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"Thursday Thinking"

©2019 by Weaving Futures. 

  • Carolyn Stuart

The unforeseen impacts of technology

In 1947 a fire engulfed Ballantynes Department store in Christchurch killing 41 people in what is still New Zealand’s deadliest fire. I recently watched Ablaze, a re-enactment of the tragedy and it got me thinking about the role technology played in this tragedy.

Ballantynes began as a small drapery and millinery business in 1854. As transport systems improved and people were able to travel further to buy their goods, shops like Ballantynes were able to expand to serve a wider market. At the time of the fire, Ballantynes occupied seven conjoined buildings and employed 458 people. Improved transport and communication technology allowed shops like Ballantynes to grow their customer base, which in turn led to more employment opportunities. The building and health and safety laws at the time of the fire were inadequate for the technology-driven growth that enabled small shops to become large department stores.

The fire broke out in the basement, and the fire departments response was a low-level one as the experience up to that time was that a cellar fire was easily extinguished. Upon realising the extent of the blaze, the fire department tried to call in all of its engines from its suburban stations, but the telephone exchanges were overloaded.

You can imagine people seeing the growing pall of smoke over the city calling each other to find out what was going on. When telephones were first introduced, relatively few people could afford them, but as the technology improved, phones became cheaper so more people could afford one. This left the exchange unable to handle the volume of calls generated by a large inner-city fire. Once again technology-driven growth, but this time it was phone ownership that contributed to the tragedy.

A commission of inquiry was held into the fire and as a result, New Zealand saw changes in requirements for building safety, fire response and the obligations of company leaders.

Moving forward 72 years to the present day.

Is technology impacting us in ways that most are not aware?


Think about the role that technology played in the Mosque attacks in Christchurch in March of this year. Most of us never anticipated technology might be used for this purpose.

Recently I watched this Ted Talk by Carole Cadwallar an investigative journalist who has spent many months delving into the role that Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and others played in swinging the vote for Britain to leave the EU. She also linked these players and tactics to Trump’s election. This is what Carole Cadwallar uncovered:

  1. Data was used to identify vulnerable swing voters to whom targeted misinformation was directed

  2. The misinformation was removed from newsfeeds once it had been viewed, making it very difficult to prove that this misinformation had ever existed

  3. Facebook had the data about the misformation campaigns but refused to hand it over to the British government, providing anonymity to the funders of this propaganda, including the amount of money spent and the content of the misinformation.

Democracy relies on a country being able to conduct elections that are free and fair. If any online platform facilitates untraceable campaigning that impacts the outcome of a referendum or election, then, by and large, the democratic election process is irrevocably compromised. Carole Cadwallar’s Ted Talk has certainly made me think, and if you haven’t seen it I would certainly encourage you to do so.

Unfortunately getting adequate legislative changes to manage the impact of today’s technology is much more difficult as it requires international agreements between governments and the co-operation of large corporations such as Facebook.

We are living in a time of the greatest technological advancement in the history of humankind. Most people are too busy managing their day to day lives to spend any time thinking about the unforeseen impacts, driven by technology, that is happening around them.

Recently I spent a day with a group of leaders in Otago unpacking five of the key emerging technologies. We then spent time coming up with ideas about how these technologies might make a positive impact in our professional lives. Sometimes it is useful to take time away from your normal endeavours to do a deep dive into the future.

If this sounds like something you or a group you belong to would be interested in then let’s chat. My schedule for next year is filling up fast so don't leave it too long to be in touch.

Til next time


P.S. My final Design Thinking for Leaders' workshop for 2019 is being held in Auckland on Wednesday 30 October. You can get all the details by clicking here.

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