With every generation comes change…

With every generation comes change! Society evolves. Every new generation grows up in different conditions to those when their parents  were young.  Every new generation rails against the actions and decisions of older generations. Every new generation thinks they know best and wants to change the world, and every older generation thinks younger generations are feckless, frustrating, and irritating – just look here, for example. These may be sweeping generalisations, but they convey a truth and an uncomfortable reality.

Every new generation grows up in a society whose norms are challenged or changed by new technologies of one kind or another. It’s been the same for centuries. Anyone born in the last 40 years, however, has grown up in one of the most disruptive periods for society ever.  Just in the last 20 or so years our global population has exploded, increasing by around 30%, the population of urban centres has risen by ~60%,  the internet has changed the way everything is done, mobile phones have become a necessity and nearly everyone has one, and social media has taken over.  Every generation thinks it’s making society better, so is society better for those born since the 1980s who have been riding the Information and Digital wave?

The Badger’s found that when people are asked this question, No is the dominant answer!  Ostensibly because of a perception that two vital commodities in society – trust and privacy – have declined, with broadcast and online news media, and the social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter being mentioned as to blame. News organisations with a reputation for unbiased reporting are seen as being thin on the ground, and social media platforms are seen as an uncontrollable digital wild-west.

One person bravely claimed that the behaviour of those born since the 1980s and social media had already put society into a downward spiral. Their justification? Simply that anyone whose first reaction to anything was to reach for their smartphone, create a video, and immediately upload it to social media had lost the plot. A brave view indeed in these turbulent days.  The person is, of course, from the older generation and perhaps resonates with the first paragraph above.

The Badger’s view is simple. Change driven by disruptive technologies is painful and produces downsides as well as benefits. There’s little doubt that distrust is rife in society today, that privacy is fast becoming an alien concept even with GDPR, and that a finger must point to the media, the internet, and social media for some of this.  Just as in life, however, there are no magic bullets and no one has a monopoly on being right. One thing, however, is certain. The attitude, behaviour, and use of digital tools and platforms by our younger generations is creating the society that their kids will definitely rail against!

An 88 year-old’s take on tech during pandemic lockdown…

It’s been tough for the elderly during the pandemic, especially if they live alone in their own homes and relatives live a long way away. Good neighbours, community volunteers, and some of the tech that younger people take for granted have been a big help, provided, of course, the elder in question wants to embrace the support.

A local acquaintance is 88 years old and has lived in the same house since the 1960s. They have lived there alone since their partner died 25 years ago. They suffer from arthritis which is progressively limiting what they can do. They are proudly independent, stoic, and keep their old house spotless. Before the pandemic, they frequently used public transport, did their own shopping, met friends for coffee at a local daycentre, and regularly attended their church. None of this now happens but they don’t complain about how difficult it is for elders who are not in care homes, don’t get visits from carers, and who have families that live too far away to provide anything other than telephone contact. Television is their primary source of company. They do not have a mobile phone, broadband, or social media. Their landline telephone – with a 30-year-old handset – is their lifeline to the outside world.

The Badger’s been keeping a watchful eye and doing their shopping, just like many citizens everywhere during the pandemic. Once a week we have a long, face to face, socially distanced chat that clearly lifts their spirits. This week they asked the Badger about video calls because they had heard about them on television, and their distant family wants them to accept having an easy to use video facility for the elderly put in their home. The Badger promptly used his smartphone and WhatsApp to show them  how easy video are to make in practice.

They marvelled at what’s possible, but immediately said they didn’t want ‘that kind of technology’ in the house or in their life! Asked why not, they gave two reasons. The first was ‘it’s too complicated to learn at my age’, but the second really took the Badger by surprise. From watching television and listening to the radio, they have decided that the internet, social media, and smart tech are responsible for most of the strife in the world. They don’t want anything that causes strife in their life!

They elaborated by saying that every generation has a nemesis, and that the impact of rampant smart tech will be the younger generation’s nemesis in times to come. The Badger was quietly impressed! How many of us will be able to formulate and articulate such an insightful view on reaching the ripe old age of 88? Will tech have overtaken our capacity for independent thought by then? Hmm…

From OneWeb to Hydrogen Fuel Cells…

When OneWeb, a company aiming to bring connectivity to everyone everywhere using an enormous constellation of Low-Earth Orbiting satellites, announced it was filing for bankruptcy the Badger was unsurprised. Why? Because it always felt that the business case was somewhat dubious. Investors now seem to have decided likewise and have ‘drawn stumps’ – to use a cricket metaphor. Others closer to the space industry than the Badger also seem unsurprised by what’s happened – see here for example. It’s sad, of course for everyone working for OneWeb, but in the end this a simple reminder that viable technology isn’t a guarantee of business success. Business is about the juxtaposition of risk and commercial gain, and stakeholders rarely flinch from hard business decisions when the two are out of kilter.

OneWeb cited market and financial turbulence related to the COVID-19 as a factor in failing to attract further funding. With this in his mind, the Badger found himself musing on the combination of technology and business in the post-pandemic world while he walked down the middle of an empty road getting exercise in line with the UK pandemic guidance. The complete absence of traffic on the normally hectic road plus a news item about an advance in materials significant for hydrogen fuel cells, triggered thoughts about whether we will see changes in investment priorities when it comes to vehicular technology after the pandemic is over.

Why would there be, you may ask? Because if you holistically look at, for example, the Royal Society’s briefing on options for producing low-carbon hydrogen at scale, real world experience of using electric and hydrogen fuelled vehicles (e.g. see here), and the relatively slow take up of electric vehicles powered by batteries, then you realise this kind of ‘material’ breakthrough should create an even more enticing investment and business opportunity for vehicle manufacturers and fossil fuel companies (who produce hydrogen) alike. The Badger, whose early roots were in materials technology, senses that the real scientific and engineering advances that could flow from the news item will significantly boost the business case for adopting hydrogen fuel cells for transportation and, accordingly, we will see business investment in this arena rise significantly in the coming years.

By the time the Badger had finished walking down the middle of the road, he had decided that everyone is more likely to be driving cars powered by a hydrogen fuel cell by the end of the decade than to have embraced driverless cars on public roads. (Tomorrow’s exercise might, of course, modify this conclusion!) As OneWeb shows, technology doesn’t mean business success, but any company that has bet the farm on the dominance of battery-powered vehicles should watch out, because hydrogen fuel cells are definitely coming along to eat your lunch…

The 6 Cs – Control, Care, Commerce, Community, Consumption & Communications

Long days of pandemic-related lockdown do strange things to your thoughts. We obviously think about our personal circumstances and fears, but simple things can trigger thoughts that can take you to unexpected conclusions. The Badger, for example, has noticed that simple observations trigger thoughts that meander to a conclusion that barely relates to the observation itself, as illustrated below.

The Badger recently noticed his wife’s growing irritation with mainstream TV News. She increasingly asserts ‘TV News has more dinner party chat dressed as analysis, complainers and people with an axe to grind, spin, and scaremongering speculation than straightforward factual news.’ Hmm. ‘A Story’ is what drives journalists, which in today’s instant communication era suggests that no TV broadcasters, print or social media/internet platforms can really provide reliable, factual, spin-free news.

Anyway, that’s a digression, because observing the wife’s rising irritation triggered the Badger to think about what he would do if he were leader of a country when the current crisis has abated! The Badger cogitated under a fruit tree in full blossom over a couple of cups of coffee. The answer – to initiate an independent ‘lessons learned’ review to identify improvements and inform the country’s future policies and direction – soon emerged.

The review would cover six pillars:

  •  Control – What improvements in command, control and logistics mechanisms are needed to be better prepared for this type of future crisis?
  • Care – What are the lessons for the country health and social care system and how can weaknesses be addressed in an economically viable way?
  • Commerce – What are the economic and operational lessons for Public Services and Business? What do these mean for future workforce planning, productivity, business activities, financial prudence, and supply chain policy?
  • Community – How has the crisis changed social attitudes, behaviours and the priorities and demands of the general public? How has the public mood changed regarding nationalism versus internationalism and globalisation? How does this compare between demographics and with other countries?
  • Consumption – What have consumers and businesses learned about what their demand for goods, commodities, and services has on life, the climate, the environment, and sustainability? What impact will greater consumer enlightenment have on country priorities and wealth?
  • Communications – What lessons emerge from crisis communication direct from government to the general public? What can change to reduce misinformation in printed, broadcast, and internet-based media, and on social media platforms? How have public attitudes to regulation and privacy changed due to the pandemic?

Tech crosses all 6 pillars. It has mostly been a saviour in this crisis, especially when you realise that if this pandemic had happened 10 to 15 years ago when tech was less mature, the impact on our lives would have been orders of magnitude worse.

So, there you have it. A simple observation can trigger an unexpected train of thought. Fortunately, the Badger’s not a country leader. One thing’s certain, however. The world has changed and things really can’t be same as they were. Our leaders must know that?

Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise…

If you’ve ever been asked to take on the responsibility for fixing a failing project, programme, or service delivery that’s causing serious relationship, financial, reputation or business difficulties, then you’ll know that when you take the reins lots of people will tell you about the bad things, who’s to blame, and what should have happened but didn’t. You’ll also know that far fewer people will tell you about the good things, the good people, and their good ideas to improve matters. There are always good things! They are, however, swamped by a fog of grumbles, complaints, politics and blame narratives! An experienced leader knows about this imbalance and ensures that ‘balance is restored’ by putting the right people with the right attitude in the right place to turn failure into success. After all, it’s a fully committed, positive and aligned team that really turns things around, not the person at the top!

Have you ever wondered why people tend to complain, blame, and exude negativity more than praise and positivity? The answer lies in the physiological wiring of the brain. Put simply, the emotional part of the brain processes ‘bad events’ whereas the rational part processes ‘good events. The former works much faster than the latter, which means we assign fault and blame quickly and frequently but think long and hard before giving praise. Fascinating stuff!

What triggered the Badger to think about this? Two recent events that made the Badger feel that today’s tech-dependent society has lost all sense of balance, objectivity, and community. Both events related to the COVID-19 pandemic. The first was a conversation with friends that concluded that ‘Quick to blame or complain, slow to praise’ and negativity has pervaded every facet of journalism, the broadcast media, and social media, and that ‘blame and complain’ has more noticeably become the norm in society as digital tech has boomed over the last twenty years.

The second was in the local supermarket whose shelves and frozen food cabinets were largely empty due to panic buying. Behind the Badger at the checkout, two people proudly crowed about how they had each bought two extra freezers online ‘just in case’, They then bitterly complained to a store worker about the empty shelves and blamed the supermarket chain for incompetence. They then blamed a different local supermarket chain for not having what they wanted either, and the UK and Chinese governments for letting all this happen!

The checkout operator winked. ’I think it’s just the way their brains work. One has a cough so you might not want to serve them’, the Badger said in response. The checkout queue fell silent! The Badger left the store certain that it’s time for our tech-centric society to concentrate more on praise and positivity than blame and complain. That would, however, require a rewiring of our brains.

Software defects…a fact of life.

The Badger recently used a bank’s online processes to establish formalised ‘power of attorney’ control over someone else’s accounts. Formalising the ‘power of attorney’ and setting up the associated internet banking facilities was pleasingly easy. Everything went smoothly. This week, however, the Badger encountered a problem. Not a major one, more an inconvenience. The Badger, as ‘power of attorney’, set up a new payee in order to pay a small invoice the same day. However, a ‘technical failure’ error message appeared every time the Badger tried to send the payment. Grr! The Badger called the bank, who were very helpful. It was a known problem – a software defect. If you are a ‘power of attorney’ and click the ‘send payment immediately’ box, the software won’t let you send a payment! The solution? Click the ‘send at a future date’ box – i.e. tomorrow – instead. The solution worked perfectly.

The Badger wondered why this ‘software defect’ hadn’t been picked up in pre-release testing. The experience was also a reminder of how reliant we are on software and on it working correctly. It was also a reminder that software will always contain defects even when the best design, development and testing practices have been used. While the Badger cogitated on this, he saw last week’s reports from the US about the software for Boeing’s reusable spaceship, Starliner. The reports, here for example, highlight a review following the unsuccessful Starliner test flight to the International Space Station(ISS) in December 2019, which has exposed ‘process’ failings in the software design, development, testing and assurance oversight of the ~1 million lines of code. Oh dear. There are obviously many more defects in the software than the ones that impacted the mission in the first place. The Badger raised his eyebrows in surprise. After all, well-established engineering disciplines and processes for producing quality software have been around for a long time and are there for a reason.

Software runs the modern world. It’s everywhere. Its scale and complexity have risen dramatically in recent decades, and when software goes wrong it can have wide ranging, unwelcome, and sometimes disastrous impacts. You can get a sense of the scale of some codebases here and you’ll find some of the software failures that have wreaked havoc and disruption in recent years here. Without software, modern civilization would grind to a halt.

Years ago, the Badger was told ‘Never expect software to be perfect’. Wise words still relevant in today. AI, autonomous vehicles, robots – and so on – are not immune to having software defects, so when you go about your daily life just remember that a software defect is always lurking somewhere, and that it will manifest itself at the most inconvenient time. That’s just a fact of life in today’s world!

Youngsters, gaming, ‘STEM’ and a 3D printer…

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The Badger’s long believed that a solid education in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) arms you well for whatever you want to do in life, which, after all, often takes you in directions you never envisage. With a solid foundation in STEM subjects, you will be armed well for anything that unfold. Having a good STEM grounding doesn’t limit your horizons, it expands them! Brian May , guitarist in Queen, and Rowan Atkinson, ‘Mr Bean’, illustrate the point perfectly. The former studied Physics and Mathematics and has a PhD in Astrophysics, and the latter studied Electrical Engineering. A good STEM grounding never stops you from being an artist, a musician, an entrepreneur or businessperson, or a creative type!

So, what’s this got to do with 3D printing? Well, the Badger recently asked a group of youngsters between the ages of 11 and 16 what they did with their spare time. Unsurprisingly, playing games on their phones or games consoles dominated the response. It made the Badger wonder if introducing them to some alternative tech could reduce the dominance of gaming and yet be as much fun while having a stealthy ‘STEM’ educational element. The Badger’s not anti-gaming, just pro broadening the education of digital-native youngsters whenever possible, but feels that youngsters would benefit from something else in their digital mix. That something is a 3D printer!

The Badger has recently embraced 3D printing in the home environment. Indeed, the picture above is of a bespoke, 10cm tall, model produced on the Badger’s own 3D printer. The printer cost less than £250. There’s a wide range of available printers suitable for youngsters, as well as software (much of it cheap or free), and the Thingiverse provides a great source of customizable 3-D models to start with. It’s a great feeling to design your own thing, build a 3-D model of it, and watch it being manufactured in front of your eyes. It’s creative, fun, and inherently engages you with STEM by stealth in the home environment.

The impact of 3D printing on major industries and the potential of the technology as a teaching resource have long been recognised. The Badger thinks that youngsters can learn lots from having this fun technology at home to use in their spare time. For less than the price of the leading games consoles you should think about getting a 3D printer that will be covertly ‘STEM educational’ and yet provide hours of fun as a creative alternative to gaming. What’s not to like! A youngster could create ‘the next best thing’ using a 3D printer in their bedroom. It could diversify their entertainment and make them the next super-successful ‘tech’ business mogul. Hmm. Let’s not get too carried away for the moment, but you never know…

A new decade…’Sustainability’ will be its key word…

It’s Christmas and time to celebrate in a way that’s appropriate to your beliefs, budget, and personal priorities. Christmas often brings to the fore anxiety associated with spending, presents, and the people dear to us, especially those with health or other vulnerabilities, but it’s also a time to look to the future with optimism and hope. That’s what the Badger household’s doing, especially as a new decade beckons. In fact, Badger’s household (who’ve all grown up with technology, entertainment and information at their fingertips) has already been speculating on what life will be like in 2029!

The Badger household has already agreed that our approach to Christmas has significantly changed over the last decade. There’s been a significant shift away from materialism and a much stronger emphasis on doing the right thing for those vulnerable people around us who, for whatever reason, need support. The household all agree that while giving and receiving gifts is good, it’s also silly and a waste of money if they quickly end up in the back of our cupboards! Interestingly, everyone no longer takes much notice of the marketing and advertising machinery that encourages us to spend on ‘gadgets’, and none of us believes this will change when new ‘must haves’ arrive over the next decade.

So, what will life be like at the end of the next decade? How will tech shape the future? What will really impact our lives? Predictions abound, as you’ll see here, here, here, here, and here. However, forecasting the future is a fool’s game, especially when 10 years after the 2008/9 global financial crisis it’s not really clear if lessons have been learned. So, has the Badger household converged on a view on life at the end of the next decade? No. However, it has agreed that ‘unexpected events’ will determine whether any current predictions are delivered!

The Badger household has also agreed that the word ‘sustainability’ will dominate our lives through the next decade. Why? Because demographic changes in the world’s population means the global population is getting older. Older people tend to focus on their ‘needs’ rather than ‘wants’, and they know these are best met by a sustainable balance between wealth creation and the finite nature of the planet’s resources. ‘Sustainability’ will thus be a theme driven by aging ordinary people, and woe betide any politician that doesn’t listen!

So what’s your key word for the next decade? Why not debate this over the aftermath of a Christmas meal? It will at least remind you that old-fashioned sustainable communication has not been killed off by technology! Have a great Christmas, a prosperous 2020, and a fulfilling and sustainable next decade…

‘Smart’ motorways help to decide on a car purchase!

The Badger’s made a decision about whether to replace his car. Three seemingly unrelated events ultimately underpinned the decision. The first was reading ‘Road Traffic Estimates: Great Britain 2017’ published by the UK Department of Transport in 2018. The second was a knock on the door by a man with a large white van. He was delivering a package ordered online 18 hours earlier. The third was being captive in horrendous motorway traffic on the way to and from an exhibition. Progress on the ‘Smart’ motorway was stop-start, maddening, and the lane speeds indicated on the gantries were laughable. It certainly didn’t feel like ‘Smart’ had made any difference to the journey experience whatsoever!

These three events influenced the Badger’s thinking along the following lines. Roads are more and more congested, so there’s little real benefit sitting in a traffic queue in a newer car, and although more UK motorways are being converted to ‘Smart’ – see short articles on the types of ‘Smart’ here and here – there are growing safety concerns as illustrated here, here, and here, for example. In the last 70 years traffic on UK roads has grown ~10-fold and vehicle ownership has grown ~6-fold, driven largely by economic growth and population growth. The upward trend is likely to continue and so there’s little reason to think congestion will ever reduce, even with the deployment of ever more sophisticated technology which, after all, has a habit of producing a peak of inflated expectation followed by a trough of disillusionment. Technology is not a panacea, and the nirvana of a driverless car society seems a long way off.

The environment featured in the Badger’s thinking, but a simple analysis quickly showed that the whole-life carbon footprint of a vehicle owned by the Badger – current or future – is tiny compared to that of one van in the growing army of vans that deliver our internet purchases to our homes. Since 1997 there’s been a 75% increase in the number of vans on the road, and a 67% increase in the miles they travel, with internet shopping and home delivery underpinning much of this rise. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future, and so the environmental incentive for the Badger to replace his personal vehicle is not high.

Replace or not to replace. You’ve surely guessed the decision by now. It’s the latter. The ‘business case’ for changing the vehicle doesn’t stack up! It’s just cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and healthier to keep the current car and change behaviour to reduce its usage. That doesn’t mean taking a backward step in personal independence or convenience, it just means being disciplined, thinking ahead with a moral compass, and taking different decisions on a day by day basis. Like many things in life, just simply adjusting our core behaviour costs little but can lead to a wide spectrum of benefits…

Have you been asked to ‘drain the swamp’ to fix a project?

Having a meal with Jack and his wife Jill recently raised the possibility that ‘draining the swamp’ has become a popular mantra within companies when they need to fix project delivery problems. Jack and Jill, by the way, are not their real names. Jack is an old friend and works as a project manager for a large defence contractor. He has just been asked by his line manager and a company executive to fix a seriously underperforming project by ‘draining the swamp’. The project is haemorrhaging money, seriously missing milestones, and has a demoralised and unproductive team. The client no longer believes the project team, or the company, can deliver. Jack ’s the fourth Project Manager appointed to fix things in the last nine months. Sound familiar?

The Badger asked why Jack could fix things when three others couldn’t. Jack said he was confident that he had the full support of line and executive leadership. They wanted him to ‘drain the swamp’ in order to avoid expensive litigation being threatened by the client. Jack wondered if the Badger had any thoughts. After a mouthful of mellow Merlot, the Badger offered three thoughts. Firstly, executives and line managers are just as much part of ‘the swamp’ as you, me, or any project team. Secondly, executives and line managers will support you 100%…until it suits them not to! Thirdly, to ‘drain the swamp’ you need to understand the swamp’s nature, which means understanding people and their behaviours.

Jack grinned and thanked the Badger for reminding him that those who appointed him are just as much part of ‘the swamp’ as his project team. He intended to keep that in mind when trying to ‘drain the swamp’. We chuckled at the thought that life came from a swamp, and while ‘the swamp’ today is different… it’s still a swamp!

Over dessert, Jill – who has dual UK & US nationality – moved our ‘draining the swamp’ conversation into the realms of President Trump, US politics and political turmoil in the UK. She expressed strong views about the abuse politicians get via the internet and social media, and lamented that ‘it wasn’t like this 25 years ago’! Jill wondered what had changed.

A lively debate ensued, but the answer was simple. Politicians are, and have always been, just one of the life forms in ‘the swamp’. Unlike 25 years ago, all life in ‘the swamp’ now has an instant and global voice via the internet and social media. Technology has changed the dynamics of ‘the swamp’, much to the distaste of some of the life forms that live in it!  We ended the meal with a final glass of wine, wishing Jack well with his challenge, and with just one final conclusion – there’s no going back…