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The Budding Economy

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The Budding Economy

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Humans Need Not Apply video recently and in doing so I keep looking at my lawnmower....

6 Minutes Read

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Humans Need Not Apply video recently and in doing so I keep looking at my lawnmower. Say what? What’s a humble lawnmower got to do with the future of work and the battle against the bots? Well … here goes.

The global sports industry is worth around $620 billion dollars a year, according to A.T. Kearney. Factor in ancillary revenues (hot dogs sold at games, taxi rides to games, ibuprofen taken after your team is knocked out in the first round etc etc) and the total amount of money sports generates is probably way north of that.    

All of that spending flows from Edwin Budding’s 1827 invention of a machine that that could make cutting grass easy. Though sports existed before the lawnmower (Thomas Lords of Lords Cricket Ground fame was playing professional cricket in the late 18th century and, don’t forget, Jane Austen was filing baseball reports in 1797!) there was no “sports industry” as such. Spaces to play cricket were cut with scythes, and were thus few and far between; early types of footballs were kicked around on mainly muddy thoroughfares.

Budding’s lawn mower meant that grass could be cut easily and what had historically been simply fields of uncut long grass became a newly defined space; a “playing field”. Over the next few years into the previously unthought-of vacuum of that open space rushed idea after idea about things that could be done there. As well as having a lovely cup of tea and some scones the idea of “games” occurred. Very quickly an explosion of sporting innovation occurred; football/soccer (the Football Association formed 1862), rugby (the Rugby Football Union formed 1871), tennis (Wimbledon first played in 1877), croquet (first all-comers meeting 1868) all emerged to take place on the grass field. Cut grass, school boys and students realized, was an ideal surface on which a ball would run true, a line could be painted, and a tumble could be withstood.  

Everything that we sports fans live and breathe stems from that original foundational innovation which created that “space”.

If Edwin Budding could come back now and see what impact his lawnmower had had on the world he would, no doubt, be astonished. It’s unlikely that he imagined when he sold his first machine to Regent’s Park Zoo that 136 years later a young man called Geoff Hurst would run on cut grass in North London and create a moment that lives in the frontal cortex of every sporting Englishman in 2014.  Nor that in the 21st century Curly Lambeau would be a name on people’s lips in a place that wasn’t even a “state” for another 21 years after he built his lawnmower, because of his invention. 

Still with me? What’s this got to do with the future of work again? Well, all of this sporting activity, and the associated jobs and money that go with, originate from Budding’s machine. The lawnmower is the foundation upon which the sports industry is built. 

SMAC and the Internet of Things – and Code Halos as a way to optimally monetize them - are the latest set of technologies which are creating new foundations on which new industries and new jobs are being, and will be, built. Jobs of the future that today we simply can’t imagine – in the way that Budding wouldn’t have been able to extrapolate from his machine the rise of Roger Federer. And of the commentator that talks about Federer. Or the racquet manufacturer that supplies Federer. Or, the designer who created his logo. What one might call the Budding Economy.

We are seeing – pardon the pun – the budding of a new Budding Economy right now. Social media consultants, search engine optimizers, Full Stack engineers, Perl developers, Digital Prophets, Hackers-in-Residence, Content Curators, Chief Happiness Officers, Innovation Sherpas, Clue Shredders, Pixel Czars, Chief Ning Ninjas … all jobs that the tech economy’s Edwin Budding (Babbage, Flowers, Turing, Noyce, Hopper, Gates, Andreessen, Zuckerberg?) could not have imagined. 

The “open space” that has been created – is being created – by new technology is a vacuum that our imaginations will fill in the same way that William Webb Ellis’s imagination told him to show a fine disregard for the rules of soccer and in doing so created rugby. Only this week we’ve seen again how vacuums get filled by imagination, and monetized. As Notch rides off to decide how to spend my son’s pocket money, Minecraft it is safe to assume that hundreds and thousands of other people around the world of thinking of other things that we could do in these “open spaces”.

The new Budding Economy, based on our generation’s lawnmowers, will be full of algorithms no doubt. Maybe a Bot will score a hundred for England. But I would argue that our imaginative power will have no problem finding things to do in the new spaces created by our innovations; the new fields of play, and of work. Some of them perfectly forecastable; the vast majority of them not.

So next time you come across the “algorithms are coming” argument (which I guess would be even worse if they were written by British people; “the British algorithms are coming”) and fear what will become of us all in the roboapocalypse (Steven Spielberg’s latest; though seemingly in development hell just wander over to your window and look out at your grass and the lawnmower standing there in the corner of your yard and take comfort from the work of Mr Budding and all that came after.  A candidate for GOAT (Greatest of all Time, not a pre-lawnmower lawnmower)? Probably not; but surely an inspiration to us all.


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