Futurist Ross Dawson’s take on the future has been remarkably accurate. He predicted the rise of social networks, Twitter, personalised advertising in his 2002 book Living Networks, long before any of them had become a ubiquitous part of our reality.
In the first part of this in-depth interview we asked Dawson to elaborate on his latest set of predictions for 2016 in a business context. We discussed the rise and rise of social media and how it impacts business, especially in the areas of brand and reputation and looked at the changing face of the slimmed-down, decentralised corporation.
In this second part of the interview Dawson discusses how are learning to deal with the vast amounts of information that we need to process every day, about the privacy implications of vastly expanded social media sharing – what Dawson refers to as “lifestreaming” – and the way that exponential growth in key technologies is likely to produce a reality that we can not even conceive or comprehend today.
There’s what I would call a “content pervasiveness” in your vision of the future – a constant streaming of data in and out from the individual. A few decades ago, in Alvin Toffler’s “Future Shock” he suggested that people would not cope well with this rapid change. Have human beings evolved to absorb change better since then or was Toffler’s vision of human adaptability too pessimistic?
Today economic value relates primarily to working with information and knowledge. We are now almost all what Robert Reich called “symbolic workers”. With content at the heart of our work, we are learning to be far better at dealing with extraordinary amounts of information than our forebears, particularly the younger people who were born into a digital world. We are indeed evolving into superior information processing animals.
However there is no question that the “information anxiety” originally described by Richard Saul Wurman in 1989 will be a pervasive element of our lives. When our ability to deal effectively with vast amounts of information drives our personal success, it becomes very difficult to let go. Some of us thrive on information excess. For many others it will remain a constant and pressing challenge.
You talk about “life streaming”, and specifically mention constant video recording. What are the implications for privacy there? In a country where you can’t photograph kids on the beach, can you also stop them wearing sunglasses?
As a society we will have to grapple with the reality of digital images being taken almost everywhere. Adding to what is in some parts of the world virtually pervasive video surveillance by institutions, will be video images streamed by individuals wherever they go. Outside your front door, privacy will be almost non-existent.
So far, the indications are that we will accept that.
How does your vision of the future impact CXOs?
The law of requisite variety says that unless a system is at least as flexible as its environment, it is completely subject to external forces. Senior executives must not only develop exceptional personal mental and behavioral flexibility, but also be able to nurture organizations that can adapt rapidly. This requires letting go of detail to a significantly higher degree than previously, and focusing on creating environments in which innovation can flourish. Comfort with ambiguity is essential as complexity increases.
More than ever, collaboration and knowledge sharing are critical competences. Large companies today are often still highly siloed, despite the rhetoric. Top executives must facilitate rich knowledge-based relationships, both between functional areas within their companies, and with the most important clients, suppliers, and partners of the organization.
Both of these trends require real and ongoing cultural shifts in organizations. An ability to respond and change rapidly is now a prerequisite for success.
How does your vision of the future impact people working in technology?
The future of IT professionals is being shaped by a number of key trends. Interpersonal skills and collaboration have become essential capabilities in an interconnected world – the days of geeks in the back room are gone.
Many more technology tasks will become commoditized, particularly as coding frameworks and platforms make development more efficient. Project management, particularly across geographical and cultural boundaries, will be where much of the value is created. Some IT people will take their technical knowledge into business functions, breaking down the barriers between technical and non-technical staff.
In your blog you’ve talked about the singularity, and you’d included in a presentation to some senior executives. Can you give us a bit of an overview on that and why it’s relevant for business?
The concept of the Singularity is that with continued exponential growth in key technologies including computer processing power and bio-informatics, there comes a point – possibly not far in the future – when the pace of technological change results in a world beyond what we can comprehend today. Key concepts of the Singularity include artificial intelligence outstripping that of humans, and brain-computer interfaces merging man and machine.
These ideas are not likely to impact many business strategies of today, however explaining the arguments that support the idea of the Singularity can be useful for executives who are seeking to build long term success. Understanding the potential scope of change over the next 20 years – within which absolutely extraordinary things are possible – helps to put 5 and 10 year strategic plans into context. Many companies, such as those in infrastructure and energy, in any case need to think about 20 year timeframes and what could happen in the business and social context over that period.
Ross Dawson is globally recognized as a leading futurist, entrepreneur, keynote speaker , strategy advisor, and bestselling author. He is Founding Chairman of four companies: international consulting and ventures firm Advanced Human Technologies, futures think-tank Future Exploration Network, leading events company The Insight Exchange, and online start-up Repyoot.
Read part one of this interview here