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Launching a business in a recession – 1 of 4 – Business Planning

This is a post in a series of four detailing how you can start a business during a recession (find them all eventually under the startup innovation tag). I think it is a commonly held view that we are about to enter into or are already in a recession. For whatever reason you are thinking about starting a business at this time, I am helping a startup on a similar path and thought I would share what I am thinking about to help them (more on my mentoring here). The focus in this series is the really early stages prior to launch and the emphasis is on how to do things on the cheap ;)

First off just to say that the topic of this post, business planning, is not necessarily something you can do on the cheap. Nor should you. If there is any one activity that you should spend money on, it should be this one. That’s because this is probably the most important one. It sets the tone for all your other activities and is the one that sets you up for success or failure. Having said that, you can get away with some free tools which I will cover. But the real trick in this area, is the framework, method and thinking you use – not so much tools as with the other topics, as you will see.

Business Model Canvas


A simple framework for defining your business, no need for lengthy business plans no one reads and besides, brevity forces focus.

Useful to also visualize and communicate a simple story of your business model to founders, employees and investors alike.

Use the canvas to explore new business models whether you are a start-up or an existing business. Some elements/tools require payments.

Jobs to be Done


JTBD is a framework to guide your perspective and innovate through a different lens. Especially if you need to transform and disrupt (product, company, industry – select as needed), this is for you. It requires you to replace a solution lens with a problem lens. It contrasts seeing the world of innovation through the lens of what the company is doing (a product perspective). It advocates seeing the world of innovation through the lens of what the customer is trying to get done (a problem perspective).

Lean Startup


Lean startup is a methodology for developing businesses and products that aims to shorten product development cycles and rapidly discover if a proposed business model is viable; this is achieved by adopting a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation, iterative product releases, and validated learning. Lean startup emphasizes customer feedback over intuition and flexibility over planning. This methodology enables recovery from failures more often than traditional ways of product development.

Bonus Tool

Microsoft’s Whiteboard is a digital application that functions like a traditional whiteboard, but is hosted virtually. Digital whiteboards can integrate with other video conferencing and screen sharing platforms to allow for collaboration even when you are not physically in the same room – crucial for remote teams. It has many templates to choose from and allows whiteboards to be saved in shareable files for easy access in the future. It is these templates that provide an easy way to guide your thinking but of course you can bring in any methodology you want to the tool. It’s free for students and educators or you get it as part of your M365 license (work or personal).

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Managing innovation is a misnomer – better to prepare for serendipity

I’ve been involved in many innovation activities in the past, from participating in and supporting hackathons, corporate ventures to being involved with startups. I’ve observed that often times, best results come not from better management, but from being ready to pounce when serendipity presents its sweet opportunities.

Okay maybe startups are slightly different in that they are not so much an exercise in innovation, even though their outcomes often result in disruptive innovation.

Let’s focus on enterprise innovation efforts.

Whether it’s through formal innovation programs (of the type that I supported and recount here) or hackathons, I have found that in the main, less is more.

And the alarming statistics confirm it: More than 90% of high-potential ventures fail to meet projected targets, while roughly 75% of the products released each year bomb.

Why control is so ingrained and so counter productive

Just as in this doodle (one of my favourites) and with creativity, you cannot force innovation, much less control it.

In a world in constant flux where the rate of change is accelerating and uncertainty is increasing, I get people’s tendencies to exert ever greater control over things they perceive they can.

But I don’t believe this is effective.

To take a leaf out of Buddhist practice, I believe in ‘non-action’, which is an integral part of the Right Way, and a better way to approach things.

Non-action isn’t about holing yourself up in a cave and ignoring everything. It’s more about practicing detachment or letting go, which are also key related tenets. Moreover, it’s about diving in and embracing uncertainty and opportunity in an effortless way.

Preparing for serendipity

So how do you go about preparing for serendipity? For being ready to recognise and then act on good ideas when they land?

1. Learning mindset.

Innovation is about discovery and the more you learn, the more you discover. If you drive a learning mindset and culture in your organisation and allow people time to learn, they will be equipped for discovery. In this state, when new challenges present themselves, they will be ready and able to respond with new solutions and ideas.

2. Cutting bureaucracy.

Not just in the innovation process, everywhere. Bureaucracy is what holds things back, saps energy, presents hurdles and provides excuses for not trying. The blight of bureaucracy is everywhere, in all departments and growing, but it is especially pernicious in frustrating innovation efforts so do all you can to get hurdles out of the way of employees. Whether in formal or informal innovation initiatives, adopt the way of the minimalist and “remove until it breaks”.

3. Experimentation is the new planning.

Use of data in measuring the outcomes of your experiments is crucial in this approach too. But mostly it’s about making time (sometimes funding even) for experimentation and making this the emphasis of any evaluation, not plans that span pages and based on wishful thinking. Far better a small-scale experiment, even if with negative results, but results where learning can move you forward. I’ve alternatively described this as a way of success hacking.

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Creativity Boosters to get you in the Flow – 4 of 4 – Nature

We all know Creativity at work is important. It is a leading driver of innovation and it boosts productivity. And when you are in the right flow, you are more creative and productive. Other than having a formulaic approach to better flow (Formula pins down what gets people in the “Flow”) we all want to know what leads to better creativity and some of the other outcomes it contributes to. I know what works for me and instinctively and from experience, you might know about these too. In this four part series I want to share what works for me – this post covers nature and the creativity boosters tag captures all the posts.

Creativity

First a little more about creativity and why it is so important at work. Each post from the series will elaborate on one aspect of this and then go onto the specific creativity booster that supports it.

Did you know creativity is a relatively recent phenomenon? It does seem counterintuitive since humans have been creative from the get-go, one would think. It is what set us apart from other species. But according to this article (which also has other excellent info on creativity) and Google’s Ngram tool, it wasn’t really part of the popular lexicon until midway through the last century: What is creativity? The ultimate guide to understanding today’s most important ability.

And it has come a long way since then.

One could say its meaning needs reassessing.

A recent study by Microsoft and Steelcase came up with some new themes which I have captured below – study article here: The Creative Shift: How Place + Technology + People Can Help Solve 21st Century Problems.

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Nature

Whether you are for mountains, forest or water (classic icebreaker question) getting out into nature will do the trick for your creativity.

study published in 2012 was one of the first to address the effect of time spent in nature on higher-level tasks of the creative intellect, such as problem-solving. 

In 2013, research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine showed that walking in a city park or any green space for as little as 25 minutes is enough to give your brain a rest and boost cognitive functioning.

I am very lucky to have gorgeous countryside on my doorstep and frequently try to take breaks in my day and especially when I am in the middle of a work challenge that requires creative thinking – which is pretty much always. It helps I need to walk some of my furry keeps 🐶🐶.

When I can I go on longer excursions – here is a video below from a morning hike (18 miles) I went on with a friend. I challenge you to immerse yourself in the audio (turn up the sound for the bird song) and visual and remain unmoved – imagine immersing yourself for longer than the 15 second video snippet allows.

To really make a difference to my creative output I go on longer excursions, or OuterVentures as I like to call them. Mostly these are on vacations where I try to make access to nature at least partly possible or through longer hikes with friends. I’m about to go on one such hike through Scotland on the West Higland Way: West Highland Way – Scotland’s Best Loved Long Distance Walking Route. I’ll do a write up on my return but I know I am going to come back fired up with creative juices as is always the case.

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Creativity Boosters to get you in the Flow – 3 of 4 – Meditation

We all know Creativity at work is important. It is a leading driver of innovation and it boosts productivity. And when you are in the right flow, you are more creative and productive. Other than having a formulaic approach to better flow (Formula pins down what gets people in the “Flow”) we all want to know what leads to better creativity and some of the other outcomes it contributes to. I know what works for me and instinctively and from experience, you might know about these too. In this four part series I want to share what works for me – this post covers meditation and the creativity boosters tag captures all the posts.

Creativity

First a little more about creativity and why it is so important at work. Each post from the series will elaborate on one aspect of this and then go onto the specific creativity booster that supports it.

Does creativity still matter in the age of Artificial Intelligence? That is a central question of our times as both “capabilities” are so in demand and prominent. My view is a resounding YES.

AI is becoming capable of creating music, art, code, etc. It is even driving outcomes in customer engagement. What then for the role of human originality. In my view, it is in combination that we can expand the infinite possibilities and solutions – technology, data and the human touch blended to achieve scalable solutions that meet unique human needs or spark unique human engagements.

Take customer engagement. Though AI is being used to driver greater customer engagement outcomes, humans are creative thinkers, seeing connections between things that might not seem at all related. Humans often see obscure links to find solutions to seemingly impossible problems. Humans also bring emotional intelligence and empathy, interpreting emotions and meaning from nuances in body language, voice, and even silence and adjusting as needed.

Empathy is critical too and showing that you understand a customer’s dilemma is the first step to helping them solve their problem. 

Human cognition is also innately intuitive, using life experiences to make rapid decisions. We don’t just use the facts in front of us to make judgments and draw conclusions. We draw on experience and knowledge accumulated over a lifetime. 

These are the things that make us creative powerhouses but together with machines we can stretch possibilities and performance as this HBR study confirms: Collaborative Intelligence: Humans and AI Are Joining Forces.

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Meditation

I have written an eBook on Mindfulness practice and how it can lead to better outcomes at work including how it can improve your creativity. Improved mindfulness is an outcome of meditation BUT that is not the point of meditation.

As Alan Watts conveys in this video:

Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment and therefore if you meditate for an ulterior motive, that is to say, to improve your mind, to improve your character, to be more efficient in life, you’ve got your eye on the future and you are not meditating.

Meditating to improve your creativity is the same thing. Having said that, done well and for the right purpose, meditation definitely does improve a vast number of things as a result, including your creativity – or so I find.

And whether it’s through meditation or an increased level of mindfulness, there are also things you can do to increase your flow state and inspiration potential or just get you back on the right path. Here are a few pointers:

  • Activities you can do to influence an “aha moment” brain state:
    • Reduce distractions (sensory deprivation), e.g. meditation session with eyes closed, go into a dark space, etc.
    • Think positive (it activates the anterior cingulate which expands your scope of thought)
    • Widen horizons (imagine yourself in a vast environment like space, or a different one, like another country)
  • Notice when you have the urge to “push through” or “think harder” and try stepping away instead. Stepping away is part of the creative process. Giving your unconscious mind time to reorganize the information and clarify it for you. 
  • Setting aside time for creative play provides the space the mind needs to work out how to bring ideas to life.  Everyone has the capability of creativity.  Think of it as forming patterns in unique ways. Here is a sample of some activities for creative play.  The key to play is to detach from the outcome and release yourself from the rules and structure.  In other words, just see what comes up without judgement!
    • Sketching – I swear by it with my DanelDoodles.
    • Brainstorming
    • Free-writing
    • Non-dominant hand exercises
    • Fantasy/Day Dreaming
    • Dance/Free movement
    • Decorating your workspace or home – just rearranging things can sometimes help, even clearing things up (especially clutter)
    • Tinkering
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Creativity Boosters to get you in the Flow – 2 of 4 – Coffee

We all know Creativity at work is important. It is a leading driver of innovation and it boosts productivity. And when you are in the right flow, you are more creative and productive. Other than having a formulaic approach to better flow (Formula pins down what gets people in the “Flow”) we all want to know what leads to better creativity and some of the other outcomes it contributes to. I know what works for me and instinctively and from experience, you might know about these too. In this four part series I want to share what works for me – this post covers coffee and the creativity boosters tag captures all the posts.

Creativity

First a little more about creativity and why it is so important at work. Each post from the series will elaborate on one aspect of this and then go onto the specific creativity booster that supports it.

Half of us will need to reskill in the next five years, as the “double-disruption” of the economic impacts of the pandemic and increasing automation transforming jobs takes hold.

That’s according to the third edition of the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Reportwhich maps the jobs and skills of the future, tracking the pace of change and direction of travel.

The World Economic Forum has taken data from LinkedIn and online learning platform Coursera with which to track with unprecedented granularity, the types of specialized skills needed for the jobs of tomorrow, which are in demand across multiple emerging professions. Here are the top 10 skills needed with Creativity clearly amongst them.

Coffee

It is probably no coincidence that the London coffeehouses of the 17th & 18th centuries were the engines of creation that helped drive the Enlightenment – the European intellectual movement that emphasized reason and individualism rather than tradition.

Yes a recent study showed that caffeine boosts problem-solving ability and not creativity, but that is not what we expect from coffee. If creativity takes hard work (which it does), then coffee is how you prime the pump. The study also showed that caffeine increases focus, alertness and motor skills. The rest is still up to you, but at least you will be ready for the creative juices to flow or the creative muse to visit.

Here is how I focus on the best coffee. My go to is the Bialetti Moka Pot and with my Italian background that is probably no surprise, I grew up with it. I often use Illy or Lavazza blended coffee beans and from time to time, I grind my own beans when I find good ones. I don’t only use it for Espresso’s which it is typically associated with. I have a slightly larger pot and I make one entire pot for myself first thing in the morning, often with just a little bit of warm milk. Or if I want to spoil myself on occasion, I froth some hot milk (I have a Lavazza milk frother for that).

Thats how I start my day and also the time I put aside for serious creative work, the earlier the better. If needed, I add a second pot and then that’s it, no more creative work, or coffee.

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Creativity Boosters to get you in the Flow – 1 of 4 – Music

We all know Creativity at work is important. It is a leading driver of innovation and it boosts productivity. And when you are in the right flow, you are more creative and productive. Other than having a formulaic approach to better flow (Formula pins down what gets people in the “Flow”) we all want to know what leads to better creativity and some of the other outcomes it contributes to. I know what works for me and instinctively and from experience, you might know about these too. In this four part series I want to share what works for me – this post covers music and the creativity boosters tag captures all the posts.

Creativity

First a little more about creativity and why it is so important at work. Each post from the series will elaborate on one aspect of this and then go onto the specific creativity booster that supports it.

While creativity is highly important in business, it’s an abstract process that works best with a concrete structure. This is where design thinking comes into play.

Top industries are hiring those with Design Thinking Skills

From: The Importance of Creativity in Business, 25 January 2022.

Music

You don’t have to be an avid muso to appreciate this. In fact sometimes it can distract, as it does me. Thats why the music you choose to support the work you are doing should be in the background and down low.

One new study explores music as a source of creativity. Since music has been shown to improve cognition and enhance learning and memory in other studies, it makes sense that perhaps it has an impact on creative thinking, too. 

From: How Music Helps Us Be More Creative, November 17 2017.

Here is my Spotify playlist. It’s made up of LoFi beats and very chilled music – I use it any time I need to tap into my creativity. Maybe it helps you :)

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Microsoft 365 customer questions – Power Platform and Teams Hackathon tips

I work in the business of dealing with customer questions on Microsoft 365 all the time (disclosure), either directly or indirectly. This is part of a series of posts where I share them if they can be of help to others. Where I can of course and naturally, not just the questions but the answers too. All questions and answers strive to respect both sides sensitivities (parts will have been redacted and/or anonymised) and the main topic is covered in each post title.

This was not so much a question as a request to present to all the hackers participating in the company hackathon in a launch event. I put a few slides together, here they are in a pdf below. Below that, a few notes of elaboration on the slides that I think need it. This follows earlier advice I shared with the same customer on how to organise the hackathon, captured in this story: How to run a Hackathon for Microsoft Teams and Power Platform. And it also builds on this earlier thought rocket: Hackathons the MVP and lean startup.

Slide 3

I wanted to instil some lean startup, entrepreneurial thinking into the hackers minds. This is also a setup for some of the later slides. The main point being that you have to have an idea of what you want to build in the way of problem/s to solve or opportunity/ies to leverage and that by definition (being future focused), you are not going to be certain that you can achieve it. I wanted to juxtapose this with the need to start building and iterating fast and testing your work as you go and that this has to mapped against your vision and course correction will be required all along the way. Course correction will require either that you refine your vision or your solution.

Slide 5

The clear point here is that you should try and build complete solutions (as far as possible) at every stage of your build. It follows naturally from the previous slide too. I also made the point that they should not be myopic in their thinking and focus too much on the technology or “product”. For instance, building a wheel which on its own, is not really usable. Rather they should think about solving a transport problem and in the image example, a skateboard could be a great first version, perfectly usable in its own right. Hopefully you get the point.

Slide 7

While the hackers were mostly focused on building apps, automations, reports and the like with the Power Platform, I did want to bring Microsoft Teams into the picture as the platform through which they should consider publishing their work. I made two points really. One is that they could develop their solutions either in the respective standalone environment in Power Platform but they could also create solutions directly from within the Teams environment – more on that here: Create low-code custom apps for Microsoft Teams – Teams | Microsoft Docs. More importantly, that they should think about bringing their solutions into Teams to become collaborative apps – a concept explained really well here: Stay in the flow of work with new collaborative apps for Microsoft Teams – Microsoft 365 Blog.

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Hackathons the MVP and lean startup

I’ve been doing a lot of work recently supporting customers with their hackathon efforts. It’s been especially focused on use of Microsoft Power Platform and Teams as core technology platforms underpinning the hackathons. I captured a best practice story about that and this is based on the many hackathons I’ve been involved in over the years.

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But what I wanted to cover here was a thought rocket on where hackathons fit in to the innovation cycle using MVP’s and the Lean Startup cycle as context.

I see this as a kind of sweet spot for hackathons – cue DanelDoodle.

One key focus of a hackathon would be that it is used as a starting point for MVP’s (a key principle of Lean Startup methodology), as a main outcome of the event. That is, the winner’s ideas get taken forward for further implementation.

Thus a relatively simple yet collaboratively rich and less risky way for finding ideas to experiment with that then get taken forward through building prototypes.

Cheap and rapid experiments systematically lower innovation failure rates and risk.

These can be stage gated along the way with checks and balances so that they are constantly being evaluated for risk and future development (or not). A key measure should be through data.

The Lean Startup cycle is one of the most flexible approaches and you can easily see how what I have suggested fits in, but other innovation process flows could be considered.

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How to overcome the innovation predicament – the term versus the spirit

I’ve observed before how everyone wants innovation but no one wants to innovate. The essence of that observation roughly 6 months ago was that although the talk of and need for innovation (from company executives) was high, interest in the topic wasn’t (from punters).

Not much has changed since except the gap has probably grown. Can you blame people when there are so many other pressing issues and people are overwhelmed.

That doesn’t take away from the fact that it is still very much needed, nor from the fact that it is happening in abundance, despite all the disinterest in the term or even all the other overwhelming pressures.

Distractions and pressures aside, people, whether in startups or large corporations, are out there innovating and doing their thing every single day. They are just not necessarily calling it innovation.

Who cares then, what it’s being called, as long as its being done. And I don’t believe the imperative for it being done comes just from executives.

Most, whether admitting it or not, want to be innovative. It’s an innate desire to evolve, be creative or inventive. It’s built into us. It was needed for survival in the real jungle, now the jungle has evolved but survival by these means is still necessary.

For evidence that there is a bunch of innovation hustle and bustle out there, look no further than the Creator Economy. If you want deeper level insights on this, follow Creator Economy by Kaya Yurieff from The Information (a newsletter). The creator economy is just another catchy phrase for people being innovative (since creativity is at its core) and by all accounts, it’s huge.

The difference in the terms and spirit of it is that on the one hand there is a lot of talking going on (about innovation) and on the other, on being innovative (by just doing stuff).

In an age where self promotion is par for the course, its understandable that talking dominates. And there is good reason to shout about successes and spreading the word. But when it comes to innovation, it is the doers that matter and just plain being innovative. As an individual or a company, whatever you call it, this is what determines success and in many cases survival.

So how can we do more or be more innovative

  1. As an individual, experiment. Try things out and see where it leads. By this I mean a methodical approach that begins with an hypothesis and then pursues a series of trials to either prove or disprove it. The benefit of doing something yourself, whether at work or in your personal life, is that the barriers to doing so are super low and this approach should provide data. Assuming positive, you can present the data as evidence in arguing your case and getting others on board as will inevitably be the case. This is quintessentially a learning by doing exercise and any which way it goes, it’s a win.
  2. As a company, cultivate intrapreneurs. I wrote an eBook that was partly on this subject and that’s how this website started. Read that or any of the posts I created as part of researching that book under various tags: innovation hacking, startup innovation or intrapreneur. In many of those you will find, whether in startups or large companies, stories where individuals are given the freedom and courage to innovate with the success this brings. But don’t just take my word for it, PwC have a series that cover this well (even if not using the term intrapreneur – but remember, its not about terms): Workforce of the future – The World in 2030. Ditto the World Economic Forum: David vs Goliath – Understanding the corporate battle of digital disruption.
  3. In general, forgive failure. People wont try if they fear failure. They have to give themselves permission to fail. In companies you can make it safe to fail (great article from McKinsey which explains how and also recounts a story about Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella’s approach to this). Speaking of Microsoft (disclosure), one other thing it does is organise global hackathons, with customers even, most recently. These are essentially safe spaces and times to innovate and fail gloriously even though the ultimate goal is to come up with great ideas that can be commercialised. Some examples of the latter here: The Garage Wall of Fame – Microsoft Garage. This should apply to the whole of society really if we are ever to overcome the innovation predicament and solve some of its biggest challenges and ills in the true spirit of innovation.
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How to run a Hackathon for Microsoft Teams and Power Platform

I’ve decided, while I work in the business of dealing with customers questions on Microsoft 365 all the time (disclosure), either directly or indirectly, I might as well share them if they can be of help to others. Where I can of course and naturally, not just the questions but the answers too. All questions and answers respect both sides sensitivities. This is where I started the activity and this post uses a slightly different format but is essentially the same approach.

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Overcoming challenges in an innovation imperative world – 2nd edition

Just a few weeks ago I highlighted how important innovation was and yet how disinterested everyone was in it: Innovation has never been more problematic or needed – 3 things you can do. I went on to suggest 3 ways in which you could address this challenge. Not more than a week later, this post came out on the World Economic Forum (WEF) site: Companies need innovation more than ever. Here’s how to measure it. It makes similar points that cover challenges and solutions. In my previous post I shared an example of a company tackling things the right way. In this post I’ll talk briefly about the WEF post and share another great example of a company doing things right.

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Jobs of the future will be what robots cannot do

The title of this post actually comes from a video I viewed on Big Think way back in 2016. It was a short video by renowned American physicist, Michio Kaku. I’ve just searched the site extensively to try and find it again but couldn’t. Good thing I downloaded a copy at the time and uploaded it to YouTube. I wanted to capture it as I recall it was not shareable. I have based a lot of my thinking on its prognostications since then. I first referenced it here: After robots and AI – intellectual capitalism where creativity and imagination thrive.

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Innovation has never been more problematic or needed – 3 things you can do

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Everyone wants innovation, no one wants to innovate. It’s similar to change. Therein may lie the rub. They are such broad terms, they may have lost their significance. But the problem goes beyond lack of interest, there is a lack of purpose or organisation/management, the pace of change, all and more contribute to this situation. Call it innovation fatigue if you will, in fact a book has got that covered already: Innovation for the fatigued – How to Build a Culture of Deep Creativity. And yet, the imperative is as high as ever.

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5 ideas who’s time has come

This was more fun (to doodle) than anything else. But there is some data to back the ideas up, or at least sources I used to make my points. More than anything though, these 5 ideas are deep rooted feelings I have based on reading and experience over time. Anyway, here are some of my sources.

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