Chewing on Black Swan for Christmas

Rather than looking back at 2011, we chose to talk to Doug Vining – chief technology adviser to the FutureWorld Global Think Tank and Editor of MindBullets: News from the Future – about the future, and his hopes for it, in this, the last Innovation Interview of 2011.

Doug Vining: Capital I Interview Series – Number 9

Futurist, entrepreneur, guru, writer and editor – these are only some of the words used to describe Doug Vining.  With an eclectic career which has encompassed advertising, corporate consulting, and working for tech titans such as IBM, Doug has had his finger on the pulse of Innovation and its commercial applications – along with its potential for solving real world problems – for many years.  With 30 years in ‘the game’ and three business degrees, Doug is a tech and strategy consultant, with a particular fascination for emerging technology .

You define yourself as a futurist… what does that term mean to you?

Well, I’m part of a group called ‘FutureWorld‘.  What we do is teach companies and organisations how to learn from the future.  They call us ‘futurists’, but we don’t predict the future, the future is impossible to predict.

Life is not perfect, reality is messy, that is what you should expect.  Anything is possible in the future.  What is needed is an attitude of durability and adaptability… expect the unexpected and learn from what could happen.

We look at scenarios.  We don’t say, “This is what will happen.” We say, “This is the kind of thing that could happen.”  Even if some of it would seem to be improbable.

Very often it’s the  least likely scenarios that occur.  Looking at the opportunities in those scenarios and planning a strategy today, that will help you in the future, that’s what we mean by ‘learning from the future’.

Your fellow FutureWorld gurus are very impressive.

Yes.  For over twenty years “Future World” has been in operation, so we have quite an impressive group of gurus.  There are four core members (I’m including myself) who have been involved with the business for about twenty years, and then there are others who come and go, or get involved in one stage or another.

Your fellow core members are Wolfgang Grulke, Anton Musgrave, and Neil Jacobsohn.

That’s exactly right.  Wolfgang started this whole thing when he was still with IBM.  Many years ago he said, you can’t look to the past for strategy.  Strategy has got to be about the future; strategy and innovation are tied together in that future perspective.

“In this warp-speed world it is no longer enough to learn from experience, we must learn from the future.” Wolfgang Grulke

Anton Musgrave

It’s about agility, adaptability and flexibility.  If you expect everything to be ordered and measured, then unfortunately, you’re going to be wrong.

That sounds like one of your MindBullets.

MindBullets: News from the Future‘ was one of several that Wolfgang came up with. The idea was to present a scenario in the form of a short, sharp news story that would make business executives sit up and think. Executives are often far too focussed on operational issues, and need a jolt to get them to think strategically and consider the future.

The mind bullets are little news stories from the future.  We produce one every week, we’ve been doing it for years.  Because we have been doing it for so long, some of those ‘futures’ have become the present, or the past.  It’s quite interesting to see how many of those MindBullets, which we thought were crazy ideas at the time, actually look pretty normal in today’s world.

Such as?

A big one must be world-wide communication and the adoption of cell phones, and smart mobile devices; it’s completely changed the modern world.  We said that these sort of things would become commonplace.

Another example is an article we wrote four or five years about communication becoming a basic human right.  Just last year the United Nations said that internet access should be considered a human right, and countries are starting to put in broadband for their citizens.  Those are the kind of trends that we considered futuristic at the time, and now they’re commonplace.

Would you say that is something like the smart/mobile phone, which enables easy communication, is the most important piece of innovation in your lifetime?

Absolutely.  In my life time I think the most profound piece of innovation has been the internet and the convergence of the internet, cellphones, and smart mobile devices.

The mobile phone on its own has completely changed the way the world works, especially in places like Africa and Asia.  In the past, for example, a manager, or someone with some product, would have to travel to another town to find out if there was a market for their goods, or their labour.  Often that trip would be a fruitless waste of energy and they would miss other opportunities by making it.  Now, with cell phones, they can find out where there is a demand for their services or products.  That completely changes economic opportunities.

And, of course it’s become more pervasive, more into the realm of social communication. We’ve seen what’s happened in Egypt, and Libya and Tunisia.  The catalyst has been the ability to communicate and organise socially, and to be heard.  People who were powerless have been given power.

Speaking of power, FutureWorld has a very impressive list of clients: huge companies and multinationals such as British Airways, Cisco Systems, The Financial Times, Gartner, IBM, Kraft, Microsoft, SAP and Oracle. 

There’s a number of reasons for that.  When we engage with clients on a formal basis we are quite expensive, so start-ups can’t afford us.  And, start-ups normally already have that innovation… that future-looking, crazy-idea mentality.

Therefore, yes, most of our clients are big corporates who are kind of set in their ways and very static.  They need the intervention from FutureWorld to get them to consider programs of innovation such as setting up a separate a business unit to take new ideas into the future.  Start-ups don’t need us and can’t afford us; big companies who can afford us definitely need us.

I suppose one of the ways that a start-up, or an individual, could gain access to you and the rest of the gurus would be to sign up to MindBullets.

Absolutely. There are a number of entrepreneurs who’ve been subscribing to MindBullets for years.  There’s a lot of intellectual property, a lot of our thinking, available for free on our website.  We also started a discussion forum; everyone that subscribes is free to comment and enjoy the conversation.

And the controversy?

That’s the point.  The future actually awards people who stand out.  I mean, look at Steve Jobs. He was the obvious example of the unreasonable man.  He wasn’t part of the crowd; he was a maverick.  He expected the impossible and he often got it.  There’s an old saying: “To change the world all you need is an unreasonable man”.

There’s a book called “The Black Swan“, written by the international speaker Nassim Taleb.  Now, a black swan is an inventor or invention that is unreal, unusual, and appears to be random.  But, it – the black swan – completely changes the landscape and the status quo; so much so that things are never the same again.

The origin of the black swan was from the time in history when all swans were thought to be white (because all swans in Europe were white).  This thought prevailed until someone from Europe went to Australia and ‘discovered’ the black swans there.  Of course the discovery completely changed the previous volume of knowledge… the certainty that all swans were white.

There are so many obvious examples of black-swan events, like the 9/11 attacks, the Fukushima tsunami, and earthquake.  Even the global adoption of mobile phones is a kind of black swan thing.  People didn’t predict it, they didn’t expect to be quite so dramatic, and so profound in its impact.  The key thing about the black swan is the world will never be the same again; we can never go back to the way it used to be.

With that in mind, do you think that movements such as OWS (Occupy Wall Street) are Black Swan events?

I do.  I think that they are important events.  I think they’re also a symptom of a shift in mind-set.

There are a number of themes around this kind of thinking.  The first one is the rise of the individual.  One of the lessons from the future is that the individual becomes much more powerful than institutions, and corporations.  The individual has the power to connect, to communicate, to organise and to make big changes in society, and economies.

A more recent theme, which Niel (Jacobson) and I put together over the last year or so is called “Naked Leadership“.

Neil Jacobsohn

This theme has proved to be very popular with our clients in the last few months.  It looks at social media bringing about things like the Occupy movements, and the uprisings in Egypt, and Tunisia.  There are number of factors playing there: communication, the power of individuals, the transparency that people demand, and the fact that institutions, countries, governments, big businesses, and big brands, are no longer in control.

I wouldn’t like to predict where it’s going to, as it does change from day to day, but there is the argument that Occupy Wall Street is the manifestation of individuals demanding their rights, and their freedom.  On the other hand, there’s a feeling that this could be a kind of socialism which could subjugate individual desires of to those of ‘the group’.  Once the 99% are in power, where does the individual stand?

How very Ayn Rand-ian.

Exactly. It’s about individual rights being under threat.

Speaking of individuals, who inspires you as an Innovator?

One of the innovators who I truly, truly admire is a young chap called Elon Musk.  Elon is a multi-millionaire entrepreneurs living in California, but he is originally from South Africa. He helped found PayPal, which he sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.  He’s currently involved in three things: Tesla Motors (electric cars); SpaceX, his private company, which is the first private commercial company to launch a space craft into the atmosphere and orbit Earth; and, he’s also very interested in the concept of green energy.

Elon Musk

This year [2011] he was awarded half a million dollars for the Heinlein Prize, for ‘accomplishments in commercial space activities’ – which is no mean feat; and apparently (according to Wikipedia and Jon Favreau) he was the inspiration for Tony Stark, of the ‘Iron Man’ movies.

He’s an amazing guy.  And, it just shows you that innovation can come from strange places.  I think Elon epitomises what I consider to be a ‘Capital I’ Innovator.  At FutureWorld we talk about Radical Innovation, which think that ties into your view on “Capital I” innovation.

Absolutely.

Radical Innovation creates new products, new businesses, new business units, and creates a steep difference in the performance of a company.  That’s one of the truths you learn from the future… to create radical innovation in your businesses and in your life.

Radical Innovation is about expecting and getting ready for what’s next…  the next big, radical, exponential increase.  Sometimes that means you have to kill off your old business to make room for your new one.

An example of that, of course, is the iPod.  Sony could have had the iPod years before Apple did, but they said: “No! It’s going to cannibalise our Walkman business”.  Of course it did; except Apple did it for them!

That’s just a typical example.  That’s one of the lessons from the future: eat yourself before someone else does.

Its about consistently, and continuously are editing yourself.  Very Darwinian.

Certainly radical innovation is all about taking risks and finding those opportunities that are going to be the next big thing, even if it does mean killing off existing things.

When we go to companies, we try and help them to engage in programs of radical innovation.  We say that they should look at using their existing businesses, which hopefully include some cash cows, to produce the revenue necessary to invest in risky ventures for the future.  It’s like taking some of your mature business lines and nurturing them, while at the same time pouring money into more risky things that may be the next radical businesses of the future.

As a futurist, do you have any thoughts or lessons to share for 2012; what do you think we should be looking out for?

Well the problem is that, for me, 2012 is almost yesterday.  We’re looking beyond 2020, because what’s going to happen next year is already old hat… it’s kind of discarded and even obvious.  The longer view is much more important and much more interesting.  Having said that, there are lots of thing that I expect, maybe not to happen, but to start becoming much more mainstream.

One of the things that I’ve been talking about for years is solar energy becoming cheaper and more efficient.  To the extent that, ultimately, it will probably dominate as a primal form of energy world-wide.  Now, there are many reasons why you might want to debate that, but it certainly seems to be emerging as highly probable.

I’ve got a blog where I talk about ‘The New Energy’.  Whether it’s solar, biofuel, bacteria [microbial fuel cell], genetically-modified organisms or organic waste [pyrolysis], I think it’s definitely in the future.  When?  I don’t know.  But the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned, because it will offer so many opportunities and solutions to problems that everyone assumes can only get worse.

This is the big thing about the future: futurists are very optimistic.  You have to be!

Image: Peter Griffin

I think we will see black swans in climate change, in energy, in communication, and all sorts of things.  I believe that the future beyond 2020 will be a bright future.

(Kim and Doug Skype’d from their homes in Sydney and Johannesburg.)

This is the last Innovation Interview of 2011. I’d like to take this opportunity, on behalf of Michael and myself, to thank all the Interesting, Insightful, and Inspiring ‘Capital I’ Innovators who have given their time so graciously and who’ve been so enthusiastic in becoming involved in the Innovation Interview Series this year.

We’d also like to send our thanks to the thousands of people who have joined us on this journey, as readers, supporters, commentors and influencers.

To all of you we wish a very happy holiday season and an Innovative 2012!

Cheers!

4 responses to “Chewing on Black Swan for Christmas

  1. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

  2. Yes, crazy ideas, are the disruptive innovations of tomorrow………..brewing today its path toward slowly, but grounded change.

    Mario J. Martinez
    LINKEDIN

  3. What’s up everyone, it’s my first go to see at this web site, and post is genuinely fruitful for me, keep up posting these types of articles.

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