Future of Work: Workforce automation, old ideas with new implementation is not the answer.

recent article in the Wall Street Journal covers the topic of increasing interest by corporations to gain high resolution into the activities that workers are performing on the job. On the face of it this article may seem as if it is presenting a new paradigm to the workforce. Using new technologies like RFID tracking sensors coupled with electronic systems to meter and monitor the vagaries of workers in the office to try and extract more efficient and productive work by reshaping either the work place itself or the business processes that workers engage.

On it’s face this is an admirable goal but unfortunately it is not really new, it is essentially an attempt to replicate ideas that were rampant in business during the 50′s and 60′s and 70′s using current technology, to see why we need to first take a walk down memory lane to see what automation and productivity was back in the 60′s.


Cogs in the Machine

As a child one of my favorite cartoons was the Hanna Barbera produced Jetson’s, this cartoon was a hilarious take on a future as told from the minds of an age where the United States was asserting the power of it’s developing industrial might to achieve great gains in GDP in post world war II Cold War era. The emergence of the micro-electronic age, the formation of the first efficient transistors and the rapid miniaturization power of the computers and electronics this technology made possible. Enabled businesses to think differently about how they could get their workforce’s to achieve computer like efficiency. The writings on the matter of efficiency that were being produced by economists and mathematicians in a way informed what would emerge as apparently the right way to solve the problems of efficiency and productivity in the work force.

The foundation was laid in the late 30′s and 40′s as the US embarked upon the atomic bomb program, the need to think about the scenario’s that could give rise to atomic attacks and how to avoid Armageddon were discussed and debated by the principle founders of a branch of mathematics called game theory. One of the pioneers of this area was John Von Neumann, Von Neumann did critical work in analyzing the behavior of individuals involved in group dynamics regarding differential resource needs. This work was also part of the play ground that economists like John Nash played in and his Nash equilibrium famous from the movie A Beautiful Mind,  is in essence a game theoretic result.

In the 40′s and 50′s the work on the limits of computing systems by Alan Turing set the stage for some thinking about human agents as cogs in the machine of a functioning dynamic system. Like real cogs, their efficiency was seen as being correlated to highly metered performance. If you can measure how it behaves you can track and improve it’s performance. It was believed that tracking a workers time and ensuring that the worker was on task as often as possible was the best way to get high productivity out of that worker. However, the fundamental flaw in this idea…is that like a real cog…workers would and do get worn down by the monotony of the work they are performing. Unlike computer programs, real workers also have inspiration and creativity as factors in how well they perform their work, particularly in knowledge work.

The Jetson’s already was telling a tale of the monotony of the type of work that was performed by white collar workers in the mid 60′s. George Jetson worked for “Spacely’s Sprockets” a generic name combining the founder of the company with a “sprocket” a generic device that is never fully explained in the series. This underscores the bland and monotonous nature of the type of work that George was doing and mirrored the cog in machine concept that connected workers to corporations in the 50′s and 60.

Another aspect of this time was also subtly touched on, that corporate competition necessitated that businesses push on their workers in unusual ways to demand that they perform. In the Jetson’s this was symbolized by the competition that existed between Spacely’s Sprockets and Cogswell Cogs. Often in the mix for corporations to endlessly pursue the profit motive the workers….the gears, are pushed to be worn out…artificial deadlines are created to have work pushed out of the door when it was not ready, the creative innovation was rushed and thus in many cases missed. The bias for a short term profit motive was baked into the culture of the business and innovation became stagnant. This was seen in the evaporation of many innovative R&D departments that had formerly been a part of corporations prior to world war two. As the people as cogs processes metered lives away innovation took a hit well save for some places where it was seen different (Silicon Valley).

The failure of this type of system could be seen also in the Twilight Zone series of the late 50′s and 60′s. Rod Serling’s views on office life during those decades portrayed it as a monotonous experience, of workers “clocking in” at designated times in the morning and then “clocking out” in an exhausted stupor at night…only to get up the next day to do the same again. The corporate application of rules for nameless computing or task performing agents simply didn’t allow for continuously productive workers…nor did it make any room for an embrace of independent streaks of creativity. This would change ironically with the birth of silicon valley which had as it’s reason d’etre originally the job of building the very transistors built on the computing ideas that led to the work ideas of humans as cogs in the machine in the first place.


Silicon Valley breaks the mold

The rapid development of the transistor industry in the late 50′s inspired innovators like Robert Noyce, Gordon Moore and other brilliant engineers of the time to embrace a new approach to conducting business. Rather than be married to the efficiency driven ethos of a dominant corporation, these men sought to strike out and build their own agile corporations. Robert Noyce along with a team of engineers had been working in Shockley semiconductor under the stewardship of co-inventor of the silicon transistor and Nobel Laureate William Shockley when they, pressed with the over bearing dominance of Shockley as boss were moved to quit the company and start their own company Fairchild Semiconductor. At Fairchild the rigid management style that Shockley enforced was done away with, instead *innovation* was prized above conformance to corporate rules and peak worker efficiency as metered by time on task. Noyce realized that engineers are creative people, and creative people must have the relaxation to be creative on their own schedule in order to produce novel and potentially revolutionary invention. This ethos would spread through out the business world but mostly was a hallmark of silicon valley companies (many subsequently founded by former Shockley and Fairchild workers) to this day…the embrace of this type of work environment by more traditional businesses is a relatively new phenomena but rather than embrace the freedom of enabled creativity the solution has been to give a patina of new to old.


Why metering people over metering work is not maximally productive

The last few weeks have seen the reigniting of the debate of productivity and worker performance by the controversial email sent out by Marissa Mayer, CEO of Yahoo. The email specifies an ultimatum to workers in the companies HR department regarding the need for the workers to begin working in the office again or be fired. The company explained that they wanted to ensure that the workers were more productive by having them commune with their coworkers in a physical office. The directive was met by mixed reaction in Yahoo but shed light on the wider question. Is it possible to generally improve productivity by enabling workers to work remotely and if so how? The Wall Street Journal article highlights the new attempts when it describes the recent results allegedly achieved by Bank of America:

“So, to get more employees mingling, the bank scheduled workers for group breaks, rather than solo ones. Productivity rose by at least 10%, says former Bank of America human-resources executive Michael Arena, who helped conduct its study.”

Leaving potential bias from the study conductor aside, worker productivity inside the context of the office says nothing about how efficiently the same workers could perform if given greater freedoms beyond the walls of the office. The question is category invalid; it can not be answered within the context in which it is asked. It is also known that group interactions also tend to highly bias for workers personality playing a strong role  in determining what ideas get implemented. Thus the most creative and possibly innovative ideas are often ignored in favor of the first and most forcefully argued idea. And in a single company group study that measures “productivity” without measuring *quality of work* will simply miss this important fact. However, innovative companies are going beyond such measures, as the article continues:

 “As Big Data becomes a fixture of office life, companies are turning to tracking devices to gather real-time information on how teams of employees work and interact. Sensors, worn on lanyards or placed on office furniture, record how often staffers get up from their desks, consult other teams and hold meetings. “

This movement though well intentioned is still category invalid. It may be the case that within the office such efforts can incrementally boost productivity by identifying where worker interaction hits bottlenecks, but this tells nothing about whether more efficient work flows would be enabled by physical metering of worker * behavior*. This translates into the liberation of creative production which ultimately is the most valuable for the business long term. And the approach could easily boredom and monotony of the Jetson’s future workplace. I posit that worker behavior in the office should never be the important criteria to meter, instead worker *results* should be and those should be gathered independently of the needs of the business.

The global network including mobile devices has now enabled businesses to provide always on access to all  potential workers no matter where they are in the world. Access is global, always on, and available on multiple devices. The holy grail of achieving both maximum worker freedom and maximum worker productivity is now achievable by performing a very simple act:  freeing any single worker completely from the *requirement* of needing to perform any work at all.

This of course seems counter intuitive, since it may seem that no one will do any work. In a work force that is global and which enforces integrity of workers with the use of social oversight however, such a system can utilize the talents of an emancipated workforce of fluid workers that can be on and off boarded at their own behest but also to purposes set by the organization. The freedom provided to the work force enables the workers to chose when they wish to contribute which highly correlates with high productivity and high creativity, and it also means that when the corporation searches for workers it finds those that are qualified and available by virtue of the aforementioned freedom. Finally, the ability to reject work received allows the dissolving of any bottlenecks to the completion of any unit of work by providing incentives for workers to route work onward to others in the system.

How this works is deceptively simple and can be realized by a simple thought experiment. In a traditional workflow the last stop on a task path is the usually single person delegated and/or permitted to perform it. Delegation refers to the fact that they are part of the business process, either explicitly added into the workflow or tied into the workflow by extended communication media like email attachments or IM. Permission refers to weather or not once the worker receives work they’ve been delegated if they actually have the permissions, the rights to actually perform them. The key is in realizing that the traditional coupling of the ability to receive some work with the ability to perform that work is actually inefficient for the smooth convergence of that action for an agent who can actually perform it.

In a system where the agents are decoupled, it is possible for agents to receive work that they can not perform (do not have the rights or expertise) but by allowing all such workers to be able to always re-delegate the work, a requested action never gets stuck in a particular worker’s queue this is the key to the convergence of all work actions. When the user space is larger than, there is an increased probability that the work will find some one who is able to do it and despite a loose web of delegations across the interacting workflows (the action requested might hop across a network that might could span building floors or continents) or even leave the company to be done by mobile contractors.

This combination of ideas are the hallmark of the Action Oriented Workflow work paradigm that I invented in 2004. At the time the technology was used internally but the power of such a system to spur new types of efficiency into all types of workforces became present to me as an opportunity. The future of a telepresent workforce is something I wrote above in 2006 and is enabled by such systems. Ultimately, the applicability of automation to the issues of worker productively will vary depending on the character of the work in question, but for the vast majority of knowledge workers the need to work in an office is simply no longer present. Rather than the decline in productivity lamented by Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer, working from home coupled with the right technology providing emancipation to the workforce will instead lead to hyper efficiency and profits.


Video Interview with Vernor Vinge at Los Con 39

Recently while at Los Con, I was privileged to do an interview with science fiction icon Vernor Vinge, who’s ideas has done much to further serious discourse around Machine Intelligence.
Vernor Vinge is well known Hugo Award-winning novels and novellas A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), A Deepness in the Sky (1999), Rainbows End (2006), Fast Times at Fairmont High (2002) and The Cookie Monster (2004), as well as for his 1984 novel The Peace War. Vernor Vinge is celebrated for his groundbreaking 1993 essay on the idea of the “Singularity,” called “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.” – in which he argues that the creation of superhuman artificial intelligence will mark the point at which “the human era will be ended,” such that no current models of reality are sufficient to predict beyond it. – http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html


Vinge is an emeritus professor of mathematics at San Diego State University and considered one of the worlds greatest science fiction writers: a five-time winner of the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious honor! Vinge’s stories explore themes including deep space, the future, and the singularity, a term he famously coined for the future emergence of a greater-than-human intelligence brought about by the advance of technology.

This interview covers topics ranging from the Technological Singularity itself, how the concept came to Vernor, the metaphor implied by the Singularity, Evolution, Humans as goal setting creatures, similarities between the rise of artificial intelligence and the rise of humans within the animal kingdom, definitions of the Singularity, biasing the odds of a beneficial Singularity, strategic forecasting, scenario planning, narratives, education, future studies, how possibility shapes the future, utopias and dystopias, what do we want from the future?, missed opportunities to achieve great things in the past and what may we be missing out on if we don’t make the right choices today.

Vinge is an emeritus professor of mathematics at San Diego State University and considered one of the worlds greatest science fiction writers: a five-time winner of the Hugo Award, science fiction’s most prestigious honor! Vinge’s stories explore themes including deep space, the future, and the singularity, a term he famously coined for the future emergence of a greater-than-human intelligence brought about by the advance of technology.

Interview conducted at Los Con 39 – http://loscon.org/391/ #loscon
November 23 — 25, 2012 — LAX Marriott Hotel — Los Angeles, California

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.
—”The Coming Technological Singularity” by Vernor Vinge, 1993

Vernor Vinge’s ‘First Word’ on the Singularity – Omni 1983

An article in the January 1983 edition of OMNI Magazine titled ‘First Word’ by Vernor Vinge introduced the idea that the ever-accelerating evolution of computer intelligence itself might soon produce ‘a kind of singularity’.

This was Vernor’s first in-print fling at the Singularity. For context, Vinge’s novella ‘True Names’ (which addresses the concept of a technological singularity) was published in 1981 preceding Gibson’s ‘Neuromancer’.

Vinge suggests that inevitable technological singularities in intelligent civilizations represented the most logical explanation for the “vast silence” in space, commonly known as the Fermi’s Paradox (Enrico Fermi 1950).

“We are caterpillars, soon to be butterflies, and when we look to the stars, we take the vast silence of other races transformed.”

“We will soon create intelligences greater than our own.
When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.”


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Critical infrastructures & Manipulation of the name Anonymous

What are the main dangers for national infrastructures? There are too many threats to which any country is exposed. The situation is bleak, suddenly even the sectors of defense found themselves vulnerable to cyber threats. Once nations used arms and military power, intimidating opponents in this way.

Today the way of fighting is radically changed, the battleground is cyberspace, the armies are composed by groups of hackers and cyber weapons are sophisticated weapons designed to attack strategic targets … and mainly the wars today are silent.

This last aspect is not negligible, when a country like China has started the warfare first of many other nations, the objectives of raids and of cyber operations of industrial espionage are often realized even when the main damages have already been caused. In some cases we speak of a competitive advantage of more than a decade, but we also think the case study of Nortel and the damage caused by a decade of spying.

The political landscape has radically changed, and today countries like U.S., Japan and Russia are subject to the offensive of smaller nations once  relegated to marginal roles on the international stage. In mid July 2010, security experts discovered the virus called Stuxnet that had infiltrated computers inside nuclear plants and other infrastructures in Iran. It was considered “the first” cyber weapon of the history.

These developments have completely changed the way to conduct intelligence operations which now moves through a meticulous analysis of the battlefield, The Internet, studying the operations in the cyber space of opposing forces, nations and companies on which to spy.

Many aspects are so profoundly changed, that alliances that were once unimaginable have become reality today. They are able to frighten technologically advanced nations such as Israel and U.S. in some cases at least. For example let me cite the China-Iran axis, or the support provided by China itself to nations like North Korea in offending military targets such as South Korea or Japan.

All this turmoil has the main effect of causing significant capital to flow into critical areas such as cyber defense to compensate for the perceived cyber gap. An uncomfortable situation that governments tend to conceal and hide from its citizens; I live in Italy and if I go on the streets to ask ordinary people the cost of spending on warfare they will take me for a fool.

The awareness level on the topic is practically zero. The question remains how much effective are these measures and what is the level of security we are able to provide?  We are in an embryonic stage in which it is too early hazard a hypothesis about the real state in term of security of the critical infrastructures all over the world. Who is it exactly that threatens our tranquility?

The main threats come from:

  • Hostile foreign states and cyber terrorism
  • Cyber ​​crime
  • Groups of hacktivists — possibly in alliance with or manipulated by the above

The threat of cyber crime and those made ​​by the actions of protest of groups of hacktivists are sources of considerable concern in some circles. So far this year we have witnessed an escalation of the phenomenon of hacktivism, the Anonymous group has upped the ante, and between doubts and misgivings about the real genesis of its operations, numerous attacks have been registered against government sites and security agencies.

Gen. Keith Alexander, current director of the National Security Agency warned regarding the possibility that groups of hacktivist will have the ability in short term to bring cyber attack to the national power supplies causing a limited power outage in the U.S. Power supplies are just one possible target, don’t forget the critical of telecommunications systems, gas and oil storage and transportation, banking and finance, transportation, water supply systems and emergency services.  The profile of cyber assaults against the U.S. government and corporate targets is increasingly manifesting high skill in the strategy of the attacks.

If forces like those of hacktivist have the technical capacities and critical mass such that they can influencie foreign policy, are we sure that among their goals there are critical infrastructures?

Why would the group that draws its strength from the masses attack them, put them in danger? 

Does Anonymous want this?

In an official message to the Wall Street Journal Anonymous regarding the accusation has written

“Ridiculous! Why should Anonymous shut off power grid? Makes no sense! They just want to make you feel afraid.”

“Why would Anons shut off a power grid?” reads a tweet from the @YourAnonNews feed. “There are ppl on life support / other vital services that rely on it. Try again NSA. #FearMongering”

The researcher of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Jerry Brito, told that Anonymous has never made a threat to the electrical grid or to other critical infrastructure.

But then, why do these rumors begin to circulate in authoritative newspapers? More than the group itself I’m scared of the potential for future misuse of the name Anonymous, someone using the causes of the hacktivists to create a climate of emergency, declare openly to the world that we are all terribly vulnerable. And various organizations could do this.

Do you recognize Anonymous in one of these definitions?

The reality sounds almost too dramatic; many countries like America and european members states are still vulnerable to cyber attacks. Critical infrastructures are  vulnerable. The real problem will be future actions of cyber-terrorism, the business of terror is aware of the situation of the infrastructures and it is ready to hit them.

But consider how a terrorist act is executed, for example by involving young guys who masquerade as the real source of the attacks. The cyber recruiting is really simple, it is enough to announce an operation of Anonymous in a specific channel (e.g. chat, social networks) and attract (mostly) young people living the myth of the hacker, unaware of the real targets of a mission. The availability of tools for offensive hacking on the Internet makes it easy.

Maybe someone is convinced that by scaring the public it is possible to remove the masses from the ideology behind protests or to create social chaos. Or someone could use a false threat to justify large expenditures which are never disclosed.

Why do we intend to define the components of Anonymous cyber-terrorists and cyber criminals?

Mr. Richard Stiennon, Chief Research Analyst at IT-HARVEST, draws some distinctions in the definitions as well. A cybercriminal is generally motivated purely by profit. That is a different goal than cyber espionage, which seeks to access intellectual property for military or industrial strategic advantage, or cyberwar, which focuses on actually sabotaging infrastructure, disrupting critical systems, or inflicting physical damage on an enemy.



Screen Shot 2012-12-28 at 4.14.27 PM

Report to the President — Transformation and Opportunity: The Future of the U.S. Research Enterprise

“In a globalized economy, international competition in the private sector drives structural  changes in national economies. If the competitive playing field is level, these changes create greater global economic efficiency and, at least in the short run, greater overall wealth. However, they also have consequences that can affect the trajectories of nations in ways other than  economic.

In the global economy, companies that traditionally capitalized on regional U.S. markets must now compete against organizations all over the world. The speed with which products and services can be delivered around the world, from almost anywhere to almost anywhere, diminishes the home-field advantage that used to shield local companies against foreign competitors.

When no single business can capture all the economic benefits that come from a new product, technology, or way of doing business, corporations with obligations to shareholders will tend to underinvest in innovation. When international competition is fierce, private firms will be more interested in R&D investments that give them an immediate competitive advantage and therefore will choose to invest preferentially in low-risk endeavors—those closer to the development and implementation end of the spectrum.

This aspect of globalization has hit basic research done by industry particularly hard. Beginning with the rapid expansion of global competition in the 1990s and the new focus on shareholder value, support by U.S. industry for basic and early applied research (i.e., research with more than a 3-to-5 year time horizon) has stagnated relative to investments in short-term development and also relative to the basic research investments of some of our international competitors.

The great industrial centers of basic research, such as Bell Labs and RCA Labs, flourished in times very different from now. Regulated monopolies, or stable consumer brand preferences, gave these companies strong, predictable cash flows. They were able to take risks, despite the uncertainty of translating basic research into new products. Since the 1990s, the industrial landscape has changed, however. Predictable cash flows and regulated monopolies are largely things of the past, meaning that companies today are far less able to take a long-term view.

Globalization also allows U.S. corporations to perform many aspects of R&D more cost-effectively offshore. Not only is the cost of offshore skilled workers often lower, but the availability of such workers (e.g., trained scientists and engineers) is often higher. The relatively small number of U.S. college graduates with STEM education is a large contributing factor, as is also the scarcity of STEM-enabled technicians with post-secondary certification other than college degrees. Moving R&D offshore is a rational economic choice for the companies themselves, but it has negative long-term consequences for the United States, even when compensated by R&D flows in the other direction.

The United States today has fewer and smaller corporate laboratories than it did just a generation ago. Research by industry now focuses more on development and less on basic and applied research; industry supports a much smaller fraction of basic research than it once did. Fundamental research done with no specific application in mind has especially diminished. As R&D increasingly migrates offshore, it is becoming clear that, unless we act, innovation, in the long run closely paired with production, could migrate with it.”


See also:  Science The Endless Frontier



A Glimpse into the near future

[Editor's note: this post reports on a set of predictions from Berlin based digital strategy consultancy  Third Wave GmbH. These predictions were made in February of this year, but I felt they were interesting enough to share and reconsider as we near the end of 2012. I also like the method and approach used to create the forecasts. It is my opinion that Transhumanism isn't in something in the future but rather something that is happening right now around us. Here we see how through forward looking design and strategic business thinking, Transhumanist ideas are entering mainstream business practice and also every day life. For those who are interested, the Third Wave is a reference to Alvin Toffler's book of the same name.]

 Around the end of the year, media outlets regularly try to out-predict each other. Particularly in tech journalism, The Next Top Ten Trends To Watch or The Top Apps For 2012 are everywhere. They’re easy to write and get clicked and linked like crazy, so editors love these lists. Who’s to blame them? I openly admit: Even though I grin smugly while doing so, I read these lists myself. I’m as guilty as anyone.That said, we wanted to go beyond just a top 10 link list, both in breadth and depth. So we asked a bunch of peers and friends to share some thoughts with us. What are the main drivers of change in their respective fields, what does that mean, and what type of change do they hope for?We tried to capture specific insights into different fields & industries (deep knowledge), expectations (what will happen) and desires (what should happen).Among those we asked were designers, scientists, strategists, and a few people who, like us, squarely “sit in between the chairs”, as the Germans say. A big thank you to those brave souls who took up the challenge: Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, Dannie Jost, Georgina Voss, Mike Arauz, Sami Niemelä, Stefan Erschwendner and Tamao Funahashi. Your input is much, much appreciated. You’re awesome.

Study Participants:

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino is an interaction designer & entrepreneur. She is the co-curator of This Happened London and a collaborator at the design partnership RIG London. She has been focused on the “Internet of Things” and its implications in the design of everyday products since 2005. Her work has been exhibited at the Milan Furniture Fair, London Design Festival, The Victoria & Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Dr Dannie Jost has been Consulting Science Advisor and Senior Research Fellow at the World Trade Institute (WTI), NCCR Trade Regulation, Law Faculty, University of Bern, Switzerland since 2008. She works in policy and regulation issues where science, technology and trade are involved. Work in progress includes advising federal agencies on the scope of action for nanomaterial regulation within the framework of international trade law.

Dr Georgina Voss is a Research Fellow at the Faculty of Arts, Brighton University, and also holds teaching and visiting positions at Sussex University and the Science and Technology Studies Department, UCL. Prior to this, Georgina was the Research Manager at Tinker London where she managed the Homesense Project. Georgina has conducted research for organizations including MIT, the European Commission, WIRED UK, and BERG; and has been an invited speaker at renowned international conferences.

Mike Arauz is a Strategy Director at Undercurrent, and lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Since moving to New York City in 2000, Mike has led many lives. Starting as a theater actor and director, Mike studied acting at The Atlantic Theatre Company, and performed improv and sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre.

Sami Niemelä is a designer. He is also one of the founding partners and the creative director of Nordkapp, a Helsinki-based design consultancy. At times, he lectures about design to business people and likes to talk about cities, behavior, ubiquitous computing and cyborgs in public.

Stefan Erschwendner is co-founder and managing partner of the interdisciplinary think tank LHBS in Vienna, Austria. LHBS is specialized in cultural innovation and helps companies and brands to understand how emerging patterns of human behavior across categories can create new opportunity spaces for branding and innovation.

Tamao Funahashi is a freelance photographer, born in Tokyo, living and working in Aomori city. A graduate of visual art communication design from Musashino Art University, Tokyo, she has worked in museums (Aomori Prefectural Museum and Munakata Shiko Memorial Museum of Art) and newspaper companies (Asahi Shimbun and The Nikkei) for 10 years. Her photos have been featured on CD and DVD covers, in books and magazines, and also at some galleries.

A Glimpse into the near future

We tried to make these slides (A glimpse into the near future ) primarily an embeddable version of this blog post. You’ll find the blog post pretty much copied and pasted in the speaker notes on Slideshare. You’ll find them on Slideshare right next to the comments.

We asked for unstructured responses to two questions and ran a qualitative analysis, clustering individual ideas by field and into the (slightly fuzzy) categories “drivers”, “indicators”, “implications” and “hopes”.

To be respectful of the participants’ time, we didn’t require any particular format. Some responded in bullet points and idea sketches, some included screenshots. A few sent more or less fully publishable longform. (Dannie actually wrote more or less an essay which we posted over here.) Either format was fine for us, and that way we received a wall chock-full of ideas and data points:

Post it notes“Post it notes” by the waving cat, on Flickr. CC (by-nc-sa).

After compiling everything, we went at it in a quite exploratory way, adding our own insights, expectations and hopes, and compiled it all in this blog post.

Please note that the absolute majority of the ideas in here come straight from our participants. With the volume of ideas and their overlap, it was impossible to directly reference every point of input, so we highlighted just a few quotes. It’s the participants who collectively deserve the credit. Again, thank you!

There are a number of key drivers of change as well as megatrends that stand out. We’re keeping them deliberately fuzzy as there’s plenty of overlap between these. They influence and reinforce each other.

Our panel sees a few very concrete drivers built around technologies as well as global external factors at work:

  • Connections: Ubiquitous networked sensors and computers, the Internet of Things. Everything becomes more networked, with vast implications.
  • The Data Layer: Across the world, there is a layer of data that is growing thicker and more dense by the day. It is fed by our online behavior, by sensor networks, by the Internet of Things (IoT).
  • Alternative means of production: The rise of rapid prototyping, 3D printing & open-source hardware.
  • External, global factors: Economic and environmental woes & aging populations in industrialized countries increase the pressure to change, adapt and innovate. Stagnation and preserving the status quo isn’t a viable option.

Some of the key ways these drivers manifest are the following. We’ll dig deeper into these and many more.

  • Small pieces loosely joined: The network as the dominant paradigm in most fields (economy, work, organization, technology). This brings with it a trend towards smaller organizational units – think freelancers, single households, startups, local food production, bottom-up innovation.
  • New interfaces, ranging from more human (gestures etc) to machine-readable (robots, sensors, IoT).
  • The times they are a’changing: Massive disruption across the board. Nothing stays as it was or is, ranging from economy to organization to education. “Digital” is one of the main drivers, but not the only one.


snow patrol:make this go on forever“snow patrol: make this go on forever” by visualpanic, on Flickr. CC (by).

One thing becomes clear. Our experts all agree that we live in interesting times. Things are changing, and rapidly so. Nothing stays as it is; the status quo turns into a state of flux. While in some, mostly global contexts this includes massive collateral damage (global financial markets, global warming), there are plenty of cracks and new, as of yet largely unregulated areas where innovation thrives.

Let’s break it down by categories. The boundaries are blurry as everything is increasingly connected. Squeezed in between the expectations are the hopes, the desired development as our expert panel and we see it.

As the global economy remains shaky at best, we expect things to go smaller, more granular. This means further rise of freelancers and talent networks. Innovation is coming increasingly from startups and other independent actors rather than big R&D departments. As global governance systems – unable to adapt quickly enough to new realities – fail to some degree, there are cracks in regulation where bottom-up innovation thrives. This can happen in more formal contexts, like when big corporations try to get a piece of the cake by establishing VC-style investment divisions. Or it can happen by way of Sterling-esque “Favela Chic”-style street smarts.

This comes with a certain rise of more self-reliant communities as trust in institutions is shrinking. We expect to see manifestations of this in many places. The local food movement along with urban gardening is just one of the first and most obvious. The growing popularity of Collaborative Consumption projects is another.

Speaking of institutions, mass media are entering the endgame of this second phase of the web. The fight for control over and profit from the internet is on. The established players (broadcasters, telcos and infrastructure providers like Time Warner, Verizon etc) and the new establishment (Google, Facebook, Apple etc) will fight it out. Expect nasty lawsuits, mergers and acquisitions and plenty of chaos. In the short term, this is likely to be at the expense of consumers. Media and content industries will have to re-invent themselves bottom-up to cope with change and harness new technologies.

What’s interesting is that the business models of all these companies are very diverse. There’s a lot of overlap certainly, but there’s also a lot of diversity. Seeing who breaks through with Content? Social network management? Relevance? Convenience? User experience? to establish new dominance will be a fascinating battle to watch unfold.

–Mike Arauz, Undercurrent

Sami Niemelä shares the story of an election campaign project he’s been involved with pro bono, getting candidate Pekka Haavisto to the final election round:

Our spark lit a fire and pretty much started a perfect storm. The old media is clueless about this, it’s clear they have no capacity to understand the mechanics of mesh democracy and social media.

What he’s hinting at is this: media outlets don’t have the basic understanding to see what’s going on, so how could they even begin to harness the change? We think it’s important to note that this is what happens at the organizational level – individuals inside the media outlets might be very well versed, yet there are internal and external factors that prevent appropriate action. In some cases the org chart gets in the way, in others the profit margin just doesn’t easily allow major changes to the otherwise “functioning” business. Working around these organizational restrictions is a major road block. Again, size matters as smaller units are more agile.

In terms of economy and businesses, we’ll increasingly see the effects of what has been going on for the last few years: Whatever is touched by “digital” is changed massively. The impact is usually most visible in the business model, in organizational structures or in product development, but every single field is affected.

Grace Hopper and UNIVAC“Grace Hopper and UNIVAC” by public.resource.org, on Flickr. CC (by).

Apropos product development. We expect to see a period where the product design & development industry will suffer just like the content industry did. Collaborative design processes, open source hardware and 3D printing in all its shapes and forms will uproot this whole industry in ways hard to grasp yet. Particularly the open, flat infrastructures we see evolving in 3D printing today will have profound impacts driven by hobbyists and free market demand alike. We have seen the first Kickstarter projects that collected north of one million US dollars, and we expect crowdsourcing to gain in importance quickly. Some companies will harness this demand and make it work for themselves – imagine a high-priced, gorgeously designed and strongly regulated market for (DRM’d) 3D print models by Apple, maybe even before the decade is over.

Which companies will dominate in this New World Order? Our guess is: the ones that best adapt their business model to truly harness sharing. Incentives to make your creations available to others could be financial – kickbacks, discounts etc – or non-financial: sharing is caring, as the old saying goes. From today’s point of view, Google and Facebook are obvious candidates to leverage this redistribution of data, just as Apple could build a strong platform for sharing. However, this is a fickle, fast-moving industry, and a strong contender might come out of nowhere. We dare not make a prediction.

We hope to see Arduino, prototyping and 3D printing become more accessible and gain the power to democratize the means of production. Only then will we also see growing ecologies of businesses built around these tools. It will be thriving, exciting, and very, very normal.

Tech & Web is a wide field. Since we recruited strongly from that background, this is also at the very core of our collection of predictions. So let us divvy this up into smaller chunks.

We’ve established the dominance of the digital already. Its younger, but no less powerful sisters are ubiquitous 3D printing and rapid prototyping as well as the Internet of Things. Overall, we expect networked technology to become even more ubiquitous, and more invisible. This is right at the intersection of two notions mentioned before: everything becomes smaller & more granular, and there’s a new data layer spanning all aspects of our lives.

We used to like our technology visible as a sign of high tech quality – we proudly displayed our TVs, stereos, computers. It stood out. But as technology became ubiquitous, we entered a phase of humanized and intuitive technology, popularized by the likes of Minority Report and iPhones. Now we are seeing the rise of invisible technology – technology simply baked into daily life, utilized but non-intrusive.

–Stefan Erschwendner, LHBS

From a design perspective, this changes a few things. A networked environment can and should be able to react more contextually and more appropriately to our needs. Interfaces should become more subtle; gestural interfaces will proliferate and turn technology even more into a true extension of ourselves. Ambient technology ranging from playful applications like the Bubblino to more work-related tools like interactive whiteboards become more powerful, and if not more useful, then at least smarter.

The proliferation of gestural interfaces (iPhones and Android touch-screen mobile phones, iPads and other touch-screen tablets, and XBox Kinect-type motion-driven interfaces) will have a quiet, yet seismic affect on disintegrating the boundary between the technological and the human. In the more distant future when we take the integration of digital/computer with our physical and mental selves for granted, we’ll look back on these few years as one of the major milestones along that road, due in large part to how gestural interfaces contributed to making technology a true extension of ourselves.

–Mike Arauz, Undercurrent

The looming problematic that is the third industrial revolution is going to open up some interesting design challenges. Design has a chance to truly influence and make the world a better place here. A long as we as an industry get over the needs and wants of selling glorified sugar to infant children.

–Sami Niemelä, Nordkapp

Consumer electronics will be better designed and much better networked then today, thanks to the open web. Once it becomes industry best practice to put APIs on our gadgets and services and we can more easily make our things talk to each other, our experience will be a league better.

On the other hand, not all things look bright. We and our stuff are becoming ever more digitally connected. Yet this does not mean that we will always feel more connected on a personal level. There will be the occasional feeling of intense loneliness, as well as a demand & need for smaller, more protected social networks. Think the next iteration of Path or Instagram. The group/list/circle concept is as yet only rudimentarily developed. We think that will change as social software and non-human actors grow more sophisticated.

Avioncitos“Avioncitos” by josemanuelerre, on Flickr. CC (by-nd).

The rise of indie tech movements isn’t going to slow anytime soon. We already mentioned makerbots, 3D printing and collaborative design. Add the more techy flavor of the DIY/craft scene, physical computing and group funding and you get a pretty potent mix. This means a massive change in how we perceive physical goods. If that doesn’t replace the current system of massive, mainstream-oriented production, then at least it will complement it through small production runs and mass customization. We’re talking about the real thing, not swapping colored pieces of plastic. Remixing will increasingly be applicable to physical goods, like toys. Today we see only the tip of the iceberg, the equivalent of the home computing movement in the 70s. Industrial production as we know it today will experience a profound disruption. Who will turn out to be today’s Wozniak and build the next Apple?

I hope these kind of products and services we may see in the near future will come with open-source platforms that allow you create your very own network and run it on a server of your choice. To find the right (or better) balance between access and security, convenience and control, global approach and local action, etc., more positive interactions and discussions will be needed for sure.

–Tamao Funahashi

Physical goods will face piracy in very similar terms as digital goods today when consumers can just print knock-off toys and spare parts. Intellectual property will be redefined yet again.

Arduino has become a ubiquitous tool, rapid prototyping at home will become ubiquitous and as interesting as a hammer or a set of nails. Which means that ecologies of businesses will grow around the tools. You hire a plumber to fix your kitchen even if you could probably figure it out yourself don’t you? Will you have your furniture designed online and press print? Most probably.

–Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, RIG

As a side note, who is responsible if a 3D printed object fails? Current laws might struggle just a tad with this.

While multi-purpose devices like the iPad will grow in popularity, they will not at all kill single-purpose devices like the Kindle. This follows a rough pattern. New products will end up as features in multi-purpose devices for less demanding consumers, while power users will always favor dedicated devices. The core of adaption stays in the software and the surrounding ecosystem. As iOS and Android have shown us, functionally largely equivalent devices and services can be used to create very different types of ecosystems.

Speaking of ecosystems, Social Media services are run by companies and thus legitimately need to earn money. The rules of user consent and privacy will be put to the test. The privacy wars will be one of the big conflicts in the years to come. Always remember: if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. If you’re not paying, you’re being sold.

Things get smarter, and by “smarter” we really mean more connected and responsive. In households we can already see the first steps of networking, but smart homes are still quite a way off. The more interesting innovation in the field doesn’t come from the big R&D departments but from more bottom-up, user-centric design studios (like our friend and contributorAlexandra) and hobbyists from all kinds of backgrounds.

In the automotive industry, things look a little different as car manufacturers explore new technologies but won’t just let any hobbyist play with their software. They get support from the big tech companies like the Facebooks and Googles. Driverless car, anyone? Again, gestural interfaces will also help control both your car and your home in more human, intuitive ways. And while we’re putting chips in our environment, let’s not forget pets and humans, either: RFID chips might make a good implant if there’s a valid, convincing use case that is so good that it tops the inherent creepiness we associate with chip implants today.

A field that will see massive change is the health and fitness sector. Over the last couple of years we’ve gotten a first glimpse at where things are going through the Quantified Self movement. There’s a lot more to come, though. What we know today as the Quantified Self (QS), the measurement of body and behavioral data for further analysis, will become more embedded in our daily lives as sensors get cheaper and network usage gets both easier and more ubiquitous. QS will get a simpler, more snappy name; seem less strange as applications are mainstreamed and become easier to use; be more hidden and embedded. The challenge will be to find more meaning and relevance in the measurements and, as boundaries between humans and technology grow ever more blurry, to make sure that the necessary privacy safeguards are in place. Non-human actors, namely bots in both the software and the hardware sense, will find lots of use in medical contexts.

Nike Fuelband is a start, esp. its Swatch-time like common measurement. But it’s not enough yet. Context makes it relevant when it should be the other way around.

–Sami Niemelä, Nordkapp

We hope that we will, on a global as well as local scale, be able to close thegrowing technology gap between rich and poor. Technology can empower and democratize, or it can be exclusive. We think that inclusion is key.

We hope to find a balance between access & security, between convenience & control, between global & local needs. All of thesedichotomies axes represent legitimate needs and agendas that often are highly complex. Yet this is where we as a society need all the smart minds we can find.

We hope that our networks, including the Web and the Internet of Things, will be free & open, as this is the basic foundation for true innovation and democracy. To harness the smarts of the tech community, we need a true read-write web.

We hope to see more mature & more valuable social networking software. More nuance and sophistication, more focus on user needs than marketers’ needs. In other words, not just iterations of Facebook, but a different paradigm.


As the industrialized countries globally face aging populations, smaller families and single households, needs in housing and social care change drastically. Examples? Increasingly, the need for tele-medicine and assisted care will rise. Our smart homes will need to double as early warning systems in case the inhabitant has medical issues.

In the face of even stronger globalization, the need for cultural identitygrows stronger again. What will be the primary point of cultural reference? Nation, city, block, tribe, operating system?

Global mobility, especially among young professionals, fosters a lifestyle of less – at least in terms of physical ownership. The lifestyle of “digital nomads” isn’t a rare exception anymore, but becoming the norm in at least our industry. And no matter where you are, chances are your data lives in the cloud anyway. The physical things you own can easily become a burden rather than an asset. Again, we refer to our trusted Guide To The Clutterless, Mr. Bruce Sterling for guidance on what to keep – and what to give away.

Education will change drastically. The US model of university funding is broken, yet it is copied and implemented across the globe. The #Occupy movement featured student loans prominently, and for a reason. More educational material than ever before is available online for free. Yet questions of how to curate and how to validate & certify knowledgeacquired this way remain. Will a Harvard degree stay the most desirable standard of education? Which institutions could provide validation services? Maybe Open Badges are a careful step in the right direction.

Everyone hot-desks, people have lockers, the buildings are empty vessels for activity. (…) It’s education as office work. We all know hot-desking only works for journalists, that it kills ideas, innovation and community building but it’s the most efficient use of space for education as a corporate activity. Education will be powered by corporations not government.

–Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, RIG

School design, after hardly changing for the better part of the last century, is taking a sharp turn towards corporate settings. This is just one of many symptoms of the corporate influence on education. It’s a double-edged sword: on one hand, big companies step in where governments don’t provide the best education, and help get students ready for their careers. On the other hand, this kind of education is aimed primarily at streamlining corporate careers. Do we want a Google University? How would it be biased? Is it a bad influence or good for choice? Questions we can only ask, not answer.

Increased awareness that the ‘democratisation’ of technology is still a limited process, and that people who can engage in it are still those in regions with fast broadband, access to a free/open internet, access to tablets/PCs/smartphones etc. Aiming to create inclusive processes of social/political/cultural participation, rather than privileging those who already have substantial social and technological capital. In practical terms this means keeping libraries open – maybe opening more of them – as they may be the only space where many citizens can access the internet; not shifting educational tools entirely to ‘e-books’ and online learning; recognising that digital techs complement, not replace, paper.

–Georgina Voss

We should ask equivalent questions for museums. The one thing we already know is this: museums are going to get a tech overhaul as they get more connected. Lots has been happening in that space, and there’s more to come. We recommend looking at the fantastic work our friend Jake Barton has been doing in New York. Networks help us overcome growth barriers. This holds true for the small (self-reliant or mutually supportive communities) as well as for larger societal challenges. Just to name a few: finding better solutions for outdated copyright laws and industry protection. More flexible work visa regulations for a globally mobile workforce including tax models and pension plans that should move with the person. While easily explained historically, the paperwork associated with moving and working internationally creates barriers that stand in the way of global talent distribution and equal chances.

I would like to see my peers tackle financial regulation, social equity, and produce technology that liberates instead of technology that enslaves. A lot of technology today enslaves, it does not liberate. Come to think of it, the same can be said of regulations and laws that are there to guarantee our freedoms but that over time have been highjacked in the service of few and alienate the masses. The results are not pretty. I exaggerate. Still, sometimes it looks like one large group gets the obligations, and a small minority get the rights. That is not the idea.

–Dannie Jost, WTI

Programming and basic electronics skills will be the true lingua franca, and hopefully will be taught in primary school. A key moment of the networked, new century will be when good ol’ hardware stores will install “computing aisles”.

A whole new industry focused on pre-production processes will arise, as opposed to those focused on final products. Instead of IKEA we might go to a cutting & printing place for furniture, toys or spare parts. As one of the leading producers of final products today, Apple merits a closer look. Will they go away, stay largely untouched because their production methods are so advanced, or build a beautiful, highly restrictive and controlled 3D printing platform?

We hope that this Third Industrial Revolution will provide apt solutions for the more-than-just-interesting design challenges the world faces.

We hope that designers will put their skills to use to design for a better world, and focus on values, attitudes and resources that increase quality of life.

We hope that governments invest massively in R&D to foster innovation beyond the high-risk, financially driven free market.


As organizers of the Cognitive Cities Conference and urbanism geeks, we were particularly happy to see visions of the future of cities among the input, too.

Cities have always been a focal point for innovation and early tech adoption. We expect urban spaces to open up to all kinds of connected things, ranging from smart screen solutions to responsive buildings and vehicles.

Cultural identity, as mentioned before, might be provided or at least fostered on the local level. Think urban “villages” within cities, strong tribe-like connections. These “tribes” might be defined regionally, within the city, or by shared interests, spread out across several cities.

Either way, we can expect that cities will become more responsive, both on an architectural and a transportation level. Truly interesting things won’t happen in the planned corporate cities of East Asia, but in the messy underbellies of big, organically grown cities, ranging from Sterling’s notion of Favela Chic to grassroots tech activism in the hackerspaces of New York, Hong Kong, Berlin, Rio and Shanghai.

Now where does all that leave us? We see some big drivers of change as outlined in the beginning. Across the field and in all disciplines, things are getting more connected. This holds true for the global – world, country, economy, internet – as well as the super local – our homes, our gadgets, our bodies. The network is the absolute paradigm, now more than ever. Decentralization means a redistribution of power. It also means that if you pull one string, something might unravel in unexpected places. If there’s one thing that seems certain, it’s that we’re headed for more complexity, not less. In your business, embrace this complexity. There’s a ton of opportunities in there.

grandmaster FLAX ~ II“grandmaster FLAX ~ II” by striatic, on Flickr. CC (by).

The cultural and socio-economic implications of all these things are huge. In a nutshell, we expect culture to thrive while parts of the content industries fail. Yet, the overall global economic structures will lead to certain uncertainties that foster small, bottom-up business and innovation.

That said, this is a blog about digital strategy, so let’s not go to deep into fields where we lack reliable data and rather look at the things we actually know.

Rather than giving any concrete answers, we have more questions for your business.

  • Look at your current business. What are its touchpoints with the digital sphere? Do you get as much out of every single one as you possibly could? Where do you not currently see any of these touchpoints? Have a really thorough look at those places – chances are you’re missing something.
  • How can you connect all aspects of your organization with all the other parts? How can you connect them more with people, ideas, products outside your sphere of direct influence? Looking at these scenarios through your users’ eyes, what would really have a positive impact? What would make you say “whoa!”, and mean it?
  • Does your business rely on a centralized offer that sells scarcity? Think again.
  • Whatever you offer, chances are it’s going to be hacked. Hope that it is: if it’s not relevant enough to get hacked, you’re in trouble. Encourage the interaction, empower these power users. They’re your best friends.
  • Is there someone in your company who smugly says they have “no clue about technology”? We think that’s nothing to boast of. Offer to help and build structures that allow your teams to stay on top of trends. Also, make sure everybody knows that feeling good for not knowing things isn’t an option1.
  • Whether you offer software, a service or a physical product, do you play fair? Do you allow for your users to export their data? Is it easy? Do you monetize your users’ data? Do they know how, and what it means? Can they opt out, for example by paying a premium? Are there bits of fine print in your ToS that you’re embarrassed by? When are you going to rewrite them? Why don’t you invite your users to pitch in?
  • If you sell physical goods, how is the stuff you ship better than a copy might be? What’s unique in your process, your team, your culture?
  • When was the last time you asked your team for ideas on improving what you do? When was the last time you implemented their proposals?
  • What data exists as a by-product of your offerings? How do you use it to create value for your community? Can you make the data directly available to the community?

We hope these questions help you make your organization fitter for the near future.

We have all the reasons in the world to believe that the trends outlined above will, in some way or another, manifest. We’d love to see you take full advantage of them. We can influence the way the world develops – together, in small steps, by asking the right questions.

I’d like to leave you with this quote by our friend Dannie Jost. Seems to me this is the right mental setting for the next few years:

The times ahead will surprise us. I will continue to search for the perfect hot chocolate mix.

See you on the other side.


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