At Data Center World 2022, futurist Ben Hammersley discussed the digitalization and process changes caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to new capabilities and concerns for the data center industry. As critical national infrastructure, data center must decide how to evolve in the 21st century. Since predicting the future is impossible, Hammersley provided rules, questions, and thought exercises to envision the data center of tomorrow.
The following transcript of the video has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
‘The Covid Andon Reassessment’
Ben Hammersley: There has been a massive sudden change caused by the pandemic. We're calling it ‘the Covid Andon.’ For those of you who've never heard that word before, the Andon or the Andon cord is a fundamental part of the Toyota manufacturing system. The system that Toyota invented in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, as the Japanese and the Americans with them were attempting to rebuild the Japanese economy Post World War II.
If you don’t know about this, what happened was after World War II, of course, Japan's economy had been destroyed by the war. To rebuild it, to bring long-term peace, there was a very heavy effort to reintroduce industrialization into Japan. And people brought from the U.S. the best experts in industrial theory to convert the Toyota plants from making what they were making at the time, which was stuff for the war effort, into making cars.
Now, at the time, the fundamental way of making cars was the Henry Ford model. You had an assembly line that went all the way around the factory. You started with nothing and a big box of parts, and at the end, your car came off. And the core thing of the Henry Ford model was that the assembly line would never, ever stop. It would always be moving. And so, you would have a guy, for example, who'd be seated by the side of the assembly line. As the car came in front of him, the car that was being made, he had maybe four bolts and his job was to put the four bolts into place. Now, in Detroit, when this happened, if the car came along and was going a bit too quickly, you could only get three bolts in. Well, that was how it was. Or if the panel that had been put on by the guy previously wasn't put on quite straight and you could only fit two bolts in because the other two didn't fit well, that's just how it was. And the car would continue along the assembly line and come off the end.
At the time, in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, it was culturally entirely appropriate. It was perfectly fine in the American consumer culture that your car would rattle when you bought it. So, if you bought a brand-new car from a Detroit assembly line, it would be a little bit rubbish. You would drive it around for a hundred miles or so, and then you would take it back to a garage and they would tighten up all the stuff. And one out of 10, or whatever, cars would just be so terrible that they will be lemons and you would have to get a new one.
The Toyota manufacturing system said, “That's not good. That doesn't work for us. Just almost aesthetically we don't like it.” And so, they put in this thing called the Andon cord, which is a big rope that goes all the way around the factory. When the car comes in front of the engineer, who cannot put the four bolts in because there isn't enough time or because the panel is not on right, or whatever it is, they pull on that cord. When they pull on that cord, the entire factory stops.
Now, at that moment, there's a whole procedure. The management comes out, and they find out what the problem is. They find out the cause of that problem, all the way to the root cause of the issue. They fix it all and then and only then do they start the factory up again.
The reason I'm telling you about this bit of mid-20th-century industrial theory is that it worked really well. Of course, in the beginning, the factory hardly moved. It started again. There'd be another problem. “Let's stop it again.” But very rapidly, it got to become very, very good.
Japanese cars were much better made than American cars. Detroit became the Detroit of today, and the Japanese car manufacturing industry became the Japanese car manufacturing of today. We all know the history of that.
Why is this relevant to what I'm talking about? Well, during the first two weeks of March 2020, when it became apparent that we had a global pandemic happening, the Andon cord was pulled around the world. All the companies that you service, all your clients, all the people whose systems are reliant on data centers, and all the companies that use computer systems suddenly had a real problem because they weren't allowed back in the office.
I live in New York. I live in Brooklyn. When I walk to the end of my street, I can look out across Wall Street. On Friday the 13th of March 2020, I was picking my kid up from school for the last day of that term, about to embark on the Easter holidays, and we all sat in the playground outside with all the other parents. One by one, everybody’s phone started beeping. We're not coming back into the office on Monday. We're all going remote. I'm sure you all remember the same situation that happened to you individually. And all those companies on Wall Street had to FedEx out laptops to senior executives and suddenly had to upskill and up-capability all their things so they could still be in business the following Monday.
This gave us over the following two years or so enormous amounts of new capabilities. Wherever you are in the world, we discovered new ways of doing things. We had to undergo an enormous amount of digitization and process digitization. So yes, it involved everybody suddenly learning about Zoom and all those sorts of things. But it also pretty much for everywhere in the world involved people re-engineering their processes – whether those are corporate processes (How do we make this sales thing work without having to walk across the office to see Gladys, to give her the piece of paper? How do we digitize that?) or whether it was the processes of educating our children, buying groceries, buying clothes, seeing our family members, getting healthcare, or whatever it is – everywhere in the world.
Everybody had to reinvent those capabilities, and part of that reinvention involved reassessing what they were doing in the first instance. As people started to do that, we found – and I'm sure you'll have individual versions of this in your mind – that there were many things that we did, both as individuals and as organizations and as countries, which didn't make any sense. There wasn't any point to them. Why do we do it this way? This is stupid. Why do we have this as a manual process? Why do we have this process at all? And so on and so on.
The Andon cord was pulled on the world, and it gave everybody the ability to step back a little bit. And in the rush to work out how we were going to eat the next week, we realized that there were processes that weren't good anymore.
Now the world is spinning back up again. Those changes are irreversible. There's nothing more permanent than a temporary solution, right?
At the same time, as we've discovered these new capabilities and we've jettisoned all processes, we've also developed new concerns as individuals, as companies, as communities, as countries. And it's those concerns, those things that we are thinking about as humans, which are the key to understanding the future.
Instead of planning your corporate life based on the technology roadmaps of suppliers or technological roadmaps of trending technologies – blockchain or metaverse or AI or big data or whatever – instead of doing that, because you're so much part of the critical infrastructure of the world, now you must base your insights on the human nature stuff.
New Opportunities and Concerns
So, we have to be thinking about these sorts of questions. What are the social things that we will, as an industry, be reacting to? What will we be enabling? What will we be preventing? And if you think about these questions in the spirit of the Covid Andon cord pulling and the reaction to the pandemic, these suddenly start to make a lot more sense.
What will we be enabling? Well, you are enabling educating children. You're enabling the continuation of the business. What will we be reacting to? We're reacting to all the major things that are happening in the world. We're no longer reacting solely to, you know, Cisco's roadmap or something. Instead, you're reacting to much bigger social issues.
So, let's think about what those are. Well, there are certain obvious concerns, which are a major part of your life now. You are critical national infrastructure, which is a big deal. And so, because you're critical national infrastructure and no longer just services, then being part of critical national and international infrastructure means you have to pay attention to this stuff, right? People are going to be looking to you for reactions to all these things.
- Climate: The carbon footprint of the building wasn't a problem before because nobody really cared, but it's a major, major social problem.
- Environment: The cleanliness of the water around you, the air quality, all those sorts of things. The soil that you're digging out to put foundations down – is it polluted? Can you clean it as you're digging it out?
- Social Justice: Social justice is a major part of the political scenarios for the next five years.
- Security and Resilience: One of the things that was highlighted over the past few years that I don't think people have come to terms with at a government level is that data centers are such major parts of critical infrastructure. Data centers need to be looked at in a different way, as we've seen from climate-related emergencies here in the U.S. and as we've seen from invasion-related emergencies in Eastern Europe – and other things in between. Social resilience and national resilience are going to be the major thing of the next 10 years.
What is it that makes a society resilient? What is the resilience engineering that we could do? Does that involve having lots more data centers that are much smaller but are more spread apart and are closer to where people live and with much more failover, so if a big hurricane comes through and takes out that one, then the hospital system doesn't fall over? Does it involve having myriad systems so that if your local school board is taken over by ransomware, your kids can still go to school? What happens if you are running all your country's systems digitally? If all the interfaces you have with your government are digital and you get invaded and the data center is taken by foreign troops, you don't have a country anymore.
So, what do we do about resilience? These are the scenarios that you need to be thinking about, not the cool racking that you can buy next door.
Three Rules for Thinking About the Future
But as we're thinking about this, we do have some caveats we need to be thinking through. There are some rules that we have to shape the way we think about the future, and these are the three main rules for thinking about the future.
The first one is, ‘All scenarios will be true somewhere.’ As a futurist, I'm sometimes asked to stand on stage like this and give talks about, say, the future of transportation. It used to be a very big one. And when people wanted to talk about the future of transportation, they would really be interested in self-flying, autonomous quadcopter taxis, hyperloops, self-driving cars, and self-driving motorbikes. Those are always cool – I mean terrifying but cool. And the discussion about those is, you know, will these happen? Will there ever be self-flying quadcopter taxis? The answer to all those questions is, ‘Yes, just not necessarily here.’ Will there be self-driving quadcopter taxis? Yeah, totally – in Dubai, maybe Singapore. In Boise? Probably not. What is the future scenario for your town or your neighborhood or your community? Is it going to be futuristic in the way that the renderings from science fiction movies are? Probably not. Will those things also happen somewhere else? Almost certainly, yes.
The second rule is, ‘Every true scenario, anything that proves to be true in the future, will today sound completely insane.’ This is kind of self-evident. If you imagine yourself as a time traveler going back in time, say 15 years, think of explaining to your 15-years-ago self what the world is like today and everything that's happened in between. You would very rapidly be put into a very secure institution. ‘Who became president?’ ‘The UK did what with the EU?’ ‘What's this Facebook you're telling me about?’ It becomes too difficult to explain something, and even 15 years isn’t a long time. And so, with any scenario that you have today where you're talking about the future, if it makes sense, it won't be true.
And then the final one is, ‘Different places value different things.’ We have to make sure that we are not taking our values, your social values, your cultural values, the things that you hold in your heart to be self-evidently true about the world and making them universal. We're not making them universal geographically, and we're not making them universal over time. And we'll get to that in a moment.
Four Questions To Ask
So how do you do this? How can you guys leave today with the skills to be able to think about the future in a way that will enable you to flourish as you go forward? Enable you to steer yourselves, your families, your communities, your companies, your countries even, into a place that's good? Well, there are some techniques, and most of those techniques are questions you have to ask yourself.
You have to remember that every decision you take carries on with you, lives in the world alongside you. Things that that will be in the future will live in a world where they have evolved already, if that makes sense. It's not like you're going to wake up tomorrow in the future suddenly with a whole load of new stuff. When you wake up 10 years in the future, you're going to have lived. You'll be waking up in a world which has gotten there over the last 10 years. There's a continuous, gradual change, which is also very important.
So, here are the four questions you need to be thinking about.
The first one is very wide. It's the core question of philosophy, right? ‘What does flourishing look like?’ What will the good life be in 10 years time? How will we know that the world is a nice place? What decisions are we making today to ensure that that nice place exists? If you are building a data center 50 miles from anywhere else, which involves an interminable commute, and when you get there, it's belching terrible gas into the air for whatever reason, and it's a horrible place to live, and it's really noisy, and the food is terrible, and the coffee machine is broken – well, that doesn't look like flourishing, so that's not what you build, right? And so, it's the same thing. You have to define what flourishing looks like and what other people, what the world, and what society will think flourishing looks like. You are going be building your stuff in the world held accountable by government, society, and culture. So, what will people think flourishing looks like? This is different wherever you are. What people think flourishing looks like in Texas is very different to what flourishing looks like in, say, Amsterdam, London, or Accra. So, everybody individually has to think, What will the world look? What does the ideal flourishing life look like, and how do we make that happen?
And another question is, ‘What makes bad things persist?’ This is the opposite of this question. We all know that everything falls apart eventually, right? Entropy happens. Things decay. Systems break. Things get obsolete. But if that's the case, why do bad things persist over time? What energy is happening within your industry, within your company, within your family, within your community, whatever it is, what energy is there which is making those bad things persist?
Again, by thinking about that, you'll be able to understand the world that you're living in and understand the trajectory of travel so that, again, the decisions you make will be better suited to the future. And one of the decisions you can make possibly is to undo the thing that makes those bad things persist.
The third question is absolutely key when you're thinking about the future: ‘Which of today's guiding beliefs will be found abhorrent?’ I'm sure you've all had this situation. Traditionally, it's Thanksgiving, right? You have a Thanksgiving dinner, and there's always a member of the family -- the uncle, the grandmother, whoever – who has different social beliefs to everybody else. Everybody has the knowledge that if they went back in time and met their great-great grandparents, for example, their great-great grandparents, as honored as they must be within the family tree, had social and political beliefs, which today will be slightly dodgy, if not extremely bad. So, one good question to ask yourself: What are the social beliefs that I have about the world that my grandkids will find abhorrent?
Now, why are we asking this? Well, if you want to make something that's going to still be suitable in the future, that's going to last as an institution, if you are investing enormous amounts of money in a capital project with a projected lifespan of 50 years, then it's incredibly important that you think about the world it's going to be living in 30, 40, or 50 years. And that world will be the physical world, yes, but mostly, it'll be the social world.
And so, you’ll want to be thinking, ‘What will be the social implications of thing I'm building today in 30 or 40 years?’ And if you know that there are certain beliefs that you are embodying, whether that's internally in yourself or whether it's your company, that you know your grandkids are going find terrible, then maybe don't do those things. Maybe skip that bit. There are many things today that we know we're going to be stared at by our grandkids and our great grandkids with accusing eyes – carbon footprint probably being the main one. Plastics. All those sorts of things.
But let's make it more happy. The final question: ‘What in 30 or 40 years will you wish you had made?’ What decisions do you know you wish you'll have made? As I said earlier, it's impossible to predict the future, and so we have to make it. We have to create it. And so, the question then is, What do we create? These are the questions that we need to be thinking about in order to understand what it is we should be making. They're not based on interim results or quarterly targets. They're based on a much deeper philosophical conversation within yourself. What is it that you wish you would've made well, you wish you had made in 20 or 30 years from now?
Constant, Legacy-free Reinvention
As I said, it is impossible to think about the future in any way that's going to be predictively correct. And so, because of that, the way to cheat, the way to get ahead of everybody else, is to basically invent the future yourselves, to make those decisions. Be the one who says, ‘We're going in this direction.’ To guide you in doing that, you have to have gone through that process of those questions that we had before. What is the direction of travel that we want the world to go in? What is the direction of travel that the world seems to be going in? How do we match our plans today to that direction of travel? As an industry, which has gone from being guided by technological innovation, is now very definitely going to be subsumed by cultural and political and social trajectories.
Because you are so critical to the world, you are never going to be left alone now, and so you will be subject to that. You have to think really clearly about what that means. As leaders in the industry, that means that you get to be able to guide that in that way. But it's terrible. It's cognitively very, very difficult to do that. It's cognitively very difficult to step away from the day-to-day. It's cognitively very difficult to step away from the habits that you have, from the processes that you have, from the assumptions that you've made about the world.
And so, to finish up, I'd like to teach you this technique. It's a thing you can do yourself, and you can start doing it from tomorrow morning. It's a way of operating in the world every so often. You don't have to do it every day. It's just a regular exercise that will enable you to break those habits of thinking, which will then enable you to think more deeply about the future and therefore come up with plans to create the future.
We call it ‘Constant, Legacy-free Reinvention,’ which is a highly overblown term, which enables me to charge lots more money for it.
Here's what you do. From the moment you wake up tomorrow morning until the moment you go to bed, you need to pay attention to every physical action you take, whether it's brushing your teeth, sending an email, making a phone call, driving down the street, whatever. It's every physical action.
And when you notice yourself taking a physical action, ask yourself two questions about it.
The first one is: What problem am I solving by doing this? ‘I'm brushing my teeth because last night it was tequila tasting and something died in my mouth.’ ‘I'm sending an email to apologize for the thing I said while enjoying the tequila tasting last night.’
The second question you ask is: If I had to solve this problem today for the very first time, and I had to use modern tools, how would I do it? Now, this is going to slow you down, because it’s going to be an awful lot of Googling. You're going to spend a lot of the time in the kitchen just Googling gadgets.
But when you do this, what you find very rapidly is that an awful lot of the things that you do, the physical actions you take, well, a handful of them, quite a lot of them, actually probably don't have a reason. You're no longer solving a problem that even exists. It's really handy. You get to knock a whole load of stuff off your to-do list.
But the majority of the rest of the stuff, what you'll find is that you are solving that problem in a way which is no longer suitable, which is no longer up to date, which is actually a terrible way of doing things. It's not your fault, right? You were probably taught that way by somebody who was taught that way a long time ago by somebody who was themselves taught that way a long time previously.
This is true for everything. It's true from business processes down to the way that you tie your shoelaces. If you tie your shoelaces, there's a wrong way to tie your shoelaces, right? You can Google it. If you look down at the knot on your shoelaces right now, if the bow is going horizontal, it's left to right, then you've done it right. If the bow is going up and down, you've done it wrong. Now, probably about a third of you have tied your shoelaces incorrectly today. That knot is going to come undone at some point on the trade floor.
By pausing while you're doing your shoelaces up, you can go, ‘Well, why am I doing this?’ You can either decide never to ever wear shoes with shoelaces anymore – it just solves that problem forever – or you can realize that if you just Googled it and you learnt the way of tying your shoelaces right, you from then on tie your shoelaces in a much better way and the shoes will never come undone. That's a trivial example for a very strong point, which is that every one of these problems that you're solving in this modern way, you are reinventing without the legacy of the way you've done it previously. The more you do this exercise individually, the easier it becomes to think about this, doing it as part of your family or part of your community or part of your company, because it becomes a habit.
It frees you to be able to think about the world going forward in a different way. And it stops you from thinking, ‘Well, we've always done it this way so that's the way we're always going to do it.’ It launches you into this ability to think more clearly about what sort of world you want to make and how you can make it by individually reassessing every little action you take. Not only does it make your life a lot better, but it also improves your ability to do the job that you have to do.
In conclusion, the act of predicting what the world is going to be like is incredibly necessary because everybody here today is going to make many decisions over the next few weeks, months, years, where understanding the future is a critical part of that decision-making process. You have responsibilities, responsibilities to which require you understanding what the world will be like, but it is impossible to do that. And so, instead we have to just go forward shaping the world as we go. And in order to shape the world correctly, it forces us to think much more deeply about the world that we want to be living in and what people and society in general will value. If you build something that society won't value, society will stop it – you'll be regulated, you'll be shut down, you'll go to prison, you won't have any friends, or whatever it is.
And so, those are the things you need to be thinking about when you're thinking about the future of data centers. Not just the technical roadmap, the exponential curves up and to the right, but the social implications, the cultural implications, the place in the world that you're creating and the world that you are creating around yourselves. We already knew it before, but the last couple of years have shown that what you are building is the super-critical national infrastructure for the 21st century. You have the opportunity to build the infrastructure, which not only enables the world, but actively makes the world a better place. And now you know how to think about that or how to start thinking about that.
Once you realize that's the case, then you realize you have a duty to do so. You are no longer making cool buildings for cool technology. You are now shaping the world, and shaping the world involves deciding what the world will be like. So, your duty during the coffee break in a couple minutes is to think about what that world should be and then go away and make that. The tech stuff is cool, but making the world really, really nice is much cooler.
Thank you very much for your attention.