TEDx Poland

Here’s the text of my recent talk at TEDx in Lodz (with one tiny addition I thought of on the plane home).

I’ve been thinking. About thinking.

Specifically, how do everyday environments change how we think?

Some time ago a British company gave its senior managers a sign to hang on their office doors. The signs read:

“Do not disturb, I’m thinking.” Interesting the company didn’t think that junior managers should think, but that’s another story.

I think this situation would be almost impossible today. Firstly, we have become obsessed with open plan offices, so individual offices, along with doors, are mostly gone. Secondly, the supermarket chain now operates a clean desk policy. This means that anything left on a desk after 6.00pm is thrown in the bin. The idea here, presumably, is that a messy desk is the sign of a messy mind. But I am reminded of what Einstein said about this:

“If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what then is an empty desk?”

Anyway, mess can be productive. Leon Heppel was a researcher at the US National Institutes of Health. Mr Heppel’s desk was fantastically messy. So messy in fact that he had the habit of every so often putting a sheet of brown paper over the mess in order to create a second layer of mess. Multi-story mess. Fantastic.

But here’s the good bit. One day Mr Heppel was flipping through some papers on the lower and upper levels of this desk and stumbled upon two letters from two totally unconnected researchers. He suddenly spotted a connection and put one in touch with the other. This connection subsequently led to a Nobel Prize. Had the letters been in a conventional filing system chances are the connection would not have materialised.

The third reason such a sign such would be ridiculous today is that it’s almost impossible not to be disturbed. Most people no longer have secretaries, so calls come straight through unannounced. We have mobile phones. And email, twitter, facebook and a cacophony of other mobile devices that do not respect either time or place.

Does this matter? I think it does. Putting aside the issue of how such interruptions impact human relationships, there’s the concern that they are destroying serious thinking, especially the kind of deep thinking that companies claim is so important nowadays. This is the kind of focussed, deliberate, calm, reflective thinking that’s associated with ‘out of the box’ creative thinking.

A couple of years ago I contacted almost a thousand people of all ages and walks of life and asked them a very simple question:
“Where and when do you do your best thinking?”

Only one person said in the office and they didn’t mean it – they said very early in the morning when there was nobody else around. In other words, when the building wasn’t really functioning as an office at all.

The top 10 responses were:
1. When I’m alone
2. Last thing at night/in bed
3. In the shower
4. First thing in the morning
5. In the car/driving
6. Reading a book/newspaper/magazine
7. In the bath
8. Outside
9. Anywhere
10. Jogging/running
Let me read out a few individual responses:

“Loading the dishwasher, scrubbing the floors, scouring the pans; the polishing, the cleaning.”

“ Over the decades, I think that my best thinking has occurred when I am visiting a foreign country, have my obligations out of the way, and am sitting in a pleasant spot – in a café, near a lake – with a piece of paper in front of me.”

“I do my best thinking in bed – sometimes even when asleep. I wake up having solved a problem.”

“Usually when I am not working, and most often when I am travelling!”

“I sit down (usually at home, in my study, in my grandmothers Welsh oak chair),
with a sharp pencil and a blank notebook and start to draw out the idea, almost graphically.”

“37,000 feet and half way into a gin and tonic”

“In a hot bath”

“I do my best thinking ‘if’ I go to church – away from things and where I am forced to stop working and usually drift off and stop listening.”

“I do my best thinking on a morning run – the crisper the air, the better…I like big sky, open fields and lots of fresh air.”

“I do my best thinking in bed – my dreams are often very close to real life, so sometimes I wake having solved a problem,”

“Not sitting in front of a screen – I tend to find that ideas come to me when I’m sitting on the ferry, in the shower, walking between meetings, listening to the radio…I think it’s something to do with having mild diversions between you and the problem.”

Do these responses have anything in common? I’d say yes. A significant proportion of the activities cited involve a relative degree of solitude and silence.

In an age of multi-tasking, crowd-sourcing and 24/7 media, doing nothing, or what sometimes appears to be nothing, seems to be vastly underrated too.

The way our minds work is that they need time to switch off, rest and relax. We need to go to bed, take a nap or do something that takes our mind off things.

This can mean going for a very long walk, visiting a bookshop for no particular reason, looking out of a window or doing something very mundane or repetitive
– ideally something physical – that uses a different part of the brain. All of these activities allow our minds to drift and dream.

Travel can be useful too, as is any new experience, because new inputs create new outputs. The key, in my view, is volume and diversity are key here.

In my experience, long-haul flights are especially productive, especially if there’s a window to look out of. I think this is because I’m suspended between places.
I have no responsibilities and therefore I have permission to relax. Mind you, I flew with Ryanair yesterday and I can definitely say it didn’t work with them.

Scale seems to be important too. You sometimes need to feel physically small to have a big idea – so being very high up often helps. This might explain why mountains and especially space travel can change our thinking so profoundly. Seeing a distant horizon also appears to project our thinking forward.

I think artists instinctively understand this, which is why basements with strip lighting are possibly not the most productive of spaces if you are contemplating a masterpiece.

And let’s not forget about churches. I mentioned churches to a teacher a while ago saying that I thought they could change how people think. He said no. I was wrong.
They change how people feel and this, in turn, changes how people think. I think that’s an interesting thought.

Personally, with churches, I think it’s something to do with a combination of high ceilings, relative silence and history, although some people might say God is in the details too.

A really good library is another thinking space that’s interesting.

Public libraries are having a hard time at the moment, partly because governments are trying to save money, but also because they are seen as being increasingly irrelevant. After all, who needs a physical library in the age of Google and eBooks? Not anyone between the ages of five and sixty-five it seems.

But this rather misses the point in my view. Physical books are important, but that’s not why good libraries should be preserved. Libraries are important, not because of what they contain, but because of what they don’t.

In a world that’s becoming faster and noisier, libraries are valuable because they are one of the very few spaces we have left where silence is still golden. In short, they are one of the few places where you can literally hear yourself think.

But most libraries don’t seem to get this.

They are trying to modernise themselves. To bring themselves up to date with our new culture of instant digital gratification and universal connection.

But I think this is a big mistake.

In my view, libraries should stop trying to compete with Starbucks. If you allow the use of mobile phones, noisy laptops and coffee machines in libraries what you will end up with is not a library. It’s a Starbucks. They should be doing the very opposite.

So here’s my idea. We need to preserve silent spaces.

For example, we should make a lot of noise about the fact that mobile phones – both our own and those belonging to others – can be disruptive and use should be restrained or restricted in some places.

Similarly, quiet coaches on trains or airplanes should be just that. Parents will unruly children should perhaps be given instant fines.

And perhaps in restaurants dinners should pay extra if they want to talk to someone other than the person – or persons – they are eating with.

But perhaps that’s too easy.

I was watching a documentary about Leonard Cohen a while ago. Bono, Adam Clayton, Larry Mullen and The Edge from U2 were asked about Cohen’s music. Bono made a great comment that Leonard’s success stemmed partly from the fact that he was patient. If he couldn’t find what he was looked for he just waited.

I think that’s an interesting insight, but another comment caught really my attention.

One member of U2 commented that if you study the early stages of Christianity it was the widely accepted thought that if you wanted to hear God’s voice you had to go somewhere really quiet. Quite a logical thought if you think about it.

I’m not especially religious, but I think this thought can take us somewhere useful.

How about creating a law that insists that everyone takes a week off every ten years to think. That retreats are set up on top of mountains where all forms of communication – both digital and physical – are banned and where conversation is strictly regulated.

This might not change the world, but it might change a few peoples’ perspectives.

Inspiration strikes!

Typical. I’ve just spent half a day drafting some material for a TEDx talk in Poland next month and had to junk the whole thing. I was planning, yet again, to talk about how architecture influences thinking when I suddenly thought no. I want to talk about gardening. This was probably a result of a briefing sheet urging people to talk about what they were most passionate about. Therefore the choice was essentially new ideas, old cars, wine, greenhouses or gardening.

Then the strangest thing happened. Out of nowhere it occurred to me that what I really want to talk about is libraries! So, librarians of Lodz, get yourself down to the conference center at the Technical University on Sept 9.

TED talk (I won’t know what I think until I see what I say)

Here’s the text of my recent TEDx talk in Germany. Note that these are only my notes and not what actually came out of my mouth…

If you gave an infinite number of futurists an infinite amount of time, would one of them eventually be correct about something?

I wrote a book a few years ago about what I thought might happen over the next 50 years. Ever since I’ve been called a futurist and I’m now regularly called upon to make predictions.

But the history of prediction isn’t particularly good.

For example, in 1886, the engineer Karl Benz predicted that: “The worldwide demand for automobiles will not surpass one million.” Eight later, in 1894, an article appeared in the Times newspaper in London predicting that: “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under 9 feet of horse manure.”

How could they have got things so wrong? Simple. Both predictions were based on past experience. They were extrapolations built upon what turned out to be short-term trends. Both used critically false assumptions.

In the case of Karl Benz the mistake was to assume that cars would always require a chauffeur and that the supply of skilled chauffers would eventually dry up. In the case of London being buried under horse manure the mistake was to assume that the volume of horse transport would increase indefinitely alongside population. The article also totally misjudged the disruptive impact of motorised transport, invented by the aforementioned Mr Benz.

On the other hand, the accuracy of some predictions can be rather good, especially if you give them enough time to come true. Hindsight, it would appear, is a necessary accompaniment to futurism.

A few years ago I picked up a couple of old books in a junk shop in the middle of the English countryside. The first was called Originality and was written by T. Sharper Knowlson in 1917. Here he is quoting Sir Aston Webb about the Future of London from the perspective of 20th January 1914 .

“There are two great railways stations, one for the north and one for the south. The great roads out of London are 120 feet wide, with two divisions, one for slow-moving and the other for fast-moving traffic; and there will be a huge belt of green fields surrounding London.”

Not bad. Or how this passage from the second book I bought, which was Future Shock written by Alvin Toffler in 1970:

“The high rate of turn-over is most dramatically symbolised by the rapid rise of what executives call ‘project’ or ‘task-force’ management. Here teams are assembled to solve specific short-term problems. Then, exactly like the mobile playgrounds, they are disassembled and their human components re-assigned. Sometimes these teams are thrown together to serve only a few days. Sometimes they are intended to last a few years. But unlike the functional departments or divisions of a traditional bureaucratic organization, which are presumed to be permanent, the project or
task-force team is temporary by design.”

Remember, this book was written more than 40 years ago. In sounds like Silicon Valley in 2011. The list goes on. Peter Drucker wrote about portfolio careers in 1988 and Warren Bennis was writing about the need for radical innovation in the late 1960s.

And let’s not forget HG Wells launching ballistic missiles from submarines in The Shape of Things to Come in 1933, Arthur C. Clarke envisioning a network of communications satellites in geostationary orbit above the earth in 1945 and Captain James T. Kirk using what appears to be a Motorola cell-phone way back before any such thing had been invented.

Admittedly some of these are broad concepts rather than specific predictions, but this doesn’t negate the fact that a few seers do occasionally get it right and that the future would be a good subject for serious study if only the sources were more forthcoming.

Of course, what you really need when you are thinking about distant horizons is a map, so I designed one last year. It contains far too much information and is far to complex, but then that’s probably the future isn’t it?

The outside of the map contains a series of predictions that get more playful and more provocative as you move out towards the edges. For example:

• There will be a convergence of healthcare & financial planning
• We will have face recognition doors & augmented reality contact lenses
• Online communities will start physical communities

The centre of the map contains some mega-trends such as globalisation, urbanisation, sustainability, volatility, the power-shift Eastwards, ageing, anxiety and so on. But be careful. Trends like these can get you into all kinds of trouble. In fact they can easily get you into more trouble than predictions because people believe them.

Firstly, trends represent the unfolding of current events or dispositions. They tell us next to nothing about future direction let alone the velocity of events. They do not take into account the impact of counter-trends, strange combination or anomalies.

But there’s an even bigger problem, which is that in my view there’s no such thing as the future. The future is ambiguous. It’s uncertain. Therefore, there must surely be more than one future. In other words, there must be a number of alternative futures.

Look at this chart for instance. This shows a series of forecasts about the number of active oilrigs drawn up by an oilfield supplies company in the early 1980s. Someone looked at the data and produced a series of entirely logical high, medium and low predictions (I, II & III). The bottom line is reality.

What nobody foresaw was that what looked like a long-term trend was in fact a short-term situation based on a high oil price, low interest rates and government subsidies. In short, they failed to see that while all our knowledge is about the past, all of our most important decisions are about the future.

So what can we do to address this central problem of prediction? Is there any point whatsoever in trying to predict the future or is it best just to sit back and let it happen?

Letting the future happen is actually not a bad option, but only if you are nimble. If you have an open mind and can move quickly a fast follower strategy can work. But most organizations are neither nimble nor open. They are mentally closed to the outside world and stuck with assets and systems that were created in the past. Most organizations are built around historical ideas and are constrained by various legacy issues and are concerned with numbers that relate to the last 12 months and worry about what will happen to these numbers over the next 12 weeks.

A much better bet, in many instances, is Scenario Planning. This has its origins in war gaming or battle planning, especially a 6th Century Indian game called Caturanga, meaning four divisions, and Kriegsspiel, a German war game invented in 1812. War gaming is still used by the military today, but also by companies such as Shell, who use narrative scenarios to look at the potential impact of a number of external variables on strategy or long-term capital expenditure.

To illustrate how scenarios work here’s a set of scenarios I did with some friends a few years ago. When you do scenarios you generally start with a focussing question and I like to explain this by asking people to imagine that time travel really exists and to prove it the inventor has just come back from the future to say hello.

If you were allowed to ask this person just one question what would it be? Now I should explain that questions like “when will I die?” or when will the USA soccer team win the World Cup aren’t allowed. The question is supposed to relate to work, although if you were to do a personal set of scenarios then it would be fine.

In this case the question was simply around future customer mindsets. You’ll notice that there’s a vertical and a horizontal axis. These are created by finding two unrelated forces that are both highly impactful and highly uncertain. In this instance there’s one axis built around activism versus passivism  (‘We’ versus ‘Me’ if you prefer) and one built around optimism versus pessimism, which is created by attitudes towards the economy and climate change.

Once you impose one axis against the other four divergent futures are revealed, each of which becomes more distinct and extreme as you move outwards from the middle.
Starting in the bottom right corner we have a scenario called Moreism. The key drivers creating this scenario are optimism and individualism, so we get a world of globalisation, free markets, materialism and economic growth at almost any cost.
This is a world primarily driven by greed.

Moving across to the bottom left, we get a scenario where the drivers are pessimism and individualism. So this is a world where people essentially give up hope and move into a survivalist mindset. It’s a world initially dominated by local community and self-reliance, but as you move outwards it starts to incorporate protectionism and to some extent isolationism – even xenophobia – where hatred is focussed upon anyone that is not considered to be part of the group. In a word, it’s a world driven by fear.

Moving up to the top left we have Enoughism. This is obviously the polar opposite to Moreism. It’s a world where people decide that they’ve got enough and that they’ve had enough. It’s a world where people decide to change how they live in relation to the planet and reinvent many of the institutions, models and structures that have grown up over the past hundred years. It is very sustainable, very ethical and very community driven. It is a post-materialist world where work-life balance features strongly, as do social value, meaning, purpose and happiness. It is to some extent idealistic and certainly altruistic.

Finally, in the top right, we have Smart Planet. This is a world driven by a strong belief in the power of science and technology. A world powered by human imagination and ingenuity. An accelerated world of genetics, robotics, internet and nanotechnology, where smart machines reshape the world. However, there are some unexpected counter-trends. Alongside emotionally aware machines and augmented reality we see a need develop for physical objects and human interactions. It is smart and efficient, but this creates a certain coldness, so people crave heart and soul.

But there’s still a problem here. The point of scenarios such as these is to help people to anticipate change. To foresee, to some extent, a range of alternative futures against which current thinking and strategies can be tested. But whilst it’s possible to track emergent scenarios – even to develop contingency plans for each eventuality – at the end of the day I think you have to commit.

Cast you mind back to the map and some of the trends in the middle. One of the trends was anxiety, which I said was caused by several of the other trends. But it’s also caused by the fact that people no longer have a clear view of what lies ahead.

Doing nothing and waiting for the future to unfold is one option. Making a series of educated guesses – deeply questioning why things are happening and asking what might happen next is a much better idea. But there’s a third option. Leaders are supposed to have a clear vision of what can be achieved and what the future could look like if we take a certain path. Unfortunately, most leaders nowadays don’t do this. They wait to see what the majority of people want and then they say that they agree. This is despite the fact that most people don’t know what they want and soon forget what they’ve said. Similarly, CEOs and politicians will not agree to anything that takes to long or is too difficult to deliver.

But we can all be leaders. We can all drive things forward ourselves. All we have to do – as individuals, countries, corporations, even the entire planet – is to decide upon where it is we want to go and to slowly start moving in that direction. In other words, we need to pick the future we want and start building it. This will be difficult. We will get many things wrong. But if we could at least agree amongst ourselves where we are going we would soon start to re-perceive the present and the future would be a much better place to live.

Questions about the future

I don’t usually run workshops (so many people are so much better at it than I) but I was persuaded  to do so at TEDx in Munich yesterday. We started off with three questions, which were;

1. If you met someone from the year 2050 what would you ask them?
2. Is there any value whatsoever in trying to predict the future?
3. What is the most consequential failure of this generation from the perspective of future generations?

The group thought that question number one was the most interesting and went on to generate a number of potential questions that we might  ask our time traveling friend . After a vote we selected one question, which was “What are the core values in society?”

We then tried to develop a set of scenarios that might answer this question. We looked at some potential drivers of change and there was an interesting discussion about real life versus virtual reality, one around physical security and another focused on  people (whether the focus would remain on the individual or shift to the group), the planet (is it healthy or not?) and profit (is there a more away from money as the primary measure of value?). At one point we tried to describe the future in terms of current world cities, but this proved to be a terrible idea because it brought us back to the present day too easily.

In terms of values we talked a lot about connectivity, culture, productivity, privacy, freedom of choice and culture (not at all happy with that list on reflection).

At one point we decided that we didn’t know what we were talking about, but then concluded that thinking about the future had revealed some interesting insights about the present, which possibly answered question number two.


TEDx in Munich was fun. I didn’t come away with any answers, but I did certainly come across some good questions. One question, courtesy of  Dr X (I’ve forgotten his name!) was why we spend so much time building machines to assist with our thinking when it’s clearly our feelings that need attention. Put a slightly different way, why is the idea of a ‘world brain’ so attractive versus a ‘world heart’? This linked into a discussion about how values might change in the future and whether shifts might include more of a focus on things relating to the human heart (in turn linked into the idea of emotional currency, social value and social capital and so on).