Building tomorrow’s company
For James Canton, companies must be bold to deal with inevitable changes, ranging from demographic matters to acceleration of science advances; longevity, artificial intelligence, sustainability and space travel are major trends for the near futureJuly-September | 2017
A global futuristic. That’s how James Canton, CEO of the Institute for Global Futures (IGF), defines himself. Founded in 1990, the institute advises companies and political leaders about trends for the next decades. Among Canton’s counseled in a career spanning more than 30 years, are three former Presidents of the United States, the American National Science Foundation and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab.
At the age of 56, Canton is the author of three books that became reference in the world: “Future Smart” (2015), “The Extreme Future” (2006) and “Technofutures” (2004). In an interview to Mundo Corporativo, the scientist saw more reasons for optimism than pessimism, despite the turbulent times in which the world passes. “A lot that will come does not depend on these events. These are inevitable needs and we have to prepare for them” he says.
What are the key trends that will shape the future of society – and consequently of business over the next few years?
As I wrote in one of my books, there are many important trends for business, society and individuals. The first is longevity, the relationship between health care and how long can we live. We are living longer, and we need to protect ourselves more, develop genomes, healthier lifestyles. It is a fact that we will live more than any other generation, maybe the average life expectancy will reach 150 years. However, to be productive until then, we need to transform health with big data, early diagnosis and nanotechnology to build new organs and limbs. In ten years, this will transform our societies, which will have incredible benefits, with people who not only live longer, but live with full capabilities. The other trend is artificial intelligence. After all, what will the impact be? Replace or improve jobs? In general, we will learn what fits where. The autonomous economy is growing, we are creating a new culture. A new economy being shaped so that a new workforce is formed is already being felt. It is a trend that will bring abrupt changes. The third trend is sustainability. We end up offering solutions to water and other resources supply. In 2050, we’re going to have 9 billion people in the world, and we need to adapt to this. In South America, in particular, we see that there is potential to learn to use these technologies to create jobs and give food to everyone in the future. And yet, we have the space travel trend. Until 2025, 2030, we will start colonizing Mars. We will live orbiting the Moon, and live in space also. These four trends should shape our future in a very impactful manner.
In a present with so many uncertainties, how is it possible to predict the future?
Until recently, there were revolutions, governments falling in Latin America, two world wars, the rise of fascism. In the end, presidents come and go. We must, nonetheless, deal with the problems of the world. We have a responsibility in this world with the next generations and also with new technologies. The future goes beyond the political future. Our brave dreamers, who create startups, for example, need peace, security, stability and clients. We do not have a choice. It’s going to happen, regardless of the current instability. The technologies that will provide that change are already being created – nanotechnology, atoms manipulation, Information Technology (IT), including robotics, neurotechnology, synthetic biology transforming our health and quantum science for manipulation of time and space. All that is happening. Democracies are good to flush out what doesn’t work – this goes beyond four years. Deal with unstable environment as one of ten factors is more important than focusing on what happens in any country.
We are in a scenario of very fast changes, in which today’s future quickly becomes outdated. How to deal with the pace of these transformations to anticipate them?
Companies must develop the ability to have a future lab. You must look for the advanced cultures with consistency, open-minded. If you are in the financial or logistics area, you should look at what happens outside of your industry, too. In addition, big data, drones and robots will change the business model. Big changes are happening, but there are companies that are operating as ten, fifteen years ago. We’re in the middle of a revolution. Companies need to adapt, explore, experience. Every company should have ready a plan for the future, for three or ten years. We’re not planning with the boldness, or as quickly as we should. We need to shape that future. If that doesn’t happen, the company will be left behind.
How to use technology in favor of business, without fetichizing it?
Technology is not the answer to everything, of course. I also make decisions based on instinct. We don’t have to dehumanize ourselves to accept the importance of technology. However, in the end, we must deliver value or a real innovation. If your instinct is wrong, it is better to give in to the pragmatism of understanding what happens with the help of technology tools. That’s not to fetishize, this is being responsible.
What is the most important to understand the pace of these transformations to anticipate them?
The most important thing is to look outside your industry. Companies that aren’t experts in the industry can be an inspiration for transformation. What are the new tools to develop or to collaborate with others to develop? It is also learned with the discordant. Moreover, to understand these phenomena, universities should be partners. The base must be knowledge.
How can the executive incorporate the practice of thinking about the future in his routine so focused on solving issues of the present?
That’s easy. He must understand that, without thinking about the future, soon, he will fail. Maybe faster than he thinks. The pace has increased for everything, and the executive must understand that it increased for him too.
How have companies been following the evolution of society, which has been so intense in recent years? Have they been more trend creators or followers?
There are a lot of both. I work a lot with creative brands, such as Pepsi, American Express, Cisco, IBM, Phillips. These are companies that can reach the client through innovations that allow them to understand their most simple data. For example, the delivery company UPS, when started to grow in Europe, changed the uniform of its employees. Disney relented in Europe, after making a restriction on the Eurodisney Park. They didn’t want employees wearing earrings, and were convinced otherwise. They look like silly decisions, but it has to do with understanding societal trends.
What sectors do you believe are more evolved in the art of anticipating the future?
We are still creatures who form community bonds. I guess my answer is that there are no entire more evolved sectors, but special companies. There is a challenge for all areas. In the United States, for example, the millennials born in this century operate differently from the post-war baby boomers. My 15-year-old son does not use email, he communicates differently, doesn’t read the newspaper. Only that alienates him from all the companies that only advertise in traditional media. All sectors will need to evolve to deal with people like him. It is an ongoing process.
You counseled three United States presidents. What would you say to Donald Trump in terms of planning for the future?
I think he needs to focus on providing technology and education to every citizen. That means more people at the University, more technology tools for creating investors. We gave many inventions to the world. President Trump should continue that tradition.
There is a wave of nationalism in many countries which are important innovators. The future of business will be more local or more global?
My mentor is a scientist who coined a phrase that today is famous worldwide: “think locally, act globally” [Editor’s note: the phrase is attributed to the Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells]. I think the future is of global business opportunities, more than ever. Countries like Brazil offer excellent opportunities, although still need education, infrastructure and political stability. In Singapore, for example, productivity is huge because it is a small country. Brazil is rich, has resources, market, technology and has space in this global future. I work with Brazilian companies that need to think what they want to be in 2030. The Country also needs to think of a dozen things it should change until then, think of an agenda that includes access to education, IT infrastructure, energy, security and the fight against corruption. After solving its own problems, I think Brazil has the potential to be among the big global players.