Episode 13: International Futurist Thomas Frey intersects technology, underpopulation, higher education

 

 

     

 

 

Referred to as the “architect of the future,” “IBM’s most award-winning engineer” and “Google’s top-rated futurist speaker,” Thomas Frey, corporate consultant, international speaker and creator of the Da Vinci Institute, makes predictions and asks bold questions to generate ideas and actions for the future. In this episode, he and Dr. Connie dig in to the technologies that will bring rural and urban together; underpopulation versus overpopulation around the globe; and the evolving roles of leadership and higher education.

Before we brought Thomas on the show, we knew he worked closely with companies such as John Deere, AT&T, Pepsico and so many more. What we didn’t know is that he grew up in rural South Dakota driving a John Deere tractor. We continue to be inspired by rural-raised and rural-living futurists — there is definitely a theme emerging!

Thomas Frey, futurist
“It’s almost as if we’re walking backwards into the future. My job is to help turn people around.”
Thomas Frey
Executive Director and Futurist, Da Vinci Institute

About Thomas

                   

Over the past decade, Futurist Thomas Frey has built an enormous following around the world based on his ability to develop accurate visions of the future and describe the opportunities ahead. Having started seventeen businesses himself and assisting on the development of hundreds more, the understanding he brings to his audiences is a rare blend of reality-based thinking coupled with a clear-headed visualization of the world ahead.

Predicting the future has little value without understanding the driving forces behind the trends, subtle nuances that can be leveraged, and implications for both the people directly affected in the industry as well as others farther down the technological food chain.

Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer. He is also a past member of the Triple Nine Society (High I.Q. society over 99.9 percentile).

As part of the celebrity speaking circuit, Thomas continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come. His keynote talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, Disney, IBM, Federal Reserve Bank, TED, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Visa, Frito-Lay, Toshiba, Dow Chemical, KPMG, Siemens, Rockwell, Wired Magazine, Caterpillar, PepsiCo, Deloitte & Touche, Hunter Douglas, Amgen, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, Korean Broadcast System, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more.

Thomas has been featured in thousands of articles for both national and international publications including New York Times, Huffington Post, Times of India, USA Today, US News and World Report, Popular Science, The Futurist Magazine, Forbes, Fast Company, World Economic Forum, Times of Israel, Mashable, Bangkok Post, National Geographics, ColoradoBiz Magazine, Rocky Mountain News, and many more. He currently writes a weekly “Future Trend Report” newsletter and a weekly column for FuturistSpeaker.com.

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome back to the Rural Futures podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Connie, and joining me today is Google’s top-rated futurist, Thomas Frey. And I’m so excited, I’m a huge fan of his work, and I think you’re going to be a huge fan, too, after this interview. But I wanted to give you a little bio, he works as a senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute, a futurist think tank founded 21 years ago. But what’s more, he also grew up on a farm in rural South Dakota and spent his childhood driving a John Deere tractor. Welcome to the show, Thomas.

Thomas Frey: All right, thanks for having me on.

Dr. Connie: Thank you. Tell us a little bit more about what it means to be a futurist.

Thomas Frey: That’s a great question, because I think of my role as expanding people’s understanding of what the future holds, and I do that primarily through technology-driven change. I do it through the lens of technology. We can predict the future in lots of different ways that are highly probable. I mean, with a high degree of probability, I can predict that the building that you’re in right now is still going to be there six months from now. I can predict that with a high degree of probability. I can predict that the Earth’s going to travel around the Sun in roughly the same orbit even a hundred years from now. I can predict that with a high degree of probability. I can predict that 50 years from now, we’re still going to have the summer, winter, spring, and fall, we’re going to have the rising tides. You put a handful of seeds in the ground, a percentage of them are going to sprout and spring to life. And I can predict so many aspects of the world around me that I can plan a birthday party two weeks from now and have a lot of assurance that I can pull it off because most of our future’s being formed around slow-moving elements that we can predict with a high degree of probability. The things that are most unpredictable are the things like the weather, things like animals and people, and to the degree that we can get better at predicting the actions of people, then that gives us a huge edge. And so the technology-driven change is a huge component of predicting how people are going to act and do things in the future.

Dr. Connie: Thank you for that. I think that’s a great description of you as a futurist. I’d like to dive a little bit more into you as a leader. So tell us a little bit more about Thomas Frey, the leader.

Thomas Frey: I tend to experiment with a lot of things and try things, and I’ve attempted to set up lots of different businesses in the past and a lot of them are still actually in existence in some form that are out there. But I like to push people’s thinking on different areas. So I try to use different techniques to push their thinking in one way or another, asking provocative questions, probing their understanding, and then establishing scenarios and predictions about the future that will help draw our thinking forward in some interesting ways. There’s a lot of futurists out there that don’t want to make any predictions because invariably, when I make a prediction, it’s going to be wrong. There’s some aspect of it that’s just not going to be right. The timing’s off, or you get some details wrong, but the true value in a prediction is that it forces us to think about the future. It forces us to think about this time and space sometime in the future and that, then we can start drawing our own conclusions. Even if I would give a prediction and just totally nail it, I get every aspect of it right, somehow, when we get to that point in the future, it just feels different and so there’s all kinds of pluses and minuses making predictions but I like to do it in that it begs questions in our own minds that, “Is this the way it’s going to be,” and “From my vantage point, how would that be “a little different than what he is saying?”

Dr. Connie: A lot of times when I talk about futuring or even strategic foresight, I talk a lot about there are many possible or plausible futures. It’s not necessarily about predicting the future, but I really appreciate the predictions you make, and making a few of those myself off and on, again I feel like I need to do more of that. Because I think it’s a bold move and like you’re saying, it also helps people think very differently, but also really forces you as a futurist to get out there and be a thought leader in this space.

Thomas Frey: Yeah, it challenges assumptions, and that’s kind of the big advantage to it. And that’s what I think my role is. Everybody figures out how they have to fit in society in some way and that’s my role. I have something of a gift to give the world, and so my gift is to be something of a professional conversation starter around this idea of what the future holds.

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Dr. Connie: We know that you work with a lot of companies and a lot of leaders, helping them think about the future and plan for the future. So tell us a little bit about the companies and leaders you’ve worked with as a futurist.

Thomas Frey: I tend to do about 40 to 50 talks a year. I’ll travel to somewhere between eight and 12 countries every year, and it’ll be on topics ranging from, everything from the future of agriculture to the future of education, future of banking. I had a conversation a few days ago on giving a talk on the future of the beer industry, so that’ll be a fun one. I might want to dive into that one at some point.

(laughter)

Thomas Frey: Yes, it’s interesting. One thing that caught me off guard, I didn’t realize this, but we always thought it would be the tobacco companies and the pharmaceutical companies that would be investing in the marijuana industry, but it’s actually the beer industry that’s making heavy investments right now up in Canada into the marijuana industry. And the key thing that they’re interested in is the CBD oil and growing thousand-acre farms up there just to harvest the CBD oil, which is the by-product that is used in 300,000 different products right now, and that’s something that’s kind of missing from most of the conversations. But the marijuana stocks right now are becoming the new bitcoin, which is kind of a fun thing to watch.

Dr. Connie: It is fun to watch and I think it’s something, too, as we think about the future and the future of agriculture, the future of rural, it should really be part of the conversation. I actually was the keynote at  Nebraska’s Rural Healthcare Conference last week and talked about the future of rural healthcare, and I actually was handed a book on hemp (chuckles) and marijuana, and so it’s exciting to see people talking about it here, but it’ll really be fun to watch the evolution of that industry.

Thomas Frey: About a month ago, I was over in Australia, speaking to the cotton farmers in Australia, which is a much larger industry over there than I realized. They specifically asked me to do research on are there any people doing research on 3D printing with cotton and the cotton farmers are very interested in how the cotton industry’s starting to evolve in the future. It was rather fascinating, because I could find people experimenting with 3D printing with hemp fiber, with the nylons and the rayons and all of the synthetic fibers, also with bamboo fibers and so it led me to believe that we’re getting into the fiber wars right now. And that anything we can feed into a 3D printer is going to carry a higher level of prominence in the future, but we may end up having with as many as 10,000 different products that we can run through a 3D printer in the very near future and so agriculture’s going to play a big role in that, but the oil industry wants to play a role in it as well, so that’s where we’re going to get into these fiber wars on some level.

Dr. Connie: It’s really interesting to me how history sometimes repeats itself and enhances the future. I grew up in West Point, Nebraska. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but my grandparents did, and my grandpa used a lot of hemp rope, and he swore by it. He said it was the best rope they ever had and it, as a fiber, has always had this unique place where it’s very durable, it’s sustainable, et cetera. And thinking about fibers and more sustainable futures using these types of fibers like hemp I think is an interesting conversation for agriculture, but also just this rural-urban interface as well, how we’re all so interdependent on one another.

Thomas Frey: Exactly, exactly. The rural communities have so many advantages. I mean, it’s the wide open spaces. They can try things without irritating the neighbors. There’s freedom of thought. You just don’t have people breathing down each other’s necks like you do in some areas. I was having a conversation this morning about the typhoon that hit in Hong Kong and how these apartments they’re building there that are 250 square feet, a lot of them got their windows blown out because of the typhoon and how durable these buildings are and whether or not they’ll last 50 years or they have to be torn down before that. It becomes kind of an interesting question. The rural communities who don’t have to worry about building things 50, 60 stories tall just to accommodate all of the people that want to live there, you can spread out a little bit, you have room to grow.

Dr. Connie: Absolutely, and I really appreciate in our pre-conversation how you talked about how many times our conversation globally has been about overpopulation, but perhaps it’s the under-population that we really need to start focusing on.

Thomas Frey: Half of all the babies born in the world are born in Africa. That’s where the population is still growing. The medium age in Africa right now is 27. The country with the lowest birth rate in the world right now is South Korea, followed by Japan. Neither one of them believe in immigration. A couple of years ago, I gave a talk in South Korea, and I told them that the rate that they were going, that the last Korean would be born in 2300. The birth rate is declining so much it’s under one person per female, and we need 2.1 kids per female in order to maintain an even population. So they are currently under one, and by 2300 at the rate that they’re going,they’ll be down to a population of under 50,000 for the entire country. So this whole supply and demand equation starts getting out of whack as a result of that, and it starts first showing up in the real estate area. But something will have to change, and we’re already starting to see cracks in their no immigration policies. So we’ll see how all this evolves. It’ll be very interesting to watch.

Dr. Connie: One of the leaders from the United States is actually heading to Japan here in later 2018, and it’s going to be interesting to see a little bit more of their culture up close. They actually contacted the Rural Futures Institute, and I received an email, this is not verbatim, it said, “Dr. Connie, what’s the future of rural Japan?” because they’re curious and (laughter) the country has made a national effort and initiative and declared it a national priority to focus on its rural areas, and redeveloping those areas because they are nervous about exactly what you’re saying. Will Japan really even exist in the future? And in this hyper-urbanization they’re experiencing, they’ve already seen the challenges associated with that, if they don’t have a diverse population spread across the country, because they’ve had enough disasters in different locales that they understand what that means to their population.

Thomas Frey: I had to do a study on the difference in millennials in the United States and India and China and how they make decisions and that was kind of a fascinating study, and it’s all based on the different types of technology that you’re exposed to as you’re growing up. You see, right now, all the young people in Africa are growing up and they have smartphones that they have access to. One thing that never gets talked about very much is that with the Internet, it’s increasing our awareness of the world, and so when you’re looking on your smartphone and you’re much more aware of things happening all over the world and you look at the stuff happening and you say, “Wow, there’s many cool things happening in the world, but it’s not happening here,  I think I want to go there.” And so this idea of migrating to other countries, of trying to move to Europe or trying to move to the United States, or South America—we’re becoming a much more fluid society, and it’s driven by this notion that I have control over my own destiny, so I can go anywhere I want to, and why would I want to stay here, wherever that might be? And so that’s why we’re starting to see all of these refugee issues around the world. Some of it is driven by wars and famine, but other aspects of it are driven just by people wanting to venture out and explore the world. And so that’s creating much other issues going on in the world.

Dr. Connie: I find it interesting, sometimes in the world of rural development, traditionally, we’ve sent young people graduating from high school off to college and then we’re hopeful that they’ll return and become a professional in those communities and help grow the population. I’ve really been talking a lot lately about maybe that’s not the right model. Maybe we need to quit (chuckles) expecting that or wanting that, and I think we have moved to this very mobile society. People want to go have experiences. So I think it’s encouraging people to go where they want to go, be who they want to be, but always have the invitation extended. Come back wherever you come from, and make your life here if you desire to do that. We can help you create that opportunity.

Thomas Frey: The driverless technology is going to have such a profound effect on tentative divisions between rural and urban areas, because I think it extends out their urban areas in such far distances in every direction. If I have a job that I have to commute to in the city, and I don’t have to do the driving, I don’t have to fight traffic, I don’t have to do any of that because the car does it all for me, that’s a whole different way of thinking about a morning commute because I can stay productive, I can get a lot of things done inside this vehicle on my way to work and maybe I’ll only have to go in two days a week, so maybe I’m willing to actually commute two hours each way, and then some of that extends out this urban community suddenly is extended out a couple hundred miles farther than it ever was in the past. That changes our perspective in so many ways. It changes the pricing of real estate, it changes where we want to live, our houses, and all that. So when you start adding some multipliers to that as to what cities will look like in the future, then we start getting some really interesting scenarios of what could happen. Now we don’t have any good evidence of that yet, and the whole driverless technology thing will evolve over time as it gets better and better, but there’s certainly a lot of interesting speculation as to some of the possibilities.

Dr. Connie: Personally I’m excited about that. I drive about an hour and a half one way, and I’d love to have the autonomous vehicle where it’s kind of a spa, but also productive and entertaining all at the same time. I can only speak for me personally. I cannot speak on behalf of the State of Nebraska. We have so many commuters here from our rural areas into our urban centers. Love to see us be kind of a real testing site, but also an innovation bed for this type of technology because I think we could also provide insights on what those commuters might need.

Thomas Frey: The one thing to keep in mind is that the cars we drive today have actually been in development for 120 years. And so it’s taken that long to get to a vehicle that’s this good. So once we move into driverless technology, it’s going to take quite a while to work our way through what I refer to as the crappy stages of all this emerging technology to get to the really good stuff. So we’re going to go through this awkward transition of having drivers in some cars and no drivers in other cars, and so we’re going to have things that go wrong. We’re going to have accidents. We’re going to have edge cases. But those are on the fringe. I think overall traffic is going to get much safer. I mean right now we end up having 38,000 deaths every year. We have 12.4 million injuries in car accidents. We spend right at half a trillion dollars a year repairing people after car accidents. One out of every six dollars in the healthcare industry goes into fixing people after car accidents. If we could be more like the airline industry, the airline industry becomes the safety metric for transportation because virtually nobody dies in airlines any more. And so if we can get even close to that in the car industry, we’ve just saved countless lives, there’s nobody that can argue against that, but it’s funny to watch all the newspaper headlines. “Oh, they had an accident in the driverless car world.” Well, yes, we’re going to have a lot of them leading up to the fact that we’re getting to a much safer form of transportation some time in the future.

Dr. Connie: I think that what you’re saying is so important. It’s not like this is just going to happen tomorrow. It is going to be a process, much like many technologies have been over time, so it’s not something that just instantly happens, and I think sometimes when people get in conversations around these types of technologies, they do get a little nervous, and I don’t blame them, but at the same time, these things are going to have to get worked out along the way, and they will.

Thomas Frey: We had one of our Mastermind groups working on this topic of what things will be coming in their life in 2030 that don’t exist today. And to put that in perspective, we’re looking at, “Okay, what things do we have today that weren’t around 12 years ago?” And so 12 years ago, in 2006, we didn’t have any mobile apps. We didn’t have Twitter. Facebook was just a tiny little company then. And it becomes kind of amusing to actually start going through all these things we just take for granted today that weren’t even around 10, 12 years ago.

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Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rock star students from the University of Nebraska who are making a difference in rural.

Katy Bagniewski: Hey, podcast listeners, it’s Katy, production specialist of the Rural Futures podcast. With me today is Tyan Boyer, a senior exercise science major at the University of Nebraska at Kearney. Welcome, Tyan.

Tyan Boyer: Thanks for having me, Katy.

Katy Bagniewski: It’s so nice to have you on the show. Start by telling our listeners a little bit about yourself.

Tyan Boyer: Like you said, I’m a senior exercise science major at UNK. I am from Wayne, Nebraska, which is a small town in northeast Nebraska, about a thousand people. Something that I’m wanting to do with my future career is to go to PT school, become a physical therapist. A little slogan that I live by is positive infinity I’m just a very positive person. I try to instill a little bit of that in everybody’s life, everybody that I’m around. I just try to be in a good mood all the time, even when it doesn’t seem like there is a way to, you try to find the little things that pick you up to maintain that positivity.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, at RFI we really value that positivity that you bring to the narrative around rural communities. So tell me, why do you care so much about rural?

Tyan Boyer: Rural means everything to me. I’m from a very small town, like I said. I think a lot of my characteristics and the things that are important to me and the values that I have are because of the rural aspect. I love the closeness with rural, I love the know your neighbor aspect that we have, that I think tends to be forgotten in bigger cities, and that’s something that has always stuck with me and something that I want for my kids, too.

Katy Bagniewski: Now I know you got the chance to directly impact a rural community through RFI’s Student Services Program. Tell me a little bit about that.

Tyan Boyer: Not only this summer, but last summer, I was in McCook, Nebraska, doing a serviceship, and we ran health and wellness camps for middle school kids. Fitness, nutrition, physical activity, and then some of the more cutting-edge stuff, like technology—tying that in with fitness and nutrition and then also aquaponics and incorporating sustainability aspects of that as well.

Katy Bagniewski: What a cool connection between your field of study and the real world opportunity to impact a community. How else has RFI impacted your college career and development?

Tyan Boyer: The opportunities and the people that I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had. I would not have been able to have those without this serviceship, not only this summer, but the summer prior. I met so many great people from all over the state, so many contacts for the future, building those friendships and those bonds that I had with this year’s interns and also last year’s are something I’m going to be able to access in the future. And I hope that they feel that they can use me as a resource in the future as well. I don’t really think that there’s a price you can put on that. I feel like that is something that is completely invaluable, and those friendships will continue to last for the rest of my life.

Katy Bagniewski: I know you’ve really invested in this network, and I truly hope that you will continue to reap those benefits in the future. Thank you so much, Tyann, for being our Bold Voice this week.

Tyan Boyer: Yup, thank you for having me, Katy.

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Dr. Connie: Well, I know that part of preparing for the future is education. There’s a thread of education and learning through all of this, and recently you’ve published an article that listed 52 future college degrees. So tell us a little bit how you see higher education evolving into the future as well.

Thomas Frey: We’re all looking for quicker, better, faster ways of getting smarter, and that gives me a huge advantage. I mean, if I can suddenly overnight, I can go take a couple classes and then I’m suddenly an expert on this new topic tomorrow, that gives me absolutely a huge advantage over somebody else that might be looking to get that job. We’re still in a world where we’re short 18 million teachers in the world. 23% of all kids growing up in the world don’t go to any school whatsoever, and if we have to insert a teacher between us and everything we have to learn in the future, we can’t possibly keep up with the demand for the future that’s going on in business and industry. So how do we arrange things in ways that are faster, better, quicker? At the DaVinci Institute that I run, we were exploring this idea of what I refer to as micro-colleges. In 2012, we started a coding school where we’re trying to teach people how to become computer programmers and 12 to 14 weeks. And we were the second in the country to actually launch that type of school in 2012, and then last year, there was over 550 schools that had cropped up around the country. So this a really fast mushrooming area. Now when I think about micro-colleges, I think of that as post-secondary education done in a short period of time. In the future, if we want to teach somebody how to design parts for 3D printers or how to become a drone pilot, or how to become a crowdfunding expert, or even how to become a brewmaster in a brew pub. We can do those things in a short period of time, and we’re going to have huge demands for that coming up in the future.

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Dr. Connie: How do you see leadership evolving so it’s meeting the needs and demands of the changing world?

Thomas Frey: Business and industry has to find ways of being nimble and how to access the right people at the right time. Now, it’s no longer possible to anticipate the business, the educational needs of business, four to five years in advance. So that’s where education has to become nimble and somehow dovetail with the needs of business and industry and that’s where the real struggle comes into play.

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Dr. Connie: Now, in putting on that futurist’s hat, knowing that you’re a thought leader in the futurist area, and thinking how higher education, other industries are going to evolve, how do you see the area of futuring evolving in the future?

Thomas Frey: The fact that we don’t know everything is what gives us our motivation. It gives us our drive and our energy, because we have the ability to change the future. But there are certain techniques out there that give us much better clues, much better appreciation for how the world is unfolding, and so as I mentioned before, the Internet is giving us higher levels of awareness than we’ve ever had in the past, so we’re much more aware of things happening around the world. And we get to a point where we’re frustrated if we don’t know. Having better models, this idea of participatory thinking protocols, the ability to create frameworks for thinking that help give us better clues as to what’s coming around the corner, we’re constantly developing those. So we’ve done a few of those at the DaVinci Institute ourselves.

Dr. Connie: Can you give an example of a time you’ve done other industries specifically that you’ve studied and have some information on?

Thomas Frey: In the banking world, in 2014, we had the peak number of branch banks in the United States, a little over 94,000 branch banks in the US, and since we’re able to do so many more things with our phone, we’re going to start seeing a declining number of branch banks in the world to the point where I think we’re going to start closing the real estate associated with banks at a rate far faster. We’re closing about a thousand banks a year right now. I think that jumps up to somewhere between five and 10,000 in the very near future, and so we started looking at, “Okay, if these are going away, “what’s going to replace those facilities “in communities and are we going to go “strictly without facilities,” and it raises lots of interesting questions about that. We don’t have all the answers just yet, but it’s ways of driving the conversation.

Dr. Connie: I think it is great to think about what those futures might look like and how technology’s definitely impacting the future and really helping leaders think through their industries at this point in time.

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Dr. Connie: With that futurist lens on, Thomas, what parting words of wisdom do you want to share with our audience?

Thomas Frey: I think that we would all be better off spending a little more time exercising this part of the brain that thinks about the future. We’re such a backward-looking society, and it’s just human nature that we think that way, because we’ve all personally experienced the past. As we look around us, we see evidence of the past all around us. In fact, all of the information we come into contact with is essentially history, so the past is very knowable. Yet we’re going to be spending the rest of our lives in the future, so it’s almost as if we’re walking backwards into the future. So my job as a futurist is to help turn people around, give them some idea of what the future holds, and I hope maybe some of the things we talked about today have done that for people.

Dr. Connie: Oh, they absolutely have, and I think one of my favorite quotes in the information you submitted was, “We have only taken the first step in a trillion-mile journey, the next few steps, in my opinion, will be nothing short of spectacular.”

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Dr. Connie: Thank you for being on the Rural Futures podcast. Tell our listeners where they can find you.

Thomas Frey: you can find more about what I’m doing at futuristspeaker.com. I have all the columns that I’ve written posted on there, a little over 400 are there right now. And the stuff we’re doing on DaVinci Institute is just davinciinstitute.com, and I’d love to connect on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter—I’m on all the social media, feel free to contact me and say hi.