Monday, May 22, 2017

Innovation and creativity: the lasting competitive advantage

I wrote recently about my last trip to Dubai, and the impact it had on me.  Dubai is unusual because it combines a number of factors - an energetic leadership, a country and region hungry for growth and transformation, a significant investment pool, and a real "can do" spirit.  Clearly things are changing quickly there, and everywhere.  During the conference where I spoke we had several other speakers who were futurists, including Matthew May.  He and others talked about what they believe is about to unfold as we move ever more quickly into the future.

Pause to acknowledge Daniel Pink

I'd like to pause here and tip my hat to Daniel Pink, who wrote a really good book that is becoming ever more prescient.  Daniel Pink wrote a book entitled A Whole New Mind in 2005, and at the time the book had a nice reception.  His key points in that book were that automation would increase, replacing repetitive labor.  Anything that can be reduced to an algorithm will be described, defined and encoded.  If it can be automated, it will be automated.  His further argument was that we needed to be focused on training people in skills that can't be reduced to algorithms.  Dan's book, published in 2005, deserves a re-read at this time, 12 years later, because a lot that he talked about is happening.  People are being replaced by algorithms, machines and artificial intelligence.

Where automation and AI are taking hold

McDonalds, that trusted first employer of many a teenager, is testing automation and robots to take orders, make food and complete orders.  It's possible within a few years that many McDonalds restaurants will be fully automated, finally achieving the original McDonalds brothers goal of speedy, efficient service.  Check out the movie "The Founder" to see how choreographed the original McDonalds were, and think about how those patterns and repetitive activities can be reduced to automation, machines and AI.

While I was in Dubai I was speaking with an executive of a firm that reviewed intellectual property.  20 years ago the firm had hundreds of US lawyers on staff, but shifted these jobs to a large Indian location where hundreds of Indian engineers and lawyers reviewed intellectual property claims and patents.  His belief was that within 5 years algorithms and machine learning would mean that he would not need many, if any, humans to review patents.

Wall Street is under attack as well from automation and machine learning.  Already there are stock funds managed almost exclusively by algorithms and machine learning, and a significant portion of stock trading is already done by software.  Machines can recognize patterns and act far more quickly than humans can - so you can imagine that a significant amount of trading and money management will be automated in relatively short order.

What does that leave for humans?

As automation, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics grow in capability, humans doing simple, repetitive jobs will be crowded out.  Robots are much more expensive initially but don't strike, don't get sick and do things exactly the way they are programmed.  They don't get overtime.  So what's left for humans?  Perhaps this will be a golden age - where increasingly we are removed from the drudgery of manual labor and repetitive jobs and are finally freed up to explore the unlimited creativity that we possess but have never been able to fully harness.  There may be far more Faradays and Einsteins in our midst who can fully recognize their creative potential as we are freed from boring, mundane and repetitive tasks.

Pink suggested in his book that the "right brained" people would rule the future. This is because machines aren't artistic or creative - yet.  We humans still possess far more creativity and the ability to assimilate and create in ways that can't be reduced to an algorithm.  We must take advantage of these gifts and differences.

But that doesn't mean that engineers, mathmeticians and scientists are doomed.  Someone will be needed to dream up the next AI, investigate black holes, explore space and perhaps discover how to travel at the speed of light.

What needs to change?  Everything

All of these factors mean that our educational system needs to change, to reinforce creativity and expansive, divergent thinking.  When we needed people on production lines who could do rote work, we taught in rote methods.  Now and in the future we need a completely new way of thinking, that frees up and encourages creativity and innovation.  But it's not just elementary schools, high schools and colleges that must change.

Our traditional hierarchical top down management models, first organized around the military and the railroads, must change and morph as well. We don't need to pigeonhole people into exceptionally narrow jobs, and we need to eliminate siloes and accelerate the best and most creative ideas to market as quickly as possible.  I write this on a day when Ford Motor fired its CEO, even after record breaking sales, because the firm isn't making enough money and its stock price is tanking.  Ford and the automotive manufacturers must shift their thinking from building cars to financing vehicles to providing transportation. 

Will we leverage the power and performance of AI and machine learning and automation and robots to free people up to create even more incredible ideas and products - to add value where AI and robots can't?  Will we prepare our children to compete in a world where creativity and divergent thinking become more important than rote memorization?  Can we rethink our business structures and processes to embrace more divergence and creativity? 

Innovation and creativity are the lasting competitive advantage, for individuals, for cultures and for businesses.  The sooner we realize that and act on it, the better off we all are.

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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 6:31 AM 0 comments

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What Dubai gets right about innovation

I've just returned from a trip to Dubai to speak at an innovation conference there. This is my third trip to Dubai, and I come away consistently amazed at what the people and the government are doing in Dubai.  When I return to the States people ask me what Dubai is like.  I joking tell them that I was visiting the future.

In my three visits to Dubai, spanning only a couple of years, the development and progress has been really quite astonishing.  I've had the good fortune to lead innovation programs and workshops in a wide range of countries and regions, from Western Europe to South Africa to South America and in many locations in Asia.  There's no other place moving as quickly and with such purpose as Dubai. 

In our event we heard stories about the decisions taken to place Dubai on the innovation map, where the sheikh asked his people to visit Singapore and Hong Kong, places with few natural resources that were thriving.  These insights were brought back to Dubai and I think have accelerated the growth of the region and the city.

Innovation attributes/factors
Dubai has a number of factors that help it move quickly, including the fact that they started from a relatively basic standard of living and moved quickly to become a world class city.  Moving quickly is easier if you have less invested infrastructure.  In a recent article for Popular Science, one of the ministers leading the transition talks about the dirt roads he grew up with, which are now 8 lane highways.  Starting from a very humble base, Dubai has moved quickly to develop its air transportation (Emirates), its port, tourism, health care and other economic factors.  We will watch to see if Dubai can maintain speed and nimbleness as it grows and matures.

Dubai also benefits by being new and small.  It is still a relatively small city-state and as such is relatively nimble.  It has the ability to test and experiment with ideas, governance and technology at a pace that few other larger countries can manage.  As long as it keeps this nimbleness and flexibility, it will remain an innovator. Good examples of experiments and concepts are drones for personal transportation, a potential hyperloop and massive solar investments.

Dubai also benefits from its location.  It sits near a significant amount of oil, much of which is transported through the Gulf, right by its front door. Dubai and the middle east are also the half way point between Western Europe and India/China, making Dubai a natural transportation hub.  And we won't even mention its proximity to Africa, which when it develops will simply mean more transportation and logistics opportunities for Dubai.

Dubai benefits from two other attributes as well.  It has a forward thinking ruler, who has the ability to quickly implement his vision. This forward-thinking trickles down throughout the population.  Everyone seems infected by this vision and wants to know what's next.  There's a real sense of possibility, of seeking to overcome obstacles.  The sense of energy and optimism is pervasive.

Lastly, one of the factors that drives innovation in Dubai is a sense of openness, inclusion and tolerance.  I asked several of the conference attendees what they thought Dubai was doing well, and to a person they all mentioned engaging people of different perspectives, openness to new ideas and tolerance of different people, nationalities and ideas.  To quote the Popular Science article, "the sense of mutual tolerance is palpable, almost joyful". Many innovation commentators have noted that innovation thrives when diverse ideas and people interact in a place that can implement and accelerate them. Could Dubai model itself after Venice in the Renaissance?

Why these factors matter

These factors - tolerance, engagement, optimism, nimbleness, speed, location - all matter for innovation.  Tolerance and engagement mean that the best ideas will be considered, regardless of their source.  Optimism is vital for innovation, because new ideas are constantly failing, and that may become an opportunity for risk avoidance and pessimism.  I was surprised when one speaker at the conference talked about an idea failing and his company starting again.  What was surprising was the fact that the attendees applauded him for failing and trying again.

The government has a very forward looking posture and encourages experimentation.  It's organization and structure will reinforce nimbleness and speed as long as these factors remain top of mind.  Additionally, the government has demonstrated that it will fund trials and experiments that solve key challenges.  Solar farms and desalination programs are underway.

You may think of Dubai as a place for tourism, or to see the tallest building, or to ski indoors on a 100 degree day, and you'd be right.  But don't miss what they are doing to build an experimental platform for innovation as a city-state.  The whole city and government are moving quickly and it will bear watching to see what's next.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:18 AM 0 comments

Monday, May 15, 2017

What autonomous cars tell us about the future of innovation

May you live in interesting times.  This is supposedly an ancient Chinese saying, replete with both opportunity and a veiled threat.  Interesting times can introduce great new innovations but can also inaugurate great conflicts.  Nowhere is this more evident than the evolving phenomena of autonomous vehicles.

Innovators across the globe, from the large (Amazon, Google) to the small are all working on autonomous vehicles.  Futurists are already predicting the demise of the long distance truck driver, whose job will be eliminated momentarily by autonomous trucks spanning long distances.  Soon, we are promised, we'll commute to work reading our morning papers - except there won't be papers - while the autonomous vehicle takes us efficiently and safely on our way.

If you are reading a hint of sarcasm in the above scenario, you are right.  We are reliving all of the hype about electric vehicles, circa 1991, when California demanded that 5% of all cars would be zero emission vehicles within 5 years.  They may reach that threshold in 2020. The promise and excitement of technology often ignores significant barriers to adoption.

Technology is the answer not the problem.

Thanks to Moore's Law and other advances in technology, we know that the bulky, unwieldy stuff welded onto prototype autonomous vehicles will be miniaturized and made more robust.  This will take time but it will happen if the markets are there.  The costs which are a bit prohibitive today will also fall.  The combinations of big data, real time analytics, sensors, on board processing, all linked to a very responsive processor connected to the engine and drive train will provide a safe and simple journey.  The technology won't be the problem.  But just like the electric vehicle, we'll discover the real barriers to innovation:  invested infrastructure, risk and regulation.

Invested Infrastructure

One of the items that slowed the adoption of the electric vehicle was the ubiquitous gas station.  When you have to carefully plan your trips to swing by electric charging stations, the overhead associated with driving an electric vehicle can be a bit overwhelming.  As battery lives improve and more charging stations are developed, driving an electric vehicle will be more predictable.  But we still face the challenge of deeply invested infrastructure that does not fully support electric vehicles.  And this is a dilemma that innovators always face - they must work within the existing infrastructure and compatibility or disrupt it.  And if they disrupt it they better have a fully operational highly capable alternative ready to go for the masses.  That was easier for Jobs and iTunes than it will be for fueling cars.

The invested infrastructure favors human drivers who are somewhat unpredictable, who must stop or yield at intersections.  The infrastructure favors drivers because we have significant investments in parking lots - where stupid cars wait on their drivers.  Autonomous cars don't require close in parking lots, because they can drive themselves or do other chores rather than sit in the lot.  Existing investments could become catastrophically obsolete when cars are smarter - this means some interests gain, while others stand to lose dramatically.


The organizations most likely to block rapid adoption of autonomous vehicles are the insurance companies.  We know what human drivers are likely to do in a car based on decades of historical data.  We know the frequency of accidents, the cost of those accidents and so forth.  With an autonomous vehicle there are several challenges.  First, where's the past data to build models on?  We don't have a lot of historical data so estimating and pricing will be difficult.  Second, who is responsible for an accident?  The vehicle, or a subsystem, like the navigation or data processor or the sensors?  Is there joint and several liability?  Third, what are the rules? Will the population revolt if autonomous cars (which are in fact robots) accidentally take a human life, ignoring Arthur Clarke's three Robotic laws? Risk is a terrible thing for insurance companies, and until they can quantify and validate the risk associated with autonomous vehicles they won't create insurance at comparable prices to cars with drivers.  No insurance, no autonomous vehicles.


So, here's a question.  Suppose you are driving in Silicon Valley in your autonomous vehicle and you are crossing political boundaries - say you are driving from Palo Alto, where autonomous vehicles have been approved, and you cross over into San Francisco or some other municipality where autonomous vehicles aren't approved.  Given the Byzantine number of local, regional, state and federal regulations and approval bodies, you may never be able to leave your local municipality in an autonomous vehicle.  Existing regulation is often a barrier to any radically new innovation, and it will be with the autonomous vehicle.  Until all the municipalities agree or California and other states provide uniform regulations for autonomous vehicles, they are interesting museum pieces.
Regulations will have to change, and when regulations change there are winners and losers.  The organizations and companies that think they have something to lose - bus drivers, truck drivers, delivery people, etc - will put pressure on their representatives to slow or stall new regulation.

Finally, what does the innovation force to occur

In reality, there's one other barrier to innovation that the autonomous vehicle signals - the required changes once the innovation is accepted.  In reality, once a few autonomous vehicles are on the road, we'd all be a lot safer, more than likely, if all the cars were autonomous.  This would lower unpredictable driving and reduce accidents.  But that means than one can't be a little pregnant.  Either there are no autonomous vehicles or they all are.  Innovations, once accepted, often cause secondary and tertiary effects, and this is another reason there is resistance to innovation.  People can't always voice their concerns but innately they know that new technologies have knock on effects, and therefore they resist new innovations because of the unknown and unexpected consequences.

The knock on effects are both knowable and unknowable with autonomous cars.  Some scientists have speculated that autonomous cars could reduce the need for stop lights, because the cars and algorithms could sequence cars more effectively.  But this sequencing and hive mentality also suggests that a simple glitch or a hack could disable thousands of vehicles simultaneously.  Imagine a huge fleet of autonomous vehicles hit with a "WannaCry" like virus that shuts them all down with no warning.  Innovation offers great benefits but also secondary and tertiary knock on effects that must be understood, especially when human life is at stake.

What this means, generally

The autonomous car has a lot of promise, but some peril as well.  As an innovation, it is a good example of the factors that will block or become barriers for innovation.  Risk, especially when someone else bears the cost (like insurers) will always be a barrier to adopting new innovations.  Regulations will be as well.  The more disruptive the innovation, the more it will upend existing infrastructure and that will cause significant grief to a large portion of the population.  As innovators we must recognize that the value and benefit of an innovation must be measured in proportion to its impact on existing infrastructure, risk and regulation, because these factors can delay adoption.  We must also understand the secondary and tertiary effects of innovation, to understand potential barriers or resistance from those who will "lose" if the new innovation is adopted.

Some innovations, Facebook as an example, didn't encounter many of these issues.  There were few existing examples except printed facebooks at colleges.  There are few regulatory issues and little knock on effects.  However, when you innovate in a space where there is a lot of history - over 100 years of  automotive usage - then you're going to encounter resistance from those who have a stake in the status quo, and from regulation that exists to manage and sustain the existing way of life.  This should lead to a conclusion:  when you choose your targets and opportunities to innovate, choose carefully, because some innovation opportunities are much easier to realize than others.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 7:30 AM 0 comments