Think like a futurist to survive

Speaking at Thinking Digital 2022

How do we and our businesses survive and thrive in this rapidly changing world? For generations, humans have had time to stop, think and adapt to change. It took a more than hundred years to move from the first steam engines, Stephenson’s Rocket pulling a passenger train, and the rise of industrial scale manufacturing to the first glimmers of electricity in workplaces and homes. By 1960 the global north, at least, was connected to the grid. The next fifty years took us through the digital age, Moore’s Law governing the march of processing power, and the nascent internet spawning the World Wide Web.

Now we don’t have the luxury of time. The last 15 years have seen a Cambrian explosion of technology. In 2010 we couldn’t have ordered an Uber, because our phones couldn’t tell the driver where to find us. 10,000 Bitcoin could have bought you a couple of pizzas. The rise of the machines in public consciousness was still a long way away although all the applications we bundle under ‘AI’ were building under the hood. That all seems a long time ago. Founders of 2010 expected the digital status quo to hold through scaleup, but saw success or failure based largely on their luck of catching the right digital wave and their ability to pivot quickly. It’s not getting any easier, and to survive we have to adopt a new mindset as we head inexorably towards the next paradigm shift in our world. We have to think like futurists.

1.  There are no stupid questions

We can’t know everything, and even the best of us will make mistakes we were not expecting. Taking just one sector as an example, in blockchain and crypto there are too many projects that have been impacted by basic errors in smart contracts, custody of treasuries, consensus mechanisms, and business planning. Things slip through the net because we are human, not omnipotent. Compound this across all the innovations that are slewing through the world and we see the scale of the challenge.

Collective knowledge is the only way to survive, and this cuts both ways. Don’t be offended if someone questions your knowledge. Don’t assume that someone else knows what they are doing, regardless of how well respected they are. Never stop learning.

2.  Understand the basics

When the world is spinning like a carousel, being grounded at the centre brings clarity. Education for everyone from practitioners to business decision makers and investors should start here. For blockchain and crypto, the basic properties of transparency, immutability, consensus on system state, speed of value transfers, ownership of digital things and trust in the honest ledger do not change. The technology evolves, of course. But to take a prosaic comparison, we might have all the clever accounting systems in the world but everything comes back to double entry. Forgetting the basics (ahem, Horizon) is infinitely damaging.

3.  Start with the problems

Technologies are developing so fast that leading with the latest fad is going to backfire if you don’t catch the right lucky wave. Defining a problem means that when everything changes – and it will – then new opportunities and tools can be grasped to refine and improve problem solving. Change is not restricted to new technology features, of course. The environment we work in is changing too, whether that’s responding to regulatory requirements or addressing sustainability and climate impact.

4.  Invest intelligently

Real problems whose solutions deliver an economic benefit should be the focus of investors. The bright lights of pumping tokens and fast payoffs are still a distraction, and there’s a pressing need for change. Giving, say, Silicon Valley kids a new way to invest in early stage start-ups in the hope of finding unicorns is not a societal problem that much of the rest of the world would recognise. Industry leaders are in the right position to step up and educate investors, fulfilling their returns targets with long term, sustainable growth.

5.  Follow the threads of innovation

Faced with the daily information overload, it’s easy to panic and think that you’ve missed something in the noise. But the noise fades and the message you need to hear will emerge. It’s okay to take a break. After all, we don’t just want to survive. We need to thrive and build. Education is not about absorbing everything you hear. Learn to identify the structure and consistent threads of innovation that weave through this era of disruptive, transformational change. They will show you the path to our possible futures and the opportunities they offer.

Think like a futurist: read expert visions in the short story anthology “All Tomorrow’s Futures” out now from Cybersalon.

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