January 28, 2013
Edie Weiner is a futurist, and president of the New York-based Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc. consulting group, which has some 200 corporations listening to, believing in and paying for her version of the future, especially prognostications on the future of the economy, technology and jobs.
Her mantra for the past ten years, and through several books along the way, has always been the same: it’s all about “the collapsing of the time that it takes for technologies to come together and create enormous efficiencies in the way we do things…and that we can’t grow new businesses fast enough to satisfy the labor that’s been displaced by the efficiencies.”
Technology is at the heart of those efficiencies, not so jobs: jobs are expendable, especially vulnerable are midpay, midskilled, repetitious jobs. The kind of jobs that she says are not coming back.
Weiner understands how GM in the 1970s had over 600,000 employees and today just 200,000, while making more cars than ever. She also knows that the rise of the iPhone has put more than 290,000 people to work creating apps for the iPhone.
Material handling is quickly entering a transformative phase where some aspects of the GM and iPhone stories will collide. At ProMat, which its brochure touts as “the premier showcase of material handling, supply chain and logistics solutions in North America” Edie was at the right place and in front of the right audience.
Robotics Business Review’s Phil Britt was there as well. He sat and listened:
People today suffer from “educated incapacity,” they know so much that they don’t see the future, Edie Weiner, president of the New York-based Weiner, Edrich, Brown, Inc. consulting group, said at ProMat 2013 in Chicago.
“As people learn more and more, they become focused on that knowledge, which becomes a liability,” Weiner said, likening the situation to someone who has expensive, but cumbersome luggage, going on a journey, only to see someone with a less expensive, but also less cumbersome, backpack pass him by. The decision becomes whether to stay with the expensive luggage or giving that up for the backpack in order to move more quickly.
“Change has always been with us. The speed of change is growing exponentially, exponentially,” Weiner said, adding that she intended to repeat “exponentially” to stress the acceleration of change. The faster the change, the more important it is that a person is willing to let go in order to prosper in the newer economy.
The agricultural economy lasted thousands of years; the industrial revolution, about 200 years, the post-industrial revolution, about 45 years; what Weiner calls the “motile” revolution about 15 years, until about 2007. Weiner calls the period since then the “new economy,” one in which the most successful companies will be those that can quickly adapt to changes in business, industry and in the workforce.
“It’s not so much about the learning curve anymore, it’s about the forgetting curve,” Weiner said.
Weiner recommended that people try to look at things through the eyes of a child or the eyes of an alien. She explained that a child doesn’t have as many pre-conceived notions as an adult. So a child would equate the national anthem to a sports anthem – which is where the Star Spangled Banner is played the most often – rather than to an anthem to honor the United States. An alien would also see from different perspectives not encumbered by preconceived notions or existing knowledge.
Such a perspective is essential in business and industry today, Weiner said, because of the changes over the last several years and changes that can already be expected. She pointed out that Japan and many European countries all have populations that are aging faster than new workers are entering the workforce. The United States isn’t far behind, and is only lagging due to immigration.
So that while a typical executive will think of his workforce as being primarily between the ages of 20 and 65, the reality is that much of that workforce will soon be past “retirement age,” and their skills will still be needed across various industries. But those industries tend to have equipment only designed to be used by a younger workforce (e.g., small type on labels, difficult to access and use). She added that equipment designed for the disabled is the most user-friendly, so those design principles should be used for equipment inside and outside of the workplace.
Weiner added that most of the technology that we use today was not designed by the 25 to 65-year old workforce, but instead by teenagers.
Similarly, when trying to sell materials and equipment to a business partner in today’s environment, it’s essential that a selling company’s systems be able to communicate with a purchasing company’s systems, Weiner said. “This is much more important in making the sale than just having drinks with someone.”
Among the technologies that Weiner expects to make large impacts in the next few years are 3-D printers and nanobots, particularly in the fields of manufacturing and medicine, respectively.
She also expects virtual technology to become much more instrumental in education because it provides students with the ability to experience how an antibody works first hand, for instance, rather than spending hours trying to learn the same thing in a traditional biology class.