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The Future isn’t real…

…thoughts on an information based future.

It’s the weekend, it’s blowing a gail, the temperature hasn’t been in double digits for a few weeks now and it’s definitely going to rain later. Time to hit the beach!

Why would I do this? Because I’m obsessed with collecting better data.

What?!

Let me explain…

For Christmas my wife bought me a small gadget that records my kitesurf sessions (like windsurfing but with a kite rather than a sail). Autumn is my season. I look forward to it all year; it’s windy season! Some of my favourite moments are spent on an empty beach wearing strange attire that would be wildly inappropriate in any other setting… but it keeps me warm.

The advantage of kites over sails is that you can use them to jump extremely high. The gadget my wife bought me records the height of all my jumps at every session. I used to enjoy riding the waves, but now all I do is attempt to jump higher and higher to beat the stats from my last session.

This gamification of my kitesurfing has led me to huge improvements because of that age old adage: you get what you measure. According to the app that reads the data from the gadget I can now successfully jump over a double decker bus!

What’s true in the personal realm is also true in the corporate world.

Innovations exist in every field we might look at, but there is one field that is pervasive across everything: information.

In the water industry we will always look to great innovations such as real-time bacteriological monitoring or non-invasive pipe monitoring technologies, but there is a move away from many of the heavy asset solutions of the past towards optimising what we already have, enabled by better and more imaginative use of the information we hold.

The future isn’t real… it’s virtual.

What fascinates me about this area is not our ongoing mastery of the topic area and the emergence of previously undreamt of applications, but how much our use of data seems to expose of the human condition. And we stumble on it more by accident then by design.

A few examples of what I mean:

Our performance can be manipulated: I’ve already shared one gamification example. But it’s such an effective concept. Appealing to our competitive nature and giving us meaningless trophies as a reward! We’re so easily pleased. When my utility bill comes through now, it show’s me how my energy use compares to those in similar houses as me. I love seeing how I stack up! Even my wife is willing to appease me and feign an interest in how efficient we are compared to our neighbours!

We’re irrational decision makers: Behavioural economics and nudge theory are based on the idea that we make inconsistent decisions and that decisions are hard to make. Nudging us towards a decision that fits with our social norms or just makes the act of decision making easier is enough to push sales up or swing votes. Think about it next time you pop out for a pot of jam and are faced with that buy 3 for the price of 2 offer! Finding these small influences that push us from 1 pot of jam to 3 is found in the big data analytics engines of marketeers

Our capacity is limited: We now rely on computers to do tasks beyond that, not of our own ability, but certainly our own capacity. The notion of flying-by-the-wire in modern fighter jets is long gone i.e. the ability to fly through a purely mechanical system relying on the feedback you receive from them is no longer possible. I’m told the most agile jets are now so unstable that if it weren’t for all the electronics making micro-adjustments to keep course, the pilot would simply lose control.

We’re all addicted to something – algorithms have mastered our chemistry. They know what makes us tick and how to fill our social media feeds with dopamine hits to keep us scrolling, waiting in anticipation of that next ‘like’ of our recent beach-bod holiday snap. We get so addicted, we’re willing to keep going even when the short term happiness turns into long term anxiety.

We’re such gossips: Do you remember Tay? Microsoft’s Twitter bot that had to be taken down for becoming too obnoxious? The sad truth is that it learnt that behaviour from us. The animations on Youtube that are built by bots and the algorithms that push the most interesting news into our newsfeeds chase our clicks and our clicks give us away – we love to be sensationalist over being truthful.

There’s a bit too much doom-mongering above, but that’s not my intent. More just to share my fascination in this area. I’ve no doubt we’ll figure out how to be more deliberate and positive in our use of the information that surrounds us.

The future isn’t real… it’s virtual. Fast forward to the year 3000. Will we all be brains in jars living in virtual worlds? Luckily I think our physical hormones have much too strong a grasp of us than our electric neurones. I like to think my future self would still be seeking to jump higher than a bus because the adrenaline’s addictive than trying to simulate the equivalent experience.

About Chris

Chris joined Bristol Water in 2017 and established the new Business Improvement and Innovation department within the CEO office. His role is to push the Bristol Water forward, seeking to accelerate today’s adoption of tomorrow’s innovations. He covers everything from operating model development and business change to innovation management, recently founding Bristol Water’s business incubator supporting an up-and-coming Robotics consultancy. Before joining Bristol Water, Chris spent over 7 years as a management consultant working across the utilities, energy and defence industries.