May 27, 2015


It’s not something that happens, it’s something you create

What does the future look like? It’s a question asked with increasing frequency as we try to understand the implications of the technology revolution going on around us. The ShipServ Smart Procurement event in Rotterdam considered past and present, with Gerd Leonhard CEO of The Futures Agency providing a glimpse of what the next stages of disruptive technology might be.

Leonhard specialises in what he calls ‘hard futures’; likely outcomes rather than speculation, but it was clear that his analysis of how the industrial economy has become digital and what happens as a result, were still a revelation for some listeners.

True, much of it made for uncomfortable listening, especially for those whose jobs fall into the occupations that would inevitably be replaced by machines. For some the revolution has as much power to destroy as to build, but Leonhard says observation is probably as important as prediction.

“We have to assume less and discover more. Google tells its employees to spend as much as 10% of their time on non-operational work. I think for most of us spending 3-5% just observing the future is realistic.” The challenge for observers is that the speed of change is overtaking our power to predict the next trend; Moore’s law is becoming applicable to much more than processor capacity.

Human capacity to identify and act on change is also being challenged as the timeline is compressed and in business we are less ready or able to see change for what it is and adapt. Leonhard says the tendency is not to believe that change will be that significant until it has moved from linear to exponential and the curve suddenly accelerates as the power of technology doubles.

“When technology and customer behaviour changes, you can’t refuse to participate,” he said. “The music industry did that and lost 70% of revenues in one year. Facebook Money will wipe out 20% of global banking revenues in one go. These are trends that happen gradually, then suddenly.”

Exponential organisations are those that embrace and can leverage the opportunities of connectivity which Leonhard says is about to become like air – or more aptly like running water, since more people will potentially be connected to the former than the latter. Leonhard quotes data suggesting a GDP increase of 1% for each 10% increase in connectivity – and says it may increase to 100% by 2020.

For consumers the benefits are clear, for businesses the issue is disruption and an end to a predictable cycle, even for a ‘closed’ business like shipping.

“If you are not connected to the cloud you are uncompetitive. We are already moving from connecting people to connecting things, which has obvious opportunities for logistics companies. The next step is connecting intelligence.”

Business has some catching up to do he reckons and has to also embrace change and disruption as facts of life. Systems of data and records are moving towards systems of engagement and intelligence, both with customers and co-workers.

Even though he is quite convinced of an increasingly automated future for business – ‘don’t let your kids pick a job which can be done by machines’ – he was quick to stress the human factor and how a focus on the things that computers can never do can create value, and maybe stop us becoming slaves to technology, by focussing on our ‘right brain’ skills.

That will mean looking ahead as he suggests, using the kind of predictive analytics and big data that are becoming commonplace topic. He also believes in the not entirely new idea of breaking silos to embrace your place in the ecosystem, thinking and acting in an arena of operation, rather than as an industry. “Tesla is a technology company, Audi is a car company. The New York Times is multimedia business, not just a publisher. There could be a similar model in logistics and shipping.”

Despite his sense of mission, Leonhard is clear that technology is still just a tool rather than a replacement for human reality. In fact human capital has never been more valuable.

“Intelligence comes from understanding humans and having a human quality to your brand, you have to read between the data to create value,” he says. “And as we strive for hyper-efficiency, human skills become more critical.”

To an audience that has already embraced disruptive technology as ShipServ users, the message was still a challenge: prepare for more of the same and embrace the unknowns. Not to do so would be a worse error, for as Leonhard says; “The future is not something that happens, it’s something you create – though some things will happen regardless.”



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