Local Government Magazine

Our digital future

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes - LG November 2016

What’s the future of work and technology for councils? Who better to ask 
than futurist Thomas Frey, executive director of the DaVinci Institute and 
former innovation editor of The Futurist magazine.

Is society ready for the pace of change that will be happening with our digital future?

Not at all. We are creating a layer of digital infrastructure over everything physical in the world. X-Prize founder, Peter Diamandis, often frames the coming change around the “six Ds of exponentials”: digitalisation, deception, disruption, demonetisation, dematerialisation and democratisation.

Digitisation is very deceptive because it channels products and industries into an exponential growth curve that most are not prepared for. While people are hard-wired to think linearly, exponential growth has a constantly-increasing trajectory.

Solar power, which today only contributes two percent to global power production, has been consistently doubling every two years. If this continues, in just 12 short years, solar will move from two percent – four percent – eight percent – 16 percent – 32 percent – 64 percent and become the dominant force of power around the world.

Digital products are disruptive because change happens far more frequently. Tesla cars, as an example, receive a monthly download, so part of their sales pitch is that after owning a car for a year you’ll be driving a better car than when you first bought it. Digital creates new markets and forces traditional industries to rethink their business models around doing more with less.

Since digital products are formed around bytes, pixels and free-flowing information, the cost of doing business plummets, resulting in both demonetisation and dematerialisation trends. Smartphones, once a status symbol for the well-heeled, have quickly become affordable by the masses, and each phone has the ability to perform the tasks of 25 separate devices in the past. We gain far more performance with less material for less money.

Democratisation comes into play when technology becomes more accessible and everyone gets to participate.

The next waves of change will be happening on multiple fronts, each creating their own internet-sized opportunity.

What is the number one change that we are going to face as a human race?

By 2030 over two billion jobs will go away. That doesn’t mean we’ll have two billion people unemployed, but that we’ll need to create new jobs at a rate far faster than ever before in history.

We are wasting the talent of human ingenuity on low-level tasks that can better be performed by machines. Driving cars, cleaning offices and security guard positions are relatively low-skill positions that will be largely taken over by some form of automation.

Those entering the workforce in 2030 will have to plan to reboot their careers six times throughout their life. Our biggest challenge will be retraining or reskilling our workforce for the jobs of the future.

People facing the need to shift gears that often will want to do it in the least amount of time possible, making traditional colleges a very poor fit for this type of training.

At the DaVinci Institute we’ve been experimenting with what we call a Micro College where we reboot people’s career paths in less than three months. Our goal is to create a working laboratory for launching new Micro Colleges. These Micro Colleges will span the spectrum from fly drone academies, to crowdfunding schools, 3D printer designer schools, aquaponics farmers institutes and countless more.

What will be the most surprising change, or the one we are least prepared for?

Driverless cars will change transportation more dramatically than the invention of the automobile itself. While this transition will happen over the next two to three decades the changes will be profound.

Imagine stepping out of your house 15 years from now and using your smartphone to summon a driverless vehicle. Within two to three minutes a driverless vehicle arrives and whisks you off to work, school, shopping or wherever you want to go.

A form of on-demand transportation is already happening with companies like Uber and Lyft. If we eliminate the driver, costs will plummet.

Once the technology is perfected, on-demand transportation companies will crop up in most metropolitan areas with large fleets of vehicles poised to meet consumer demand.

Here are a few of the changes that will begin to happen:

  • Far fewer people will own cars.
Many businesses will disappear – gas stations, oil change places, tyre shops, car dealerships, car washes, auto parts stores and rental car companies.
Parking lots will disappear freeing up valuable real estate for other uses.
The auto insurance industry will begin to disappear.
Cars will be designed without steering wheels, gas pedals, brakes or spare tyres.
Traffic cops, courts, stoplights and judges will begin to fade into the sunset.
  • Most houses will be designed without garages.

What technology that we are seeing now will become more crucial / commonplace in future?

When the internet was formed, the network itself became a massive platform upon which millions of new innovations could spring to life. As a networking platform, every new application can be hung like ornaments on a Christmas tree, to add additional capabilities.

In a connected digital environment, innovation is parsed into far smaller pieces, enabling even more people to contribute.

In 2007, the introduction of the iPhone paved the way for a massive app-building community that has made smartphones an essential part of everyday living.

Today we are witnessing the convergence of technologies that are forming eight new platforms, each with the potential to grow exponentially into an internet-sized opportunity.

Most people are aware of these technologies, having heard the buzz in the news media, but few are actually viewing them as massive growth engines with the same explosive potential as the internet.

These eight technologies span: trillion-sensor network; the internet of things; 3D printing; contour crafting; virtual and augmented reality; flying drones; driverless technologies;  and artificial intelligence.

So if these eight technologies are driving the next wave of innovation, what comes after them?

Rest assured there are a large number of equally transformative technologies already percolating their way to the top. Some may even grow faster and more explosively than the list above.

Keep an eye on things like blockchain technologies, synthetic biology, quantum computing, super materials (graphene, stanene), tube transportation (ET3 and hyperloop), bioengineering (CRISPR), DNA sequencing, chatbots, neuroengineering, quantum computing, atmospheric energy harvesting, near-earth satellite tech (project Loon, Aquila, Titan), robotics, neural user interfaces and mass energy storage.

The next generation of transformative technologies may be exponentially larger, possible 32 or 64 of them happening simultaneously.

What role do you see local government playing in the fast moving world? Will we still be relevant?

We are all flawed humans, and as such, we need each other. Our economy is based on us trading goods and services to provide for the needs of others.

People create the economy. Without human needs we would have no economy, and by extension, no need for technology.

Governments provide an essential checks and balances system for running a civilised society. This includes checks and balances for technological as well as human-based systems.

One concept I have proposed is something called “fractal governance”.

Since technology is exceeding governments’ ability to manage it, new global systems, or fractals, will emerge to offer a solution. Each fractal will be highly automated, and come with its own management structure.

I refer to them as fractals because each of them represents a tiny bit of order in an ocean of chaos. As fractals catch on we will begin to see new patterns of governance emerge.

Fractals represent the intersection of national and global governance.

I’ll begin by describing the privacy fractal which will only deal with privacy issues, but it will manage these issues in every member nation it manages to recruit.

Starting with a “Geneva Convention on Privacy”, the organisation will establish global guidelines to deal with legal definitions, establish limits, handle abuses, and develop monitoring tools to signal whenever there is a privacy breach that has occurred.

In much the same way ICANN is the global authority for naming and numbering systems related to the internet, the privacy fractal will establish itself as the global authority on privacy.

Fractal governance will serve as a check and balance to national governance, but only in a very limited scope.

A fractal is a narrow spectrum of global authority managed by an independent organisation that operates outside of the control of individual nations. Member nations will assign representatives to the fractal’s advisory board but the organisation will operate outside of the control of any one nation.

Some fractals will be mandated by large international assemblies such as a G20 Summit while others will originate organically, recruiting member nations on their own.

Fractals will be funded through nation-based membership dues.

Once a fractal reaches critical mass, somewhere in the range of 20 member states, there will be a tendency for it to serve as the default authority in all matters related to its scope of governance.

The full range of possible fractal organisations is only limited by our imagination, but the earliest ones will be those that address a specific problem for countries today.

Since countries don’t know how to deal with cryptocurrencies, we may see a “Cryptocurrency Fractal” mandated at the next G20 Summit. But that may be too broad of scope and a separate authority may be needed for Bitcoin, Litecoin, Dogecoin, and each of the cryptocurrencies gaining traction around the world.

With the concept of ownership being muddied by governments and police claiming authority to seize property, an “ownership fractal” may be needed to sort out all of the issues related to ownership around the world. Simply claiming rights based on the “spoils of war theory” needs to go away.

Fractal governance will cover a wide range of topics from concrete to esoteric. Here are a few to help stimulate your thinking:

• Global accounting standards
• Business ethics
• Time zones
• Nanotech measurement standards
• Incarceration fractals
• Ocean pollution
• Asteroid mining
• Marijuana policy
• Language archive
• Patent and intellectual property
• Cross-border taxes
• Telepresence networks
• Identity standards
• Wind rights.

Over time, turf battles between nations will be replaced by turf battles over the range and limits of fractal authority.

Going back to your original questions, humans are the only thing relevant in the world. If we lose control, nothing else matters.

Where do you see the future of work?

The internet is a very sophisticated communications tool, enabling us to align the needs of business with the talent of individuals in far more precise ways. Rather than hiring someone for a full time job, we will see the tendency to hire people for two months, two weeks, two days or even two hours.

The most valuable skills will be resilience, adaptability, determination and resourcefulness. People will need to have the ability to shift gears often.

We are entering into a world where driverless vehicles will eliminate millions of driving positions; robotic systems will work relentlessly day and night eliminating millions of manufacturing, welding, painting and assembly positions; and things that seemed impossible to automate in the past will have computers and machines replacing people’s jobs.

At the same time, the amount of time it takes to build ships and skyscrapers, create massive data storage centres for all our growing volumes of information, or produce global wireless networks for all our devices has dropped significantly. But along with each of these drops is a parallel increase in our capabilities and our expectations.

For these reasons, I’d like to reframe the discussion by proposing the following “Laws of exponential capabilities”:

LAW #1: With automation, every exponential decrease in effort creates an equal and opposite exponential increase in capabilities.

LAW #2: As today’s significant accomplishments become more common, mega-accomplishments will take their place.

LAW #3: As we raise the bar for our achievements, we also reset the norm for our expectations.

Whether it’s building the Great Pyramids in Egypt, erecting the Great Wall of China or sending someone to the moon, crazy-big projects have a way of defining our humanity and raising the bar for future generations.

As our capabilities improve, we simply need to set our sights higher and aim for the stars… literally.

Naturally there are a few downsides to our expanded capabilities. Addictions can become exponentially more addictive. Dangerous people can become exponentially more dangerous. And global conflicts have the potential of becoming exponentially more disastrous.

If you think we’re going to run out of work anytime soon, think again. We’re about to enter a period of severe talent shortages. But since future jobs will bear little resemblance to our jobs today, only the super-adaptable need apply.

Thomas Frey will be a guest speaker at the 2016 Annual ALGIM Conference in Auckland, 
November 21 – 23. bit.ly/ALGIM_Conference

This article was first published in the November 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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