Quote of the week (from Terry Pratchett)

“Real stupidity beats artificial intelligence every time.”

Terry Pratchett

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40% of Americans are expecting Jesus to return by 2050.

40% of Americans are expecting Jesus to return by 2050.


Approximately 40% of Americans are expecting Jesus to return by the year 2050.

More on this from PEW Research Center on this link.

(Photo by yours truly in Athens last week. I think he’s been waiting quite a while).

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Global Risks Radar

New map by Richard Watson at nowandnext.com

New map by Richard Watson at nowandnext.com

So here, once again, is the finished version of my new map of global risks (plus a few charming ways the world could end). The radar is obviously divided into four by impact and probability. Impact is a guess at economic impact, while probability is a guess at likelihood. I know some people will argue about where specific events are located, but that’s the whole point – to created argument and debate about potential risks. The most serious events are be located top right, the least serious bottom left, although personally I’ve always had an interest in low probability high impact events (the so-called wildcards in scenario planning speak). These can be found bottom left. On the whole the map is serious, but there are a few events that aren’t – purely to keep people amused and awake.

In terms of process, a list of risks was generated using desk research. Sources include the World Economic Forum Global Risks Report, The Towers Watson Extreme Risks report, the EY Risk Report and various other publications along with material developed in various workshops at London Business School.

What do I worry about?

Apart from the next map, my biggest worry for a high impact event is another global financial meltdown (far worse than last time due to increased debt levels, a lack of liquidity and the newly networked nature of fear). This could be triggered by rising US interest rates, although the actual trigger is irrelevant. There is so much stress built up in the system I believe almost anything could trigger a panic sell off. I suspect that QE won’t work again either, although one might argue that QE is itself a risk and should be on the map.

I’m also concerned by a couple of other things on the map, but I’m not going to draw further attention to these. Water is an issue globally, although I’m writing this in the middle of an English rainstorm. Income polarisation worries me too.

Is there anything I’d like to happen? A message from space would be wonderful, although perhaps not a hostile one. A globalisation backlash could have benefits, although I suspect that the associated nationalism and tribalism wouldn’t be pleasant. Any favourites? Got to be human stupidity and Kim Kardashian!

Recommended listening while looking at the radar is, of course, Golden Earring’s Radar Love (1973 version here).

So to sum up, as it says on the map, most things here won’t happen so drinks lots of water, apply sunscreen and try to be a good human for future generations. Thank you.

Link to map.

Link to my other maps.

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Risk Map 2015+

New map by Richard Watson at nowandnext.com

New map by Richard Watson at nowandnext.com

Here’s my map of global game changers & regional risks. I was going to wait until September to publish this, but it’s been done early so what the heck. I’ll post a longer explanatory note about process and contents tomorrow.

If you want to download a high resolution version click here.

If you would like a print version for your wall (white out text for easier reading on paper) just get in touch and I’ll send you a different file. I suggest you print full colour at and least A3 size. A4 is too small.

I can also send out A3, A2 and A1 colour prints for a modest fee (enough to cover print, cardboard tube and post), but note that beyond A3 size the print cost isn’t cheap.

BTW, this was my original risk list. It’s changed a little and please note that about 5% of the list isn’t serious (most entries about global risks and the end of the world are a bit heavy so I needed a little light relief).

My initial (rough) list of risks…
State sponsored cyber-crime

Loss of bio-diversity

Income-wealth polarisation

Further Russian expansion

Cyber-disruption of critical infrastructure

Exchange rate volatility

Chronic labour shortages

Mass unemployment caused by automation

Increase in economic protectionism

EU incrementalism

EU collapse

Inept institutions focussed on their own survival

Oil/Gas price shock

Severe water shortages

Commodity price volatility

Evaporation of liquidity

Global financial system collapse

Rapid rise in US interest rates

Severe deflation

Inflation at >10%

Global pandemic

Regulatory change

‘Weaponization’ of finance

Biological terrorism

Nuclear terrorism

Loss of antibiotic resistance

Destabilisation of China

Un-controlled mass-migration

Deliberate release of a genetically modified pathogen

Unforeseen events

Unforeseen combinations of events

Widespread collapse of trust

Balkanisation of the internet (‘Splinternet’)

Geo-engineering accident

Loss of control to artificial intelligence systems

Total war

Ocean acidification

Globalisation backlash

Mental health epidemic

Decline in human intelligence


Resource nationalism

Failure of global governance

Hostile message received from space

Eruption of super-volcano (e.g. Yellowstone)

Moral collapse

Robot uprising

Major synthetic biology accident

EMF radiation from mobile devices

Self-replicating Nano-machines running wild

Verneshot expulsion (look it up)

India/Pakistan war

Major under-pricing of new risks

Geomagnetic reversal

Giant methane burp

Gamma ray burst in space

Rogue black hole

Major asteroid impact on earth

Alien invasion


Clean-tech bubble

Crowd-sourced criminal activity

African disunity

Cultural rejection of new technology

Collapse of copyright laws

Israel/Iran war

Weaponization of near-space

Collapse of insurance markets

Rare-earth mineral shortages

Atomisation of human attention

Decrease in longevity due to sedentary lifestyles

Blockage of the Strait of Hormuz

Rogue customer

Rising religious violence

Global dimming due to pollution or super-eruption

Information overload

Decline of practical skills

Mega-earthquake in a major city

Increasing frequency & severity of storms

Major inland-flooding

Major pollution/chemical spill

Declining air quality

Cyber-disruption to logistics networks

Expansion of Middle Eastern unrest

UG99 (Google it)

Rogue employee

Rogue politician

People trying to predict Black Swan events

Believing that people will always act rationally

Digital misinformation pandemics

Lone-wolf terror attacks

Wolf-pack terror attacks


Original drawing on the kitchen table…

Screen shot 2015-08-23 at 16.29.42

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Photographs of office desks



Just been put onto this this by James at Artifact cards, with whom I’m collaborating on some brainmail ‘ stat-pack’ cards. It’s a collection of photographs of office desks set up by the Japanese author Haruki Murakami.

Above my office frenzy this morning.

Link to add your own image…theguardian.com/assignment

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How Companies Die

Something I wrote for Fast Company magazine in the US a while ago. I’m adapting part of it for a talk to PWC in Warsaw next month. Worth a read if you’ve not come across it.

My last column on the benefits of failure prompted one reader to ask whether the converse is true: “do successful companies sow the seeds of their own destruction?” Given that the average lifespan of a top 500 company in the U.S. is 40 years (12.5 years in Europe) the answer appears to be yes. Nothing recedes quite like success — or, as Bill Gates once said, “success is a lousy teacher, it seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”
All companies start off as an idea. Start-ups are usually såmall and poor, which tends to create focus and urgency. If they develop a great product or service with an easily communicable point of difference, they usually grow. And therein lies a problem.

One of the first issues to arise in a growing company is that management gets separated from innovation. Peter Drucker made this point many years ago, although he used the term entrepreneurship. Although managing and innovating are different dimensions of the same thing, most companies regard them as separate. Moreover, as the urgency to stay alive evaporates, the focus shifts to internal management issues. But without continuing to innovate, companies die. There are other challenges too. As companies grow, senior managers become physically separated from their customers. The entire board of one of the major banks in Australia takes calls from customers every week, but this is a rare exception. A recent survey by Bain & Company found that 80% of companies believed that their firm delivered superior service. Only 8% of their customers agreed. Perhaps senior managers are confusing profitable customers with happy ones. Departments like sales and customer service are usually close to the needs of customers. Hence they are close to one of the primary sources of innovation. Managers generally aren’t — they are close to the needs of management.

The culture of an organization can also contribute to failure. The dominant culture of most successful companies is conservative — to avoid risk and to proceed in an orderly fashion. This is fine in the short term, but longer-term, what made your company successful in the past may not do so in the future. Eventually a kind of corporate immune system develops that resists innovation and tries to free itself from any form of obligation to adapt, even when change is clearly on the horizon. IBM failing to see the rise of desktop computing is a good example of such Group Think. One suspects that Sony’s loss of the portable music and entertainment market might be another. I’d say that most banks and newspapers are similarly in denial. You can spot such organizations a mile off because they tend to distrust people from the outside (including their own customers). They also think that they have absolutely nothing to learn from anyone or anywhere else.

A classic mistake is only recruiting from the inside. I once worked with a retailer that strongly favoured home-grown talent over external hires. Nothing wrong with that, except in this case it reinforced the arrogant and complacent attitude that there was anything to learn from the outside. There is also the issue of creating the reality you want, rather than seeing what is really happening. It is not uncommon for senior managers to “edit” news before it reaches the board level — so things appear much better than they really are. There’s even a story about a supermarket chain in the U.S. that repainted its stores, and hired extra staff, just before the CEO was due to make a visit. I don’t think the company ever went as far as hiring customers for the day, but once you start editing reality where do you stop?

In addition to corporate culture, corporate structure often gives rise to another problem. As Clayton Christensen points out, large organizations are generally structured on departmental levels. As a result most innovation is incremental. For example, most innovation inside fast-moving consumer goods companies takes the form of endless line extensions to existing products. Unfortunately, young start-ups have no respect for these boundaries, so it is generally they who invent new categories and business models in response to changing conditions or new customer attitudes and behavior. In other words, unless you can look at innovation from a whole business perspective and make innovation truly cross-functional (twinning designers with R&D staff as Procter & Gamble now does, for instance) innovation will never get beyond the component or existing category/product level.
But perhaps none of this is a bad thing. After all, survival is not compulsory. Perhaps everything (individuals, organizations, markets, countries) need to die — or at least be threatened with extinction — so that the cycle of innovation can begin again.

Here are a few quick tips to prevent your organization from doing dumb stuff and dying too young.

• Water your roots. Re-discover the entrepreneurial zeal and focus that founded your company in the first place.
• Think about how a start-up would operate in your market. How could you apply this thinking to make your own organization more resilient?
• Don’t just look at what the big guys are doing. Study what the start-ups are doing, especially those on the fringes of your market.
• History repeats itself. Companies and markets tend to operate in cycles, so know where you are and act accordingly.

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The evolution of writing (and perhaps thinking)

Just working on the next issue of What’s Next. Here’s a sneaky peak…

Text messages were originally invented so that operators could test the early mobile phone networks. Now there are about 20 billion text messages circumnavigating the globe each day (plus a staggering 30 billion WhatsApp messages), each with their own special meaning for sender and receiver. What it means for our language is an evolution in how much we can say in so few words.

Typing on screens is a dominant force in the way language is changing. Just as some words are being weakened or cheapened, others have hidden complexity. One author, Tom Chatfield, carefully considers the meanings behind OMG, LOL (or lol), ROFL or ROFLMAO and says they reflect a lot more than they appear.

When people write LOL, for example, it does not mean they are laughing out loud necessarily. LOL acknowledges they are in an emotional conversation with you and making up for the fact you cannot see their face or hear their voice. It also shows they are members of your tribe and that they recognise you or your wit.

The language of text messages has found its way into the culture, just as any language would. A popular dance music band calls itself LMFAO (laughing my f— ass off) and a UK Indie band calls itself ‘Alt J’, the shortcut on an Apple keyboard that finds the symbol for its name.

The expression “for the lulz” is an interesting one, describing the fact someone does it just for the fun of it. But this usage is usually ironic, for example, “I killed him for the lulz”, and the more serious the act, the greater the lulz. The word, ‘lulz’ is known as ‘eye dialect’ because it is aimed at the eye rather than the ear.

In some ways, language has had to become tighter, rather than looser, because it is so easy to misunderstand a few words. As Chatfield says, one letter can “carry an amazing burden of significance”. (We remember one poor chap who went through purgatory because his text said “you’re pretty much the perfect girlfriend”.) He claims some young people outsource the writing of crucial texts or spend ages finding 140 characters that sound perfect but spontaneous.

All our text messages, or Twitter comments, or any other kind of screen communication, blur the boundary between public and private. Perhaps there is no privacy anymore. But people have to be very careful what they make public because there is often a serious gulf between their own private self, and the image they project on to the world’s screens.

While it is possible to project oceans of meaning into one text word, we can still communicate much, much more with just one look.

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List of risks

Screen Shot 2015-08-18 at 13.32.22

Almost done. Just wondering whether to make it a little topical by replacing Kim Kardashian with Donald Trump actually being elected US President.

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Global Risks Map

Screen shot 2015-08-10 at 15.53.45

Getting closer. Just arguing with myself about where certain ‘events’ should be placed. As you can see it’s not 100% serious (hey it gets a bit heavy in places). I was going to add Donald Trump as a global risk, but it’s a map about the future and it’s not that silly!

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Brainmail on Facebook

Did I tell you that brainmail is on Facebook? Personally I’m against the idea, but the dyslexic dog (always running after new gods) and the psychopathic cat made me do it.


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