Councils and Foresight – Critical Differences

Since I published my Councils and Foresight post last week I have had some comments and questions via social media about the key differences between Councils and Commercial Organisations in particular and what they mean in terms of different approaches to foresight. Along with those questions three comments that were made last week during our foresight session at the VLGA Mayoral Leadership Conference have stuck in my head:

  1. I demonstrated our quick and dirty scenario approach prefaced with the statement that it was useful when you had a spare ten minutes. One Mayor talked to me afterwards and said she would love a spare ten minutes for anything. That is a major concern, No time for strategic thinking.
  2. Two mayors talked to me about reading 300 page briefing reports for council meetings, which ties in with the problem in point 1.
  3. One Mayor talked about the glacial pace of change in councils, which I am sure is true in most people’s experience.

These comments tie in with the different approaches that need to be taken with foresight issues in councils and they relate to the structural issues of how councils operate:

  • Firstly compared to commercial entities councils do not have the luxury of appointing a skills based board (council) based on getting a diverse range of expertise and perspectives. Having said that many commercial boards do not do that well either but at least they have the capacity to do so.
  • Secondly many councillors commonly come to council without a deep understanding of the detailed operations of council or in the management of large organisations while in many cases commercial boards are selected on that basis.
  • Thirdly councils are far more tied into, and exposed to the needs and views of their community while large commercial entities in particular are generally distant from their smaller shareholders. There are pluses and minuses to either situation but there is nothing like being confronted down the street, in the pub, or at the local footy club to bring home the reality of what you are trying to do.
  • Fourthly commercial entities are able to make faster decisions and have a much clearer measurement of success in terms of profit and loss, balance sheets, and share prices, albeit allowing for the weaknesses of some of those approaches.

So in terms of foresight and thinking of the future I think that councillors need to:

1/ Work much harder at bringing a diverse range of perspectives into the foresight and strategy processes of council, and ensure they are not the same old faces. This compensates for the lack of capacity to have a planned diverse council.

2/ Let go of the need to get across of all the detail and concentrate far more on critical thinking and questioning skills. Having been involved in representational agripolitics and party politics I realise that this is a lot easier said than done. Voters expect you to be across all the detail but if you spend all your time reading 300 page briefing papers you will have no time for thinking strategically. Councillors need to allow council officers to do the detailed work but have the capacity to clinically question what is put before them or develop alternative strategy, not try and do the operating job.

3/ Concentrate on areas where there is going to be faster than glacial movement. In areas of the economy that have been disrupted recently the key  has been a strong and direct link between the producer of products and services and the customer. Think books, music, airline travel, etc. In council affairs this relationship is sometimes more diffuse. The key area of direct contact and pressure is either funding by government or rates. In this efficiency and effectiveness of council service provision are critical. My view is that critical areas to be looking at here are:

  • The development of artificial intelligence systems and robotics. MTR in Hong Kong is already using an AI Boss to supervise and schedule its repairs and maintenance system.. X.ai is supplying an AI as a personal assistant which I have had personal experience with, and it already works well. There are going to be huge opportunities for reducing costs and improving the effectiveness of council service sin the next 5-10 years.
  • Crowd funding as a mechanism to test the real desire of people to get various things done in their community, perhaps by providing matching funding for projects. This has to be carefully managed as it raises the value of the voice of people who have money versus those that do not.
  • The rise of social enterprise were world class business operations also have a social purpose. The Bendigo Community Bank is an example of this where 50% of the profits are returned directly to the community in which the bank operates but there is likely to be big developments in this area.

4/ Concentrate on longer term issues and start the discussions well ahead of time. If pace of change is going to be slow then we need to engage the community in longer term discussions on what change looks like. Examples include:

  • Driverless cars are likely to be adopted in a significant way in the future. The time frame of that wholesale adoption is likely to be 10-20 years away (see post : Implementation of Driverless Cars – A case for public subsidy of private transport systems) but will have significant impacts on requirements for parking, public transport systems, road planning, work/living relationships (changing value of certain suburbs versus others). Council needs to be thinking about these issues well ahead of the adoption curve.
  • The future of local democracy. What does that look like in a networked world, tied in with crowd funding systems, electronic voting systems, virtual reality , etc.
  • The possible havoc that improvements in artificial intelligence and robotics might wreak on employment and what it means to the local economy and job market.

The pace of change is likely to accelerate. Councillors need to step back and see where their limited time can be used to create most value in that future.

Paul Higgins

Councils and Foresight

Yesterday it was both my pleasure and privilege to present a Master Class on Foresight for Councils to the Annual Mayoral Leadership Conference in Victoria run by the Victorian Local Governance Association and Leadership Victoria. I say privilege because it was fantastic to see such a committed and enthusiastic group of people determined to maximise their learning and capacity to make a contribution to their communities in what must be one of the hardest  but most important jobs in politics. This aligns with one of our principles of being engaged in work that helps others make a contribution to their community so it was a privilege in the strongest sense of the word. Here is a summary of what I presented with some additions based on some of their great questions. The structure of the presentation was to talk about some general principles and then to give the participants a taste of some tools they could use in their council activities. The title of presentation was Avoiding the Unknown Unknowns but from the outset I told them that this was an impossible aspiration. That we can get better at looking at what might surprise us but we will still have to react to surprises and there will always be crises to deal with. Foresight is essentially the process of helping people put together a few more pieces of the puzzle they face while recognising there will always be pieces missing The group as a whole were there to learn to think better about what might be happening in the future, to create new approaches to approaching planning and problem solving, and to look at how to open up their organisations and their communities to what the future might hold. The principles that we discussed around these objectives were: 1/ That we all have innate ability to think about the future. We cannot operate in the real world without that capacity. In such a simple process as crossing the road we have to project ourselves into the future by anticipating how fast cars are travelling and when they will arrive at our crossing point. However our brains evolved at a time when the sorts of threats and challenges we faced as human beings were nothing like the complex issues we face in today’s ever changing world. Our brains evolved in an environment where physical threats and challenges were the main issues and so the improving vision systems and pattern recognition systems that were successful in those environments won out. Our brains have not changed much since those times and so we need concepts and processes to augment the natural way in which our brains work. 2/ That getting people and organisations to think about different possible futures automatically increases the chances of spotting meaningful change. If our minds are already tuned to multiple possibilities we are more likely to see signals of change in the events, encounters, and reports that we see every day. 3/ That the use of as many diverse perspectives as possible in engaging in thinking about the future improves our chances of our organisations finding meaningful signs of change. We all have cognitive biases such as confirmation bias where we actively seek out people and information that confirms our “fantastic” decision making or recency bias where we privilege more recent information (see List of cognitive biases , Top 10 Thinking Traps Exposed — How to Foolproof Your Mind, Part I, or  Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions for many more examples). These biases mean that we see the world in a certain way and when talking about future possibilities we favour some forward views of the world, discount some forward views, and downright ignore others. No matter how smart we are these biases affect us and it is very hard to get away from them as an individual. Therefore we need to involve people with diverse backgrounds, ages, training, cultures, etc when looking at what the future might hold because we all look at things a different way depending on those backgrounds. 4/ That context is really important. The decision theorist Gary Klein once said:

“Intuition is the use of patterns you have already learned, whereas insight is the discovery of new patterns”

Some of the really good decision makers I have seen in the past were great because they were great users of their intuition. They had built up a large library of problems they had seen and solutions that worked and they were able to pluck those out and apply them. That is the use of patterns you have already learned. It works fantastically well where the problems repeat themselves and we can re-apply solutions that worked. However we live in a world that is getting more complex and uncertain every year and therefore we encounter more and more novel problems as we move forward.The real skill here is differentiating between problems we are familiar with and applying old solutions to them, and recognising what are new problems and creating new solutions for them. One of the underlying skills in foresight is discovering and understanding the underlying patterns that are driving change. One of the practical applications of foresight is using that to create better decision making by understanding context. One of the best ways to look for ways the world might be changing and more new ideas on strategy is to look at other sectors, other cultures, other industries and other organisations. However the real skill is understanding the context in which those changes are happening and being able to apply that understanding to your context, not just blind copying.

5/ That time frames are really important when trying to get your organisation to rethink what the future might look like. One of the lessons that I have learnt in the practical application of foresight is to extend the time frame well beyond the current strategic plan time frame. This may seem fairly basic as we are talking about the future but it is really important. If we move the discussions beyond current plan time frames then it helps get past current embedded positions. The hardest thing to ask people to do is to go through a long strategic planning process and then six months later ask them to rethink what they have done. After people have spent months grappling with the issues, and fighting for their ideas and views to be represented in the plan and have resources allocated to those ideas they will always fight to preserve those entrenched positions. If you can take people 7-10 years in the future we move move partly beyond those problems and have more open discussions. We can then take any strategy ideas generated by that process back into the present to apply them. As a caveat here I am not a fan of these process being thought of as being 20 or 50 years in the future except in very specific cases because the time frames and too long and not relevant to people.

Later in the session I demonstrated our Trend Sheet Conversation process that utilises different perspectives in an organisation to discuss and prioritise trends and the impact they may have on the organisation. During that process I cautioned the group on being over reliant on trends. All trends are historical in nature as they are based on evidence of what has already happened. All trends change or break at some stage so creating pictures of the future that is reliant solely on project existing trends is a very risky process. To highlight that point I displayed the following picture of total vehicle miles traveled predictions from the US Department of Transport :

transport forecast fiascoVMT-C-P-chart-big1-541x550.png.CROP.original-original

Source: http://www.ssti.us/2013/12/new-travel-demand-projections-are-due-from-u-s-dot-will-they-be-accurate-this-time/ 

It appears that the projections ignored changes in what was really happening on the ground and continued to project previous growth trends into the future despite evidence to the contrary. This is a major issue if national road planning and spending is based on the projections. The post I have linked to above describes the process in more detail. One of the Mayors then asked  a really good question which was how do you deal with this issue if trend projections are being presented to you by council officers or outside experts. This is part of a broader question of how elected councillors question and probe information that is presented to them by experts. My answer was in four parts: Firstly the experts need to be probed on the underlying components of the forecasts. What is driving the assumptions. A key approach here is to break down the numbers into their components. In the case above questions like what are younger drivers doing? what are the effects of increasing urbanisation on miles traveled? If those answers are not forthcoming then the understanding and expertise of the expert has to be called into question. People who really know their stuff will revel in good questions being asked. Secondly ask a series of “what if” questions. This can be phrased by stating something like “lets assume that is the most likely scenario but what happens if the trends change? This can be particularly useful if again the trends are broken down into their component parts. For example “what if young drivers change behaviour?’ or “what if urban densification in our area accelerates?”, or “what if petrol prices fall?” or “what if the demographic mix in our area changes?’This can be particularly useful in identifying risks that are present if the trend breaks or changes Thirdly create a single scenario that details all the things that must remain the same for the trend to remain unbroken. This is very similar to the first process above but can be done in much more creative and story-telling ways that may work better for communication. Fourthly studies show that experts can actually be the worst people for spotting changes in patterns and trends because they are so tied into the existing ways of thinking. Therefore bring alternative outside perspectives into the process of thinking about the trends. This is always useful. I wish the group luck in their leadership roles in their communities in the next year,. I continue to be inspired that there are great people willing to put up their hands and put in the hard work that our communities need Paul Higgins You can see the presentation at Embracing Uncertainty – Mayoral Conference Masterclass Jan 2015 A second blog post : Councils and Foresight – Critical Differences is now available If you want to see more of our work please go to  Emergent Futures

The Board’s Role In Complex and Uncertain Environments – Part Two

Before Christmas I started a series on boards and uncertainty based on a Master Class Workshop for Not for Profit Organisations I presented as part of the Leadership Victoria Director Dynamics Master Class Series : How do successful boards manage the “unknown unknowns”?

You can read that post at:

The Board’s Role In Complex and Uncertain Environments – Part One

This is part two of the series and is focused on boards operating in increasingly complex environments.

If we accept that boards are operating in increasingly complex environments and that complexity creates greater uncertainty then they need to re-asses their roles. Based on the Cossin/Metayer Model described in the last post they have to spend more time in co-creation of strategy and in support of strategy. Cossin and Metayer describe co-creator and supporter roles as:

“By pursuing a co-creative role, boards can help open the minds of executives and steer the strategy debate beyond any cultural blind spots. Such blind spots typically arise from executive myopia due to corporate, historic or strategic biases”

Supporter: “In this role, the board acts largely as a support to management, lending the executive team its credibility and authority (or, in some cases, withholding its support to pressure management)”

Many Not for Profit boards are structured around the supporter roles with the board members contacts in political,economic, and community networks a valuable resource for the organisation.

My focus here is on the role of foresight in co-creation of strategy and the definition above provides a handy starting point as to what can be done to maximise the board’s value in this role. I normally say that structure follows strategy but in terms of boards I think that structure is very important and the reverse is true.

Therefore if a board’s role is to assist management in avoiding blind spots and strategic biases then a diversity of perspectives is critical. This means that when looking at board composition we need to go past the standard skill matching process where industry, financial, and legal expertise are often at the top of the wish list. In not for profit boards we can add fundraising capacity or access to networks as a key skill. Using such a list can result in a largely uniform set of board members with a long history of experience in the industry sector involved. Commonly this is predominantly a group of middle aged to older white males, except in the not for profit sector where more women are involved. This expertise is certainly useful but if it is the overwhelming characteristic of the board then the board will tend to mirror management’s biases rather than expose and question them. In order to get maximum capacity for diverse perspectives and the capacity to contribute to strategy in a complex environment we must get more diversity. This means diversity in gender, culture, technical experience, age, and training.

This is a strong case for more women on boards. Not because it is the right thing to do but because it is better for the organisation.

Secondly if the structure of the board from a perspectives point of view is well constructed then we need to allow the time and space for those perspectives to be brought to bear. Two things need to happen here.

1/ The board must have an ongoing role in strategy discussions rather than strategy being something that is discussed during the strategic planning process. It is more and more common to see strategy being adjusted in a dynamic fashion rather than just in strategic planning cycles. Processes need to be in place to have this as an active process with the board rather than management presenting new alternatives. The foresight part of strategy is focused on opening up the organisation to more possibilities and new ways of thinking. The strategic planning process is more of an analytical and choice making one, closing down the possibilities in order to allocate resources appropriately. The two require different skills and different processes.

2/ Board meetings need to be structured in a way that reflects the environment in which the organisation is operating and the considered role of the board. Too often I have seen board meeting agendas where strategy discussions are the last item on the agenda after financial and compliance issues have been discussed. This means that the supervisor role is being favoured over the other roles.This can either result in the strategy discussion being curtailed as people have commitments to meet, or people participating in strategy discussions when they are mentally and physically tired. This is particularly true of Not for Profit boards that often meet in the evenings. Boards need to assess their ratio of their various roles between supervision, support, and co-creation and then make sure that appropriate time is allocated for each role on that basis. Strategy discussions should always be at the start of the agenda while people are mentally freshest as it is the most challenging part of a directors role.

In the next post I will consider some foresight methodologies and approaches that can be used to complement the board structure and levels of expertise.

The Board’s Role In Complex and Uncertain Environments – Part One

A couple of weeks ago I delivered a Master Class Workshop for Not for Profit Organisations as part of the Leadership Victoria Director Dynamics Master Class Series : How do successful boards manage the“unknown unknowns?

As part of that process I re-examined my own thinking on what board’s should be doing generally in this area and decided I should write down my process of thinking through the issues in a format that allows more examination of the issues than the confines of the workshop.

As the start of the process I was drawn to an MIT Sloan Management Review article written by Didier Cossin and fellow futurist Estelle Metayer :  How Strategic Is Your Board? (sign up required) as I felt it provided a useful framework to overlay foresight thinking and approaches on to

In particular I was struck by the following graphic they used about the board’s role in the context of various operating environments:

Board's role in strategy dependent on context from MIT Sloan Review

In the article Cossin and Metayer have the view that the role of the board varies depending on the context they find the organisation in and that when those contexts change then the board needs to change its role.

My view is that boards are generally operating in an environment that is simple, complicated, or complex and occasionally dipping into chaotic environments, which most people would define as crises. If we look at the graphic from that point of view then boards that are operating towards the right hand side require both a different approach but also more time to commit to the organisation. As the context moves to the right the requirements for a supervisory role do not diminish but the requirements in the rest of the roles increases. More and more boards are operating in complex environments due to the increasing complex, networked and connected world we live in. This presents a problem in its own right.

In my experience a lot of boards and the management have not even thought through the context they operate in this deeply and are not really operating in the optimal way in a relatively stable environment (in this case stable does not mean the opposite of complex or chaotic but that the organisation is operating in one context or another). Thinking through this more deeply is highly valuable for the board because until they have decided what environment they are largely operating in then the role that boards tend to take are dependent on historic operating modes of the organisation, or tried and true ways that directors have operated previously.The problem with this approach is that confronting new problems with old approaches only works if the problem is similar to the old problems.  In my early days as a board director I was enormously impressed by a Chairman who seemed to be a great thinker and strategist. Over time I realised that it was the product of a long experience and applying previous approaches to problems. As the organisation encountered more and more complex environments his ability to strategise fell away dramatically as novel problems and issues presented themselves.

However I am not saying that we all need to start operating in a mode that suits complex environments. This works in both directions. Boards should not apply complex context modes of operating to simple operating environments. There is as much danger in doing that as applying simple modes of operating to complex environments.

I think that this is a particularly apt to thinking about the boards of not for profit organisations because in my experience they have the following issues which differentiate them from commercial boards:

1/ While strategy should be about the exploitation of risk defined by an appropriate understanding of the risk appetite of the organisation many not for profit board members are more concerned with managing their own risks rather than the risks of the organisation. This results in a risk aversion mindset due to their requirement for there not be be “problems on their watch” which means avoiding failure at all cost. Which translates into “avoid highly visual failure at all costs” . However failing by not taking appropriate risks is not as visible and therefore risk is minimised at all costs which includes either constricting the capacity of the organisation or creating crippling compliance requirements. I have witnessed a board that deferred to the lawyer on the board when talking about risk because they felt that he had the appropriate expertise without realising that he was all about building his board resume and looking for other board positions and so was highly risk averse for the wrong reasons. In the context of the framework that Cossin and Metayer have provided this often results in a board being overly supervisory and spending too much time in that role to the cost of their other roles.

2/ Not for profit boards generally have less time to commit to the organisation. This varies tremendously for individual board member, some of which spend an enormous amount of time and effort on the organisation. However the time for collective strategy efforts tends to be constrained by the length of board meetings and how much time the more time pressed directors can spend on the organisation. In the context of the framework presented this means two things. Firstly with limited time boards tend to feel that they have to get the supervisory role right and therefore co-creation tends to take second place. I have worked with several boards where it is the first time they have spent more than an hour on foresight and thinking deeply on their strategy (as opposed to reviewing a strategic plan presented by the management). Secondly in environments that are more complex the time commitments are higher and this makes it more and more difficult for the board to feel that it is carrying out its role well. This can sometimes work well in a chaotic environment  where it is all hands on deck in a heroic stance. However it is far more difficult when operating in a complex environment in an ongoing manner.

Before we move on to my thoughts on the role of the board and the foresight approaches and principles that need to be applied we need to define what is meant by these operating environments. My thinking on this has been greatly influenced by the Cynefin model and Dave Snowden’s thinking and writing. I recommend that you go to Cognitive Edge for a deeper and more nuanced discussion of thee model but basically :

1/ Simple environments are defined by simple cause and effect relationships which can be readily understood where best practice is the main approach.

2/ Complicated environments are defined as where cause and effect are still understandable but they are more complicated. This is the area of systems thinking and expertise. There may be feed back loops and time delays and multiple interactions but with sufficient expertise and analysis they are understandable.

3/ Complex environments are defined by interactions and relationships that are only discernible in retrospect. For example we may now be able to explain why the price of oil has dropped dramatically but a year ago it was impossible to predict because they are so many interacting factors and the reactions of actors in the environment to change cause even more possible forward scenarios. You can start again with the same starting environment and get a completely different future. Some people make the mistake of thinking that expertise is not important here because you cannot understand the system in prospect. However multiple expertise perspectives is the way to operate here. I recommend that you read Dave Snowden’s recent blog on this:

Of experts and expertise

In my next section of this series of posts I will explore what a board can do to operate in increasingly complex environments and then move on to ways of thinking about foresight and strategy.

You can now see that post at:

The Board’s Role In Complex and Uncertain Environments – Part Two

Paul Higgins

The iQ Zeitgeist: Futurists Forecast the World of Tomorrow

As part of the 2nd birthday celebrations of Intel’s IQ platform they have published a 2 part article interviewing 7 international futurists. I am one of them and I feel in pretty good company  as you can see by the list below. Due to space considerations my answers were edited down so I am putting up links to the articles here but also publishing my answers in their entirety:

Brian David Johnson is a futurist at Intel Corporation. His charter is to develop an actionable vision for computing in 2020.

Dan Abelow is an American inventor, author, speaker, and technology consultant. His latest patent-pending invention, the Expandiverse, is new technology to build an advanced Digital Earth today.

Daniel Burrus is a technology forecaster, the founder and CEO of Burrus Research, and the author of six books, including The New York Times bestseller ”Flash Foresight.”

Paul Higgins is an Australian futurist and keynote speaker with a Masters degree in Strategic Foresight; a guest lecturer at Victoria University (Melbourne Australia); a tech editor on Tumblr; a partner at Social Venture Partners International (Melbourne); and a very slow triathlete.

Whitney Johnson is a Managing Director at Springboard Fund, and co-founder of Clay Christensen’s investment firm.

Frank Rose is the author of “The Art of Immersion: How the Digital Generation Is Remaking Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the Way We Tell Stories” and a correspondent for Wired.

Vivek Wadhwa is a Fellow at Stanford University; Director of Research at Duke University’s Center for Entrepreneurship and Research Commercialization at the Pratt School of Engineering; and Distinguished Fellow at Singularity University; and was listed as one of 2013′s 40 Most Influential Minds in Tech by TIME Magazine.

You can read the articles at:

The iQ Zeitgeist: Futurists Forecast the World of Tomorrow Part 1

The iQ Zeitgeist: Futurists Forecast the World of Tomorrow Part 2

 

My answers to the questions in full are below. For those of you who want to read more on some of these issues please refer to my ongoing series of major disruptors here on this blog :

1. Every piece of technology we own or online service we consume has Gordon Moore’s 1965 law as a common denominator (Moore’s Law = # of transistors doubling in microchips about every two years). Based on this, how do you think the tech landscape will change in 2 years, 4 years, and 8 years from now? Describe what a typical person’s day might be like at the office and at home.

[Paul Higgins]

Our view is that we have reached the point where with all this technology in the hands of hundreds of millions of people who are all capable of innovating both the hardware and the software platforms it is the height of arrogance to forecast what will happen. What I do know is that there will be enormous change and innovation based on the disruptive effect of these technologies.

2. Which technologies do you think will have the biggest impact on the humankind by 2025? 2050?

[Paul Higgins]

By 2025 I think that the most impactful technology beyond what we are seeing today likely to be driverless cars and while by 2050 artificial intelligence is likely to have the greatest impact. It is possible that large scale implementation of driverless cars can be done in many countries by that date although it is likely to be a little slower. Driverless cars have the capacity to create wholesale change across our communities with significant reductions in road trauma, requirements for hospital resources, and greatly reducing the capital investment needed in cars. The effects will go wider than this with significant impacts on the car manufacturing supply chain worldwide, elimination of the taxi industry, airport parking, and big changes in road and public transport infrastructure as well as urban planning.

The effects of significant levels  artificial intelligence are almost unimaginable. Combined with improvements in robotic technology they have the capacity to wipe out large swathes of current jobs and I am unsure whether the new jobs that are created will replace them. If this occurs we may see a fundamental restricting of the economy and a complete rethinking of people’s relationship to work. My fear is that this will be played out as a have and have not type of scenario and while here may be a strong chance of a rosy future that some science fiction paints the path to that future my be traumatic and tumultuous.

 

3. What technology / innovation that’s currently in development are you most excited about?

[Paul Higgins]

Rapid developments in artificial intelligence are the most exciting from my point of view, both in their capacity to enrich our lives but also from a risk point of view. The problems with artificial Intelligence capabilities have been a lot more stubborn than many people envisaged they would be and we commonly underestimate the capacity of our own brains which we should stand in constant awe of. However developments in both understanding of the brain, increases in computing power and the development of systems able to understand natural language and concepts are all driving us forward faster than in the past. Major projects such as The European and US Brain projects, and the development of technologies such as neuromorphic computer chips promise big leaps in our understanding and capacities over the next decade.

 

4. What will the role of tablets be in the future? How do you see personal computers evolving as they’ve gone from desktop, laptop, ultrabook, 2 in 1 and tablets?

 

[Paul Higgins] I think that we will naturally move towards wearable systems that will become more integrated into our lives. I cannot recall who said it but there is a line that I like that goes something like “it is when the technology disappears when it gets really interesting”. So in the not too distant future the use of smartphones and tablets will seem a little archaic. Wearable technology is at its early stages now and people are still fumbling around for a solution or combination of solutions that really work. However we tend to forget that tablets of different kinds were around for a long time before the iPad got such widespread adoption. Ongoing increases in computing power, changes in user interfaces, continuing miniaturisation and reduced energy requirements, plus rapid trialling of different systems and business models will move us a long way down this path in the next five years. The interfaces we deal with are likely to be even more intuitive than the ones that we have today and be a combination of wearable technology, cloud computing and projected interfaces that can be easily controlled through speech and motion.

 

5. Will humans ever decide to forgo real-life companions for virtual ones?

 

[Paul Higgins] Absolutely on several fronts. If we finally move to uploading our own consciousness (which I have significant doubts on) then virtual artificial companions are likely to be indistinguishable from “real” ones anyway. Before that in a world where we have had pet rocks, and people (including my 7 year old niece) have named their Roombas, and increasing people seem to be living alone I think that it is highly likely that semi-intelligent virtual companions are not far away.

 

6. What can we do today to prepare for technological advances of the future?

[Paul Higgins]

I always think of this in terms of a dog getting in a car and being driven along with the window open. They just accept the technology and embrace it and do not care about the technology as such, more about the experience. They just hang out the window with their tongue out and exude pure enjoyment. I think that the best thing that we can do is to embrace new technology and experiment with it continually. I do despair at times though that we are using these great technologies for trivial purposes and that some of the brightest brains in the world are focused on trivial applications because that is where the money is. We need to think a lot more deeply about the human and social applications of existing and new technologies because in the end that is all that really counts. I get depressed about technology when I read stuff like Michael Lewis’ latest book Flash Boys which describes about the use of technology to get a few milliseconds ahead of the market and cream off huge amounts of money without adding any value. At the same time I am enormously buoyed by the large numbers of people who I meet and work with who are totally engaged in making the world a better place. Last year I spoke at the Nexus Youth Philanthropy Summit in Australia and was blown away by the people in the room , mostly in their twenties, who were all doing fantastic things with technology and in particular social applications. It made me tired just to read their biographies but gave me enormous hope for the future.

 

7. Which prediction of yours didn’t come true (if any) that you were most disappointed about?

[Paul Higgins] In our work we actually eschew predictions as we believe that prediction does not work at any meaningful level of detail. Instead we work with people to envisage multiple futures and then to work with the uncertainty that is inherent in that approach and the real world. That has changed over time and we work a lot closer to the present than we used to. Having said that one of my big misses in picking up how things might we be used was the use of cameras on phones. I certainly did not consider how much they would be used and how important they would become in a personal and a political sense.

 

8. What films or books do you think best represent the future of technology? Will the world become The Jetsons soon?

[Paul Higgins] I am an avid reader of science fiction, both for enjoyment and for thinking about my own work. In that area I tend to read further in the future than our work is based. My favourite authors/books are:

 

Iain Banks and the Culture series. Sadly he passed away last year way before his time. The depiction of a society where work is no longer required and where idiosyncratic AIs run much of the systems, and structures is both highly entertaining and stimulating to think about.

 

Ramez Naam who wrote Nexus and Crux and who is on the short list for the Arthur C Clark award this year writes about nanotechnology and the possibilities of inserting it into our brains in order to both have more capacity, but also to commune with others. Couched in a political battle between idealists and governments seeking to control the technology it provides an interesting social perspective. I am also proud to have him as a Twitter follower.

 

Hannu Rajaniemi who wrote Quantum Thief and Fractal Prince and the upcoming Causal Angel writes really interesting fiction on the far future and harnessing of quantum physics. So dense that I have to go back and re-read the previous one to fully understand the next one.

 

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is a favourite. It depicts a future world where there is conflict between the haves and the have nots where there has been environmental and technological disasters including climate change that are hinted at rather than described.

 

David Brin writes superbly on all sorts of areas of future technology and the dangers of ecological collapse, and is another Twitter follower I am proud to have,

 

And of course William Gibson, whose seminal book Neuromancer contributed significantly to my interest in science fiction and the field in general.

 

I would recommend that people read widely of these authors and others to think of all sorts of possible futures rather than nominating a particular book or film that best represents a future which is inherently unknowable

 

 

 

Implementation of Driverless Cars – A case for public subsidy of private transport systems

My family had a vigorous discussion over the Christmas break on driverless car technologies and the implementation timetable and pathway (yes we are like that, and if you don’t like it don’t turn up).

While we disagreed on the timelines there was general agreement that the technology is inevitable and desirable. My view was that there is a strong case for government subsidies to implement the technology which has some similar network effects as the fax machine: who buys the first fax machine?

Now, having a driverless car has some initial advantages, even if you are the only adopter. For instance if you can read/work/sleep instead of driving it is a great time saver while reducing your chances of having an accident. However the benefits of us all having driverless cars are far greater because network benefits accumulate exponentially as the number of vehicles with the technology grows.

This means that there is a significant case for a huge publicly funded effort for implementation to maximise early adoption rates. This was reinforced for me in the last week while reading several items:

The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups

Audi’s traffic light assistance helps you hit every green light

The Men Who United the States: The Amazing Stories of the Explorers, Inventors and Mavericks Who Made America

In the New Killer Apps the authors describe some of the cost savings that implementation of driverless cars in the USA including:

“The American Automobile Association studied crash data in the ninety-nine largest urban areas in the United States and estimated the total accident-related costs— including medical costs, loss of productivity, legal costs, travel delays, pain, and lost quality of life— to be roughly $ 300 billion. Adjusting those numbers to cover the entire country suggests annual costs of about $ 450 billion. Now take 90 percent off these numbers. Google claims its car could save almost 30,000 lives each year on US highways, prevent nearly two million additional injuries, and reduce accident-related expenses by at least $ 400 billion a year”

Mui, Chunka; Carroll, Paul (2013-12-02). The New Killer Apps: How Large Companies Can Out-Innovate Start-Ups (pp. 19-20). Cornerloft Press. Kindle Edition.

They also go on to postulate that there would be other savings include fuel costs due to more efficient driving, and productivity improvements due to time saving. They also state that the demand for cars would be reduced by 90% due to improved utilisation of vehicles. While it is true there would be reduced demand for cars I highly doubt it would be at this level because the reduced demand theory is largely based on the fact that we only use use our cars a small percentage of the time. I no longer have a car for this reason and use Flexicar a local car sharing service. In Australia the data indicates we only use our cars on average 4% of the time and they lie idle the rest of the time. However the figure of 90% reduction in car demand is likely to be an exaggeration due to two factors:

  1. There will be a requirements for cars at peak times that will need to be filled, meaning that at other times there will still be a large capacity underutilisation.
  2. If we increase the overall capacity utilisation of our cars then they will not last as long. If we increase average car utilisation to say 20% then we will increase the mileage of our cars 5 times. In Australia that would mean moving average distance traveled to 70,000 km per year instead of the current 14,000 ( 9208.0 – Survey of Motor Vehicle Use, Australia, 12 months ended 30 June 2012 ). That means a 5 year old car would have traveled 350,000 km so changeover rates would be much higher. (there are some interesting design issues here – designing and building cars with greater durability while still allowing technology updates for instance)

There are clearly huge savings to be made in implementation of a true driverless car system if the Google assumptions are only partly correct.

In the Audi story the article states:

“Using both live and predictive data beamed into the vehicle’s navigation unit via onboard wifi, TLA doesn’t need a single camera to tell you when the light is going to change. Local data sources provide information about traffic light patterns, and the in car system uses that data and the motion of the car to predict exactly how long it’ll be until the green light goes red”

Clearly this does not work that well unless almost everyone is on the system. If drivers ahead of you are travelling too slowly for the system or brake suddenly then it would not be of much value. Also if you were travelling slowly to match your speed against when the next light would change and behind you was a trail of angry drivers trying to pass you then it could cause more problems than it solves. This magically disappears if all cars are on the system and fuel and time efficiency are gained as well as reduced accidents.

This is what I mean by network efficiencies. There must be a tipping point at which once there are enough driverless cars on the roads that benefits start to accrue more quickly and more adoption takes place. For instance if nearly all the cars on the road were driverless and communicating with each other then travel time information would be greatly improved. However the benefits accrue to different sections of the community rather than just accruing to the user, and accrue at different time frames, and there will be many self interested parties. The following are just a few examples:

  • Reduced accident rates mean a huge reduction in physical trauma and medical costs on top of the reduction in emotional trauma. This is largely saved in the government sector both in operating costs but also in continuing demand for new hospital facilities (this is also complicated by demographic changes, growth of cities, and urban intensification).
  • Individual car owners will save money in the longer term but will have the legacy costs of their current vehicles and their financing costs which may inhibit adoption and cause political backlashes. For instance if you new car is suddenly almost worthless and you have a car loan against the asset what do you do?
  • A number of sectors will miss out on income. The government will miss out on speeding fines and drink driving fines. Panel beaters, car insurers,and car manufacturers will all suffer significant revenue losses as will taxi operators and taxi licence holders.
  • If the general public came to the conclusion that large scale adoption of driverless cars was a good thing and about to happen in the next 3 years new car sales would plummet. Who would buy a new car today if it was virtually worthless in 3 years time?

Which brings me to Simon Winchester’s fine book,The Men Who United the States. In it he describes how a young Eisenhower was part of an army project to cross the USA by road in 1919 to test the capability the road system for military transport in case of war (Lt. Col. Dwight D. Eisenhower – Transcontinental Motor Convoy, 1919).Winchester claims that this experience led to Eisenhower’s long term commitment to the National road system which was later built at the cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and changed the nature of America.

There is a similar case for a large scale public investment in the adoption of driverless cars across the world. As many of the benefits accrue to government through lower costs in the health system then there is an overriding case for the government to get involved on several levels:

  • Implementation of the necessary technology systems outside of the cars themselves which link the cars to the rest of the transport system including traffic light systems.
  • A major effort to overcome any legislative barriers and risk issues, and coordinating national approaches to the problems. As an example the implementation of all this technology is likely to result in more accurate data on causes of accidents even if the overall numbers fall significantly. There will be cases where failures in the car technology causes an accident. In that case the manufacturers are likely to be held liable for the costs in that accident through the courts. At the same time the manufacturers would not accrue any of the benefits of the large reductions in accidents flowing from the technology adoption. There is a strong case for governments sharing those costs with the manufactures to reduce the costs of implementation ( I would be against indemnifying the manufacturers as they need some skin in the game).
  • Public subsidy of the system in a similar way that we subsidise private road use and public transport systems now but at least initially for a different reason. There is likely to be significant barriers to adoption of the technology which will be tied to initial costs and social attitudes. In a networked system such as large scale of adoption of driverless cars the advantages accrue much faster with higher rates of adoption. A pure business case can be made to government subsidising the system in the initial phase to significantly reduce costs and ramp up adoption rates with the payback being more rapid reduction in government costs.

Beyond all the economic arguments the human cost of road trauma is enormous and long lasting. As someone who was hit by a car 2 years ago and was lucky to escape with some serious injuries which I have mostly recovered from I have enormous sympathy for those who have not been so lucky. I was in hospital for 10 days and had 4 anesthetics and two lots of surgery but the day I left a patient in my ward was being moved to rehab after being in hospital for over 3 months, with the prospect of never walking normally again. I was able to compete in a triathlon again last Sunday in an embarrassingly slow time but at least I could finish. My thoughts go constantly to those who have not been so lucky.

My question is where are the visionary leaders of our time who will take on the huge challenge of implementing a system that can change the lives of thousands of people over the next 50 years? Who will hold the experience of meeting a severely injured car accident victim in their head in the same way Eisenhower held in his head the difficulties of crossing the USA in 1919 and set about changing the system?

Paul Higgins

Further Links:

Large-scale trial of driverless cars to begin on public roads

The world’s first large-scale test of driverless cars will involve 100 Volvos taking to the streets of Gothenburg in 2017

BMW FORECASTS CARS WILL BE HIGHLY AUTOMATED BY 2020, DRIVERLESS BY 2025.

U.K. town will build driverless podcar system

Milton Keynes, a town of more than 200,000 people, announced that it will begin a pilot program for a transit system that uses driverless, electric podcars starting in 2015.

The £65 million pilot project will use 100 podcars (that can hold two passenger each) which can be summoned by a smartphone. The initial test will have the podcars travel on a one mile route between the city’s train station and shopping centers and offices. Each ride will cost £2. The pilot will run for two years and continue if the test run is positive, possibly even spreading to other cities in the U.K.

Further links posted up by futurist P A Martin Börjesson:

New IHS Automotive study forecasts nearly 12 million yearly self-driving cars sales and almost 54 million in use on global highways by 2035

The Driverless City

 

Update:

Volvo’s first self-driving cars now being tested live on public roads in Swedish city

More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter – Is it Bad Public Policy?

Over at NPR there is a story:

More Than 300 Sharks In Australia Are Now On Twitter

(seen via Estelle Mayer)

A shark warning is displayed near Gracetown, Western Australia, in November. An Australian man was killed by a shark near the area that month, sparking a catch-and-kill order.

It commences:

“Sharks in Western Australia are now tweeting out where they are — in a way.

Government researchers have tagged 338 sharks with acoustic transmitters that monitor where the animals are. When a tagged shark is about half a mile away from a beach, it triggers a computer alert, which tweets out a message on the Surf Life Saving Western Australia Twitter feed. The tweet notes the shark’s size, breed and approximate location.

Since 2011, Australia has had more fatal shark attacks than any other country; there have been six over the past two years — the most recent in November.

The tagging system alerts beach goers far quicker than traditional warnings, says Chris Peck, operations manager of Surf Life Saving Western Australia. “Now it’s instant information,” he tells Sky News, “and really people don’t have an excuse to say we’re not getting the information. It’s about whether you are searching for it and finding it.”

This is sort of an interesting use of technology but is it good public policy and use of resources? The article quotes that 6 people have died here in Australia from shark attacks since 2011 and certainly when they occur they are tragedies for the families involved and get a lot of public coverage.

However to put this in context almost 4,000 people died on our roads from 2011 to 2013 (statistics from BITRE and the ABC). With the beach crazy culture we have I would therefore think that the risk of driving to the beach is higher than being attacked by sharks by multiple factors.

There is something primal about the the thought of being attacked by a shark and I have certainly had those feelings while surfing or ocean swimming for triathlon training. There is also something about the thought that when we get behind the wheel that we are in control as compared to sitting in a plane or being attacked in the water.

The reality is that when we enter the domain of the shark we hand ourselves over to the elements and we live in a modern controlled world where that is unusual for billions of people in cities. However we shouldn’t allow those factors to skew our view of where money should be spent to reduce loss or suffering. If we want to limit public spending by reducing tax takes and minimising our own payments as much as possible we need resources spent in the best possible way, not driven by our emotional biases.

The story of our road toll here in Australia is a great one of steady reductions with a 29% reduction from 2003 to 2012 when looked at from a fatalities/100,000 population basis. I am not an expert on these issues but I find it hard to believe that funds spent on furthering this progress would be less well spent than tagging sharks and getting them to tweet. It may be that the notification part is a small amount of a project for other reasons and therefore the spend is justified but the debate should be had.

Far too much of our public policy is driven by emotion rather than careful analysis. A case in point is climate change policy. I am a strong believer in climate change and man’s contribution to it. That also means we have to marshal our resources and spend them wisely. However there have been some crazy policies here in Australia that have been middle class welfare rather than effective climate change policies (the Productivity Commission has detailed some of these).

The effective use of foresight requires the careful analysis of policies and their possible effects in the real world and then making the hard choices. That does not mean that it is all about logic and analysis because human beings and communities do not live by logic. It does mean that logic and critical thought has to play a central part.

I will be scared of sharks when I enter the ocean, I just don’t want significant amounts of public money spent on reducing the risk or my fears. We have greater challenges.

Paul Higgins