Category Archives: Futures Research

Comments related to the art and science of long range forecasting and trend analysis.

Thoughts on telework versus transportation

Telework versus transportation: for the past four decades much of my work on telework and its telecommuting subset has been on demonstrating the relative advantages and disadvantages of those two. It all started in the early 1970s when I got fed up with wasting my time sitting in traffic twice, or more, daily. The commute to and from work was a drag.

Then came the proverbial lightbulb! If what I’m doing at work simply requires a phone  (remember, this was in the dark ages of computing) and a desk, why do I have to fight traffic for more than an hour every day to do it? Why not do it from home (Starbucks hadn’t been invented yet either)?

Since then a growing number of people and organizations have come to the same conclusion, fortified by the evidence that telework and telecommuting are good for business. There are now tens of millions of teleworkers worldwide and the number continues to grow.

So now what?

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Year end thoughts on the future of telework

Well, it has been an interesting year, in the sense of the old Chinese curse: You shall live in interesting times. Here are some year end thoughts regarding telework’s future.

First, this year has demonstrated that many carefully thought out plans have gone awry. Seriously! Brexit, Trumpism, Syria, China’s economy, Russian autocracy to name a few. The global master plan seems to be chaos. Now, all of the aforesaid are geopolitical in their nature. What do they have to do with telework?

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Telecommuting in the automated driving age

There has been lots of news recently about automated driving. Teslas on autopilot, driverless (sort of) Ubers, all the main auto manufacturers developing self-driving cars. How is all this driverless driving likely to affect telecommuting? After all, telecommuting was invented as a way to reduce time- and energy-wasting commuting. What if the commuters of the (near) future can sit back and telecommute en route?

I originally started thinking about telecommuting in response to the question: why can’t you [rocket scientists] do something about traffic? The point being that growing traffic congestion, in the 1970s, had become a source of air pollution, reduced productivity, energy dissipation and a whole host of other undesirable things.  My reasoning was: Continue reading Telecommuting in the automated driving age

How many teleworkers — who knows?

How many teleworkers are there today? Who knows? As I noted in a previous blog it is hard to count teleworkers. One problem is that the definition of teleworker/telecommuter varies from country to country and counter to counter. Full-timers working at home for a distant employer are the easy core. It’s at the edges where the counting gets difficult — and the definitions differ.

Another,  growing problem in the teleworker counting business is the simple fact that contemporary technology has made it really hard to count reliably. An excellent overview of the problem is given in an article in the New York Times by Cliff Zukin of Rutgers University. Titled What’s the Matter With Polling?, the article paints the picture of the rapid decrease in accessibility of your average pollee. The polling business is changing for the worse

Continue reading How many teleworkers — who knows?

Assimilation Valley: signs of aging?

That vaunted fount of innovation, the Silicon Valley, may be showing signs of aging. It is beginning to resemble the history of industrial development before the information age. Some of the symptoms are: growing larger companies by gobbling up smaller ones; attempting to control markets by stifling startups (or by engulfing them as in the prior case); and developing borg-like headquarters facilities aimed at exerting almost total control over the lives of their employees. From the Company store to the company town. From Silicon Valley to Assimilation Valley.

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The future after Jobs

The first and only time I met Steve Jobs was late in the summer of 1976 at a Southern California Computer Society meeting. Among the exhibits there was a table with two hirsute young men behind it. On the table was a circuit board, a power supply, a 9 inch black-and-white monitor, a keyboard, and ribbon cables connecting them together. The two young men, both of them called Steve, demonstrated the power of their scattered–component computer on the 9 inch monitor. They said they were about to begin production of the system. I ask them what they called it. They said it was the Apple I. I told him that they would have to package the parts in a more attractive case if they wanted to sell very many of them.

The rest, as they say, is history. From that humble beginning, in a garage in Northern California, arose one of the world’s most dominant technology firms. Also, that Computer Society meeting inspired me to take a close look at the future of personal computers. A year later I had secured a grant from the National Science Foundation to perform a technology assessment of the personal computer. That assessment, completed in 1978, forecast a rapid expansion of acceptance of personal computers and a concomitant, pervasive impact on almost every aspect of modern society (although with some hitches, as in education).

This was also the beginning of the contest between open and closed personal computer systems. Steve Jobs was among the foremost proponents of closed systems—where the hardware and software were intimately interconnected and designed as a single entity. “It just works.” Continue reading The future after Jobs

The Infotsunami

Years ago I usually commented, in response to questions on the future of telework, something like this:

Think of telework and telecommuting as the tide rolling in rather than a sudden tsunami. Telework will gradually increase in acceptance and variety as the enabling technology improves and as our business norms progress past those of the nineteenth century.

That’s pretty much how it was from the 1970s through to the early-2000s, punctuated by occasional natural disasters that acted to ratchet up the acceptance rate while the aftereffects lasted. But since then matters have picked up a tad.

One of the persistent holdouts against telework were Japanese firms. Japanese business culture demanded that all managerial and professional employees and support staff collocate daily in company facilities. There were also social pressures enforcing the leave home and work elsewhere model. Often, when telework was allowed it was for the salarymen on “vacation”. That is, the salarymen would take their families to a resort where there were office facilities so that they could keep working while the other family members took advantage of the resort facilities.

The major earthquake and tsunami of 11 March 2011 changed all that. Continue reading The Infotsunami

Big bangs: the futurist’s dilemma

Much of futures research focuses on identifying trends of one sort or another and defining the key events that might alter the course of the trends. For example, much of my work in forecasting trends in telework deals with defining and quantifying the major factors that influence the growth (or decline) in its acceptance. For the most part forecasting such trends involves estimating (guessing) the parameters in logistic curves. Logistic curves are  seen in most growth forecasts such as this one for teleworkers around the world. Often, as in forecasts of the future of microchip performance following Moore’s Law, the growth can be seen as a series of logistic curves, each of which grows to a peak then declines in use. Of course the day-to-day details of growth and decline are much noisier than those smooth curves. The primary factors in such curves are the growth rate, the peak value and the subsequent decline rate. Are you still awake?

The preceding covers the business as usual part of forecasting. As Gordon Moore discovered it’s a fairly straightforward job to estimate technological trends. Also, such trends make it fairly easy to plan for the respective future events. The task can become much more difficult when we inject human actions or those of what we call nature into the mix. Then we can have severe examples of discontinuities. Take some recent history.

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. . . but a whimper

T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men (1925) ends with the following stanza:

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

We collectively seem to be striving toward Eliot’s end as we fail time after time to change our momentum toward heat death. Although weather is not the same as climate, are we warm enough these day? Naysayers about climate change, who crowed about its fraudulent predictions last winter, are strangely silent this summer. Even in coastal California where, until the past few days, the summer was day after day of fog and gloom, temperatures below normal. Now it’s in the upper 90s (mid-30s Celsius). But last winter and this summer are just the vagaries of the weather, right? The same goes for the floods in Pakistan, China and Tennessee and the drought and fires in Russia. Just a series of flukes.

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Wow! 40 years! An autobiographical note

It seems like yesterday that we watched the first men to actually walk on the moon. When I was a freshman in Lawrence College (now University), an avid science fiction fan, the woman sitting next to me in Physics 101 asked me what I wanted to do when I graduated. My answer was: “Put man on the moon!” Thus continued the steps I took to become a “rocket scientist” (at age 15 I was the youngest member of the American Rocket Society). Although my post-BA career mostly wound through the military space program I was able to help NASA decide on the cameras to use for surveying the Moon in order to pick suitable landing sites.

And now it’s 40 years later. In the words of Walter Cronkite on the grand occasion of the first landing; “Whew!” What a magnificent sight! Yet much has happened—and failed to happen—since that day.

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