The University of Chicago’s new Joe and Rika Mansueto Library is, it seems, a caricature of futurism. Under a vast glass dome sits an 8,000 sq-ft reading room, complete with flat screens, a circulation desk, ergonomic furniture, and … no books.
Turns out the books, all 3.5 million of them, are packed efficiently – by size – into 2 x 4 x 1.5 ft metal bins stored in vaults below ground. If you need one, you go tap-tap at your keyboard, which sends enormous rolling robots to fetch the right bin and crank it up to the circulation desk, allegedly in less than 5 minutes.
A number of things are interesting here, the first being that this “library-of-the-future” is about paper books at all. In a Google-digitize-the-planet world where Amazon says that more than half of its books sales are for the Kindle, the University of Chicago’s $81m bet on “dead-tree” storage and retrieval is quite a bet.
It is a good bet. Hype aside, it will be still many generations before “paperless” is any kind of on-the-ground reality, as paperless office evangelists have found out. Imbedded human habits and systems just don’t move that fast.
But systems do. Ingrained human preference for tactile objects doesn’t mean that storing, finding, and retrieving of the objects can’t be improved overnight, which is the essence of what is going on here. The automated search-and-retrieval system creates efficiencies as all automation does – by dumping human beings out of the process. Specifically, it copies advanced manufacturing systems such as those used in automobile assembly plants, which effects just-in-time finding and retrieving of components this way.
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The first industry foresight principle at work here is this: where the same problem applies, a solution that creates value in one industry will turn up to create value in another, even if apparently unrelated. Innovation doesn’t respect sector or management thought silos. Ergo, leaders who are able to comprehend challenges at a systemic level and look across industry boundaries for solutions that already exist elsewhere, find the future before competitors do.
Second, although the book definitely survives in the University of Chicago’s forward view of the library, note that the solution is not simply head-in-the-sand “nothing changes.” What changes, they are arguing, is the system aroundthe book, the storage, finding, and shlepping thereof. Moreover, the new system is a radical departure. It turns the status quo upside down, to make the physical book a relatively minor element of the online system, not the other way around.
Finally, the solution on offer is one more piece of evidence that inexorable advances in single-purpose (non-human-like) robotics and sensors are quietly yet absolutely changing the world around us. If we drop the Frankenstein image, and see robots for what they really are in our time, that is, sensors + wheels + software, many imminent changes in industry and society come quickly into focus.