Futurist Mike Walsh is an extremely busy man. The veteran futurist of 13-years and founder of Tomorrow, a research and consulting firm, is constantly on the move, travelling almost 300 days in a year.
The Peak managed to catch up with Walsh despite his busy schedule on the sidelines of the Maxis Business Sparx Summit 2019 at Menara Maxis. We asked him what were the notable trends in technology that are currently shaping the world of business today.
Could you give a brief explanation as to what you do as a futurist and what inspired you to be one?
There are many kinds of futurists out there. Some are focused heavily on technology while others wonder about building habitats on Mars. I’m much more focused on digital transformation and reinventing organisations. I got into this because I’ve been involved in the digital industry since the late 90s when I started Jupiter Research in the Asia Pacific, which like Gartner, was one of the first research companies in the region. I was living in Hong Kong for quite some time and I spent a lot of time in the early 2000s travelling around China, Japan, Korea, India. It was then that I saw first hand how we were going to move to a mobile-first digital world. That really inspired me to write books and start doing my own research firm and that’s how I ended up being a futurist.
What are the major shifts in trends in technology and business over the past decade that you have observed?
It is evident that in the next few years the focus around technology will shift from devices and hardware to centre around software and experiences. If you were to look 10 years ago, the biggest differences are probably the hardware and devices we used. We were using flip phones and Blackberries and even very early smartphones then look antiquated today. If we look another 10 years into the future, our smartphones are not going to look very different on the surface. But what will be very different are our experiences be it in retail, healthcare, insurance, financial services and education will be a lot smarter because of Artificial Intelligence (AI).
The subject of AI has grown in importance and it worries people as they are afraid that it will take away their jobs. What do you say to that?
Often when I say AI, a significant proportion of people will think of killer robots. So the problem is Hollywood and the way they colour AI either as killer robots or the thing that is going to take over your job.
People tend to forget that AI is just a tool. It is not made to take our jobs, instead, it’s here to change our jobs. If you are in a profession, which involves a high degree of very repetitive easy to define tasks, those jobs are going to be taken over by automation.
But, the good news is that you should be the person who’s driving that transformation because your real job in the future is not to do the work, it’s to reinvent the work.
In your opinion, are companies today ready for the new wave of digital transformation that is sweeping every industry?
I think most companies, whether they are in insurance or manufacturing, have already accepted that digital formation is inevitable and that they’re going to need to change. It is plain to see that consumers want new things and they want a lot more personalisation, which is going to require more agility and more information and data.
However, the challenge is that they don’t know how to adapt to this change quickly. More often than not, they believe they can just buy their way into digital transformation. They hope that a vendor can sell them a new enterprise software suite or change their collaboration tool.
But one of the things I always write and talk about is that when you make changes to technology, you’re just changing the hardware of your business.
For real change, you’ve got to find a way of making culture your operating system. It is the system of interactions by which your people make decisions communicate, collaborate & find solutions to customer problems. But the caveat is that culture is the hardest thing to change. It is not something that you can buy or steal from another company, you’ve got to develop it yourself.
Compared to their Western counterparts, are Asian companies just as keen on adopting new technologies to improve their efficiencies?
It is quite difficult to generalise because some markets like China possess incredibly sophisticated digital ecosystems. But you can see across Asia how very sophisticated factories are being built with high levels of automation and robotics and this happening because of rising labour costs. However, as I mentioned before, culture is essential in driving change. So far, companies are quick to adopt changes in hardware and upgrading them to the latest yet there is still a gap in upgrading human capital.
There has been a lot of talk about the coming Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0) and how it is important in the manufacturing sector moving forward. In your opinion, are businesses ready for it?
I think we need to reframe the focus from just looking at Industry 4.0 and more about how we define Leadership 4.0. Technologies like 5G and the Internet of Things (IoT) can be built but coaching a new generation of leaders who know how to take data and use it to make informed decisions is more of a challenge.
This requires a very different way of thinking because during a time when everyone’s worried about robots taking their jobs I wanted to show that there’s a much more interesting and optimistic story about how jobs are going to change. Also, what does it take to be a successful leader now that there smart factories that can run on their own. It is about defining what are our jobs in the future are going to be.
From your observations, what are the new technological trends that we should be paying close attention to in 2020?
One of the big trends that we can expect to see is the acceleration around algorithms and how they are influencing experiences almost every field be it in health care or retail. You will see it becoming a bigger part of our experiences as a consumer whether it is on a mobile device or in a physical location. Everything is driven around data as consumers want more personalisation.
Beyond this drive for more personalisation, the hardware will slowly fade into the background as the way we interact with it changes. We will increasingly not have to interact with technology or even need to understand how it works. These algorithms will increasingly be smart enough to anticipate your needs like automatically turning the lights on when you enter a room.
In fact, you may not even need to ask AI assistants like Alexa at all once they learn your regular routine. For example, your morning routine can be anticipated by the smart devices in your home where the blinds will rise up, your shower will start and the coffee starts brewing when you normally wake up.
Even looking at ride-hailing services like Uber, if you can connect your calendar, there wouldn’t be any need to request for a ride as car will be waiting for you at the right time to take you where you need to go.
Apart from your current book, The Algorithmic Leader, you have written two other books that focus on your predictions on technological innovations. Could give a brief summary of it while detailing how many of those predictions turned out to be true and which didn’t?
I wrote Futuretainment almost exactly 10 years ago. Now it is interesting looking at what I got right and wrong. I had predicted that we would that all the content we consume was going to be available and sit on a server. This eventually turned out to be true as services like Netflix and Spotify were born in the late ’00s. Another prediction that I got right was how people’s personal audience networks will eventually become more powerful than traditional broadcast networks. I did, however, overestimate the adoption of AR and Virtual Reality (VR). It has taken a bit longer but I think we’re getting close to that future now.