Surviving transformational shifts: Patience and recycling failures
By A. Asohan May 28, 2014
- All technologies start with a ‘wow’ moment
- Lasting impact comes when they reach the ‘boring’ stage
PEEKING into the future has its delicious attraction. For people, it’s usually because they want to know if they’re going to find love or wealth; for companies, it’s to find out what the market and competition are going to be like.
What products or services are going to make it? What changes sweeping through society are going to lead to market opportunities? What are the threats and dangers out there? How are we going to survive?
It’s questions like these, and more, that probably led futurologist and author Magnus Lindkvist (pic above) to conduct a study at the Stockholm School of Economics that looked at companies that have survived ‘transitional shifts.’
More importantly, it was also to try and identify common traits that these survivors have, he tells Digital News Asia, so that he can offer practical, ‘take-home’ advice. “When we looked at these companies, we were able to extract things from their culture,” he says.
Lindkvist, author of three books, also founded a company called Pattern Recognition AB, named after the 2003 book by science fiction author and cyberpunk icon William Gibson. His clients include such giants as Coca-Cola and Lufthansa.
He was speaking to Digital News Asia after delivering a speech at the ACCA Futures Conference in Kuala Lumpur, organised by the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).
So what are these common traits, and what advice did he give participants at the conference?
“No 1 was that they [the survivor companies] had an experimental culture, so I talked about experimentation, with the key to successful experimentation being cheap failures. If you try an experiment and it kills you, then you can’t experiment again, so the key is to have cheap failures,” Lindkvist says.
“Then I talked about recycling failures. This is especially true in technology, where many people think that it’s about being first to market. They try something and it usually fails. The first smartphone failed, the first tablet failed ….
“You need to be able to recycle failures. Use the recipe, and redo it somehow,” he says, adding that there is truth in the saying ‘the right idea at the wrong time.’
“Finally I talked about a rare trait which is necessary: Patience. Look at the Roomba, the robotic vacuum cleaner – going from prototype to mass market product took 18 years. Nespresso took nearly 40 years from patent to mass market production,” he says, referring to the espresso machine by Nestlé Ltd.
Nestlé employee Eric Favre first invented and patented the Nespresso system way back in 1976.
The ‘transitional shifts’ Lindkvist refers to are not merely economic shifts, but technological and geopolitical shifts. “Actually, I should probably say ‘transformational shifts.’ Technology is full of transformation.
“The example I joked about was that what we once called mind-reading, we now call Twitter. That’s transformational – something that was magical is now a reality,” he says, alluding to that famous observation by science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, who once remarked that any sufficiently advanced technology would be indistinguishable from magic.
So what are the transformational shifts heading our way? The increasing life expectancy would be one, he argues. “Sarah Harper, a gerontologist at Oxford University, predicts that the first person to reach 200 years old has already been born.
“When life [expectancy] is 200 years instead of 100 years, that’s transformational,” he adds.
Harper is Professor of Gerontology at Oxford University and director of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing, a multi-disciplinary research unit concerned with the implications of future population change.
“The heart of transformation is difficult to measure. There’s so much rhetoric,” Lindkvist acknowledges.
He says that a study was done by Stamford University on how long one has to work to afford one hour‘s worth of reading light.
“This measures both productivity and wages, and also measures technology – the reading light. With the candle, 200 years ago, most people worked long hours to get that basic technology. Today, with the modern lightbulb, we work about half a second to get one hour of reading light.
“To be fair, there are still people in the world stuck at the economy of 200 years ago, who have to work long hours to get technology like the reading light, but you and I, with half-a-second’s worth of work, can go to Digital News Asia and read what’s there, go to this conference, play Angry Birds, and what-have-you.
“The way we should probably measure transformation is to talk about ‘labourisation’ – how long you used to spend doing that, and how long you spend doing that now,” .
The ACCA Futures Conference came in the wake of a report by the ACCA and the Institute of Management Accountants titled Digital Darwinism: Thriving in the Face of Technology Change that looked at 10 technology trends finance professionals identified as having an impact on their roles and the businesses they worked within.
These 10 technology trends are mobile; cloud; big data; payment systems; artificial intelligence and robotics; virtual and augmented reality; cybersecurity; digital service delivery; educational; and social.
“Darwinism is often misunderstood. ‘Survival of the Fittest’ is taken as that if you’re fit, lean, slim efficient and fast while you’re competing, you’ll survive,” says Lindkvist.
“But that’s not it at all. The heart of Darwinism is adaptability.
“And one of the reason accountants need to hear about this is that whenever something new comes along – a shift – we cling to the past. We ridicule the new, we’re sceptical, we believe that what we’ve been doing – which was also once new – is more of the norm.
“And there is survivability bias, because … we make a story of history, to explain why all these things are here, and we don’t see things that are lost or invisible, that are outside. We build narratives to justify our survivability bias,” he argues.
As an example, he says we call it the Bronze Age although most things during that period of history were made with wood or stone. “But these wooden objects disappeared. We think it was a Bronze Age, but in fact, it was another ‘Wood Age’,” he says.
Relativity neutralisation and Ikea-fication
What is his personal take on the 10 technology trends that the ACCA identified? Are they truly going to be transformational?
“I don’t think all 10 would be as impactful, but we don’t know, so we guess,” says Lindkvist.
“Here’s the thing. New technology has a short ‘wow’ moment. We can take the idea of chemical learning now as a ‘wow technology’ – the idea that instead of putting people through 12 years or more of compulsory schooling, we could neurochemically reprogram them with a drug, an injection and flashing lights before them.
“This is an idea that has a certain ‘wowness’ to it.
“Fast forward a hundred years, and it would be the way people educate themselves. It would just normal, boring and productive, and we will have other problems. Or we complain that neuro-linguistic chemical programming is taking too long,” he says.
In essence, the magic palls when the technology becomes commonplace.
“I call this relativity neutralisation,” says Lindkvist. “When you’re in an airplane and it’s taking off, you go ‘Wow, we’re really accelerating!’ Shortly, you’re going to feel as if nothing is happening, even though you’re travelling at 900kph.
“The same thing here: If I tell you now you’re going to live for a thousand years, you will go ‘Wow!’ If you do live for a thousand years, it’s going to be normal.
“So a lot of these technologies – social, mobile, cloud, robots, so on – there is a big ‘wow’ factor in many of them now. Some, like social, are already being implemented and moving into new areas … the wowness is dying down, and it is becoming a productive technology,” he says.
It’s also what Lindkvist refers to as ‘Ikea-fication’ – being able to take an expensive chair and make it available for the middle classes.
“It’s the same thing with technology. The mobile phone was not ‘mobile’ when it was new. It was bulky and expensive, and only rich people could afford it,” he says.
Technology snake oil
Futurologists and trendspotters like Lindkvist share one occupational hazard with fortune-tellers and other such folk: They can get their predictions wrong. What has he himself got wrong – either a current trend that he never expected or a prediction he made that never came to pass?
“The first one is easy,” he says. “It’s the way that biology is starting to behave like IT, and the way we can reprogram DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) – we made the first artificial creature three years ago now.”
Lindkvist also refers to companies “that can program bacteria, to get bacteria to start making diesel oil, and that whole thing I think was underestimated – the fact that you can use a DNA strand as a storage device today.
“And it’s a lot more potent, because a storage device is the kind of process that we have in a computer, and it’s already here,” he says.
Researchers at the University of Exeter have succeeded in genetically modifying the E. coli bacteria to convert sugar into an oil that is almost identical to conventional diesel, reports the BBC.
Meanwhile, a bioengineer and geneticist at Harvard’s Wyss Institute successfully stored 5.5 petabits of data — around 700 terabytes — in a single gram of DNA, smashing the previous DNA data density record by a thousand times, reports ExtremeTech.
What about something that he predicted, that did not happen?
“I think I joined the chorus of everyone who said that technology would replace face-to-face travel, that we would lead digital lives, when the reality is that we live digital and analogue lives at the same time.
“Virtual reality (VR) … today it’s a niche product. You can use it in surgery, you can use it for simulation, but the mass market – the Google Glass-type immersion or augmented reality that we were all talking about a few years ago – we haven’t found a cheap, stable and boring technological solution for this.
“Again, it’s the short ‘wow’ moment followed by the boring – that line is so thin, yet we haven’t been able to cross it yet [in terms of VR]. We have a lot of prototypes, we have a lot of developments, but we haven’t crossed that chasm yet.
“VR is still in the ‘wow’ moment – I go to a lot of conferences where they talk about Google Glass and its various merits, how it can enrich the environment around us, but I see very few people using it, very few people talking about productive needs for it.
“So it’s still a wow technology – perhaps not for Digital News Asia readers, but for many other parts of the world,” he chuckles.
There’s that word again: Boring. Is he saying that for any kind of technology to make a lasting impact, it has to reach that boring, productivity stage?
“Yeah … unfortunately, yeah. Electricity is a miracle. We generate friction and sparks, and we’re able to carry them remotely through copper threads into other places,” Lindkvist says.
It’s magic that is powering so much of modern civilisation. “Now it’s here, it’s boring, and it’s in everything.
“This is what I believe will happen with IT. It’s going to disappear into the walls and ceilings as well,” he adds.
It’s one of the reasons why he doesn’t do a lot of what he calls ‘tech-checking’ in his research, although he does keep his eye on what people are writing and talking about in technology.
“Technology is such a hot topic, thanks to the financial valuations being high again, the rise of youth entrepreneurship, and the startup culture.
“Technology has become this tiresome buzzword, I’m sorry to say. Policy, real-life relationships, politics and so on – these are more interesting to think about.
“Many people still think that technology is the ‘be all and end all’ cannot-be-controlled force that we’ll all be slaves to, or masters of – nothing in between, and I don’t agree with that,” he adds.
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