and comments this week.

  1. DJI Introduces The $2,800 Inspire 1 Transforming Drone   –
  2. 5 Ways The Amazon Echo Could Become An Essential Part Of Your Life
  3. Boston Dynamics’ Atlas robot weighs 330 pounds, but it can now balance on one leg
  4. Brilliant animation of the entire comet landing
  5. XKCD: Efficiency
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Could Corrie Cause a Blackout? Tue, 28 Oct 2014 14:47:41 +0000 Surprise surprise, our national generating capacity is a little shy of what it should be. This winter even with contingency plans activated, we will only be producing 6% more electricity than we consume. That’s not a great margin for error. Three years ago the figure was 17%.

To put this into context, a popular episode of Eastenders or Corrie can cause power consumption to spike by around 4.5% of the currently estimated peak capacity for winter (53.6 Gigawatts). I’m not suggesting for a second that the National Grid haven’t thought of this, or that blackouts are actually likely – most experts agree they are not.

But still: a single-digit margin for error on one of the most crucial resources to our physical well being, national security and economic activity is not exactly reassuring.

The National Grid has known for some years that this situation would arise, as is shown in this slide deck from 2009: What this also shows is the level of work required just to keep the lights on – literally. What it doesn’t show is that the very principles on which our national energy infrastructure is built are wrong.

substation180 or so large power stations and a giant grid to distribute the power they generate is an outdated model for this century. Domestic energy consumption has been falling slowly but steadily for the last few years, in part due to the economic downturn but also thanks to increasingly efficient homes and appliances. We can now generate an increasing proportion of our needs in a distributed fashion through solar and wind. What we need is a grid that supports our increasingly distributed generation and low energy needs.

There’s a lot of whining about renewable energy sources. Wind turbines are ugly. Solar panels aren’t as efficient as promoted. Blah blah blah. The debate sounds very much like the current one about the Human Rights Act. Who’d want to protect those, right? And who’d want a source of energy that renewed itself? That sounds like a terrible idea…

The economics of renewables are undeniable – particularly solar. All around the world solar energy generation is overtaking fossil fuels in cost effectiveness. Whatever your opinion on the matter, renewable energy sources are winning the fact war. Though it will be a long time until they are the whole story, to bet against them over that long term is plain daft.

Given that this is clear to anyone willing to look at the evidence, we should be making our bets as a nation there. Investing in a grid that supports distributed generation and particularly storage: the challenge of renewables is that you can’t spin them up when you want them like a generator, so we need means of storing energy – again in a distributed fashion. The answer could be batteries, it could be flywheels, it could be something we haven’t invented yet: a healthy dose of investment here would be very, very wise both for national security and international competitiveness.

With every home and enterprise in the country contributing its roof space to energy generation, and a sensible investment programme in the grid, we would have cheap, secure power for years to come. And no worries about whether one too many mid-Corrie cuppas would take the country offline.

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3D Printing: A Lot of Fuss About Everything Mon, 27 Oct 2014 19:00:42 +0000 No technology, ignoring perhaps each new iPhone, has had as much hype over the last few years as 3D printing.

I’m as guilty as anyone. Nearly two years ago now I predicted that one of the big printer manufacturers would jump into the market and bring an entry level, sub £400 printer to the high street. I’m still waiting and I’m still baffled as to why HP, a company desperately in need of a win, has yet to take ownership of the consumer and small business 3D printing market. As I’ve suggested before, all I think it would take to succeed would be for

For all the demonstrations, few products beyond the prototype stage are 3D printed today. Much of our ‘stuff’ (a technical term) continues to be knocked out in factories loaded with human workers in lower-cost parts of the world.

Tonight I’m chairing a debate about 3D printing at Manchester Metropolitan University as part of Manchester Science Festival. Reading through the notes I sent the other panellists in advance, I realised something: my questions are resolutely positive. About the practicalities and the possibilities. They address the thinking behind the hype but not a crucial question: if the potential is so great, why isn’t this field a bigger deal yet?

Why has 3D printing been so heavily hyped? In part it is because of the sci-fi factor – the same reason that the Hendo Hoverboard got so much attention last week. 3D printers are the closest thing we have today to a Star Trek replicator.

But more than that is the scale of the opportunity. The opportunity to transform the economics of supply and retail. Imagine you can 3D print anything: clothes, cars, phones, windows and doors, tables and chairs. None of these things is beyond the bounds of possibility. Perhaps, I thought, it’s because of this huge potential that progress has been relatively slow.

Imagine what it does to the companies who currently supply all of these products if suddenly all the added value work happens in the consumer’s home or work place. If suddenly all they’re selling is intellectual property, and even that is hard to maintain in the face of open-sourced designs for everything from desks to double-glazing, houses to heart-valves. Imagine the changes in global supply chains if suddenly we’re moving a small number (but great quantities) of basic feedstocks instead of a vast number of finished items. What do shops look like if products are printed on demand? What do people do with less stuff to make, move and sell?

These are all pure hypotheticals based on a very black-and-white (i.e unrealistic) view of the future. The reality will be much more nuanced. For example, there are some products it will make more sense to manufacture in bulk in one place for some time to come. The imbalanced nature of global wealth means that human beings will remain cheaper than robots for some roles for the foreseeable future.

Nonetheless, even as a pure thought experiment it presents a terrifying scope. If a start-up were to approach a venture capital firm with this as their goal they would be accused of trying to ‘boil the ocean’. With big printing players like HP perhaps lacking in a little confidence after some difficult years, maybe they too are scared of tackling such a massive opportunity.

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Hendo Hoverboard Shows Tech Will Always Surprise Fri, 24 Oct 2014 14:41:39 +0000 Much fun for the media this week as a start-up punted a prototype hoverboard onto Kickstarter. It’s not quite the tech as featured in Back to the Future, but it’s close enough to get excited about, and hence I found myself being interviewed about it for Business Matters on Radio 4 and the World Service.

Hendo-Hoverboard-2-copyWhat I didn’t mention is that I have been enormously sceptical about the possibility of this product ever becoming real. I’m not wholly wrong about this, yet.

There are two big challenges in making a hoverboard a reality. The first issue is the ground effect that enables it to hover. The second is the power required to keep it hovering.

In this prototype the ground effect issue is overcome by it inducing a magnetic field in a special material on the ground – typically sheets of copper. This means you need a sheet copper surface to use the board anywhere: that’s not particularly practical for commuting and it’s not quite like the version Marty McFly rode in the fictional 2015. But you can see how composite surfaces may be embedded with the right metals making wider use easier in the distant future.

By then we may have better batteries. Though they’ve come a long way since the 80s, the batteries in this prototype can still only power the board for a few minutes at a time: again not very practical.

Despite these limitations though, the Hendo demonstration is a lot closer than I thought we would be able to get to a genuine hoverboard by this point. Even when you spend all of your time looking at the future, the rate of technological advancement still has the capacity to surprise.

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Why is Daisy Going Private? It’s a Question of Agility Mon, 20 Oct 2014 09:14:00 +0000 Around ten years ago I was working on the marketing for a US software firm, when its chief executive decided to take the company off the NASDAQ. The new burden of Sarbanes-Oxley regulations were costing the business large amounts of money, and its executive team lots of time. But more importantly than that, the CEO recognised that the business needed to go through a lot of change. Change that would be hard to communicate to the market – a market that likes stability and consistent growth, not radical transformation.

A few years later we all watched a big, listed company fail because it failed to transform. It’s an oft-used example (by me as much as anyone) but HMV was beaten by the orders of magnitude greater efficiency with which purely digital competitors could deliver largely the same products. I don’t believe its executive team were blind to what was coming. There are well publicised examples of them being told what to expect for their business (as well as some I know of that haven’t been made public). They even made some efforts (belatedly) in the right direction. Yet they couldn’t change course in time. Why?

I believe the reasons are the same. Being a publicly listed company gives companies an enormous weight of inertia. Risking shocks to the share price dissuades companies from making radical changes when they are required. Sure you can – and some do – manage change through gradual transformation, even in declining markets. But HMV would have needed to shed an enormous number of it staff and rapidly closed many of its stores (many of which were only relatively recently acquired) in order to survive. As a private enterprise that may have been possible, but its management may not have survived the shareholder’s challenges long enough to complete the surgery.

Daisy is not in the same position as HMV. But the market for minutes and megabytes is undoubtedly facing challenges. Every network provider, fixed and mobile, fears becoming a ‘dumb pipe’, eeking out a meagre margin on bandwidth it sells. Daisy has made acquisitions to move it up the value chain, but for me the next few years for the business as it completes integrations and polishes its proposition, will be absolutely crucial.

Completing this process in private hands will be much easier than trying to bring an army of shareholders along for the ride.



Note: I have done work for Daisy Group PLC in the past, including speaking at its most recent customer event, but I am not currently engaged by the company and have no information about today’s news beyond what has been widely published.

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Through the Looking Glass: Tomorrow’s Office in the Post-Screen Age Thu, 02 Oct 2014 09:18:53 +0000 Last week in Amsterdam I gave the opening keynote talk at the Office Products International conference. It was about the future of the office and the future of work itself. Below is a slightly edited version of my speech. You can see the slide deck in full here: Through the Looking Glass: Tomorrow’s Office in the Post-Screen Age


radioIf I say the word ‘bandwidth’, what does it make you think of? Broadband? Digital telly? Analogue radio? 3G, 4G?

Most of these are about communication. They can be measured. In frame rates and bit rates.

But what about a more short range of communication. The one between you and another person. Between you and your tools. I believe you can analyse the recent history of the office, and make some valuable assessments about its future, simply by looking at this physical and biological communications bandwidth.

My name is Tom Cheesewright and after fifteen years in the technology industry I now work as an applied futurist, helping organisations to answer a simple question: are you ready for tomorrow? My team and I work with a huge variety of organisations to help them to see, share and respond to a coherent vision of the future.

I’ll draw on evidence from them, and third party research, to present a vision of the future of the office to you today.

I’ll focus on four trends and opportunities.

  1. Enable Bionic Business
  2. Focus on Physical Space
  3. Supply Cognitive Prosthetics
  4. Reach Shared Spaces

The View from Your Window

screenThere’s no doubting that today the view from your window today is not a garden of roses. Office products means a lot of paper, and though the promise of the paperless office is still some way off, slow attrition is getting us ever closer.

What is driving this?

The screen has consumed everything, becoming our primary interface with data, applications, and even other people.

There’s sound business sense behind this shift. Screens and the computing power behind them have made us more efficient. More effective. They have augmented the capabilities of human beings to the point where we are more productive than ever before.

The screen presents distractions of course. But look at recent headlines: we now have multiple, multi-billion dollar companies being built and run by under a hundred people. WhatsApp had perhaps just 60 people when it was acquired by Facebook for $19bn earlier this year. Instagram. Snapchat. All small teams running products supporting hundreds of millions of people.

You might argue that the valuation of these businesses in inflated. But there’s no arguing with revenue.

In the businesses I’ve run, we’ve been happy with turnover of £100k per head. According to some analysis by venture capitalist Tomasz Tunguz, software as a service (SaaS) businesses typically operate with around one and a half times that.

revenueBy contrast, Google and Facebook turn over $1m per head.

How can they do this?

They can because their people are augmented by technology. They are hyper-productive because their capabilities, their processes, their interactions, their flow, is automated. These people are functionally bionic.

And they are not alone.

Like many other people I am now reliant on my digital prosthetics. I have always had a hopeless memory. I have no sense of direction. Without my smartphone and the cloud I would almost never be in the right place at the right time.

Bionic Business: The Automation Opportunity

Automation is happening. I will give some examples of how it is happening in various industries today later in the presentation. But there remains an enormous gap between the vanguard of this automation – the Googles and Facebooks of this world – and the rest of us. An opportunity that you can exploit.

Look at the tools and techniques that Google and others use: kanban, agile methods. Look at them and teach them to your customers. Then sell them the products that support these methods.

Some of these tools are digital. There are software as a service companies out there who would kill for your reach and trusted relationships. I know: I used to run one. It’s not the only opportunity though.

But a lot of the products that support the new ways of working are physical: white boards and giant post-its. Things you already stock. The opportunity is to give customers more reasons to buy them. Don’t try to sell more post-it notes, teach your customers how to use more.

Automation is coming and it is going to cost jobs and cannibalise some of your legacy revenues. But someone is going to have to sell the tools of automation to businesses.


accelerandoI call myself an applied futurist because without the application, I would largely be a science fiction author. That’s not to knock the genre: sci-fi has been the source of some of the most coherent and compelling visions of tomorrow.

In his 2005 book, Accelerando, Charles Stross describes a vision of a computing device, worn as glasses, that is so completely tied into our senses as to be transparent. We forget where it ends and we begin, until it is taken away.

The technology that Stross describes is very much like Google Glass, ten years before this real technology will hit European high streets. I believe we will become as reliant on technologies like this as we already have on our phones and satnavs for memory and navigation.

There’s a lot of scepticism about this view. Google Glass certainly faces a design challenge. While they may look cool if you’re a model, the reality is somewhat more dorky.

This will change though. Already prototypes like this from design company Kopin are significantly more acceptable.

But the reason I believe this technology will take off is about utility not style. Imagine having a smart computer with almost direct access to your senses that can present you with the answer to questions you haven’t even formed yet. That can allow you to communicate instantly with anyone in your company. Imagine how much more productive that would make you?

Bad News

Right now you’re thinking this is bad news. Another screen. More technology. Fewer office products.

I don’t believe so. The key feature of feature of Google Glass is that we look through it, not at it. Technologies like this are becoming transparent, refocusing our attention away from the screen and on to the physical environment around us.

Glass isn’t alone. Check out this example from Thalmic Labs.

This shift to the physical might seem incongruous. Out of step with the general direction of technology. But I don’t believe it is. As technology has advanced it has increasingly come out of the darkened back rooms and into our world, enhancing our interactions with our environment and with each other.

Just look at Foursquare. Meetups. Checking in on Facebook. Just look at Tinder.

Focus on the Physical Environment

What does this mean for you? After years of investment in screens and keyboards, I believe the coming generation of technology, combined with the other trends I will talk about, will bring our focus back to the physical environment of our office space.

There’s a wonderful book on Generation Z by the trend forecaster James Wallman. He talks about how the generation now entering the workforce are more interested in acquiring experiences than material goods. I see it in my own younger friends and relations, who own a MacBook, a fixed wheeled bicycle, a beard and not much else, yet fill my Facebook feed with pictures of their holidays.

I believe this desire for greater experiences extends to the office. There will be a renewed emphasis on the space an employer provides, the objects it contains, how clean it is and what coffee they serve.

This is an opportunity.

White Collar Robots

robotsThat incredible productivity I talked about earlier with regards to Facebook, Google, WhatsApp and others, isn’t just restricted to Silicon Valley wonders. The automation that we have all been so familiar with in factories for decades is coming to call centres, retail, and even professional services.

With a product like Freeagent I barely need an accountant. If I didn’t hate admin so much, I wouldn’t have one at all.

In 2013 in the UK, half of all medium and large law firms merged or were acquired. What happens after this process?

The partners are fine. And actually the bottom tier of admin staff are fairly safe too: the firms largely like to keep local offices open.

But the acquiring business generally has a very effective middle: a cubicle farm of mid-tier workers, operating in a highly efficient, highly automated fashion. They don’t need or want another load of relatively expensive white-collar administrators: juniors and trainees. These are the people who get culled.

The lesson here is that if your job can be automated, it will be.

The Three Cs

The result of this automation, beyond the obvious reduction in the workforce, is that the nature of human work in the office is changing.

Office work is becoming increasingly focused on the tasks that remain uniquely human. These are what I suggested in a research project with the Institute of Chartered Accountants we should call the ‘Three C’s: Curation, Creation, Communication.

  • Curation is the ability to discover and qualify information.
  • Creation is the ability to synthesise something new from what you have discovered.
  • Communication is the ability to sell this new idea to your colleagues and customers.

These uniquely human skills can be augmented by technology in exactly the same way that our administrative skills are. But in this case, the technology is often very analogue.

Think about that measure of bandwidth again: bits per second. How fast can an idea be captured or communicated?

If you’re communicating exclusively to or through a screen then your bandwidth is sorely limited to just those few, flat pixels. Think about how much richer your communication is with the physical world. Every stroke of the pen, every scribbled word, every fold and crease.

Think about your interactions face to face: temperatures, smells, gestures, winks, pheromones and breaking bread. All your senses are engaged.

People wonder why it has taken so long for paper to disappear from the workplace but I think the reason is simple. It’s about bandwidth.

How often have you reached for a scrap of paper to scribble down an idea? Demonstrated a football formation with beer glasses and salt shakers? Dragged everyone around a whiteboard for an ‘idea shower’ or whatever the politically correct term now is?

Digital systems may be the best way to capture, store and share information around an organisation. But physical interactions remain more powerful ways to structure thoughts and quickly share an idea between two people.

A great example of this is in my last start-up, CANDDi. We had all of the digital tools we could want at our disposal, but do you know how we prototyped? With stacks of A4 and biros.

Cognitive Prosthetics

Today you can offer people more than pens and paper. There are so many cognitive prosthetics available to help people structure, capture and share ideas. To produce and prototype. Lego bricks, modelling clay to 3D printers.

These cognitive prosthetics are what human beings will increasingly need as they become ever more focused on the three Cs, the tasks of curation, creation, and communication.

Flexible Work

zerohoursThe other big trend in work in recent years has been flexibility. About where people work and when people work and how closely they are tied to their employer.

For some people flexibility is a bad thing and not a matter of choice: witness the growth of zero hours contracts.

But for others it is often a blessing.

Organisations like eLance are creating a global market for skills, enabling those in demand to drop in and out of work as their personal cashflow demands and driving up day rates for those with the right talents. The shortage of particular skills in this global market is driving up rates. In cities with a strong digital sector like Berlin and Barcelona, it is nearly impossible to convince a genuinely talented technologist to take a full time job because the freelance rates are so high. Geeks are getting paid the same as lower league footballers.

A culture of flexible work is building. Senior staff are being released onto more flexible contracts, allowing them to spend more time at home or taking on additional, perhaps charitable work. The old 9-5 is long dead, but in its place you find people who are more committed, more motivated, happier and healthier.

What is curious is where these people choose to work.

As we began to exit the downturn in Europe, construction on new office space ramped up rapidly again. But companies like Allied London focused on very different forms of office space: shared spaces for start-ups and freelancers are springing up everywhere.

flexibleHave you ever wondered how big cities could support so many boutique coffee shops? It’s because they are full of start-ups, freelancers and flexible workers.


A cynic might put it down to property prices and single households. People just don’t have any appropriate space to work in at home.

But a recent research report has proven what some of us knew intuitively to be true: proximity boosts productivity.

A study published in the Harvard Business Review recently showed that teams working in physical proximity complete projects 32% faster. They communicate 20% more, not just talking but via digital forms too. Working in physically grouped teams produced more ideas, more leaders.

Marissa Meyer’s policy of bringing everyone back to the office at Yahoo was not without grounds. Offices work.

This is why smart people choose to co-locate when they are starting new ventures, and it’s why organisations like TechHub, SpacePortX and HelloWork are building shared spaces for people to use.

Support Shared Space

The opportunity and the challenge for you here is to find a business model that allows you to reach the people in these shared spaces. You already sell to the serviced office providers, but what about the start-up spaces, the accelerators and incubators. What about the coffee shops? How about models that reach the inhabitants of these spaces more directly? I’m only half joking when I put up a vending machine.

Imagine the ability to buy pens and paper, but also lego bricks, modelling clay, white board pens, 3D printing supplies, coffee shots and oxygen cannisters, instantly and on the spot.


While doing the research for this talk, I spoke to the supplier of a British supermarket chain. They used to supply them with 14 different grades and sizes of paper, before they finally rationalised down to the cheapest A4 they could negotiate. Every year, they use less.

I can’t suggest that any of the items I have suggested above will replace paper in this market. But they are all growth sectors that intersect with the apparent trajectory of office space and the changing nature of work in Europe.

The future of the office is much like its past: a place where human interaction drives financial growth. The challenge for this industry is understanding how best to support the changing nature of those interactions.

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Sutton, Selfies and Ice Buckets: The Future of Charities? Fri, 26 Sep 2014 07:54:43 +0000 On the 18th September I spoke at an Institute of Chartered Accountants event on the Future of Charities. This is a mildly edited version of my script, tweaked to make it more comprehensible without the slides and my hand-waving. You can see the full slide deck by following this link: The Future of Charities. The title is a little facetious: it’s about more than viral fundraising campaigns. I hope you find it worth a read.


Today I’m going to start with a quick video. Forgive me if you’re sick of these. I don’t expect you’ll have seen this one before.

This tells you something about me. But it also sets the scene for what I want to talk about today.

The ice bucket challenge raised over $90m for the ALS association. It’s UK equivalent, the MND association, raised one year’s donations in one week.

Today I want to talk about why this happened – and keeps happening. Whether it’s sustainable and what it and other technology-driven changes mean for charities, their reach and their incomes.


My professional engagement with charities started just under a year ago with a call from the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations. They asked me to give the keynote talk at their annual conference. In it I raised three key issues for them to consider, and I believe these remain the key issues for charities today.

Firstly, the nature of power is changing, destabilising the relationships that charities rely on for influence, awarding and fundraising.

Secondly, the traditional support base of charities, the middle class, is being eroded and reshaped.

Thirdly, technology is driving more direct, accelerated connection between people and causes.

These are the themes I would like to talk about today.

The Decay of Power

powerThere’s a wonderful book about power by a former Venezuelan minister and global economist called Moises Naim. At least I’m told its wonderful. He did such a good talk at the RSA that I haven’t felt the need to read the rest of it yet.

His thesis is that power is decaying. It is harder to win, harder to hold on to, and less valuable when you have it. Power is being dissipated from the traditional cores and spread around.

The evidence for this is all around us. You can see it in the conflict in Ukraine.

The last pope gave up power because he found that it was too unwieldy. Even he, with divine right, couldn’t push through the changes that he wanted to without resistance.

In Iraq and Syria we have a self-declared Islamic state, almost immune it seems from the traditional, national forces and boundaries

Big society

Closer to home we have both sides of the political divide talking about the ‘big society’, or about handing power to patients and parents.

Most topically of all we have the referendum debate happening today.

citystratThis decay of power is happening even inside organisations – because it has to. This model is one that we created during some work in local government, looking at how you would restructure councils and their partners if you had a blank sheet of paper.

What you see is a loosely coupled set of networked functions, interacting largely through data. Decentralised, flexible, efficient.

How does this all affect charities?

Scale used to be a defence for charities. There was an element of respect and deference to those that had been campaigning on an issue for some time. The longer they existed and the larger they grew, the more ‘official’ they became and the more entrenched their positions. If you wanted to raise money for a cause, or campaign on an issue, you did it through that charity.

The power that a charity may have held, to own a cause or an issue is ebbing away. The power of commissioning authorities to unilaterally hand over contracts, is ebbing away. The future will see a more diverse range of funders and stakeholders, and greater power in the hands of individuals to determine who they fund, how they access services, and how they participate as volunteers.

Middle Class Collapse

robotsThe second issue I want to talk about is the hourglass economy. The potential collapse of the middle order, the source of so much of charities’ fund raising and so many of their volunteers.

Automation and augmentation are familiar themes to us now, after hundreds years of rolling technological revolution. But as the exponential pace of Moore’s Law and its parallels continue, the impact of automation and augmentation is hitting new heights.

We’re used to robots on the factory floor. Machines have been allowing more people to do less for hundreds of years. But until recently – at least in our minds – this automation was largely limited to manual work. It’s over a hundred years since the first IBM machines allowed census clerks to process ten times the number of returns they could manually, yet we’re still caught unawares when machines start to take more white collar jobs.

What were the tube strikes about in London recently? Robots in a retail environment.

When HMV went under a few years ago, it employed over 3,000 people in high street stores up and down the country. It was turning over £900m a year. Meanwhile in an office just off Regent Street, 15 people were running the European arm of iTunes and turning over twice that.

freeagentNow machines are entering the professional services world. Half of all law firms (with more than 10 partners) merged last year. And what happened when they did?

They kept some of the admin staff and most of the local offices. It looks good to have a presence on the grond. Some of the partners went off to play golf and some stuck around. The big losers were in the middle, the young and newly qualified lawyers doing largely administrative work. Why? Because the acquiring firm had a very efficient, computer-assisted cubicle farm with capacity to spare.

These companies become hourglass shaped.

Accountancy isn’t immune from this change. With software like Freeagent I technically don’t need my accountant. I keep them because I suck at administration and I’m terrified of screwing up on the rules. Not everyone is as scared as me.


If you want a really scary picture of where computer-augmented efficiency can take an organisation, just look at the number of multi-billion dollar companies growing up in the US with fewer than 100 staff. You can argue with the valuations of WhatsApp etc but you can’t argue with real revenues.

While most businesses turn over around £100k per head of full time staff, Google and Facebook turn over ten times that.

What does this mean for charities?

Well to start with, there’s an opportunity. It may not sit well with many, who may see employment as part of their mission. But just as PLCs have a responsibility to return the maximum returns to their shareholders, do charities not have a mandate to deliver the maximum amount of their funds raised to its intended targets?

Note that this is not the same as suggesting that charities shouldn’t pay competitive wages.

If you look at the CAF figures, you see that donations to charity map roughly against a country’s wealth. Unfortunately the very wealthy give proportionately little once you exclude Bill Gates, Warren Buffett and our own Neil McArthur. That means it is the middle classes on whom we rely for donations.

The possible silver lining to this cloud: if the middle-class collapse continues, we may have a lot of skilled, intelligent people available with time on their hands.

Digital Engagement

The third topic I talked about was digital engagement. This brings us back to the Ice Bucket challenge.

This wasn’t the first viral campaign to hit the headlines this year, albeit it was the largest to date.

The No MakeUp Selfie raised £8m for Cancer Research in six days. Yet the charity had no role in starting it. In fact no-one knows where it actually started. There was a similar BBC campaign a year earlier. Something like it was happening in Canada and New Zealand. Then it started growing over here and some bright spark had the idea of piggybacking it for charity.

Stephen Sutton used social media to great effect to fund raise for the Teenage Cancer Trust as his life was coming to an end. He raised almost five million pounds, the plans for spending which were just announced yesterday.

And then of course you have the ice bucket challenge. Which as I said, raised a year’s income for the UK charity in a single week.

Each of these campaigns has a number of factors in common. They weren’t started or controlled by charities. They had a participatory element. Their reach was boosted by celebrities. And they used chain letter mechanics to spread.

I believe the chances of any charity being able to deliberately replicate the success of any of these campaigns is minimal.

Campaigns and Cash

avaazIt’s not just in fund raising that charities have increasing competition. Campaign organisations like Avaaz have mastered the art of digital and social media marketing in order to rapidly scale pressure on companies and politicians.

Has anyone here heard the term Growth Hacking?

A growth hacker is halfway between a scientist and a marketer. They work out how to make things grow by testing everything.

Avaaz tests which issues are going to be popular and then campaigns on those. This isn’t about ideology, it’s about impact: what can they win. That doesn’t play well with some people.

The problem is one of cannibalisation. There does appear to be a limited pot of both money and willingness to support causes and charities. There is even perhaps a crossover in our minds between signing a petition and giving a donation: both trigger activities in the same area of the brain. Dopamine is released. The area around the sub-genual gland, associated with social interaction, is activated.

If we are constantly flooded with viral campaigns to support and participate in, the other issues might get squeezed out.

There is a huge challenge for charities to move with the times before they are overtaken. I don’t see many moving fast enough. Some are moving backwards, failing to invest in new channels and instead retrenching to old, rapidly eroding, platforms.

Are You Ready for Tomorrow?

Change is required because none of these issues is passing. They are accelerating along the exponential curve driven in large part by the continuing progress of technology, getting faster, cheaper, and more human all the time.

Which brings me back to the question I ask all my clients: are you ready for tomorrow? I don’t believe that most charities are. But as their business advisors, I hope you can help them.

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