­­­Mark Jones – November 2021

Archives of IT has been fortunate enough to have gained access to many of the papers produced by the Butler Cox Foundation. This operated between 1977 and 1991 and generated over 200 newsletters and papers, many of which were seminal in shaping opinion at the time. One important report was “Information Technology for Buildings – a Practical Guide for Designers” which came out in 1989, a couple of years after Big Bang. I was working as an IT consultant at the time, specialising in advanced front office trading technology, and we often had to push hard to get adequate space, power and cooling for our systems. The report was one of several initiatives at the time which drove a radical change in office building design, creating spaces which were more suitable for the deployment of IT.

Butler Cox contended that it was now (in 1989) safe and prudent to think of making buildings that would support IT for many years to come, making the bold claim that ”Much of the future impact of IT can now be foreseen … a great deal can be inferred about the future nature and use of IT in offices.”

The report chose a 20-year timeline to look ahead, and so includes forecasts in trends covering the period up to 2010. It was compiled by some very bright and experienced people, and that is evident: much of the report is spot on but, looking back with the benefit of hindsight, there are two areas where things turned out unexpectedly different.

The reports says “The intelligent workstation of the middle 1990s and beyond will look much like one of today’s personal computers…. radio and infra-red communications will be unable to provide the data transmission speeds needed by these workstations.” And “It is unlikely that telecommunications links will be fast enough or inexpensive enough for organisations to store document images at a remote site, when they have to be accessible virtually instantaneously… If the document image systems cannot be accommodated onsite, space will need to be found within a kilometre or two so that direct wideband communication links can be provided economically.” The report was correct in stating that wired connections would still be required for large-scale, high-performance networks, but did not seem to predict the steady take-up of wireless technology as an additional office infrastructure.  And perhaps more startlingly the report did not seem to see so much as a glimmer of the meteoric rise of the internet or World Wide Web; they would surely have been mentioned at this point, although justifiably perhaps dismissed as irrelevant to the report’s scope at the time, had they been on the report writers’ radar in 1989. Neither of the statements quoted above would have been made in such an unqualified way 10 years into the 20-year timeline, and quite possibly not even 5 years in: both technologies were becoming visible to the mainstream by the mid 1990s.

How did such a wise and experienced team not foresee these?

The question is relevant today (2021) because we are urgently searching for solutions to two pressing problems facing us all: climate change and the Covid pandemic. If we try and learn lessons from the way that history has treated the Butler Cox report, should we be encouraged that the experts of the time got so much right, or discouraged that even these leading experts missed two hugely significant developments? We recognise today that we need significant technological leaps to solve our two pressing problems, but should we be concerned that the best of our current experts cannot seem to foresee what these leaps might be?

I was once unfortunate enough to be made an “Innovation Champion” for an organisation I worked for, with the doubtful privilege of being responsible for making innovation happen better and faster. I felt that despite all the management-speak about process, culture and environment, it was very hard to pin down precisely how innovation happens. Space does not permit a detailed review here of why Butler Cox missed the internet and Wi-Fi, and in any event the lens of history is not yet focussed enough, at just 25 years distance, for historians to agree completely on exactly how and why those technologies developed as they did in the 1990s.

But it is evident that many things came together to help make them happen: government action around regulatory frameworks was one key enabler; businesses getting together and agreeing that common standards would benefit them all was another; disruptive innovators were allowed and encouraged to prosper; a small number of already important and significant players committed themselves to early products that shaped the market. And finally, we can see that both Wi-Fi and the internet have global reach that touched the lives of huge swathes of the world’s population, creating an exponentially growing demand for these technologies, which in turn accelerated progress massively.

One can take the view that the coming together of all these factors in the 1990s, none of which would be a given in the late 1980s, would be hard to predict. Individually they might have seemed possible, but all of them coming together? Not so easy so to see.

Looking at that list of the things that came together in the 1990s, can we see similar drivers now as we tackle climate change and Covid?

I’m not convinced we can, not to the extent we need anyway.

But maybe that’s the glass-half-empty view: in the same way as what happened in the 1990s was not entirely predictable in 1989, it’s possibly foolish to be too dogmatic about what the next 10-20 years will bring.