It was like she had been playing ‘nhodo’ with her life, foolishly trying to outsmart an imaginary playmate named Fate.” ― Panashe Chigumadzi, Sweet Medicine
Fate is impossible to predict. Then again, if you believe in fate, you don’t even want to predict. You just want to let things play out in due course. But, if you are a businessman, you don’t want to include the word fate in your lexicon. That is the precise reason why every business needs a futurist. Bear in mind, I did not use the term strategist. This article talks about the essential characteristics of a futurist and makes a case for every business to have one.
Three weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a colleague who works at a niche consulting firm. She described the firms growth strategy and how the firm had quadrupled in headcount. Finally, she got down to explaining what her role was. As she was laying out all the things she does on a daily basis, she mentioned that she had a certificate in Futurism. I was completely astounded because I didn’t even know you could get a certificate for being a futurist. I thought it was more a labor of love.
However, today more so than ever, every business needs a futurist who focuses on broad mega trends and how they will shape the world of the future. The futurist isn’t necessarily a formal position. A CEO has to be a futurist. Of course, having a formal futurist to advice the CEO and liberate him from an onerous burden would help. The board of directors of a company could have a futurist.
At the end, Futurism is a mindset that is essential to deal with volatility. In the words of former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner “elephants can dance” but they need a choreographer. That choreographer is the futurist.
Zero Sum Games
The biggest asset of a futurist is to look at macro level mega trends and see it’s downstream implications on business. I understand these are a mouthful of words which are easier said than explained. Let’s take an example:
If you have ever heard Daniel Schmactenberger , one of the founders of the Neurohacker collective talk about the generator functions of existential risks, you will know what the outcome of infinitely repeated zero sum games is — total annihilation. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a zero sum game as “a situation in which one person or group can win something only by causing another person or group to lose it” . An economic analogy is the tragedy of the commons where shared resources are so overused that there is nothing left for common people.
The reason ‘zero sum games’ are so important is that there is an overwhelming pressure on our planet’s resources because of our collective common actions. Think of climate change, rising temperatures and air pollution because of our over reliance on fossil fuels. Most people think that the future is electric autonomous vehicles.
If that’s the case, then the downstream implications become clear — your business will be in high demand if you develop economic electric batteries or software for autonomous driving.
This is just an example of a global macro trend — climate change impacting the types of businesses. In fact, any business that turns a zero sum game into a win win for all will likely succeed in the future.
Another prophet of non zero sum games is the author of the Third Industrial Revolution — Jeremy Rifkin who talks about a new economic paradigm that is more empathetic towards fellow human beings by making a more “efficient” use of resources at every step of the value chain, using renewable resources, using smart grids to redistribute energy etc. In other words, technologies that provide renewable resources of minimize waste at every step of the value chain will be in high demand. Think of smart grid developers, semiconductor chip manufacturers, sensor and actuator manufacturers etc.
The third example of a futurist is the CEO of Unilever — Paul Polman who thinks the mission of business is to serve society. This vision is so prominent today because the results of our zero sum games have labeled most businesses as entities maximizing profits to the detriment of consumers.The demand for less sweet and organic products is an outcome of our unhealthy lifestyles.
If the left-right political debate is divisive, take on the open and closed source software debate on for size. Growing up, I dabbled in programming which at that point was working on C, C++, Java or using Unix through a command prompt.
Along came Richard Stallman, founder of the free software movement, who essentially reframed the open source software movement as a social movement. The next icon to carry the open source flame was Linus Torvalds — a Finnish American software engineer who created LINUX — a user friendly version of the UNIX operating system. LINUX seemed to be a game changer because it would drive down the cost of owning a personal computer by removing the cost of the operating system. Microsoft was the dominant OS at the time. Today, Microsoft Windows has an 88% market share followed by MAC OS which has about 9% and all the different versions of LINUX combined have a meagre 2% . These facts clearly indicate who won the debate. What is important though is the fact that democratization of software development is a dominant mega trend.
The modern day version of Richard and Linus is Satoshi Nakamoto and the creators of the Bitcoin who propelled the Blockchain into mainstream adoption. Vitalik Buterin is now spearheading the future of the Blockchain through the Ethereum Foundation.
The Blockchain, the Internet v 3.0 (a combination of the Internet of Things and the Internet of Value) are true examples of democratized disruption. A close analogy in the banking world is Financial Technology (FinTech) or Tech Fin as the case may be. The key take away is that none of these disruptions can enter the main stream without successfully conquering the hurdles that incumbents had to face. For example, the Blockchain cannot scale and neither can FinTech without partnering with existing players.
Therefore, anyone with enough knowledge to fuse the past and the present to create the world of the future will be in exponential demand. By now, you know what it means for businesses.
Exponential Pace of Change
An illustration from Time Magazine indicates that the ever accelerating pace of change will result in a Singularity i.e. point in time where computing power will surpass that of all human brains combined in 2045. This again is a prediction in line with how many jobs will be lost to Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the next 20 years. I am not saying that either predictions are wrong but that they are incredibly hard to predict and there are varied opinions on both subjects around the world.
There are advances in AI, deep learning, genetic engineering and editing (CRISPR) and in particle physics (quantum computing) that are accelerating the pace of change. On the other hand, if you talk to microbiologists, they will tell you we don’t have any knowledge of more than 90% of the trillion species of micro-organisms populating this planet. Physicists will complain that we don’t understand dark matter and spiritualists don’t know much about life after death. Similarly, our knowledge of human consciousness is close to zero. So, what makes us think that we are going to overpower nature anytime soon?
There are no good answers except a broad mega trend that the pace of change is rapidly accelerating powered by the need to find sustainable solutions to human problems and the democratization of change agents.
Can We Ever Possess A Crystal Ball?
The definitive answer is no. However, if we re-frame the question by thinking in probabilities of a mega trend overpowering another mega trend e.g. nationalism vs globalization, we may have a useful framework to identify the road ahead for a business. That is the essence of a futurist. What I learnt from my earlier conversations with my friend is that futurism is not a hobby anymore. It is no longer a matter of reading the works of eminent futurists like Alvin and Heidi Toffler, Ray Kurzweil or even following the work of Elon Musk. Futurism is a mindset that is based upon on constant learning, unlearning and relearning to save ourselves from obsolescence and more importantly our planet from total destruction. Futurism is a way of moving out of our parasitic tendencies and into a domain of symbiotic relationships.
I sincerely urge everyone to start reading pre-eminent futurists if you haven’t. Entrepreneurs, business owners and CEO’s need futurists in their business. In fact, the more the merrier.
The world moves in cycles. Therefore, history is not a great indicator of the immediate future but it is a great predictor of the long term. Homo Sapiens conquered Neanderthals by banding together. The long term future of our species is no different. We have just started preaching about empathy and co-operation. Wait until we reach even more critical stages of destruction.
As Pope John Paul II once said:
The Future Starts Today, Not Tomorrow
My question to you is: Are you ready?