The Wrap #23 | Moonshots, machines and marshmallows
A shot of thinking fuel, brought to you each month by Futurestate Design Co.
As the record temperatures recede and our t-shirt tans fade with them, we’ve selected three pieces that all touch on achieving big goals, with more or less success.
Successfully making high-performance shoes with a radical reduction in CO2 manufacturing footprint contrasts with the minimal progress AI has made in its promised transformation of healthcare. Meanwhile, companies worldwide are investing an eye-watering amount of money (we don’t get to use ‘trillions’ very often here) in transformation capabilities – without doing much transforming as a result. Enjoy.
Why everyone should be aiming for the moon
What’s going on?
In 2020, FutureCraft Footprint, a collaboration between Adidas and Allbirds, set out to create a high-performance running shoe with the lowest carbon footprint in the industry. Their moonshot was to develop a product that was lower than 2kg of CO2 per pair. For context on the scale of that technological challenge, performance shoes on the market, at the time, ranged from 8kg to 12kg of CO2 per pair.
They achieved (so far) a performance shoe that generates 2.94kg CO2 per pair, and the results of their technology and process experiments are being used in all kinds of departments across each business to drive product quality, performance and continually align their overall sustainability goals.
Why it matters
What’s powerful about this project is that the teams didn’t approach this challenge with the goal of using a certain technology or process. In fact, there’s hardly a mention of the technology involved. Instead, the focus is on two teams, from two different (and technically competing) companies, collaborating to achieve a single ‘unachievable’ goal – by focusing on the simple question of “where can we reduce?”
This is a brilliant example of the mindset digital businesses need today – setting radical goals, then giving teams the licence to experiment with technology, collaborate with competitors, bring in new brains, and employ resources and data to achieve a remarkable goal. Ultimately a slew of technologies realised the end product, but it was two companies and their respective teams thinking and behaving differently that made it possible. They asked the right questions and answered them in the right way.
You can listed or read more on the Rebellious Optimists Podcast
AI is underwhelming
What’s going on?
Ok, perhaps not underwhelming, more under-achieving… for what it promised to deliver for healthcare at least. For the past five years, AI funding in healthcare has exploded, including more than $13bn invested in AI-focused healthtech startups since the beginning of 2021 alone. Despite the influx of cash, the promised revolution has not materialised.
Ironically, it’s less the complexities of the human body that are the challenge: it’s the complexities of the healthcare industry that are inhibiting progress most – including fragmented, incompatible infrastructure and a complex regulatory landscape. You can’t just throw a tumour-spotting algorithm at any technology setup and get good results (whereas a radiologist, whose obsolescence was famously predicted by 2021, you can).
Then there’s the tricky issue of the humans at the end of the process. Understanding how an algorithm predicted the weather doesn’t often matter to anyone. Understanding how it decided you have cancer does. In one scenario you potentially get wet, in the other the impact might be life-changing. AI and ML still have huge potential to impact healthcare, but it might be in different ways than we expected and it will definitely take a lot longer than planned.
Why it matters
In theory, AI could improve areas of healthcare by analysing data to improve diagnoses quality and speed, target cures and make clinicians’ jobs easier. In reality, AI was put forward as the solution before all the right questions had been asked. It hasn’t been used to achieve a bold vision for healthcare or a radical goal for the healthcare system. Instead it has all-too-often been applied to improve or fix small parts of the system in a fragmented way
Compared to the 2kg CO2 moonshot above, there’s no equivalent vision to align efforts and resources here. Healthcare needs a bigger, bolder futurestate vision before any major gains are going to be made, and all of the humans that it’s ultimately for need to be taken on the journey. ‘We’re going to replace radiologists with AI’ was never going to play well with anyone who didn’t have a grudge against radiologists. ‘How can we use AI to make healthcare better?’ sounds like a good question to ask, but it isn’t: it narrows how people think from the outset.
The rule here is simple: don’t ask a leading question if you want an interesting answer.
Read more on AI's struggles with healthcare on Politico
Transforming a business? Think marshmallows
What’s going on?
This is a great piece by Forbes that highlights one of the big failings of transformation programmes: the, uh, actual transformation part.
Research indicates that as digital transformation initiatives continue to increase, there are growing gaps between technology capabilities purchased and tangible business outcomes realised. Simply put, leaders are driving the introduction of new capabilities but not focusing on realising the benefits of them, and as a result, to reference the iconic study from the 70s, they’re choosing instant gratification with one marshmallow now, over a bigger payoff of a handful of marshmallows if they wait a while.
There’s a growing gap between the theoretical capabilities that a ‘transforming’ company now has, and its ability to realise gains from them, and that means that a large percentage of the forecast $2.8Tn (yes, trillion) transformation spend predicted by 2025 will be on unrealised potential.
Why it matters
Whatever the exact number, it’s clear that a lot of money is being spent introducing capabilities without giving them the time and attention they need to deliver their intended outcomes. Many of these capabilities are in the form of new technology platforms, services and applications which are being implemented but not exploited.
This is a very expensive illustration of why digital transformation is about far more than technology. Simply throwing a fancy new platform at an existing process will likely not deliver anything transformative at all. Throwing it in and then not doubling-down on making it really count is even worse. Focus on the real transformation you’re trying to achieve and why you need to do it – like radically reimagining how you offer access to your services so you can provide a different level of value to tomorrow’s customer – before investing in the capabilities you need to make it real.
And when you do invest, focus on getting the payoff you deserve via a combination of focus and perseverance. Who wants one marshmallow when you can have the whole bag?
Read the original Forbes article here