Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Future Is Not Behind Us, It Lives Locally

For every old saying there's an opposite. Today's conflict lies in the adage that "those who don't know history are destined to repeat it." Yet "our history is not our destiny." This leaves a fine line between useful historical insight into how the world works and steering solely by what we see in the rear-view mirror. The distinction becomes critical as we lurch ever more quickly from one financial crisis to the next.

So what lessons from recent history will help us move foward, and which should go in the scrapbook? Here are 5 that I think are worth taking forward, in no particular order:
1. Clearly, the Internet is not a fad. Consumers are the winners, aided by facilitators in their battle against our creaking institutions. Yet e-commerce is still only 10% of all retail. And we are still in the 'primordial soup' phase in the evolution of our tools for extracting meaning from the great, chaotic swirl of data. So this trend has a lot more mileage in it yet and will sweep across more service sectors - if you can buy it online and have it delivered it won't be sold in high volumes on the high street. In fact, it might even be made locally...

2. In addition to democratising services, the Internet is also returning the means of production to local communities through e-enabled machines. Remote/home-working is replacing central workplaces and 'factories' are getting closer to customers, requiring a rethink of corporate systems, processes and supply chains. Huge production plants and sole-occupancy office towers will gradually become a thing of the past. High streets may well regenerate to support this trend, or as a result of it.
3. Cities with at least 3 private workers for every public sector worker see the most growth. Give that some thought if you live in a city near the bottom of this chart. This chimes with findings that economies (regional and national) whose public spending exceeds 35% of their GDP struggle to grow. You have to feel sorry for Northern Ireland...
4. The public sector is very inefficient and needs to act locally - public institutions are already being relentlessly affected by lessons 1 and 3 above, and 2 should increase  the pressure. Civil servants really have no alternative but to spend public money more wisely. Meanwhile, we'll help drive down the cost of government by dealing with the government online. Big government offices must surely go eventually. Fortunately, the moves to devolve more power to local government coincide here, but I don't think we should be fooled into thinking that's part of any real plan to future-proof the UK...

5. The UK's financial system is seriously inefficient at allocating money to people and businesses. The fact that we all rely heavily on a few major banks for whom lending to small businesses is not a core activity is part of the problem, but innovation and competition are constrained by our outdated and rigid regulatory framework and the related incentives. Crowdfunding, or peer-to-peer finance, platforms are springing up all over the country, and are increasingly focused on specific sectors, activities and locations.
In short, if I were a civil servant (see 4) based outside the south east of England (3), I would start an Internet-based service (1) that efficiently provides low cost finance (5) to help localise the means of producing stuff using e-enabled machines - or buy my own 3D printer and start renting it out (2). Now

Image from KC Anderson.

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