And suddenly Swedish technology strategist and futurist Michell Zappa was standing before me, in our Amsterdam office, hanging out with Sam and Kirsten, the girls behind the laid-back creative outlet Out of Office. Michell was in town for the annual Picnic event, a polyglot sort of gathering of creative minds.
Less ‘We Are The World’ than Ted Talks, Picnic is still billed as globally inspiring. Inviting unorthodox thinkers like Michell is quintessential to the event’s success. So seeing that I had Michell in front of me, I asked him if we could have a casual chat about futurology, corporate copycatting and his non-obvious approach to predicting the future of technology.
You’re in Amsterdam for Picnic. What kind of wisdom did you impart?
I talked about how it is pretty easy to predict the future of technology simply by understanding current emerging technology. Designing future scenarios isn’t exactly rocket science. It can actually be extrapolated by what’s happening now. It is built from existing technologies, like layers of a cake. Once you’re familiar with all the layers it’s easier to predict what’s coming next. Everything comes from something.
What should I know about the future?
That the future is scary and fast and completely out of control. And it’s only going to get worse. Especially if you’re on the wrong side of the coin.
What’s the wrong side of the coin?
People copying other people are on the wrong side of the coin. The whole Apple and Samsung story is very telling If you’re paying catch-up then you’re on the wrong side of the coin.
And the right side?
Those daring and willing to do things that carry a risk of not working but might work. Generally, the right side is the sweet spot between ideas that don’t seem to make sense and ideas that might make sense. Incidentally, these are the categories most startups fall into – don’t make sense vs. might make sense – because they rarely overlap. Facebook didn’t seem like a very good idea at the time, people sustaining real friendships online. But it was. The iPod was shit when it first came out. It was big and bulky and just 5 gigs. Yet here we are. Obviously it doesn’t mean you should invest in bad idea. It’s just that you shouldn’t always invest in ideas that are good.
So to the top gun at Nokia you’d say…?
Don’t play it safe. If you’re a big company and bet seems safe, then you’re probably wrong.
What precisely do you do again?
I tell companies what they should do and then walk out.
Seriously, how do you pay your rent?
I help companies by showing them what everyone else is doing and help them decide what is potentially applicable to their near future. There are of course obvious things like better energy sources, but I prefer the non-obvious things like the idea of reduced space. We’re living in smaller and smaller spaces, we’re fighting over every square inch. If you can actually manufacturer, say, a washing machine that is small and more compact it could actually change the industry. What Apple is doing right now is fighting for every cubic millimeter. Fighting for space is one of those things companies just don’t get around to addressing.
Your reputation resides on being right, right?
You don’t have to be right all the time. If you’re right all the time you’re doing a shitty job. It means you’re just telling people what they already know.
So are you an evolution or a revolution type of guy?
I’m only 30, so I’d categorize myself as revolutionary. Revolution is simply the way technology is developing right now. Rapidly accelerated change doesn’t offer the space to be evolutionary. That also means it’s very hard to predict the future. Will Apple be big in 15 years? It’s not obvious that they will. Next year yes, but in 15 years, who knows? Google Glasses seems like an obvious contender, but it could turn into something entirely different. Maybe the next big tech will be embeddable chips that read your mind waves, making mobile phones completely redundant. It all sounds sci-fi, sure, but it’s mostly non-obvious. Revolutions tend to come out of left field.
Have you ever been really right?
Five years, long before Foursquare, geo-localization was my big thing. I also talked a lot about personalized gene sequencing and space tourism and 3D printing, all of which were pretty scare five years ago. They weren’t obvious, but they were there. None of these things are thoroughly unpredictable, but then again all revolutionary ideas seem obvious in hindsight. But at the time they just seemed wrong. You can reduce that argument to any and every big idea of the past. They all seem bad or are bad at the time of launch.
How do you distinguish yourself from the other guys?
My visualizations are my main source of visibility. I got into this profession because no one else was doing it. I was writing ideas down on a piece of paper – literally. This connects to this and this connects to that. Suddenly all these scribbles resembled a map of sorts. Then I thought: who else is doing these types of maps? Turns out no one. Hmm, so I’ll do it. And the better I get at designing, the nicer my maps look.
What industries need a futurists help the most?
Success to me is making a difference with the groups that otherwise would be misguided. So I’m naturally interested in education and urban policy. These are decision-makers who are often misguided because the technological imperatives aren’t obvious to them. I come in and explain the non-obvious to them.
Let’s end this with one big prediction for the future?
In 2017 the smartphone will still be a slab of polished glass with lit pixels underneath. They’ll buzz for incoming notifications and allow you to contact practically anyone, anywhere in the world, on command. The difference is that it will not only react, but also predict. By 2017 the smartphone ought to also take on a more active role by “listen in” on conversations. Given permission, the device will take note of that article you mentioned you were going to send your friend when you last had coffee, and it will notify your spouse that you’ll probably be early for dinner (before having left the office). And with Indoor Positioning (IPS) your smartphone will allow you to, figuratively speaking, see through walls and, calculate your geo-coordinates against your schedule/intent, social graph and recent history, at times seem to be reading your mind. We will still maintain the final word regarding our whereabouts, but will start trusting the system for ‘planned spontaneity’.
All the visuals in this piece are from Michell’s hand and, apparently, you can actually order posters of them. So for more on Michell, check his site here.