Futurist says to think big and ‘dangerously’

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Futurist, author and CEO of the innovation research group, Tomorrow, Mike Walsh was the keynote speaker at IFT15. He challenged the audience to think big and “dangerously” and ask questions about the direction the world is going within food technology, science, and global sustainability. Walsh, the author of The Dictionary of Dangerous Ideas and Futuretainment: Yesterday the World Changed, Now It’s Your Turn, outlined in this video four key ideas that invite people to think dangerously.

Here’s a transcript of the video

I’m Mike Walsh. I’m the CEO of the innovation research group Tomorrow and also the author of the book Futuretainment and The Dictionary of Dangerous Ideas. I’m the keynote speaker for IFT 2015 and I’m very excited to be here in Chicago. In my talk today I really tried to challenge audiences to not just think big, but think dangerously. To ask questions that can really start to move the needle in terms of not just where we’re going in terms of food technology and science, but how we think about food in general, not just for ourselves, but for the big issues that are going to be facing the world in terms of sustainability.

So I put four ideas in play. The first one was how are we going to anticipate the needs of the next generation of pursuits? And for me, this is more than just about understanding trends and demographics. It’s really trying to get in the mind of a consumer base that’s grown up surrounded with very different technology, particularly smartphone technology, and how it’s impacted the way not only they see and understand food, but how they communicate the things that are important to them.

The second thing I spoke about was some of the challenges we’re now facing due to the rapid rise of new developments around genetics and in particular gene editing. And where we have the ability now to not only invent much better plants, but also livestock as a result of these gene editing techniques. But this does raise the question of will we face the same challenges we faced with the marketing and the acceptance of GMO foods? Or whether these will be presented differently.

The third thing I talked about was the big challenge around sustainability. There are a lot of incredible emerging technologies now that have the potential to help us solve the challenge of feeding 9.6 billion people by 2050. And whether it’s new types of proteins or using pig proteins in creative ways to create new types of biofabricated meats, or even creating cultured meat products. I think we’re in an incredible time of creativity where food science and technology can help us meet some of our biggest challenges as a human race.

And the final thing I spoke about was the power of big data in relation to big food. And I think there’s no doubt that whether you’re in agriculture or food processing or distribution or even food marketing, there are huge amounts of data that are now available. It’s going to present a big challenge, but also an opportunity for business leaders to change the way they think about the entire value chain. It’s very exciting for me. This is my first time I’ve actually spoken to an audience of food experts. But one of the things I thought was really powerful was that in food, like we see in so many industries, you’ve got people now who are willing to really think completely differently and very creatively about the issues facing them. In some sense, you’ve got a lot of money from Silicon Valley. Tech entrepreneurs now are trying to take the same approach to disrupting other industries to now disrupting not just the value chain, but the entire food chain. And I think that’s exactly the kind of thinking that we need in order to tackle some of the challenges that we face.

One of the questions that came up in my talk was will greater transparency because of the Internet of Things and other digital platforms mean that consumers will now want to follow [food] right from farm to fork? And actually this is a great point because you see this in other industries. So for example, in automobiles, Tesla one of the things they do if you buy a Tesla is you can actually follow your car being constructed along the entire assembly chain. And this is more than just about a gimmick, a marketing gimmick or transparency. It allows the consumer to really buy into the process, and it builds incredible brand loyalty as a result. I travel a lot, probably almost 300 days a year. And a lot of my process is not reading about what’s happening; it’s actually being in the markets seeing what’s going on. And I think that’s really important, especially for people that work in food. If you work for multinational, the challenges you face are not just global ones. They’re very specific local ones. Food is the ultimate manifestation of the human experience, and it will always be local and very culturally driven. So I guess to really see the intersection of new technologies and human culture, you’ve got to be on the ground. I think part of traveling gives you that very localized perspective.

What I call a mind grenade is a particularly provocative question. It’s not designed to be answered; it’s designed to be debated. And what I try to do, whether I ask people to imagine, for example, you know, if one of your kids joined your organization, how would they think about one of your problems differently or how would they make a decision differently to you? What would they want to change? I think if you can sometimes subvert your thinking by including perspective, it can change your perspective on the world. Some of these companies look at their troublesome customers and they say: “How can we kind of keep these people quiet?” I do things very differently. I think some of your most troublesome customers are your greatest source of inspiration.

If you can see the way they break things, the way they cause trouble, if they want to use your products in ways you don’t intend or want, some of this is your best form of R&D because it will give you a bit of a glimpse into really what the consumer connection with your product is. My book The Dictionary of Dangerous Ideas suffers from a big problem. It has too many ideas. In fact, there’s 88 disruptive ideas there. And what I tried to do is give people a single page per idea. You know, what is the latest thinking. What are the latest technologies. What is the research in the field, condensed in a simple summary. And at the end of each of those chapters is a provocative question or a mind grenade to help people start a new debate. So I designed the book as the ultimate executive primer for somebody who wants to, in a single session, get an idea of the new technologies and emerging trends that are likely to challenge their business and the way they operate.

You know, for me, this has been fantastic because I think for anyone who works in food, you’re really at that intersection of science and humanity with something that is incredibly affected by technological innovation. But you couldn’t have anything more personal than what we eat.


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