systems thinking

Why I Won't Live In Google/Alphabet's TechUtopia

The news is that Alphabet/Sidewalk Labs is looking to build a city from the ground up. My first reaction when I heard this was ‘Sign me up!’ 

And then I started to read more speculations and the proposition became less desirable with every word. Why you ask? Well, I’ll share the things that Sidewalk Labs can do to avoid making the mistake of building a city the way one builds a company and consequently dooming the city before it even starts.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to most, considering how ambitious Alphabet is, that the idea of building a city would be one under consideration. I wrote about the ambition to own our energy and cities a few months ago. Larry Page (and Sergey Brin) is a student of company evolution and the organic nature of cities. But all the articles are stating that the project, codenamed Sidewalk, will be used as a testbed for self driving cars, high speed internet, smart connected devices and maybe even some of the scary robots that Alphabet has in its portfolio. Reports claim that 100s of city planners and technologists have been hired to design and build this techutopia. All this under Sidewalk labs, the Google project that became a company focused on ‘working with cities to build products addressing big urban problems’. So what is the problem with this approach to building a city from the ground up? Three systems issues

  1. A city is not just a collection of things: I can safely say that you have never had a conversation about the city you grew up in that ended with the statement ‘I miss the buildings that we lived growing up’? That’s not how or what we think about when we think about cities. It’s not the things/buildings. A city is a combination of all the elements (buildings, streets and infrastructure), interconnections (relationships with your hairstylist/barber, local deli and the parks) and the purpose (why did people settle along thebanks of the river?) of that city. To throw technology and things to build a city is to ignore the purpose. To think technology is the solution is to miss the purpose.
  2. The areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious: From all indications, the reason for building this city, according to The Information, is that ‘building cities from the Internet up is compelling’ and ‘the technology ultimately cannot be stopped’. Statements like this say nothing about the real issues that we have in our cities and are all about technology for its sake. Since we are being ambitious, building cities from the bottom-up, why don’t we go all the way and solve the real issues we have with our cities? Why don’t we address the lack of empathy in our cities and society? Since we are taking moonshots, that might be something to embed into this utopian city we are building. Technology fixes are obvious and simple (for the most part) but that’s not where the most impact can be made in moving us into the future.
  3. A city is not a problem to solve: This approach to building a city, using technology to solve it as a problem, stems from the same approach that helped companies like Alphabet succeed; to build a great technology company is to find a large enough problem(s) and apply creative or advanced technology to solve said problem. A city, in fact every city, has problems. But a city is not a problem. A city is an organic entity that scales according to the needs of the dwellers, increase in resiliency regardless of the setbacks it faces and evolves enough to be recognizable as the city it once was but continues to grow into the city the next set of dwellers fashion it into.

The Information reports that Denver and Detroit are being considered as test beds. If that is the case then this city will not be built from the ground up (phew!). It will just be the next stage in the evolution of a city, the one selected, that currently exists. Cities are truly just physical expressions of who we are and the things that matter to us as human beings. We still have a ways to go before technology fully replicates that…

Do You Understand The Power of Systems Thinking + Storytelling Like Great Leaders?

My Masters thesis Professor at Warwick University once called me the woolliestsystems engineer he’d ever met. He said I wrapped a story around every concept or system I was discussing or writing about. I just did it again.

For a period this bothered me.

Only when I ran Power2Switch (great team, a couple thousand customers in 5 states) subconsciously utilizing systems theory (diagram below) did I understand the value of compelling narratives as part of the output of a business. I came to understand (and aspire to) the ability of great leaders to take the inputs (ideas and people), run it through their strategy and processes (system) and generate two important outputs

  1. their actual product/service and (equally important)
  2. the story or narrative of their business. 

This inputs -> system -> output structure is the core tenet of systems theory/thinking and great leaders apply it without even thinking about it.

System thinking is most simply the analysis of the interaction between all the elements of a system. The system can be combinatorially complex (airline schedules across multiple destinations for multiple planes) or dynamically complex due to the changes that occur with the movement of time (like in the case of a business).


Diagram from Systems Thinking for Business by Rich Jolly

Most business leaders do not think about their companies using a systems approach, this leads to missed opportunities for improved products, inefficiencies and consequently lost revenue. This is both an issue at the company system level (what inputs do you need to create the output) and at an industry system level (what systems are fundamentally changing within your industry? how does that affect your company?).  

Good leaders/business people inadequately think about their business through a basic systems lens, the effects are felt in the form of plateaus in revenue and lack of growth.

Great leaders and successful business people on the other hand very carefully think about their companies through a systems lens and augment that with, what I think is the killer sauce, a compelling narrative that combines their personal stories with the business. Think about it; Mohamed Yunus of Grameen Bank, Oprah Winfrey, Coco Chanel, Henry Ford, Sara Blakely of Spanks, Estée Lauder, pick a Gandhi, Richard Branson, etc and the master of the narrative Steve Jobs. We think of all these leaders as much for their products/service (output) as we do for the narrative they crafted around said product or service.

It is that compelling narrative that elevates the simple input, systems, output structure into an unforgettable part of a customers consciousness. I see this everyday, through Asha Labs I work with business owners and their companies to get those inputs right (and some of these leaders are geniuses in their fields), to put in place the systems and processes to create a great product/service and (most importantly) help them craft a compelling narrative so the world knows and is drawn to the what, why and who of their business.

So I say thanks Prof, without you I wouldn't have learned systems thinking. And thanks especially for clueing me in on my woolliness and the super powers of well crafted and authentic narratives...

ps: the systems thinking approach to business also applies to career planning, just replace the inputs and outputs.

Amplified Intelligence: New Buzzword or The Death Of Your Job?

Work has always been about solving problems. How to increase revenue, how to reduce expenses, how to efficiently deliver products to the customer etc. The tools with which we’ve solved problems have changed over the years. Assembly lines and heavy machines were the tools in the industrial age. In the post industrial era we started to rely more on computers and our brains as the tools for solving these basic business problems. These became our tools.
We are in the midst of a transition. The tools are becoming more intelligent with robots, artificial intelligence and cognitive computers.

Unfortunately the noise is all about how these tools will be taking over from you and I. The articles are coming at us furiously. Wired reports we might get some jobs after AI has taken all the manual ones, Fast Company suggests you and need to plan for the future robotic workforce, my car rental checkout guy (ever so grumpily) this past weekend kept going on about hating machines/how Skynet might kill him and just yesterday Volvo’S announced that their ROAR robots will take over garbage collection and handling. Researchers at Oxford University even came up with a probability metric to help you determine how likely you are to lose your job to a machine. Note: Clergy, CEOs, athletes, economists and hairdressers are safe, the rest of us are not

But as always this isn’t that cut and dry. 

Most of us (at all levels of employment) will end up with Amplified Intelligence not Artificial Intelligence replacing us. Amplified Intelligence is being pushed by Deloitte as they try to carve out a space in the noise of consulting expertise (wisely).  Think of it as what happened when

  • we moved from a man in an apron beating metal (the blacksmith),
  • to a foundry with a floor manager and
  • then to engineers inputting correct heat settings on a furnace;

the output (pure metal) did not change, the tools just got better

In the era of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning you and I just happen to be the blacksmith (without the apron of course). AI and Machine Learning will be  force multipliers for how you and I do our work. They already are in many sectors. I’ve heard it said that the future of work won’t be based on how much data is out there, it will be based on how you use that data. But you already knew this...

What you don’t know is that even the most junior analyst in your company will now be able to draw deep and game changing insights from the application of quantum levels of cognitive computing power to the analysis of all the data/information available to your organization (structured, unstructured, related and dark). Ponder that…your 15 years of experience in a particular sector will matter less than it does now in a future where artificial intelligence is used to amplify every organizations capabilities.

An unintended but unsurprising consequence here will be that the best talent will become even better at what they do once their talent is amplified. Every one has a pretty good camera phone that amplifies our ability to take good pictures but not all of us will be able to take award-winning-gasp-inducing pictures. Same will be the case in organizations. Hold on to those super talented employees who are about to become superheroes...

Hierarchy and power in the typical corporation, for the most part, as always been based onhow the ‘manager’ cognitively knew more about a problem than the new ‘analyst’ and could instruct the analyst on how to solve the identified problem. When that is no longer the case, since the knowledge is computed, captured, stored and freely available to all within the organization, your value to your organization

  • will have to come from your understanding of your customers,
  • your ability to harness all the resources to achieve the desired outcome for the customer and
  • (probably) your intuition about the best way to deliver customer results.

It’s pretty ironic; in a world where intelligence is artificial/amplified your value as an employee within an organization or as a product/service provider will depend on how much more human and much more intuitive you are than competitors since we’ll all have similar levels of amplification.

Cognitively compute that...

Youtility: Era of Personal Power

Over the last few months I've written posts about the future utility and smart cities with a perspective that our current utility will play a key role in what thisfuture utility will look like. My thinking has been that, due to our reliance on the heavy infrastructure base of the current utility, you and I will be tied to the wires and lines that we currently have.

But I’ve been wrong all along.

We are about to enter the era of the Youtility, the era of Personal Power where we have little to no reliance on the current utility for generation, transmission or supply of the energy we use to power our homes.

The fascinating thing is that in African countries, including the one where I was born, either through lack of infrastructure or depreciated assets this is already the case. See my father (and a lot of his peers) currently serve as their own Youtility. Sometimes for weeks on end his home is cut off from the grid since the electric authority (as they are known in those parts) provides no power. Same is true for water and gas. Each home is essentially a republic’ unto itself with a generator combined with solar energy for power, a borehole dug in the back of the compound for water and gas tanks swapped out at the gas station for cooking gas. He is his own utility... 

You’d assume this is the case for only wealthy citizens in those parts but that is not the case. The entrepreneurially minded have figured out ways to bring the costs of these Youtility setups down to levels the masses can bear. Granted, the sources of fuel are not sustainable but, as is the case with most technologies, the original need has been served and now is the time to optimize and make it sustainable. 

What makes you think this is impossible in the US? It won’t be the first time we’ve borrowed technology from Africa. Mobile payments? mPesa was doing what we can now do with Paypal Venmo a good 8 years ago with dumb phones. 

How does a person go broke? Slowly and then suddenly (paraphrasing Hemingway). How will the current utility die? From a thousand cuts in the form of solar powered homes, car charging roads, batteries in basements and evenpersonal power plants i.e. slowly and then quickly...

What will happen to those heavy assets? those wires and lines? They will be owned by financial entities that have nothing to do with supplying you and I electricity and own these assets strictly for the rent-earning' opportunity they might provide.

And the rest of us? We'll just carry on being our own Youtility.

Your Quick Guide to Smart Cities.

We are in the early days of a transformation of our cities from dumb to smart.  Whether we know or like it our cities are being kitted up with sensors, cameras and all forms of data gathering devices. The technology that is used to collect, transmit, communicate, analyze and take action on data is what will make our cities smart. The data collection and analysis should enable city officials/citizens to better (or attempt to better) run cities.

So what exactly will be changing? I can think of 4 buckets of change 

  1. Leadership/Regulation: I won’t get into politics but simply acknowledge that we’ll need ‘different’ types of leaders.
    • Moores law will always move faster than regulation and so our leaders will have to change their mindsets and put in place regulation/laws that recognize this fast changing landscape. This is necessary because data capture will challenge the very nature of privacy at a level that is scarier than Edward Snowden saw when he was at the NSA. Do people want that much data about them to be collected? Will the government or the individual own the data about that individual as s/he navigates a city that is wired up to capture everything s/he does? All questions that have to be answered as we speed forward ever faster into the future.
    • Cities will need City management software systems that are adaptable (artificially intelligent), nodal (so there is no one point of failure in the systems) and highly secure. Cities are not software development companies so they'll have to partner with the best companies to achieve this.
  2. New and upgraded Infrastructure: the walls and roads around us will become data collection nodes.
    • Commercial and residential building construction will have to factor in data collection and communication technology requirements while still in architectural design stage. For old buildings we already have beacons and sensors that enable us retrofit buildings for data collection.
    • Building materials will get smart. No longer will cement and concrete be ‘all’ you need to put up a wall or a road. We’ll have smart concrete,self healing coatings and shape shifting metals that can farm & store energy from building vibrations while capturing & transmitting status to a building management system which also communicates with the city management system (mentioned above).
    • We'll have smart lights that dim when the sun is shining and brighten gradually as it day darkens into night. Even the shades will do something similar.
    • Transportation infrastructure upgrades at a scale we are not prepared for will be required (even though $416Bn was spent in the last few years). Semi-Autonomous or self driving cars, currently testing inAustin after success in Mountain view, will be standard. Buildings and traffic signals will communicate with these vehicles as the vehicles communicate with themselves. Side noteSelf driving cars have been the stuff of science fiction fantasy since the 1880’s! 
  3. Personnel and training: Along with the changes in regulation and infrastructure there will be a need to train our current workforce to deal with these upgrades to their capability. Some examples:
    • Policemen will be able to get visual and text based information on events in seconds to within a square inch of where it happens and they need to be able to respond to that at the speed of receiving that information.
    • Sticking with safety: firemen will be able to tell, before they leave the fire station, what device in a home caused the fire seconds after the fire starts. That’s powerful but will require that firemen be trained on quickly drawing insights from data or be augmented by cognitive systems.
    • For more basic needs, your plumber will be able to know what pipe or fitting needs to be changed out before he comes to your home so he'll come ready to serve.
  4. The Utility: We can’t have smart cities without smart grids.
    • Cities will increase renewable energy use and upgrade energy usage data capture technology in buildings. Long way to go here but I’ve read of sensors (the size of a coin!) capturing energy usage data. The data is then transmitted to your computer/mobile device which will also pull information from the city energy management system to ensure the smart grid is balanced. Sidenote: Yes, this’ll mean that your smart meter (if you have one) will soon be obsoleteApart from being faster than regulation, Moore’s law also moves faster than any 10 year smart meter rollout plan by your utility!
    • Our homes will be a honeypot of data that the utility will need to better run it’s business. That battle for our homes and the data is already on the way. Nest is already on the way here… watch for Nest (and their competitors who will spring up to serve the average consumer who cannot afford a Nest product) to play a bigger role as your Future Utility

Ok maybe 5. You and I will also have to change how we view and interact with our won't all be smart concrete and sensors. We'll have things like theLowline...

Fundamentally, regardless of all the technological advancement that we are seeing/about to see, what we'll want from our cities won’t change; to provide us the chance to fulfill our highest aspirations and live secure, happy and healthy lives with our loved ones. That won’t change...

What else do you think will change?

The Future Utility

Meet Samantha

  • Samantha lives in Chicago and owns an electric car. One of those fancy ones. We'll say she owns a Tesla.
  • Sam is considered as a 'node' on the future electricity grid (with a card and a mobile app to measure how much energy she uses or produces). 
  • Her energy consumption (from anywhere) is considered a - on the grid. 
  • When Sam puts power on the grid it's considered a + on the grid. 
  • Sam’s home is powered by a rooftop solar panel. 
  • She also owns a home battery manufactured by Tesla and financed through Solarcity.
  • 40 miles from Sam’s home is a nuclear power plant. Sometimes she 'gets' her power from the nuclear plant. Sometimes she just 'gets' the power from her home battery.
  • Sam’s local Walgreens also has solar panels on it’s roof and puts some power on the grid. Another energy conscious company, Whole Foods, is one block away They’ve also also commissioned some solar panels.
  • There also happens to be a wind farm 25 miles from Sam’s home 
  • And a coal plant 43 miles from Sam’s office.
  • Sam's electric car charge comes from plugging in at home/work/Walgreens and because of Power-over-ethernet functionality Sam's usage can be 'read' in the form of her 'energy IP address'.
  • All of Sam’s production and consumption from any one of these points is measured by a ‘minisculemeter’ (phrase coined by me for an energy measuring sensor the size of a coin), every minisculemeter in Sam's home or on Sam's appliances is ascribed to Sam's account/card
  • Even when Sam charges her laptop at the Starbucks, while she's working, her 'account' is adjusted accordingly (debited). 
  • Sam moves to Arizona to be with the love of her life and she maintains the same account, all she has to do is change her address...
  • And, just like her credit score, any move to a more energy efficient home or purchase of a home energy management device will register as a plus or minus on her 'score.
  • Sam also has a neighbor, Jo (with his own + or -), who doesn’t drive, doesn’t own a solar panel but trades stocks for a living, using a lot more electricity than Sam running his servers at home. Some days Jo (conceptually) ‘gets’ electricity from Sam's 'home battery' or the Walgreens or the nuclear plant or the wind farm depending on whether Jo 'wants' renewable energy. Because Jo is a node on the grid...

The entity in the middle of these transactions

  1. measuring how much is used or produced,
  2. ensuring that all the Sam’s and the Jo’s do not use more electricity than all the solar panels and generating plants can produce (all through software and these minisculemeters) and
  3. making sure the payments are made and collected correctly
  4. using a simple and very customer friendly interface 

is the utility of the future. Allowing Sam to do the things she needs to do to live a normal regular existence. That's all we really ask of our utility...

What's interesting about this is that this distributed, or more aptly termed local, structure is very similar to the first 'grid' when, in 1882, Edison flipped the switch on a few steam generators powering 1200 bulbs in Lower Manhattan. Very rapidly the grid grew to what we know it to be today; a very complex non-adaptive system. But with new technology and increasing customer expectations of what service looks like the grid is shifting to the example I gave above. It's the nature of complex systems to revert to their simplest form.

Welcome to the Future Utility. It's really just the 'first grid' with fancy devices on the end...