Futureproofing your business
I feel good about not booking my Amtrak train from Washington to New York City two days earlier than I did. In this manner I avoided the murderous crash that happened on that line. But I’m wondering why the US train company had only installed its automatic braking on its southbound track, not the line heading north (1).
So the first thing to remember about protecting your firm from future disasters is that much of the technology for that already exists. No great leap of the imagination may be needed.
Still, in today’s risk-averse culture, it does seem a big leap of the imagination to accept that corporate success is about seizing the time, not being ‘resilient’ against coming catastrophes. On Amazon, you’ll find about 30 books with the word ‘futureproof’ in their titles: futureproof your marketing, your website, your career. With so many tomes published, perhaps the best way to safeguard your future might be… to stop drawing up too many safeguards.
Some firms, taking on the Green agenda hook, line and sinker, think the way to stay ‘resilient’ – that is, merely to survive – is to go over to what’s known as the sharing economy. Apparently, we’re so beset by clothes, appliances and other clobber, we’ll soon want to make everything follow the Airbnb model: rent experiences, rather than buy goods. Cool idea? Actually, not. People first wrote about experience as the foundation for future corporate growth in 1997 (2). And in terms of old-fashioned physical ownership, about four million British households still have no devices to allow Internet access (3).
Even in developed countries, people are far from overwhelmed by stuff.
So what should businesses do to prepare themselves a successful future? First, collect and suspect more forecasts about the future. Interrogate words like ‘futureproof’ and ‘resilience’ (nearly 5000 titles on Amazon). Who first coined them, when, and why – and how has their meaning changed (usually for the worse)?
Google Ngram Viewer is useful here (4). It shows that mentions of words like futureproof and resilience in English-language books really accelerated in 1989-91 – the end of the Cold War. After that, aversion to risk took off. The same pattern emerges if you contrast enquiring characters such as Sherlock Holmes or Albert Einstein with mentions of the much more iffy Frankenstein.
Second, refuse to panic, and be ambitious. If there are so many diseases you might die of, why has life expectancy at 65 years been rising throughout the Western world (5)? Why did life expectancy for African babies rise from 50 in 2000 to 58 in just 13 years (6)? There’s no room for complacency, but things ain’t that bad. Risks need to be confronted, not exaggerated.
Last, remember that doing experiments, making prototypes and learning from setbacks is the way to turn Donald Rumsfeld’s over-popular ‘unknown unknowns’ into quantified risks, and eventually into problem-busting innovations. It’s those experiences that make by far the biggest difference to the world.
The West needs radical surgery. But surgery itself did not emerge without plenty of patient deaths (7). It’s too bad – but if you really do want resilience, go for broke, not the apron strings.
2. B Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmore, ‘How to profit from experience’, Wall Street Journal, 4 August 1997.
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Innovators I like
Robert Furchgott – discovered that nitric oxide transmits signals within the human body
Barry Marshall – showed that the bacterium Helicobacter pylori is the cause of most peptic ulcers, reversing decades of medical doctrine holding that ulcers were caused by stress, spicy foods, and too much acid
N Joseph Woodland – co-inventor of the barcode
Jocelyn Bell Burnell – she discovered the first radio pulsars
John Tyndall – the man who worked out why the sky was blue
Rosalind Franklin co-discovered the structure of DNA, with Crick and Watson
Rosalyn Sussman Yallow – development of radioimmunoassay (RIA), a method of quantifying minute amounts of biological substances in the body
Jonas Salk – discovery and development of the first successful polio vaccine
John Waterlow – discovered that lack of body potassium causes altitude sickness. First experiment: on himself
Werner Forssmann – the first man to insert a catheter into a human heart: his own
Bruce Bayer – scientist with Kodak whose invention of a colour filter array enabled digital imaging sensors to capture colour
Yuri Gagarin – first man in space. My piece of fandom: http://www.spiked-online.com/newsite/article/10421
Sir Godfrey Hounsfield – inventor, with Robert Ledley, of the CAT scanner
Martin Cooper – inventor of the mobile phone
Thomas Tuohy – Windscale manager who doused the flames of the 1957 fire
Eugene Polley – TV remote controls
George Devol – 'father of robotics’ who helped to revolutionise carmaking