The CEO’s futurist

The CEO’s futurist

David Houle has prepared hundreds of CEOs for what he tips will be a decade of unprecented change.

You have an extensive background in media and entertainment in the US. How did this qualify you to become a futurist?

I worked at NBC and CBS and was part of the executive team that launched CNN Headline News, MTV and Nickelodeon. I’ve worked for an e-learning company and have been successful launching brands. I’ve always been known as being ahead of the curve. I was the number one salesperson at CBS in 1980 and at the time, somebody said they were going to start something that would combine music and TV, [that became music channel MTV]. I found the two most dynamic influences on our culture were television and rock and roll. I’ve always done things that others have said, ‘that’s never going to work.’

How did you make the transition from helping Fortune 1000 companies launch brands to being a futurist?

I’ve always been fascinated by the next big thing. My ‘aha’ moment was when I gave a speech at an education technology conference in the US. It was one of those moments that changed my life. I went into the Q and A time and challenged people and said the right thing every time. Everyone said it was the single best keynote they’d had. My metaphor is I was in the zone. I said, ‘whatever this is, I want to come back to this moment of being totally aware, present and influential.’ When I got home, I categorised it as being a catalyst for getting people to think about the future.

My conceptual ancestors are [US futurist] Alvin Toffler and [Canadian media theorist] Marshall McLuhan. [Being a futurist] was a bit of a bold brand but there was nobody talking about the future. Some were talking about technology, or that to innovate means we can change, but no-one was talking about where the world and humanity were going. My vision was the book that came out in 2008, The Shift Age, and five years ago last month I started the blog Evolution Shift. People started inviting me to conferences and my speaking career took off. People have called me the emerging futurist in the world today. I’m known as the CEO’s futurist because I’ve advised more than 1500 CEOs. That’s my market.

How can a CEO make best use of a futurist?

If you’re a CEO, you’re looking at your company and which moves you should make. I want to lift CEOs out of the context of running the business and show them the outside in. Outside forces will affect your business more then you can see looking inside out. That’s my value to them.

Has the role of the futurist taken on greater importance since the GFC?

When [financial services firm] Lehmann Brothers went down, my career took off. It’s about fear. My wife is a relationship therapist and if people are happily married they don’t see her. I’ve had speakers bureaux tell me that in 2008 and 2009, CEOs said, ‘get rid of the motivational speakers that make us feel good for a day or two, find us someone who can tell us what the hell is going on.’ You could map in the 12 months before and after Lehmann Brothers’ collapse – afterwards I tripled my revenue.

Do CEOs have difficulty thinking this far into the future?

CEOs can’t think beyond what will happen in the next two to five years and that’s why I have a business. One of the bullet points in my presentations is forget long range planning. One of the qualities of the Shift Age is that change has accelerated to the point of being constant. We can’t think of change as just something that affects our life, it’s now environmental. People say they have a strategic road map for the next three years. Instead of a roadmap, think of a GPS. A roadmap is a printed document that corporate America used as a plan to inflict on the marketplace. But if you think of it as a GPS, if you make a wrong turn, you can correct your course and adapt.

What are your biggest predictions for what you call the Transformation Decade of 2010 to 2020?

This is the decade where most of humanity and its institutions are going to change their nature, shape and character. In 2020, the world will look entirely different in a way that any other decade can’t compete. It will see the biggest transformations in healthcare and medicine. Also, alternative and renewable energy is the single biggest wealth creation opportunity in the history of humanity. It’s the first time in human history that something five billion humans are using daily – petroleum – will have to be replaced in 20 or 30 years. The venture capitalists in Silicon Valley say there is more money to be made in renewable energy than made to date in computing. Those that seize the reins of that will create incalculable wealth.

What are the biggest opportunities for New Zealand heading into this decade and beyond?

This is my first visit here and I’ve been introduced to the ‘three Bs’ - the bach, the boat and the beamer (BMW); and the tall poppy syndrome. Here, everybody gets to be middle class and life is good. It’s not good to want to be a billionaire here. In the States, even if you’re poor, you want to be a billionaire. I’ve been told that’s an issue with New Zealand but being comfortable is not the seed of innovation or change.

I’ve also learned New Zealand is about agriculture, but what’s next? Perhaps tourism but nobody can answer what number three is. To me the future of New Zealand’s economy is to take what is good – the lifestyle, climate, safety and openness ─ and say, ‘this is the perfect place to create innovation.’

There’s a perspective that New Zealanders have to go the US when they become successful because the capital markets are there. My message is that New Zealand needs to rebrand itself.

There are expats everywhere who are highly talented and realise they can get a job more easily here than in the US. If New Zealand’s brand was that it’s a great place to work and there’s a lot of innovative stuff going on with IP and green technology, young people would come. There is so much excess capital in the US looking for investment. There’s so much money chasing too few deals. There is a perception that if you’re an entrepreneur here you’ve got to move to the States because there’s only four million people so you can only get to a certain scale of revenue.

New Zealand has a choice whether or not to say, ‘we’re comfortable and we’ll stay this way and will risk commodity prices plummeting’, or not. In the Shift Age those who own intellectual property create wealth. That can be created anywhere. It doesn’t need an industrial base or a big capital base, it just needs innovation and thought.

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