Future focused

01 Feb 2006
00:00
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Wireless will disrupt the fixed-line paradigm, telcos will stop selling bandwidth and become abstracted VAS providers and trusted third parties. That's the future of telecoms as envisioned by BT futurologist Robin Manning, who tells global technology editor John C. Tanner that the most important thing to remember about the future of telecoms technology is that it is dependent on the future of everything else

Robin Manning

  • BT Research Foresight Manager
  • The 7-member Research Foresight team focuses on designing and implementing technology solutions, as well as forecasting and consulting
  • Joined BT (Labs) in 1989

Telecom Asia: A key point you made during a recent EIU forum in Hong Kong was that we can't look at future telecoms technologies out of context of the future in general. Explain.

Robin Manning: Quite often when I read the technology press, or even when I watch sci-fi movies, I find that they focus on the change of technology, but they forget about the change of everything else. We have to try and understand that the changes in technology are linked intrinsically to changes in business, in society, in belief. We can't treat it in isolation. An example is that when we invented texting for mobile phones, we didn't have teenage girls in mind at all. It was about trying to promote voice calls for the business community. By accident, by a disruptive process this suddenly popped up as a neat thing to do, and an enormous industry has grown on the back of it. This suggests that in business, we incrementally move and improve our products and services, but the real revolutions seem to come out of nowhere.

At BT, with our 21CN investment, we're basically replacing the PSTN core with Internet routers. Who would have thought that ten years ago‾ I'd have been laughed out of the office if I'd suggested it back then. Which makes me think, what else are we missing‾ It doesn't stop. That's why I keep a list of future potential disruptors to show to our executives and our customers' executives, because history suggests that we're getting better at doing the wrong things. Businesses don't do half the deep thinking they should to think about where they fit in the world and the big picture. The antidote to that is to think more deeply to get it right.

At the EIU event you cited climate change as an example of an external trend that should be taken into account when considering future technology. How so‾

I've been spending some time focusing on research in the energy industry in the UK. The basic model of transmission and distribution hasn't changed much in the last 50 years. But now, because of the effects of climate change, we're seeing more variable climates, which means changes in flooding and high winds and natural disasters, so electricity supplies will be under threat from many directions. The reaction of the power industry is to shift from the old top-down network of power distribution - rather like an old telephone network - to more of an Internet approach to electricity. So you'd have local generation in individual buildings, and if you have an area using wind generation and the wind is down, they can supplement that with power from local buildings. You could even store it locally.

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