David Smith is Chief Executive of Global Futures and Foresight, a strategic foresight research, writing and consulting firm.
David is an experienced futurist and strategist. He has a wealth of experience of working closely with global organisations, scanning the horizon and drawing out the key drivers of change we are about to face. David's true passion is making predictions about the future.
Can you tell me a little bit about you and your background?
I was in IT for about 30 years, before I made the move into strategy. I started life as a programmer. I then moved into systems analysis, business analysis and then into strategic marketing. During my time in IT, the technology scene changed and evolved rapidly. I had a keen interest in how we addressed technology changes and how we could ensure we took full advantage of them more quickly.
14 years ago, I set up my own firm and started work as a futurist, helping businesses to understand trends and make sure they are on top of what’s coming next. I’ve done a lot of keynote speaking and we do a great deal of research for companies on trends and predictions to help them stay ahead.
Let’s talk COVID-19. What are your thoughts on its likely impact on the global economy?
We have an economist in our company, and we've been working very closely together over the last few weeks. The challenge with predicting the impact of COVID-19 is that it’s epidemiological and isn’t based on other issues that would cause the economy to crash. We could experience a ‘super V’, meaning that the economy could be back to where it was by the fourth quarter, or it could be 3-5 years before things return to normal.
What do you see as some of the main challenges and opportunities facing businesses right now?
Without doubt, I think one of the biggest challenges is going to be coming to terms with what the new normal looks like. The pandemic has seen the ‘death of distance’ and people will be much more risk averse and risk aware. We’re going to have to get used to remote working being the norm and for many, that presents an opportunity.
We’ve worked with firms who were part-way through the digitalisation process. They were going further than just implementing new technologies, looking at new processes, methods, and working practices, as well as new procedures and service offerings. For businesses who were online before COVID-19 and were therefore more prepared, adapting to distance working was more straightforward, and they were able to gain a distinct advantage over competitors. For those who weren’t, the biggest challenge they face right now is getting online fast and making sure they are set up to manage remote working efficiently to sustain the new way of working long-term.
Do you think there are lessons to be learned around the future proofing of businesses?
Yes, absolutely. I think the pandemic proves that spending a little bit of time thinking about what the future might look like, creating visions and building out some scenarios is crucial. If they aren’t already, business leaders should be keeping an eye out for emerging trends.
Before the pandemic, I think technology had caused us to reach an inflection point and to consider how we run our lives, both at home and at work. There are so many innovative forms of technology collaborating to create new processes, sectors, and industries. COVID-19 has simply acted as an accelerator of sorts and some people are getting left behind. The problem for many is that we’re making decisions for tomorrow without really considering what’s coming afterwards. It might be the right decision for now, but it might not for the future.
Let’s talk about the changing world of work.
The good news is that, at last, firms have realised that there are alternative ways to run their businesses and to manage their staff. They don’t have to be together in offices.
What does the future of work look like? Following the pandemic, it’s a mixture of remote and local working - but businesses should be encouraging their staff to do the human things when they come into the office. Don’t just sit at your computer and send emails. Instead, spend time with your coworkers, look to do team building exercises, and invest in your culture. A major benefit of more remote working is that we can live where we want, which will mean we build stronger relationships in our local communities.
I think the result of advances in technology will be the end of working in hierarchical silos. I think roles will be split down into tasks. AI and technology will allow us to really gain insight into the parts of peoples’ jobs they’re good at, and the parts that would be served better by technology.
How about the leader of the future, what does he/she look like?
Different from the leaders of the past, that’s for sure. Historically, leaders and their leadership styles have depended heavily on physically seeing their staff. That was certainly prevalent before Covid-19, and many leaders have struggled to adapt to the idea of remote leadership. It’s very simple; if you can’t trust your employees to work remotely, then you shouldn’t have hired them. Trust your people until they give you a reason not to trust them.
We've now got to have a refreshed form of leadership. One that’s good at distanced and remote leadership. Yes, it can be difficult, and it is a change, but the tools are all there to lead very successfully, and with a strong sense of connection to your people. I think a leaders’ EQ (emotional quotient) is going to be far more important than their IQ. Interestingly, this shift will probably favour women as it’s a female quality, so we may see more women in leadership roles.
Digital transformation is a term used a lot, but what does it actually mean?
Unfortunately, most people think digital transformation is simply about technology. It’s not. Digital transformation is about changing culture, processes and offers. It’s not about using digital tools to replicate what you are already doing. If you’re going to embrace more modern tools, then you have to change the way that you go about doing things. You have to start with the culture, which is driven by behaviours, attitudes, and values. Culture then allows new processes to emerge which drive new capabilities and, ultimately, new offers.
Digital transformation is supported by technology, not driven by it. We’re gearing up for significant change. By 2030 we’ll see robotics in every form, everything will be connected by the Internet of Things (IoT), blockchain will allow us to distribute data, there will be 3D printing, making a physical object from a three-dimensional digital model, plus virtual reality and extended realities, which allow us to engage in everything, with everyone, in a meaningful way. Things will be very different.
Digital transformation fundamentally changes the environment. We’ll see a real-time connected, quantified world, where everything is measured and could be responded to. It’s not just about people, it's equipment for buildings, the physical environment, transport and, energy. That's a huge change if we embrace it fully.
What about right now? How much of an impact is AI really having?
AI is creeping up on us. It forms parts of new versions of applications that we install. It's very often driven by versions of machine learning - things like chatbots, we use them all the time. AI is surrounding us and becoming normal, and we’re beginning to expect these sorts of processes to be taken over from human beings. There are already plenty of examples of AI in things like banking, insurance, and even retail. It’s gradually getting implemented in lots of different areas, without us realising.
What are some of the industries and professions where AI and automation is adding value right now?
Manufacturing is an obvious one. Architecture, construction and engineering are similar too. AI and automation are becoming part of the design process. It will do the hard work, answering questions like whether building structures are secure.
AI is really valuable in healthcare. If you take the best diagnosticians and put their wisdom and insights into machines that then go on to learn, medical diagnosis is proven to be better than the best human beings. Plus, it’s more cost effective. Personally, if I required medical intervention, I would want the diagnosis done by AI, and the treatment delivered by a human.
Education is another industry where AI will serve as an enabler. Technology will allow us to deliver a more personalised education programme. Different people learn in different ways and technology offers flexibility in a way that a teacher in a classroom of 30 or a static video simply can’t provide, allowing individuals to engage with learning any way they want, whenever they way. AI can give you a set of learning paths and a greater choice. Once it’s up and running, the cost is near zero - another clear benefit.
Which sectors and roles will be least impacted by AI?
In the jobs where there are more human elements to it, AI has far less to offer. It can guide you and give you advice, but it can’t replace the human doing the role. Anything that's considered a human endeavor, so for example arts, entertainment, the care industry and sports. In terms of roles, AI can’t encourage people, so leadership positions are unlikely to be impacted. It can guide you and give you advice, but it can’t replace the human doing the role. We now have a really good reason to think about what it is to be human, what it means and where we can add value to different roles and areas.
Let’s talk 5G and IoT. What are some of the challenges and opportunities they present?
They present a very real challenge around cybersecurity as the more data you put online, the higher the risk.
The opportunities are endless. 5G and IoT are fantastically powerful and the exciting bit is that there’s much more to come. Absolutely everything will be measurable in real time. If you take wellbeing for example, 5G and IoT will really take it to the next level. We could reach a stage where sensors are telling us how well we’re feeling, or our employers how stressed their staff are.
Every centimetre of a building will have a sensor on it, every centimetre of an aeroplane, every centimetre on a pane of glass. We’ll be aware of the state of a streetlight before it fails, so we can fix it. Sensors will tell us the real time state of everything and the business opportunity for managing that data is just enormous.
Let’s take wellness and wellbeing. It’s worth £3.8 trillion, it’s a massive industry. The data that 5G and IoT will provide is mind blowing and it can all be interpreted by machines. We’ll be able to predict diseases like diabetes or if an individual is about to become unwell, there’ll be an ambulance, or if available, a remedy on the way.
What about in the next 1-2 years?
I think manufacturing, engineering and the built environment will really take the lead. Knowing the condition of your entire supply chain, including your manufacturing capabilities, instantly, is incredibly powerful. 5G and IoT gives us instant insight into the security of a building, the working conditions, the oxygen supply for the people in it. It allows us to monitor and automate so much. We’ll move away from reactive maintenance; we’ll know if we need to fix things and we’ll be able to intervene before we reach the point of failure.
3D printing will also have a huge impact on the supply chains of the future. BA have just started to get into printing components rather than keeping stocks all around the world for their aircraft. As it becomes more popular, I think it’ll have a big impact on construction. In Dubai, in the next 8-9 years, they’re planning to use 3D printing to build 25% of their buildings and that’s something we could move towards in the UK.
In the foreseeable future, 5G and IoT offer significant opportunities for Telcos as they’re the ones providing these capabilities and connections. I think there will be a move towards Telcos selling services and providing the tools and IoT.
If you're interested in being interviewed as part of the BPS Perspectives series, I'd love to hear from you. You can get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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