It’s around a decade ago that I took my first job in London. Now, London is a massive city. These days, I live over in East London–I hasten to add, not cool East London, more workaday East London–but this first job was slap-bang in the middle of Zone 1, tourist-friendly Central London. As it turned out, the office was also at the end of one of the 320 "runs" that London taxi drivers have to memorize as part of their training, known as The Knowledge.
Learning The Knowledge is no simple undertaking. It involves learning and memorizing what amounts to the locations of 25,000 streets and places of interest–some obvious, others willfully obscure–on which they are repeatedly tested before being deemed qualified enough to drive a London taxi. If you visit the city and see mopeds with a Perspex screen affixed to the front, replete with a map attached with bulldog clips, these are the "Knowledge Boys/Girls" undertaking their (unpaid) training before attempting those tests.
It means that, as a visitor, when you hail a London taxi, you are safe in knowing that the driver will know exactly where your destination is and a wide variety of potential routes to get there according to the time of day, day of the week or due to myriad of daily attractions/disruptions (delete as applicable) that the city sees. The drivers–in the manner common with all highly trained professionals–are able to make the complex look effortless to achieve.
"The undoubtedly bright minds who look for industries to disrupt would best serve us all with a focus more on improving the quality of a product for all concerned."
Depending upon your bent, you could either see the way in which this systems works as a meritocratic one based upon achieved learning, or alternatively, as a monopoly that should be challenged. Not challenged, but, perhaps, "disrupted." Recently, The Wall Street Journal published a maddening article–maddening in the sense that I wished that I had written it–suggesting that Silicon Valley “appears to have given up on solving anything but its own problems:” I can’t easily grab a cab the second I want one; therefore, it means that there must be a fundamental problem with the taxi industry, which must immediately be solved with expensively funded technology. Ditto for parking spaces or restaurant reservations.
Whether it be the taxi industry, that of hotels, bookshops or food retail, there isn’t anything that cannot be improved through the prism of Silicon Valley. It doesn’t matter whether that industry might be regulated for all sorts of sensible reasons; that’s retrograde thinking. It can be solved with technology and liberal amounts of funding. The important thing to note here is not that any of these industries didn’t function correctly–hotels are very good at being hotels, parking spaces function well as a place to park–rather that they didn’t function to the specific whims of individuals who then set about attempting to disrupt/destroy them.
To be ego-centric again for a moment, I recently had a new heating system installed, complete with a smart thermostat. Gone was the inefficient, old clockwork timer and instead a system that uses a solar sensor, a small box attached to the Internet router and a mobile app (which uses geo-location and geo-fencing), ensuring that the heating system knows where I am and heats the house accordingly. Aside from boring everyone I now meet with all the wonderful insights I’ve gained about the ambient heat retention qualities of the house through the data recorded by the device, I’ve replaced something that worked, with something that works better. Functions have not been disrupted; they have been added to with elements, which have improved their use.
The company that provides this kit is also a start-up–the system itself is still officially a beta product–competing in a market with incumbent suppliers, and it is doing so by making a product that uses the technology, which is now available to make a product that was previously unachievable. As a self-confessed nerd, it is this which excites me about technological advancement as opposed to one which benefits few but has the potential to harm the livelihoods of many.
The undoubtedly bright minds who look for industries to disrupt would best serve us all with a focus more on improving the quality of a product for all concerned–those delivering it, those receiving it, as well as those who live around it–rather than just those which benefit their own, narrow desires. We should always be wary of approaches toward tasks that are made to look straightforward to the untrained eye; a simplicity that belies the complexity that lies just beneath the surface.