The hell of neighbours who sing

Through the pillow over my head I can hear show tunes. I have a neighbour with a terrific seat of lungs. She should be a start up founder.  

“I’m convinced that about half of what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is pure perseverance” said Steve Jobs. 

The “most important quality in startup founders”, wrote Paul Graham, the founder of the most hallowed Silicon Valley start-up accelerator, is “determination”. 

But sometimes you really should just stop. If I ever meet my anonymous tormentor I will harmonise to her that some projects are doomed to failure and no amount of bloody-mindedness will win the day. Today she has started early. Outside, the birds suspend their chorus and wait. Their time will come but I don’t have their patience. I need a coffee and scramble to get dressed; A trusted barista is only minutes away. 

Mercifully, when I get outside the singing has stopped. The birds strike a tune and I hit my stride.  Immediately I cut through an alley behind Jamie Oliver’s flagship “15” restaurant where trainee chefs are puffing on cigarettes and bemoaning fondues, or customers, or the inadequacy of vaping. The restaurant is within a year of its 15th anniversary. It was one of the first, if not the first fancy restaurant to open in the neighbourhood’s current golden age. 

 A few paces further  and I find, across from the restaurant is a well-behaved demonstration. Squatters have inhabited one of the gazillion newly-built work-live buildings to protest against the shortage of affordable living space in the area. Coincidentally (or not) they have installed themselves in the premises  of a company called Camelot which inserts tenants into empty buildings to prevent squatters.  In keeping with the neighbourhood’s creative impulse Camelot has retro-invited the squatters to use the space for an art installation. I can tell you all of this, even though I walked past in seconds, because the windows are plastered with slogans and messages. It is skilfully done and I wonder whether they have read Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of The Start in which he gives very specific advice on the number of slides a startup founder should use when pitching to the money men. His was the first book I read which went into such detail. There is a correct point size to use in your slide deck (20pt) and there is every other size which is certain failure. There is an order by which you should make your arguments. Anything else will reveal you are an unserious amateur who deserves the ignominy heading your way. 

The main sheet hanging on the largest window articulates the squatters arguments in terms which are easy to understand and are written in a hand-painted equivalent to 20pt which is easy to read for the passing pedestrian (or the traffic-jammed Uber driver).  The “call-to-action” isn’t clear to me but maybe I am not their target audience. I am, in any event, not paying attention because the absence of show tunes in the air is sending me into raptures.

I cross City Road opposite Moorfields Eye Hospital. Between here and Old Street tube station a green line on the pavement aids the partially sighted to navigate. You learn after a while that,  just like trams on rails, the human traffic on the green line doesn’t budge or slow down and you could be mown down while browsing your notifications. That said, there are patches where the paint has been worn away and at such points anything could happen.  

The coffee is close and I yomp on past The Alexandra Trust Dining Rooms built in 1898 by Sir Thomas Lipton (of tea fame). Here the workers of the early 20th Century ate together and caught up on Facebook-type updates. The Dining Rooms are now home to a Peruvian restaurant where workers sit together and silently bathe in the glow of their smartphones. Four minutes have passed since I left home and I have passed three coffee shops including the excellent Westland Coffee (whose tables were all occupied) but I am nearly there. 

 Behind the dining rooms is yet another significant development where media and internet companies are putting down roots. It includes the headquarters of FarFetch, a luxury clothes app, which is one of London’s $1bn+ valuation startups. The squatters should get my neighbour to sing outside the offices. It might do something to property prices. That would be what the call to action should have said. 

Nearly there. I pass the steamed-up windows of a wintery Starbucks and am now at Old Street Roundabout.  I duck inside one of the artisanal coffee shops (that is secretly a chain) and say the first words of the morning, “Flat White” and prepare for another day in Magic Roundaboutland.


The Angelic Yogi

I stifled a scream; Gulped down a sob.

“What have I done to deserve this…this incredible PAIN?” I appealed to the heavens.

“I think you know the answer to that question very well”, said the torturer.

“But this is unendurable!”

“We’ve only just started”,  she laughed.

Above me the sky was blue and bright green leaves jittered in the breeze. Nature has no mercy. It can be beautiful and inspiring amidst even the vilest agony.

“Now try to relax the muscles of the face”, she said. “And breathe”

“But I have a deadline.”

The parallel invasion of Old Street by the two tribes of startups and yoga is  a Manichean battle of opposing world views. It’s a binary tussle, to speak in a language more familiar to tech startups. 

On the one side are the startuppers who believe in working like dogs and sacrificing their today to build a better future either for the world or at least themselves. The Summer sun may shine in Shoreditch’s parks and outdoor cafes but the world can only be changed at your desk, away from the reflections, distractions and poor wifi of the outside world. Besides, the sun will shine again next year and by then your startup will have made it.

On the other side are the yogis who believe that the only thing that matters is the present and worrying about the past or the future brings only cravings and suffering. All you have is now. 

During the Summer I had noticed yoga classes taking place in the various green spaces in Shoreditch. Human nature being what it is,  I noticed this not when I was perambulating with time on my hands  but when I was power walking to a meeting whose start time was imminent. The disconnect between the stress of my adrelanalin-fuelled, Olympian-quality striding and, on the other side of the fence, these lazy good-for-nothings lying on their yoga mats gurning at the mackerel sky felt ever more unfair. One tribe was getting life all wrong. The question was who: the hard-working start-uppers or the lazy free-loading yogis? I approached this matter with an open mind.

One morning, after briskly sinking a couple of turbo coffees from an artisanal coffee shop (whose side are they on – the startuppers or the yogis?) I marched to a park to investigate the question.  In fact I booked a private class with someone whose yoga business (or “non-business”)  went by the name of Angelik Yoga, a name I was hopeful ought to bring bliss or at least hold some sympathy for my laptop-wrecked posture. 

We met in a small park at the top of Pitfield Street and as I lay on a mat and stared up at the branches of the birches and elms all seemed fine in the environ of Silicon Roundabout. After ten minutes or so of gazing at the sky, breathing and simply just “being”  I felt pretty good and only a little anxious at the self-indulgent frittering away of time.  Maybe yoga has something to recommend it after all…

The Angelik Yogi coughed. “You’re snoring”,  she said. “Shall we start?”

I won’t go into detail. It’s enough to know that decades spent hunched  over a keyboard and many years leaning into a smart phone have not been kind. This was the merciless Spanish inquisition of physical therapy. And despite every injunction and straining every sinew I could not relax the muscles of my face. Besides I had work to do.

And this it seemed was the problem. How can you reconcile the priority of living in the moment with living in the future as every startup necessarily does. One culture has to assume priority.  As I headed off to a co-working space I did feel taller and lighter, not to mention smug,  but I also felt a little relieved to be slipping back into work mode.

Back in the office, pods of desks summoned workers whose various companies attacked the future with ravenous appetite.  It was beyond evident that these people have no time for gazing at clouds… except that here and there yoga mats poked out of bags or nestled next to coat racks. I went fact-finding.

“Do you believe in now or the future?” I asked and learned two things: 

The first is that people ask the same question on Tinder. 

The second is that the answer is frequently “both”.  The worker yoginis  earnestly do their now-based yoga at the crack of dawn before switching their electric fluoro yoga pants for work clothes and flying to the office. At some point between the mat and the desk they switch heads and transition their emotional orientation from today to tomorrow. One brings peace and one brings purpose.  The relationship between the two is empowering and symbiotic.  Old Street never seems like  place of balance, so intense is the ambition of its denizens, but it may, in fact, be its secret.


The co-working churchyard

The liquidator paused by a fountain and then suddenly glanced upwards, as if to look at some astonishing birds in a nearby tree. Even as I followed his gaze I noticed, from the corner of my eye, how he lightly brushed the edge of the fountain with his hand and silently muttered a short prayer.

“What was that about?” I asked. “Oh. You saw, did you?” he said. “It’s just nothing. Well, it’s a thing I do. If I think a situation’s going to be a bit, say, tricky, I come here. It’s a lucky fountain. So what I’m saying is, I think we might need some luck.”

This took place in the churchyard behind St Luke’s, a few minutes’ walk from Old Street roundabout. What seems like many lifetimes ago, at the dawn of the World Wide Web, my first business had hit the buffers and the liquidator had suggested we go for a little stroll before the creditors’ meeting began. We ended up here by chance, I had thought, until this inauspicious moment.

The scene came back to me the other day as I took a short cut through the churchyard to one of my favourite working coffee shops. It being one of this summer’s rare sunny days I paused on a bench in the dappled shade of the trees. The fountain is no longer there. Perhaps some of the excessive demands on its magic had worn it out so that now, surplus to requirements, it had been replaced.

While the fountain may have had nothing left to offer, the same could not be said for the benches. These were jam-packed. In addition to the dog walkers, itinerants and flaneurs, there were many who were instantly recognisable as members of the startup community. They brought an intensity to the park. Here and there were programmers sporting furrowed brows and noise-cancelling headphones while they tapped on their laptops. Elsewhere, huddles of two or three founders (or disaffected early staff hires) agonised over strategy, investment terms or share options.

The explanation for all these interlopers became clear after I heaved myself upright and walked the few hundred meters to the bicycle-workshop-café. It is spacious, well lit, full of flat surfaces, and the coffee is good. Consequently, it’s so replete with students and workers that laptops are banned on certain tables so that at least one or two patrons can pursue the noble tradition of not being online.

But for three weeks every summer the population gets upended because the tribe that normally visits only at the weekend arrives during the working day. This is called The Tour de France Effect. Tricolour bunting and the yellow, green, white and polka-dot shirts of the tour swathe the coffee shop. A big screen dominates one wall and excited TV commentary cranks up the adrenalin as much as the coffee. On the day of a mountain stage it is standing room only.

Which is why the nearby churchyard was full.

Another factor exacerbated the effect. Over the same period the building housing Runway East, one of the best co-working spaces in the area, was found to have a structural fault that needed urgent fixing. All the companies in the building suddenly became nomadic while urgent works were carried out over several days. They struck out for cafés, hotel lobbies, shared workspaces and the churchyard.

As summer passed, the park reset itself and reset its equilibrium. As for the fountain, it has been replaced by a giant stone circle, which has been engraved with the words ‘Cyan Yellow Magenta Black’. These are the colours famously used in printing, but what relevance did they have to a churchyard?

The answer, I think, is to be found in front of the church, where a solitary tomb contains the remains of William Caslon. Born in the 17th century, Caslon had an enormous impact on printing and thus, in some measure, on the world. He created a series of fonts that are used to this day and you will have some of them already installed on your laptop. Such was his influence that when his metal types were shipped to America in the 1700s they became oxidised by seawater and it is this that accounts for early US printing’s ‘decayed’ look.

The persistence of Caslon’s work offers a different perspective to the speed of digital startup life. Yes, he came from a different time, one of sea travel and fewer liquidators, but despite – or perhaps because of – this, as a replacement for the lucky fountain, Caslon in the park is an excellent departure point for some quiet reflection.


The tale of the shouting and cursing man who liked silence

“My Lord, that’s a world-class bouffant,” said the American investor who had come to meet our humble startup. We’d only got half way through the ritual jokey phase of introductions between moneymen and bootstrappers when an architect with a terrific thatch had burst upon us and yelled, “Will you all just shut up!” before scattering expletives like a grenade attack and then marching back to his seat nearby.

And our investor was right. The most astonishing thing was indeed the hair. The second most astonishing thing about this episode was not that the man who liked shouting also liked silence. No, the really crazy thing was that the shouting-and-cursing-man-who-liked-silence had come, for his silence, to one of the neighbourhood’s many startup co-working spaces.

Of all the many reasons to come to a shared working space, silence is not one. If you require hush and a cheapish desk, there are solutions for you but this is not it. To expect that a place full of hustlers will be quiet and industrious rather than noisy and industrious is to have mistaken style for substance. In the same vein, a doctor friend once lamented that the systems and processes in a brand new hospital in Whitechapel were working perfectly until sick patients turned up and got in the way.

Startup culture has invaded the business mainstream and with it comes the danger that people think that it is what they see – the aesthetic – where the magic lies. Nowhere is this a bigger danger than in the hip co-working spaces that are multiplying across this city and many others.

I therefore decided to dedicate myself to the task of investigating this matter, declaring that I would visit the world’s largest co-working space wherever on the planet it should happen to be and especially if it was somewhere hot and sunny. Alas, the place I sought was not to be found in the Caribbean or the Greek Islands but in Moorgate, a mere ten-minute walk from Old Street.

And so, moments later, I was standing outside a brand new steel and glass building occupied by WeWork, the global giant of shared working spaces. If my theory about ‘noisy and industrious’ was wrong and the s-a-c-m-w-l-s was right, then the instant I entered I would be caught in the crossfire of 3,000 people yelling, “Shut up, I’m trying to work!” at each other.

But of shouty silence there was none. When I crossed the threshold I became aware of an energetic hubbub: the noise of frenetic startuppers exchanging ideas, advice and coffee orders. And this noise is not a side effect of a well-designed space but its raison-d’être. The interplay of ideas – which can only be passionately done verbally – is what makes the shared space a success. In truth, the physical space itself doesn’t matter in any way at all.

En route to the biggest shared working space in the world I had passed a fabulous old building that is but a façade. Behind it the reality is all large floor plates, modern atria and exposed brickwork. In other words, when viewed from the outside the aesthetic is a con job, which goes to show you can’t know how people work inside a building by regarding its exterior. You need to get stuck in.

And getting stuck inside WeWork reveals that the inhabitants of 2016 have strayed far from the stereotype. Instead of 3,000 millennial Zuckerbergs in startup T-shirts, the place was a cross-section of worker bees from the ages of about 20 to 75 starting up all sorts of businesses from mobile games to VR to microbreweries. Perhaps most telling was the presence of lawyers, accountants, designers and venture capital firms, who knew that by parking themselves among scores of startups they would find people to whom they could be useful.

All this back scratching and co-dependency creates a micro-culture of shared mutual interest. And, since the culture and its cross-pollination of opportunity happens through the mechanic of passing conversations, this means shared working spaces will be noisy. Culture trumps design.

As the investor explained to the shouting man (in different words to these), if you don’t like the heat, get out of the kitchen.



The sorts of things you can only tell in person

“You look like your father. You behave like him and you talk like him. Last year was the worst year of your life. Judgement will be passed on what happened. You will become a writer.”

Thus spake the fortune-teller a few years ago. They were the first words he said to me. Not even a “Hello”. It was the one and only time I’ve had my fortune told and the telling happened at great velocity. This was to be expected. It was a sort of speed dating event for a gathering of palmists and clairvoyants who were sprinkled around the trendy Shoreditch House members’ club. We, the punters, sat at the bar until someone with a clipboard called our name, and then off we would walk. Or stumble. Or march. Or sway. Or tip-toe. Or…

And that was the point. Because you can tell a lot about a person by the way they sashay across the bar. You can tell even more once they introduce themselves, or hesitate, by the way they shake your hand, or sit themselves down without a smile.

This is all data. The experienced soothsayer sees all of this and within an instant is fully armed with insights. In fact, the mystic who greeted me didn’t even greet me. He just sat still with his arms crossed while I held my hand out in greeting. From this little injection of tension I assume he learnt even more.

Most of us have not developed the ability to raise all this tacit knowledge to the surface to the same degree as a fortune-teller. As the philosopher Michael Polanyi says, “We know more than we can tell.” Nevertheless, we are all gifted amateurs.

Which brings us to the holograms and 3D virtual reality of our near future. The future, that is, that is being imagined and manifested a short walk from Shoreditch House. The one in which the ease of meeting, seeing, hearing and talking to each other without moving a centimetre from where we already sit will be extremely seductive. Our lazy bones will wail at us: “Why bother getting dressed, why shave or do your hair, when you can be virtually present and layer a smartly-dressed Snapchat filter over your scruffy actuality?” It’s the future described by the author, Shelly Turkle, where we are “alone together”.

But if all that mattered was ease of communication then the coworking spaces of Old Street would be empty and investors wouldn’t insist on meeting startups in person. Instead, the opposite is true. The tacit knowledge conveyed by, for example, a founder’s passion and conviction is pivotal for investors who need to decide whether they’ll stay the course through the ups and downs of growing a business.

It’s even more critical to those people who work inside the startups. The co-founders, first employees, programmers, data scientists and marketers that inhabit Shoreditch have all made decisions about spending a large part of their waking hours in the presence of stressed-out founders. That’s a decision that you can only make when you look into someone’s eyes. And as world leaders know, it doesn’t matter how surrounded you are by intelligence, sometimes the only way to really negotiate and understand the person you’re dealing with is to get on a plane and meet them face to face.

This is part of the reason for the huge success of Old Street roundabout’s startup scene. Physically, the area is a proliferation of coffee shops, coworking spaces, desk-shares, talks and hackathons. But the truth is, the area is rich in tacit knowledge. So it’s a breeze to meet with startups, investors and workers face to face. This enables you to build rapport and, perhaps more importantly, sense continuity and change in a startup’s confidence, anxiety, enthusiasm or desperate BS.

In other words, it turns out that the people who are building businesses that obviate the need for people to meet with each other in person are in fact founded on the very human need to be with each other and read each other’s body behaviour, tone of voice and facial expressions.

Which is why, when a startup breaks out to become a stellar success or, alternatively, fails and goes bust, the community around may not be surprised even though they can’t explain why. The startup inhabitants of Old Street roundabout had an inkling already. The scenius knows more than it can say.



2033: Grave New World or Brave New World? Two visions of life and society in 17 years time



According to a study by the Oxford Martin School, half our jobs will have been automated out of existence by 2033, and this opens the way to a happy future of leisure and learning, with our lives enhanced by remarkable new technology…

In 2033, work is optional. The knowledge, analysis and efficiency provided by robots and AI have created an abundance of goods, services and that most precious commodity, time. The need for adults to spend the vast part of their lives at work has now been eliminated.

The response to a post-work society is the Universal Basic Income that, after a series of experiments in the late 2010s, began rolling out in the 2020s. By 2033, every citizen is automatically paid sufficient income to make the threat of destitution disappear, while the quality of life has soared as the hyper efficiency of technology shrinks the cost of living.

Humans are far from surplus to requirements: the unique ingenuity and empathy of the human brain cannot be replicated by computer circuits. But the necessity of the five-day week has vanished. The business of gathering, inputting, sharing and analysing information is carried out instantly and constantly by an unseen network of connected machines. Physical atoms must also be reconfigured and moved around the world, and manufacturing and transportation is carried out seamlessly and automatically by more machines or else 3D-printed at the point of need. Humans intervene to bring judgement, creativity, invention, entertainment and human care to the table and this makes work feel like a joy. Your co-workers are algorithms and, while they do the dangerous, boring and exhausting jobs, you do the fun ones.

Because work is optional, companies of the future put as much effort into making great experiences for their workers and freelance contractors as they do today for customers. The so-called ‘gig economy’ of 2016, typified by part-time work at Uber, Task Rabbit and Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and others, morphs into activities to be desired rather than resorted to.

New jobs, roles and activities bubble up and then pop as technology evolves, creates new opportunities and then displaces them. To get a feel of the alien but creative job landscape of 2033, consider that already in 2016 Microsoft hires poets and playwrights to imbue its Artificial Personal Assistant, Cortana, with personality and back story.

In 17 years from now, in other words, work is fun or you don’t do it because you don’t need to. Untroubled by the fear of poverty, society’s relationship with money begins to change and we enter a period that has been provocatively described as ‘fully automated luxury communism’.

The combination of AI, nanotechnology and molecular printing will steadily diminish illness, disease and physical and mental decline.

The current approach to healthcare is reactive but the development of genetics and the application of super intelligence to vast data pools will replace it with a predictive and preventative system. The work of, and need for, human healthcare professionals will transform because human empathy is what is in demand rather than humans with the technical skill of surgeons. As the marketing for the 2033 robotic eye surgeon will almost certainly point out, “Our robo- surgeon never sneezes.”

On the matter of eyesight, a 2016 meta study of 145 research studies forecasts that half of the world will be nearsighted by 2050 due to screen-based indoor lifestyles. That said, screens may be a thing of the past by then. Holograms may well be standard fare in 17 years’ time.

3D printing in 2016 is already being used to print replacement hip bones and foot bones and by 2033 organs will be 3D printed as routine. But this is only the beginning of the ways in which we will augment and improve upon today’s human limitations.

At Dubai’s Museum of the Future exhibition in 2016, the designers, Tellart, envisaged an Augmentation Spa dated 2035. On display were prototypes and imaginings of the way we will improve ourselves. One implant helps you assess the micro-expressions of people you’re talking to in order to understand their thoughts so that you can best manage a meeting or situation to your advantage. An aural implant enables you to understand any language in real time. And the Eat-It-All is a micropill that “extracts just what your body needs from anything you eat, rejecting the rest… for up to two weeks’ worry-free eating.”

Meanwhile, there is a trickle of devices on sale in 2016 that claim to make us more creative and more alert through the emerging field of transcranial direct current stimulation. A headband produced by UK-based fo.cus will, claim the manufacturers, “increase the plasticity of your brain” and “make your synapses faster”. In 17 years the managed throttling up and down of our concentration, awareness, openness, learning and restfulness will be routine.

This is just one strand of the technological advances that will make us faster, stronger and smarter, and live longer. In the world of fully automated luxury communism, everyone enjoys the fruits of technological innovation.

Virtual reality
This has been the year when early adopters began to embrace virtual reality as VR headsets hit the consumer market. Over the next few years these headsets will infiltrate the mainstream and by 2033 the impact will be enormous.

You will be transported anywhere you wish, exploring new lands or meeting distant family and friends. The world will shrink and expand at the same time. You will be able to attend conferences where you can see a group of people in a room, observe what they are looking at and how they are responding to information and ideas, even though each of them may be in a physically different environment. Proximity will no longer determine who you spend your time with. And in the future you won’t visit websites, you’ll enter them.

Incidentally, VR, like all new technology, will lead to wondrous, creative new jobs. Actors, for example, will find an abundance of work improvising as characters in real time VR games.

City centres will be radically reinvented. Enormous office blocks that bring hundreds of workers together under the watchful eye of their management will no longer be required. The jobs will not be there, after all, and those who do work will be doing so optionally.

The office space will be converted to creative spaces, galleries, living quarters, playgrounds and sites for ‘vertical agriculture’, where AI systems tend hydroponic fruit and vegetable crops and in-vitro cloned meat.

Robot genies
Siri, Cortana and the scores of other personal assistants that are embedded into our phones or other devices will be embedded into the environment, sensing you, your mood and your biology, and knowing your schedule and priorities. Your clothes will connect with the weather and your home lights will integrate with your biorhythms. It will be as if intelligence can be summoned from thin air with a word. Every table, wall and surface will have a screen or the ability to project information.

Robots will either look like people or be invisible. This will, incidentally, spell the end of what must surely be one of the fastest growing jobs in today’s 2016 economy – illustrating what robots of the future will look like.

Creativity and sociability will be core skills taught and developed at school. And the rise of online and then virtual reality-based education will support life-long learning, whether the impulse is to learn for the sake of learning or for work. The accelerating speed of technological change will lead to the development of nano-degrees, as people gain expertise in niche areas at great velocity in order to be able to do useful things with these new skills before they become obsolete.

For some, the most exciting aspect of 2033 will be the run up to the merger of humanity with technology that futurists call The Singularity. It’s an amorphous term that roughly describes the point at which humans will upload their consciousness to technology and become technology incarnate, in an explosion of personal and collective intelligence and eternal virtual life. Some of the leading thinkers, such as Ray Kurzweil, believe this will happen by 2045. In fact, it may already have happened by 2033: Zoltan Istvan, the entrepreneur and US presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, believes that the uploading of your entire self to a computer could happen as soon as 2030.

The promised land
This, then, is the world as it unfolds once its people and organisations decide to embrace a new way of living and a new distribution of abundance. It’s a world that views technological change as a wave to be surfed by all. The huge shifts in work, money and lifestyle that it necessitates are accommodated peacefully and to the satisfaction of everyone. There will be bumps, protests and difficult decisions along the way, of course. But perhaps, in the end, the navigation is helped because the great potential of artificial intelligence contributes to the debate.

Screenshot 2016-06-20 16.58.59




















According to a study by the Oxford Martin School, half our jobs will have been automated out of existence by 2033. This opens the way to a grim future of inequality in which life is a struggle for those on the wrong side of the digital divide…

According to a 2015 report produced for Citi by the authors of the original Oxford Martin paper that is the premise of this article, “Instead of labour, the greatest beneficiaries of the digital age have been shareholders. According to a recent estimate, the three leading companies of Silicon Valley employed some 137,000 workers in 2014 with a combined market capitalisation of $1.09trn.”

The funnelling of ever greater wealth to ever fewer people will reach extraordinary levels by 2033. In this vision of the future, the protests of the 2020s failed to change the order of things, a significant universal basic income was rejected, and inequality has become the defining characteristic of our lives.

In 2015 Johann Rupert, the CEO of Richemont, the luxury brands group that owns Cartier, Piaget, Montblanc and others, was the keynote speaker at the Financial Times ‘Business of Luxury Summit’. He stunned the audience when he said the key issues of the future were not matters of commerce such as “clicks versus bricks” but inequality. He asked: “How is society going to cope with structural unemployment and the envy, hatred and social warfare? That’s what keeps me awake at night.”

As the futurist and tech writer John Markoff has observed: “While exponential technologies will help individuals in all levels of society, unless there is significant governmental or societal change, it’s clear that they will disproportionately help the more affluent, who will have first access to them, leading to greater inequality, not less.”

A report by the Resolution Foundation think tank predicts that living standards for many low to middle income households in the UK are likely to be lower by 2020 than they were in 2008. In the absence of profound policy change, this divergence, based on the exponential technological development, will explode over the next 17 years.

Out of work in a time of fast-changing technology, you see your skills stagnate as knowledge, know-how and expertise accelerate away from you. McKinsey predicts, for example, that call-centre software such as Amelia, produced by the company IPsoft, could replace 250 million call-centre jobs around the world. In trials, the software can resolve ever higher proportions of customer complaints and rapidly improves above and beyond human results. It can absorb employee manuals and languages instantly while human workers may take weeks or months to learn the same.

An Artificial Intelligence system called Giraffe last year taught itself to play chess from scratch by watching videos of chess games. Within 72 hours it could compete at European Grand Master level. It is safe to assume that humans by 2033 will have long ago learnt the impossibility of outrunning the bots in intellectual horsepower.

By 2033, the gig economy, which social commentators call the ‘precariat’ because workers have no security of income or employment, will be the way most of the population earn an income.

On the plus side, the forecasting company Forrester Data predicts that by 2025 12.7 million new US jobs will have been created building robots or the automation software that runs them. Alas, for reasons that don’t need stating, helping robots and AI work better and more independently is no guarantee of long-term employment.

Skills and learning
In 2016 The World Economic Forum in Davos focused on the Future of Jobs. A WEF briefing paper noted that today the most in demand occupations and specialities did not exist ten or even five years ago. Constant learning and reskilling to stay economically relevant will be a critical part of life by 2020, said the WEF, but it is not clear, when technologies and industries rise and fall at such speed, how job-seekers can predict what knowledge and skills will be in demand in 2033.

A study commissioned by the Foundation for Young Australians in 2015 found that 60 per cent of Australian students are currently studying or training for jobs that either won’t exist or will look completely different in the next ten to 15 years. The entry-level employee of today will on average have 17 jobs and five careers in their lifetime, it forecast.

Existential angst
The power of AI and big data will enable extremely accurate behavioural predictions (and thus manipulation) of us as individuals and as a species. Netflix and Amazon suggestions will be as nothing compared to the time your fridge prepares your smoothie before you feel hungry or turns off your video screen when a politician who raises your blood pressure is about to speak. The challenge to our notion of free will could lead to a collapse in our collective happiness. For people brought up to value economic independence and to find self-esteem in work, the experience of being forever displaced by robots will be miserable.

The mysterious process of creativity and imagination is, declare many commentators, a safe haven for humans. It’s an area of activity that is sacrosanct from the dry calculus of silicon chips. Yet earlier this year a computer wrote a musical called Beyond The Fence, which scored lukewarm reviews from critics. For a first effort, that’s not bad. And it will do better next time.

Meanwhile DARPA, the US Department of Defence’s robotics department, has started developing robots that can play jazz. It’s a serious undertaking that is being pursued because the ability to improvise is valuable in military decision-making.

Music, painting, filmmaking and animation are all in the crosshairs and astonishing work such as Bach-like fugues can be produced in seconds. Even in the field of creativity, it seems, the machines seem ready to undercut human prices and surpass human limitations.

Species divergence
The genomes of more than one billion people will have been mapped by 2040, George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, recently told the Guardian. Acting on this information to improve health and performance will, of course, cost money, which suggests some will benefit and others won’t. It is the same as it is today, you may say. But more so. Much more so.

The emerging field of ‘nootropics’ will be one of the many ways technology enables humans to become artificially smarter and stronger. Nootropics is the science of brain-boosting drugs. But, like any new technology, the newest and best nootropics will be expensive. Those who can afford early access to them will become much smarter than those who follow. This will enable them to make faster, smarter decisions and earn more money, which they can use to further enhance and augment their natural capabilities.

Once this ability to change outcomes can be acquired, commentators fear it might quickly lead to a bifurcation of the species into one that is continually augmented and another that, having been left behind once, is condemned to follow organic speeds of evolution.

It may not just be your DNA that is intimately known to a central AI. Your vulnerability to all sorts of messaging, media formats and times of day is also better understood by others than you. Personalised marketing is an unfair battle when it is your brain versus petabytes of data and a supercomputer. Advertising will be irresistible.

Today the internet is rife already with stories of people who have experimented with implants. In 2016 there are people who need only to pass their hand over the scanner for the implanted RFID chip to grant them access to the London Underground. This may be the harbinger of having all your identity information and financial information move from your omnipresent phone to your flesh-and-blood self, whether through an implant in your hipbone (as proposed by the chief futurist at VR company Magic Leap) or matched to the unique blood vessel pattern of your index finger (a more reliable method of identity verification than fingerprints).

Once this happens, your every movement will be known to advertisers, social networks and credit lenders as you pass through the blizzard of sensors that will be the everyday experience of 2033. Meanwhile, high-altitude drones continue to view the world from a distance, while insect-sized drones observe the world from close up.

Grab what you can
The astonishing thing about the dystopian version of 2033 is how fast society unravels. The potential wrong path appears to be allowing the digital divide to exist. If it does, then the scramble to land on the right side of it will be far from graceful. Yet there may be no other way. As Zoltan Istvan, the US presidential candidate of the Transhumanist Party, has warned, the most important race may be the one to build the first general-purpose artificial intelligence. If the smartest brain in the universe is subject to a malign set of rules, then being a member of the precariat may only be the beginning of our problems.


After the combustion engine; Before robodogs and jetpacks: The Age of Deliveroo

It was better than fireworks. There was a time when you could stand on the palatial north east corner of Old Street roundabout and watch flaming comets scream by.

How we laughed. The screaming came from entrepreneurs. The whoosh came from the hover boards they were riding and the flames roared from a fault in the mechanics.

The motorised skateboard is a form of transport whose day will come but not while co-working spaces are sprinkled with techpreneurs dousing their still-smoking socks when they arrive at the office.

It’s not surprising that a high proportion of those people orbiting us like the offspring of Violet Elizabeth Bott and the Human Torch should be tech start-uppers. After all, we speak of people who are by nature early-adopters and future-gazers, forever trying to see where the market opportunity-to-be is opening up. So if someone declares that hoverboards are ”in” but walking is for squares and deadbeats then the theory will be tested and business opportunities sought.

Yet, by the same token we are also dealing with people who are data-driven. (It goes without saying that data-driven early-adopters see no conflict in wearing the latest fitness trackers as they explore the pros and cons of travelling while not walking) In any event, when the data is your melted Stan Smiths it’s back to the drawing board.

In addition to the observation that burning hoverboards are not ready for prime time what else can we learn about the immediate future of entrepreneurial transport. Let us simply stroll around the Old Street neighbourhood and notice how the tech startups who are shaping our future, criss-cross Tech City to meet investors, poach developers, practice their pitch and seek out free pizza. After all, whatever they’re doing today we’ll all be doing in years to come.

I can report with heavy heart that there are no jet packs nor is anyone riding giant robo-dogs to work.

During the day the intrepid ‘treps scuttle from co-working space to coffee shop and back by traditional means: Bicycles, unmotorised skateboards (of the physical exertion sort)and from time-to-time a bus.

It would be remiss in this column not to mention the Boris Bikes, the bright red-sponsored hire bikes whose serried ranks face on to Old Street like Caesars’s 13th Legion on the banks of the fateful Rubicon. But far more interesting is a new genus of road (and pavement) users that zap around the neighbourhood for it is these who tell us something about the future which the startups are creating.

Think of the moment at dusk during your Mediterranean Summer holidays and recall how, as the sun goes down, the swallows and butterflies give the sky over to the erratic flight of bats and moths.

At EC1Y 1BE, dusk signals the moment when the roads are handed over to Uber and Deliveroo cyclists. Instructed by their phones Toyota Priuses cruise the streets at energy-efficient 20mph while the teal-jacketed food couriers of Deliveroo scurry back and forth on scooters and bicycles.

Food deliveries require the transfer of atoms and molecules from one place to another but do meetings? Why, we might ask, in the age of perma-connectedness should tech entrepreneurs (of all people!) even need to go places anyway? Surely they can simply use Holograms, Virtual Reality or Skype to have lean, efficient data-rich online meetings.

But the truth is that anything other than face-to-face is not rich in the sort of data we really want. No amount of financial info, market  or social metrics can transmit a team’s energy, enthusiasm, sincerity or determination. Millenia of socialisation has trained us to prefer looking each other in the eye and picking up on subtle cues like micro yawns, jaw-clenching and fidgeting. Like the hoverboards, virtual reality will take us there one day soon and without question both tech giants and ambitious startups are working on this but we’re not quite there yet.

So let us accept, happily, that today people do still want to meet. This in fact is one of the reasons behind the neighbourhood’s growing success. A world class innovation cluster like the Old Street hub occurs where like-minded (but different) people congregate, form a scenius, and feed off each other’s energy, friction, creativity, competitiveness and burritos.

And all these people; The startuppers, investors, mentors, baristas, marketers, coders, angels and accelerators are so close to each other that the perfect mode of transport in this high tech, future-obsessed world is in fact, Shank’s Pony. The isolated bubble of a car would smother creative friction.  Walkability, in contrast, is one of the fundamental pillars of the the roundabout’s success.

But I miss the flaming comets.



This is my May Column for BA Business Life magazine


Schizospaces, artgallerfices and deskxibits

“Welcome to the art gallery”, she said. “We have free desks, free coffee, free wifi and we do classes on coding, social media, building your business, knitting, yoga and you know, the usual stuff. Plus Hoxton FM will be streaming music from here. And there’s art.”

This, of course, is an art gallery-co-working-space.

A leafleteer had caught me by Old Street station in that split second before I’d activated the mask of “not-interested-in-what -you’re-selling”. A few yards further on, by the bin I glanced at what the leaflet was advertising. And this was when I learned about the artgallerfice, the workallery, this multiple-personality space that was neither one thing nor the other.

I confess that alongside the novelty of an art-gallery-co-working-space the word “FREE”, caught my eye. I reoriented my flaneuring in a new direction.

There’s no need to dwell on the weirdness of working at a gallerdesk because you can imagine it. The things on the wall might be modern art. On the other hand they might be a startup’s SWAT analysis. Or they might be a SWAT analysis of modern art. Indeed I might have made the crushingly un-hipster move of sitting not at a desk and chair but upon a Tracy Emin deskxibit.

Schizospaces are a thing. My favourite cafe is actually a bicycle workshop. The coffeeshop side of the business has grown ever more popular but you can’t avoid the observation that you are sitting at a bench that has several bicycles on it.

This is the nature of the area. Every leaseholder is trying to max their chance of paying the rent by placing several bets on their floorspace. By night, offices and shops become yoga studios, cooking schools or poetry slams.

This scrabbling around to pay the rent, this forced openness to new ideas is at the heart of any entrepreneurial, creative scene and it reflects not so much the square footage as the people.

Multi-jobs are the way of the emerging gig economy and soon enough the rarity will be the person who has a single full time job. You may notice that “part-time startup co-founder” is a title that appears with growing frequency on Linkedin, Twitter, Peach or other social network de jour.

Earning income across several activities allows people to take risks in one venture while still paying the bills via another. It provides both the mental space and the incentive to be creative and it supports a fertile culture for new ideas, serendipity and innovation (whether in startups or art or cooking).

But it’s also demanding and you might question whether people would pursue multi-jobs if they could trade it for a single, fat monthly pay check. Indeed, would a leaseholder really sub-let their space to yogis and would-be pastry chefs in the evening if their rent was already covered for the next three years? Possession of such financial security is wonderful (no doubt) but it might be Ambien for your creativity.

I bring this up because Seattle.

This is the home of such giants as Boeing, Amazon and Microsoft and recently Google, Facebook and Twitter have opened engineering centres here. It’s also Starbucks’ hometown which means it has more coffee and programmers than any City should reasonably have.

Accordingly, the laws of startup astrology indicate Seattle ought to be the sausage factory of Startup unicorns.

But it’s not. Seattle underperforms. The reason is Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon, Twitter etc. What sane programmer would ditch the safe and fabulous compensation at one of the world’s best funded companies in return for the crazy risks of startup ? Not many. And if they did then you’d think twice about hiring them.

Seattle startups find themselves in a city full of programmers they can’t hire. In Silicon Valley, the same problem would exist except that the financiers ply startups with giant funding rounds so they can compete with Apple et al. No other city in the world is so full of investors ready to place such big bets. Yet the biggest Cities – by which I mea London – are increasingly full of Google, Facebook, and their brethren.

Which brings us back to Silicon Roundabout, currently the home of gallerdesks and bicycoffeeshops but increasingly the home of tech giants who are investing in expensive headquarters, growing headcounts and acquisitions. To mention a few: Amazon is shortly moving into an enormous HQ on the Shoreditch-City boundary, Cisco has already moved in around the corner, Google has acquired Deepmind, the machine learning startup and Microsoft recently bought local hero Swiftkey.

These are signs of success. But it doesn’t come without risk. As the giants threaten to dominate Silicon Roundabout the lesson of Seattle tells us to beware the accidental suppression of the area’s creative potential. The art-gallery-co-working-spaces are canaries. Keep your eyes on them.


This is from my April Column for BA Business Life magazine


Do not pass Go

The important thing, when delivering apocalyptic opinions about the future of humanity, is to do it with a smile. On a very big screen.
At issue on Sky News was the latest development in AI, specifically, the triumph of AlphaGo over Lee Sedol, the “Roger Federer” of the complex board game “Go”. The 4-1 victory shows, in a nutshell, that AI is getting better and better, faster and faster. And that won’t stop.
What are the implications?
On one hand AI can be used for good. It can help tackle poverty, water shortages, health problems, clean energy, the environment  and so on. But anything that powerful can have other results, too.
The risk is two-fold. The existential threat is that we create a super- intelligence that deliberately or accidentally eliminates many people. Or everyone.
And there’s the social threat which is that AI and automation eliminate jobs faster than we can reorganise and restructure society and the distribution of food, water and shelter (and meaning) etc . That’s the one we are sleep-walking towards.
Man v Machine
Mav v Machine 2 Man v Machine 3

The parallel universe of office furniture showrooms

It’s a well-known abomination against common sense that bumblebees can fly. With their feeble wings and fat furry bodies the idea is nonsense. Yet we’ve all seen them. Even freighted down by pollen there they are, flicking V-signs at our intuition. It’s mystifying. It’s like Clerkenwell.

This neighbourhood of the absurd is only a few minutes from Old Street roundabout. Prohibitively expensive, Clerkenwell’s Café-flation Index* (my patented proxy for office rents) is the highest in the country.

The fight for floor space, as you’d expect, is at a premium round here. And certainly when you visit the cafés you’ll register, knowingly, that the solopreneurs and office refugees are elbow to elbow as they eke out their long-dead coffees.

Yet walk around and something odd becomes apparent. You’ll begin to think you’ve been walking in circles because, well, isn’t that the office furniture showroom you just passed a few minutes ago? But there it is again. And again. So you’ll stop and realise, with a chill down your spine, that you are beset on all sides by office furniture showrooms.

ClerkenwellIt’s extraordinary. These places are not only everywhere but they are vast. Each of them is a prairie of open space compared to the glove box of the coffee shop you were just in or the pocket-sized co-working place you’re headed to. And they are empty. No customers and, come to that, almost no furniture. The gaping windows and acres of parquet flooring command your attention not least because, instinctively, you know that only something precious warrants such generosity of square footage.

What you see before you, however, is an anti-climax so baffling that you wonder whether the showroom has just gone bankrupt because centre stage, in fact the only thing on stage, is an office chair, a clean desk and a pen holder. You walk on and find the next showroom is the same except that the chair is lime green. And the next is red and so on with small variations in chair colour or the artistic intervention of a pencil sharpener.

Being only minutes away from Silicon Roundabout this is perplexing. If you ran a co-working space you would fit 17 startups into such a space and each founder would say, “But this is luxury, you’re spoiling us”, and start hustling to cram three more developers onto each desk.

In the first years of its life, Amazon signalled its frugality by using doors as desks. The bible of the modern entrepreneur is called The Lean Startup. You get the message. Every Shoreditch co-founder can tell you in their sleep how they are performing against their key metric, the burn rate, which indicates how terrifyingly fast cash is being consumed.

The parallel universe occupied by the client-free showrooms of Clerkenwell must operate on different laws of supply and demand: let us call this bumblebee economics. Surely this disparity in the treatment of space can’t go on and I propose that we are at the end days of such showrooms because: Sitting. Is. Deadly. It’s the new smoking, as flocks of lifestyle and healthcare experts have begun warning us. The thing to do is work standing up. And in co-working spaces more and more people are working at their laptops while standing up.

The thing is, they haven’t splashed out on fancy standing desks. And there’s one obvious reason: Because of burn rate. So what you see are cardboard boxes. Like freeze-frame footage of stalagmites forming you can see early adopters shunning their chairs in order to stand at desks upon which they have put one or two boxes to support their laptops. Fittingly, these tend to be Amazon packaging boxes, and just like Amazon’s door-desks they signal the bootstrapping intent of the user.

Eventually such habits become normalised. And as the creative, startup culture continues to seep deeper into the behaviour and aesthetic of our working life then desks made of boxes and doors may become badges of honour within all offices. Meanwhile chairs will be seen as a vestige of the past. A single concession to weakness that is shared among a team.

In such a future the demand for chairs will plummet, the sought-after desks will be made from doors and the boxes in which they were packed. This doesn’t bode well for the expansive showrooms and so, as with the dinosaurs, which were also fabulously gigantic, they will retreat into history books while startups hurtle into the new space like air into a vacuum.

  • The Café-flation Index reflects the demand and supply for flat laptop size surfaces in any neighbourhood. The equation is Cost of flat white (£) / Amount of table space (cm) x (minutes lingered).

This is from my March Column for BA Business Life magazine

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