Aug 192015
Stagecoaches were dominant in the 19th Century but failed when technology changed

One of the constant questions posed to anyone reporting on the technologies changing the workforce is “where are the jobs coming from?”

A paper by Deloitte UK economists Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole titled Technology and people: The great job-creating machine looks at how technological change has affected the British workforce over the past 170 years.

While the study itself seems somewhat hard to get hold of, The Guardian earlier this week reported on what the economists found when they examined employment patterns through the rapidly changing economy of the last 150 years.

One clear shift the collapse in manual jobs, particularly farm labourers whose numbers fell from a peak of 950,000 in 1881 – 7% of the workforce – to less than 50,000 or 0.02% in 2012.


The decline in the employment of farm labourers shouldn’t be surprising – in 1871 the proportion of the British workforce employed in agriculture was 15% while today it is less than 1%. A graph from the UK Census office illustrates that shift.


It’s notable comparing the UK to the US in this respect; at the beginning of the Twentieth Century nearly half the US workforce was still working in agriculture while the Britain had been a predominantly service economy for nearly fifty years.

Even today nearly 3% of American workers are employed on farms, a number not seen in Britain since the mid 1930s.

In both countries, the late Twentieth Century saw a shift to a service economy, something illustrated in the Deloitte survey by the rise of the British barman where the proportion of workers in the liquor industry tripled from 0.2% of the workforce between 1961 and today.


That British bar employment tripled in the post World War II years probably illustrates best the rise of the consumerist culture during the late 20th Century.

What should be flagged is those transitions away from agriculture to consumerism weren’t painless, much of Britain’s economy was racked by recessions through the Twentieth Century and many of the nation’s regions were devastated by the shift away from manufacturing in the 1970s and 80s.

In the US, the transition away from an agricultural economy in the 1920s was particularly painful, Steinbeck’s book the Grapes of Wrath tells of the human costs to families displaced from their mid-west farms during that time.

That technological and economic factors have driven massive changes over the centuries isn’t new, but the fact the vast majority of today’s workforce are in jobs which couldn’t have been imagined a hundred years ago should encourage us about the prospects for the future workforce.

However, assuming the future will look like today and that employment will be largely in consumer service industries may be as mistaken of the beliefs among 1960s policy makers that manufacturing would be the future.

Even more pressing for today’s policy makers and leaders is to prepare for the pain of transition. If we are seeing a workforce shifting to new business models then there will be high community and personal costs. We need to be preparing for the pain of the shift as much as we anticipate the benefits.

Aug 182015
How do mobile phone users reduce costs

One of the things we know about the future is the workplace will be very different. Just as the Personal Computer changed offices in the 1990s, the smartphone and tablet computer are changing today’s.

Part of that change though is being driven by the change in generations. While this blog tries to avoid falling into the trap of generalising about different age cohorts – and contends the entire concept of baby boomers as an economic group is flawed – there are undoubtedly differences between the world of the PC generation of workers and that of the new mobile breed.

The key difference is the idea that work devices are different to those at home. Those of us bought up with the idea that the office computers would be tightly locked workstations – in the 1990s we also had the quaint idea corporate desktops were generally more powerful than what we had at home – are now seeing that way of working being abandoned.

For the next generation of office workers, accessing corporate resources through an app connected to a cloud service will be as normal as opening Windows NT to access the shared corporate drive was 15 years ago.

Along with the technology and generational change driving businesses into the cloud-app computing world there’s also the needs of a much more fluid and mobile workforce. The shift to casualisation began well before PCs arrived on desktops but the process is accelerating as we see crowdsourcing and the ‘uberization’ of industries.

Older workers will adapt as well, many came through the evolution of business computing from ‘green screen’ displays – if their businesses had any at all – through to the server based systems of recent years. For them the shift to smartphones might be troublesome for those with fading eyesight, but it won’t be the first change.

For businesses this shift means they have to start planning for the mobile services that will change workforces and industries. The shift is already well underway – accounting software company Intuit estimates small businesses already use an average of 18 apps to run their business.

We all have to start thinking about how these apps can be used to manage our staff and workforces.

Aug 132015
General Electric GEnx jet engine is social media enabled

Technologies like the internet of things, cloud computing, 3D printing and big data are changing our industries and society. At the ACI Connect event today, I gave a presentation on some of the opportunities, risks and ethical issues facing technologists and engineers in the connected economy.

While many of the engineering principles underlying these technologies aren’t new, their scale and the power they give businesses and governments means there are serious ethical, security and societal issues we have to consider.

This presentation explores some of those issues and the technologies and trends driving them.

Entering the Data era

A conceit among technologists is that we’re in an unprecedented era of change. This is not true.

The Twentieth Century saw massive restructuring of our society as the telephone, mains electricity, the motor car and television changed our society. Many of today’s settled industries came out of the huge technological steps forward over the last hundred years.

Just as cheap energy – delivered to us through the motor car and mains electricity – defined the Twentieth Century, this century will be defined by easily accessible and abundant information.

Those changes over the last hundred years give us some hint as to where we are going; the shifts that saw coal carters, newspaper sellers and night soil men eventually become extinct, along with a shift from a largely agricultural workforce to industrialised employment, is going to be repeated this century as information becomes abundant.

Harnessing the Internet of bees

Cheap and small sensors mean it’s easier to put a chip on something. In this case we have a CSIRO project tracking bee activity where Tasmanian scientists have put tracking devices on bees.

Those tracking devices would have weighed several hundred grams and cost hundreds of dollars ten years ago but today they are small and cheap enough to fit onto the backs of bees.

Being able to deploy these sensors means we can fit them to things we couldn’t have imagined a few years ago and the data they generate is going to give us insights into patterns and behaviours we couldn’t have contemplated.

However not all of this data is useful or necessary and some may even be damaging to individuals and groups. One ethical question we have to ask ourselves is whether it is in the community’s interests to collect this information.

Another aspect of connecting devices, or even animals and people, to the Internet or a network is it opens the possibility of hacking, as we’ve seen in the recent Jeep case where engineers showed they could control a vehicle remotely. The security and privacy aspects of the IoT are critical and something designers and product engineers can’t overlook.

Decoding the data

It’s often said that Data is the New Oil. In truth it isn’t, data is increasingly cheap and easy to access. Being able to analyse that information is where the power lies.

Data analytics is probably going to be one of the most important fields in an information rich economy and already we’re seeing companies springing up to help farmers estimate crop yields, truck drivers plan their routes and even organisations like the Royal Flying Doctor Service using cloud services to better plan their operations.

Again these services plan a lot but there’s also downsides as inappropriate data matching risks breaching consumers’ privacy and even drawing false conclusions from confusing correlation with causation. A good example of this is Facebook being used to judge credit worthiness.

Removing the human element

Automation – whether it’s through robotics, machine learning or algorithms – will change many industries and the workforces employed by them.

One understated field is management where many white collar supervisor jobs are at risk from business automation. It may be that the executive suites are the next sector to be decimated by computers and robots.

Similarly, many services industry jobs such as taxi drivers and baristas are at risk from robotics while large scale 3D printing of buildings threatens to put many building trades under pressure.

No more truck drivers

Driverless vehicles have a whole range of applications, in logistics were seeing them put forklift drivers out of work while mining companies are rolling out massive dump trucks in their new mines that don’t require $200,000 a year drivers.

One study estimates that half the police workforce in the United States would become redundant as law abiding driverless cars become common.

Similarly electric cars will have a massive impact on government revenues. Currently Australian governments raise $17bn a year from fuel excise and has ramifications for businesses involved in the supply chain for service stations.

Once driverless vehicles become commonplace we may well see them changing industries like daycare, public transport and couriers as it becomes possible to summon an autonomous vehicle, put the kids or the luggage into it and then send it off to its destination. If you’re worried, you can track the progress on an app.

The effects of the driverless car show how we have to think laterally about the effects of new technologies on our businesses, sometimes the effects of a new way of doing things could indirectly hurt our business or create new opportunities.

Squeezing out inefficiencies

One of the great promises for the IoT, Big Data and business automation is to remove inefficiencies from industry. Cisco believe that up to 14% of the Oil and Gas industry’s costs could be stripped away with today’s technologies. That in itself is worth over a 100 billion dollars a year in cost savings.

GE are deploying their technologies into a diverse range of industrial equipment ranging from jet engines to railway locomotives and wind turbines with spectacular results in reducing costs and improving productivity.

The effect of these improvements means less downtime and maintenance costs which are good news for customers and shareholder of these companies, but bad news if you’re a maintenance business. It also means the speed of change in business is accelerating.

Skilling the future workforce

In summary the skills needed today are very different to those of 1915 and 1965 and those of the next fifty years will be even different.

As a society we have to decide what skills we are going to give not our children but those currently still in the workforce who are going to be working longer and later into their lives as the workforce ages.

We also have to consider what sort of ethical compass we have. While the technology we have today is powerful and capable of great things, it’s also capable of great harm. We need to have an understanding of what the effects and limits are of our actions with the Internet of Things, Big Data and analytics.

Ultimately we need to ask what value we as individuals can add to our communities and society.

Feb 182015

Yesterday Australian incumbent telco Telstra took the media on a tour of its showpiece  Customer Insights Centre in downtown Sydney.

The company is justifiably proud of the facility that includes  a 300 person auditorium, broadcast quality TV studio, a restaurant, workshop and collaboration spaces.

Welcoming visitors is the centre’s Insight Ring, a nine metre circle-shaped platform that surrounds guests with digital insights mined from Telstra’s information services. Leading off the reception area are a range of displays showcasing the company’s products and capabilities including wearable technologies, 3D printing and Ged The Robot.

Marking the centre as a modern facility the display spaces where Telstra and its partners can show off technologies to industry bodies and prospective clients.

Ged, the Telstra robot

Ged, the Telstra robot

The previous space two floors higher in the building was beginning to show its age after seven years and the fixed displays of technology in the older facility dated the centre, something that’s a disadvantage in an industry changing as quickly as telecommunications.

In the new centre, the demonstration facility is largely screen based so displays can quickly be adapted to show off the technologies aimed at whichever industry they are pitching.

The fast moving technology world

The software driven demonstration centre


Andy Bateman, Director of Segment Marketing at Telstra, who lead the tour was proud to show off the current display that had been set up to showcase the company’s banking products.


Bateman described how the facility can be quickly altered to suit the needs of specific demonstrations, this was a degree of flexibility missing in the PayPal innovation center in San Jose, which is more comprehensive in its displays but requires a major fit out to change anything.

Venture capital investor Marc Andreessen stated that software will eat the world, Telstra’s Customer Insights Centre illustrates this starkly.

However software doesn’t always have the upper hand, just opposite the Telstra centre is the Sydney City Apple Store. In some ways, the two facilities opposite each other illustrate one of the big technological and market battles of this decade.

View of the Apple Store from the Telstra Centre

View of the Apple Store from the Telstra Centre

For most businesses, software will define the future way of working but for the smart hardware vendors will still be making good money.

Feb 142015

In 1977 NASA’s Voyager mission launched from Cape Canaveral to explore the outer solar system, included on the vessel in case it encountered other civilisations were a plaque and a golden record describing life on Earth.

The record was, is, “a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.” It containing images,  a variety of natural sounds, musical selections from different cultures and spoken greetings in fifty-five languages.

Most American households in 1977 could have listened to the sounds on Voyager’s golden disk but were the spaceship to return today it would be difficult to find the technology to read the record.

This is the concern of Google Fellow and internet pioneer Vint Cerf who told the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose this week we are “facing a forgotten century” as today’s technologies are superseded rendering documents unreadable.

A good example of ‘bit rot’ is the floppy disk – the icon used by most programs to illustrate saving files is long redundant and few organisations, let alone households, have the ability to read a floppy disk.

For corporations the problem of dealing with data stored on tape is an even greater problem as proprietary hardware and software from long vanished corporations becomes harder to find or engineer.

As the Internet of Things rolls out and data becomes more critical to business operations, the need for compatible and readable formats will become even more important for companies and historical information may well become a valuable asset.

With libraries, museums and government archives having digitised historic information, this issue of accessing data in superseded formats becomes even more pressing.

It may be that important documents need to be kept on paper – although there’s still the problem of paper deteriorating  – to make sure the 21st Century doesn’t become the digital dark ages and our golden records remain unread.

Jan 192015

Last weekend Uber founder Travis Kalanick told a tech conference in Munich, Germany how his company wants to take 400,000 cars off Europe’s road by the end of the year.

On Monday, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported the nation’s car sales were at best flat, a trend that’s been apparent for two years and one being repeated around the world as younger adults turn away from automobiles.

The technology that defined the Twentieth Century was the motor car; it reshaped our cities, changed our lifestyles and drove the consumer economy.

Now that economy is changing and the motor car, and consumerism in general, is in decline.

Which leads to the thought of what our communities will look like if the motor car isn’t the defining feature?

A challenge for governments

One obvious answer is we won’t need as many roads and carparks so governments will have to shift their priorities towards public transit and shared car services.

Governments are also faced with voters wanting more services closer to centres as the 1950s model of dad driving an hour to work or the 1970s model of the family driving to the shopping mall are no longer valid. This has serious ramifications for communities were land use has been zoned based upon twentieth century assumptions, not to mention their taxation bases.

That zoning problem has ramifications for property developers as well, it’s possible to argue this is already happening as pressures mount to turn over more inner city areas to high rise buildings.

Redefining retail

For retailers, it means the end of suburban big box stores and more focus on smaller stores with delivery services – a trend we’re already seeing in larger cities.

The finance industry as well is affected by the shift away from personal ownership of cars as automobile loans and leases have been a lucrative business for the last fifty years. If people are no longer fussed about owning a car then then there’s little demand for easy payment plans.

With the motor car not being as important to people, we start to see a society with very different economic underpinnings to that we became used to in the late Twentieth Century. How do you think our communities and businesses will look in a world without cars?

Dec 292014
geeky glasses for IT workers and social media experts

It’s becoming harder to be an expert warns Entrepreneur and investor Paul Graham.

What’s worse, Graham suggests being locked in the way things currently are is the biggest risk for today’s experts as change accelerates across society.

This climate of change makes it tough for investors like Graham to identify the next big things for them to stake money on; when the experts are often wrong it’s hard to figure out whose right in picking what business or technology will be successful in a few years time.

Graham suggests betting on people, particularly the “earnest, energetic, and independent-minded” is a better way of finding the next wave of successful businesses and his views are a useful reminder that   ultimately its people who find ways to implement and profit from technology.

The paradox with the changes we’re facing is that the technology is the easy part, it’s the human and social consequences which will surprise us.

Which is why Paul Graham is right about our having to think outside the boundaries of our own expertise.