'We need to find the next great disruption'
Futurist Miguel Jiménez talks about establishing the right future-thinking culture, why AI will - and will not - replace humanity, and how we can future-proof ourselves
Miguel Jiménez is the first to admit that the word 'futurist' sounds a bit funny. Yet, that is exactly what he is. His job? "To analyse the signals happening today that might create change for a very different tomorrow. We try to anticipate those changes by looking at those signals - but 'futurist' is a much nicer term than 'looking at signals'," sums up the analyst with a light-hearted laugh.
The CEO and founder of FFWD, a strategic foresight and futures anticipation consultancy, is based in Spain, but works closely with the UAE. He was most recently in town for the Government Foresight Summit in Abu Dhabi, and has a wonderfully insightful grasp on a subject that has fascinated us from the beginning of time: the future. Excerpts from the interview:
With 2020 almost upon us, what are your impressions about where the UAE is headed?
It's interesting because, in the last 20 years, the UAE became everything. The first time I visited Dubai was in 1999; what it is today is completely different. It's the only city in the world that has changed so much in the last 20 years. For example, in Madrid, in the time we took to decide - just decide - whether we should create a business district in the north, the UAE created a whole new culture, future accelerators, a minister of AI, a plan for 2030, and more. They are really focused on making the future happen.
Is imagination the only limit, or would you also caution on the side of being realistic?
We cannot get everything we want, but how we approach the future is the point. There are two approaches: forecasting, where you focus on the current issues and imagine how they can be improved, essentially assuming that the ecosystem we have today is what we want to continue with in the future as well - and backcasting, where we use our imagination to look for an alternate future. something radically different that is not a continuation of today, but rather where we want to be.
How can we establish the right future-thinking culture?
Most governments are asking this right now. The future is dependent on many different parts working together. The outcome is unpredictable. That is a good thing, because if the future is certain, we can influence nothing. When things are uncertain, we can make change.
What we need to bear in mind is that we may not be able to make things happen fast enough. Some things are very difficult to change and will require time. So, one of the things you need in order to establish a culture that thinks about the future is making sure people understand that the future takes time.
Take plastic bottles, for example. We know they are bad for the environment. People believe we can create a better future by removing them completely, but the reality is that there are entire industries - and families - that depend on the plastic bottle. So, there is no way we can make such a change overnight; we have to create an alternate industry - and that might take 20 years. So, even though we have the knowledge and tech to replace things, what we're trying to replace is not just a bottle - but an entire industry and society. It's not about slowing down, but about making sure that we will be able to deploy these great ideas.
Is a knowledge economy the way forward?
Yes. A knowledge economy is about using the brain to produce better solutions for humanity. That is the way forward, not only for developed countries, but for most of humanity. We can have robots take up things we don't like doing, from cooking to transporting people - and we can use people's minds for what AI is not good at: creative thinking. Automate the dull jobs and focus people on creating new solutions for humans.
However, in order to sustain such an economy, we still need other resources: food, water, energy. That means economies can never be based 100 per cent on knowledge. Imagine what would happen if DEWA shut down. What would happen to all your knowledge? So, there are parts of the industry we still need; even if they are going to be automated, you need people to manage that too. It would be very difficult to have a purely knowledge-based economy, but simple to have societies working mostly as one.
This is an old debate, but in your opinion, can AI ever replace or rule humanity?
AI is a buzzword. It's very difficult to do artificial things when you don't completely understand what it is you want to make artificially. We don't understand how intelligence works in the human brain, so it's very difficult to create intelligence artificially.
We do have machines that are able to think - but they are able to do so only within the knowledge we provide them with. The thing about the human brain is it is able to create information that is not yet there. AI only uses information we provide. In that situation, machines have very good answers for some of our questions, simply because computer chips are faster than our brains.
Can AI replace humanity? Yes and no. We can be replaced in some tasks, but not in everything. You have self-driving cars making decisions on roads that could be seen as AI. But they're only following a pre-decided set of rules, nothing more. If you put that car in the desert and tell it to find its way, it won't be able to, because it's not within the code and rules you provided it with. Put a human in that car and s/he will try to find a solution. That is the difference between the two types of intelligence.
In our company, we use an AI system that is able to read 25 million articles in one day and create an algorithm to sum up everything it read in just a couple of pages. For us, as humans, that would be impossible. I won't call that AI though - just a very smart robot able to repeat a task without complaining!
A lot of your work focuses on disruptive innovation. What does it mean and why is it critical for the future?
Disruptive innovation is the tool you need to switch from today to the future you want. Disruption means a break from everything you had before - and it's what has happened in the UAE. The whole society shifted from a desert society into a well-developed system. It changed the way people live everyday life. During the same time frame, if you look at New York or London, they didn't make such a disruptive change - perhaps a few things here and there, but nothing that changed the way people lived before.
Is that super important to the future? Yes, in some cases. We need to find a completely new way to harvest energy, for instance. The Internet was disruptive, as was the telephone, and when we discovered electricity. They changed society forever. There was no way back.
But, in the last 10 years, we've not had so much disruption as good innovations. Society has remained the same. We've been talking about robots at homes since the 60s and it still hasn't happened. It's more of a nice story we like to tell ourselves. We need to find the next great disruption.
In all your interactions with governments and influencers, are you sensing an embracing of these futuristic concepts, or a reluctance?
People are always comfortable where they are, because change is scary. Imagine you are the CEO of a really huge company and about to retire in two years. Would you be brave enough to 'disrupt' everything at the end of your career? What if it doesn't work? It'll be all your fault. That's why, as we grow older, we get more conservative and appreciate things as they are. We'd rather do more incremental things than disruptive things.
Certain companies are more likely to love disruption because they're young. Governments, however, need to maintain sustainability, so they try to adopt change in a much slower way. The biggest example is the transition to a shared economy (Airbnb, Uber, etc). There are only a few countries in the world that have policies regarding these, because embracing a shared economy means not using old models again. What do we do with those people on the other side? Retire them? Dispose them? Not possible.
So, we see governments are very eager to look into the future, but slower to adopt policies for that future to happen. The UAE is probably one among only three countries (along with Singapore and South Korea) that are trying to make the long-term future happen today.
How can organisations future-proof themselves?
In order to be future-proof, we need to look at how the future is created. Because it doesn't yet exist, it cannot be predicted - but we can create it. In order to create something that sticks in the future, you need society around you to understand that future, love it and embrace it. So, the best thing that you can do to be future-proof is to observe and learn everything going on around you, and understand why change is needed. Make this an everyday process. Observe what's changing, look at what you do, and think about how you can change.
Not many companies or governments do that, because there's already so much to focus on from day to day. You produce the day today, and you don't have the time to think about how you're going to be in five years. But that is the question we should be thinking about every day.
The future is a source of much excitement, but also comes with an element of fear. What qualities do we need, as people, to successfully take on the future?
People prefer things to remain as they are, because that way they can control them. The unknowable is not comfortable. So, what we need to do is embrace change. You are completely different today than you were 10 years ago. The friends you have and the way you live are completely different. They are so not only because time passed, but because you changed it. So, just assume everything is going to change - and embrace it as an opportunity to do things better.
What fantastic marvels are you hoping to see achieved in the future?
One of the things I'd love to see is how humanity reconnects with nature without losing everything we've achieved as developed societies. When was the last time you went to a forest? We prefer shopping malls; we created them for our own joy. But I'm willing to see how the next decade is going to evolve into taking us back into that connection with nature - and the tech and innovation that will be used to achieve it.