May 282014
Stagecoaches were dominant in the 19th Century but failed when technology changed

“We’re looking at a future where every aspect of our lives could be utterly different to how it is now,” declared ABC Radio host Linda Mottram in our semi-regular technology spot on Monday.

Linda’s concern was based around our talk on 4D printing and the future of design and she’s absolutely right – life is going to be totally different by the end of this century.

We won’t be the first generation to experience such massive change to society and the economy, our great grandparents at the beginning of the Twentieth were born into a world without electricity, the motor car or antibiotics.

Those who survived the two world wars and lived to a ripe old age in the 1970s saw life expectancy soar, childhood mortality rates collapse and the western economies shift from being predominately agricultural to mainly industrial and service based.

From our position, it’s difficult to comprehend just how radically life changed in western countries during the Twentieth Century.

When we wonder where the jobs of the 21st Century will come from, it’s worth reflecting that many careers we take for granted today didn’t exist a hundred years ago and the same will be true in a hundred years time.

The technology we’re using may be new, but adapting to massive change isn’t.

Jan 292014

Yesterday’s passing of folk singer Pete Seeger at age 94 is a chance to think about old age, the Twentieth Century and how we use technology might be restricting us from seeing the opportunities around us.

One of Seeger’s best known hits of the 1960s was Malvina Reynold’s song ‘Little Boxes’ that described middle class conformity in the middle of the Twentieth Century, which had a renaissance in recent years as different contemporary singers did a take of the song for the TV series ‘Weeds’ .

As the ‘Weeds’ opening credits imply, we are probably more conformist today than our grandparents were in the 1960s.

In business, that conformity is born out of modern management practices that insist employees be put into their own ‘little boxes’ – if you don’t tick the right boxes then the HR department can’t put you in the right box.

With big data and social media expanding, increasing computer algorithms are used to decide which box you will fit into. One of the boxes that managers and HR people love ticking is the age box.

Little Boxes’ writer Malvina Reynolds would never have fitted into one of the modern HR practioners’ little boxes as she only entered the folk music community in her late forties.

Despite being a late bloomers, Malvina wrote dozens of folk and protest songs through the 1960s and 70s – The Seekers’ Morningtown Ride was another of hits – before passing away at age 77 in 1977.

Were Malvina Reynolds born 60 years later, she would expect to live to at least Pete Seeger’s age and expect to switch careers several time during her working life.

Modern age expectancy means the modern workplace’s age discrimination and the box ticking of HR managers is unsustainable; there’s too much talent being wasted while individuals, business and governments can’t afford to fund a society where the average person spends the last thirty years of their life in retirement.

With technology there’s no reason why a forty year old air pilot can’t retrain to be an accountant or a sixty year old farmer get the skills to become a nurse, the very tools that are being used to keep workers in boxes are the ones that enable them to break out of those boxes.

Similarly modern technology allows an accountant, farmer or young kid in an obscure developing nation to create a new business or industry that puts the box ticking HR managers in downtown high rises out of work.

Just as today’s box ticking manager might be confronted by a threats they barely know exist, so too is the business that spends all its time looking at data that confirms its owners’ and executives’ prejudices.
Life, and data, doesn’t always neatly fit into little boxes.

Filing box image courtesy of ralev_com through

Sep 252013

The South China Morning Post reports the Chinese government is allowing access to otherwise restricted sites like Facebook to those in the Shanghai free trade zone.

In many ways this parallels the original Special Economic Zones set up by the People’s Republic of China at the beginning of the 1980s – these areas’ separate legal, immigration and economic status attracted foreign investment and trigged the economic boom that’s seen China become one of the world’s biggest economic powers.

Just as manufactured goods were the key to the nation’s development 30 years ago, today it’s information as the PRC leadership works on moving China up the global value chain.

For a nation of knowledge workers to succeed, the workers have to have access to knowledge.

It’s claimed the humble fax machine was responsible for the fall of the Soviet Union, how true that is open to debate but an open flow of information is never good for those who rule without the support of their citizens.

With the explosion of Chinese social networking sites, it’s become harder for the government to control the flow of information between citizens and the opening of the internet in parts of Shanghai is another small change.

How the Chinese Communist Party manages to keep the support of its increasingly affluent and better informed citizens will define the course of 21st Century history.

As China shifts from being a low cost manufactured goods supplier to a more sophisticated, diverse and expensive economy the government has no choice to face these challenges.

Beijing’s cadres would be hoping our children aren’t talking about Facebook in 2012 Shanghai in the same way that we talk of fax machines in 1982 Leningrad.

Image of a fax machine courtesy of Kix through

Oct 022012

Doctor John Bradfield shaped modern Sydney. His program of public works, such as building the Sydney Harbour Bridge and the city’s railway network served the city for nearly a century.

The picture of him from the NSW State Records archives riding the first train across the Harbour Bridge shows him swelling with pride. And so it should.

What we need to ask ourselves is whether our works could survive a century of massive change and become an international icon as the Sydney Harbour Bridge did.

If we can just strive toward that – even though most of us will fail – we can be proud of our works as Dr Bradfield was when he rode that train across the Harbour Bridge.