Can we future-proof the future?

Leo Johnson

Head of disruption at PwC

The end of ageing? Quantum computing? Transhumanism? Leo Johnson, head of disruption at PwC and co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s 'FutureProofing' (in the UK), tells us how megatrends – the seismic shifts in our world – will upend companies, while at the same time unlocking opportunities for innovators. 

 

We talked to Leo to understand how business leaders can succeed in this rapidly changing world. 

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How do you define a megatrend? 

Megatrends are long-term, gradual trends that are working their way towards us. Now we’re starting to see combinations and collisions of megatrends. We’re seeing tipping points and moments of accelerated impact and disruption. 

 

It’s not just that we’ve got technological revolutions underway. We’re moving from a time when fossil fuel-driven technology powered economic growth to the age of the algorithm, where data shapes business strategy. As that new technology sweeps in, it has profoundly destabilising effects, which have the potential to be both positive and negative, on existing businesses. 

 

So how do these massive shifts affect business? 

According to [futurist] Thomas Frey, there’s not a country in the world that doesn’t face the prospect of automation ultimately accounting for 50% or more of its jobs. And it’s the middle class that is the most vulnerable.

 

If we do see the deployment of new technologies that cause job losses, the risk is that an economic model based on high-volume, low-margin, mass economics, and which depends on people with disposable cash buying things they don’t really need, starts to look vulnerable.

 

Also read: Five myths about the future of work

 

If businesses can’t break even or start to make a profit, there’ll be the increased possibility of populist policies as jobs are lost, which decreases economic activity and leads to more job losses. 

 

Can megatrends be a positive thing? 

Yes, there’s also a massive upside to the confluence of megatrends: some technologies suddenly put the powers of production into the hands of the people – they democratise productivity. 

 

Look at the big sweep of history: in the feudal era, the means of production was the land, owned by the barons. In the industrial era, the means of production was the factory. If you didn’t own that, you were a worker, and the rents went to the owners of the means of production.

Leo Johnson and Sadiq Khan
Leo Johnson, head of disruption at PwC, with the Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.

In the era we appear to be moving into now, the age of the algorithm, the age of mashable, mixable and shareable technology, we’ve suddenly got people making their own stuff, and potentially producing their own energy with local micro-manufacturing, maybe through a shared service to 3D printing. So we’ve got a new arsenal of technologies at our disposal that could solve the social and economic problems we face, no question. 

 

Also read: How to get your business future fit

 

For companies, this poses a big challenge. So why should business leaders care? 

It’s about purpose. There’s an argument, for example, that if we do move into a world of universal basic incomes where there’s enough cash on tap to survive, we won’t be as dependent on the big corporations for jobs as we used to be. It’ll be the death of the bullshit job. No one will want to work for a company that doesn’t deliver meaning. 

 

‘We’ve got an arsenal of technologies at our disposal that could solve the social and economic problems we face’

The ultimate decision all business leaders need to make now is: what do we care about? Do we want a world in which we have ample levels of life expectancy, of income, of health, of education? A world in which, actually, this stuff matters, the physical process matters, the people around us matter?

 

Do we want a mindset that wealth is life – or that life is wealth? If the latter, I think we’re better placed than any other generation to do something about it. 

 

What would you say to a CEO reading this and working on their strategy for the future? 

Look to the next trends and think about what they’re going to do to your business. Spotting megatrends and figuring out how you can deliver value is going to become a fundamental driver of success. 

 

Also read: Four ways to get your employees 'change fit'

 

And what’s a key megatrend we need to know about now? 

Quantum computing is increasingly becoming a reality. There’s a giant race to quantum between the US and China at the moment, which dwarfs the current trade war in terms of its long-term significance. Whoever wins is going to be in an extraordinary position of economic dominance.