How to spot ‘weak signals’

One of the biggest problems with the current digital deluge is the tendency to no longer see what’s directly in front of us. The sheer amount of information now being passed around means that we’re becoming less able to filter what’s really important from what’s really not. Information is no longer power. Our deep and undivided attention is.

Constant digital distraction (which results in constant partial attention) also means that our concentration spans are shortening (or so they say) and our peripheral vision is narrowing. Throw in some headphones and things aren’t looking good, especially if you are seeking new opportunities or risks. This is because the early harbingers of forthcoming upheaval and disruption are often hidden in tiny snippets of seemingly trivial information or obscured in plain sight in the shadows and auditory obfuscations of our everyday existence.

So how can you spot these ‘weak signals’ or other forerunners of change? How can you spot things that don’t tend to announce themselves in huge data sets? How can you mine for insights in research groups when you don’t know exactly what you are looking for?

The answer is to develop a mind-set that’s always looking for these things. You need to become more attuned to instinct and gut feelings. You need to become furiously curious. You need constantly look for things that are new and might represent a shift in how things are seen or done. But to do this you need to unfreeze and then re-set your mind-set towards deep looking and deep listening.

You also need to go to where anomalies initially emerge, which tends to mean the edges or fringes of established markets and thinking. This might be young minds or it could be academic institutions or upstart start-ups. It might even be passionate users of particular products and services (‘super-users’) or particular places where being different or quirky is seen as being culturally useful or prestigious (California not North Dakota, although the urban fringes of Fargo might contain something, or someone, of interest).

Or you can be lazy. Cultural change often procedes technological or regularly change, so become attuned to new currents in advertising, music and film. For example, I heard the lyric “Don’t go digital on me” in a song lyric the other day. Is that significant? Or there’s an ad on TV for a chocolate bar with the slogan “undivide your attention.” Again, significant?

Beyond anecdotes like these it’s rather difficult to be precise. After all, how can one explain what one’s looking for when one doesn’t really know what one is looking for and whatever it that you are looking for keeps changing the whole time? I think the answer to this is to accept that you will never fully know and to keep looking regardless.

This isn’t something that’s ad hoc. You cannot create a ‘search party’ that looks for weak signals for a week and is then disbanded. It’s something that’s continuous and the activity will suit some personality types more than others.

Let me give you a few more examples. I was in Brooklyn, New York, recently. I was in a hotel lift and someone (I’m assuming not a graffiti artist) had written “Lonely together” in huge white letters on the glass panel inside the elevator. Why was it there? What did it mean? It could have been a subliminal ad for a TV show of the same name or perhaps it meant something more?

Or how about a few years ago when Google bought Zagat, the publisher of local restaurant guides (published on paper). This made no sense. Why would an online publisher (sorry, tech company) buy someone that puts ink on dead trees? Could it be that they were interested in local expertise or search or did they see a role for paper in a digital world? (come to think of it, why did Google send me summaries of my Google Adwords campaign in a posted letter – on paper?). Question anything that doesn’t make sense or doesn’t fit an established pattern. To invert a popular schooldays phrase: question every answer.

Of course, if you start frequenting the fringes you will inevitably bump into some fairly fringe people. Some will be weird, quite possibly annoying and probably of no use whatsoever. But don’t judge these people too soon. Maybe they aren’t crazy. Maybe they are right, but just a little bit early. What’s thought of as weird, crazy or just plain impossible one moment has a habit of becoming conventional wisdom over time. So, button your lip and keep your mainstream prejudices and cynicism to yourself. For example, there are ‘tech hermits’ living off-grid in rural North America. Some of these people claim that the use of mobile phones and Wi-Fi has made them sick. I had a boss once that carried a business card that read “Maybe they’re right” printed on the reverse. Maybe he was right.

This is the opened minded mind-set you’re after and it’s a mind-set that can equally be applied to reading newspapers, looking at webpages or talking to strangers on the subway. (Do you do that? Why not? Expand your network and experiences). Keep asking yourself why someone is saying something? What’s behind a story or opinion? What do they want? What’s their interest here? Are they alone in thinking or doing this?

Also, be aware that you (and everyone else) sees the world and everything in it through a lens hand-crafted from personal experience. What you need are interchangeable lenses. You need one that’s for narrow close ups and another for wide big picture panoramas.

And be aware that you will suffer from a number of notable cognitive biases too, most significantly confirmation bias. These biases seek to close our minds by persuading us (usually subconsciously) that what we are seeing aligns with things we’ve already seen or things we already think or believe. In other words, we tend to frame things in a particular way based upon what we’ve experienced before. You need to be aware of this and fight against it if you are to discover anything that vaguely resembles objective reality.

A more recent example of a weak signal. Why are twenty-somethings buying old tech? For example, what’s behind the re-birth of vinyl and why are so many people, including smart people that work in Silicon Valley and for MI5 (allegedly), using what might be called dumb-phones over smart- phones? Are the two things possibly connected? You can figure this one out yourself, but you might need to switch your smart-phone off to do this.

One final thought. Liberate yourself from the false precision of numbers. Weak signals are, by definition, weak. They are fuzzy, unclear and indistinct. They represent small numbers of people (sometimes just one person) bravely thinking about the world in a different way or doing things somewhat differently from almost everyone else. You cannot put meaningful numbers around these people to ‘prove’ that they are significant. If you can prove it it’s a trend (or possibly a fad or counter-trend) it no-longer represents a weak signal. Got it?

References:
Paul J.H . Shoemaker and George S. Day, ‘Making sense of weak signals’, MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2009,
Paul J.H. Shoemaker and George S. Day, ‘Scanning the Periphery’, Harvard Business Review, November 2005.
Martin Harrysson, Estelle Metayer and Hugo Sarrazin, ‘The strength of weak signals’, McKinsey Quarterly, February 2014.

新兴科技时间轴(2014——2030+)

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这是和帝国理工大学技术预测同行们(尤其是阿莱克斯·阿亚德(Alex Ayad),但是在后期也要特别感谢克里斯·哈利(Chris Haley))共同创作的新型科学和技术时间轴。上面是图表完工时的图片。我们对于是否把“移动电话数量超过人口”列为“当下”讨论了很久,但是电话用户超过69亿人,已经很接近人口总数了。
请点击本段最后的链接,下载适合打印的高分辨率PDF版本(建议用彩色A3或更大纸张打印)。在一周左右时间内,将会有图表的纸质打印版。在本博文底部是一些展示该图表是如何创建的图片,以及图表是如何演进的。新兴科技-5

至于图表上有什么,有5个关键大技术:数字技术(主要是信息技术)、生物技术、纳米技术、神经技术和绿色技术(有时被称为清洁技术)。

我们把图表分成3个时间区域。第一个区域是“当下”,我们定义为现在或附近(2014-2015),同时至少1000个实际例子(事件可能是一次性出现的事,但是创新一般至少要有1000个实际例子才会纳入表中)。“很有可能”是第二个区域,被定义为2015-2030。第三个区域是“有可能”,被定义为从2030年往后可能出现的事。图表的绝大部分都是严肃的,但是我们没能抗拒在一些区域娱乐一下的冲动
希望你们都喜欢它,如果你觉得它有意思或者有用的话,请和他人分享。请注意本时间轴的出版是基于知识共享许可的,所以你可以在未询问情况下将其用于商业目的或者制作不同版本。但是如果使用时能链接回我们的初始版本,我们将感激不尽。
至于每条线上有什么,这里是清单:
绿色技术 当下
廉价太阳能聚集器
绝缘气凝胶建筑
振动能量采集
社区电网
能回应指令的家用电器
LED路灯
电网规模贮存
家庭电厂(冷热电联供系统)
智能仪表
藻类生质燃料
绿色技术 很有可能
超级电容车
消费者即时定价
100%淘汰白炽灯
氢的人工光合作用
合成飞机燃料
周围的射频能量采集
束能量用于生态监测和军事无人机
大规模的碳捕捉和碳贮存
摩天大楼上的透明(有机)太阳能电池
生物可降解电池
自主车辆专用车道
电动车辆路上感应充电
超市合成肉
绿色技术 有可能
行波反应堆
燃料电池驱动的轻型客机
无人机运送比萨
商业海洋热能转换
微型风能水能收集建筑外墙
汽车波转子发动机
钍反应堆
给海洋施以铁质肥料
用3D打印技术生产的适用于垂直农业的土壤
高速人行道
昆虫汉堡食物车
超回路大众运输系统
用托卡马克核聚变发电
卫星束太空太阳能
生物技术 当下
DNA时间确认机构
基因疗法
合成有机物
对于先天性疾病进行基因测试
入侵身体以增强感官
用3D打印技术生产的骨科植入物
商业宠物克隆
源于作物的朔料
基于基因的主动医学介入
为制药培育人源化的动物
生物技术 很有可能
预防性抗生素禁止用于动物
个性化的微生物疗法
无处不在的生物感应
非源于动物的皮革
非处方基因测试
对帕金森氏综合征进行干细胞治疗
用3D打印技术生产的生物纳米支架
人类器官克隆
为个人数据存储嵌入射频识别技术
发现最后的抗生素
生物技术 有可能
用纳米纤维制造人造肌肉
基于DNA的数据贮存
微生物感应的食品包装
引入转基因蚊子以消除疟疾
人类基因工程合法化
纹身电路(人体上的视频纹身)
克隆人类
合成有机物所带来流行病
数字技术 当下
移动电话数量超过人口 (情况转变则不属于这一类?)
生活记录
加密货币
连接到网络的牙刷
现实增强眼镜
预防犯罪算法
NFC指甲
可扫描条码的墓碑
能面部识别的中央摄像头
阿凡达女友
用于游戏的大脑-计算机基本界面
跨洲机器人手术
数字技术 很有可能
实时语言翻译
量子计算机用于解密
分析内衣
AI用于全科医生手术
无辅助机器人手术
物联网超过500亿个设备
能读唇语的中央摄像头
网络攻击导致整个城市范围内断电
不用电池的无线沟通
自主电子出租车车队
实体信用卡过时
触觉学衣服
情绪感知器
昆虫大小的侦查机器人
全息数据存储
AI用于无人机-无人机战斗
太阳耀斑消除GPS网络
数字技术 可能
侵入已经植入的神经设备
城市禁止人类驾驶员
预测战争的算法
商业飞机由智能手机劫持
战事与游戏合并
机器人数量超过人类
物联网超过1万亿个设备
终身阿凡达助手
记录人类从出生到死亡整个生命
家用冰箱感知保质期
完全自主的战场机器人
量子电脑用于材料设计
纳米技术 当下
用于衣物的抗病毒纳米粒子
化妆品和遮光剂中的纳米粒子
朔料打印的电子电路
量子点电视
癌症成像和治疗的纳米粒子
用于培育人体部位干细胞的支架
蛋白质结晶的模板
自我修复的漆点和表面
用于合成神经元和合成神经植入物的纳米管
消费者电子产品中的甲醇燃料电池
纳米技术 很有可能
人工电磁材料天线
可碾压的屏幕和设备
纳米技术 可能
实验室演示人工电磁材料隐身
旋光仪使计算接近光速
室温超导体
量子点夜视窗
自主数据密集
生态系统单层石墨超级电容自我复制
IBM用动画原子做成动画片
全朔料的晶体管
下一代超轻型合成材料
每比特数据有100个原子密集
神经技术 当下
耳蜗植入
大脑指纹用于法庭
益智药用于医学或休闲使用
由思维控制的假肢
活跃大脑区域的神经成像
神经技术 很有可能
思维控制的轮椅
手机对眼球移动追踪
解码意向的算法
适应性电子助手避免信息超负荷
人工视网膜植入
不会宿醉的酒精替代品
神经技术 可能
侵入植入的神经设备
大脑-电脑界面广泛补充了键盘使用
空中旅行者大脑指纹常规
通过fMRI对梦成像和记录
沟通设备广泛嵌入到人体
基本想法的人工神经编写
用大脑假体提升或消除记忆
终结痴呆

设计开发
设计大体上基于我之前2010年后趋势和技术时间轴做的 (需要PDF版本请点击这里)。第一个草图是在厨房桌子上用铅笔在A3白纸上画的,之后不断改进了好多版(记得大约是十二版)。圆圈最初是用厨房盘子和大碗画的,彩色的线最初是用荧光笔和我孩子们的马克笔混合创作的。专业设计之前的最终版本画在了A3绘图纸上,使各要点契合并连接好。设计的功劳也属于劳伦斯·怀特利(Lawrence Whitely),特别感谢帝国理工大学的科林(Kereen)。

关于未来的更新,我们已经在考虑动画版以及积极和消极版本(乌托邦版和非乌托邦版)。如果关于图表的未来更新版本,您觉得哪些事该/不该出现在图表上(或是看到一些愚蠢的错误,请务必告之我们)。

IMG_1729IMG_1629IMG_1732IMG_2242IMG_1618

The Future of National Libraries

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Ellen at the State Library of NSW has sent me a link to a paper from the National Library of Scotland (NLS) that considers the influences that will shape the development of the NLS over the next 20 years. I really should be reading a modernisation review of public libraries from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (UK) sent to me by Andrew in England, but somehow this paper caught my eye. As a result I printed out all 85 pages and started reading it on a long train journey last night. Here’s my take on the report.

First of all it is important to note that this is a think piece is about national libraries, which is not wholly the same as either research libraries or public libraries although the overlap is considerable. It is also a linear futures thinking piece as opposed to a more multi-polar scenarios document.

First of all their key drivers of change:

1. Changing patterns of publishing
2. Shifting customer needs and behaviour
3. New competition
4. The political environment
5. Internal organisational issues

The paper looks at each of these drivers and considers likely impact. Interesting, both sustainability and digitalisation were considered as givens and it is made clear that the responsibility for digital literacy lies with the education sector not national libraries.

I partly agree with this last point and on balance I also agree that digitalisation should be a theme running throughout all the thinking. However, I also believe that they might be missing something. If you were to look at the future of national libraries from a scenarios perspective you would have one scenario where the thinking around sustainability and digitalisation is turned on its head. Anyway, here’s what they say (my words) about demographics (shifting customer needs), competition, government and internal issues.

Demographics

Declining number of younger users
Rising number of older people, especially very old people (e.g. number of over 75s in Scotland are expected to rise by 81% by 2031). This means that even by 2030 there will be significant numbers of digital immigrants around, many of whom will still prefer paper formats.
Booming interest in family history (partly, I assume, due to ageing and globalisation)
Greater diversity in terms of student types
Younger users seeing “little need or desire to visit the physical library” (I’ll come back to this point at the end).

Competition

Commercial information suppliers will continue to compete with NLS
Connectivity and digitalisation mean increased opportunities for collaboration. Likely mergers between institutions and organisations in the ‘cultural resources’ or ‘memory institutions’ space (i.e. libraries, art galleries, museums, film archives, sound archives etc). This will be driven largely by the digitalisation of materials, which will lead to an ever-greater integration of the content owing institutions themselves. I think this is a very important point. We will experience a blurring between what art galleries, museums and libraries do or represent and national libraries will shift from collecting books to collecting all kinds of items relating to cultural and intellectual heritage.

Government

We should assume that governments will continue to seek cost savings and this will force libraries to develop new income streams. This will also lead to the development of more paid-for services. This is unlikely to result in a total paradigm shift from free to fee but there will be a significant move towards payment for premium services. The rise of e-books and online information will also drive the trend towards hybrid charging models because of the easy availability of mobile and online micro- payments.

Internal organisational issues

A big issue is recruiting younger people into the profession, although it seems to me that the idea of professional librarianship will slowly fade away. The model of the future will be around information professionals and this will encompass a variety of skills ranging from IT and fundraising to management, marketing and even early years education and aged-care specialists.

Other points of interest

Libraries will shift from passive collators to active co-creators of information. Customers will demand more personalisation around ‘their’ information.There will be more do-it-yourself and self-service options. There will be greater automation due to the explosion of content national libraries can no longer collect everything — the shift will be towards selection or edited collections.

OK, so what has the paper missed?

First of all there seems to be little or no discussion of the physical space. Indeed, one author says: “:it becomes increasingly unlikely that users will ever visit the physical premises and they will increasingly have an expectation that services will be delivered directly to their devices wherever they are.” True. This will happen. But some people will still value the physical space in much the same way that some people will still value paper over pixels.

Another issue that is not really discussed relates to information trust. If there is an explosion of content one of the consequences is a declining level of quality. If people have shorter attention spans and information quality is declining them surely what some people will need is someone to talk to whom they trust. Technology can do this up to a point but I think people in combination with technology do it much better.
And this leads me onto my final point, which is that the authors are following the technology ahead of the psychology. Libraries are not just about books. They are also about people.

Read the whole paper yourself here:

http://www.nls.uk/about/policy/docs/future-national-libraries.pdf