This week the election campaign has been focusing on education, with the Conservative Education Secretary, Nicky Morgan, promising that every child leaving primary school must know their times tables up to 12 and be able to use correct punctuation, spelling and grammar. It follows her predecessor, Michael Gove, revamping the history curriculum to ensure that pupils know about key dates in British history – a move that some saw as a return to Victorian rote learning of facts.
Morgan complains that Britain has slumped in international education league tables, and has vowed to move the country up in rankings for maths and English. But ignoring the fact that children are already tested on times tables, I think she’s missing the point about modern education and the skills it teaches. Of course, children should know their times tables, and be able to read and write. These are basic skills that everyone should have.
But we are in an era of enormous change, and the skills that the workforce of tomorrow requires will be very different to those of today. Increased globalisation, the advent of the knowledge economy and greater technology are impacting on all jobs. Previously safe, middle income management occupations will be broken into smaller chunks and either computerised or outsourced, hollowing out the workforce so that what remains are high end, knowledge-based roles or more menial tasks.
What we need to do is prepare our children for this world by helping them to develop the skills that they require to work in this brave new world. A large proportion of today’s pupils will end up working in jobs that don’t currently exist, so you need to focus on three areas:
1. Learning to learn
Rather than simply teaching facts and tables, you need to instil in children the skills they need to keep learning. These range from problem solving, resilience and working as a team, to ensuring they have inquiring minds and are always pushing themselves.
2. Lifelong learning
Alongside learning to learn, everyone needs to understand that education doesn’t stop when you leave school or university. Whatever field you are in, you’ll need new skills as your career evolves, so it has to be seen as natural to keep learning. The days of working for the same company for ever are long gone, and the days of working in the same role throughout your career are going the same way. So, people will have to make radical moves into new industries and careers, and that will require ongoing investment in learning new skills.
The UK government has re-introduced coding to the school curriculum, which is a major step forward in ensuring that everyone has the basic skills needed to understand and work with technology. While most jobs have required IT for a while, the spread of software into every corner of our lives means that those who understand and program computers will have a big advantage over those that just use them to type emails or surf the net. I’d like to see more government investment in coding for all, alongside schools, so that everyone learns the skills they need.
Don’t get me wrong, it is a laudable aim that every child should leave primary school knowing that 12×12 is 144 and how to use an apostrophe. But we need to be teaching our children a lot more than that if we want to nurture a workforce of self-starting, motivated and problem solving adults that can drive innovation and wealth for the country and wider society.
The internet has radically changed how we bank, removing the need to physically visit and turning a thousand and one redundant branches into All Bar Ones and Wetherspoons. But the actual mechanics of transferring money around haven’t really changed. Through a combination of regulation and the sheer complexity of the financial world most of us still entrust our money to a bank and use their systems to move it around. There are some notable new entrants, such as PayPal, and smaller banks, like Metro Bank, have been launched, but the majority of transactions still go through the same channels as before. The only change being that we do the work ourselves online rather than queuing up for hours in a draughty branch behind the man from the arcade paying in his weekly takings one penny at a time.
But most people recognise that the banking system doesn’t deliver the flexibility or mobility that technology can underpin. So how do you do banking without the banks? One way would be to make it simple to transfer money from person to person using a web-based platform that the majority of the world is a member of. Step forward Facebook, which has applied to the regulator in Ireland to launch e-money across Europe. This would allow people to transfer money to others on the social network as well as to buy things online. The combination of Facebook’s reach and brand could provide stiff competition to the likes of Western Union. However those worried about privacy may baulk at giving Facebook access to their bank details in any way, shape or form.
A second way is to change the currency altogether and allow payments and transfers through new forms of money, such as Bitcoin. However, the danger of an unregulated market has come back to haunt Bitcoin, with exchanges mysteriously emptied of money and government concern that the currency is used to pay for drugs, arms and sundry Bad Things.
Now the banking industry itself has come up with a third way. Paym, has been created by umbrella body the Payments Council and enables money to be transferred by simply typing in the phone number of the recipient, provided they are also registered on the service. Fast, direct and no need to give out your bank details to other people through insecure channels such as email. However it looks like the banks themselves are unconvinced by the possibility of doing themselves out of a job. 20 million account holders of RBS (and its subsidiaries NatWest, Ulster Bank, Clydesdale and Yorkshire banks), as well as First Direct, won’t be able to use the scheme until later in the year, while Nationwide’s five million customers will have to wait until 2015. RBS says it is prioritising getting its IT systems straight, after several high profile meltdowns, before joining.
With more and more of our money transferred online to friends and relatives who are further and further away from us, we need options that make it easy to transfer money simply, and quickly. But given our previous bad experiences with banks, will it be Facebook that steals a march and becomes the new financial hub for the internet age? Either way, consumers should benefit through genuine choice and hopefully better service, whoever they pick.
The world of work has changed immeasurably over the last ten years, not just in the UK but across all developed countries. Repetitive, process driven jobs have been automated, with technology replacing paper-based workflows. In many cases this has led to a hollowing out of sectors and companies, with the remaining workforce split between menial roles and higher level management.
And these changes are accelerating. A report in The Economist points to new technological disruption in the workplace, driven by computers getting cleverer and becoming self-learning. Lightweight sensors, more powerful cameras, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, big data and advances in processing power are all contributing to helping computers do brain work. Innovations such as driverless cars and household robots don’t require human intervention to operate, and can do more than traditional machines.
Research from Oxford University suggests that 47% of today’s jobs could be automated within the next 20 years. Many of these roles are in previously ‘safe’ middle class professions such as accountancy, the law and even journalism.
So, this begs two questions. What skills do people need if they are going to thrive in this new world – and are we teaching them to children quickly enough?
The employees of the future will require skills that complement machine intelligence, rather than mirror it. Empathy, the ability to motivate, and being able to think outside the box will all be needed. Essentially soft skills, backed up by specialist knowledge that is based on experience that cannot be replicated by machines. Professions such as therapists, dentists, personal trainers and the clergy are all seen as being relatively safe from replacement by robots. Interestingly entrepreneurs often possess these talents, so expect them to thrive as they use technology such as the cloud to bring their innovations to market quickly.
As a knock on effect, the will be a change in the size of companies people work for. Before the Industrial Revolution most people worked either for themselves or in small organisations (the village carpenter and his apprentice for example). Industrialisation required scale, so vast mega companies grew up. These won’t disappear, but the number of people working for them will shrink dramatically as intelligent machines take over. We’ll move to a larger proportion of the population being self-employed, providing their services on a personal basis.
Looking at education, schools will also need to change. Pupils need to understand the world around them, so they have to be taught a certain number of facts and dates, but rote learning of what made the British Empire great is going to be useless for a large proportion of people’s careers. What is needed is to teach skills for learning and adapting, thinking for yourself and how to motivate and show empathy to others. Essentially, children starting school today will be going into careers that may not even exist yet – so lifelong learning and flexibility are critical.
The predictions of the havoc that technology will cause to the world of work may be overstated – just because something is technically possible, it doesn’t mean it will quickly become mass market. And governments, worried about massive social change, are likely to step in to mitigate the worst impact through legislation. But changes are coming, and we need to think more like entrepreneurs and less like machines if we’re going to thrive.
It’s CES time again, and one of the key trends at the world’s largest consumer electronics show is wearable tech. That, and the need to make sure your autocue is working in the case of film director Michael Bay.
I’ve previously talked about how devices such as smart watches (and Google Glass) only really have a market to monitor vital signs and provide information on how our bodies are performing, and the products on show at CES bear this out. Intel launched a $1.3m competition to find the best uses for wearable tech (as well as a copy of the ARM-based Raspberry Pi) while Sony unveiled life-logging software and a device called the Core that monitors time spent on various activities, from jogging to watching movies. So if you’re bored with your life you can revisit what you were doing ten minutes ago, which sounds like the recipe for getting trapped in an infinite, ultra-mundane loop.
But the best uses of wearable tech are all linked to fitness. There’s a very good reason for this – as someone that runs a bit (and the husband of a hardened marathoner) I’ve seen how lucrative the market is. After all, like paying for gym membership, money spent on clothes/equipment used for keeping fit is guilt-free – so you can invest in five pairs of trainers and 23 different tops that may make you go faster without worrying too much. Add in the obsession runners have with stats and there is a large, and affluent, sector to target. Products on show at CES include headbands that monitor heart rates and core body temperature as well as smart socks that check your running style. Copying a project seen at Idea Transform several years ago, there’s a sensor that attaches to your baseball bat, golf club or tennis racquet to provide real-time information on your swing to enable you to improve. Pity it came too late for England’s batsmen.
For once, I can see some of the wackier products announced at CES as having a future. Everything is there to make wearables work – sensors have been miniaturised, communication technologies such as Bluetooth are widespread and most of us have smartphones to provide control. This offers the chance to provide unprecedented, real-time information on your body that can either improve your fitness or guard your well-being. There are definitely going to be privacy issues that need to be tackled, but the market is there. Whether that’s the same for the connected toothbrush that ticks you off for not brushing properly, I somewhat doubt……….
Very few of us like paying tax, but there’s a fine line between legitimately reducing your tax bill and actively avoiding paying the tax that is due. And at a time of austerity where everyone is tightening their belts, there’s obviously a push by governments to close loopholes and maximise the revenues they receive.
Given their high profile and obvious success Starbucks and Amazon have both been the subject of widespread condemnation of their tax avoidance methods, and I’ve covered Starbucks inept PR response in a previous blog. Google was up before a House of Commons Select Committee last week (for the second time), backing up its claims that, despite revenue of £3 billion in the UK, all its advertising sales actually take place in the lower tax environment of Ireland. Google boss Eric Schmidt has countered that the company invests heavily in the UK with its profits, including spending £1 billion on a new HQ that he estimates will raise £80m per year in employment taxes and £50m in stamp duty.
Apple is the next company caught in the public spotlight, with CEO Tim Cook appearing before a US Senate committee that had accused it of ‘being among America’s largest tax avoiders’. Meanwhile, the loophole that sees Amazon and other big US ecommerce companies avoid paying local sales taxes is being challenged by a new law passing through Congress, with estimates of between $12 and $23 billion extra being collected.
Given the close links between Google and UK politicians (Ed Miliband is appearing at a Google event this week and Schmidt is expected to meet David Cameron on his current UK trip), the cynical view is that this is a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. But it does create an image problem for the companies involved, particularly at a time when we’re all meant to be in it together.
Obviously the most popular thing for companies to do would be to re-organise their tax affairs so that they meet the spirit as well as the letter of the law. But that’s not likely to happen given the enormous sums at stake. Instead expect increased calls for global tax reform (so that the organisations involved don’t have to operate the way they are currently ‘forced’ to) and a slew of feel good announcements that demonstrate the level of investment and support for the UK economy by the companies concerned. Being ultra cynical perhaps the whole tax situation explains the huge support by big tech companies for Tech City – it is simply an elaborate way of diverting attention from their financial affairs…………..
People create startups for a variety of reasons. They might have a burning desire to solve a problem, they’ve come up with something innovative that they want to commercialise or it seems the logical step from what they were doing before. It might even be an accident of being in the right place at the right time.
Obviously you’re not going to put your heart, soul and every waking hour into a startup unless you want it to succeed. And one measure of success is money – how much is the company worth, and what is your personal reward for your blood, sweat and tears along the way.
So it is interesting to look at the latest Forbes list of the world’s richest people, which has just been published. The good news is that tech and telecoms dominate the rankings – but the bad news for entrepreneurs is that it takes a lot of time to become a billionaire.
Overall the richest man in the world is Mexican telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim Helu, worth a whopping great $73 billion. To put it in context that’s more than the gross domestic product of many countries (for example Azerbaijan’s GDP was $63bn in 2011).
Following Slim Heddu is Microsoft founder Bill Gates with $67 billion (enough for Azerbaijan and loose change) with Oracle’s Larry Ellison also making the overall top 10. But all three of these are either long established companies (Oracle, Microsoft) or seized an opportunity (mobile phones in the case of Slim Heddu), rather than tech startups.
You have to delve further down the charts to find Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin (only $23bn and $22.8bn) respectively. In fact they are followed in the tech list by current Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer ($15.2bn), showing that you don’t need to start a company to benefit from its growth. And despite the travails of Facebook’s stock price Mark Zuckerberg is still worth $13.3bn, but at 28 is one of the youngest names on the list.
So from studying the rankings, what do you need to look at if you want to join the Forbes Tech rich list? Here are a few tips:
- Cross the chasm – none of the top 10 are particularly innovative, but the majority have achieved mass market appeal very quickly (with the exception of Oracle which has used its muscle to hoover up the B2B competition)
- Keep it at it – billionaires might have not invented things, but they’ve focused on execution and have prepared to invest for the long term to drive growth. Perhaps this long term focus explains the lack of tech UK leaders in the upper echelons of the list, In fact the highest UK representative is the Duke of Westminster. And it is difficult to get more long term thinking than a peer of the realm that owns huge swathes of central London.
- Look at emerging markets – Latin American mobile telecoms has skyrocketed over the past 20 years, propelling Slim Heddu to the top of the list and there are a large number of billionaires linked to the BRICs countries where they’ve used technology to revolutionise people’s lives
- Flotation is just the start – lots of startups (particularly in the UK) look for an exit through flotation or more often a trade sale. As the rise of the fortunes of Gates and Ellison show a stock market listing was used to increase investment in the company rather than sell up.
- Deliver something scalable. You can’t build a billion dollar organisation selling people’s time (ruling out my PR company joining the Forbes list anytime soon). You need a product or service that provides economies of scale as you grow – software or telecoms being perfect cases in point. The more copies of Windows sold the greater the profits per copy as development costs are spread more thinly.
Don’t set out to be a billionaire. Everyone wants to be rich (even if, like Bill Gates, they then use the money to fund charities and education) but I doubt anyone set out with the specific goal of becoming a billionaire. Develop your idea, be innovative, appeal to a large market and deliver on your promises and (with a bit of luck) success will come – even if it takes some time. And of course for anyone that follows my advice and hits that billion, I’ll take a very reasonable 1%……………….
Over the years the humble car has been getting smarter. From electronic control units that monitor and automatically manage performance (and flash alarming warnings at regular intervals) to in-built sat nav devices, cars are becoming driven by technology.
And now it looks like the internet is coming to a vehicle near you. Intel, for example, claims that, for some brands, by 2014 every car they sell will offer some sort of internet connectivity and analysts IHS say that over 50% of consumers would be swayed by the presence of an internet-capable device when it comes to buying a car.
So what do they predict connecting your car to the net would enable? Obviously there’s entertainment – surfing the web, updating social media, listening to internet radio and watching streaming content. But where analysts see the biggest growth is in apps that help the driving experience – from updates on the nearest cheap petrol station to finding you a parking space in a crowded city.
All very impressive sounding, but will it actually catch on and will car manufacturers actually recoup the billions they’re investing in connected technology?
In my view, the market is going to initially be a lot smaller than people think – but it does provide a potential new revenue stream for car manufacturers if they retain control. In terms of size of market there are four ways that the car market is very different to other internet-connected devices.
Firstly, not that many people buy cars new, so even if half of new cars are smart, that will take a while to trickle down into the mainstream, by which time technology will have moved on in leaps and bounds.
Secondly, a lot of the apps being touted around can already be found on 3G smartphones. Plugging them into a voice controlled connected car should guarantee an easier experience but as anyone that’s tried speech control will tell you it doesn’t always work.
Thirdly, there’s the safety aspect. You can’t use your mobile phone in a car, and the complex apps that some people are talking about would be equally distracting to the driver. In the US a quarter of car accidents are attributed to mobile phone use. I’m sure ‘I was arguing with my car when I crashed’ would soon enter the list of insurance excuses.
And finally, the car market is in turmoil as cash-conscious consumers desert mainstream brands for cheaper alternatives – Peugeot for example lost £4.3 billion in 2012. Is it likely that such advanced technology will be in the latest generation of Kias anytime soon?
But if car manufacturers can get it right they would be able to add a completely new revenue stream to their operations. Rather than just selling a car, they’d be able to act as a gateway to the internet, taking a cut on every app installed in the vehicle and providing ongoing services (such as mapping) on a subscription basis. You may even get to the point of cars, like mobile phones, being subsidised if you sign up to certain packages.
However the big challenge to the automobile industry is adapting to this new reality when it happens. Can they avoid losing out to the likes of Apple, Samsung, Google or mobile phone networks by keeping control of the relationship with the customer? When you look at other industries transformed by the internet (such as music or retail) it isn’t the traditional players that have survived, but young upstarts. Ready for a Google car? They already have one on test…………
I like my gadgets as much as (or more probably more than) the next person. However looking through all the announcements at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas I can’t help thinking some are a triumph of ingenuity over common sense. While we can automate a lot of our lives, there are some things that we should be doing intrinsically through common sense rather than relying on electronics. There are genuine innovations at CES (the Plastic Logic PaperTab ultra thin tablet springs immediately to mind), a lot of bigger and better TVs but it is the wacky gadgets which attracted my attention.
I’ve previously moaned about Google Glasses as most of us are lucky enough to have eyes which do a similar job a lot more cheaply. As well as optical technology, CES also sees a whole range of other ‘firsts’ designed to make our lives easier. Here’s a round up of five I found particularly pointless……..
A phone you can use in the bath
One of the few places we can’t use our smartphones is in water, but for those that can’t exist without them while in the shower, Sony is introducing the bath-friendly Xperia Z smartphone. Though if it encourages geeks to wash more, it could be a positive move……..
The intelligent fork
Rushing your food? Tired of being admonished by his wife for wolfing down his food, French inventor Jacques Lepine invented the Hapifork. If you eat too quickly the smart fork buzzes to tell you to slow down and is being marketed as a way to tackle weight gain. Instead, why not just focus on your food and make conversation while eating to avoid guzzling your grub?
The Android Oven
Staying in the kitchen Dacor’s cooker has an 7 inch display and runs the Android operating system that lets you pull up recipes and then adjusts the cooking time to match. All fine so far, but what happens if you get the recipe slightly wrong and it frazzles your dinner while you’re busy playing Angry Birds?
Monitor your plants from afar
The Parrot Flower Power is a Bluetooth monitoring tool that you put in the soil next to one of your prized plants. It then sends messages to your iPad on the nutrients in the soil, ambient temperature and if your plant is in trouble. Again, a pair of eyes, a watering can and reading the label that comes with the plant should be a lot simpler – at least until they develop a version that automatically electrocutes aphids without you needing to spray……….
Find your missing luggage (sort of)
Arriving at a different airport to your luggage is a major inconvenience. Pop the Trakdot, a card-sized tracking device into your bag and it will use mobile phone technology to let you know where it is – and it even shuts down in flight to avoid crashing the plane. However while it might prove your luggage is in Paris, Texas when you’re in Paris, France it doesn’t actually get it back to you any quicker.
I’m sure we’ll see some of these gadgets hit the shops in 2013, but hopefully common sense will prevail over technology and people will keep using their eyes, ears and hands to interact with the world around them, rather than leaving it to a computer…………