Counterintuitive Paths to a Digital Future
I was scrolling through the news last week, sipping on my very average machine-made cappuccino at home (Starbucks being a distant memory these days) when I choked on a small news headline, “World’s Tallest Tower Gets Okay in Milwaukee”. When I got by breath back, I realized that I had misread the heading. It said, “World Tallest Timber Tower Gets Okay in Milwaukee”. Phew! that was better. You see, I live in Cincinnati, Ohio and the idea that another US midwestern city would beat us in anything (other than sports), is painful. So, Milwaukee was getting the world’s tallest timber skyscraper. Fine! It wasn’t like they were going to have the world’s proper tallest building. A timber skyscraper is a niche thing. It’s like deep-dish pizza. You can claim to have the best there, but we all know it’s not the real thing, right? Right?
And then it struck me, a timber skyscraper? How was that even possible? Well, apparently it is. And, it may be the future of skyscrapers around the world.
When we think of skyscrapers the materials that come to mind are steel, concrete and glass. And yet, there are at least 45 timber buildings above 8 stories tall that have either been built recently or are being planned. The tallest proposed timber structure is the 350m, seventy-floor Sumitomo Forestry Co. tower in Tokyo! But wait, you say, I dimly recall studying in school about the Great Fire of London in 1667. And, also about fires in just about every other historical city in the world. Didn’t that lead to building code changes replacing wood as a construction material? It did. For instance, the Great Fire of London in 1667 resulted in laws that mandated the use of brick and stone. However, several things have changed over time. First, is the development of new engineered wood called mass timber. One type known as cross-laminated timber, is a kind of super-strong plywood made by gluing together different pieces of wood to form a layered composite that rivals the strength of steel. Many types also perform as well as steel or concrete in a fire. The second thing that’s different is Climate Change. Replacing steel and concrete by sustainably farmed engineered wood could reduce carbon emissions by as much as 31% according to a Yale study. Thirdly, there’s the urbanization of the world, with roughly 2.5 billion more people needing housing in cities by 2050. Building with wood is faster and more efficient.
So, What’s Counterintuitive About a Digital Future?
Assumptions about what a digital future looks like could be as much off the mark as current artist renderings of future cityscapes. Here’s a few ways in which they are likely to be different.
1. Flexible architectures: Most CEOs and CIOs have been trained to assume that corporate systems are all big, monolithic and expensive off-the-shelf standards involving large software companies like SAP, Oracle, Microsoft and IBM. That's the equivalent of steel and concrete structures. There’s indeed a place for corporate standard systems, but future digital architectures in the business world will also include flexible software that can be written by non-IT people without a programming background.
2. Complement, not replace humans: Some of the debate and uncertainly about a corporate digital future in the past was about taking the work of human employees and replacing it with automated robots. We don’t want to be pollyannaish about job losses to automation. However, the most likely digital future is one where the vast majority of the technology becomes an enabling tool. Think of the future accountant making complex allocation decisions based on AI guidance, rather than spending time on Excel. There is a vital place for humans in the future digital state, just as there are still steel, concrete and glass components in wooden skyscrapers.
3. Addressing new realities: This might be the biggest driver of counterintuitive strategies. Our assumptions of future digital needs tend to be limited to current paradigms. Who could have forecasted a huge market for zoom conferencing for family connections a few months ago? In China, the use of cash for day to day expenses was previously already in decline, but the pandemic has made that even rarer. Will the use of facial recognition and temperature checks at building entry systems be viewed as negatively if viral attacks continue to be a big thing? After all, concrete and steel were perfectly acceptable materials, until new realities of climate change emerged.
Who knows, perhaps the digital future isn’t one of big metropolises and robot overlords. Maybe it is about Starbucks cappuccino delivered via brain signal commands to my cute nature cottage somewhere.