Oct 122014

A  cute little story appeared on the BBC website today about the Teatreneu club, a comedy venue in Barcelona using facial recognition technology to charge for laughs.

In a related story, the Wall Street Journal reports on how marketers are scanning online pictures to identify the people engaging with their brands and the context they’re being used.

With the advances in recognition technology and deeper, faster analytics it’s now becoming feasible that anything you do that’s posted online or being monitored by things like CCTV is now quite possibly recognise you, the products your using and the place you’re using them in.

Throw all of the data gathered by these technologies into the stew of information that marketers, companies and governments are already collecting and there a myriad of  good and bad applications which could be used.

What both stories show is that technology is moving fast, certainly faster than regulatory agencies and the bulk of the public realise. This is going to present challenges in the near future, not least with privacy issues.

For the Teatreneu club, the experiment should be interesting given rich people tend to laugh less; they may find the folk who laugh the most are the people least able to pay 3o Euro cents a giggle.

Jun 282014
newspapers are dying as the media business models move online

You know a product has problems when retailers start start moving it out of key retail positions. When the product was the retailers’ core business, you know the entire industry is in serious trouble.

Mark Fletcher describes in the Newsagency Blog how he’s moved his city’s number two selling paper off the main level of his newspaper display.

“Sales are not paying for the space,” Mark says bluntly.

Newsagents relegating newspaper fits nicely into Ross Dawson’s Newspaper Extinction Timeline, in the case of Mark Fletcher’s newsagency Dawson sees the Australian newspaper industry vanishing by 2022.

For newsagents the signals have been clear for some time that they have to adapt to a society where paper based products – newspapers, stationery and greeting cards – aren’t in demand.

The process of adapting isn’t easy or smooth – many experiments will fail and even the smartest business people will make expensive mistakes. That’s the nature of evolution.

Newsagents though are just one example of changing marketplaces, there’s few industries that aren’t being disrupted by the technology and economic changes of our times. All of us are going to have to adapt to a rapidly changing world.


Jun 012014
how are we using data in our business

Late last month writer, painter and software developer Maciej Ceglowski spoke at the design and technology conference, Beyond Tallerand in Dusseldorf.

The Internet with a Human Face is his closing keynote for the conference – let’s try to kill that kill that awful term ‘locknote’ for closing presentations – and is a wonderful overview of the unintended consequences of the internet we’re now seeing emerge.

Maciej compares the internet’s effects with that of the motor car in the Twentieth Century – the rise of the automobile totally changed society in ways our great grandparents couldn’t have expected.

Unexpected consequences

In many respects the changes were positive; the age of the motor car saw massive increases in living standards through the second half of the century. However the immediate downside of those efficient supply chains were equally massive increases in obesity rates, suburban alienation and urban sprawl.

A similar thing is happening with this wave of technological changes; as Maciej describes in our presentation, our views of how the web was going to evolve is turning out to be very different to what we expected.

One great example is in small business advertising where we expected online channels would democratise marketing. Instead the exact opposite has happened.

Maciej’s view is far broader than just the relatively trivial problem of small business advertising, particularly with the ‘Internet never forgetting’ with the concentration of the industry in one of the world’s great earthquake zones as another major risk.

Building an internet we’re not ashamed of

Ultimately, though Maciej sees the problems facing the internet industry as a design problem.

“I have no idea how to fix it. I’m hoping you’ll tell me how to fix it. But we should do something to fix it. We can try a hundred different things. You people are designers; treat it as a design problem! How do we change this industry to make it wonderful again? How do we build an Internet we’re not ashamed of?”

While being ashamed is a big call, and probably unfair in that it’s like blaming Henry Ford for 2014 childhood obesity rates in Minnesota, Maciej has flagged that there are real adverse unintended consequences to the way the internet is evolving.

All of us involved in the industry need to recognise those adverse effects and start acting to fix these problems.

Apr 302014

Many of us are still getting comfortable with the idea of 3D printing, but MIT’s Skylar Tibbits is working on a fourth dimension that he hopes will move us into a more elegant era of design.

Ahead of Skylar’s visit to Sydney for the Vivid Festival in June, Decoding the New Economy had the opportunity to interview him about what 4D printing is and his quest to create materials that can build themselves.

What is 4D printing

“We called it 4D printing because we wanted to add the ability for things to change and transform over time,” explains Skylar. “Time is the fourth dimension.”

Skylar’s mission at MIT’s Self Assembly Lab is to create materials that assemble themselves. In a TED presentation he demonstrates how these materials may work and the philosophy behind them.

Part of that search involves developing techniques for building large and complex structures from small components. “People know and utilise this in biology, chemistry and material science domains and we’re trying to translate that into larger scale applications.”

Avoiding big machines

“We don’t want to build bigger machines than the things we want to build, we want to build distributed systems,” Skylar continues. “If you want to build a skyscraper, you don’t want to build a skyscraper sized machine.”

Not only does this philosphy offer benefits for manufacturing and building but it may also save energy, transport and labour costs as things can automatically build themselves once they’re delivered to a customer.

“Materials should be able to assemble themselves or at least error correct or respond to active energy. There’s a whole application of packaging and minimising volume after manufacturing and transforming on site.”

Over time they could also adapt to changed conditions Skylar believes: “There’s also how products themselves can transform and be smarter adapt to my demands or adapt to the environment as it’s fluctuating around.”

Redefining the makers’ movement

Worldwide we’ve seen the rise of the makers’ movement as affordable 3D printing and cheap electronics has made it possible to build new things; Skylar sees the Self Assembly Lab as being part of, but slightly apart from this group.

“We make machines that make things, we’re integrated into that theme. We’re arguing that people can collaborate with materials and materials can be collaborative. It’s not just us making stuff and forcing materials into place, it’s materials making themselves.

“A lot of methods are top down, big machines force materials into place and we’re trying to argue you can have bottom up applications in manufacturing.”

So more than just simply printing components, Skylar sees the opportunity for embedding the intelligence into components so they can assemble themselves; the real task lies in programming the materials.

 The internet of elegant solutions

Similarly, Skylar sees the internet of things as being a far more passive, perhaps even friendlier, field than that dominated by machines and plastics.

“It’s not about the number of sensors and electronics and motor and things so that we can make these smart devices, we’re interested in how materials and fundamentally elegant solutions responding to external energy can have the same capabilities.”

“We certainly believe in a connected internet of things, but it’s more a material based internet of things.”

“I think that any solution in the beginning you throw a lot of money, technology and motors at it but over time you find more elegant solutions where materials can do more for you.”

“The wearable space is a good example where people don’t want to wear electronics all over their bodies, they don’t want bulky things that are expensive and hard to assemble and clunky to wear.”

“You want materials that you want your skin to touch, so we’re trying to find elegance in the solutions with smart devices.”

Seeding the forest

The challenge for Skylar, the Self Assembly Lab and those looking at changing the worlds of design and manufacturing is – like many other fields – funding.

Material sciences, particularly those being explored at the MIT, have long lead times that aren’t suited to the current Silicon Valley led model of innovation and Skylar believes we need a different model.

“We need to invest in super, long term radical innovation, to seed the economy and global technology development. We gained substantially in the Silicon Valley model with short term wins – with apps and simple technologies with incremental progress.”

“It’s sort of like we need to seed the forest, we can’t just keep taking all these things from the top like low hanging fruit we need to create a forest effect so that we create many new technologies.”

What comes out that forest of 4D printing and smart materials is anyone’s guess; but if Skylar Tibbits has his way, it will certainly be elegant.

Apr 152014

Today has been a big day for Australian navel-gazing with a range of reports released on the country’s prospects on in the Twenty-First Century.

One of the reports was the Joined Up Innovation survey commissioned by Microsoft and written by PwC, I wrote a story for Business Spectator on the results.

While the Microsoft report focused on the small business sector, Startup Aus released their Crossroads report that warns Australia is falling behind the rest of the world. Smart Company’s Rose Powell has a more detailed summary of the report.

Alan Noble, head of Google’s Australian Engineering operations warns, “we still lag behind many other nations, with one of the lowest rates of startup formation in the world, and one of the lowest rates of venture capital investment.”

“If we fail to address this, we risk forfeiting over $100 billion in economic benefits from emerging tech companies, and an irreversible decline in Australia’s competitiveness.”

Looking in from the outside

Particularly notable from the two surveys is that the discussion about Australia’s tech competitiveness is the debate is being led by two local employees of US Multinationals.

For a local perspective, the Macrobusiness blog joins the day’s chorus with a long examination of the risks to Australia’s living standards by being too far down the global value chain.

In the Business Spectator piece, I compared some of PwC’s recommendations with the efforts of the UK and Singapore to rebuild their manufacturing industries.

Australia’s collective decision

For Australia, it’s probably way too late to worry about most of the manufacturing industry as in the 1980s the country made a collective – and almost unanimous – decision to shift the economy to being resources and high value added services.

The high value added services haven’t eventuated; mainly because the internet has shifted the global dynamics towards lower cost centres and partly because Australian business leaders decided it was easier to exploit their domestic market power rather than compete globally.

Mining proved to be a better bet, more by the accident of China’s turn of the century boom rather than any deliberate policy, however the industry employs less than ten percent of the workforce and the vast majority of Australians living in the South East corner of the country have little contact with the resources industry.

A consumerist utopia

For most Australians, employment and prosperity relies upon a growing population driving city GDP growth with domestic wealth supported by buoyant property prices. Australia truly is the consumerist utopia.

As a result of a booming, seemingly unstoppable, housing market and an expending resources sector, Australia’s exchange rate has soared while the nation’s productivity has slumped.

Making matters worse is that outside of mining and a few agricultural markets most of Australia’s industry is grossly expensive by global standards and suffering from chronic under-investment.

An unsustainable economic model

That model is not sustainable, it will take one shock to Australia’s housing market to see the good burghers of Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne impoverished so the nation’s continued prosperity requires something to drive the economy beyond low interest rates and Chinese commodity purchases.

Whether Australia’s business and political leadership are capable of hearing and reacting to these reports remains to be seen, but they will have no excuse to say they weren’t warned.

Mar 302014

The latest Decoding the New Economy video is an interview with wine photographer Charles O’Rear.

Charles was on tour with Microsoft to promote the end of Windows XP, it was his photo of a Napa Valley hillside that became the background feature the system’s default ‘Bliss’ theme.

The interview is a long ranging discussion on how photojournalism has changed over the last four decades along with the evolution of both the art and science of photography itself.

Mar 012014
now hiring happy workers

Last October, ahead of the company’s Orlando Symposium, Gartner Research Director Kenneth Brant released a paper looking at the effects of technology on the workplace.

“Most business and thought leaders underestimate the potential of smart machines to take over millions of middle-class jobs in the coming decades,” Brant wrote. “Job destruction will happen at a faster pace, with machine-driven job elimination overwhelming the market’s ability to create valuable new ones.”

Brant’s view about middle class jobs is a sobering thought, many of the corporate ‘knowledge worker’ positions can be easily replaced by computers to make the decisions now being made by armies of mid level managers, bean counters and clerks.

Indeed the whole concept of ‘knowledge worker’ that was fashionable in the 1980s and early 90s in describing the post-industrial workforce of nations like the US, Britain and Australia is undermined by the rise of powerful computers and well crafted algorithms to do the jobs unemployed steel workers and seamstresses were going to do.

Twenty years later and the ‘knowledge workers’ had morphed into the ‘creative class’ and it appears the computers are coming for them, too.

Personally, I subscribe to the view in the medium to long term new jobs in new industries will evolve – a view shared by economists like GE’s chief economist, Marco Annunziata.

Over the next decade however there’s no doubt we’ll be seeing great disruption to established industries and the hostility to Google buses in San Francisco may be just an early taste of a greater antagonism to the technology community in general.

For managers, the problems are more complex; while their own departments, corporate power bases and even their own jobs are at risk, they are going to have to find ways to incorporate these changes into their own business. Gartner warns CIOs in its briefing paper;

The impact will be such that firms that have not begun to develop programs and policies for a “digital workforce” by 2015 will not perform in the top quartile for productivity and operating profit margin improvement in their industry by 2020. As a direct result, the careers of CIOs who do not begin to champion digital workforce initiatives with their peers in the C-suite by 2015 will be cut short by 2023.

Few industries are going to be untouched by the disruptions of the next decade and the resultant job losses are going to present challenges for all of us.