Hello and welcome back to the Foresight Strategy Show today with you is your host, Dr. Nilda Perez and your cohost, Rachel Calderon. Today we have with us Herb Rubinstein is the founding member of the board of directors of the Association of professional futurists. He advises companies on how to identify future long term challenges and opportunities, but in addition, he’s an attorney. He teaches strategic management and foresight at the global energy management program of the University of Colorado, Denver Graduate School of business. He has authored a co, authored several books and over 100 articles on business and futurist topics. So welcome with me Herb Rubinstein. So welcome to Herb. How are you?
I’m doing fine. Thank you very much.
Great. I really, super excited to have you here. And all of the information that you bring, I know you do business future as do I. So here’s my first question. Can you please tell us a little bit about what futures do to try to figure out, I guess future events?
Well, it’s even more than future events. We really like to look at order not only just the trends, but what are the small signals that are coming out from different events that are going to lead to major changes. If we’re trying to predict small changes, well that’s not gonna make much of a difference in the world. So what are the big changes? So 25 years ago it was pretty easy to predict driverless vehicles. Pretty hard to figure out when they will actually hit the road, but they’re starting to hit the road already. But those of us in the futures business knew they were coming because we understood why they were coming.
Exactly. So a lot of our audience is they’re all business people, but not very many understand the whole concept of futures. So can you explain futures with a little bit more detail?
Sure. It is an organized set of methodologies, research tools, analytical tools, and of course writing and presentation tools. Because even if you understand the future, if you can’t explain it in a believable way, if you cannot write about it, if you cannot stand up and make a presentation, if you cannot have graphics and PowerPoint slides and other things that look right, you simply are not going to be effective. Because our job is really to warn people about what many futures could be, because nobody can predict exactly which future is going to take place, but we can pretty much narrow it down sometimes to, three or four or five scenarios that could happen. So for example, with the Arab spring, about 10 years ago, all one really needed to know was that in the whole history of the Middle East for 5,000 years, Arab and Jewish leaders almost never last longer than 40 years. Well all the leaders were in their 40th 41st, 42nd, 43rd year and there are cycles in society so you have to know those cycles. But very often we break through those cycles and understanding the impact. I remember I think it was in 2002 understanding exactly the power of Facebook before it was even a company. it went to school with Zuckerberg and so they got to use a Beta version of it and using it completely transformed in a vet in terms of what people did in real time during that event. So all of a sudden you just knew 15 years before it got big exactly how it was going to impact society and the energy sector, which is where I teach. There are a lot of exciting things going on in the energy sector that a futurist can gleam onto that the people in the industry just won’t see because there every day trying to make payroll there every day, trying to keep people from being injured there every day trying to reduce their carbon footprint or at least I hope so. Those of us who get to sit back and look at what trends and what has happened in the past, we can see things that probably or likely or might happen that are otherwise going to catch people blindsided.
And that’s what I always tell businesses that it’s really important that they see this and that they’re constantly looking at the future, looking at trends, looking at the things that can impact their business because pretty much like you say, most businesses are very focused on operations and that’s great and it has its place, but taking the time to narrow things down, to look at futures, to look at how these trends and how even across industries, what are the things that can impact your business is just as important as operations. Would you agree?
in the long run, obviously more important than operations, and I’ll give you an example. The price of natural gas, at one time it was about $12.47 per MBTU and that’s a measure everybody uses. Now it’s in the $2.50 range. However, in some parts of the United States, the price may actually in the next year go negative. That is if you’re getting natural gas out of the ground and you want somebody to store it or you want to send it in just in pipes, you’re going to have to pay. So the price will get down very low and it could be below zero. People don’t often think a zero price or below zero price and so it’s a very complicated process, but we know for example, we’ve had large tax cuts and I inform our students and I teach people. A futurist would look at this from a process point of view, not a political point of view. So when you say no new taxes from a process point of view, okay, maybe there’s going to be no new taxes. However, there are going to be more regulations because taxes is when the government takes money from companies. And they fix a problem or they spend money on the problem, maybe they fix it and maybe they don’t. If the government doesn’t have any money, they just create regulations and they tell the companies to fix the problems and they forced them to do it and spend their own money. It’s an unusual situation of tax cuts or no new taxes and trying to cut back regulations that for the long run is not sustainable because problems will crop up. The citizens will demand more action. I’ve written a book called Leadership Development for Educators. It was pretty hard to predict that teachers were going to start going out on strike. However, once you start to see over the last 20 years, education budgets are cut and no one speaks for teachers anymore. At least the teachers themselves. Sure, one party might speak for a teacher or a union or something like that, but students can’t speak for education very well. They have no voice. They’re getting more of a voice with Parkland. So we can predict student involvement to increase in the United States, we can predict teacher involvement because the budgets have been cut for 20 years and eventually when you cut budget you will eventually cut quality and when you cut qualities, somebody is not going to stand for it. In this great nation.
Dr. Nilda was just saying about how we as businesses need not focused so much on operations and focus more on future opportunities and threats and things like that, but how can we bring it home like because in a sense aren’t we all like futurist? Maybe not think exactly alike but aren’t we kind of all in a way futurist and how can we bring how we think in the future as a normal, mundane person into the business world so that we can all kind of work together. Is that like even possible because I know that I usually thought of the future as, okay, I want to have a 401k. I want it. This is like my personal, but now when I stepped into the business side of things, I had to think like what Dr. Nilda was saying look at the political aspects, now just switch that same idea but just switch it over so can you give them also kind of like examples of how they can kind of bring it together so that they can benefit from this because I want the audience to benefit.
Sure. When one is thinking about their own career 30 years ago, probably not a good idea to become an IBM typewriter repair person. My law Firm was the first law firm in Washington DC in 1984 where every lawyer and every staff member had a computer on his or her desk. I was able to compete with the largest law firms in the United States because I was getting daily feeds from Westlaw, lexis, and these highly expensive computerized systems that taught me what the recent cases were, so access to the best information about what the future is. People want to publish about the future because they want to influence the future, and so when it comes to a career, 10 years ago, I would have been recommending much more than people go into the practice of law. I would still recommend that, but only in intellectual property areas and in other future oriented areas. What if you’re in the personal injury? People get hit in car accidents. I’m not going to say there’ll be no personal injuries in 2030 or 2040, but with driverless vehicles, not many lawyers are going to make a living. You got to get out of that field right away. You never want to be the last in any the industry, so every individual should try to help build an industry or build not just the company they work for, but build the whole sector and speak about the future. By the way, I predicted oil prices would go down like natural gas prices and they’ve come up and they’ve come up for a lot of reasons. It’s very useful when you make a prediction or even a forecast to be wrong as long as you present it to people who are smarter than you, know more about this because it starts a conversation. So the key for every individual in business or in their personal life is to have a conversation about, well I would say 2020, but that’s right around the corner, have conversation about what things look like in 2025. I mean there’s one area that I don’t think any futurists can make any sense on today and that’s ethics. It was the Oxford English dictionary that said post truth was there word of the year and last year I believe it might even been 2017. I don’t know what the future of ethics will bring. It seems like less emphasis on ethics. However, 25 years ago, one could have predicted that sexual harassment, treating women unequally will bring down companies and Nike’s a good example. Executives are getting kicked out. But way before that there was a company and based on some research, so I’m not sure how the whole story, but it was pretty clear Yahoo even when it got a female CEO it was not a good place for women to work and Yahoo at one time was valued at $127 billion dollars and it sold for $3,000,000,000. So I don’t know how you lose $125,000,000,000 of value, but I think in this world, if you don’t treat women fairly, if you don’t pay them equal wages, if you cut off telecommuting, I think you can destroy a lot of value. And that’s what businesses cannot afford to do. Volkswagens is the best example there, they have a $50 million dollar mistake with this to feed software. Any futures could have predict they were dead in the water when they first came up with this idea.
But I think that having these conversations, like you said, although you were probably wrong in one area, I think that you also got their brain thinking as to you know what, let’s try to prevent what we think could happen. So I think these conversations are very important.
Well also to take that a step further. The other thing is that, we have to look at when we make predictions that we also have a quadrant of futures. There are several possible futures. We never predict one solitary thing. So we have several different futures that we can look at. And then from there, choose which was other most likely to happen.
Here’s a good example. I’ve had the privilege of spending a lot of time in London. in London there are now small streets where cars used to be crammed in and cars are not even allowed on those streets anymore. There’s a congestion pricing tax. And here in New York we’ve been fighting with the congestion pricing tax. Many people have wanted it. You’re only averaging six miles an hour driving through Manhattan. You could almost walk that quickly from one into Manhattan to the other. Singapore and I believe it’s just to get a car licensed just to get your license plate is $13,000. So we know through economics, when you raise the price of something, there’s sometimes we’ll call it an elastic demand and therefore people will use less of it. So New York struggled because it’s subways are filled so they can’t fill more people into the subways and they’re starting to use more ferries. So we’re in a situation where traffic and pollution are starting to have huge detrimental impacts. And in New Delhi they have to close schools. Futurists often figure out when something happens in one place, it will spread or it won’t. And futurists just have to be hyper aware of what’s going on all around the world. And that’s the fun part of being a futurist.
Absolutely. I’m going back a couple of steps. I was probably one of those people because I used to be an administrative assistant. I will believe that I’ve been a futurist like all my life, but in the 1980s I started learning computers and I was one of the few people who took the chance and wanted to learn and I used to work in law firms.
So here’s an example. As a futurist, I predict that someday women will be allowed to drive cars. Now you can say, well, wait a minute. Women have been driving cars for 100 years, but not in Saudi Arabia. So the issue is when a trend becomes ubiquitous around the world, what is the tipping point and how do we see it in advance? So women are slowly starting to get the right to drive cars in Saudi Arabia. And so I urge everyone to be looking all around the world about what’s going on, whether someone’s a political enemy or not. One student had to write a paper on the future of natural gas vehicles. He got an F and was told to rewrite this was 10 years ago. He did not include the one country, 10 years ago that had the most number of natural gas vehicles that happened to be Iran. I don’t care if you’re going about Iranians politics one way or another. In some respects. My point is, as a futurist, if you’re going to write a paper on the future of an industry and you’re not going to include a discussion of the country, that’s already ahead of everybody else you deserve an F. So you have to be very broad in your scope of thinking. You know what our future voting participation levels going to be in the United States? If they rise 10 percent, which I think they will, especially with young people who are ages 18 to 29, just don’t vote very much. If they voting equal to the national average, things change. So a lot of times you’re looking for a trend inside of trend.
So futurist talk a lot about stakeholders. Can you explain what stake holders are in futuring and why they’re important to even try to figure out?
Sure. Stakeholders are people that if something happens, they either win big or they lose big. Now, in America, we often think, well, stakeholders are the people who win if you win, so you take, for example, the price of a autonomous vehicles whose going to win if they’re autonomous vehicle, older people who already had the keys to their car, taken away by their kids. The military is going to win fewer deaths on the battlefield. Safety. We’re not going to be killing 40,000 people a year on the road. Who’s going to lose? The courts are going to lose what happened to traffic court? All those jobs are gone. What happened to DWI and all those bail bonds. DWI is gone. What happened to all the driving schools? They’re gone. So there are stakeholders, so stakeholders have an economic or social or political or philosophical investment, either for something or against something, and believe it or not, most people get this wrong. They think, well, all the proponents who are for something because they will win, those are the people who are going to propel it to go forward. So the military will propel driverless vehicles, aarp and older folks. What about insurance companies? Insurance companies are gonna have to reinvent themselves because the car insurance business isn’t going to look very good. However, Americans hate to lose more than they love to win. So a lot of times you will get people fighting against pipelines because they’ve for oil, they think they’re going to lose because if you don’t put them on pipelines, you’re going to do it just the same way you did in the 1850s and sixties and seventies with the beginning of oil. It all was transported on rail cars. Well, rail cars blow up pipelines we use don’t. But if you think I don’t want a pipeline through my backyard, I don’t live near a rail track. It’ll blow up in somebody else’s town or city. One of the things that futurists have to do is understand these groups because they’re individually powerful and with the Internet and with Facebook I can get 20,000 people to some place where 10 years ago I never could have gotten them. The hard work we did to create the national park service in the United States. People were still writing letters to each other, go talk to your congressmen. Today we could just have 50,000 people show up at a national monument that somebody wants to decommission. So life’s gotten much quicker.
Okay. So I have one last question and that one is regarding scenarios. First I would like you to explain scenarios. So then I would like you to explain why it’s important to companies to spend time and money, to understand future scenarios that will affect or impact their business.
Good. So a scenario is an integrated story about how life will unfold. So if I was in Nike 10 years ago, I would’ve cared, are women getting paid the same amount are women getting promoted? And I would have made sure because every organization has a simple choice to make in their culture. They can have a we culture, all of us together or us and them. If it’s us and them, men versus women inside your company, you will go down. That scenario is now pretty clear. It was playing out over and over and if you have a we culture then I’m going to pay men and women the same for the same job, because we’re all we. So for every company in their culture life, the choice is simple. Us and them or we. A futurist is going to say us and them is a failed strategy. We is a successful strategy. So understanding the strategic impacts in a scenario like that are very important.
I believe that that’s probably why a lot of companies, companies such as Zappos are opting now for a non flat organization. Not so top heavy because again, this is where there’s so much waste. They have all these managers over managers of managers and they’re not really that effective. So companies are now opting more to have flat organizations where everybody is responsible for themselves and everybody’s responsible for what they bring to the table and not so many managers and leaders. So it’s good.
So if you improve the educational sector, you end up with flat organizations. Because you don’t need as many managers making all the decisions. You become people. Managers become leaders of leaders instead of leaders of followers. So that’s why the educational system drives everything 20 years in advance and that’s why there’s this huge fight by teachers over the educational system today.
Right. Okay. Alright, makes sense. So Herb I want to thank you so much for your participation here. We understand that you will probably have a ton more information so we would definitely love to have you back, but we want to thank you for taking the time to spend with us today and we look forward to having you back soon.
My pleasure. Thank you very much. Thank you.
Herb Rubenstein is a founding member of the board of directors of the Association of Professional Futurists. He advises companies on how to identify future long-term challenges and opportunities.
In addition, he is an attorney and teaches Strategic Management and Foresight at the Global Energy Management Program of the University of Colorado Denver’s graduate school of business. He has authored and co-authored several books and over 100 articles on business and futurist topics.
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