There is a common expression that consultants love to say “You are either a startup or a leave behind”, it’s a great way to sell consulting services but it’s not especially accurate. The world is full of those who in order to get headlines or paid work, need to exaggerate the pace, scope and meaning of change. We see near endless Gartner or Forrester predictions, Smart Speakers will kill Advertising, AI will destroy jobs, which would more more credible if they’d not previously said that VR would destroy TV, Smart glasses would render phones useless and 3D Printing will change supply chain.
It’s not that change isn’t here, it’s that we need to be cognizant that, in the desire for simplicity and clickable headlines in the modern media landscape, business and technology writing smoothes away nuance. You don’t get retweets saying “most things are the same, but it’s complex”.
I firmly believe it is not necessarily that technology has changed everything or will in the future. If you are a milk brand, a baker, or hairdresser, it’s not clearly the case that radical change is on the horizon, or that when it does appear it will be rapid and catastrophic. Companies that own coffee brands and make ground coffee for retailers, don’t necessarily need to become “tech companies that happen to make coffee.” Not every company will look manifestly different.
When I sit drinking a Pilsner in a Frankfurt Beer Hall, it’s obvious that family-run breweries that hark back to 1695 are not facing looming existential crises. I don’t think they need innovation sessions to establish what 3D printing or VR headsets could mean for their company, just as I don’t think they suffer sleepless nights about what the “Uber of beer” could be for them.
We often forget that much of the way we live our lives today is not that drastically different. In fact, many of the skills, processes and requirements of marketing and business haven’t and won’t change much at all. We would all do well in business to be hyper aware of what has changed, but even more frequently and stubbornly reminded of what has not.
In the same way, changes that appear big to us may not be remotely widespread. My own personal view of the world is particularly unrepresentative. Living on the 42nd floor of a glass skyscraper in Manhattan, a cursory glance in the lobby makes it easy to conclude that everyone buys everything from Amazon and most people cook items delivered by Blue Apron (a subscription cooking box service) and all because “they don’t have time.” Realistically, for most of the world, such behavior is sufficiently niche as to be irrelevant. My more typical friends may live away from global capitals but still live in large cities where contemporary behavior is so widespread that it’s hard to believe than in the USA by May 2019, only 36% of people had ever used an Uber or Lyft or any other ridesharing app ever. We may see today as a time where Airbnb dominates, but while there are 17.5m ( and rising ) hotel rooms in the world, on a given night there are only 1-2m guests in an Airbnb. While business books continue to talk about the death of Blockbusters there are still 40,000 Redbox DVD rental Kiosks across the USA, bringing in nearly half a billion dollars and Netflix in 2019 reported having 2.7 million customers who get DVDs by mail
All of the unsaid assumptions about the uses of the likes of Airbnb and ridesharing apps demonstrate excellent viewpoints from unrepresentative lives. They are not fair, but they are helpful. My Instagram feed is now full of relatively wealthy, attractive, happy people broadcasting a life of expensive, exclusive experiences: the business class lounge at Heathrow, the Airbnb getaway in upstate New York, the Aperol spritzes in bars in the Hamptons. Our lives are cocooned by the abnormalities of the WEIRD- "Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic"
It’s from such limited data that we assume people want experiences now; that people of today shun buying real things, that the designer handbag for social status is now replaced by a well curated Instagram feed. We assume everyone is streaming their House of Cards, binge-watching their way through winter weekends. We assume that the reason we spend less on flatscreen TVs than expected is because of all those avocado toasts and heart foam cappuccinos we keep on buying. But, in reality, most people are buying food from grocery stores in the same way they always have. They order beer in bars with their mouths, not apps. They do own cars and haven’t cut the cord on TV packages. People don’t live the life that metropolitan folk like me assume.
Yet in many cases, what people like me, and the people most likely to read this book, do see isn’t irrelevant. In many but not all cases, “leading edge” behavior will either become adopted further, and around the world, or slowly morph over time and evolve to change the ways of the future. A lot of the most advanced and innovative new products on the market may start out targeting a particularly privileged first audience, before they are scaled out to other pricing points and markets. The electric scooters I see passing me as I cycle to work are not “the future” but they offer a guiding light into the meaning of technology and the profound implications it could have. The Tesla’s that are seen on every street in Oslo, should serve as a warning to car mechanics that their line of work is about to be changed forever. With no more oil changes or complex transmission problems, it is perhaps time to get to grips with software updates and maintain the high-resolution cameras they will use for Autopilot.
Let’s not be too comfortable that change is niche either. We need to accept that the number of businesses that won’t suffer any changes is small. That for every 16th century beer maker, there is a 16th century trading company or retailer that is rightly worried to death. That for every funeral director that isn’t reimagining burial ceremonies, there is an insurance business that is. The changes coming and that I outline later in the book don’t all seem obvious and technology-driven. From a smaller middle class, to people living longer, to changing human settlement patterns, to global warming, changes may be further spread than you may first assume . We need to imagine a more complex future than would first appear, the second and third order effects and what happens when technologies combine in new ways. Even for those companies that think they will miss the destruction of the “digital storm” that lies ahead, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have their eyes fixated ahead. If nothing else, they may want to harness the metaphorical wind power that is unleashed from it.