Book of the Future http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk Are you ready for tomorrow? Mon, 20 Oct 2014 10:35:52 +0000 en-US hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.9.2 Why is Daisy Going Private? It’s a Question of Agilityhttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/10/why-is-daisy-going-private-its-a-question-of-agility/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/10/why-is-daisy-going-private-its-a-question-of-agility/#comments Mon, 20 Oct 2014 09:14:00 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3301 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.

 

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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 Agehttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/10/through-the-looking-glass-tomorrows-office-in-the-post-screen-age/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/10/through-the-looking-glass-tomorrows-office-in-the-post-screen-age/#comments Thu, 02 Oct 2014 09:18:53 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3265 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

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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.

Accelerando

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.

Why?

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.

Interaction

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?http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/09/sutton-selfies-and-ice-buckets-the-future-of-charities/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/09/sutton-selfies-and-ice-buckets-the-future-of-charities/#comments Fri, 26 Sep 2014 07:54:43 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3267 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.

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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.

SCVO

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.

Hyper-productivity

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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Society Will Continue to Accept New Technologyhttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/08/society-will-continue-to-accept-new-technology/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/08/society-will-continue-to-accept-new-technology/#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 12:16:39 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3212 Three quarters of UK adults have a smartphone. 24m of us log into Facebook every day.

Ten years ago a state of the art smartphone was a Handspring Treo 650. Suffice to say I was (nearly) the only one of my friends to have one of these. The closest thing to Facebook in 2004 was MySpace and Friendster. I bet your entire family didn’t share their daily comings and goings on those networks.

My point is that as a race we are capable of adopting new technologies very quickly. In just a decade we have becoming a connected nation, online all the time and comfortable communicating via completely new devices and forms of media.

Some might argue we have adopted these technologies too fast, without sufficient critical challenge. Certainly there is a Facebook backlash. The tech-savvy and privacy conscious have started abandoning this network whose owners choose to push the envelope of what is acceptable use of our private data, only rowing back when the chorus of criticism reaches sufficient volume. Revelations about the abilities of the NSA and GCHQ to tap our other digital communications has left many wary.

But in the mainstream the smartphone and the social network are now standard components of everyday existence. They are core features in an array of digital prosthetics on which we are increasingly reliant. Augmentations for our memory, sense of direction, and social interactivity are accepted. Normal.

This leads me to believe that the next wave of technology coming in will be similarly accepted. Today anyone sporting Google Glass gets a lot of attention. In ten years when smart glasses come free with your data contract and look more like this Kopin prototype? They’ll be as remarkable as an iPhone.

glasshole

kopin

We’ll get over the difference factor but there remain issues to be resolved, as there still are with smartphones and social networks. Earlier this week I was talking to BBC Stoke about a local politician making the latest in a long line of Facebook and Twitter gaffes by public figures. Partly she was just daft (telling the world she once flashed her breasts to get out of a parking fine – she is the cabinet member responsible for transport), but partly she is operating within a fuzzy set of guidelines. An etiquette that is still evolving.

Cameras present one of the clearest challenges to this: how does society respond when everyone is sporting a camera and can shoot video or stills with just a thought or a blink?

I think we’ll adapt. When did you last hear about ‘happy slapping’? I phenomenon rose, became known, then socially unacceptable, and slowly disappeared back out of public sight. No doubt it still happens, but society has boxed it off as an issue.

There will doubtless be ructions when smart glasses become mainstream – they’re already happening in San Francisco. But we’ll adapt.

What might be more challenging is adapting to the increased social imbalances that this technology might bring. Smart glasses and their ilk are human augmentations, even more clearly than having the latest smartphone or PC. People with access to the latest technology will be able to do more than those without, and that is a clear – if not wholly new – issue of material wealth increasing privilege.

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The Future of Food? Grow Your Own – Automaticallyhttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/08/the-future-of-food-grow-your-own-automatically/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/08/the-future-of-food-grow-your-own-automatically/#comments Mon, 18 Aug 2014 10:22:31 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3179 A few years ago a large food producer commissioned some research on the future of food. It was a PR exercise, designed to produce some interesting, light-hearted stories. Instead what came back was a pretty stark message: we as families and individuals will all have to produce much of our own food because that’s the only way we can produce enough.

Needless to say, the research was never published. It wasn’t the sort of story they were looking for.

I couldn’t tell you who the producer was, even if I could accurately remember: I was told about it in confidence a few years ago and never saw an actual copy. This is not a piece of rigorously qualified information. But it’s believable in the current context.

The future of food production has become a hot topic. Today, globally, we produce more than enough food to feed everyone – enough for 12bn people according to the UN World Food Programme. But since much of it is fed to livestock (and because we let money get in the way of keeping people alive), we don’t manage to feed all 7bn. In a few years time the population is likely to peak around 9bn. Unless we produce an awful lot more food (twice as much by some estimates) or all cut the amount of meat we eat (the trend is going in the other direction as large economies like India and China develop), we are going to have even more serious problems feeding everyone.

Closer to home there are issues of food security and self-sufficiency. According to a report by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee last month, the UK has become steadily less self-sufficient over the last twenty years. We now produce just 68% of the food that could be grown here – the rest is imported. Given the current levels of political instability, and the growing effects of climate change, it seems unwise to have so little control over feeding our own population.

In a local context, there are two questions to address: what we eat, and how we produce it. The former has all sorts of answers from the prosaic to the unpalatable (for some). The simplest answer is that we all go vegan, but the simplicity of this answer exposes why it won’t happen: human beings are creatures of desire more than logic. Even if some Californian fad for veganism spread to the entire Western world, it is likely that the developing economies would want their days of unfettered carnivorous gluttony just as they want their chance to experience the economic growth that fossil fuels provided the West. And frankly, it’s hard to argue that they should abide by different rules just because we screwed the world up.

We could continue eating ‘meat’ but in different forms: artificial, insects, etc. I think this will become a proportion of the mix and may eventually displace some livestock production (particularly beef, the most resource intensive). But it’s going to take time.

In the meantime we’re back to that question of production: where does our food come from? There seems to be a growing trend for grow your own. I’m not ahead of the curve on this: just look at the column inches and airtime devoted to gardening, or the waiting lists for allotment spaces. Check out the IncredibleEdible project in Todmorden or the guerilla gardens springing up all over the place. There’s even an app to help you grow and share produce.

But mainstream as this is (up to 5% of all fruit and veg is grown at home based on 2012 figures – the most recent I could find) it’s not at a level that will account for growing international competition for crops, changeable weather, and political instability.

For this to change, growing at home needs to be easier. Automated. Like an appliance.

This may not sound very ‘green fingered’ or organic. But the nature of our time-stretched lives these days (a cliché but a reality) and the fact that not everyone wants to garden, means it’s a reality if we all want regular crops of edible produce.

Imagine this: an indoor appliance the size of a washing machine that feeds, monitors and returns regular crops of salad leaves, tomatoes, herbs, brassicas and potatoes, and does so with a minimal use of water and electricity. All you do is plumb it in and feed it with seeds and nutrients every now and again. It could even monitor your fridge and change the production rate to ensure it only delivers fresh produce as and when you need to restock.

That’s the sort of thing that could become truly mainstream and account for a sensible proportion of our regular produce. And it’s entirely possible with today’s technology: hydroponics, LED grow-lights, cheap microcontrollers and cloud computing. It could be installed anywhere, even for those without a garden. Sure, it’s not as green as growing outdoors, but it is more reliable and less effort, and that’s what people want. And it’s certainly greener than shipping your vegetables half way across the world.

There’s another project to tackle then…

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Note: After this post went out in the News from the Future newsletter last week (sign up here to get posts like this one early), a number of people pointed out that projects like the Urban Cultivator have already tackled this challenge. I’m now wondering if a broken dishwasher can be cheaply recycled into such a device…

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Boosting Your Personal Bandwidthhttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/08/boosting-your-personal-bandwidth/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/08/boosting-your-personal-bandwidth/#comments Tue, 12 Aug 2014 10:21:10 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3162 I’m tired. Sleep deprived. I was at 5live until 1am this morning, only to not appear. I’m not complaining: the death of Robin Williams was both very sad and understandably of greater editorial significance than my regular tech slot.

Being tired is not an unusual state for any of us these days: there’s a lot to do between work and life, partying and kids, sports and hobbies, family and friends. The problem is that when we’re tired we’re not very productive.

Productivity: Goal or Threat?

Productivity is one of those odd qualities, equally praised and vilified. Driven individuals are always seeking life-hacks to boost their personal productivity. But when productivity targets are imposed, it can become ugly and corporate, cold and forceful.

In my privileged position as a self-employed person making ends meet, who also loves their work, productivity is about personal reward for me. Financial, but more importantly, emotional. I value my own success more than the rewards it brings me. Always have (as some of my career choices will show).

This means I am very keen to improve my productivity. But I’m not a great fan of all the rules and methods that are meant to more usefully structure your working day. My work is varied and creative. Strict routines and patterns are hard to maintain and quite often I find they disrupt the natural flow rather than enable it.

Golden Moments

Maybe I’m just not disciplined enough, but I’m focused more on ensuring I make the most of those moments when my brain seems to be firing on all cylinders. These moments are rare, hard to plan for, and they don’t usually come when I’m sat at a desk. The first hour after I wake up is incredible. I regularly whip out my laptop from where it is stored under the bed and knock out a thousand words. That’s fine: my wife is very understanding about the screen glare and key tapping.

But what about those seconds where you can’t access some means of capturing your thoughts?

A couple of times on holiday last week I resorted to paper and that’s cool – though my family may not have noticed (I blame you, Plundernauts), I was actively trying to minimise screen time. But now I have to translate my paper scribblings (‘inky spiders dancing on a page’ is how one teacher described my writing) into something I can a) comprehend and b) use.

Paper Bandwidth

Paper is pretty low-bandwidth and low-fidelity for someone with my very limited graphical ability though. Co-operating on DIY projects with my wife is not easy when even my finest sketches show each component to a totally inaccurate relative scale. Digital devices aren’t always available or convenient either. I once wrote a thousand words on a smartphone on a particularly packed tube ride, but it’s not an experience my wrists would like me to repeat. Sorry for the mental image but I can’t capture Evernotes in the shower (even with voice recognition: I tried).

In short, I’m back to one of my personal hobby horses: for early digital natives like me (my school projects were done in Lotus Ami Pro), there is no higher bandwidth means of capturing our output than the keyboard and mouse. And using this means being seated, ideally at a desk, in a warm, dry and powered environment. We are not always in these environments when inspiration strikes or when our minds enter those incredible states of clarity that occasionally come over us. I want an always-accessible, truly portable, truly practical means of translating my thoughts into actions, products and plans.

Now this might sound pretty invasive.

Surely the smartphone has already turned us into an army of 24-hour workers, always connected to the corporate machine?

Well yes, for some people that is true.

Aren’t you the person who has argued for an ‘analogue week’ in order for us all to disconnect occasionally, re-engage with the physical world, and actually talk to our families?

That is true. But that doesn’t mean that outside that analogue week, I don’t want to be as productive as possible.

I’m pretty sure your family would like to communicate with you, without thinking you might be making digital mental notes about work. You’re bad enough at staying focused when there are any digital devices around.

Again, you (I) have me bang to rights. This will require an even greater level of mental and social discipline than we currently (often fail to) apply to the current generation of technology.

But…but… I can’t help but want it.

Visual to Neural

What is ‘it’ then? There aren’t many great candidates today. However accurate voice interfaces become they are frankly anti-social. It’s bad enough being on a train full of people chatting to their friends, family and colleagues, without adding a load chatting to their machines as well.

Touch and gestures? I suppose some form of learned signing could work, but that ties up your hands, and again it’s like to lack bandwidth. Some people can text at an incredible rate but not faster than they can on a full keyboard. I want an all round improvement.

Neural interfaces? That seems like the obvious route. But these seem to be so far away. The commercial options today are largely limited to binary options: yes and no, left and right. The most sophisticated medical devices in trial might allow the control of artificial limbs but even this incredible feat is a long way from capturing complex thoughts and language.

For the time being if I am going to maximise my personal productivity and take advantage of those moments of insight I’m going to have to do it with today’s technology and the physical interfaces I was born with. Just utilised flexibly at the times that inspiration strikes.

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Frugal Innovation and the Maker Movementhttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/07/frugal-innovation-and-the-maker-movement/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/07/frugal-innovation-and-the-maker-movement/#comments Tue, 29 Jul 2014 11:30:09 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3151 Charles Leadbeater has a new book out. Leadbeater, writer, political adviser and all round big thinker, has turned his attention to the forces of innovation outside of Silicon Valley. Those inventors, activists and entrepreneurs who operate in a world of constraints as opposed to bountiful capital and light touch regulation. What he calls ‘frugal innovation’. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole book yet, but as usual the RSA podcast is a good start.

The idea of frugal innovation seems particularly relevant having spent the weekend exhibiting at Maker Faire. As regular readers will know, I like making stuff and most recently have been building a home automation system using open source hardware. This is partly for fun, partly because I’ve always wanted a smart home (Tony Stark envy), and partly as an experiment to show what’s really difficult about these things (the user experience design, in case you’re curious).

When I found out Maker Faire was running again this year at the Museum of Science and Industry, I decided to take a stall and show off my work. If you haven’t been to a Maker Faire, think of it as show & tell for grown-ups. There are some stalls there where people sell things, but mostly it’s about sharing what you’ve made (and learned) with other people, both fellow makers and members of the public – lots of them young, which was great. The kids loved playing with Jock the RoboRaspbian, my Raspberry Pi-powered, web-controlled toy robot. And the adults generally liked the idea of keeping an eye on their homes remotely, and being able to cut their energy bills by turning off all the lights their kids leave on.

Maker Faire Manchester

Maker Faire Manchester

The question I was asked most often was whether I planned to commercialise the system. The answer is always ‘no’. For a start I’m sworn off more start-ups for now – at least ones that aren’t connected to my core business. I don’t think there’s a lot of money to be made from the system I’ve built: Samsung, Apple etc have the manufacturing capability and supply chain to do things more efficiently and at greater scale than I ever could. But most importantly what I have built depends hugely on the work of others – something that was true for all the makers I spoke to at the Faire.

The software that sits in each of my home automation nodes is heavily based on ‘RESTduino‘, a project with multiple contributors, who have given their work to the community at no charge. The web platform uses libraries for various functions like talking to the nodes, graphing the data, and communicating with the energy monitoring system – all written by others and given to the community at no cost (‘open source’). Even the hardware I’m using – the Arduino – is open: anyone can replicate its design without licence fees.

All of this means it would be a complex affair to try and scale what I have built up into a profitable business. But without it I wouldn’t have been able to build anything at all – or if I could, doing so would have taken ten times as long and cost ten times as much.

In Leadbeater’s last book, We Think, he looked at mass creativity as exposed on YouTube and other social channels. The Maker Faire showcases a more physical level of mass creativity, enabled by the open sharing of different hardware and software components. Every Maker takes those components and builds something uniquely their own, to fulfil their particular needs (or wants). Generally they then share the new components they have built to bridge the gaps back to the community, and the process continues.

As access to these components, and the ability to replicate them, is increasingly commoditised, it will be interesting to see what effect this has on the concentrated innovation of the Apples and Samsungs of this world. Imagine you can search a database of products and systems for a solution to a problem/challenge you are facing. You find a design – of software or hardware – that appeals, and then render it out, either as an installable application or a physical product through a 3D printer and some purchased components.

This exists (to some extent) today in Thingiverse, it’s just not widely used by the average consumer yet. But in just a few years we might all be sharing, or consuming, each other’s frugal innovations.

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Intersection: Where Macro Trends Meet Your Markethttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/07/intersection-where-macro-trends-meet-your-market/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/07/intersection-where-macro-trends-meet-your-market/#comments Mon, 28 Jul 2014 11:30:19 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3149 Futurism is a practice with an increasing level of professionalism and process. Futurologists, trend forecasters, and strategists use a variety of different methodologies to understand what’s happening, filter the noise and try to inform and qualify their predictions.

At Book of the Future we have created our own approach that we call Intersection, to allow us to make practical predictions and inform the advice we give to clients. Specifically it is designed to help us understand and demonstrate how macro trends, related to or driven by technology, will impact on the specific sectors our clients are working within.

3D Lens

The process starts with our ’3D Lens’: we believe that in a specific place (the UK) and over a specific period (the next twenty years), technology will be the biggest driver of change. This is predicated on the simple fact that within the time and space boundaries specified, we are expecting only steady, linear change in the other classic PESTLE factors – Political, Economic, Social, Legal, Environmental. By contrast technology is advancing at an exponential rate, as described by Moore’s Law, and this advance is touching every area of life and work.

Of course there is a small chance that we will have a revolution or a massive natural disaster, or other shock event in the UK in the next twenty years. One that may have an enormous impact. But our role as futurists is not to try and second guess the un-guessable – the ‘black swan’ events. It is to help the organisations that we work with to adapt to the visible future, the one that we believe will define the macro picture and that is already defining it today. As William Gibson said, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.” We operate in the small pockets of the future that are here today and we help to expand them to encompass our clients.

Primary Trends

Within the scope of our 3D ‘Lens’ we break the primary technology-driven trends down to five core areas:

Accelerated

Put simply, things happen faster. Rich data moves at the speed of light around the world. Financial transactions take place so fast that they can no longer be handled by humans.

This changes businesses: there’s no value in six month old data when someone else can supply it real-time.

And it changes expectations: consumers and business users alike are rapidly frustrated by anything but an instantaneous response.

Ubiquitous

If there is a technological solution to a problem and it doesn’t cause grievous social harm, then someone will probably implement it.

If there are legal, environmental, social, financial or technical barriers that need to be overcome, then they likely will be and sooner than you think.

Technology has been shrinking in size and cost, and growing in power and usability at an exponential rate for decades.

This trend will continue to the point where technology is near-invisibly integrated into the environment around us and we are not always aware when the capabilities we are using are ‘normal’ human, or augmented by technology

Agile

Business success in the past was often characterised by the ability to optimise processes, supply chains, prices.

This retains value, but as models, channels and demands are changing faster and faster, success is increasingly defined by agility: the ability to enter and conquer new markets and opportunities fast.

This affects the structure of organisations: rather than slick, vertically integrated monoliths they need to be stratified into loosely coupled layers.

Each layer interfaces with the other but might also interface with third parties, offering its thin layer of optimised service as a building block in other people’s value stack.

Diversified

Technology has lowered the barriers to market entry. The capital costs of a start-up, barring any physical stock, are trending towards zero.

This means more players in any market but also more models, and more channels.

There won’t be a single paradigm in any industry any more: competitors may supply the same products or services in different ways.

Likewise, many and various sub-cultures and micro-markets will exist on a variety of standardised, open platforms.

Small

There is a growing global community that exists outside of national borders. They share an increasingly common culture, albeit coloured by local norms.

Social networks now capture a huge proportion of the global conversation, just as digital media services ensure the wide spread of common cultural reference points.

The last step towards true globalisation will be brought about by the ease with which products can now be moved: as data.

The rules of manufacturing and the supply chain are about to be radically re-written by hyper-local, automated manufacture, placing a huge emphasis on the ready supply of a variety of basic feed stocks.

Market Impact

With each organisation that we work with we look for the market impact of these macro trends, and we focus on areas of stress that already exist in the business. These are often surprisingly easy to find, at least when coming in with a fresh perspective, and appear in all areas of the business. New competition, changes in regulation, rising materials or labour costs, poor customer or supplier engagement, falling budgets or margins, breakdowns in compliance. You can usually find some of these in the industry press before you even start interviewing members of the organisation.

For each stress that we find, we test it against the macro trends and look to see whether it might be mitigated or exacerbated. We try to estimate the scale of the potential impact. Sometimes this is very hard, sometimes it is quite straightforward: if a formerly physical product can now be delivered digitally, the supply chain costs are likely to be orders of magnitude smaller.

Once we have assessed the market impact we can begin to rank the intersections and focus on those that will have the greatest effect. In reality the solutions we design around these intersections are often structural changes that will help to address others as well.

Narrative vs Empirical

You couldn’t call this process scientific. There is no repeatable experiment. Different people following the same methodology might achieve a different result (though we are trying to formalise the process within the organisation at least, so that there is consistency across future engagements). But the evidence from our interactions with clients over the last 18 months is that it undoubtedly valuable.

Feel free to use the information this post to try to replicate the process in your organisation. Or if you’d like some help, you can always drop us a line.

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Breaking Band: Building a Better Internet Infrastructurehttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/07/breaking-band-building-a-better-internet-infrastructure/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/07/breaking-band-building-a-better-internet-infrastructure/#comments Wed, 23 Jul 2014 09:43:29 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3138 If you follow me on social media, you will know that my broadband is down. It has been since the storms on Saturday.

I have no problem with my service going down. We’re going to have to get used to crazy weather over the next few years, and this lightning storm was like nothing else I have experienced in the UK. Lightning hit something, or water got somewhere it shouldn’t and things went down.

(Sh)It happens.

The problem is what happens next. Four days of wrangling with poor information, idiotic ‘customer service’ scripts, and under-equipped call centre staff insisting the problem is with my third-party router (only installed because the supplied one was utterly unreliable). Broken promises and repeatedly missed (self-imposed) deadlines. It took a concerted effort on Twitter to make something happen. That something is an engineer who has to come to my house today and work back from there, despite multiple customers in my area being simultaneously taken out (apparently not enough to justify it being called an ‘outage’).

There is no way this is an efficient way to run a business. But based on the chorus of recognition I’ve had across Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, my experience isn’t unusual for BT customers.

The Fourth Utility

Me whining doesn’t make for a great blogpost though and that’s not what this is about (though the scripts of the conversations with some of the call centre staff are pretty amusing). My point is that the internet is the fourth utility and it needs to be treated as such.

In the days when email and the web were the only things carried over the internet, it was annoying but not the end of the world if it went down. After all, for the first few years of consumer internet it was usually down: you had to dial up to get access.

But today the internet carries much more than these intermittent services. Across entertainment, environment and security it has become a platform in its own right on which we are increasingly reliant.

Without the internet I can’t access services that I pay for, like Netflix and Spotify. This adds to the ‘lost value’ of it being down.

My Nest thermostat can’t communicate with the world to find out what weather conditions it should be responding to. And I can’t communicate with it to turn it on and off, potentially reducing my comfort and costing me additional money in gas.

I can’t monitor the cameras covering parts of my property, or get alerts from my home automation system about intruders, floods or fires.

These are all what you might call ‘first world problems’ today, and I know I’m in the minority as a user of all these services. But they will be commonplace before long. And I pay good money for my internet platform to be able to use them.

Connected Age

We are moving to an age of ever-increasing connectivity. Some might decry our reliance on machines and their interconnection and I understand their concerns. I always think about the overweight chair-bound slobs in Disney’s Wall-E, beholden to their robot servants. But history suggests that technological advance usually drives life improvements, and human beings find ways to mitigate the risks they present.

If we are to continue the pace of technological advance, and retain our place as one of the more technologically-advanced nations, then we need to change the way we treat broadband provision. We need to stop looking at it as a luxury and understand it as a utility, and frame policy and provision appropriately.

At the moment there is far too little competition at the right levels of the market. Having most providers beholden to BT’s Openreach infrastructure does not drive innovation. The special deals that the government has with the big providers (BT and Virgin) to discount the tax they pay on their cables prejudices the market against new entrants. Regulation discourages the opening up of access to existing assets to allow the sharing of ducts, poles and other routes by providers, utilities and transport companies.

If my connection goes down in a few years time I would like my provider to know before I do and tell me. I’d like them to start the diagnosis and repair automatically, before I have called and without any human intervention. If I’m unhappy with their service I’d like to know that there are genuine, physical connection alternatives for my service, not just a re-branding of the same pair of wires.

Ofcom has highlighted that our broadband provision is some of the best in Europe. I’d agree with the FSB: it’s not good enough.

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Emerging from the Colossal Cavehttp://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/07/emerging-from-the-colossal-cave/ http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/2014/07/emerging-from-the-colossal-cave/#comments Thu, 17 Jul 2014 21:21:32 +0000 http://www.bookofthefuture.co.uk/?p=3122 This post is based on the script from two presentations I gave this week at Creative Kitchen in Liverpool, and Tameside Together in Manchester. You can see the presentation, built using Impress.js, here.

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You’re familiar with Moore’s Law, right? Coined by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore back in 1965, it suggests (based on the evidence Moore had witnessed back then) that the number of transistors that can economically be put on a silicon chip doubles every two years. In other words, your computing bang for your buck has been growing at an exponential rate for nearly fifty years.

This law, and a number of parallel laws about the speed of our digital connections, and the amount of stuff we can stick on a hard disk, have described the technology revolution. Devices getting progressively smaller, cheaper, faster, better.

But I think they miss a vital component of what has changed about technology: it has become more human.

I’ve often described early computing experiences as like travelling to an alien planet. The machine you interacted with was a giant monolith, housed in its own environment, speaking its own language and using its own customs.

Now I have a new analogy.

One of the first computer games I ever played was Adventure, or Colossal Cave, as it was otherwise known. It was on a BBC Micro. I was a bit young initially, but I have vivid memories of my dad and cousin getting quite into it. Colossal Cave was a swords and sorcery epic delivered entirely through the medium of a text interface. ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ or ‘Role & Play’ novels (perhaps also only familiar to people of my particular vintage) on the small screen.

Now I can’t remember the exact plot or characters of the Colossal Cave, but I imagine, somewhere in the depths of this cave, you may have found an ogre. This, for me, is the early computer. Giant, hulking, slow-witted and inhuman.

A little closer to the surface, and a little more evolved, you may find an ork. These are your pre-GUI personal computers. Communication is easier, but they’re still dim and gruff.

Then come your goblins, smaller nimbler and more able to interact. Laptops with graphical interfaces, and even access to the Internet.

Today the elf-like smartphone is all-the-rage. Slender, attractive, and much closer to human in its abilities to interact with touch, motion and voice.

But the elf remains at the edge of the cave. It can look out into the light and shout to us, but it can’t influence our physical world. Without some form of prosthetic there are hard limitations on its reach and strength.

The history of computing over the last half-century for me is one of evolution. Of computers evolving towards a state where their interactions with us are not limited to the screen, and instead they can communicate with us on all the levels that we communicate with each other, and change our environment around us.

As designers and coders we have for years been shining a torch into the Colossal Cave, briefly illuminating the intelligence inside so that we can interact. Now is the time for the computers to emerge from the cave and begin to communicate with us on our terms. But they need our help to do so.

Stepping back from my well-stretched analogy for a minute, there is good reason for us to help.

Do we really want to interact with data via a screen? Even the loveliest high-resolution, touch display, is an artificial environment relative to the majesty of the world around us. It’s also incredibly low-bandwidth. Think about the breadth of senses you have, through which your brain manages to process information, microsecond by microsecond. Why limit ourselves to interacting over a few million pixels when such rich experiences are available to us?

Computers now have so much data at their disposal, and the intelligence to process it, that we can let them be autonomous. The screen and keyboard was created when we had to manually provide them with all of their inputs, all of their instructions. That is no longer the case. Computers can make decisions based on time, date, weather, environment, location, your social graph and any number of other data points. Why bind ourselves to manual control when they are capable of taking on tasks we no longer need to do?

There is a challenge here though. More than one in fact.

The first one is the age-old sci-fi question: should we? Should we give them this much power? Should we leave behind manual labour? What does it mean for jobs?

The answers to these questions are book-length in themselves, but I’m inclined to think we should accept and even encourage this next step in technological progress. For the simple reason that there are more challenges for human minds to tackle. Why not hand the problems we have already nailed over to machines, if they can solve them more efficiently?

The second challenge is around ‘how’. Because for all my bravado and optimism above, this stuff ain’t easy. Or more specifically, the user experience design challenge isn’t easy.

Here’s an example. I’ve been building my own home automation system, as I have documented on this blog. This is both fun (if you’re a geek like me) and a serious experiment: I’m using the smart home as a small scale model for the smart city. The basics are simple: a few hours, a few quid and some cobbled-together code gets you a system that measures all sorts of environmental variables and allows you to trigger electrical devices in response. But as soon as you start trying to design the user experience, it starts to get really complicated.

Take a simple lamp. I want lamps to come on if it’s dark and when there’s someone in the room. And more importantly, turn off when the room is empty, saving me money and cutting my carbon footprint. You’d think the rules for that would be pretty simple, and they are until human behaviour gets involved.

Because sometimes we like it being dark. When we’re trying to sleep, or get a little cosy on the sofa to watch a film. When the house keeps turning the lights on in those situations, it gets pretty annoying. So what do you do? Create modes? Change behaviour throughout the day? Have a manual override? All of these things are possible but what you realise is that the number of permutations is enormous: automating response to human preference is really hard.

This is why we need more people from the creative and digital industries to start experimenting with physical computing. Sure there are a few forward-thinking agencies playing with wearables and microcontrollers. But think about how many websites are produced each year. Imagine how fast we could change our environment and our economy if we produced even a fraction as many digital, physical devices.

There is a particular opportunity here in cities with a manufacturing heritage (and often a surprisingly strong living industry), and a more recent digital scene. Manchester and Liverpool are the two places where I’ve been spreading this message this week.

It’s a simple message and not a particularly original one, but I hope I have carried it to some new audiences. Computing is emerging from the darkness of the cave. Now is the time to greet it and introduce it to our world.

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