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As it gets cloudier, aim for adaptability, not optimisation

Ian Pearson is a Futurologist for Futurizon, he is experienced and well-placed to present insights into the future of our daily lives.

The cloud is much discussed. My first encounter with it was in 1985 when I joined BT. Back then we called it distributed computing. In 1987 I did a thorough performance analysis of cloud-based computing to determine the best telecoms protocols to use, and I was just one IT guy among many working on it back then.

So you can see, it is very far from being a new idea. By the early 1990s it was already analysed to death. We knew the potential architectures, what to put where, the sort of service you could do with it. And I have to say, there have been no big surprises since, the technology just arrived in due course pretty much as we expected. Some bits of it are still in early stages. We’re not yet in the final stages of it being totally distributed between devices, with ad-hoc nets between them all, or sponge nets, mesh, fog or a zillion other terms that companies try to give it. The future will use a combination of things that are totally distributed, highly centralised, or any combinations of possible architectures in between. When technology stops being a barrier, and you can do anything you want, the competitive edge moves towards determining and offering the most attractive option for your given market. That’s usually a human psychology issue, not a technology one.

The cloud idea has been leaking from IT into other industries. People understand now that you can fragment most industries and companies into small pieces, throw all the pieces up in the air with those from other industries, and watch them recombine as they settle. They don’t stay settled for long because some entrepreneur will always see advantage in rearranging some region of it and that changes the economics of the whole system. As the ripples of that change spread, everything else is affected. The whole thing becomes like a lake with ripples and splashes. There is no clear or stable boundary, the whole lake is subject to frequent stirring, waves, turbulence and convection, with rivers and streams bringing and taking away. The only certainty is constant change, and there is no end in sight when we can expect it to settle.

That brings us to another very old idea – Darwin’s. Darwin observed the pressure to optimise and the rewards of doing so in a stable environment, but also that those organisms in an ecosystem that are more able to adapt are more able to survive when faced with changes. The future is not a stable environment. If you focus your efforts on optimising for today and the near future, your structure will be too specific for that market, too complex, and unlikely to be as easy to change as a more general purpose, simpler, adaptable one. Putting it simply, the number one company in a sector might be wiped out when the industry is changed dramatically by outside pressures, while the number two company may well be more suited to the new marketplace or easier to restructure for it. Short term second place is a small trade-off to win long term survival. Live fast and die young, the hare and the tortoise… this is ancient wisdom, but it’s time has come.

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