Are we asking the right questions?

I should start by expressing some prejudices about my subject before I get into citing evidence.  I have worked in business for 27 years and been in a government agency for just over 4 years.  Everyone uses words like innovation and growth a lot in both worlds but I think they have a different appreciation of what they mean.  In business it has long been known that growth is about acceleration and not speed.  To get growth you have to do something that you were not already doing, and you have to do it before the others – or your commercial advantage is non-existent and you will share whatever growth there is with your competitors, and you have to keep doing it.  Doing something new once doesn’t cut it.  By definition, doing something new involves innovation, and that comes with risk – financial, commercial, regulatory and so on.  These risks can be addressed by understanding the underlying cause.  So, regulatory risk can be understood if you look at what governments are planning in policy terms that could end up as regulations.  Financial risk can be analysed as the balance between cost and likely return – which brings us to that most difficult of risks – what people want to buy!  It is tempting to think that they only want more of the same but cheaper, but we are increasingly seeing that companies with a different view of the market are the ones that seem to do well.

I start with this short explanation because I want to talk about a presentation and a blog that seem to me to suggest that there are people making interesting and potentially hugely important points about how we decide how to ask questions regarding future markets.

The presentation was given in early September at a conference about energy and transportation in California.  I didn’t attend all of the conference but did see the first day – which focused on cars.  Although the day started with a challenge from Joschka Fischer, the majority of the day was about how well we (meaning the USA) were doing.  One major US car manufacturer fielded a speaker who used statistical analysis of journeys to “prove” that the US consumer doesn’t want electric vehicles.  Another overheard snippet was that “low carbon vehicles are for the developing countries”.  It was refreshing therefore to hear a presentation towards the end of the day that queried the starting point for all of this logic.  Ken Kurani (of UC Davis, see – has been working in the field for many years and has probably accumulated more than a passing insight into how those alongside him think.  His presentation, entitled “Framing Electric-Drive Vehicles” (see – simply asks whether we should look at the future of personal mobility through the ”frame” we use right now.  He gives some examples of what he means but for me the basic approach is wonderfully subversive.  We should all recognise that we view each new fact or theory through the prism of our experience.  To find a new way of seeing the world around us takes intellectual effort and carries a degree of emotional risk.

The blog was by Ben Hammersley (see – and was about our approach to personal data.  Although I am citing the blog (see –, it is based on a talk he gave to the Information Assurance Advisory Council.  Like Ken he was taking his different approach into the home of those who are experts in the field.  Like Ken, he asks a disarmingly sensible question that undermines what most in the room probably take as sacrosanct truth.  And like Ken, I hope he wonders how many listened and will act differently having thought about the question.

It is nice to have come across these ideas and I commend them to you all – but do wonder how many others are out there trying to see the future in a different way.  I hope they are as articulate as these two!


Last updated on Friday 24 February 2012 at 10:05

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