“Tools for Hope”: futures for change

Posted in future, visions, events by thenextwavefutures on 17 October, 2017











I’m involved in organising an APF event in London next month called “Tools for Hope”. It’s a practical hands-on event designed to help people who’re interested in using futures work to create change. It’s being held in Bloomsbury on Tuesday 7th November.

The thinking behind the event is that futures work can create an overdose of pessimism as we stare at the overlapping crises of the “grandes problematiques“. But there’s a long if sometimes neglected history of futures methods that are designed to give people a sense of agency and purpose. So “Tools for Hope” is about futures tools that help people make change happen.

Speakers on the day include Wendy Schultz (on visioning), Bill Sharpe (on Three Horizons), Tricia Lustig (on appreciative enquiry), and Tanja Hichert (on Seeds of a Good Anthropocene).

  • Wendy Schultz: “Preferred futures—visions—are a foundation of futures thinking, research, and practice. Starting with Polak’s Image of the Future, through organizational visions and transformational leadership as vision articulation, to the philosophical and artistic explorations of the possible preferred, visions and visioning are core to futures studies and foresight. How do we identify, collect, and compare ambient visions? What are all the approaches to creating fresh transformative visions? How can they act as nudges to emergence?”
  • Bill Sharpe: “The Three Horizons framework is a simple tool for ordering our thoughts about the future. It works with an intuitive grasp of how the future occurs to us: a landscape of uncertainty in which we too are actors. If we can bring that intuitive appreciation to consciousness it is possible to work with the emerging future much more skilfully. In particular we can set about realising our own aspirations in a fast-changing and complex world.” In an interactive session Bill will introduce the framework and lead a Three Horizon mapping exercise.
  • Tricia Lustig: “Foresight isn’t foresight until action occurs. Appreciative Inquiry is a tool you can use to make action happen. We will explore Appreciative Inquiry, an engagement and implementation tool which finds and captures the energy for change. We will talk about when to use it, and when not, share some case studies and experience an appreciative interview.”
  • Tanja Hichert: “Seeds of a Good Anthropocene is an ongoing project with the aim to collect and develop a suite of alternative visions for “Good Anthropocenes” – positive futures that are socially and ecologically desirable, just, and sustainable. The objective is to counterbalance prevailing dystopic visions of the future that may be inhibiting our collective ability to move creatively towards a better trajectory for the Earth and humanity. This initiative is a collaboration between the Stockholm Resilience Centre, McGill University in Canada, and the Centre for Complex Systems in Transition (CST) at Stellenbosch University in South Africa.”

It’s a lovely venue and I think the event will generate a lot of energy. It’s being held on the day before the Anticipation conference opens in London.

You can register here. And the brochure can be downloaded from here: ProDev Brochure London17_Final1




The limits of surveillance capitalism

Posted in advertising, consumers, digital by thenextwavefutures on 6 October, 2017

Six reasons why Facebook (and Google) might be reaching the limits of growth.

In a recent post, I mentioned John Lanchester’s view that Facebook, and by extension other software giants represented a new form of surveillance capitalism. In his LRB article, in which he reviewed three recent books on things digital, he is pretty trenchant on this subject.

Facebook, in fact, is the biggest surveillance-based enterprise in the history of mankind. It knows far, far more about you than the most intrusive government has ever known about its citizens. It’s amazing that people haven’t really understood this about the company. I’ve spent time thinking about Facebook, and the thing I keep coming back to is that its users don’t realise what it is the company does. What Facebook does is watch you, and then use what it knows about you and your behaviour to sell ads. I’m not sure there has ever been a more complete disconnect between what a company says it does – ‘connect’, ‘build communities’ – and the commercial reality.

Although one of the elements of received wisdom about digital platform businesses such as Facebook is that they tend to monopoly because of their network effects, he can also see trends that might curb its growth, or even see it shrink. There are four, or perhaps five.


The first is what Timothy Wu calls in The Attention Merchants “disenchantment effects”—that periods of rapid media growth produce a backlash, sometimes with accompanying regulation or legislation. This is why Paris still has tight control of display advertising. This extends beyond media. When significant technologies become mature, and their rate of growth slows, there’s a period of social stocktaking in which social side effects (external costs, in other words) start to be regulated. Think of ‘60s innovations such as seat-belts, parking meters, and drink-driving legislation, in response to road deaths and congestion.

Lanchester focuses on customer disenchantment, meaning advertiser disenchantment.

[A] lot of the clicks on these ads are fake. There is a mismatch of interests here. Facebook wants clicks, because that’s how it gets paid: when ads are clicked on. But what if the clicks aren’t real but are instead automated clicks from fake accounts run by computer bots? This is a well-known problem, which particularly affects Google, because it’s easy to set up a site, allow it to host programmatic ads, then set up a bot to click on those ads, and collect the money that comes rolling in. On Facebook the fraudulent clicks are more likely to be from competitors trying to drive each others’ costs up.

Click fraud

Indeed, Ad Week has estimated the cost of click fraud at $7 billion, representing one-sixth of the market. Some of the estimates of click fraud are a lot higher than that. These are not trivial sums, especially in a market that is facing serious cost pressures. Even legitimate views are, shall we say, enhanced by the way Facebook chooses to measure use.

A video is counted as ‘viewed’ on Facebook if it runs for three seconds, even if the user is scrolling past it in her news feed and even if the sound is off. Many Facebook videos with hundreds of thousands of ‘views’, if counted by the techniques that are used to count television audiences, would have no viewers at all.

Inevitably, Facebook has tried to claim that its ads have the most impact in the first two seconds: advertisers are sceptical.

But there might also be end-user disenchantment. We have seen generational change affect online use before, and Facebook might also be vulnerable to this. There’s some evidence that younger people are sharing less on more open platforms, and using closed platforms instead, such as WhatsApp. Even though Facebook also owns WhatsApp, there is less data to be seen and used in a closed end-to-end platform. People don’t need to stop using Facebook to erode much of its value; they just need to use it less.


Another source of end-user disenchantment might be the emerging evidence that Facebook use is bad for well-being, given that wellbeing is one of the strong long-term shifts in social values. Lanchester notes that “the more people use Facebook, the more unhappy they are.” It is possible that this is a correlation, not causation, but I expect to see more on this issue.

Second, there could be more formal regulation, and this might be related to advertising, particularly political advertising. Every time it is clear that Facebook’s algorithms actually allow people to advertise to “Jew-haters,” as ProPublica recently discovered, or that Russian interests have paid Facebook for American political ads during the 2016 Presidential campaign. The fact that Facebook profits so handsomely from “fake news” that it has no incentives to do anything about it —what’s good for Facebook is bad for America—might also spur some kind of regulation.

And right on cue: [Update 1] the EU has just warned Facebook and Twitter that they will regulate them unless they take steps to remove hate speech in a much more timely way.

And, [Update 2] Congress is actively concerned about the Russian ads issue, as Buzzfeed reports:

The Russian ad scandal has captured lawmakers’ attention in a way Facebook’s previous political crises — from allegations of bias in its Trending column to its role in spreading fake news — have not. It has crystallized a trio of individual fears — Facebook is too big, has too much influence, and cannot effectively monitor itself — into one big expression of all of them.

Pricing algorithms

Third, one of the trends implied by surveillance capitalism is individualised pricing. As Lanchester observes, the big internet enterprises have so far escaped competition investigation, because—in the US—this typically focuses on consumer pricing and consumer benefit. Because Facebook and Google are free, in the sense that they don’t cost money (we’re paying them with our data, which they sell on), they have largely escaped competition scrutiny in the US, though not, of course, in Europe.

But the point at which their activities lead to individualised pricing, and especially if this pricing is driven by algorithms that can’t be independently tested or evaluated, is the point at which this may well change. Even without that, there will surely come a point where a competition economist decides that algorithms that increase the price of an airfare when you return for a second look are anti-competitive.

Cookie wars

The other issue is that not all of the companies that have grown rich on the digital boom share the same interests. Unlike Facebook and Google, Apple’s customers are end-users who pay them for their products (Amazon sits somewhere between). It’s better for Apple’s business model to position themselves as being on the side of their customers; Apple’s software is increasingly designed to reduce intrusion.

[T]he new Safari feature uses a “machine learning model”, Apple says, to identify which first-party cookies are actually desired by users, and which are placed by advertisers. If the latter, the cookie gets blocked from third-party use after a day, and purged completely from the device after a month, drastically limiting the ability of advertisers to keep track of where on the web Safari users visit.

And it’s worth noting the extreme response by the ad industry to this relatively modest restriction on what advertisers can do with end-user data:

Apple’s unilateral and heavy-handed approach is bad for consumer choice and bad for the ad-supported online content and services consumers love. Blocking cookies in this manner will drive a wedge between brands and their customers… As organizations devoted to innovation and growth in the consumer economy, we will actively oppose any actions like this by companies that harm consumers by distorting the digital advertising ecosystem and undermining its operations.

Well, blah, blah, blah. If controls such as those that Apple is proposing are going to be so damaging, then clearly the “digital advertising ecosystem” is a lot more fragile than we thought it was.

Pushing monetisation

It is worth putting all of this in a wider context. Facebook’s expansion has been driven by a simple model:

Growth (in numbers) x Monetisation (of each user).

There are strong grounds to think that user growth has run of road, certainly in mature markets, which really only leaves monetisation. What monetisation means is getting advertising in Facebook and Google to work harder, which means, for example, inserting more ads in feeds and being more unscrupulous with user data. We know from experience that end-users dislike both of these things: in other words, the pursuit of monetisation could turn into a vicious circle.

One final note here, from Nick Srnicek’s book on Platform Capitalism. He points out that advertising markets are more fragile than they seem, especially to recession. The last time, ad-based platforms like Facebook and Google were able to ride out the recession through growth in numbers, which was still strong.

He doesn’t add that they were also insulated at the time from profit/performance pressures from shareholders and investors because both were privately held at the time. Both are now at least partially listed on the stock exchange.

Recession, in short, could be a catalyst that makes the combination of pressures outlined here start to have an effect on how these surveillance businesses work. We could be close to peak Facebook.

The image at the top of the post is by Marc Smith, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence. It was also used to illustrate an article on The Conversation on the subject of surveillance capitalism.

Main Street versus Wall Street

Posted in business, digital, retail by thenextwavefutures on 24 September, 2017

The abrupt decision by Toys R Us—the biggest toy retailer in N. America and Europe—to file for financial protection for its north American stores under America’s Chapter 11 provisions needs a second look. It sounds technical, but there’s more going on here than meets the eye.


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Chaos in the Valley

Posted in advertising, business, digital, Uncategorized by thenextwavefutures on 20 September, 2017

On the strength of a long review of several recent tech books by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books, I read Antonio Garcia Martinez book Chaos Monkeys, which is mostly about his time as a willing hand in Silicon Valley, first in a startup and then as a product manager in Facebook’s ad department.

Chaos Monkeys takes us from Goldman Sachs to Facebook, and out the other side, via a digital ad business called Adchemy,  the start-up ‘school’ Y Combinator, and the startup, AdGrok. Mostly Martinez is a good guide; especially to the world of venture capital and startups. Martinez persuades a couple of engineer colleagues at Adchemy, which is clearly struggling, to pitch to Y Combinator, the start-up hothouse then run by Paul Graham. Going in, they have a product concept that probably isn’t going to work, but that doesn’t matter because Y Combinator, like much of the rest of Silicon Valley, is as interested in teams as it is in products.


Globalisation, nations, and cities

Posted in aviation, brands, economics, politics by thenextwavefutures on 8 September, 2017

With my Kantar Futures hat on I was asked to write a short piece for WPP’s house magazine, The Wire, on whether globalisation was over. Here’s the article. 

The long globalising wave of the later 20th century is over. Global trade is barely growing, compared to overall economic output. Cross-border bank lending is down, as are international capital flows. Hostility to migrants is one of the defining features of the present political moment. Everywhere, businesses, even transnational businesses, are thinking and acting less globally and more locally. National and regional champions are growing at the expense of multi-national competitors.

This should not be a surprise.

As Stein’s Law has it, something that can’t go on for ever won’t go on for ever. Globalisation created winners, but it also created losers. Twenty years ago Hirst and Thompson observed that the globalisation wave from 1870-1913—if anything more extensive than the more recent one—collapsed into nationalism after it had over-stretched itself. More than a decade ago, before the financial crisis, John Ralston Saul noted that globalisation was losing momentum and national ideas were reasserting themselves.

We have, in short, moved from the world of the 1990s in which credible politicians spoke only for those who supported globalisation, and the language of competitiveness and market reform that went with it, to a world where in many markets globalisation has no obvious advocates. One notable casualty, certainly in Europe, has been the parties of the social democratic left. Those which continued to talk the language of markets after the financial crisis have been outflanked and decimated.

But it is easy to see right-wing populist movements and think that this is the only political change that is happening. In fact that is just part of wider shift towards a place-based politics. The diagram, developed from some earlier work by Ian Christie, suggests that this politics of place still divides along the lines of “rights” versus “authority”, a traditional split since the French Revolution.

This, in turn, has implications for brands. Election results across a broad number of countries suggest that the markers of this left-right divide are younger vs older, better educated vs worse, and core cities vs towns and country. One of the paradoxes of the digital world is that just when it is possible to live and work anywhere, attachment to place has become stronger (opens pdf). If economics has produced a place-based political response, technology has produced an emotional response, in which values have re-surfaced.

And in a world which is more than 50% urbanised, the cities are where the money is. Part of the business response to the end of globalisation has to become more national. GE, for example, is focusing on regional centres in a response to protectionism. The head of the investment group, Blackrock, told staff earlier this year, “We need to be German in Germany, Japanese in Japan and Mexican in Mexico.”

But the other implication is more interesting. If cities are becoming centres of radicalism and diversity, and that’s where the money is, businesses have to follow. After a century in which business has been associated with conservative values, it is suddenly becoming imperative to be identified as progressive. This was seen, perhaps in extremis, in the way American corporations responded to the Muslim travel ban. And truth be told, many business leaders now hold beliefs that are closer to this more progressive, diverse, urban politics than to conservative populism.

The result: the purpose of business is suddenly central to reputation, among customers, suppliers, and staff. It is not surprising, therefore, that much of Kantar Futures‘ recent work has been about helping clients think through their brand and position in terms of developing a sharp and coherent view of brand purpose. This is a deep shift, driven by long-run fundamentals, that isn’t going to go away.

The image at the top of this post, of Maersk container ships parked up in Loch Striven, is by James T M Towill, and is published here under a Creative Commons licence.

Breaking up with Brexit

Posted in politics by thenextwavefutures on 2 September, 2017


There are at least five reasons why Brexit is too complex to deliver. The most likely outcome is a transition period that continues until the political demographics have changed.

The news that Labour has resolved its policy on Brexit is welcome for short-term, medium-term, and long-term reasons. It is also smart politics, because it is becoming increasingly clear that Brexit is too complex to deliver. Richard Murphy made this suggestion on his blog recently. And when I say, “too complex to deliver”, I don’t mean “too complex to deliver in a two year window plus a transition period”. I mean too complex because Britain has become institutionally and economically interlocked with the rest of the European Union. It can check out but it can’t leave.

The first reason is that the relationship between Britain and the EU is fantastically intricate. Just after Article 50 was triggered Buzzfeed published a memorable list of the 30-odd things that Britain had to do resolve Brexit, and it was immediately clear, reading the list, that all of them were complicated and that the government didn’t have a clue what to do about well over half of them. Since then, these issues have kept on getting more complex. Euratom, for example: it’s both essential to Britain’s nuclear power industry, and it requires accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.


The future of platform capitalism

Posted in business, digital by thenextwavefutures on 26 August, 2017

I have been meaning to write about Nick Srnicek’s book Platform Capitalism for a few months now. As you’d expect from his book Inventing the Future, co-written with Alex Williams, he tries to place the phenomenon of platform capitalism in the overall context of 21st century capitalism. This is a good thing, since there has been a lot of breathless over-excited stuff written in the past months on platforms, and indeed their place in the future of capitalism, for example by McKinsey. Or Wharton. Or Forbes.

The short book falls into three parts. There is a context-setting chapter on ‘The long downturn,’ which will surprise no-one who has read, for example, Wolfgang Streeck’s book and articles on the end of capitalism. The second chapter analyses different types of platforms and their strengths and weaknesses. A final chapter, ‘Great platform wars’, looks at the prospects.


Some things I learned from GE2017 [1 of 2]

Posted in politics by thenextwavefutures on 25 August, 2017

Obviously the dust is still swirling around the election, since it has thrown up more questions than answers. And we’re still waiting for some of the actual election data about turnout and so on. But there are some initial conclusions that can be drawn. This is the first of two posts, since I tried to write it as one post and it got far too long.


Posted in Uncategorized by thenextwavefutures on 13 August, 2017


Kantar Futures, where I work, has just launched a podcast, co-hosted by our executive chairman J Walker Smith and me. The first edition, which went live last week, has us talking about “The Third Age of Consumption,” among other things. 

The podcast can be downloaded here.

There’s a page of references and links on the blog.



The end of smoking

Posted in health, social by thenextwavefutures on 6 August, 2017

It’s been hard to write recently, for various reasons: or, at least, to write anything complex. (Notes on films have been stacking up on my ‘culture’ blog as a result of a “film moments” project that I started a few months ago.)  Here on the next wave, drafts for posts have been building up, with elegant beginnings and no conclusions. So I thought I should get back into the habit by writing some simpler and maybe shorter things.

Public health officials used to believe that we’d never manage to get the rate of adult smoking below 25%, according to a recent article by Clare Wilson in New Scientist (free, but registration required). Now, in a number of richer markets, it is well below that level: in the UK, it’s 16%, in the US, 15%. New Zealand plans to get its adult smoking levels below 5% by 2025, Finland by 2030 (this is a more aggressive target, since it includes chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes.) At its peak, in the mid-20th century, half of American and British adults smoked.