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Play is the secret to keeping up with emerging technologies

Small businesses should embrace digital transformation, experimenting with emerging technologies and digital trends, says technology futurist Dr Jeffrey Cole.

Technology futurist Dr Jeffrey Cole spoke with me about how small businesses should embrace digital transformation, experimenting with emerging technologies and digital trends.

Jeff Cole's fascination with media and communication technology began with television, which he maintains is still "the most powerful medium ever invented". For more than three decades, Cole's research in the field of emerging media and technology has seen him serve as Director of the UCLA Centre for Communication Policy, testify before Congress, and advise presidents.

In June 1999, Cole helped set up the World Internet Project longitudinal study, which draws on more than a decade of user data to examine how online and digital technologies are transforming our social, economic and media lives.

On his last visit to Australia, I chatted with Cole about the past impacts of internet and digital technologies and how small businesses in particular might navigate whatever comes next.

Smarter Business: What can small businesses learn from the impact of emergent technologies on the media industry?

Jeff Cole: Television was the only mass medium we knew ahead of time was going to be a mass medium," said Cole. "What we should have done but didn't do is we should have tracked people before they had television and then gone back to them year after year, as they acquired and used it, to see how it changed their lives. Where the time came from, how it changed their buying behaviour, and a thousand other things.

I became convinced in the late '90s that digital - first the web, now mobile - was going to be far more important than television. Believing we lost a great opportunity with television, we launched this massive project [The World Internet Project].

Sixteen years in, we can really see trends. That's a full generation. We can really begin to understand change. Then, we can make reasonable predictions. We are able to look forward by looking back.

It ain't what you use but the way that you use it that really counts.

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Smarter Business: Does innovative technology change behaviour or does the best tech simply enable or amplify the behaviours that were already there?

Jeff Cole: It's always circular. Television took an audience that was used to listening to radio and watching movies, and it amplified that.

Part of the internet continues that tradition. We do watch a lot of video on the internet, but this is different in a couple of ways. First, most media before this were entertainment. There was always news, but this is a technology that transforms not just how we're entertained but how we work, how we communicate, how we play. Maybe it's most important long-term impact will be how we learn.

Then, this has done something that no other medium has done before. It's become 24/7. We know that 90 per cent of teenagers sleep next to their mobile phones. We're now communicating in our cars. We're communicating walking down the street. If you and I are having lunch tomorrow and you're ten minutes late, I'm answering my email hoping you're twenty minutes late. This technology is filling in all the moments of our lives, and that we've never seen before.

I think this is changing behaviour more than behaviour is changing it.

Smarter Business: Should small businesses pay more attention to the rapid pace of change inbusiness technology, particularly how it relates to the future of work or future business ideas?

Jeff Cole: Since the ancient Greeks, every generation has said that the pace of change has never been so fast. They've always been right but I think this time it is especially true.

We're seeing industries that disrupted industries 10, 15 years ago that are now disrupted. Digital photography totally disrupted film, and now digital cameras are dying. We really are seeing an extraordinary pace of change. What I say to big businesses and small businesses is you have to accept that.

I think it's incumbent on businesses, on parents, on citizens to have a very steep learning curve; to experiment, to go online, to play with things, to try Amazon Echoand learn about how Voice is changing, to try different kinds of programs, to be paying attention to virtual reality.

I happen to think virtual reality is going to be very important to supermarkets, retailers and travel companies. I don't think companies have to go out and spend millions of dollars on virtual reality glasses. Go out and spend $100 and start playing with it.

Smarter Business: Does the hype around some of these emergent technologies make it easier for small businesses to dismiss them as a bit too magical or sci-fi without a concrete business application?

Jeff Cole: Yes, I think that's absolutely true. I mentioned [Alexa] Voice and the Amazon Echo. People putting it in their homes are beginning to understand that you can really have an intelligent conversation with a machine.

I think you're going to go into the supermarket, you're going to go into hardware stores, and you're going to start communicating with the products. You're going to ask questions about, "How do I use it?" If it's food, "What recipes can I make with this?"

Fifty years ago, they were saying that virtual reality has a great potential. Now we're seeing that potential really moving quickly. I'll give you one simple application in a business.

I work with Wesfarmers, Bunnings. We're very close to the point where you will design your kitchen in the store, or you could do it at home. You'll walk through your kitchen to understand how you want it placed before you spend a penny. Then, you will adjust the glasses to walk through the kitchen at the height of your children to see if it's functional for them. Then, you'll adjust it to the height of a wheelchair to see if can you use that kitchen in a wheelchair.

That's a real-life application. You're going to see hundreds of things like that.

Smarter Business: Is there a difference in the rate of digital transformation and technology adoption in Australia? Are we behind what you're seeing in the US?

Jeff Cole: No. In some ways being a smaller country, you're a little more nimble than we are. You're only behind in a couple of areas where, for example, Amazon Echo hasn't been marketed in Australia yet because they haven't been able to build them fast enough. You're only behind where you don't have the opportunity to be where other countries are. In some places, you're ahead.

Incidentally, an early adopter of virtual reality is $50 for a pair of glasses. An early adopter of Voice or Amazon Echo is $180. 13 years ago, an early adopter of a DVD player was $1,000. We're not seeing these extraordinarily high prices at the beginning. Now, to be an early adopter doesn't take thousands of dollars.

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Smarter Business: If the cost of adopting emerging technologiesis less of a barrier, is the new challenge for small business having the time and resources to understand, experiment with and implement all of these new digital trends and innovative technologies?

Jeff Cole: The issue is how do you make room in your head to be able to understand all this stuff.

Six years ago, I was telling every company and every government that would listen to me, "Pay attention to Twitter," even though I thought Twitter was frivolous. I wasn't recommending that they devote people, that they spend a lot of money. I was saying, "Get on Twitter. Play with it. Understand it. Ask yourself, 'Does it have an application for me?'"

Very quickly, Twitter became an indispensable news source. Twitter is now probably the best customer service tool we've ever seen, where companies can deal with customer problems in real time, in front of other customers. It's changed how Hollywood releases movies.

Six years ago, I was saying, "Understand Twitter." I would say today, "Understand virtual reality. Understand Voice. Understand driverless cars. Without investing, but learning."

Smarter Business: What's your one piece of advice to small businesses that still want to be around and growing in 2020?

Jeff Cole: Don't be afraid of technology. Your core mission is to still do what you do better than anybody else and really make your customers part of the process.

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