Mark Stevenson| Interview | Podcast | Maria Franzoni | MFL Global

Interview with Futurist and expert on global trends and innovation, Mark Stevenson

This week Maria’s guest on the show is Mark Stevenson. Mark is a futurist, broadcaster, and expert on global trends and innovation. As I’m reading this out he’s actually bobbing his head up and down, going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” But he’s a highly respected thinker on the interplay of technology and society, helping a diverse mix of clients to become future-literate and adapt their cultures and strategy to squarely face the questions the future is asking them. He’s the author of two best-selling books, An Optimist’s Tour of the Future, and the award-winning, We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting Our World. Mark’s many advisory roles include, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge and Atlas of the Future. Mark is also resident futurist at the National Theatre of Scotland. TED curator, Chris Anderson said, “Stevenson wears no blindfold. His tools are curiosity, open-mindedness, clarity, and reason.

Mark talks to us about how he came to be a futurologist via stand-up, about technology change over the next 20 years and why cultural change is so important. Mark tells us what he is doing with Richard Branson and the Virgin Earth Challenge and that he has an album coming out this year with plans to go out on the road! All this and much, much more.

Maria:

So, this week my guest is Mark Stevenson. Mark is a futurologist, broadcaster, and expert on global trends and innovation. As I’m reading this out he’s actually bobbing his head up and down, going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” But he’s a highly-respected thinker on the interplay of technology and society, helping a diverse mix of clients to become future-literate and adapt their cultures and strategy to squarely face the questions the future is asking them. He’s the author of two best-selling books, An Optimist’s Tour Of The Future, and the award-winning, We Do Things Differently: The Outsiders Rebooting Our World. Mark’s many advisory roles include, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge and Atlas Of The Future. Mark is also resident futurist at the National Theatre of Scotland. TED curator, Chris Anderson said, “Stevenson wears no blindfold. His tools are curiosity, open-mindedness, clarity, and reason.

Maria:

So, Mark, what a great accolade to bring you in on. Thank you very much for joining us.

Mark Stevenson:

That’s all very well. I’m pretty sure Chris was drunk when he said that.

Maria:

Well, I might have to edit that out. But, no, let’s leave it in, let’s leave it in. So, Mark, before we start, can you tell people who don’t know what a futurist or futurologist is?

Mark Stevenson:

Ah well, it’s a great question, Maria. So, there’s some debate as to whether it’s an art or a science, but it’s basically, the idea is it’s helping people think about the future. But I don’t really like being called a futurist. I regard myself as a reluctant futurist. The reason is that it’s very often associated with prediction, and people telling you what’s going to happen, and I think anybody who can tell you what’s going to happen, or thinks they can sort of 10 or 15 years out, is a vain glorious buffoon. And there’s a couple of reasons for that. The first is that we tend to make our predictions from within our own set of prejudices and our own sort of frame of reference. So, we predict what we already see around us a little bit different, or what we’d like to see because it helps our salary or our investments or whatever.

The second reason is, the second and third order effects of any new technology or idea are just too hard to predict. So, when the internet arrived it’s easy to predict the rise of email, but nobody really predicts the rise of social media, the spreading of fake news, how that affects the way democracies work, because it’s all just too complex.

So what I do is I help my clients become, as you mentioned in the introduction, future-literate, by which I mean, understanding the questions that are being asked, whether that’s about climate change, artificial intelligence, or whatever is coming down the track, understanding those questions in a systemic way so you’re looking at all of them, and then trying to get you to answer those questions you’re being asked by architecting your business, your career, your organisation in a way that allows you to make the world more sustainable, equitable, humane and just. So that’s kind of what I do.

I get called a futurist, and people started calling me it because I wrote two books with future somewhere on the cover. So that’s what I do. But as to what a futurist is, most of them I think are probably just unemployable dilettantes.

Maria:

Fantastic! So, what do you study to become a futurist or futurologist, or become future literate?

Mark Stevenson:

Well, I mean, all human beings are futurists. Martin Seligman says this rather well, he said, “We shouldn’t be called homo sapiens, the wise ape, we should be called homo prospectus, the ape that thinks about the future.” Because it’s the only thing that really distinguishes us from other species, that we think quite systemically and quite long-term about the future, where no other animal seems to.

So, there are no qualifications for becoming a futurist as I said. My own background is I was a geek, really. I was into computing science, all that kind of stuff, and cryptography but I actually came to be a futurologist via stand-up comedy. So, I realised I wanted to communicate, I guess, some of the things that I thought were important, about the challenges the world is facing, and also give people knowledge about things like genetics and AI and climate change and social inequality and all these things that I thought were important that weren’t communicated very well and often communicated by geeks to geeks. So, I decided I’d try and communicate that stuff to as wide an audience as possible and I thought the best training for that would be stand-up. So, I spent a year as a stand-up comedian trying to talk about the future in a way that was entertaining but also true and as a result of that, I got offered my first book deal and the rest is history.

Maria: 

Did you do well as a stand-up comedian?

Mark Stevenson:   

Yes, I did surprisingly. I love the way you ask that question as a heckle. It does remind me of the best heckle I ever got, I was doing a gig and somebody laughed and they’d got a very peculiar laugh, almost like a loud, rasping kind of Mutley from the Wacky Races laugh and everybody kept noticing it. At one point, I just had to say, “Look mate, what is that noise you’re making?” He went, “Oh that’s the noise I make when I’m mildly amused. No, but I was good I think. I wouldn’t say I was brilliant but the thing about if you’re curating a stand-up gig is you’re always trying to get three comedians that are different and I was always different because I was the only person at that time really doing that kind of comedy. I got to the stage where I could certainly have done it as a career but I didn’t want to. I thought, “Well, I’ve done what I set out to do.” Which was learn these skills and now I want to apply them to a wider career.

I quit the night I supported a much more famous comedian than me so everybody had paid to see him. It was a 600-seater theatre and I did 45 minutes ahead of him and actually stormed it and I thought, “That’s it, I’m done now.”

Maria:

Oh brilliant.

Mark Stevenson:

“If I can do that, I’m finished.”

Maria:

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. So, let’s go back to future, technology and all of those kinds of things. You talk about three different types of technology; can you explain to us the three types?

Mark Stevenson:

Well, yeah this is … I’m kind of channelling the late, great Douglas Adams here, so he said this rather funny thing but I take that a bit further. So, he said there are three types of technology, the technology invented before you were born, which you don’t think of as technology, it’s just there, you know carpet tiles are a technology but not much to be excited about those. Anybody born after 1989 doesn’t think of the internet or the World Wide Web as a wonderful, exciting thing, they just expect it to work. So, we’re ambivalent about that kind of technology, we just expect it to work. The second type of technology is that comes about between you being born and your middle age, which is terribly exciting, your grandparents don’t understand it, you can probably get a job out of it, it’s definitely going to change the world, it’s wonderful. And for my generation, that’s things like the internet and mobile phones and you can tell I’m over 40 because I say “mobile” phones. And then there’s a technology that’s invented after you’re middle aged which is completely pointless and makes you angry. For my generation, that’s things like Twitter. I’ve got friends who just are incandescent with rage about the whole thing, “What’s it for?”

So there’s three types of technology and when I read that, I thought that’s funny but also it strikes me as unwittingly profound because in the work I do, whether that’s with a corporation, or a government, or a university, or an investment house, you’ll find that the people who decide the strategic direction of the organisation are usually in that last category and most of the people they’re trying to deal with, their employees, their citizens, their students, their customers, are in that second category. That causes bewilderment where large organisations find it increasingly hard to deal with new ideas and new technologies.

Maria:

Brilliant, really good answer.

Mark Stevenson:

Well, thanks.  I feel like I passed a test.

Maria:

And also Douglas Adams, just like you, was very funny, you see?

Mark Stevenson:

Well I think that’s an accolade too far. I wouldn’t dare be compared to the great, late Douglas.

Maria:

OK, modest man you are.

Mark Stevenson:

I’ve made a career out of self-deprecation. Well, I wouldn’t call it a career.

Maria:

So, you said before that the future is up for grabs.  How can we grab the future? What does that mean?

Mark Stevenson:

Well, we’re at a point in history where we’re at this extraordinary sort of tipping point where everything has to change. So, we’ve got all these old systems that don’t work anymore and it doesn’t take more than a pint on a Friday night for most people to agree about this stuff, that government systems are still using a 19th century framework for trying to deal with 21st century problems.

The education system in most countries still thinks it’s the 1950s, healthcare is very expensive sick care, the climate is falling apart around our ears, we’ve got less than 60 harvests left at the current rate of soil erosion etc., etc., etc. Half the world’s population live under water stress, the media is divisive, not really free, owned by nine billionaires. And then you’ve got one-sided echo chamber of racist, homophobic establishments, phone hackers. The other side, you’ve got the establishment left of nerds and catastrophists and you’ve got the Financial Times somewhere in the middle. It’s not great. So, the government doesn’t work, the press doesn’t hold it to account properly, the education system isn’t preparing people for the world that’s coming and the environment is falling apart around our ears and that’s why 85% of people don’t like their jobs.

Maria:

Hang on a minute, hang on a minute Mark. I thought you were an optimist here?

Mark Stevenson:

Well I’ll come to this. So Gallup do this survey every two years, they go round the whole world and ask, “How engaged are employees?” across thousands of organisations in 142 countries and they conclude that 85% of people don’t really like their jobs and the reason is because the average worker is getting a smaller and smaller slice of the pie as welfare equality goes through the roof, they’re making money for other people, not being able to afford the basics and they realise that the future is being destroyed in terms of the short term profiteering. Nicely summed up by the Tom Toro cartoon in The New Yorker, “Yes, the planet got destroyed, but for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.”

So, we have this absolute systemic crisis which, as I say, doesn’t take more than a pint, or a couple of glasses of wine on a Friday night for most people to agree. But at the same time, we have these extraordinary changes happening, particularly in the world of technology, that will allow us to do things differently. So, if you look, for instance at the incredible exponential growth of renewable energy and how that renewable energy is going to be owned by individuals and schools and small businesses, rather than individual big corporations, that changes the fundamental way that the world can operate and also it stabilises the energy price so you don’t have the oil price going up and down all the time, which is really good for investment and the economy. You have 3D printing that’s getting to the stage where, fairly soon, 3D printers will be able to print 3D printers.

This is stuff I cover in my books, this is why I’m kind of optimistic because I spend all my time going around finding people who can come up with new systems of drug development. Very often, bottom up, network systems and, as I say, we’re moving from a world which was economies of scale to one which is economies of distribution, where networks can now outperform the monoliths.     Not in all circumstances, but in a lot and often people can now come together and say you know, “We want a new social contract, we’re fed up of being consumers, we want to be citizens again.” And there’s a lot of that going on.

So, I’m not an optimist or a pessimist, I’m a possible-ist and I think my job is to say, “Look, there is another game in town, there are ways to solve these problems that involve more of us in a more sustainable, humane, equitable and just way.” I want to put that option on the table and I think we will necessarily have to get there because everything else is collapsing. The existing systems we have, have proved themselves wholly incapable of dealing with the challenges we’ve got, so they’re either going to fall over just because they fall over, or we’ll replace them at something.

I talk about in my work, the good, the bad and the ugly. So, the bad news is everything’s broken. The good news is we can fix it. The ugly news is the next 20 years is going to be a bloodbath as the old world has to die, a very well-funded state is grown and a new one has to be born and I see my job as trying to shorten that mess by as much as I can. If I can shorten it by six months by getting some big corporations to think differently, then that will have a huge beneficial effect on a lot of people.

Maria:

Wow, fantastic. Actually, one of the things that you say is, you say that the change that we’ve seen so far is the cocktail sausage of the meal. Are you seriously saying that we’re going to see so much change in the next few years?

Mark Stevenson:

Yes, and there’s a number of reasons for that. The first is that when you look at technology, technology speeds up because each technology provides you with the tools and the platform to build the next technology, ever faster. So, if you look at adoption of technology, it took 25% of Americans 42 years, I think, to get TV in the home. When the World Wide Web comes along, it takes them seven years to embrace the internet, that same proportion. 25% of Americans in that period was a lot more than when television was. So, you’ve got this concertinaing of technology life cycles, which means that technology’s getting adopted very quickly but also, we do have this systemic crisis. Nobody that has really looked at it thinks that for instance the financial system is working and there isn’t another massive crash coming.

So we’re going to see these old systems falling over and these new technologies coming along and part of the work is to try and create a new culture which is sort of distributed by design, a new democracy which is based on a much more networked way of thinking and we will necessarily have to deal this and we’re going to have to do it in the next 20 years because if we don’t deal with climate change, for instance, in the next 20 years, all bets are off and that’s not going to be solved by carrying on with fossil fuels and old ways of thinking.

Maria:

Wow, that’s scary as well, and challenging isn’t it for all of us to think about? You mentioned culture actually and cultural change. You founded a company didn’t you, We Do Things Differently? What do you do there?

Mark Stevenson:

Well is it a company or is it a loose gathering of unemployable dilettantes?

Maria:

Yes, I think it’s the latter.

Mark Stevenson:

All our problems, I think, come down to culture. When I wrote my first book, I concluded that we have all the tools and the technology really and the talent we need to make a much better world. What we seem to fail to do is organise ourselves in the right way and organisations find it very hard to change and I define innovation as the culture of asking the right questions. How do you create a culture that says things have changed and we’ve got to change? Because as Peter Drucker famously said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” You can know you’ve got to change but if you’ve got the wrong culture, you can’t do it. So, culture change is really interesting to me and I try to do that both with my corporate clients but also with books I write I’m trying to sort of change the culture of the future with the TV series I’m hoping to do next year.

We Do Things Differently, which was named after the second book, is a group of people that actually understand culture. So, when you want to do cultural change, why would you go and hire, for instance, as some people do, KPMG or McKinsey? They’re very good at some things but they have, generally, a worse culture than most organisations and they’re very boring corporate places, they’re not going to give you that spark, or whatever, that you need. So, I decided to assemble a bunch of people who actually understood what culture is and so the We Do Things Differently network organisation, everybody in it is world class in some kind of organisation discipline. Whether it’s David Price to do with learning or it’s Tim Reid to do with innovation, innovative thinking, or it’s Jamil Qureshi to do with high performance or Jack Milner with communications. But they’re also all, or have been, professionally successful as artists or writers. So, they understand how culture works and that, for me is like, let’s form a cultural change agency that actually understands culture.

Because if you don’t move the heart, the mind hardly moves at all. We all post-rationalize our decisions, so how do you move people’s hearts? And you have to have those skills as well as the harder skills to have any kind of success in doing cultural change.

Maria:

Brilliant and of course, your background in performance is comedy as mentioned but you’re a musician as well aren’t you?

Mark Stevenson:

Well, there’s a rumour. I was a musician for 10 years, so when I first started out in my career, I spent half my time being a brain for hire and the other half of the time playing in a band and we got one album out and a couple of singles and disappeared into obscurity and the drummer went to jail. But no, I’ve gone back to it recently with a friend of mine, just as a hobby. My wife said, “You have to have something to relax.” But rather sort of unfortunately, or luckily, we managed to get a record deal. So, we’ve got an album coming out later this year and as my wife says, “You turn all of your hobbies into jobs, Mark.” So yes, back out on the road probably after the second album to do a few gigs.

Maria:

Oh wow. So, are you going to tell us the name of the group and the name of the album?

Mark Stevenson:

The group is called Quantum Pig. It’s a progressive rock outfit and the album is called Songs Of Industry And Sunshine.

Maria:

Brilliant, once it’s out we’ll share little links so people can go and buy it.

Mark Stevenson:

Yes, absolutely and I hope you buy it in your tens.

Maria:

Fantastic. Our listener might do that.  Brilliant. I want to talk to you a little bit about what you’re doing with Richard Branson as well with the Virgin Earth Challenge. Can you tell people what that is about and what’s going on there?

Mark Stevenson:

I can. So back in 2006, Richard was having a chat with his wife on the beach in Necker Island and they were talking about climate change and the fact that one of the large problems associated with that is the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and she said, “Well why don’t we just take the carbon back out? There must be a technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere?” And actually, there is and it’s been around for a long time because we use in it submarines, to keep submariners safe. So, we’ve always been able to scrub carbon out of the atmosphere because, you know … But the question was, could it be done in ambient air? Could it be done in a way that would be non-damaging to the environment? And also, the criteria Richard added, which was very sensible, was could it be done in a commercially sustainable way?

So, the prize basically said, “We’ve got $25 million of Richard’s own money to say you win this prize by being able to prove that you can take carbon dioxide directly out of the air at a gigaton scale. You can’t damage the environment while you’re doing that and you have to be able to make a profit while you’re doing it.” Now everybody said, “That’s crazy, there’s no way anybody can win that prize.” But we didn’t feel that was the case, we had 2,400 applications for the prize, most of them mad people in sheds, it does have to be said but we announced a few years ago 11 finalists, all of whom have a credible roadmap to winning that prize, and I can’t say much more at the moment because there’s some very interesting stuff going on.

But yes, Bill Gates is one of the biggest investors in one of our finalists so that’s public knowledge. It’s a company called Carbon Engineering based out of Calgary and they’re building what they believe is a commercial scale plan to do this and the way they make a profit is they take the carbon out of the sky, they mix it with some hydrogen taken from water and they make fuel. So, they make gasoline and petrol and all those kind of things. What’s great about that is if you can make fuel out of the sky, you dis-intermediate the people who are taking it out of the ground which totally changes the economics and the politics of the entire world. Bill also knows that if that technology starts to work, he’s sitting on top of a trillion dollar market because you can create a carbon neutral fuel source.

So, there’s some very interesting stuff coming. We have to be very careful because it’s not a panacea, we still need to move away from using liquid fuels and we still have to transition to renewables and we still have to sort out all sorts of other things but it’s certainly a very interesting tool in the kitbag.

Maria:

That’s very exciting, really exciting. So how did you get into speaking for corporate audiences?

Mark Stevenson:

Well it’s all off the back of the stand-up. So, I did the stand-up and then I wrote the book and then when you’ve got a book out, you obviously go out and do book tour stuff and people starting asking me, “Will you come and talk at my school and will you come and talk about … ” and suddenly it was like people would be in the audience and people would go, “Will you come and talk to my staff and would you come and talk to my board?” And then they said, “We’ve got money for that.” And I was like, “Oh, great.” I remember my favourite moment, which was hilarious, I got an email from the National Space Symposium in the United States and the guy who runs that had read my book and he sent me this email saying, “We’d really like you to come and do the closing keynote at the National Space Symposium” which is a terrifying gig. It’s all five star generals and the whole of the space industry and I think the year before they had Sigourney Weaver or something. They said, “Unfortunately we can only offer you $25,000!”

Maria:  

Which you obviously turned down and said …

Mark Stevenson:  

And I said to my wife, “I would have done that for free.” And then I realised, actually people pay for this stuff and having been a stand-up and also working in theatre and stuff, when you’ve got those skills and then you can marry them to access some deep knowledge, it’s a compelling, I think, offer for a lot of organisations. Of course, my subject is the future, which there is no organisation in the world which isn’t interested in that. So that’s how I came to it and I love doing it and the reason I love doing it is not just the money. Although that is very nice. It is that it brings you into contact regularly, with a whole different set of audiences.

So, one day I’ll say well, “Will you go and speak to a bunch of cardiac nurses?” Yes. Next day, “Will you speak to an investment house?” Yes. Next day, “Will you go and speak to a bunch of scientists?” Just spending the day with those people and finding out how they think and the questions they ask you gives me a whole new set of perspectives as wide as my own knowledge. So that’s one of the great joys of speaking, is the amount of times you’re in a room with a whole bunch of new people who are interested in you and you can be very interested in them.

Maria:  

What’s wonderful actually, when people book you to speak, is that you challenge people’s thinking about where they’re going and what they’re doing and it’s a great set-up really, at the beginning of an event, or at the beginning of the year when people are thinking about, “What am I going to be doing next?”

Mark Stevenson:

What I generally like to do is open you up so that the whole event is now open to much more radical thinking because by the time I’ve finished with them, they’re like, “Oh my God, all bets are off, the future has to change and that means us.” And I tie that to how … you know, innovative thinking as well and that’s always a fun thing to do.

Maria:

Yes, we like to think of you as a little catalyst.

Mark Stevenson:  

Oh, a little catalyst, thank you. One of my clients calls me the chief question asker, which I quite like as well.

Maria: 

So finally, Mark, as one podcaster to another, would you like to tell us a little bit about your Futurenauts podcast?

Mark Stevenson: 

No.

Maria: 

OK.

Mark Stevenson:  

So, the Futurenauts is a loose gathering of me and Ed Gillespie, who comes from a sustainability background and it’s really us trying to approach these systemic, big problems with a bit of humour, with a bit of levity but really interviewing world-class people on how they are solving these problems. So, it’s very much future-facing, it’s very much, “Tell us what you’re doing.” We’ve got some fantastic interviews in the bag, coming up. So that’s what we do and we occasionally go out and do the odd bit of stand-up as well and we collaborate on all sorts of other bits and bobs. So, it’s another way to try and make this stuff accessible to a wide audience.

Maria:  

And again, I’ll put a link in the notes. So, thank you Mark, thank you so much for your time, it’s been a real pleasure.

Mark Stevenson:    

It’s always nice to be interviewed by you.

Listen to the interview

Listen to the Futurenauts podcast

More about Mark Stevenson

More about Maria Franzoni Ltd

Connect with Maria on Linkedin

Connect with Maria on Facebook