The Last Post

I’ve given up thinking about the future. For a while.

On the one hand I’m being swamped by so much incoming information that I can’t think straight. On the other hand the present has become so weird and intense (Tsunamis, nuclear meltdowns, the Middle East etc) that thinking about the future seems rather pointless.

Hence I’m turning off the tap. I’m not going to read anything except books for a month. This means no newspapers and no magazines. And, if I can pull it off, no TV or internet. I won’t be blogging for a while either.

Something resembling normality will resume in a month or so when the dust has settled and the view of what lies ahead has hopefully improved.

Our obsession with immediacy

I’m starting to think that all newspapers should be read historically so as to avoid futile analysis. Reading stories that are at least a week old allows the dust to settle and the air and the view ahead seem crisper.

BTW, this is pretty good on reflection….

“A mounting public rage that may well result in political instability, especially in poor nations, and manifest itself in widespread civil unrest.” (Report from the Dilenschneider Group, January 2009).

UPDATE (and I know this conflicts with the thought above!)

An overview on the Middle East and North Africa from some friends at Nomura, the Japanese investment bank.

1. As contagion spreads in the MENA, we acknowledge that the region appears to be experiencing a “1989 moment”, while recalling that transition in the former Soviet empire has been protracted and multi-directional.”

2. Yemen also continues to feel significant amounts of internal strife, which could lead to regime change over the intermediate term.

3. Libya aside, we currently see no direct threat to oil/gas output.

4. Nor do we see international military intervention in Libya necessarily as a precedent for similar action elsewhere in the region.

5. However, we acknowledge that potential disruption in oil/gas output in countries already experiencing protests, and/or contagion to as yet untroubled major oil producers, cannot be ruled out.

6. We see no sign of contagion outside the MENA for now but do not rule out the possibility longer term.—

Future Files – in French (Merci bien Jérôme!)

Jérôme Defaix (whom I’ve never met but now like enormously) has just translated chapter one of Future Files into French. I guess this means he liked it. If anyone would like a copy just email me and I’ll send the pdf (for free obviously).

BTW, if you are living outside UK/US/Aus/NZ Future Files is now available in the following local editions:

Hungarian (HVG Kiado); Simplified Chinese (Jing Hua Publishing House); Complex Chinese (IF Culture Publishing); Korean (Chung Rim Publishing); Turkish (Yakamoz Yayinevi); Croatian (Alfa D.D.); Lithuanian (Verslo Zinios); Portuguese (Caleidoscopio); Arabic (Kalima); Indonesian (Ufuk Press); Russian (Eksmo); Bulgarian (Locus)

National insecurity

Here’s a very interesting statistic. China spends more money on internal security than external defence. Furthermore, the internal security budget is growing faster than the external defence budget. Why would this be so?

Ref: The Economist, March 12-18 edition (page 67).

Education wants and want nots

I’ve just been in Hong Kong experiencing, amongst other things, the power of the Chinese economy (nobody is interested in you in shops if you speak English or the local Cantonese. They assume you haven’t got any money. Mandarin is the only language that gets any attention from shop assistants).

I then flew to South Africa for the day (seriously). My lasting impression was being driven through Alexandria, a poor black township in Johannesburg, where I saw two things you don’t ordinarily see, especially if you live in a so-called ‘developed’ country.

First kids going to school. They were dressed in immaculate uniforms and looked as though they really wanted to go to school. They were not on mobiles. They were talking to each other in person. They were ‘present’ in a way that so many kids plugged into various devices in other nations, are not. They would be considered extremely disadvantaged by Western standards, but I got the lasting impression that they were happier, more focused, more balanced and more certain of where they were heading than most kids of a similar age in England, for example.

OK, this exists in a few other parts of the world but wait for this next bit.

Every time the taxi got to a red traffic light and stopped people started walking between the stationary cars and attempted to sell things to the occupants. Nothing unusual in that. It happens in London, New York and Sydney. The difference is what they were selling. It wasn’t an unwanted windscreen wash, wilting flowers wrapped in plastic or newspapers. It was educational products. They were selling world maps, globes, charts of the human body, times tables, alphabet charts.

If I had to choose between investing in education in poor townships in South Africa or underprivileged areas of the UK it would be a no-brainer.

Retail scenarios for 2022

I’m doing something thinking about what lies ahead with some people that run shopping malls in South Africa and I’ve been trawling around for information on ‘retail futures’. Below is an edited version of some thinking done by Forum for the Future looking ahead at what lies in store for shoppers and retail groups in the UK in 2022 (written in late 2007, so one assumes influenced by the UK economic situation at the time).

Scenario 1 – Do it yourself
“Individualistic, optimistic society where technology is held in very high regard. Local government has become stronger. The economy is dynamic and entrepreneurial. Brands are less powerful.The oil price is $40 a barrel and congestion is still a huge problem, but air freight has become unacceptable. The big four supermarkets account for just 55% of the market, compared to 76% now and a quarter of consumer spending is online, up from 3% now.

Multi-storey car parks and old warehouses are converted to “vertical farms’ where consumers live. Consumers measure their energy use and carbon emissions by the minute. Solar chargers are built into clothing to power wireless electronic gadgets. Networks of individuals trade directly with one another. Smart packaging refrigerates food using a tiny in-built fuel cell which charges on the shelf and runs down when the food becomes unsafe to eat. The 2022 high street: Power shifts away from big retailers to individual producers who trade direct with shoppers and are more trusted.
The big UK chains are increasingly trading under local brand names and internet trading enables direct-from producer shopping.”

My comment
If the economy is booming why is the oil price only $40? It would be far higher and this would have knock-on effects. Also, why are the supermarkets and brands weaker? As for vertical farms, smart packaging with built-in fuel cells and solar chargers being built into everything this is all possible but not by 2022 in my view.

Scenario 2 – Do it for me
“The economy is buoyant and confidence high. Shoppers want service and are happy for big business to meet their demands while they enjoy their leisure time. Oil is $80 a barrel, the big four supermarkets have 85% of the food market. Consumer can order made to measure products – soap with a specific scent, muesli made to their own recipe.
One-stop “market villages” emerge, offering branded stores and services – like Boots GP surgeries and shampoo-branded hair salons. Biogas patio heaters turn household waste into outdoor warmth. Supermarkets become “diet managers”, using information they have on household income, health, age, preferences to deliver the right foods and daily menus. They know exactly what is in your fridge and can send replacements when necessary.

The big retailers have become more powerful, but branded agricultural groups also sell direct. Store groups have become bigger and merged with farms and food producers to create a “corporate rural society”. Marketing focuses on building trust in brands rather than pushing products.”

My comment
This scenario seems quite reasonable and certainly possible by 2022.

Scenario 3 – Going greener
“The economy is subdued and uncertain and fears about climate change has increased. Consumers are wary of corporations and government. The debt crisis persists and baby-boomer pensioners are living on low incomes. Consumers are less willing to pay for luxury or convenience.Oil is $120 a barrel and the big four supermarket chains have captured 65% of the market. New products and services include community food clubs, sourcing from allotments, market gardens and local farms. Local councils run campaigns similar to WW2’s “Dig for Victory”. Consumers own shares in local farms; peer-to-peer mortgage lending; Google maps allow shoppers to buy food from the most local source.

On the 2022 high streets, local produce is viewed as best and UK agriculture is booming. The high streets are struggling as goods exchanges are set up, real and online, for swapping products. Mass marketing is almost extinct.Advertising has gone local and word of mouth through social network websites.”

My Comment.
Again quite possible and interesting to note that this was written in 2007. Feels a bit like now in the UK on some levels. Not sure why mass-marketing would be extinct though (OK, the trend is real enough and I get why, but I don’t think it will happen to the extent that some people imagine).

Scenario 4 – Harder times
“Consumer confidence is low and people look to government and big business for security and solutions. Business focuses on efficiency and low-cost options. Environmental behaviour has been changed by sweeping legislation. The oil price is $140 a barrel, road use is regulated by pricing. Now the big four supermarket chains account for 90% of food spending.Among new products and services that retailers provide is a cradle-to-grave service, offering everything from food to energy, water supplies, pensions, healthcare, holidays, education and funerals.

All domestic equipment is leased and replaced regularly by retail groups. Prescribed medicines are embedded in food and clothing. Benefits claimants pick up cash in stores and get discounts on their shopping. Tesco villages – affordable, quality eco-friendly homes and communities with all family needs on their doorstep. On the 2022 high street small organisations find it difficult to survive and companies are vertically integrated. Small high streets are doomed. Big retailers run showrooms, where shoppers only browse. All purchasing is through the internet. The big retailers may also run compulsory loyalty schemes, but are heavily regulated.”

My comment
All quite sensible apart from the compulsory loyalty schemes”. Good luck with that.


‘The future of shopping: multi-storey market gardens and talking fridges’ by J. Finch (The Guardian, 8 September 2007 ).

Retail Futures: Scenarios for the future of UK retail and sustainable development (September 2007), Forum for the Future (UK)

No right side of the brain left behind

The emphasis of education is all wrong. We are obsessed with educating the left side of the human brain when it is precisely this side that computers are getting so good at copying. We should spend more time educating the right side of the brain, the side that computers are utterly useless at emulating.

Digital Dad

I’ve been in Spain eating ham and drinking sherry (yes it was work). Not much to report except to confirm that the most interesting conversations at conferences do indeed happen in the bar afterwards. Tuesday night it was a discussion about kids and the excessive use digital technology (conclusion: if your child is addicted it’s your fault for not offering them alternatives, for example offering to go outside and kick a ball around with them*).

Wednesday night it was biological metaphors for innovation and the future of the Middle East (conclusion: metaphors are really useful for innovation and nobody has the slightest idea about the Middle East, including the people in the bar from Tunisia, Sudan, Libya, UAE and Lebanon).

*Within 10-20-seconds of writing this line my son shouted: “Dad, do you want to play table football?” My instant response was: “Can you wait five minutes I’m doing something on the computer?” Then it occurred to me that I was being a massive hypocrite. I lost 3 games to 2.

The Future of Books and Bookshops

I had an interesting conversation with one of my publishers last week about the general state of book retail in the UK. I’m always interested in this subject, but I’m especially interested at the moment because I’m taking part in a show on Australian television about the future of the book and I need some thought starters.

Anyway, the upshot of the conversation was the thought that in the UK the future is to some extent the past. What do I mean by this? Partly that big bookshop chains will more or less disappear and we will be left with WH Smith. This is somewhat ironic given what a mess this company (I can’t quite use the word bookseller) seems to be in, but WH Smith has been in a mess positioning-wise for as long as I can remember.

They’ll be Amazon, of course, and probably Apple too. And then there will be the independents and a handful of small local or specialist chains. Most independents will go to the wall, but a few will prosper, either because they have a strong niche or because they are firmly embedded in a local community, which is probably urban and/or academic.

Anything else? I suspect we’ll see some kind of hybrid retail with bookshops selling coffee and cakes as merely the beginning. Think of bookshops in libraries, bookshops in schools (partly to replace the school library, R.I.P) and book kiosks in hospitals, hotels and pubs.

Book vending and instant book printing machines? Nope. Why would you bother when you can instantly download an e-book to a Kindle or an iPad in a couple of minutes?

I also think that book retail will polarise. Part of it (the larger part I’d imagine) will be increasingly price and promotions driven. Very large retailers (i.e supermarkets) will pick up a bit of this business but most will be online. At the other extreme, the impulse/browsing end of the market will stay in bookshops and it will be the overall experience that people buy, not just the book.

This sounds very gloomy but strangely enough far from standing on the wrong side of history, many writers, readers (and publishers) will actually benefit from all this disruption First, the very bad news. Books will become just another commodity. People will consume books like they consume baked beans, which is without much thought. Indeed most people won’t read books or, if they do, they will read what everyone else is reading. This is happening already. 40% of Americans read one book or less in 2009 and 1 in every 17 books sold in the US since 2006 has been written by the crime novelist James Patterson. Over in Britain it’s a similar story. In 2009, 133,000 books were published (the highest number on record) but just 500 authors (1%) were responsible for 30% of total sales. So, in the future, we should expect further consolidation, both in terms of what people read and where they buy.

We should also expect the concept of the books to change. For example, novels will become collaborative (user-generated), which is to say that novels will be ‘written’ with help from their readers with assistance from one or more ‘authors’ (i.e. often they won’t really be written by the person named on the cover but their name will be used much in the same way that celebrity chefs run restaurants or write cookbooks). They will also be personalised. If you wish to appear in a novel you will be able to write yourself in. Equally, if you want to change the overall mood or require a specific ending these will be available too. However, this shrinking of context will mean two things. First it will be an accelerant for narcissistic tendencies and second it will narrow peoples’ worldview. We will simply use books to reflect the world as we already know it.

Now the good news. People will eventually work out that something significant happens when words that once appeared on paper appear on a screen. Books transform the act of reading. A book is a static work authored by a single individual that requires time to create and to read. With screens, the situation is different.

Screens are connected to something much larger (the Internet), which contains other items fighting for the readers’ attention. Moreover, language and ideas do not have the same depth on screen as they do on paper. In other words, we will eventually re-discover that the medium is the message.

As the antiquitarian bookseller Ed Maggs says: ‘As books become less a quotidian part of our lives, replaced by various digital formats, the extraordinary virtues of the book will be more recognised for what they are … as photography only increased our appreciation of fine art, so digital books with replace only the ugly and the ephemeral, and will sharpen our appreciation of the real thing.’ Good news for any of the physical bookshops that remain.

Alone Together

I can resist everything except temptation. And books. I have a load of books I’m supposed to be reading (the Future of the Internet by Jonathan Zittrain, An Optimists Tour of the Future by Mark Stevenson, Your Flying Car Awaits by Paul Milo and Books V. Cigarettes by George Orwell). However, I have a funny feeling that Alone Together by Sherry Turkle is going to be wonderful. I’ll let you know…