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An Interview with futurist Richard Watson

An Interview with futurist Richard Watson

Futurist Richard Watson was one of the speakers at our showcase, The Knowledge Guild. He spoke to us about his opinions on the future, how he deals with that concept and what 2016's unpredictability will mean for us all in the coming years.

 Richard Watson at The Knowledge Guild: Review of the Year

Hi Richard. Can you tell us a bit about what your job entails and what the term ‘future’ means to you?

In terms of what I do: I read, think and write about the future.

There’s an interesting question here about what is meant by ‘the future’. My main interest is in about 5 to 15 years out. Under 5 years - most organisations are thinking about that anyway (certainly under 3). Over 15 years - well, it can get silly very quickly! (Although pushing it out a long way does get a good conversation going about the future...)

Funnily enough, I had a conversation with a friend of mind – Lavie Tidhar, who’s a sci-fi writer – about what the word ‘future’ means, for the practical purposes of writing. We agreed that it is essentially when things start to get ‘a bit weird’ – and then we realised that that’s kind of now, which makes my job even more difficult!

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The future is comparable to a sci-fi novel - when things get a bit weird 

I think, for me at least, the future is subterfuge. I’m using the word ‘future’ to get people to think very deeply about what they are doing and where they might want to go next. If you sit in an office and stare out of a window for a week, you’ll get fired. If you call it ‘the future’ or ‘scenario planning’ or ‘strategic planning’, then that’s allowed. I think what a lot of people do, particularly senior people in organisations, is to think about crisis management, the next set of quarterly results, the next annual results. So, thinking 5, 10, 15 years hence, and where the opportunities or threats may lie, is a bit of a luxury.

So, would you consider yourself a futurist?

The term ‘futurist’ (which should be technically ‘futurologist’) is the F word. It still makes me squirm. It was applied to me when I wrote a book 10 years ago - I guess I’m stuck with it, and I suppose it’s better than any other word I can think of! My issue is that people often associate the term with prediction – and, if you look at the history of prediction, it’s has some negative baggage.

But, then again, I’m a writer, and what do I write about? The future. So, you end up coming back to the F word, and it’s very difficult to shake that off. I’ve become more comfortable with it, but it does tend to polarise – some people will drift off and others will become engaged when they hear it! “What about the future of my organisation; of food; of banking; of healthcare; of education; of transport.’ And then you can start having a good conversation with them.

The other thing that I do is I provoke, either using words or images – because, again, I want people to think about what they are doing and where they want things to go.

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Richard Watson writes about the future 

A scenario planner then! What do you want clients to take away from your talks?

When I do talks, it’s partly to do with imparting information and it’s partly to entertain. I think there has to be a lighter side to this. You can’t take yourself too seriously in this particular area.

The key takeaway for an audience is that I always like the leave them thinking about one thing – and generally it’s around getting them to improve the quality of their thinking. People think that they think, but they don’t! Or at least, they do in a generally narrow, superficial way. I want them to think further out in a much deeper, broader way, and I want to encourage people to remain open-minded. We’re entering a period of extreme volatility and uncertainty, and I think the way to solve that is the keep an open mind and to remain agile intellectually. If the world moves, you have to move with it to a certain extent.

It was certainly an unpredictable year in 2016... can you shed light on how its events might impact the future?

I think what happened in 2016, and particularly in the last few months, has been pretty significant. I’m thinking about Brexit and Trump as the two key ones because they’re the most recent, but there have been some other pretty significant events as well.

As I said before, I think we are entering a period of extreme volatility and extreme uncertainty. I think we are seeing the rise of nationalism. We’re also seeing localism, which is quite a good thing as it balances the excesses of globalisation.

Brexit is partly to do with demographics – an ageing population, the grey vote, exercising their power – and, partly people saying, “I don’t recognise the place I live in anymore”. But, like Trump, it’s also people removing an elite they don’t like or trust.

With Trump, it’s a little bit different as you’ve also economic shifts over there. America is losing power to Asia. It's potentially a declining power, and that’s got people looking for people to blame, has led to the rise of populism, and so on. There are some worrying aspects to that, but, obviously, we will just have to wait and see. Trump’s not president yet, we may never actually leave Europe. Europe could collapse before we’ve managed to leave it. Or it could be rebuilt, and we quite like the look of the rebuilt Europe and decide not to leave it or to re-join. There are multiple possibilities to what could happen to anything.

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Brexit is about demographics according to Richard 

What are the key challenges for businesses going forward?

One of the key challenges as we enter this period of extreme volatility and uncertainly is for institutions to remain resilient and agile in their thinking. This is one of the absolute critical things going forward.

We aren’t held hostage by the future, however. I do think there is an issue with people thinking that they are and that they need to keep reacting to all these things that keep happening.

Firstly, many of these things are quite superficial. A lot of the human needs and wants haven’t changed in thousands of years really, so we should never forget that. Other things retain a very high degree of certainty – if you delve into demographics, that’s a pretty certain area compared to what’s going to happen with technology.

The other most obvious thing is that the future doesn’t just happen. The future is created by what you and I do – today and tomorrow. If you look at Apple, for example, they created a future that they wanted. One of the problems that we have at the moment – and why I think there is so much anxiety in the world – is that there is very little leadership. There is very little vision – or, at least, very little coherent vision.

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Apple technology has helped to shape the future 

Why is having a coherent vision essential?

If we go back to pre-2000, people thought they knew what the future of going to look like, which was an extrapolation of the present and the past. People were deluded – but it doesn’t matter, because they had a view. The problem at the moment is that I don’t think we have a view – we can’t see the future – and that’s why we’re quite jumpy and nervous a lot of the time.

We need to have a coherent view of where we want to go – be that a family, an institution, a country, or the entire planet. For example, if you look at technology, there’s very little discussion about what it is actually for. Putting aside the ethics of some of this stuff – where is the moral code in all this computer code - what is this stuff for, and how is it supposed to aid us. That is what is sadly lacking.

What sources do you use for your scenario planning when working with clients?

Traditionally, the sources I’ve used to inform scenarios have been trend-based. You look around at what’s happening in the world and you project forward to some extent. The trouble with that has always been that trends by their nature are backward-looking – they’re historically-based – and they have a habit of bending and ultimately snapping so they’re only of so much use.

What you are really trying to find is what I call ‘critical uncertainties’: elements that are hugely impactful to an organisation that retain a very high degree of uncertainty. Classically, the economy would be like that – we are not sure what the economy is going to do next week, let alone in 20 years’ time. Climate change might be another.

I think it is also increasingly important to go outside the traditional sources. If you look at the volatility and unpredictability of the world these days, you need to go and talk to people that are around the edge rather than in the mainstream and talk to some unusual people. To really be curious and explore all these different things. It’s very conversational with people.

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Climate change is a critical uncertainty 

Can we ever be certain about the future?

You can never be certain about predicting the future at a granular level. I think you can see broad shifts and patterns but, as soon as you get to very specific detail, it starts to fall apart. You can make a good guess at the most probable scenario based on current trends but you also need to look way beyond that. I think that is what we are not doing enough of, at the moment. You’ve got to look for the unexpected. There’s a quote by Sherlock Holmes, written by Arthur Conan Doyle, which is, “You must first start with removing the impossible, and whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be considered possible.” I think the trick in this age of uncertainty and volatility is to keep an open mind, to keep testing your thinking, to keep talking to people, and to be prepared to change your mind if circumstances change.

You talk a lot of about connectivity. Where does this come into things?

A key thing that I have been talking about for about ten years now, and it features regularly in my writing and presentations, is global connectivity - or ubiquitous connectivity. This is absolutely at the centre of things at the moment. That is why we have the volatility and the uncertainty I mentioned before. We are connecting things that were not previously connected - so you get systemic risks emerging. 

Connectivitly is not just the Internet or smart mobiles. It's to do with de-regulation, mass migration, and low-cost travel. Things are being much more closely connected than ever before.

There are tremendous benefits, of course, including speed of communication, convenience, the ability to get hold of knowledge very quickly, the ability to co-create services (the peer-to-peer economy, the sharing economy, and so on), rising transparency, the personalisation of products and services. These are all good things.

As with most  things, however, there are significant negatives. Privacy is under threat. There are interesting conversations about who owns this data – which in my opinion is us - and whether it is being stolen from us.

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Privacy is under threat and connectivity is becoming more powerful 

It is also affecting our brains - something I wrote about in one of my books  ‘Digital vs. Human’. We are suffering from information overload, we’re constantly distracted, thinking is becoming quite shallow and superficial; deep reflective thought has sort of the gone out the window, or at least it is being eroded. Now, on the cusp of machines becoming emotionally aware, we’ve already got designers designing things that they know to be addictive to grab our attention. There’s an interesting tension between an Internet providing transparency, opening up democracy, challenging the ‘giants’, and on the other hand we’re being enslaved to it.

Thanks so much, Richard. That was fascinating! Can you tell us what’s next for you personally?

What’s next for me personally is probably another book around how organisations can increase the quantity, and particularly the quality, of their thinking. This touches on everything from digital devices to the nature of spaces, disconnecting, and a bunch of other stuff.

Looking to book Richard Watson, or another futurist speaker?

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