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25/8/2019
Axis POV

The Democratisation of Technology

The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed’ (William Gibson, 1999)

In 1997 the IBM computer Deep Blue beat Gary Kasparov, the reigning world chess champion. Nineteen years later Google's AlphaGo beat Go master Lee Se-dol. Both are landmark moments for computing and artificial intelligence. Both were the product of some of the world’s smartest people writing cutting edge software.

In parallel, AI has become a game-changer in business, for example transforming the way we interact with technology and information through Alexa and Siri. And yet, many businesses have done little to realise the potential of AI. In fact, there are no shortage of firms that are yet to realise the potential of analytics or basic management information.

How can the adoption of technology be so uneven?

The problem is talent and the flow of scarce talent to where it can earn the highest returns. Few people can write software that can beat the world’s greatest Go player. By employing such people, companies like Amazon, Google and Facebook can create huge amounts of value given their brand, scale, market dominance and portfolio of high potential opportunities that enable them to take greater risks on innovation. Other industries from construction to utilities would be unable to generate the same return on that talent. These industries have underlying economics e.g. returns capped by regulation that act as a fundamental constraint. They therefore have a talent deficit that leaves them sitting in the technological past.

The magic of democratisation

The democratisation of technology is about overcoming this constraint. Making the application of the cutting edge the preserve of everyone vs. a small subset of highly capable specialists.

The computer is a great example. From ticket-fed behemoths to the PC, computers have transformed the way we work. Prior to democratisation of computing power, computers got better. But they were still fundamentally constrained by the number of people who could get access and had the talent to use such a complex machine. With the PC, everyone could change the way they worked and the return on the underlying technology increased by many orders of magnitude.

The same will ultimately be true of analytics, artificial intelligence and quantum computing, to name but a few of the most significant technology trends. Ultimately, the biggest benefits don’t come from making the technology better, they come from making it more accessible.

Why is democratisation so powerful?

By overcoming the talent constraint, democratisation brings the future to everyone. Suddenly every job and industry are being re-imagined as the economics of innovation and change see a huge reduction in cost and risk. And the return is multiplied by the multi-disciplinary factor. Prior to democratisation the technology is used by a small number of specialists who are focused on their domain and must engage with others to cross-pollinate. Democratisation means people from other disciplines and perspectives can directly access the underlying technology and apply their unique insights and ideas.

Think of the humble spreadsheet. Prior to the spreadsheet, software engineers could write code to deliver spreadsheet functionality. Spreadsheets made what only specialists could do accessible to everyone. They are now fundamental to the world of work with an incredible array of applications from household budgeting to pricing multi-million-dollar contracts.

Unfortunately, democratisation is hard

Democratisation is underpinned by cost reduction (not enough on its own e.g. R analytics is open source and free but still largely the preserve of data scientists) and abstraction. Abstraction is the ability to take an underlying technology, which few can understand and manipulate to their own ends and put something on top that makes it simple and accessible for everyone (or at least a lot more people). Think of the move from MS-DOS to Windows.

The challenge is that there is a trade-off. Simplification generally brings limitations.It becomes less flexible, potentially to the degree that it undermines the true potential of the underlying technology. And yet, when done brilliantly, as in the case of spreadsheets, the abstraction can create something that is both simple and incredibly flexible.

Getting the balance right and creating something that is both simple and harnesses the power of the technology is hard. This is a key technology battleground and requires immense talent to be successful. When companies get it right the returns are huge, for example Qlik and the democratisation of data discovery and analysis or Wix, which has democratised website creation.

Democratisation with Axis

At Axis our mission is to overcome the scarcity of brilliant facilitation talent and so democratise the running of consistently awesome meetings and workshops. By using digital technology, we have made creating and running a great workshop simple and easy for everyone.

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