What does The Futures Agency do?
I work as a futurist and spend most of the time on media, entertainment content and communications. I have 25 colleagues at Future Agency. We are agents for the future. What we do is preview the future forward. Media companies have to think about five billion people connected to cheap devices using social media, cloud computing that is completely changing the way that they do business, how they sell ads, what movies they produce, how they distribute. Our work is to go to the future, bring the experiences back and then shock the participants to think about.
Do people really get frustrated when you say things?
Yes. The reality is people don’t change and companies don’t change unless you have got a bit of a pain effect — the threat of potential death. For companies this does wonders because it motivates them.
Can we crystal gaze only five years?
Lot of the things that are happening are pointed towards the immediate future — three to five years. The immediate future is quite obvious to see if you take the time to look. And my work is not to tell the people what they don’t know but to bring it back into their forefront of their mind.
Traditional media continues to dominate India and digital is evolving… Your take.
My prediction would be that there are quite some healthy windows for print, radio and television. But media companies looking at the future would have to create a double scenario.
Are companies bound to vanish if innovation is not put into practice?
Absolutely. Digital default means a lot of different things for companies. For example, the empowerment of the consumer, the move to mobility, the consumer participation, peer-to-peer reporting. I mean, these are great opportunities. But if you ignore most of them, it is very unlikely you will be successful because you will need significant control of the market to keep people to keep happy.
Why are startups active compared to legacy companies?
For startups it is an idea that they do things better to replace something that isn’t quite working. And they are undiplomatic, look for aggressive innovation and a disruptor. Now, for a company that has 100,000 employees is very hard to be a disruptor unless they have an aggressive CEO like Jeff Beezos of Amazon, very fast moving and risk taking person. Also, we have a very bad system with the stock market that does not reward risk taking and it rewards gradual risk taking. Startups have very little to lose.
I tell all my big clients – telecom and media companies – that they should have a second place to where they can be a startup and shoot down the mothership, where you can replace yourselves before somebody does it. This is important because speed of change is mindboggling. You can see that in India. Every year, I go there it is in other leap. If you don’t move along with the speed and allow room for innovation and risk and if you are too slow eventually you will fall of the cliff and nobody cares where you go.
Your thoughts on innovation execution and assumptions…
Once, you create the space, people come forward. All you have to do is create that space. We also have to question our assumptions. For example, the movie industry and music industry have thought for a long time, that if they can control distribution and make sure that you make no unauthorized copy that they can make lots of money because people are forced to buy the real copies. But it was wrong. It is not possible to control the copying. And, people didn’t buy the expensive DVDs or downloads in iTunes and they are streaming for free. So, we have to question our assumptions – is it really important to control or is it more important to create a scenario where people love my product. And that’s what Amazon, Netflix and YouTube have created. Now, they have to figure out how to earn their revenues quicker.
Innovation doesn’t require big technology. Some create successful enterprise and many are unable to do so. Why?
This is something like cooking. Basically, if you are trying to create a successful enterprise, you don’t take fifty different items and throw it on a pot. You don’t put everything in. And you have a vision of where it goes. When you start a company, you need to figure out what exactly is it you are trying to do. This is more like you are creating a vision that is much more than a spreadsheet. And, this is especially true in media because it is a fragmented world. People like different things. There isn’t one solution that fits everybody.
What are the major concerns and questions global CEOs ask you today?
They look out for answers on data. Data has in fact become the new oil and there are anticipations that in the next five to ten years, data economy will be larger than the fossil fuel economy because it drives society, it drives e-commerce and it does all the things that create value. That is a big question. The other thing is about protecting ourselves from data. The next question is the human computer interface/human machine interface. Technology is going to get so smart that a day before it will tell you what the stock market will look like for your stocks tomorrow. And, it can tell you five hours before that you are going to be late for your next appointment. And you can find all the financial information at the click of a button. We are heading into a science fiction world, even in developing countries. This technology will be so cheap, that you will speak into your phone and get an answer. And that will really change the way people look at culture, flow of information, those are some of the key questions.
Where are the innovations happening today?
Innovation can happen anywhere. Silicon Valley is still a hotbed for innovation because of their mindset. The mindset of being essentially a cowboy culture. A culture in which you just go for it. And that’s American culture. And what we need to do in other countries is to be more adventurous, to take more risk, think outside of a current thing.
In terms of technology and access to information, India has more graduates in technology than all of the US combined in ten years, per year. The resources are there. But what we need to create is platforms for risk taking and also the inspiration to go out. This doesn’t have to do with money. This has to do with the feeling that what you do is appreciated.
As a futurist how do you see the current big companies — Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft — in the coming years
They are clearly becoming fabric of our life. Take the highway for example. If we don’t have highways, we have to drive slower. Google and the likes are the infrastructure. If they don’t do the mistake of abusing the relationship not protecting our data or expose us to bad things, not creating standards, not being open, not creating value, then we would leave them. That is the only danger I see there.
And, other danger is if they become too much like algorithms and machine and lose the human part. Another danger is that — we become part of what they want to be. These companies are infrastructure and they are going to do what we need to justify their existence which I think, they will. You can see the current debate about privacy and data. Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple and Yahoo. If they don’t protect us from mass surveillance , we will leave them. And, they know that.
What is the kind of people/companies that you would like to meet in India when you are here at the CII Big Picture Summit?
I would like to meet people who are ready to change, who are facing a situation and say we are looking to figure out what the next edition of our company looks like. Because many people are putting a bandage on a wound, fixing themselves up a little big and that won’t be enough, I am interested to meet people who are ready to transform themselves and transform their companies. I look at technology as a rocket curve now. And adoptions are becoming much cheaper and probably become free in terms of devices and Internet access. So, what that means is that the speed of innovation and transform yourselves when you are still ahead today is crucial. I want to meet people who are taking that transformation that I can talk to and also learn from.
Do you see life without Internet?
That’s a bit like life without water. My theory is we are always connected and to be offline is the new luxury. The idea of being in a constant flow of information and communication is interesting and powerful. But is not necessarily human to always be part of that second universe or the second brain as people call it. If offline is a luxury, there is going to be another entire industry as well because machines and technology are exponential. In five years, it will be fifty times powerful. Humans are not. We are not exponentially growing our brain.
As a media futurist, do you take risk?
Of course. As a futurist, I try to live what I say which is not to assume that what I say today will be true tomorrow. There are couple of things that you learn over the years. For example, the ability to look at two different things at the same time. Socrates had said that the ability to look at two separate and divergent things at the same time is where true intelligence comes in. That’s what I look for. I am not looking at a bunch of data and coming out with a projection. I am trying to create wisdom that is inclusive of these factors.