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Monday, November 28, 2016

Riding the Maverick – Reframing how we Speak about Technology


By Amy Erixon, Toronto

Over the past month, I have spoken on technology trends in the Real Estate Industry at four events in four countries, which provided me with an important epiphany - how much our choice of language matters.   Words convey more than descriptors, they convey intentions, which stir up emotional reactions, even if subliminally.   We speak about technology as an "opportunity", "exponential game changer", as a "disruptor", or in some settings, we don't speak of it at all.  

The recent session in Dallas, TX at the Fall ULI Meeting was entitled:  Riding the Maverick – Surfing the Wave of Disruptive Technology (to view my remarks, click here).   The other panelists were from Google Fiber; Branch Technology (a 3D Printing based building systems contractor); and Green Street (Wall Street analysts) who addressed implications of autonomous vehicles, construction technologies and full access to the internet for our cities and society, respectively.  (The full session is available to view on the ULI website).   There is abundant good news here:  the price of commuting is expected to fall from 75 cents per mile to 15 cents per mile; significant improvements are likely in material performance (up to 50% greater insulation and 70% less cost and carbon footprint); and we may soon be in a position to provide equal access for all of society to “outside of the classroom” education and training opportunities – nearly for free.   But, regardless of how much benefit might accrue - the very title of the session, and much of what we read these days about technology is dystopian – suggesting a soul-less world that upends society as we know it  - a world filled with car robots that render work by actual people obsolete.   This image is misplaced.  

2016 Exponential Technologies for Real Estate                       Source: Cisco

By contrast, my Canadian program was entitled: Exponential Technology for Real Estate - Opening a World of Opportunity.  It is easy to be awed by the wonderful innovations around us, some of which are illustrated above.  But the more difficult truth is that technology is often equalizing, which by definition, is political, and herein lies the problem.  I am often asked why the populist revolt taking shape in many western economies isn’t gaining traction in Canada (so far).   This is not because technology is behind in Canada – on the contrary, some of these very technologies are quite advanced and in use in Canada.  In Canada the newspaper, public television and even the politicians go to great pains to explain how technology will facilitate the country's well being and global competitiveness instead of scare mongering that: foreigners are stealing jobs, competing unfairly or that there is nothing any of us can do about becoming a thriving part of the future other that return to a reimagined past.  

The US used to promote a culture that embraced equal opportunity, and it still reveres innovation (even if it is frightened by it).   Without a clear roadmap about how the economy will make the transition from the "old" to the "new" economy (which is inevitable) - together with the requirement that a share of the profits accrued from the "new" ways soften the blow, and provide retraining opportunities for those left behind (pretty basic economic policy in most of the developed world), it is understandable why the general population feels threatened.  

It is also true that many of the professions most “in harm’s way” if you choose to look at it from that perspective - are male dominated – truck and taxi drivers, construction workers and “the non-college educated”.   But the industries poised to see the most job growth in the near future:  health care, computational data analytics, green energy, social media, marketing and IT systems management are not gender or ethnicity biased, which is a blessing.  There will be far more jobs created than displaced by technology over the next 10 years - we know this, we understand this, the issue that needs to be addressed is the mismatch between the workforce skills, our educational systems and the jobs of the future.  For an insightful analysis of this topic see:  https://www.fastcompany.com/3058422/the-future-of-work/these-will-be-the-top-jobs-in-2025-and-the-skills-youll-need-to-get-them.

Technology adoption does not happen overnight, regardless of how compelling the value propositions might be. The reasons are myriad and sometimes complex, ranging from political clout of existing or future stakeholders, to lack of underlying infrastructure, to intractable funding schemes to lack of training opportunities.  Like it or not, most solutions will have to come from new models of collaboration between government, the non-profit and the private sectors.  Moving forward can pay big dividends if each is able and willing to contribute its creativity, ingenuity, flexibility and  expertise to fashioning solutions instead of letting these discussions devolve to women vs men, generational warfare, anti-immigrant rhetoric.    NOW is not too late for this important planning to begin.  

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