Pity the poor consultant! What happens when the list of changes you have predicted for the next decade largely take place inside a fortnight? I heard Richard Susskind (NetLaw Media. 14 April) describe this dilemma this week as he indicated progress towards taking UK courts of law online, and the way it has suddenly accelerated. I had lived comfortably with a matrix of predictions that I thought would not expire within my working, or indeed temporal, life. Now I feel like a player – who had not anticipated the possibility – suddenly being called upon to play Extra Time!

None of us can doubt that the Covid 19 pandemic is accelerating change. Netflix has doubled its subscriptions and overtaken Disney. Zoom has moved from 10 million participants a day to 200 million. It is easy to say that habits acquired in an emergency will never be lost, and that the wider exposure of business and professional workers to the tools of automated workflow will create value and save time and money in ways that will never be subsequently reversed. But what does that look like in lay terms? Here is an excerpt from a real estate agent’s report (Knight Frank and Rutley) on what is happening in lockdown to UK planning/ zoning enquiries:

“Looking to the future, we may subsequently see councils and planning agents using technology in a more sophisticated way.

Local authorities were already poised to benefit eventually from the roll out of virtual reality development tours and the use of drones.

Already, technical engineers are sending out drones to do surveys and site visits. The ability to do this was available before the virus, but it is becoming more prevalent, particularly now that being on site is not possible currently.

There was also a lot of work being done to create virtual reality models rather than relying on two dimensional drawings for planning decision making. While it was not ready to be rolled out, now that councils have experienced adopting new technology, plans like this could be accelerated.

Currently, a lot of planning meetings focus on 2D drawings of new developments but in the future, they will have access to 3D visualisations that allow officials and interested parties to explore schemes from all sorts of different perspectives. This would have a significant impact on the planning process, particularly for public engagement. It would allow planners to reach a much broader audience …” 

So here we see a group of workflow technologies, already in use but not widely penetrated, suddenly becoming the only way in which the work can be accomplished. And the realisation that this releases additional value to the process (3D instead of 2D) means that it becomes very hard to go back. 

A similar story can be told around the automation of the judicial system in the UK. Professor Richard Susskind, the UK’s resident expert on the the future of law, (his latest book is “Online Courts and the Future of Justice”) digs deep into the issues behind the move to online judicial systems. If the courts are a service, rather than an institution, then they need to be accessible and efficient. The backlogs of India (30 million cases) and Brazil (100 million) are the opposite. Last week 80% of the business done in British courts suddenly went virtual, either as “paper” hearings merely exchanging and agreeing documents, or as oral hearings, or, most successfully, as video sessions. Suddenly access to the courts is transformed. And while new inequalities come to light  in terms of the technical abilities of lawyers and clients, Richard’s persuasive vision of the lawyer emerging as a knowledge engineer fits the pattern in other spheres of professional life as we move to a data intensive society using intelligent decision support tools. 

Something like this is happening in every sector of business society. This does not mean that there will not be reaction. Just this week, as Cambridge University Press announced that it was ceasing to produce in print its academic journals – “for the duration”- some conservative commentators were saying that some librarians will always want print. This is very true. But their numbers decline every year, new journals are created all the time that have never seen print, and while conservation and curation remain issues, they are not the issues which will make change falter. 

So really the advisory task before us is much simpler than envisaging change beyond the bounds of current predictions. It will be much more useful to look hard at the forced change of the here and now, then imagine those changes factored into the circumstances of a post-pandemic world trying to recover from an economic recession. We need to do it job by job, workflow by workflow, sector by sector until we really understand the accelerated networked society being formulated in the ashes of the “real” world which we have been forced to relinquish. The task now is not to try to predict change, but to get our heads into a place where we can look back and envisage a society that has changed. Only then will be be able to see the gaps and discontinuities, the commercial and social opportunities, which will drive the information marketplaces of tomorrow. 


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