Jun 292016
Skilled workers are essential to building industries

As the 2016 US Presidential election settles down into a competition between Republicans and Democrats, Hillary Clinton has released her vision for the American tech industry.

Hillary Clinton’s Initiative on Technology & Innovation is a comprehensive document laying out the candidate’s plans to increase the American workforce’s skills and the nation’s infrastructure.

What’s particularly notable about the Clinton plan is her aim of “building the tech economy on main street,” which is “focused on creating good jobs in communities across America.”

Spreading the tech industry’s jobs, and wealth, beyond a few middle class enclaves is an important objective for all nations in the twenty-first century and Clinton’s objectives are an indication that the US political establishment is beginning to understand this.

Other countries should be noting Clinton’s objectives to raise the skills of workers, build the tech infrastructure and get investment into smaller communities as something they too have towards.

In an Australian context, Clinton’s initiatives highlight the missed opportunity of the Turnbull government’s Innovation Statement, a narrowly focused and weak document that has done little to encourage investment and even less to reform skills training.

The Clinton move though shows technology, training and stimulating new businesses will be one of the imperatives of nations as they deal with a rapidly changing economy.

Jun 252016

First they came for the pizza makers.

Alex Garden, a former head of production of online game developer Zynga, is the co-founder of Zume. His company is automating pizza making.

“It’s going to be a long time before machines can do everything people can do, probably not in my lifetime,” he tells Bloomberg.

Pizza making though isn’t already untouched by automation. A visit to the local Pizza Hut or Domino’s shows how the process is already standardised and partly automated at many fast food chains.

Like coffee making, the machines are supplanting many skilled tasks and service industry jobs that were once thought to be beyond automation. The nature of work is changing and in turn invalidating many of the assumptions about employment held by policy makers.

Those with a 1980s view on how service sector industries will be the drivers of employment may have to reconsider their theories.

Zume and Gaden may have some way until they fully automate the pizza supply chain, but humans will increasingly be a smaller part of it.

Jun 172016

“We moved into a house we couldn’t afford” writes Buffer founder and CEO Joel Gascoigne on his company’s decision to fire ten of their 94 staff as revenues miss targets and the venture’s cash burn accelerates.

A few years ago we wrote about Gascoigne’s commitment to being an open company and his post today is a brutal, but honest, reflection of that.

Buffer’s problem is one familiar to many business owners when revenue projections aren’t being met and the tough reality of making unexpected cuts becomes apparent.

Making Buffer even more unusual among tech and social media startups is how the company doesn’t depend up venture capital funding – an advantage for its owners but also a downside in situations like this where being able to raise more money for equity would give the business room to move.

At present however companies following the VC model are in trouble as they are finding investors aren’t so willing to write cheques to loss making ventures unless there’s a clear path to profits.

That reluctance to fund businesses is going to see more layoffs for companies dependent upon VC funding, some startups will fail because of it. The really fascinating part is how many of the tech unicorns will be amongst the failed business.

One hopes though Buffer won’t be among the casualties, Gascoigne and his team deserve to be rewarded for their candour.

May 032016

In the last fifteen years of blogging I’ve rarely missed a day and in over last five years I haven’t missed one regardless of whether it has been on a friend’s couch, in an airport lounge or on a train.

Tonight, in Las Vegas, it’s been tough as I’ve been slammed with many ideas and tips that have made it had to get a sensible blog post together.

Roll on Friday.

Dec 052015

Four days at the Autodesk University in Las Vegas last week confirmed how a radical change has happened in economic development since the turn of this century. The question is whether business and national leaders will accept this new reality.

Andrew McAfee’s session at the Autodesk opening keynote illustrated the declining use of commodities by advanced nations. McAfee’s point dovetailed nicely with that of Kevin Ashton a few weeks earlier in Sydney that energy consumption of devices is falling as well.

Showcased at the conference were the new manufacturing processes, design methods and smart materials showing how we’re now in an age where increasing living standards are not coupled to rising consumption rates.

Falling use of energy and resources, even while living standards and functionality grow, is a direct contrast to the economic models of the past three hundred years where increasing affluence and quality of life meant exponentially increasing demands for energy and commodities.

This point has been missed by many businesses and policy makers, particularly in Australia where the assumption of ever increasing demands for energy has seen massive over-investment in coal and gas export facilities along with the tragic gold plating of the electricity distribution at cost that’s now crippling the nation’s industries and households.

Businesses, and nations, that haven’t recognised the trends will need admit the error, write off those costs and move onto the new model.

For voters, consumers and investors it’s time to demand leaders of business and government accept the 21st Century economic model is very different to that of the previous century.

Dec 032015

“With technology I’m free,” says Hugh Herr of MIT Media Lab in the finishing segment of the Autodesk University 2015 opening keynote.

Herr was describing how he overcame losing both his legs to frostbite at age 17 after being caught in a blizzard. Determined to continue his passion for climbing he started developing better prosthetics, studied mechanical engineering and became the leader of MIT Media Lab’s Biomechatronics Group.

Prosthetic design is one of the aspects highlighted by Autodesk in their San Francisco Demonstration Gallery with good reason given the life transforming potential along with the imperatives of designing and manufacturing durable devices.

Design and manufacturing are naturally the key things for Autodesk with CEO Carl Bass outlining some of the possibilities in the opening keynote for the Autodesk University conference in Las Vegas yesterday.

Bass had some thoughts on the current buzzword of innovation, “it’s not one dramatic improvement of everything that came before, it’s most often combination of pragmatic improvements combining and refixing things in really new ways.”

“It’s about doing the really hard work, the often unsexy work, of packaging it all up and making it successful.”

The McGyver IoT

Bass illustrated this view of innovation with a story of  troubleshooting his home lathe by duct taping his smartphone to the machine and using the microphone and gyroscope to detect when the cutting tip was becoming blunt.

As Bass pointed out, his “McGyver concoction” of a phone and duct tape is a good example of a basic Internet of Things application where sensors, this time built into the smartphone, detect the state of a machine. It’s a small step from there to developing lathes that change their own cutting tools when required.

Combining the IoT into design where a product’s design changes on feedback from its environment was a key part of the day’s discussions and touched upon Skylar Tibbit’s work on intelligent materials.

Autodesk CTO Jeff Kowalski took the longer view of how the shift from passive to generative design methods will change the way we work stating boldly, “in the next twenty years we’ll see more change in the nature of work than we’ve seen in the last two thousand.”

Rethinking manufacturing

Kowlaski pointed out how the way of working where a craftsman has to point a tool at materials to form them is now being left behind as we start to see materials, and machines, that can manufacture themselves.

For the present design and manufacture by humans remains the way we do things and in the media sessions one of the case studies was Airbus’ bionic partition where the company’s Bastian Schaefer and Autodesk’s David Benjamin described the process of redesigning a basic aircraft part.

The results of a combination of 3D printing – in this case laser sintering of a metal alloy – and generative design resulted in a partition 45% lighter and eight percent thinner, savings not insubstantial when every kilo in an airliner costs its operator 106Kg of kerosene each year.

An age of reduced consumption

Reducing the resources being used was a key part of Andrew Mcafee’s keynote presentation where he describes a ‘dematerialising’ economy where a modern society is using less in the way of resources and energy while still improving living standards.


Overall, the first day of the Autodesk University conference was an interesting exploration into how design and technology is changing lives both on the societal level and for individuals, as Hugh Herr’s story attests.

Paul travelled to Las Vegas as a guest of Autodesk