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Monday, November 1, 1999 Published at 22:47 GMT

Business: The Economy

Visions of business in the 21st Century

By BBC News Online's Alex Hunt in Birmingham

We'll all be eating computers in a few year's time. They may cost less than $1, but may also have some common sense. Just some of the changes expected as the digital revolution gathers pace, according to three of the foremost thinkers on the subject at the CBI conference.

The politicians may have attempted to take centre-stage, but it was the effect of the information age on business which captured the imagination of the captains of industry.

Three of the foremost prophets of the future outlined their visions of doing business in the next century to a packed auditorium at the Confederation of British Industry conference in Birmingham.

Professor Nicholas Negroponte, founder and director of the world famous Massachussetts Institute of Technology's Media Laboratory, said the current internet explosion was merely the tip of the iceberg.

Within a few years, as computers become cheaper and smaller, domestic appliances, food and toys will be hooked up to cyberspace, outnumbering the number of humans using the internet.

Toys to lead the way

Prof Negroponte said toys would be initial leader because of the higher rate of buying toys: "Do you know that the world's biggest manufacturer of tyres is now Lego?"

Within a year or two there would be more Barbie dolls hooked up to the internet than Americans, he added.

"E-commerce will overtake everything and the e will be dropped. It will be discarded quite soon, and just become commerce."

The predictions that one billion people will be on the internet by the end of next year will be proved too conservative, as they ignore the rapid take-up in the developing world.

He also urged the assembled business leaders to be willing to change, to challenge their current way of doing business and to ignore customers if necessary.

"The last person in the world who wants to see change is the customer."

Direct selling

There will be further developments with manufacturers - particularly of cars - selling straight to the customer. At the moment there is a reluctance to do so because of the threat to their traditional dealer networks.

But, he said, car dealers were not stupid and would end up selling the cars even cheaper with insurance and maintenance contracts built in.

Researchers at MIT have developed a prototype of electronic paper, a computer display which feels like paper.

It is also working on the computer which costs less than $1 to make. Within five of ten years people will routinely "eat" these mini computers like a vitamin pill, with it carrying out a health check as it passes through.

There will also be computers with common sense. Ending some of the frustrations of internet use which drive people to tears on a regular basis.

Threat to business

Professor Gary Hamel, Harvard research fellow and founder and chairman of Strategos, said that the new information age threatened every business.

What businesses had to do was look at how they did their business and then reinvent it, or risk being destroyed by new insurgents into their markets.

"The last bastion of Soviet style central planning remains in big business's resource allocations," he said, adding that it was often those who said what the directors did not want to hear which had the best ideas.

Business needs to encourage its people to come up with ideas and suggest changes, if they are not to be swallowed up by new rivals, which themselves become a target unless they can keep their business developing.

The idea that size can win over everything does not wash, he said, likening giant banks merging to dinosaurs gettong amorous in Jurassic Park.

'Most exciting time to be alive'

Professor Charles Handy, writer, broadcaster and social philosopher, said that although the changes were immense, there was still a need to touch and feel things.

Book stores, such as a giant new one in central London, recognised they had to take on its online rivals by making it a full experience, with coffee and juice bars and sofas, said Prof Handy.

"How can you work with people you never meet. How can you trust people you have never met," he added.

However the possibilities were huge: "I think it's the most exciting time to be alive since the invention of printing 450 years ago."

He believes that a crucial part of harnessing technology for future good in the UK, is to create "buzzy cities" such as London, Dublin and Barcelona, where talented internet entrepreneurs want to live.

Confirmation of this, he said, was that of the top 30 internet entrepreneurs in the UK, 25 lived within half a mile of Notting Hill.

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