Futurist Thomas Frey

How many times a day do you hear someone use the term “going forward”?

As businesses travel farther into the 21st century, leaders continue to target building better workplaces, retaining staff and reducing overheads – but how often do companies actually get it right?



Of course, nobody can predict the future. We can guess and estimate, but surely no one can know where their company and business sector will stand in a decade or two – or even if either will still exist.

Thomas Frey, an American futurist based in Colorado, believes we can know.

The executive director and senior futurist at not-for-profit think tank the DaVinci Institute believes people are too quick to look to past mistakes for answers to today’s problems. His focus is on helping people look ahead.

Frey says thinking about the future is like exercising a muscle in your brain that doesn’t get used very often. “If you spend more time thinking about the future, naturally you’ll get better at it. My job is to help exercise those muscles.”

From comprehensive predictions about the education system and manufacturing to ruminating about flying lawnmowers, driverless cars and 3D printers, Frey develops and packages ideas he can present to people around the world.

Naturally, many of his ideas concern the future of business. He has shared the stage with executives such as Rudy Giuliani, Tom Peters and Jack Welch and delivered keynote talks to Fortune 100 companies such as NASA, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard and IBM, where he worked for 15 years.

In October the futurist will share some of these ideas when he speaks at CPA Congress in New Zealand.

During such presentations, Frey often asks his audience to name the most famous (non-religious) person ever. People frequently say Einstein, da Vinci or Gandhi, he says.

“I say, ‘well, my thinking is that the most famous person of all time either hasn’t been born yet or we don’t know who that person is’,” Frey says. “That should be a very inspiring thought, because there’s an opening – you can be the person who aspires to that.”

He then asks his audience what that individual accomplished to make them the most famous person in the world.

“Or another way of asking that is to look at what things in the world still haven’t been accomplished. What problems haven’t been solved yet? Where should we put money – into the past or the future? We are a very backward-looking society.

“When you start looking at the big picture and think the average person is going to be spending half as much on health care, for example … if that were true, then suddenly you can start seeing huge amounts of money that get freed up to go elsewhere.”

In 1998 Frey predicted the creation of prepaid credit cards, spherical computer displays and therapeutic amnesia.

In 2007 he released a paper on the future of education that forecast many of the changes happening today, including free online lessons or MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), rapid courseware builders and super-professors.

Apple University opened a few months after his paper came out. One of his more recent predictions is that two billion jobs will disappear by 2030.

Some of the reasoning behind it comes from the development of 3D printing and robots. 3D printers, which make three-dimensional objects from layers of materials, may one day print clothes, shoes and building materials such as timber and concrete.

Further down the line, we could choose to print nutritious apples filled with vitamins and flavoured with vanilla, Frey argues.

While this would have damaging ramifications for clothing retailers, construction industries and apple farmers, Frey says a misconception about the future is that it’s something to be feared.

One of his biggest gripes growing up was that the science fiction section in video stores was part of the horror section, perpetuating anxiety about what’s to come. “The future does not have to be dark and gloomy – it can be bright,” Frey says.

Thus, as well as slashing jobs in certain sectors, 3D printers could also create new positions in industries such as 3D design, engineering and manufacturing.

Google’s top-rated futurist speaker – Thomas Frey

Frey admits most of his ideas are born out of a restless night’s sleep. As a child he read Popular Science magazine, its covers featuring flying cars and rocket ships to the moon.

“For me, the future couldn’t happen fast enough – I just wanted to be part of it,” he says. Today he gets most of his information from newsfeeds and tracks hundreds of publications each day.

He reads Shanghai Daily, The Times of India, The New York Times and The Guardian as well as magazines such as Wired, The Atlantic and Fast Company.

“I no longer watch TV news because it tends to be too fear-based and bad karma,” he says. “I’m well aware of what’s going on through the online world.”

The internet, of course, has opened up an abundance of ideas for the future of work and business.

The Cisco Business Internet Solutions Group (CBISG) found that in 2003 there were 6.3 billion people living on the planet and 500 million devices connected to the internet.

By 2020 that number will exceed 50 billion devices. Frey has taken this concept one step further.

In a paper published in May, he writes: “By 2030, virtually every item of value will become traceable with tiny electronic sensors, known as smart dust, manufactured into them.”

Apart from what this means for current work methods, Frey says that because in the future everything of value to the owner will be connected to the internet, theft may become a thing of the past.

“In 2030, every purchase over US$50 or whatever minimum you choose is automatically assigned to our ‘personal ownership network’. Tagging chips built into these items automatically provide a full description of the product, serial numbers, date of purchase, manufacturing details and more. All this information is transferred into your personal ownership network, an intelligent software system designed to manage everything you own.”

This idea fits in with the present workplace trend towards hot‑desking and the disappearance of the desktop PC.

Frey predicts a further move away from permanent staff towards freelancers – exactly the change already being played out in many creative industries.

He says in the US right now, the average 30‑year‑old has had 11 different jobs.

“My prediction is that the average person who turns 30 in just 10 years from now will have worked on between 200 and 300 different projects … we’re becoming a much more project‑based society,” Frey explains.

“The internet is a very sophisticated communications tool and that’s enabling the needs of a business to align with the talent of individuals in far more precise ways than ever before. So rather than hire somebody full-time, you can bring someone out for two months, two weeks, two days.”

Hiring employees part-time or on contracts keeps costs down and allows for staff flexibility.

But Frey says it doesn’t just suit the heads of organizations.

Tom speaking on “Teacherless Education” last year in Istanbul

The younger generation of workers – often known as the digital generation – views this way of working as an opportunity.

“They actually find security in being able to jump from job to job to job. There’s also great freedom and the ability to learn other skills and pick up new ways of learning things.”

Learning and teaching will be completely different in years to come, Frey believes. “My latest prediction [made in July] is that 50 per cent of colleges will fail by 2030,” he says.

Much like the decline of the music recording industry, Frey forecasts the death of the university lecture because it can be recorded and broadcast again and again.

“Colleges and the education system have this feeling that we need to reinvent the wheel every time and teach the same course. Wouldn’t it be great if we could capture the very best instructor teaching all the courses and put it into all the schools, so then the teachers transition from teaching into coaching. In the future I see colleges as very progressive.”

Frey says people in all industries simply need to train themselves to think about what’s ahead. We get too comfortable living in the past because it’s what we know.

“We spend more time trying to solve past problems and a lot less time trying to create our future,” he says. “If we did that we could spend more time looking at creating new industries, which might help past problems go away. In any industry, if you have a better understanding of the future than your competition it gives you a significant advantage.”

Via In The Black