Episode 249 - Future Bizness
Published February 25, 2016
SPECIAL GUEST: Steve Wells (Fast Future Publishing). Futures thinking can be an incredibly useful tool, and in this episode we're joined by Steve Wells, of Fast Future Publishing. Fast Future put together a fantastic book on the #FutureOfBusiness (tune in for a special offer, before 3/10). Steve talks with us about the process of putting the book together, the publishing industry, 3D printing, AI, technological unemployment, copyright, and how society is changing. Recorded on 2/21/2016.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Fast Future Publishing website
Buy The Future Of Business (use code "over20" for a 20% discount before 3/10/2016 -- LAST DAY)
Fast Future Publishing on Twitter
Steve Wells on Twitter
Rohit Talwer on Twitter
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #249. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And joining us on this episode is Steve Wells. Steve, thanks for joining us.
Steve Wells: My pleasure. Nice to be with you.
MJ: For our listeners’ benefit, to start off, could you tell us a little bit about your background as a strategist and futures analyst.
SW: Sure, love to, Mike. I started off in Pfizer, actually, in a finance role; Pfizer, a big drugs company. I went from those finance roles into a strategy role, where I ran the strategic planning process for Pfizer in the UK. From that role, I went into a partnership role, which is where we worked, or try to work, strategically with customers and other stakeholders in the UK. Having left Pfizer, I tried to sort of combine those two elements into my own consulting practice predominantly in healthcare, but also worked in other sectors. Based on some workaround scenarios that I did while I was in Pfizer, I became more and more interested in getting involved with futures, and I tied up with a guy that was actually a supplier of mine when I was at Pfizer, a guy called Rohit Talwar. We did some futures work together, I did some contracting work for him, and got more and more interested in the futures field. At the beginning of 2015, he said to me, “Look, I’ve got this wild, wacky idea. I really want to produce a book about futures thinking,” the idea behind that book being to help people embrace futures thinking more in the way that maybe they consider strategy for their organizations. So it was really about broadening access to futures thinking. And he said that he’d spoken to some publishing companies, and they said, “If you want to do a multi-author book involving about 20 authors, get that book to market, it’ll probably take you two years.” But one of the things that we thought was that if we’re going to be talking about exponential technology growth, then it would be kind of cool to bring some of that thinking into our business model. So we ended up with a book that contained the wisdom of something like 60 authors from roundabout 20 countries, and we went from concept to publishing in roundabout 19 weeks. So we really feel that one of the things that we’ve done there is kind of brought the technology lessons, if you like, from exponential technology growth, how rapidly the world is changing from a technology perspective, and we’ve brought that into our business model, and we’ve tried some other innovative things as well. So that gives you kind of a potted, I suppose, from accountant through to wacky publisher.
MJ: [laughs] So that book is “The Future of Business,” it’s now the first book launched by Fast Future Publishing, correct?
SW: Yeah, that’s right. We launched in June last year. We’re really pleased with the way that it’s gone; we’ve had some good reviews. It seems to grab people’s interests. I think one of the reasons that it does that I think is because of the breadth we’ve been able to cover. I mean, we really didn’t know what we were going to get, and this has been what’s been one of the really exciting things about this venture. We kind of set off on this journey, and it really has been a journey; we’ve kind of changed our strategy as we’ve evolved. What we’ve been able to do is we’ve been able, because we had so much content, because there was so much interest both in the book from the reader’s perspective but also from the perspective of the authors that wanted to work with us, we’ve been able to bring together such a range of topics that I think it’s appealed to a large range of people. I do think it’s an odd read, so when I describe it to people, I suggest to them that they look at the introduction and that they look at the last chapter, then they look back at the content page and dip in and out. Because one of the things that we’ve been really interested in doing, and this goes back to the heart of how we like to work with our authors, we didn’t want it to read like it was written by one person. We wanted the voice of the individual authors with the perspectives, with their excitement about the topics they wanted to talk about. We wanted that to come through so it doesn’t read like a conventional book. I’d never suggest to anyone that they started at page 1 and read through to page 577 unless there were significant flight delays. So I really think it’s a kind of book that you dip in and out of. But personally I suppose I would say this, wouldn’t I? The range of topics and the excitement with which our authors have written I think is quite unparalleled.
MB: How did you go about selecting the authors for the book?
SW: They self-selected, really. We got—through my colleague Rohit, he’s our CEO—we got, through his network, access to a lot of international futurists and people interested in futures study. So what we did, we went out to our network and we said, “These are the ideas that we have. What are you interested in talking about? Give us a synopsis of what you want to say, how much you want to write, and also importantly, how you utilize your own network as an author to help us publicize the book.” So we ended up with in excess of 70 submissions, and we whittled that down through a kind of several rounds of assessment to just over 60. When we started on this process, we really didn’t know how many we’d get. We thought we’d might get 20, we might get 25 at a push, but the level of interest was such that we did end up with over 60 contributions. So I think that, the fact that what people have done is written about what excites them, comes through in the kind of things they’ve written about and the kind of areas they’ve explored, because it’s what they’re passionate about.
MB: Since you had so many submissions, will there be a follow-up book too with the ones that didn’t make the first one?
SW: Your $5 is in the post to you as we speak, Matt, for a question like that.
SW: Because the one thing we’re determined not to do is rest on our laurels on a successful first book, so we are actually 2/3rds of the way through a second book, which is going to be called “A Very Human Future.” And we did a similar kind of thing. We went out to our network again, we gave people an opportunity that maybe didn’t make the cut the first time to come in with us again, as well as trying to appeal to new authors as well. But whereas the first book was very much about what are the things that you’re seeing now, what are the implications, how might we question how we go about doing business, we wanted a second book to be about what are the human implications of getting to a place of abundance that may be technology-driven? So, we were much tighter in terms of our brief for the second book. We’re completely aware that a lot of futures work is very dystopian in its nature. There’s a lot of scaremongering, there’s a lot of fear; there are a lot of concerns about how, for example, artificial intelligence and robotics may influence our lives; there are a lot of concerns about technology-driven unemployment. What we wanted to explore is what are the opportunities that people see technology will deliver in terms of helping society and helping humanity reach a state of abundance within a generation? So, this period of abundance on the horizon we’ve set at 2040, and we’ve already got more than 20 contributions, and we’re just looking at the moment just to see if there are any obvious gaps that we’ve missed, and we may go back to some people that we know in order to fill those gaps, and we may well do our own research and fill those gaps ourselves. But “A Very Human Future” will hopefully be hitting our bookshelves over the next couple of months.
MB: Wow, great. Look forward to reading that.
MJ: Steve, are you repeating any of the same authors between the two books, just out of curiosity?
SW: There are one or two that have come on board for the second book as well. We’re very open about this. We’re really keen that people we work with really want to work with us. So we’re not going out there and badgering and trying to persuade with a hard sell, trying to persuade people to work with us, because we’ve got a very much a partnership model in the way that we work. What I mean by that is while we have an agreement that we put in place to protect the intellectual property around both the author’s individual work and the need that we have in terms of making a commercial return on our investment, what we do is we share the profits with our authors. We have a similar model in place for the people that we call our partners, so people who provide service to our business that we don’t actually have on board on a full-time basis, simply because for a new startup business, and a startup business—I hesitate to say that we’re making it up as we go along, but frankly we’re making it up as we go along—but that kind of makes it more fun as well. So, we have this partnership model in place which is actually about sharing the benefits from a financial perspective that we realize through publishing these books, that we really fundamentally believe that there are other advantages to. So, the authors that we engage with, we think we can raise their profiles. Now, whether that’s their profiles as consultants, whether that’s their profiles as authors, or maybe some other motivation for doing it, we think there’s this dual benefit. So there’s the financial benefit but there’s also the kind of recognition benefit as well that we think we can bring.
MJ: Yeah. Well, and you guys, I noticed in kind of looking through the list of authors—and I guess I should kind of say here that you guys did send us copies of “The Future of Business” and I’ve started reading it a little bit, and so far I’m just blown away by the task that you guys have taken on. But you’ve got two of our past guests actually, Calum Chace and Peter Bishop. I’ve read Calum’s piece, I thought it was phenomenal, and having talked to him several times now, it’s right in line with what I expected. So I guess I would definitely recommend, to anyone that liked the episodes we did with Calum, to read that, and I’m looking forward actually to reading the Peter Bishop section, I hadn’t yet gotten to that one.
SW: Yeah, there’s a lot in there, it covers an awful lot of ground. So yeah, that’s great to hear.
MJ: So when you guys are looking at the second book and how you’re getting the word out, if people are maybe interested in working with you, or if people want to find the book or find what you guys are doing, where would they go?
SW: The easiest place to go is our website, which is FastFuturePublishing.com. There’s loads of information on there. We have a regular podcast series with authors from the chapters of the book. We also have some videos and so on of the authors actually talking about their book as well, as well as some information that kind of lays out really the reason for us existing, which is not just about getting books out there and making a few bucks, but it really is about trying to accelerate and expand access to futures thinking, which we think is fundamentally important. I mean if you look at some of the technologies and some of the developments that are starting to take place, some of the things that are approaching the market, then I think the evidence is really beginning to stack up that we’re almost to a tipping point where society, work, leisure, whatever it might be, the way that we live, is fundamentally going to change over the next generation. And that creates a number of different challenges, and one of those challenges that we fundamentally believe is about the skills and capabilities that organizations need to develop in order to take account of this stuff. So making sense of things, understanding futures studies, understanding scenario planning, understanding working with complexity and uncertainty… So things which have almost been at the periphery of leadership and management maybe in organizations in the past, even in the context of strategic planning, I don’t think they’ve been very well-deployed. What we’re arguing really is this tipping point is such that these skills will become essential leadership and management skills in the very near future, if not already.
MJ: I would think the market really needs to learn about that, whether it’s business leadership or just people in business, or any of us that are looking at the future and thinking, “What am I going to do for my career?” Really, at any age almost, you could benefit from that kind of thinking.
SW: It’s interesting you say that, because one of the things that we’ve been doing in the UK and internationally is taking some of the learnings that we’ve taken from the book, from the authors that we’ve worked with, and we use that information in creating speeches and presentations to engage people. Now, in some cases that’s actually about providing stimulus for people inside an organization to think about their strategic planning. What’s also interesting is that we’re getting some interest from academic institutions as well. Now, these academic institutions range from kind of heads of schools, so senior school managers, the conference, through to individual schools saying, “We think you’ve got something interesting to say that will help our 12, 13, 14-year-olds think about their education choices when they put those in the context of career choices they might want to make in the future.” So there is a clear link, I think, not only in terms of how business might respond to some of the technology developments that we’re seeing, but this is also starting to filter down, which I think is a great relief and a fantastic thing to see, to education institutions as well.
MB: Do you think—it sounds like it from what you’re saying—that schools should start teaching more stuff on futurist thinking and things like that? Do you think that’s an important topic that needs to be brought up at a younger and younger age?
SW: The problem is, I suppose, if I kind of put an educationalist hat on, then I say, “Hm, that’s just like another 104 things that people that have really good ideas think we should be teaching young people in schools.” So notwithstanding that, I think there is something about how we think about uncertainty and complexity. Now, I’ve no idea which subject that pops into. I think there are some obvious connections once we go beyond school, maybe into college or into university, when we start thinking about business qualifications and some others. But the thing is you need to change the nature and culture inside organizations to make futures thinking acceptable. What I mean by that is that if I think of most organizations, they have a few people that kind of squirrel the strategy away in some corner of the organization and never let it really see light of day until someone springs up with an idea and then they say, “Oh, this came from the strategy over here,” and the reason for that is most organizations are very much focused on operational excellence. So what I mean by operational excellence is that most organizations focus very much on the near-term, the 1 to 12 months timeframe, and no one is really incentivized beyond that period inside the organization, and organizations need to be really good at what they do now. Once a year, they start to think about how they might grow. So there’s this 1 to 3-year timeframe, say, which is a search for growth, and that’s where a lot of people do a lot of their planning. A lot of it is still very operationally-focused, although they call it strategic planning. Very often strategic planning is an extrapolation of what we’ve had in the past, and it promises the organization some “jam-tomorrow,” and maybe doesn’t think about some of the uncertainties. What I’m actually saying here is that there’s a third horizon that we need people to consider, and that’s really about creating the future, and creating the future is a much further out timeframe, maybe 4 to 10 years. What we want to see there is people bringing ideas, bring early signals that they may be seeing in the external environment INTO the organization so that an organization can be prepared for the uncertainty that’s coming. That’s not to say that they’ve identified these 5 things and they need to address those things now. What they need to do is to be aware that they’re coming and start to think about what might happen maybe to their stakeholders, maybe to their customers, and then what that might mean for their own organization. So it gives you some lead time, if you like, up to where some of these disruptive factors could play a big part in your organization.
MJ: Steve, do you have any concerns of maybe the bigger or more traditional organizations using this kind of thinking to actually look for those, as you mentioned, “disruptors,” and actually try to sort of squash them? I mean, I’m just thinking about Matt and I do a lot of talking about the telecommunications industry; I used to work for a little company you may have heard of called AT&T, and historically they have a record, if they can, buying something up, or Wall Street certainly rewarded them for not running fiber to the home in the States here. And just personally, that’s always kind of frustrated me, when organizations I’ve been part of have used strategic thinking in more of a short-term “Let’s just take the easy out, let’s keep things the way they’re going.” Do you have any concerns of organizations looking for those disruptors and trying to squash them before they get to the point where they’re kind of able to stand on their own and actually make a difference for people?
SW: I don’t think so, and I say that for two reasons. One is I guess that’s always happened, so why would it be necessarily worse? But the other thing that I think is going on is almost a democratization of science and technology. So, a lot of the ideas that we’re seeing, they’re not just the big companies that are playing with these ideas. There are obviously big companies playing in science and technology, but you’re seeing lots of ideas springing up from all over the world, and I think that globalization is also playing a factor as well. So we’re seeing much more discovery from the Far East, whereas maybe we’re used to discovery actually happening in what we think of as the Western world, so, for argument’s sake, US and Europe. So we’re seeing this globalization of science and technology development which is kind of spreading, I suppose, the creativity that we’re seeing. So, I don’t necessarily see that as any more dangerous than in the past. I guess if we slip a dystopian hat on for a minute and we think about the power of some of the technologies that we’re seeing starting to emerge, things like robotics, things like artificial intelligence, then there may be some questions to be asked about how do we want to manage that power? Do we want to leave that power with corporates, or do we want to do something that ensures the benefit of those technologies, completely released by the corporations to the benefit of humanity? Maybe that poses some questions for regulatory and legal frameworks around the world about how these kind of new technologies are monitored and the usage that they may be put to across the world.
MJ: Okay. Yeah, I was just curious. I’m not trying to be all dystopian, necessarily. Do you think that society is having these discussions—I mean, it sounds like “The Future of Business” book is definitely an effort to prompt a lot of those discussions. Do you think we’re having, as a society, as the human race really, enough of these discussions yet out in public? Because it certainly has seemed to me that the mass media anyway, they’re still very much focused on the day-to-day and really not looking towards the horizon.
SW: I would agree with that. I don’t think that these conversations are happening broadly enough. I think they’re complicated, I think that’s why. I think the individual countries where some of these discoveries and the new technologies may be developed have a vested interest in maybe, at the moment, keeping them there. I think there are conflicting interests, I suppose, from a political perspective across the world. So, does the US want to give up its technologies, make them more openly available? I was intrigued to see a report on the BBC website looking at the Virgin Galactic spaceship, and the report on the BBC website, the reporter was describing how it wasn’t actually allowed to show the inside of the spaceship, which is being developed obviously for space tourism, because the American government sees it as so important from a defense perspective. Now, you’ve got collusion, if you like, there between a private entity, a corporate entity, and a government who’s interested in keeping some aspects of that particular venture secret, and you could imagine that going on right across the world. So I think there is a dilemma between how do we allow appropriate development, then how do we provide access for humanity generally and for society to those developments for the good of humanity and not necessarily just for the good of the corporates.
MJ: Yeah. So when you look at some of these technologies, and I know just in kind of looking at the table of contents for “The Future of Business,” just to pull out some of them, the book talks a lot about 3D printing, and the blockchain, and Bitcoin, and AI. Is there any one that really sticks out to you personally, that you think is really going to transform things?
SW: I think artificial intelligence is the big one. I mean, I hesitate to play the science fiction card, because that sometimes devalues I think unfairly some of the things that we talk about there. But if we start to think about the possibility for technology-driven unemployment, then a lot of that is the combination of robotics with artificial intelligence. So that does, I think, have the capability to fundamentally change the way that humanity lives, works, plays, almost anything you care to think of. I guess the other thing that does interest me is 3D printing and the potential of that to localize manufacturing in the way that we’ve kind of never seen really in the modern world. It almost takes it back to content industry, if you like, where everything was manufactured and made locally that was needed locally. I’m probably generalizing obviously to make the point, but if you imagine that over the last 30-40 years, manufacturing has migrated towards China and the East and maybe some other places around the world, then why would you do that when there’s no cost benefit if 3D printing allows you to print locally? Not only that, it means you don’t have to transport materials so far, which has a beneficial impact in terms of drives of climate change. So I think that 3D printing and artificial intelligence are the two that I would particularly point to.
MJ: 3D printing is an interesting one to me. I’ve noticed some controversy around intellectual property with 3D printing, actually. There was a case where somebody printed I think it was a 3D object from one of J.J. Abrams’ films… I want to say—I’m probably getting the name of the film wrong, because I actually haven’t seen the film… But it was sort of a neat little kind of doodad-looking thing that was supposed to be an alien artifact, and someone had done a design of it, and I think one of the movie studios sued him for copyright infringement. Since you’re in the intellectual property business so to speak, do you think there’s any potential maybe for the intellectual property laws to get in the way of technology like 3D printing?
SW: I think the whole regulatory league or framework around the world is going to be really challenged by some of this technology coming along. I suppose it wouldn’t be unusual if we said actually technology has challenged regulatory and legal environment for a number of years. Stem cell research is just one area that immediately comes to mind. But I think that what we’re seeing is so many new developments that could have such a fundamental impact on the way that we live and work that you just get the sense that there’s almost too much momentum for the legal regulatory framework not to change. The complexity I think is how do you globalize that? And we go back really to these issues of conflicting interests, I suppose, between different countries around the world and maybe collusion between countries and corporations in certain countries to kind of protect that intellectual property. But I think we’re approaching a situation where globally we have to find some way to kind of both manage the expectations, to manage the delivery of some of these technologies to the marketplace, but also to protect people as well.
MJ: Yeah, it seems like that could be an incredibly messy area. I mean the other 3D printing thing that I’ve seen a lot of controversy around is 3D printing of guns and things like that, and how do you protect people? And yet, you read about all the potential that 3D printing has, really, it seems like it would be a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater to get rid of or put a lot of restrictions on it just to protect against what seems like, to me anyway, edge cases.
SW: Yeah, and I guess there again, we can look back over history and pick almost any technology and say, “This technology has the capability to do both good and bad.” So, let’s kind of, I suppose, put these new technologies into that perspective.
MB: Going back to the book a little bit, after getting the book put together and everything, was there anything that you learned from the book that going into it you had no idea, or something that one of the authors brought up that you thought was particularly, you know…?
SW: We had this kind of idea when we started the book, we thought we’d get some interest, we thought we’d get enough content with the people that we knew within our network to give us a book that was of interest. The big thing that astounded us was just the breadth and quality of the people that we worked with. I mean, it’s just absolutely extraordinary to have a book that includes thinking about artificial intelligence, how consciousness could develop—human consciousness—and how training of the human mind could enhance the way that we think, live, work; through to new sources of fossil fuel, through to new ways of generating power; thinking about new and exciting ways to engage in futures work, all in one book. I always actually find it quite difficult to think of anything particular from the book, because as soon as I start to think about it, I think, “Oh my god, there’s so much there!” But I think that really was the fundamental pleasant surprise, when we started to really see the scale and magnitude of what people had put together for us.
MJ: So Steve, we’ve talked a little bit before about now where people can find the book, and we’ve talked to you about making an offer for listeners.
SW: Yeah, we’re really pleased to be able to offer a 20% discount off “The Future of Business.” That’s either the print or the e-version. We operate fulfillment both in the UK and in the US as well, so you guys over there, you’re not going to have to pay for postage all the way from over here. What we’ll do is we’ll make a 20% discount offer that’ll sit in place for two weeks. All you need to do is go to the store at FastFuturePublishing.com. When you see “coupon code,” enter “over20” and 20% will be taken off your bill.
MB: Very cool.
MJ: Okay, thanks very much for that offer. And we will go ahead and include links to both Fast Future Publishing and the offer, and some of your guys’ podcast and things like that so that people can find ‘em. And thanks so much for joining us today.
SW: It’s a pleasure! Great to talk to you!
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.