Futurist Scott Smith: «The next Uber is going to be a biotech-company.»
There is this feeling about conferences which have the words «innovations» in their name. Everybody goes by his first name, pressed shirts are being combined with hoodies and there has to be at least one stage with a vintage couch on it. All of this somehow helps to inspire and attract young entrepreneurs and researchers from all over the world to come together and talk about the future. At the end of October, one could see all these elements come together at Lift Basel, a conference for startups and the life science community.
One of the sessions held at Lift Basel felt oddly out of context. While other workshops featured titles like «surgeon superpowers» or «beer decoded», this one addressed «global ageing». How this demographic phenomenon challenges our society but also what kind of opportunities it creates. Among others, the American futurist and writer Scott Smith talked about possible ways out of it, thanking the audience for «listening to me talking about death at a friday afternoon.» Later, we sat down with Scott in a room full of red chairs.
Scott Smith, at Lift Basel you were introduced as a «travelling futurist». That sounds like a nice job.
It is an interesting job, but it is a weird thing to call me. What I do is help organisations understand complex futures, understand what is involved in them and what those organisations should do differently. That requires a couple of things. One is that you get out and see the world. You can see how interesting bits of the world are changing. You see new technologies, new products, new experiences but you also see people. A lot of the work I do consists in travelling. That way, I can learn about new social behaviours in different parts of the world.
So basically you wander around the world wondering?
My work is built on curiosity and in-depth research but the human element is quite critical as well. It would be easy to go to a few big electronic shows or big internet conferences and then be finished. But I want to see how the world actually absorbs those new futures and technologies. For me that means moving around a lot, seeing many different things and talking to a lot of different people.
What was the last thing you were really surprised about?
I just got back from Singapore for the first time. It is a very futuristic place. The society seems to be one way. The government is another way. That was quite interesting.
Right now, what gadget or technology do I need to use to be cutting edge?
The real question is what is cutting edge now versus what is interesting and important for the future. We could be talking about the newest generation of the iPhone or about Oculus Rift or some other thing that we can go and buy. Often, what is more interesting to me are those things that you can not just buy from the Apple store. But in ten years, you probably will have one in your backyard because it is a really important piece of technology. We talk a lot about 3D printing. A lot more interesting is biological 3D printing. How can we grow cells into meat? I am often looking at technologies that are almost hard to put your hands on because sometimes they only exist on paper.
To tell the future, what skill is more essential: having a great imagination or doing a sound analysis of the present?
The most important skill is to balance the two of those. It’s not sufficient to think in terms of fantasy and draw up some kind of science fiction world we want to live in. You have to balance that with what’s possible and what’s real. It’s necessary to justify the creativity with some grounded data.
There is always a hype. Currently it’s the internet of things or self-driving cars. How do you avoid getting carried away with that?
By developing a good sense for what is a hype and what is not. By keeping on asking the good questions and digging deep. What obstacles could a certain innovation have to face? What could go wrong? What could be the unintended consequences?
Would you describe yourself as an optimistic person?
Most people who know me probably wouldn’t use that word. Personally, I would describe myself as hopeful but also realistic. If you get overly optimistic and overly focused on the amazing things that could happen, you tend to forget the critical elements underneath. I try to proceed on the basis that we can improve the world around us, that we can create positive futures for the people not by making one single prediction but by pursuing socially adequate sustainable ways of improving the world.
Does it make you more wary when you are always thinking about what could go wrong.
It definitely can give you a headache sometimes. Obviously, you can think of a lot of depressing issues in the world. We have to face immense challenges. For example, you could look at climate change and just give up and quit. It’s not different to being a surgeon. Nobody wants to cut someone open and take out an organ or do surgery, but you are doing it to improve things in the long term for people. You develop a tolerance for things that are uncomfortable. Otherwise, how would you learn?
The most successful companies today are often referred to as being «disruptive». You are very critical towards this term. Why is that?
I don’t think that it really is a meaningful term. You can say the same thing about «innovation». What does it really mean? No two people can agree. Of course there is a classical business school definition of «disruption», but it really isn’t disruption as much as it is «dislocation», it’s «displacement». «Disruption» is an unnecessary aggressive term. If you want to gain entry into a new marketplace, you don’t necessarily need to disrupt it as much as you need to create new space for yourself. «Disruptive» implies that you’re coming in to destroy existing structures and if that is true then you have to be asking yourself, why you need to destroy that. It’s an empty word, mostly.
Disruption in the sense of evolution can be a good thing, can’t it?
That’s probably what the original economists meant who coined that term. It’s about evolving from an old way of doing things to a new way. We certainly wouldn’t want to live in the 19th century. But it has become too easy of a word to focus on. It creates a licence for young companies to come in without a really good plan, the only idea being knocking someone else out. Often, that is not the smartest thing to do. You could cooperate or build partnerships instead.
Why do you bother with semantics?
As politicians show us every day, language is a powerful thing. It’s important to hold people accountable to what they mean. You could talk about starting a disruptive business and, really, you may not be up to anything valuable or useful. It becomes a justification by saying «Oh, this is disruption, this is innovation, leave me alone.» We see innovations put in the world around us that are actually negative or could have negative consequences, Uber being the classic model here. People say: «Let Uber innovate and disrupt the transportation system». On the other hand, we have to ask ourselves why we even have laws and regulations.
«Semantics do matter because they create polarisation.»
In Basel, we will soon have to vote about a new law regulating the taxi-market and there have been wild discussions about banning services like Uber. Everyone just seems so helpless.
That’s exactly the problem and the reason why semantics do matter because they create polarisation. It’s ludicrous that we should be talking about an either or situation, about either having Uber or Taxis and that there’s nothing in between. That’s crazy. Before Uber came along, actually, Europe was quite far ahead in developing transportation as an end-to-end service. That’s basically what Uber does. They turned movement and mobility into software. But they could’ve done that in ways that didn’t require violating existing taxi-regulations. While that’s not fast enough for their shareholders, that’s the way we have done things for a long time, by negotiating the evolution. The next Uber is going to be a biotech-company. Now, think about the same behaviour from a biotech-company that may be developing synthetic organisms. Now it’s Uber, but the next time it will be a technology that you want to have a little more regulation around.
Uber also is often being stated as an example for the sharing economy. In a speech, you said there is a sad reason why the sharing economy business model is so successful.
Airbnb came along in a moment when the economy worldwide created a situation where people needed someone to stay in their home, simply, as a means to keep their home. It is most successful in places, where the cost of living and housing is unmanageable. They benefited very much from necessity. Renting something or selling something is not sharing, it’s renting and selling. If you charge me five Euros to ride your bike that’s not you sharing a bike with me, that’s you selling me a ride on your bike. And to return to the semantics: If I am sharing something with you that means something socially and it means something emotionally. It’s an important word that we shouldn’t just trash by calling selling sharing.
Are you sometimes being called a leftist?
That may be the case but it’s not intentional. I used Airbnb for about 40 times but I’ve never taken an Uber which can be seen as a political act. My point of view at those companies is that of long term sustainability. They could be useful services but if they’re going to benefit a lot of people then they need to run this in a way that is fair and equitable. If that comes across as a politically leftist characterisation that’s incidental.
You mentioned long term sustainability: Why does this not seem to be very attractive for businesses?
We have a very distorted marketplace today where venture capital and the desire to get funded overwhelms the desire to build a long term sustainable business. And I talk about long term sustainable businesses because you want businesses to create jobs, you want them to create sustainable revenue. I am happy that Airbnb and Uber are here, I would like them to be here in 50 years but providing public benefit, providing jobs, money, taxes, things that keep society running.
Do you see any possibility of this way of doing business changing in the near future?
I think there’s been pushback, the public, in many places, has become uncomfortable with the way they see business being done. Just because it has shifted from a group of banks and large corporations misbehaving to now startups and rapidly growing «disruptive» companies misbehaving doesn’t make it any better. You want to make decisions now that are going to grow the Swiss economy, the European economy, the world economy for decades. We don’t need to be just injecting more sugar and caffeine into it, pumping the economy up and letting it collapse again.
Tesla recently released the so called «autopilot» which means that people already can leave parts of the driving to their cars. Now, I still don’t have a driver’s licence, do you think it’s worth the effort doing it or should I just wait for self driving cars becoming mainstream?
Well, do you have 80’000 Euros?
It will become cheaper, once it’s more common.
It could but that’s going to take a while. So my question to you would be: Do you want to wait that long? Or are there other ways to get around? I live in the Netherlands where cycling is an alternate transportation system that works for an enormous amount of people. It amazes me how you can run three parallel transportation systems, trains, cars and cycling. I don’t see why we should wipe out the entire mobility system to make space for self driving vehicles. Taking long haul cargo truck fleets and replacing them with autonomous lorries that kind of thing makes a lot of sense. Private self driving cars? No problem, but there won’t be cities filled with them. It takes too much to change that.
«What would ‹Rebel without a cause› be if James Dean drove a Tesla S with Autopilot?»
It’s a creepy thought though, having cars roaming around by themselves.
A hundred years ago, it has been a creepy thought to have people driving gasoline-powered boxes around. It would just take a complete rethinking of how we consider mobility. Our children will live in a very different world in terms of the streets. So much, that we take for granted as being part of the 21st century culture, is built around automobiles using gas. Think of all the iconic movies. What would «Rebel without a cause» be if James Dean drove a Tesla S with Autopilot? Most of the last 100 years of urban design has been driven by cars. How we live and where we live is completely dictated by the roads that we had to build to feed a demand for the cars that would then feed a demand for rubber, glass, petroleum. It’s a whole supply-chain that changes.
Self driving cars are one thing, the whole automatization is another. If you combine that with the subject of «global ageing» that you talked about on the stage, we have a whole new problem. There will be more people on this planet and, at the same time, more work is done by machines. What is left for us to do?
To look after old people (laughs). If you believe — and I am not sure if I do — we’re going to replace half of the workforce in the next 20 to 40 years with robots, there are huge problems embedded in that. People work for fulfillment, they work for skills, they work because society asks them to pay taxes to support things. We work to look after ourselves and our families. We have to rethink how that is going to happen. It requires a certain amount of people to work and pay into the system to sustain everyone else. Good luck with an unemployment rate of 20 or 30 percent. After the recession, Spain now has an unemployment rate of 25 percent. Not everybody went back to doing online courses and getting their PHDs. To sum it up: There are major economic barriers involved.
And those are natural barriers? Or do we have to build those barriers by having regulations and making decisions as consumers?
We are at a point in time right now where we have to ask ourselves some really big questions about mobility, income, work, health and climate. And the answer to those questions could be quite capitalistic or it could be socialistic and community-based. We have to find answers to those questions and can’t just cruise directly into those situations without reevaluating what it means. Otherwise, the system will find new points of equilibrium that displace people and that’s where we run into problems. People will point fingers and say, wait, you didn’t tell me that having an automatized lifestyle means not having an income and live in a box.
When you think or write about new technology, you often move on a thin line between utopia and dystopia.
Aren’t we all?
How do you keep the balance?
One way of doing this work is to be very deterministic about the future and trying to talk the people into them. There are respectable professionals who do what I do, but they have positioned themselves to support different technologies as an advocate. Their work is built around persuading other people that those futures will happen. I would bet, you and I would probably have different opinions about how we would like our future to unfold. There are probably common areas but some things may be a little different. From my perspective, it is more useful to give you the tools to determine what you think then for me to persuade you of my opinion and force a future on to you. The world is a very messy and complicated place with seven billion messy, complicated people wandering around and all with different needs.
Journalism, my line of work, is a rapidly evolving market and thus becomes increasingly competitive. What skill would you advise me to acquire to stay ahead of the pack?
If you asked someone that question a few years ago, the answer probably would have been data journalism, being comfortable with collecting and visualizing data and information. I like to think that good storytelling and knowing the right time and place to insert stories and bring them to people is still a critical skill. For me, to be able to tell interesting, solid stories and not get caught up in chasing page-views and clickbait is still quite necessary. People will always value depth and quality.
In a blogpost you wrote about technology reading, understanding and reacting to our emotions. How long before I can let my computer do an interview like this for me?
You can probably do that now if you put the right pieces together. There is a company which sells a software that writes simple sport- and market-stories. They are growing quite quickly and just released their code as open source so people can implement it. That is going to cut off a lot of the bottom level, entry level journalism. But the question is, could the computer sense the same things that you’re sensing, turn the discussion in ways that you’re turning it and read the interaction the way you’re reading it? I don’t think that is true. And even if it the technology gets more sophisticated, it still doesn’t mean it can use the same level of intuition that you have. Long time experience and skill are hard to displace with technology.
«Long time experience and skill are hard to displace with technology.»
There’s the pure functional aspect of an interview as being a means of getting questions answered. But there’s also a social aspect of meeting someone and having an interesting conversation. Why would I leave the fun part to my computer?
An editor might make an economic decision to do that because it’s cheaper. But over time it’s going to change and dilute the quality of work. We have algorithms that can recognise and duplicate what we perceive as being beautiful art. I just wrote a piece for «Wired» about this. When will we know the pricewinning novel has not been written by a human? We may not notice it because as consumers we’re being trained to that kind of slightly glitchy, slightly weird way that machines write words and construct stories. Still, I’d rather ask you what you know about this city than go ask a computer.
Turning from robots back to humans: You called global ageing a demographic time bomb. isn’t that a bit drastic?
I was thinking about it more as a kind of puzzle. Demography doesn’t lie, you can’t change those numbers radically and quickly. The reason, China just changed its one child policy, is because they can no longer pretend that it wasn’t hurting the long term sustainability of their society. Already an unsustainable amount of the GDP of America goes to supporting the healthcare-expenditure to maintain the elderly. The US doesn’t yet have a dramatically old population but it’s already a problem that could bankrupt the economy of the country. That’s why Republicans in the US demand that we cut other services to maintain that expenditure. We have to rethink our lifestyles. If you don’t want the healthcare, then you have to be healthier. It’s a very naughty problem that is hard to pick apart.
And it has a thousand roots everywhere in our lives.
These things are called «tsunamis» because you can see demographic change coming decades away. After the war, there was a babyboom which meant that there was going to be a bubble in the demographics. This may helped us through the 20th century but now it’s becoming an issue. It is going to make a huge material difference in the way you and I will live in the next 40 years. When we are 60, 70 years old, I guarantee you we will look back at this conversation and think, «well, I guess it was a big problem». Will you be able to access health care if everyone else in your area is also old and in need of care? Who is going to look after you? How are you going to pay for that?
We are very good at ignoring this because it scares us. Then again in your speech you talked about a market potential of 15 trillion dollars. This should be motivation enough, shouldn’t it?
I hope we don’t get in a situation where we only think about social issues in pure market terms. Because if we do, that means some people get something and some people don’t. Luckily, most countries do not deny access to lifesaving treatments simply on the basis of an ability to pay. Sadly, the US does that. It’s not good for the way a society is structured, because ultimately it starts putting groups of people against each other.
At another Panel, you and a group of other people talked about the US as being a potential role model for an innovative, entrepreneur friendly culture. At the same time, America faces a lot of very grave problems in terms of inequality. There are clusters where all the money is concentrated like the Silicon Valley, meanwhile, there are huge cities like Detroit where some of the people don’t even have running water in their homes. Why should we have a system like this in Europe or Switzerland?
A good thing would be to take the good parts out and leave the bad. But you also have to realise that there’s a connection between them. The US as a culture wasn’t set up as most of the other cultures. It is an artificial country with an artificial culture. It was created as an experiment both in democracy and also in mercantilism and markets. With this historical background you can’t expect to end up with a well-balanced and wholly equitable society. That’s just economics, not a political statement. But there are elements that both sides could use from one another. The US could unlock its own inherent qualities of community care and social cohesion. While Europe could probably benefit from the mindset of being free to just do things without looking back too much to traditional hierarchies and systems. To me, it all boils down to history, that’s where those two very different psychologies come from. It is a dangerous discussion, though, because it gets caught in big generalisations.
You recently moved back to Europe, the reason being that you felt you had to «move on» as you said in your speech yesterday. What do you think you can learn here?
If you want to learn about some of the topics I am interested in professionally, like integrated transportation systems or certain kinds of renewable energy-generation, then you need to look at them in a tightly integrated way. Otherwise, you can’t understand how they work together. Also, I find it important to live in other political and social contexts to understand them better. If I wanted to think about issues like migration and refugees that are happening right now, the closest I could get would be my TV and that’s not close enough for my interest. In Europe, I have been able to step off my train at the Bahnhof in Hamburg and was basically in the next train car to Syrian refugees who were just arriving. My professional interest and curiosity demands to experience that first hand. To be able to think about how it could impact our society in the next five or ten years I need this direct interaction and not simply look at it as a policy paper or a news story.
Why did you choose to live in Amsterdam?
In the Netherlands, there is some really fascinating research happening at the universities, a number of interesting research organisations are located in Amsterdam and Utrecht.
«Being open to exchange is how you learn whether it’s your gene pool, economics, software development or creativity.»
Can you think of a subject you were only able to learn about in Switzerland?
There’s probably a lot. I can’t even begin to think about the things I could learn here. I hear a lot, for example, about how the education system is organized and how it produces more highly educated people than most other countries. I would like to understand how this ties back to business and society. There’s also a lot of interesting biotech-work done here. And there’s a lot of international cooperation. Last year, I was at CERN which is fascinating as a model for scientific research because it’s not wholly privatized sitting in a business park somewhere. Switzerland, by necessity, had to refine how it works internally as a federal system and externally with many other countries to move ahead.
Exactly this openness is under heavy political attack. There are laws being implemented right now which are isolating us from Europe and the rest of the world.
That’s happening in a lot of places. We have two or three presidential candidates in the US talking about building walls at the border. Catalonia wants to leave Spain, the North wants to leave the South in the UK, Scotland wants to leave everybody. These ideas are consequences of the resource contraction we went through five years ago. I believe it is also a move against the more negative aspects of globalization, which is understandable. But it also closes down future possibilities. Being open to exchange is how you learn whether it’s your gene pool, economics, software development or creativity.
We talked a lot about futures you are sceptical about. Is there a field towards we can move in the future without running into some problems?
I don’t want to appeal like I am overly sceptical about everything. We’re at a point in time where everything is moving quite quickly. I just want us to keep asking the right questions even though we’re evolving rapidly. There are some really interesting things happening in the food industry, for example. Some people already talk about a food revolution, whether it is creating a new protein or looking at the problem of feeding ever more people with less resources. Stuff like Soylent. I wouldn’t drink it, but I don’t think it is overly dangerous by itself. It is one way of thinking about how you can get nutrition to a wider number of people. There’s actually a new Soylent clone that has been launched in India in the last couple of weeks. We do need an easily produced, highly nutritional foodstuff that you can get to people who have no regular access to food.
The Name Soylent referrs to an science fiction movie from the seventies. Have you ever thought about writing science fiction?
I’ve not only thought about it, I’ve experimented with it. Sometimes, the work that I do calls for writing fictional narratives. I just did some scenario work this summer that involved writing four fictional stories. I work with science fiction writers, artists and designers frequently to find new ways to communicate risks and opportunities of future. If I could stop working right now, I probably would write some fiction.
Would it be more utopian or dystopian?
I would say neither. I am interested in things that feel almost realistic so you don’t necessary recognise them as fiction. While with the more fantastic work, it is easy to just push them away as simply a work of fantasy.
If you have a message you want to deliver, the spin of the story has a huge influence.
Psychologically, I would probably end up writing things that are a bit more dystopic. Not to scare people but as a means to get them to understand the implications of things. I am naturally worried about overly positive stories that don’t ask us to be constructively critical and ask questions. Questions that hopefully lead to more positive and optimistic outcomes.
Scott, thank you for still leaving us with an optimistic thought in mind.
This interview first appeared at TagesWoche, a swiss online magazine based in Basel.