Exponential Minds Podcast Interview with Glen Hiemstra, Part 3: Glen Hiemstra on probable, possible and preferred futures
For Episode 1 of the second season of the Exponential Minds Podcast Nikolas Badminton had the pleasure to speak with a futurist with over 40 years of experience in the field, Glen Hiemstra. Nik is also the newest member of the Futurist.com Think Tank.
Glen is an internationally respected expert on future trends, long-range planning and creating the preferred future. An inspiring and deeply experienced voice among futurists, Glen has advised professional, business, and governmental organizations for over three decades. He is also the Founder of Futurist.com.
You can listen to the full interview here, and Part 3 (of 4) of this interview transcription, edited for clarity, is below.
Forgetting past lessons
Nikolas: It just seems to go in cycles. Look at the 1950s. There’s a lot of problems around race in different cities and the violence spilled out of frustration and tension. That also turned up again in the 80s. So that’s 30 years later. And, then from the 80s to the 2010. I was a little surprised. It’s a 30-year cycle. So maybe this is just what happens every 30 years for some reason.
Glen: It could be part of generational cycles, ala William Strauss. That whole thinking has to do with different generations and sort of what the theme for that generation is, and I believe the whole process has a 40-year cycle or maybe is a 30 year.
I’ve also thought it related to that, or it might just be a kind of a cultural forgetting cycle. We deal with something, then the generation that dealt with it literally passes away, as in the case of the World War Two generation, and everybody forgets what it was like to, to live in an ultra-nationalist time. The thought of conflict between nations stops being scary and starts being kind of romantic and people think that’d be kind of fun to have a war. Wouldn’t that be exciting?
I wonder if there’s a little bit of that now. As you know, next Monday is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz camp in Germany. And it’s bizarre to think that it’s only 75 years ago since that happened. But, everybody living who was there in person is in their late 90s. So soon everybody who was there will be gone. And then everybody sort of forgets what that was like. So now we have a rise, a new rise of anti-semitism around the world, and people don’t remember how horrible that all was.
This cycle might just literally have to do with this weird part of the human memory that unless we were there personally it does not register as well. We also have this tendency to romanticize things. I mean, you and I are just romanticizing positive futures. Maybe it’s all part of the same phenomenon.
Nikolas: I talk about liberal dictatorships. It’s that kind of thing. I wrote an article recently about fighting personal dictatorships. Can you sit down with a right wing, nationalistic person and can you argue and discuss and really start to liberate both of your thoughts about understanding the trauma that came before the position.
I grew up with kids that literally got turned in the 1980s in South West Britain and these ‘big brothers’ turned up – they were skinheads. Suddenly these young men, like 18 years old, had a new family. It was a scooter gang, and it was the National Front and you sit there and you fight against them and you talk to them about compassion. It’s very hard to muster up in the face of these individuals and because you almost have to teach them what compassion is before you can have those conversations.
Helping organizations with visions of the future
Glen: I’ve been reading things in the last couple of days on the theory that the best way to reach people who are thinking in a way completely opposite from you is to sit down and ask them questions and try to understand their viewpoint. There is, you know, nothing Earth shaking about that perspective.
I remember when Peter Senge was writing about company vision. And his argument was that the best way to communicate a vision in your company, your organization, as a visionary leader, is not to tell people what your vision is but rather to ask people what their vision is, and then look for a way of bringing them along. But it’s been a matter of reading these things. But the difference today, and you alluded to this earlier in our conversation is social media, and the Internet, and so on.
The reinforcement that goes on, no matter what your perspective is. I have my Twitter feed, and I curate that Twitter feed pretty hard. So that is mostly things that I like, almost all the things that I agree with that make me feel good about my own perspectives and so on. And I’m a very open-minded person in general, and even talk about the need to be open minded. But you think about all that reinforcing that’s going on now compared to, as you said in there before they’re early 1990s, when the Internet really became a thing, I think it’s much harder to have that kind of mind changing conversation. And so it’s more talking past each other. It makes me concerned about how we get through this sort of hyperpolarized era that we’re in. It could be more than just another cycle. Because national governments, national intelligence agencies and so on are weaponizing all this kind of thing. It’s going to be hard on society.
Nikolas: I want to ask you this. Over the last couple of decades have you seen the makeup of your clients changing? Different industries that were prevalent in the 80s and 90s. And those now in the 2000s?
Glen: Yes, there are two things. Number one, the 90s was when I started doing this full time. In the 90s everybody wanted a vision for the 21st century. So it was actually a really good time to work as a futures consultant. And my work includes two aspects – public speaking, conference and convention keynotes, that kind of thing. And then there’s the consulting side – running organizational retreats, long-range planning sessions where an organization will say “let’s look further ahead than we usually do, let’s create a new vision for ourselves. Let’s take a 10, 20, 30-year horizon.” In the 90s I worked primarily in the US. Everybody in healthcare wanted to do a new vision, the Clintons were in charge and they were all about health care reform. And so that was driving a lot of health care people. Virtually every government agency and city wanted a vision, so I did a lot of work with large cities like Atlanta that wanted to have a vision for 2020.
Also, natural resources organizations and forestry product companies, including Canadian ones. And, some of the technology companies, though they have been an exception because they tend to be self-sufficient and think of themselves as smarter than everybody else, which in some ways they are. And so they feel less of a need for outside kind of consulting, they say ‘we are the futurists’.
Then 2000 happened, everybody had their 21st century vision. 9/11 happened and everybody got very afraid of the future. Then there was a dip in work with the economic downturns as well. There was less interest.
In the last 10 years since 2010 or so there’s been a very big uptick. It has been very much around energy – utilities, electric utilities, oil and gas associations. And that’s been quite fascinating. They really want to hear about the future.
Before we started the podcast recording you and I were talking a bit about oil and gas in general, their thoughts about the future. They’re not yet willing necessarily to change anything that they’re doing. But, they’re certainly aware of it. So in the last few years has emphasized the thinking needed around energy, transportation and transportation agencies. What’s the future of driverless vehicles? Is that really going to change how transportation works?
And, then there is retail. I’ve done a fair amount of retail because retail has faced so much change. So a lot of retail companies have asked me to “come in and help us think about what’s the future of consumer behavior and can we have storefronts.” Also, financial services with the same kinds of questions.
The most, the most interesting project that I’ve worked on is the now embattled Boeing Company. They had their hundredth anniversary, they’d been in business for 100 years in 2016. Being from Seattle meant I’ve done a fair amount of work with them over the years. Presentations to their management associations and some strategic planning facilitation with various divisions and groups and so on.
Anyway, they said, “Let’s look ahead 100 years since it is our hundredth anniversary,” and they assigned a team to do that. The team contacted me and we put together a three day off-site, deep dive into what’s the next hundred years in transportation, aerospace, space development, and so on. And we had a really exciting session. imagining or not so much imagining as asking the question, “what will be some strategic opportunities over the next 100 years if you’re an aerospace company,” right, and that was quite good. They were interested in autonomy, 3D printing, and additive manufacturing as they called it.
So, those are some of the changes. Number one, this high interest in the future, followed by a dip in interest in the future now a reemergence of an interest in a somewhat longer-term future.
Nikolas: It’s really interesting. I see exactly the same thing. Retail is actually one that’s interesting. Because we’ve been measuring the fiscal health of the country based on things like retail sales and how good that is. It’s completely wrong in my mind. But suddenly this juggernaut that is consumerism and capitalism forges ahead. Now we look out to like China, communism, communism, you know, it rarely exists in this world. I mean, you can go to Laos or you can go to North Korea and that is an incredibly scary sort of a case study there.
Glen: Is North Korea really communism? Or, are they really just a kind of family dynasty? Proxies? You know? One of the great dangers of the world is you get these emergent movements, we call we call them national populism or nationalism movements, but they’re really movements around consolidating power in the hands of a ruling family or ruling set of families and, and making them or enabling them to just steal a lot of money, basically. Yeah, absolutely. I mean,
Nikolas: Just in the past four days, I’ve chatted to three different organizations. One was a quite well known design agency and two different size consultancies. One is 7000 people globally and the other is like a startup with 3 people just starting off. They’re all tapping people like us on the shoulder and asking, ‘how can we consider dystopian futures to inspire our planning?’ Or. ‘how can we build up our futures practices?’, and whatever because suddenly, they’re seeing this as a huge opportunity, but we’re rarely seeing any company in the world actually having a Chief Design Officer.
There’s something happening in the advertising industry with the ‘head of futures’ and roles like that becoming more common. But it’s very different than building out a foresight capability in an organization.
Glen: There are a few and you know of them. Of course there is Ray Kurzweil very famously at Google. I knew Dave Evans when he was at Cisco, but then he left to do some entrepreneurial things in the Bay Area, and I don’t think Cisco replaced him as the official futurist of the company. They’re Sheryl Connelly at the Ford company. If you’ve never met Sheryl, then you should.
Nikolas: It’s tough to persuade her to talk openly beyond a press release-based chat. I think that when you’ve got embattled companies who have fought some battles. I mean, it’s lost its crown. It could still be a significant player in the world right with the right kinds of investments.
Glen: I saw a really fascinating article two days ago in Forbes. And you might have seen this on your Twitter feed because it’s similar to mine. He asked, “Who should Tesla buy? Should Tesla buy Ford? Or GM?” They did it partly tongue in cheek, but Tesla sells every car they make at a premium price. And they’re finally at their kind of takeoff point as a company. And, I predicted Ford and GM because, as we said, they are embattled.
Nikolas: I drive a Chevy Bolt. 100% Electric, and the reason it’s so good is that it outsources all of the design and the build of everything that’s electric within it and literally just threw a Chevy badge on it. Now, it’s a completely different experience than any other Chevrolet out there. I made a prediction on Tesla. I think that within 18 months (sometime later in 2021), Apple is going to buy Tesla. I think that’s going to be pretty bullish if it happens. But, if you look at the $1.39 trillion market cap for Apple right now and their project Titan internally – for self-driving vehicles and whatever – keeps going off the rails and they laid off a couple of hundred people. I’m going to make a gentleman’s bet of $100 down that they’ll buy in the brand and capability. Seems like an aesthetic match in Heaven
Glen: I wouldn’t rule that out although I’d be a little bit surprised. Obviously, It depends on the value and it totally depends on what Elon Musk wants to do. If he would rather turn his attention to focus on his Space adventures and less to the car company, that’s exactly what I think is going to happen.