It doesn’t matter how fast technology advances – there’s always someone at the end with a hand on the cable, according to Mike Walsh.
“The future is a human phenomenon,” he says. “Innovation = anthropology plus technology.”
The author of Futuretainment and chief executive of innovation research lab Tomorrow sees himself as an anthropologist rather than a technologist. However, he says, they are complementary roles – even if one dominates the discourse.
“When people talk about the future, they’re always talking about whether computers are going to be faster. They focus on the tech specifically."
Yet it's people who create technology and who use technology. That was something Apple understood, he says – the first tech company to do away with specs and sell products based on emotions.
Walsh has spent the last five years living in emerging markets – most recently China. And while we tend to equate the country with cheap mass market goods and tainted milk, Walsh says Chinese businesses know how to listen to customers and deliver what they want.
When Haier learned villagers were using its washing machines to wash potatoes, for example, its CEO ordered engineers to come up with a design that would clean vegetables more effectively.
Would that happen in the West? Not a chance – there’s too large a gap between top executives and the consumer, so those who build products are no longer the end users. At Intel, anthropologists are hired to get closer to customers, spending time in their homes to see how they use technology.
While that’s probably beyond the reach of smaller companies, it doesn’t take an anthropologist to spot emerging trends, according to Walsh.
“Look at how customers behave. If there’s a set of customers wanting to pay you in a new way, pay attention.”
In other words, forget about shiny R&D labs, and find out where users are already breaking your rules.
Walsh tends to focus on disruptive technologies on the near horizon. And although many businesses take a short-term view to the future – riding out the immediate challenges in survival mode – he says they need to take a “schizophrenic” approach, simultaneously keeping an eye on the bigger picture.
The best way to do that?
“Establish a separate arm to try new models,” he says.
This department should focus on the “second”, or distant horizon, while the rest of the company continues with the core business as usual. Give them free rein to experiment, says Walsh, but if they fail, it won’t be a big blow – and this can be a good way for family-owned businesses to get the kids started.
Once upon a time, the smartest kids were the ones who could memorise huge chunks of information. Today, they’re the ones who can most quickly find what they’re looking for on Google – the ones who can finely hone a search query or ascertain the accuracy of a Wikipedia entry, as Walsh points out.
“We need to redesign education,” he says. “We need to teach kids how to validate and source information.”
That extends to introducing a more “fluid” approach to work. Books are only as current as their latest edition, and textbooks are bulky and expensive. Meanwhile, instructions like Harvard are opting to hand out iPads instead, while Orewa College has put the iPad 2 on the school stationery list. (Walsh predicts students in the future will never use a mouse in their lifetime.)
Information is power
Data, not inventory, is the biggest asset of any business. According to Walsh, as we move toward an ecosystem of digital IP, companies will be judged on what data they collect and what they do with it, as the likes of Facebook and Amazon know well. It’s data that equips them to market to customers and build products targeted at their needs.
Thanks to the cloud, he says, you don’t have to be the size of Google or Apple to harness the power of data, with low-cost tools like MailChimp and WordPress levelling the playing field.
“There is no excuse not to compete now.”