Archive 2013

An interactive futures table of elements Robert Hickson Dec 17

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Last year I developed a Futures Periodic Table. Since then I’ve been wondering how to make it interactive, so you can drill down to find more information on each “element” and playing around with combinations. I may have a solution to that now.

Last week I was at a presentation given by Paul Duignan about a visualisation tool he has developed called DoView. This is being used in strategic planning, evaluations, and in other ways. It struck me as also a good way of organising and exploring futures-related information. One of the good things about DoView is that you can use it in a workshop as a more dynamic way of collecting and organising information and models as you go, rather than playing with typical slide presentations or other visualisation packages that are less nimble to rearrange.

Paul was enthused by my Periodic Table, and mocked up a concept for his DoView blog. I’ve now also started trying to turn the static into something more interesting. It’s still very much a work in progress, but I’m finding it useful – particularly  the ability to move backwards or forwards easily, and clone elements form one page to another.


DoView Futures



Have a look at what I’ve done so far at this Link (you don’t need to download DoView), or peruse the screenshots below. Feedback is encouraged. I’m only just beginning to explore how you can build models of interacting elements rather than just presenting information. So keep tuned in the new year.


Converting the graphic into sets of interactive elements in DoView that you can click on or link to each other (click on image for larger view in another window):


Include details on particular elements on separate pages, and navigate to and from the:


DoView allows you to link to websites, so you can include links to sources of primary data:


Create linkages between different elements based on questions, issues or scenarios:


Map out the inter-relationships between elements:


Hold your 3D printed horses Robert Hickson Dec 09

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Why would I go to a supermarket to print a cheap plastic imitation of myself, or a loved one? (When) will I be able to just cut out the middle grocer, and most of the supply chain and print my own real bananas at home?

I’ve previously noted  that 3D printing may not be the great disruptor that some claim. Booz & Co, using a more robust framework, take a similar view. They point out that you need to look beyond just the falling costs of 3D printers for home use. Economies of scale mean that large companies will pay less than small firms and hobbyists for the raw materials used by such printers (be those materials plastics, metals, or anything else).  So, except for serious DIY types, many in the future will probably still get their widgets from the big boys.

Printing food too, despite hype from companies like Natural Machines, will also face similar cost challenges.

The report from Booz & Co suggests that the impact trajectory of 3D printing will be more like gas ovens than microchips. People don’t buy as many ovens (or printers) as computers.

They do note, though, that 3D printing will (and already is in some niche areas) shake up manufacturing considerably.

As Callaghan Innovation has already spotted, there will be good market opportunities for firms to produce powder formulations of metals, such as titanium, that can be used for 3D printing.

There are also opportunities to develop more environmentally friendly replacements for the plastics used in 3D printing

It will also pay not to get too excited that you, or your local hospital, doctor’s surgery, or neighbourhood Warehouse Anatomy shop will be able to print new body parts on demand . Top of the line expertise and hygiene will be required there.

Booz & Co’s paper is good to bear in mind when reading about other “revolutionary” technologies.

Bots on film Robert Hickson Nov 28

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Its interesting monitoring the evolution of how robots are portrayed in recent films (and books). More and more are appearing, some good, some evil, some in between. The portrayals can capture our fear or our developing emotional attachments to robots, as well as the broader views of what our future may look like. As Kate Darling – a researcher who teaches a class on robot rights at MIT – noted, science fiction is often influential in shaping how society sees robots (or other new technologies).

So for you weekend viewing pleasure, here’s a non-scientific selection of short films and trailers featuring robots and cyborgs.


Bad-ass bots out to kill you

1. Keloid


2. ABE – just a robot looking for love

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3. R’ha – gentle aliens being exterminated by machines

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4. Elysium – armed robots and social services robots

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Slacker robots

5. iDiots – are those robots us?

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6. Shelved – a great short film from Auckland’s Media Design School


Emotionally intelligent, but slightly crazy robots

7. Almost human – a new tv series full of cyborgs and robo cops

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Robots you can feel empathy for

8. Robot and Frank – trailer for the movie

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9. Obsolete – is there life beyond the factory?

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10. Changing batteries – confronting robot death

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I expect we’ll see more films and books about conflicted robots as they become more accepted as part of our lives and we view them as less mechanical. When they’re portrayed as flawed characters in a soap opera then we’ll know how far own perceptions of them have changed.

Dr Seuss, futurist? Robert Hickson Nov 27

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Once you’ve read one mega trend report, you’ve read ‘em all. Or so it often seems. This is a point succinctly made by Spencer & Salvatico. They suggest that the popularity of publications on trends is because

“… many people believe trends to be the beating heart of futures thinking and foresight.”

You can go to town analyzing mega trends (ie long term trends, such as an increasingly older national population, likely to influence a broad range of factors).  That often appeals to the commercial and government sectors who may like the illusion of certainty from an apparently robust analysis. Spencer & Salvatico note that conditions have changed, and the focus of foresight should too.

“Pinpointing and analyzing Mega Trends sounds like a great way to adjust strategy or develop a competitive innovation portfolio, but it has become an outdated practice in the 21st-century landscape of convergence, complexity, and disruptive creativity.”

They make a good point. A big failing in futures is the consultants producing a nice glossy/interactive trend report for the leadership team who then don’t change that much at all. However, Spencer & Salvatico seem a bit hard on trend analysis – focussing more on the quick end of year “top trends in X for next year” types of articles, rather than giving some acknowledgement to the more thoughtful mega trend reports that have been produced, and have subsequently been used to good effect.

Trend analyses are useful if they are part of a bigger piece of futures work. Such trend reports serve to make their audience aware that its not going to be business/policy as usual. As I noted in my post from last week, its the questions that such analyses raise that are the useful bit. But I whole heartedly agree that describing trends is not enough.

They note that important components of any foresight or futures activities should be

  • Identifying values that underpin trends – so you can understand and not just describe
  • Exploring the implications of trends – this is usually a given in good mega trend analysis, but it is the hardest part
  • Systems thinking – this is all the rage now, but certainly we aren’t very good at it currently
  • Design – don’t be passive, bring action into play to help you shape the future
  • Aspirations – don’t be agnostic, be clear about the type of future you want
  • Guiding narrative – to tie all these together and help explain where we’ve come from and where we are going. [Narrative, in my opinion, is already in danger of becoming an over-used phrase in many fields, but it is still often the most effective means for grabbing the CEOs or Minister's attention, and giving them something they can use in their discussions]

They use Dr Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra! to illustrate their main point – don’t stop when you have described your trends.

Some would possibly consider The Lorax as Dr Seuss’s futures piece. I hadn’t heard of On Beyond Zebra!, but S&S use it to illustrate that futures work shouldn’t be too constrained by our current conditions and commonly held views. One of the boys in the story invents letters beyond Z, and great fun and creativity ensue. So too, hopefully, with 21st century foresighting (as well as making our world better).




Robolego Robert Hickson Nov 25

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While Siouxsie is encouraging more gender equality in lego figurines “pussy cat” mums are dragging their kids, kicking and screaming (perhaps), to lego classes in Singapore. As the Economist notes, the latter is potentially an interesting new development in Asia, where parents (and politicians) are keen to foster greater creativity and team work in the next generation of students.

It may help, so long as it doesn’t become another parental must-do. It would be interesting to run a long term randomised study to see if lego playing kids have a greater tendency to “do well” (however you want to define that) than those forced to go to music lessons, or extra science and maths classes. Maybe with the growing use of life tracking devices and applications social scientists in the future will have a rich data source to mine to investigate this.

Lego is already being promoted as forming the basis of the next generation of engineers in the US. Their Mindstorms EV3 programmable robotic series of “toys” are used in some school curricula, and form the basis of national and international school competitions.

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Raspberry pi [used to teach computer programming], and other technologies, are also being increasingly used by schools to engage children and stimulate creativity. Its an increasingly hackable world.

I can foresee a joint venture sometime in the future between Lego and Craig Venter producing Ventos, programmable synthetic cells for your little tykes to play with.

A sufficiency of trends Robert Hickson Nov 21

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Two recent reports highlight a range of trends affecting governments, but they take different approaches. The report from IBM – Six Trends Driving Change in Government – has a focus on the US but the trends are generally applicable.

Their six (some more accurately considered drivers rather than trends) relate to:

  • Performance – using data to inform “real-time” decision making on strategic goals
  • Risk – fiscal constraints and complex operating conditions create the need to adopt different cultures and frameworks to be better able to assess and managing emerging public sector risks
  • Innovation – rapid change in technologies and operating models, processes and services means that the public sector needs a better “culture of innovation” – experimentation, alignment of innovations with agency missions, connection with non-government innovators, and monitoring of outcomes
  • Mission – centralisation of organisation-support functions (HR, IT, finance) can lead to detachment from key agency goals. There are opportunities to better link these support functions to organisational goals or missions.
  • Efficiency – financial constraints are prompting a rethink of traditional processes. Technologies can help improve efficiencies and service deliveries, but there is a need to be transparent about costs, savings and outcomes.
  • Leadership – public sector leaders are adopting different ways of working with each other collaboratively.

The other report – from the Mowat Centre and KPMG – comes up with nine “Global Megatrends Shaping Governments” . They take a bigger picture view, examining:

  • Demographics – longer lives and fewer kids in the west are placing pressure on health and social welfare
  • Growing individualism – increasing demand for transparency and broader participation in public decision-making
  • Technology – ICT creating new types and styles of work and opportunities, while also challenging organisational performance and oversight
  • Increasing economic interconnectedness – leading to more trade, capital and labour flows, and creating the need for better policy and regulatory connections between states.
  • Rising public debt – will constrain what governments are able to do in the face of social, economic and environmental challenges
  • Shifting geopolitical power – will affect existing international institutions and agreements, and may challenge existing comparative economic advantages of some countries.
  • Climate change – will influence economic, political, and social activities and aspirations. Adapting and mitigating effects will require both national and international cooperation, and longer-term planning.
  • Increased resource stresses – rising energy, mineral, food, and water demands will challenge governments abilities to maintain prosperity and develop sustainably
  • Spreading urbanization – can also place stresses on infrastructure, services, resources and the environment

These, of course, aren’t discrete but can interact with and influence others, and the megatrends in the Mowat report are often the factors influencing IBM’s six trends/drivers.

The common factors between these two reports (and other recent trend reports – like Ernst & Young’s Six Global Trends Shaping the Business World, and Rick Boven’s transcribed speech posted on Sciblogs) are significant demographic, energy, economic and geopolitical changes, rapid developments in information and communication technologies, and the global financial crisis.

All recognise that new governance and business models are necessary to adapt to these changes. They provide steps to be taken, or questions to be asked that are designed to encourage the changes. Though I expect they are probably sceptical of the abilities for many governments (and some sectors) to change quickly and consistently enough. History shows us that there’s no ideal, clear sighted and committed government that has done this. Democracies, in particular, wander back and forth between successes and failures.

But you’ve gotta try. And the Mowat Centre report is good at identifying some of the policy, regulatory, program, strategy, structural and skill changes that they think are necessary.

What’s starting to worry me, though, is the growing number of these reports that are appearing – each with an overlapping, but slightly different, set of trends and drivers, and pitched to slightly different sectors. While they usually point out the increasing uncertainties in our future as we move from decades of relative stability and certainty, there’s the risk that setting out a nice set of six or so trends and helpful key questions will give a false sense of managerial comfort to the overworked executives.

The trends are a starting point for more detailed thought and engagement. What’s needed are fewer reports and more action (hah, you say, that’s ironic coming from a blogger, and former/future consultant – you have a point).

Before a gaggle of other government departments and industry sectors get enthused (or not) about creating their own trends reports, scenarios, roadmaps, strategic action plans, etc. lets stop. There’s certainly been a lot of duplication, and unnecessary expenditure, producing similar data sets and reports.

New Zealand is small enough and well connected enough that a common set of trends and scenarios (or other tools for imagining potential futures) should be generally applicable for many planning purposes, as well as having the benefit of illustrating that we’re all in this together. The major trends and drivers that I think most have some agreement over (demographics, energy, technologies, social changes, etc) will be important (perhaps in different ways) to the public and private sectors. Neither sector is isolated from the other and will need to collaborate to meet some of the challenges and create some of the desired futures.

So lets get a few well informed and influential people together from a representative range of sectors and groups to craft a common set of futures scenarios and critical questions for the whole country to think about, discuss, argue and act upon with more of a collective purpose. Or maybe a couple of sets, competition can be good. Save money and have the broader discussions that we need to have, rather than concentrating on own own narrower bespoke set of trends and possible futures. This appraoch can help address those needs to address performance, risk, mission, efficiency and leadership that the IBM report notes.

We seem to have the ability to quickly become proficient discussing sailing (or soccer, netball, etc) terms and strategies when we think it matters. Lets put some of that passion and energy into cheering on our future.


[Thanks to John P for putting some of these thoughts into my head]

Technologies helping positive social change Robert Hickson Nov 14

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An uplifting read for the end of the week. The Nominet Trust has selected  applications of digital technologies that are making a positive contribution to social change. As the blog that accompanies the list notes, its not about the technology but how it is used. They also point out how quickly the application of digital technologies is moving – with Google, Wikipedia, WordPress, and Facebook being termed “grandparents” – providing a platform for many diverse subsequent applications.

The list is available at The Social Tech Guide. Some – like M-Pesa, Khan Academy, Raspberry Pi, and Kickstarter – you have probably heard about. Some that caught my eye were:

  • Brainstorms – by Puzzlebox – which introduces students to neuroscience and brain-computer interfaces. When I was at school, about all we had was the game “Operation”



  • Visitect CD4 – by Omega Diagnostics - which can monitor CD4 levels in blood using a cellphone camera
  • Patients know best – which helps give patients control of their medical records
  • eBird – a big data approach to bird watching
  • The Global village construction set from open source ecology - which is working to enable just about anyone to build 50 industrial machines to create your own civilisation – tractors, ovens, lasers.

Marcin Jakubowski, the founder of Open Source Ecology, talks about the global village construction set and an open source economy in these two videos:

4 Minute version

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Or a 20 minute version

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Turning drones into doves Robert Hickson Nov 07

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A quick, somewhat tangental, follow-on from yesterday’s post. I came across this quote by  Simon Johnson in a FastCompany article:

“The Nokia 1100 is the Kalashnikov of telecommunication–a complex technology in a simple device,”

Now that’s a powerful image. He is of course referring to the extra-ordinary benefits and influence mobile phones are bringing to many African communities. The AK47 is considered by some one of the inventions that changed the world, or at least re-wrote the rules of modern warfare.

But the article Simon Johnson features in is about re-tooling drones for commercial service deliveries in Africa. He wants to make drones, through La Fondation Bundi’s Flying Donkey Challenge, the next technology leapfrog for that continent. No roads, no problem.

As I noted a few months ago, it pays to keep an eye on what is happening in Africa. Commercial drone services are a different type of challenge than delivery of mobile phone networks, but such African experiments (or more particularly, their consequences) if they succeed could have important ramifications for the rest of the planet as well. Many thought the early plane delivery services in America, Europe, and NZ a century ago were crazy, but look what happened.

Throw in cheap 3D printing capabilities, simple water supply and treatment technologies, and imaginative redesigns of health-care equipment and some under-developed parts of the world could have spectacular improvements in health and local economies without needing much of the infrastructure we take for granted.

After the wheel was it all downhill? Robert Hickson Nov 06


Innovation’s a perverse thing. It can be quick or slow. We got from powered flight to a moon landing in just over 60 years. But the wheel barrow didn’t come along until 4000 years after the first record of the wheel (4th millennium BC).  We never know how, or when, an idea or invention will be used or built upon.

A couple of weeks ago I noted the UK government’s selection of “eight great technologies” for the future. That got me thinking about the great technologies of the past. Everyone has their own lists. The Atlantic recently surveyed a range of inventors, historians and scientists to compile a list of the 50 greatest breakthroughs since the wheel.

Many of the breakthroughs in The Atlantic’s list build on earlier ones (flight and the internal combustion engine; the personal computer and semiconductors). Some others probably don’t immediately come to mind – the alphabet, nail, or air conditioning.

As the article notes, most people’s top picks are very similar (printing press, electricity, penicillin, etc), but there is rapid divergence the further down the individual lists you go. And everyone has their own separate criteria for what is on their list. Just like your list of the best songs ever won’t be the same as mine.

There’s a preponderance of inventions from the last 300 years in The Atlantic’s list, reflecting the influence of the industrial revolution and 20th Century technologies (click on image for a larger view).

 50 Greatest breakthroughs

What’s missing from the list are more artistic, philosophical and political breakthroughs – the use of perspective in art, the Iliad, dualism, the theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Keynesian economics, for example. But that’s to be expected based on the types contributing to the list. You can go elsewhere to find 100 diagrams that changed the world, how double-entry bookkeeping changed the world, or the 50 most badass moments in art history, etc. Others have pointed out technologies that went bad (here too), or zombie tech that lingers when it shouldn’t.

What I found most interesting was the taxonomy that James Fallows, the writer of The Atlantic article, adopted. He based this in part on how one of the contributors presented her picks. The categories (in shorthand) were:

  • Improve communication (eg, radio, telegraph, TV)
  • Expand intellect (eg, printing press, the internet)
  • Enabled the industrial revolution (eg, steam turbine, assembly line, oil refining)
  • Develop Infrastructure (eg, the nail, cement, sanitation systems)
  • Increase killing power (eg, gun powder, nuclear fission)
  • Life extending (eg, penicillin, anaesthesia, the moldboard plow)
  • Enhance organisational abilities (eg, alphabetization, the abacus)
  • Create new forms of transport (eg, sail boat, steam engine, internal combustion engine)

Some of the final 50 can fall into more than one category (nuclear fission can, for example, cure as well as kill if you include isotopes used for medical treatments). I’ve split his “Life extending” category to make a separate “Better agriculture” one to distinguish health from agricultural breakthroughs:

 50 greatest breakthroughs2

The intent of many current technology developments and approaches also map well to these categories, although which will be considered great  (or even) breakthroughs in a century or two is unknowable.

  • Improving communication – telepresence, holographics, augmented reality
  • Expanding the intellect – Massive Open Online Courses, artificial intelligence, wearable computing, quantum computing
  • Enabling further industrial development – advanced materials, 3d printing, robotics, photovoltaics
  • Developing infrastructure – smart grids, better batteries, autonomous vehicles
  • Increase killing capabilities – new chemical and biological weapons, armed robots
  • Extending life – gene therapies, personalised medicine,  regenerative medicine, synthetic biology, robotics & cybernetics
  • Better agriculture – precision farming, synthetic biology, laboratory raised meat
  • Enhanced organisation – human-computer cooperation, “big data”, automation
  • New modes of transport – jetpacks, hyperloops, magnetic levitation

However, for ageing, affluent populations “life extending” may become less important than “life enhancing” as we approach what we currently think of as our senile years. And with a lot more people, crowded into urban regions, and competing for resources, will some of the future greatest breakthroughs be about solving the question of “why can’t we all just get along?”

With the technologies that we have at hand (or perhaps shortly will) there is plenty that we could do, and we now have technologies that give us greatly enhanced capabilities to do things. But the most important issue will be the choices we make about how we use some of the technologies, and social and political powers.

Some of my future money will be on a step change in the efficiency of solar power and super batteries to store that energy. What could we do (both good and bad) if we had unlimited “clean” energy at our beck and call?

I liked the suggestion from one of the contributors to The Atlantic’s list that the great breakthrough they want to see is the return of sailing ships, but ones that store wind energy and download it later. New Zealand could have a piece of that action. Why don’t we already have a shipping magnate here? We’ve got leading boat building technologies, and the need to ship stuff long distances.

What’s lacking from such simple lists is the social, cultural and political contexts in which “breakthroughs” occur (or don’t) – the factors that stimulate or impede invention and their subsequent use and adoption. Why did it take 4000 years to create a wheelbarrow, and why were different places more inventive than others at different times?



Robotic Friday Robert Hickson Oct 24

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The Atlantic has two articles about robots this week. The first has pictures of Robots at Work and Play, though its more work than play. Robotic camel jockeys anyone? The most intriguing one for me was the mobile fish pen system that “wanders” the ocean gathering data that can help solve water quality and seafloor impact problems.

The others are what you’d probably expect – military, industrial and scientific bots, with a few gimicky bartenders, waiters, and humanoid robots thrown in. But it gives a good quick overview of the diversity emerging.

The second Atlantic article allays fears (perhaps) that robots and automated systems are inherently better than us. Humans, particularly when several are involved, are better at solving some problems. For now at least. Tired of hearing about cloud computing? The article throws out a new meme – crowd computing.

M-bots that will be able to swarm and self-assemble are under development – for potential use in emergency repairs, or perhaps art.

Depending on your level of technological geekiness, one of the coolest or scariest, robots around now is the WildCat. Look at this baby run!

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Can’t wait to get your autonomous car to get away from (or run with) the WildCat? You’ll still have to wait a while if you aren’t rich. Beyond the cost, is the need for the human behind the wheel to still be prepared to over-ride the system. Designers are still figuring out how to ensure the potential driver remains attentive enough to act. And having a big red button on the dashboard to kill the car in an emergency doesn’t strike me as particularly reassuring.

For more sober reading, the International Federation of Robotics have released their 2013 report on trends in robotics. Only modest increases in the numbers of industrial and service robots in service, but the numbers of countries and industries using them are growing. China is anticipated to have a large appetite for robots in the future. India not so much.

Personal robots have much lower growth projections.

Rather than job destroyers, a separate report notes that use of robots and automated systems can increase the numbers of jobs for humans. At least in some industries, such as the automotive sector in Germany. This comes about through increased productivity, and quality improvement.


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