If we look closely at technology it becomes apparent that it has always defined where and how we live. Human discoveries, inventions and abilities don’t just make life more comfortable, they can literally determine where we call ‘home’. If I had to outline the history of human labour, I would describe it with these four words: Spear, Seed, Spanner and Silicon.
While the definition is somewhat rudimentary, it tells the story of evolution and civilisation of humanity. Hunter and gatherers had to be mobile, the spear was a key tool and our ancient ancestors lived where the herd (their next meal) did. We followed the sun and the seasons to the corners of the earth where tomorrow’s nutrition would be abundant.
The seed was the bellwether for us evolving into an agricultural society allowing us to settle down into stable locations. We used our knowledge of farming to develop permanent settlements and start the process of building a world around us, instead of constantly wandering around the world. The permanence of our locations allowed further technologies to be developed; technology that was needed to support the stability of our locations. We started a long period of centralisation. Where we lived defined what we did. We worked local, we lived local and we stayed local.
The spanner represents the dawn of Industrialisation. The steam engine, machinery, fossil fuels, concrete and steel joined forces to concoct the greatest aggregation of people our species had ever seen. We moved en masse to cities to participate in the wealth promised by the Industrial Revolution. And largely, this promise was delivered. In the past 100 years we’ve doubled human life expectancy. Most of us have more material processions now than even royalty did a few hundred years ago. We can heat or cool our homes at the push of a button, we have clothes in our wardrobes and food in our fridges, there are unlimited options for entertainment and we have the ability to fly across the country, and the world, in aeroplanes for a comparatively low cost. There’s personal motorised transport, which these days, almost never breaks down. More than most technologies - transport defines us.
Henry Ford literally invented suburbs. Before the Model T, we lived in small workers cottages close to shops and the factories that employed us. The car changed that. We linked our cities with highways to suburbs and shopping centres. All of a sudden we could zoom across town, across the city and even across the state. People, goods and services could be delivered in a much quicker time, without having to rely on previously established rail links. It’s part of one of the biggest revolutions in history. But buckle your seat belt, because the seeds have been sown, and there is a spanner in the works - silicon is about to change everything - again. The next revolution is going to bigger and better than anyone imagined.
Firstly, lets demystify the word silicon. Silicon is the substance that we make much of our ‘smart technologies’ from. Items such as microchips, lenses and solar panels, and they are all coalescing to create a revolution three times the size of the industrial one. The difference this time is that the important technologies are very affordable. There isn’t some guy like Henry Ford that owns a centralised factory that we all have to work for. Technology is becoming decentralised again - like it was before the Agricultural Age. This will happen much quicker than most people realise because silicon is different. Unlike industrial era technology much of our recent technology improves exponentially (take a look at Moore’s law). This means that it doesn’t get a little better every year, but improves in orders of magnitude. Many technologies we find in the average smartphone double in power (read here: effectiveness) every couple of years. It means that things won’t just be better, but fantasy becomes possible. For a moment, think back 20 years to the expensive, long-distance calls you made to your grandparents that were living overseas - each call cost you several dollars per minute for a crackly phone line. That same conversation has now become a simple live stream with TV studio quality resolution for as long as we damn well please - for free!
We are on the precipice of a revolution, which totally redefines where people work and live. The first thing we must consider more strongly is this; for the first time in history, labour and location can be separated. A large majority of the Australian workforce are what we call, Information Workers - “someone who adds value in the workplace by processing existing information to create new information which can be used to define and solve problems”. Their work can be done anywhere. They don’t have to be in an office in the city, or anywhere in particular, to get the work done. What we so often forget is that the reason we do something today, is that it was the only possible way to do it yesterday. In the past we had to be in the office. Twenty years ago, a premium photocopier cost about $200,000, yet now we barely need one that costs $1,000. Offices were centralised because the tools required for them to operate effectively were expensive and it was seen as the only way to connect and collaborate with co-workers. Now, I’m the first to admit that social interaction is an absolute necessity. We need to be around each other to share ideas and inspire each other, be it in the same physical space or elsewhere. But do we need this five days per week or even 10 hours per day? Of course not.
As profits get harder to realise in an increasingly competitive economy, companies will start to realise the centralised office in a city is legacy thinking. Legacy thinking that adds unnecessary cost. Not to mention the wasted time in transit for staff getting to the office and back home every day. When more companies realise this, and they will, offices around the world will shrink in size. Companies and people will have their ‘office days’, maybe two days per week, and we’ll increasingly work at home or from local ‘work hubs’. We’ll finally have our cake and eat it too. This is the revolution that regional centres have been waiting for. But it isn’t going to happen if we just wait for it. Everyone living outside a major city should be singing from the rooftops about the new opportunity this represents to our communities. Modern low-cost living, wherever we please, while still participating in the biggest economic revolution in the history of humanity.
Let’s consider some of the big changes we are about to live through. Driverless cars should be at the top of the list. They’re coming much sooner that we think. They’ll be commonplace on our roads within five years and dominate them in 10 years. They represent the end of road accidents and road rage. These cars will have the ability to talk to each other and coordinate their movements by algorithms. Traffic jams will no longer be a problem. It will be very hard to get angry in a car when we’re lying back, watching a movie while we roll around, getting work done in the mobile office, or snoozing in a business class style bed for the two hour trip into the city for a business meeting. Mobility will become a pleasure and much of the tyranny of distance will evaporate. And if you think you won’t be able to afford a driverless car, I’ve got good news, your first one will be at no extra cost to you.
Here’s why your new driverless car shall be free; driverless cars will be electric and electric cars have much different economics. Fuel will come at a near-zero cost. As most electric car companies provide free charging or you’ll charge your car from your roof for close to free. Even now, an electric car only costs about $2 to charge. The average Australia spends over $3000 a year on petrol. This means we can free up the money we’d usually invest in petrol cars to pay for our upgrade to a driverless vehicle. Your previous petrol money can fund the cost of a new driverless electric car. So just like moving from a dumb phone to a smartphone, we’ll all switch almost overnight.
We’ll also see the emergence of a Jetsons-style reality. New self flying drones or AAV’s (Autonomous Aerial Vehicles) are about five years away. They’ll have an estimated cost of under $50,000 to buy. In this case if you can use an iPad, you can fly. We’ll be able to zip into the city or over to the beach in much reduced times, further increasing our mobility. Check out the EHang 184 drone and be prepared to have your mind blown. The EHang taxi service is starting this year in Dubai. The future is now. And the long-term, major beneficiaries won’t be cities, but our regional areas.
This technology-driven mobility revolution is bigger than any we have ever seen. For the first time in history people will be able to live wherever they please. It will provide much needed relief on city house prices. We’ll have the option of lower cost living in regional centres that will have all (and possibly more) liveability benefits of city. Satellite cities will become more developed. Countries and regions on the bleeding edge of this technology will be inventing new industries, jobs and types of living that we’ve never seen before. It’s up to us to design this location independent future.
The only challenge we face is remembering that technology has the ability to surprise. All of this isn’t just possible, it’s already here. This technology works and is waiting for smart areas to adopt it, own it and build the future with it. Community leaders and entrepreneurs need to promote the possibilities to people and how it can benefit their daily lives. We need to decide if we want our region to be a champion of the future, and if we do, we need to start making it happen. If we have the courage to do that, we won’t just solidify our region’s economic future, we’ll be an example of incredible possibility for the entire world.
Steve Sammartino is one of Australia’s most respected futurists and business technologists. He has spoken to over 100,000 people around the world in the past two years. You can find more insights from him at stevesammartino.com and twitter.com/sammartino. His new book, ‘The Lessons School Forgot’, is a survival manifesto for an era of Artificial Intelligence will be launched on June 20th.