- Becoming a foresight practitioner and developing a futurist mindset;
- The impact of the pandemic on the next generation, social inequalities, and mental health issues;
- The future of work, key success factors for remote work, and the worknet model.
You will find below the transcript of the conversation.
Hello everybody and welcome to Future Hacker. I am your host, Maria Athayde, and today we are talking to Sylvia Gallusser. Sylvia Gallusser is a Global Futurist based in San Francisco. As Founder & CEO at Silicon Humanism, Sylvia conducts foresight research on the future of health, well-aging, and social interaction, evolutions in retail and mobility, the future of work, life-long learning, artificial intelligence, the future of our oceans and sustainability, as well as the future of the mind and transhumanism. Sylvia has been advising 500+ tech companies for the past 15 years. She is a published author of Future Fiction with Fast Future Publishing.
1. You mentioned to me that there are usually two paths for people to become a futuristic – it’s either Academic, or you start at a specific industry, and at some point, you are caught up by futurism, which was your case. Could you share with us your path to futurism?
Thank you so much for having me Maria. And I’m glad you mention the path to becoming a futurist. The entry into futures thinking is quite fascinating and most futurists are able to pinpoint the “aha” moment, when foresight touched them for the first time, when they decided to dedicate their effort to futures literacy.
So I am delighted to tell you about my own path.
After graduating in Social Science and Business Arts (HEC Paris), I have been a strategy consultant for the past 15 years. I started as a consultant for tech companies with Accenture, then supported European startups in their international development as part of various government agencies and startup accelerators, mostly based in San Francisco. During that time, I advised a few hundred companies on their strategy for the U.S. market and helped many of them raise funding.
About 5 years ago, I started to notice that our approach was too narrow-sighted, and that we were focusing so much on the short-term profitability of startups (2-3 years) that we ended up missing signals of change and losing long-term vision. I began dedicating more time to side projects that would address this limitation: watch for new trends in HR management for a Professional Association of CHRO, investigating the future of banking for an Innovation Review, organizing a roadshow for a large retailer willing to modernize its physical stores. I gained more and more interest in foresight techniques, initially following the French prospectivist school, before becoming more aligned with the Anglo-Saxon futurist approach.
My true aha moment with futurism was following a rather tragic accident, let’s call it a brush with mortality, which completely transformed my approach to life and stretched my time horizon. I became obsessed with Futures Thinking, I started a new training program and finally got certified as a Foresight Practitioner with IFTF (Institute for the Future, based in California).
Today, futures studies and strategic foresight represent the biggest part of my activity. I have launched a research organization named Silicon Humanism, which focuses on examining our social nature and human future, and how technology is serving or hindering our species. The idea behind the concept is to engage in a dialog between technology and humanities (history, anthropology, sociology, mental health, moral psychology). My favorite topics include well-aging (a portmanteau word between aging and well-being), the future of work, the molding of the next generation of children, and ethics.
I could say, I have almost developed a second nature thinking about our potential futures and drawing my entourage, both professional and personal, into futures thinking. I actually believe this is the most important thing one can prepare for, and the current crisis has further convinced me of this.
2. You’ve been writing about post-pandemic scenarios and how it’s affecting our generation of children that have been deprived of social contact – you call it Generation Zoom. Which do you see will be the main challenges and impact for them? With so much pessimism and uncertainties we are currently dealing with, are you able to see a more positive path? Like, are we creating a more dependable and introverted generation or on the brighter side, a more resilient and socially aware one?
These past months I have involved a lot of my time into reflecting on the post-pandemic world with fellow futurists and professionals. I have joined a California school’s think tank to discuss the school’s reopening plan and to draw recommendations on hygiene, safety and education. I work closely with a fantastic group of sensemakers called the Grey Swan Guild on topics such as our very social nature and the pandemic’s impact along the whole life cycle. I took part in a debate on the future of our shopping behaviors. And we are now designing a creative project around postpandemic home and homelife. The place of children and the building of the next generation is crucial in our thought processes.
I am not too worried about the fact itself that students lost a few month of learning – and here I mean acquiring knowledge and skills – because the pandemic itself has brought alternative experiences of learning – online tools, resilience, being more aware and connected to what happens at the global scale.
However what worries me are the three following aspects:
- Social inequalities: it spans from not being able to connect to online school and dropping out from the education system, to not being supported by parents just because they don’t speak the language taught in school, to not having school hot lunch programs anymore for some families, meaning no more healthy food, or even being exposed to domestic violence and abuse.
- Young girls are especially at risk and the numbers are alarming. A new analysis from Save the Children reveals that half a million more girls risk being forced into child marriage and one million more are expected to become pregnant in 2020 as a result of school closure, education interruption and the economic impact of the pandemic.
- Finally this results in Mental Health issues and long term consequences, such as social awkwardness, post-traumatic syndrome disorder, and sometimes depression and suicide. Here I should underline the amazing work done by mental health specialists, such as Paul Krauss (who also hosts an incredible podcast named the Intentional Clinician) and puts much effort into providing a national violence prevention hotline.
Thank you so much Maria, for mentioning our collective book Aftershocks & Opportunities by Fast Future Publishing co-written with a group of futurists dedicated to exploring the aftermaths but also the new opportunities brought by the pandemic. I have always loved to write and fiction is one of my favorite means to provoke hard empathy and engage people into a foresight mindset. Our ability to put ourselves in the shoes of others – or in our future selves’ shoes – is a strong tool for bringing our entourage to envision alternate scenarios and to have them be as prepared as possible for whatever lies ahead.
You are talking about pessimism versus positive path. A part of our job is not to represent one future, but to build different scenarios. That is actually why we call the discipline Futures Thinking (plural) and not Future Thinking. A common futurist model consists in applying the 4 futures quadrant, based on 4 scenarios – growth, collapse, constraint, transform. And as a future fiction writer, I love to explore the transform one, and not give up to collapsology. I believe in our collective resilience and our capacity of reinvention. One amazing example of this is how we have been able to reinvent our rites of passage and holiday celebrations in a socially distant world – from online baby showers, online graduation ceremonies or mourning rituals through Zoom, to drive-in birthday parties, trunk-or-treat Halloween, or Thanksgiving dinner preparation streamed in a distance.
Finally, you are wondering whether we are creating a more dependable and introverted generation or a more resilient and socially aware one? It resonates with a study I have been conducting, surveying a few futurist colleagues. I had designed 6 different personae based on my research and recent signals.
As I polled fellow futurist researchers, almost none of them vote for Preppers and the Freakouts, so a minority opted for a future generation characterized by extreme fear. The Musketeers, Earth activists bond in collective action, were also not that popular. Eventually, the most frequent profiles chosen being the bubble children and the baby zoomers. So there is a relative hope for the new generation – scarred but in recovery.
3. When talking about the future of work, you mention how companies will have to adapt to a future that won’t be so office-centric, where people won’t be willing to put themselves into the commuting rush hours craziness we got used to. You talk about the work-net trend, instead of a fixed workplace. How should both companies and the next generation of workers get prepared for that?
I am glad you ask, as I have just finished writing a paper, along with my futurist colleague David Kalisz, on remote work and the work-net model. We conducted an analysis on key success factors of working-from-home as a dominant culture – why is it inscribed in California workers’ culture and why are European countries such as France still reluctant to implement it at a larger scale?
First of all, we investigated remote work under an historic angle and replaced office life in perspective. The workplace and the 9-5 work schedule is actually a rather recent invention. We can date it from the beginning of the 20th century with the creation of the first big corporations, whereas in the 19th century, people were either working locally in a mine, farm or in small workshops, or working from home as independent professionals, lawyers, doctors, scholars. After the celebration of corporate paternalism, office life, and the workplace as a strong component of social life, the return to working from home has been made possible thanks to technology advancement, such as the personal computer (1975), internet and electronic mailboxes (1990), Skype (2003), and Slack (2009). The first companies to offer remote work were American Express, IBM and AT&T in the 1990s. The size of the American territory, the working conditions (a couple of weeks vacation per year) and the transactional way of conducting business in the U.S. (versus a more relational model in Latin countries) turned distance working into a habit.
Secondly we looked at statistics and analyzed remote work under the angle of a social fact, following Durkheim’s method to study social facts. Remote work is significant enough in California, it is inscribed in the culture and applies a constraint onto the individual. It includes regularly working from home, letting your team know about your location, remaining available, checking in, and reciprocally accepting your colleagues’ own remote work behaviors.
Thirdly, we took a look at the economic impact. We investigated common arguments made about remote work being counterproductive and demystified this urban legend. The numbers actually show that remote work increases productivity! A recent study by Mercer proved that 94% of employees from 800 companies reported an equal or superior productivity compared to pre-pandemic. The link had first been proven in 2013 in a study conducted by Nicholas Bloom: Whereas a Chinese company called Ctrip wanted to compare administrative gains made by remote work versus costs generated by productivity loss, the study revealed that not only did the company gained in operational savings (no desk, less commute…) but it also gained in productivity by 13%! So why are some countries still reluctant to implement it or even advocate for it? We broke down the problem to the one core success factor: Trust. You need trust between employer and employee to have remote work. As soon as there is mistrust, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy: because you don’t trust employees to be fully dedicated to their work at home and because you over control or micromanage them, you end up with frustrated employees who will explore the slightest window of opportunity to enjoy some freedom. So to answer your question more directly, what should we advise to societies in which distant work is still a challenge or a taboo? We need to reverse the vicious cycle of mistrust into a social contract based on trust between employer and employee. Of course we should not underestimate social isolation or risk of burnout. And the paternalism of offering a workplace should be transferred to another form of paternalism: offering the worker a mobile workstation, contributing to developing a worknet (instead of a workplace), training and onboarding on distant technologies, and providing mental health support.