Opinion: Seattle is giving a glimpse into the future

THE FUTURE: Amazon's voice-enabled Echo speaker has a touch screen and video-calling capabilities, competing with Google's "smarts" to the home. Picture: Amazon/AP
THE FUTURE: Amazon's voice-enabled Echo speaker has a touch screen and video-calling capabilities, competing with Google's "smarts" to the home. Picture: Amazon/AP

You can’t see the future, but there are places where you get a glimpse. America’s Seattle is one of these.

We were there last week for delightful family reasons.

Seattle is a smallish city of around 700,000 people, part of a wider conurbation of over 3 million. It sits in the north-west corner of the US on a delightful stretch of Pacific coastline, and around a series of large coastal lakes.

These are famous salmon breeding grounds.

Our hosts live in a house by the water, the mystic Puget Sound, at Ballard, a remnant Nordic town where locals once plied a trade in fish and timber. Ballard is now a Seattle suburb.

Its cubic timber houses are playfully restored, and its downtown has its fair share of hipsters so there are weekend produce markets, craft breweries, good food and friendly cafes.

Ballard is family territory and its children were enjoying the end of their long summer holiday.

They hit balls, kicked balls, threw balls and ate good hamburgers from the Red Mill Totem House on 54th Street, and sold lemonade from a footpath table.

And they probably complained to their parents they had nothing to do, but they seemed to like their patch.

Ballard isn’t posh, but it’s content and self-confident.

There are many neighbourhoods like Ballard across Seattle.  To be sure, this city does well out of the world. It is blessed by nature, it is prosperous enough to maintain the wholesome traditions of suburban America, and it isn’t threatened by the future. Rather, the city is a world leader in the invention and take-up of new technology.

Post-war Seattle filled the world’s skies with Boeing aircraft. Then Seattle’s Microsoft filled offices and classrooms across the globe with the software – word processing, spreadsheets, PowerPoints – that made desktop and laptop computers essential to business and education.

Seattle’s Starbucks rolled-out coffee shops through the world’s cities, at least to those places without Italian migrants. And now Seattle’s Amazon is changing home life.

‘Alexa, what’s the time?’ we asked the electronic cylinder – called Amazon Echo – perched in the kitchen. ‘Alexa, play Nirvana,’ and she did.

Alexa tells corny jokes, advises on the weather, adjusts your air conditioning, lights and television, tells you when the roast is done, makes phone calls, and amuses your children with stories and nursery rhymes.

Meanwhile, Amazon runs your shopping.

Morning and evening, the house bell tells you a parcel has arrived on the stoop, ordered only four hours ago online.

From the outside you don’t see these technologies. When we walked around Ballard we saw things as they’ve been for decades: late summer garden beds running to seed, figs and apple trees bearing fruit, planter boxes giving up their last tomatoes.

But inside these homes things are changing dramatically.

So too schools, universities and the world of work are changing.

The key to success in Seattle is its workforce. I was stunned to learn that 58 per cent of Seattle’s adult workers hold a university degree while 25 per cent have completed formal post-school training.

There are over 200,000 workers in Seattle’s King County designing IT products for the future. Many of these products are ready to go.

They are changing Seattle neighbourhoods from the inside out, just across the Pacific.

Very soon Alexa will be in our kitchens and our door bells will be ringing.

Alexa is a bit of fun -- but only if you are qualified and hold down a good job where you can afford to enjoy the rewards of the new technologies that are coming our way.

- Professor Phillip O’Neill is Director of the Centre for Western Sydney at Western Sydney University.