The evolution and future of productivity

The Universe is some 15 billion years old, apparently – ‘Big Bang’ followed, some 10 billion years later, spawning Planet Earth – then, over the last 4.5 billion years, life appeared on Earth and a wide variety of species, both flora and fauna, eventually emerged

At first, resources needed for their survival – food or sunlight, say – were plentiful – hence numbers of species grew

But those same resources were limited so, as demand for them grew, competitive battles began

Eventual winners proved to be ones which:

  • Either had an edge over others for the resources available at the time – fauna had to be bigger, stronger, have sharper teeth/ beaks/ claws or be faster – flora had to grow taller, quicker or need less water
  • Or, lacking such an edge – extra speed or stamina for catching prey, say – had the wit to organise themselves into over-powering teams e.g. lions, wolves or hyenas hunting in packs 

The result was the strong became stronger, and more fecund, whilst the weak became weaker, with many species dying out

Eventually, a ‘balance of nature’ would be reached when the great majority of winner species had ‘enough‘ to survive – they didn’t need or want more – they preferred to spend their spare time either asleep or watching others

And this happy state would only be interrupted by the occasional asteroid hitting the planet or Krakatoa-like volcanoes erupting, either one sending so much dust into the atmosphere that it blotted out sunlight on which most of life depended

Evolutionary battles would then start up again

And so it was until ‘homo sapiens’ appeared only some 200,000 years ago – a mere blink in the annals of total Earth time (< 0.01%):

  • It took ‘man’ most of those 200,000 years to invent stone tools and the use of fire to feed, warm and protect himself better
  • Then, in only the last 10,000 years, his brainier colleagues invented farm tools, gunpowder, the abacus and paper for books to make his life easier – they also enabled him to win all his battles with other species and become ‘king of the planet’
  • From then on, he could and would take whatever resources he needed, and more, leaving all the other species to fight for what was left – his only serious battles ever since have been with his own species
  • Tribes formed villages, then towns, then cities – groups of them became nations – some nations went further and built empires
  • Battles between tribes for resources became wars between nations for power and glory as well – the result was, over just the last 2,000 years, man has slaughtered hundreds of millions of his fellow-men
  • However, over the same period, man’s inventiveness has also enabled his total population to grow exponentially and far exceed this slaughter rate
  • But this net expansion of numbers did not improve the standard of living for most – life for all but a very select few was a constant struggle – most people were serfs, poor and miserable – their average lifespan was short, health poor and creature comforts rare compared to today
  • Rumblings for big changes thus started to be heard

Then, only some 300 years ago, the productivity revolution started in the UK – followed by Belgium and Germany:

  • Newcomen and Watt’s steam engines pumped water out of coal mines to increase supply
  • The steam engine then powered Hargreaves, Arkwright and Cartwright’s  spinning jennies, frames and looms for the northern cotton and wool mills
  • Using local coal and iron ore, Bessemer’s furnaces also started the UK’s iron and steel industry which enabled ship and bridge building
  • Stephenson’s ‘rocket’ locomotives and Brunel’s railways and tunnels soon followed

And, ever since, man has continued to find ways to invent more and better stuff to make his life longer and healthier, easier and more enjoyable

The result is the human population on Earth has now grown to some seven billion souls – some experts say it will soon reach 10 million and keep on rising – others claim vital physical resources are at their limit so, if the population does keep on rising, our future will comprise nothing but wars for them or starvation from being without

Such gloomy forecasts are not new, however

Back in the 18th century, Thomas Malthus, an English cleric, announced that growth of human food production (at the time) was linear whereas population growth had become exponential so, if nothing changed, mass starvation was inevitable – in the 1970’s the learned ‘Club of Rome‘ reached much the same conclusion

Happily, Malthus had not allowed for the capacity of man to improve productivity – to get more and better out of existing, albeit limited, resources

Indeed, over the last 300 years:

  • Man has contrived to produce more and more food from existing finite land – and whilst needing less and less human effort to do so
  • He was also able to produce more and more volume of stuff to meet his basic personal needs, the first rungs on Maslow’s hierarchical ladder – many things which once were considered a luxury for a few became an affordable necessity for the many e.g. motor cars, colour TVs
  • And, with his basic needs sated, more stuff came to be offered at affordable prices which made human lives not only easier but also more enjoyable e.g. dishwashers, package holidays 
  • Now, under pressure from customers and competition, suppliers not only offer more volume of affordable stuff but better quality stuff too – e.g. cars and TV programmes  

Thus, in a mere 300 years, most human lives, at least in so-called developed nations, have been transformed from what they were over man’s first 199,700 years – it’s been truly astonishing progress

But can it continue?

Modern-day pessimists, the equivalent of Malthus, say ‘no’

The most famous of them is the respected Professor Robert Gordon of North Western University, USA – he claims that invention of GPTs (General Purpose Technologies like the steam engine, electricity or computers) has been exhausted and there will be no more

But maybe this is is a selfish and blinkered view:

  • Selfish because it ignores the plight of most of the current human population on Earth who have yet to enjoy most of the benefits of the productivity revolution
  • Blinkered because it ignores the many unknowns we have yet to know about, not to mention all the unknown unknowns

And maybe a global paradigm shift is also in the offing – one where we humans now find ourselves at a watershed, moving:

  • From an ‘old world’ focussed on producing more and better tangible stuff from limited physical resources at lower unit costs – one which seeks to improve our SoL (Standard of Living)
  • To a ‘new world’ focussed on developing more and better intangible stuff from unlimited knowledge resources, much of it offered for free – one which seeks to improve our QoL (Quality of Living)

At this juncture, productivity improvement efforts become even more important to both our SoL and QoL:

  • SoL because some five billion of the seven billion people on Earth still live relatively wretched lives and need help to catch up with the rest of us – and we better-off two billion will not be content to just stand and wait for them, forever wanting to improve our SoL further
  • QoL because the ‘new world‘ opening up before us requires a radical review of what our likely needs will be in future

So what might life be like some 20 years from now when the ‘new world’ could well have taken over?

A. SoL factors?

  • Wages will be unnecessary – a UBI (Universal Basic Income) experiment will be short-lived and found pointless:
    • All private sector goods and services will be produced by AI (Artificial Intelligence) and robots, and be free – cash will not be needed to buy or exchange them – everyone will have what they want – expensive luxuries to reward success will be passé – IP (Intellectual Property) protection and patenting for commercial gain will no longer be needed as latest and best ideas will be immediately shared with all
    • Public services will also be free – taxation to fund them will be unnecessary
  • ‘Work’ will thus cease – we’ll all do only what we want to do, for fun, not what we had to do, for money
  • Wealth, and inequality, will no longer be measured by physical possessions but mental capacity beyond that available from AI
  • ‘Old world’ poverty will disappear as everyone will have all the physical stuff they need
  • ‘New world’ poverty will never arise as everyone will be able to learn basic skills instantly, for free e.g. downloads to their brain to play the piano or speak Swahili

B. QoL factors?

  • Every single person will consider themselves, and be considered by others, to be of equal importance – life will no longer be ‘unfair’ for most
  • Class systems, royalty, aristocracy and unmerited power will have disappeared
  • Status, fame and Olympic gold medals will be confined to those with exceptional minds, not those topping promotion ladders, looking good or winning track races 
  • We’ll all have the choice to live for as long as we like, disease free, either in our physical form thanks to major medical breakthroughs or via digitally uploading ourselves to ‘clouds of the day’ 
  • We’ll fill our time:
    • Either being proactive – learning new skills, socialising with others, being altruistic or helping push out boundaries in the arts and sciences
    • Or reactive – watching our favourite sports teams or being entertained by others 

In other words, life on Earth, and any other place we’ve populated, will probably be very different to now – one where the volume and quality of outputs needed most will be information on ideas, systems and controls

And the most important input resource will be knowledge – K – either held ‘in heads’ or ‘in files’ – for example, K stored in the form of data, flow charts, formulae, reports/ articles, customer details and contacts or experience gained from successes and failures etc.

However, there is one big difference between ‘old world’ physical inputs and ‘new world’ mental inputs:

  • Labour, materials and capital are all limited, often unrenewable and all costly
  • On the other hand, K is unlimited, can grow rapidly and is mostly free for, if you and I each have a £1 coin and exchange them, we each still have £1 but if you and I each have a good idea and exchange them, we each have two good ideas

Hence, unlike physical resources, mental K resources have enormous potential to improve the SoL and QoLof every man and woman on the planet

As ever, however, man already wastes most of this potential

Consider the following three performance measures usually applied to physical resources but now to the K available within your team, organisation or nation:

  • KA% = K Availability = Amount available in-house/ Total needed = 60%
    • The actual volume ‘in heads’ is usually more than adequate for any team to complete its work well
    • However, the volume ‘in files’ is usually poor – people are reluctant to record their experiences – systems are not in place for others to find it
    • And whilst the volume available from outside and in the public domain is vast, and said to be doubling every year, it’s currently biassed by search engine algorithms and optimisers which determine what one sees on first pages – hence much valuable information can be hidden on later pages, or completely ignored
  • KU% = K Utilisation = Amount used/ Amount available in-house = 30%
    • Only a small % of the K available in-house is made use of by others because:
      • They don’t know it exists, or how to find it
      • They find it difficult to access
      • It’s kept secret by owners because ‘knowledge is power’
      • It’s of poor quality and often out-of-date 
    • Hence many people in many organisations either keep re-inventing the wheel or make no advances
  • KE% = K Efficiency = Improvements made/ expected = 20%?
    • Key outputs sought from good use of K are more and better ways to do things which improve the quality of lives – also known as Kleverage, the ability to obtain significant benefits from the K available
    • KE% is a measure of the value of actual gains made versus those expected
    • The higher this %, the more it feels like having a Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein or Alexander Fleming on board – people who turn K into gold

Overall, the above product measures the efficiency of your team’s use of the knowledge available to it viz:

KAUE% = 60% x 30% x 20% = 3.6% = Very Poor

Clearly, ways to make big improvements to KA%, KU% and KE% are needed here – and given the above numbers are optimistic for the current position in most teams, the sooner the better

Fortunately, major advances are already under way, including:

  • Taxonomy and Knowledge Management, two disciplines still in their infancy, which seek to improve the availability and utilisation of K
  • Humans have limited capacity to absorb and analyse Big Data – masses of data and information – however, AI is able to dig far deeper, wider and quicker into all K that exists, seeking patterns, correlations and solutions, many beyond human comprehension – AI already offers the potential to discover whole new and better ways of doing things, from winning games like chess and ‘Go’ through to curing health problems, creating music or saving the planet 
  • Apps, expert systems and computer models have already mushroomed on a wide spectrum of fronts, many offering better, even optimum, solutions for specific personal or business problems faced 

So, whilst we humans might well be approaching peak performance levels in our physical ‘old world’, there’s a long and steep climb ahead as a mental ‘new world’ opens up before us

At present, man is still in the foothills of the K mountain, taking his first tentative steps, yet K productivity has already become the biggest issue he faces

Unlike the ‘old world’ however, if we ever near the top of this mountain, we must expect another higher mountain to appear soon after – K2?

Our future is thus mental, infinite and very exciting





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