Your board seat taken by an algorithm? Maybe one day.
What can we learn from the future as we imagined it in the past?
I just found this book at home when I was cleaning up. Written in 1979, it tried to imagine what through the 1990’s and early 2000’s might be like. I loved it as a kid - and I think there’ll be a lot to learn by looking at how we used to imagine our current day.
So for the next little while, I’m going to trawl through the book and try looking forwards, by looking backwards.
First up - wristwatch TV’s. The way that TV was imagined to evolve highlights a range of unconscious biases, including:
+ that wristwatches themselves would never disappear
+ that the form factor of a wristwatch would trump that of the TV (look at the tiny screen)
+ that TV hardware - rather than content; production or distribution - would be the focus of innovation
It also highlights the erroneous assumption that technology tends to make things the ‘same but smaller’; or ‘same but faster’ or ‘same but on your wrist’ rather than fundamentally different. YouTube was no where to be seen in Future Cities.
I read Fred Wilson’s blog almost every day and I have done for a long time and there are few blogs that I am that loyal to. He is very smart and very generous in sharing his thoughts. He also just comes across as a nice guy.
He wrote a few days ago about the downturn in mobile. The more interesting part of the story though was calling out the block chain as the next major disruptive platform. The block chain is a transactions database that serves to sequentially record all transactions undertaken through the BitCoin protocol. Put simply, it is what stops a digital currency from being spent twice and is the major innovation of BitCoin. Each block in the chain contains a hash of the previous block, which mathematically verifies it all the way back to the genesis block. It is this chain, mathematically proven to be unbreakable that makes a digital currently possible. Every transfer of value between BitCoin wallets gets included in the chain. A copy of the Block Chain is stored on every participants computer and updated, reconciled and synced in real time.
As such, the Block Chain is a platform that established and maintains trust between anonymous parties. It fills the role that Banks and Government’s do for non-digital currencies. It is open source, so anyone can build applications on top of it and it can’t be ‘sold’.
This is why it is why Fred has called it out as the next major disruptive platform in the series starting with internet protocols - web protocols - browsers - search engines - social - mobile. The out-take is that the next Google, or Facebook, or Apple will build something on top of the Block Chain - and because whatever it is (or they are) will be disrupting banks and Government its impact will be enormous. Exciting!
A while ago now I read a book called ‘Semiotics for Beginners’. It included as many illustrations as it did paragraphs, which as a Business graduate I was thankful for. One of the concepts discussed was the idea that any sign can only have meaning relative to its opposite. A red traffic light only means ‘stop’ because it is the opposite of green which means ‘go’ and vice versa.
This provides a useful way to predict fashion trends. ‘Contemporary’ fashion is defined by what it’s not - from the past - and so it seeks visual cues that are the ‘opposite’ of those from the past. Similarly you could expect fashion in the near future to use cues that differentiates it from what we wear today.
The wardrobe choices in Spike Jonzes’ new film ‘Her’ illustrate this, with protagonist Theodore conspicuously wearing very high waisted pants which, today, are considered unfashionable - borne out by the amount of online discussion about said pants when the film was released. But people living in 2025, would probably want wanted to dress like it was 2025, and signify that they are of that time and not stuck in the past. In this context, pants worn lower on the hips would become unfashionable.
Often these shifts are driven by teenagers who seek to differentiate themselves from the generation behind them through use of signs that signify ‘opposite’. Long shaggy haircuts against the previous generations short styles. Skinny jeans versus previous generations baggy pants. Skateboard decks shapes - with small plastic models from the 70’s fashionable again longer, wider wood decks. Full, thick beards versus clean shaven. Children’s names like Charlie, Jack and Sam have been back in vogue after a long period of being seen as old-fashioned. All were adopted by a younger generation to signify their unique aesthetic against older generations - your uncool is my cool.
The lengths of cycle vary - men’s fashion has longer cycles than women’s, but you can make pretty good guesses at future fashion trends if you look around and ask - what would the opposite of that look like? Or what is the least fashionable choice I could make right now on any aesthetic decision (like naming your son Theodore!) - because in 5, 10 or 20 years it might be the height of fashion.
Mobile messaging app growth, their appetite for entering payments and bookings and the underlying (growing) strength of BitCoin as an open payment platform set the scene for many industries needing to adjust to a new world in coming years.
IBM are putting Watson to use as a marketing tool and it might point to changes in the skills of future marketers.
IBM built Watson with the goal of it beating human competitors in the game show Jeopardy. To do that, Watson needed to have the ability to process language in the same way that we do. It needed to be able to negotiate ambiguity, complexity and nuance to be able to understand what it was being asked and then find the correct answer.
This ability to understand natural language means that if given social media content (the more the better), Watson is able to sort through it, ‘comprehend’ it and even build a digital fingerprint of an individual based on the content of their posts not their usernames. It doesn’t matter if you use your real name on Facebook, a pseudonym on Twitter and something different again on Tumblr - it can link all these together and build a rich picture of who you are and what your likely corresponding consumer needs will be.
It can then of course contact you with a highly relevant offer.
It’s effectiveness is skewed towards heavy contributors to social media (if you only browse and read, it will know less about you), but it nevertheless marks a significant shift in how large organisations will connect with their customers in future, and the sorts of skills marketers will need to succeed.
In response to a question on Quora of how significant transportation startup Uber is, Michael Wolfe offers an answer that isn’t so much about Uber in particular as it is a way of looking at businesses from the perspective of the owners/investors.
If you think of Uber as a town car company…
Great reminder that disruption can come from unlikely players. Uber as a disruptor to Fedex? Maybe.
Is current day Detroit a glimpse into the future of your city?
The story of Detroit’s decline is a complex one that you can read about here. A major factor though was the city’s reliance on auto manufacturing and that industry’s inability to adjust to the structural shifts that engulfed it, culminating in the ‘auto industry crisis’ of 2008-10 when the US Government provided Chrysler and GM with a $17.4 billion lifeline.
Your city may not have anything in common with Detroit at first glance. Looked at through a different lens though, it might.
Joseph Stiglitz wrote in Vanity Fair about how the true roots of the Depression of the 1930’s lay in the structural shift of employment away from agriculture. In 1929, 20% of all Americans worked on a farm. Technological driven efficiencies meant that over the next few years that part of the population’s income fell by between one and two thirds.
“What this transition meant, however, is that jobs and livelihoods on the farm were being destroyed. Because of accelerating productivity, output was increasing faster than demand, and prices fell sharply. It was this, more than anything else, that led to rapidly declining incomes. Farmers then (like workers now) borrowed heavily to sustain living standards and production. Because neither the farmers nor their bankers anticipated the steepness of the price declines, a credit crunch quickly ensued. Farmers simply couldn’t pay back what they owed. The financial sector was swept into the vortex of declining farm incomes.”
The point here is that big impacts on major sectors of an economy will result in big impacts on the entire economy.
Digital technology and networks have so far disrupted only a tiny portion of the economy. Music and print advertising were first - the very core of their value propositions being ‘easy’ to disrupt. Music because scarcity could be removed by eliminating distribution friction and print advertising by the reduction of audience scarcity driven by the web’s low barriers to entry to publishing to large audiences; and its ability to offer novel pricing models like pay-for-performance.
Retail and education are being disrupted now, but more slowly thanks to their complex value chains. Despite the explosion in ecommerce and huge numbers of people enrolled in massive online open courses, I’d argue it’s early days.
Let’s look at retail. How would your neighbourhood and city change if all bricks and mortar retail suffered the same fate as bricks and mortar book stores? What would the physical space be replaced by? What would the people employed in them do instead? It’s true that at the macro level jobs are created to replace those lost (and presumably the same for applies to real estate) but as Detroit shows - the new jobs come after the old ones are lost and the new jobs are often somewhere else.
The shops might stay vacant. The people might move away to where there are jobs.
Maybe current day Detroit is a glimpse of your city’s future 15 or 20 years hence.