One of the questions I was keen to ask Nikolas Badminton when he agreed to the interview was about the warning Stephen Hawking had issued almost a decade ago.
“The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” the acclaimed astrophysicist, who was almost totally paralysed as a result of a motor neurone disease, had said in an interview.
Should we be worried that, perhaps, we may be heading that way? I ask Nikolas, in a video interview.
The chief futurist of Futurist Think Tank, an international consultancy that is “focused on long-range future trends, and on strategies and techniques for shaping the preferred future”, chuckles heartily before replying. “Hawking always loved a good joke,” says the heavily tattooed British-Canadian biohacker, researcher, and futurologist who works with trillion-dollar companies, central banks, governments and start-ups. “I get it why he says that. I get that humans need to be careful in the context of the military and whatever. We cannot just outsource the decision to hit the button and send the bomb kind of thing. So yes there are some of those considerations.”
But machines surpassing the intelligence of humanity “I think is overstretched as an idea”, he says.
Nikolas should know. He has worked with more than 300 of the world’s major organisations including Nasa, Google, Microsoft, United Nations, Bank of Canada, American Express, and Rolls Royce. He and his team of futurists help entities “establish and develop strategic foresight capabilities” while identifying trends that shape our world. Part of his ambit also includes helping organisations anticipate unforeseen risks, and design equitable futures.
His definition of futurism is “the scanning of signals that indicate change is coming and the combination of them into trends that show progress over time.
“With foresight we look out 10, 20, 30+ years and speculate on what may happen by imagining scenarios where society, culture, technologies and governance intersect, and create a new world of possibilities.”
And how does he do this?
“[By] being curious and challenging what we call the ‘poverty of imagination’,” says the expert who has worked with PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte and universities of British Columbia, Waterloo, and Singularity.
“In government, life and business, we’ve forgotten how to think outside of the box, and have truly wild and original thoughts about what may happen. As a futurist and foresight practitioner, I coach executive teams and governments to awaken the drive for exploration and curiosity.”
Using the data generated, his team shapes scenarios and stories of the future, and finds strategic considerations, opportunities and risks that make sense to be reflected in strategic planning today.
The ability to peek into the future and plan for it is going to be the must-have corporate capability over the next 5 to 10 years as it creates incredible competitive advantage, stresses Nikolas, a Fellow of The Royal Society for Arts, Manufactures and Commerce, an organization whose notable past fellows include Charles Dickens, Benjamin Franklin, Stephen Hawking, and Nelson Mandela.
A major challenge in foreseeing, though, is being influenced by those who refuse to think long-term and who create short-term solutions to fix tactical issues, he says. That can negatively affect investments and result in fragile foundations where building resilient futures becomes difficult.
Nikolas, who frequently interviews futurists and innovators, has, over the past six years, had over 300 keynotes around the world. He admits that it is easy to get stuck in the here and now, to be too busy to look out to further horizons. “What I do is train executives to shift mindsets from what is to what if,” says the futurist who was an advisor to the Age of AI, an eight-part docuseries hosted by Robert Downey Jr that explores the applications of AI in fields including health, robotics, space-travel, food, and disaster-prevention.
A true smart city
A major area of Nikolas’ work involves exploring and furthering the relationship between humanity and technology, examine how tech is changing lives and studying the overlapping of apex urban centres and rural places.
While the standard definition of a smart city is one that can be optimised with technology, cameras and sensors of all kinds, he prefers to hold a different view: “My definition is that smart cities are designed for people first and foremost, and is equitable and egalitarian. It supports culture and is programmable and optimisable, and doesn’t weaponise the surveillance that can come out of it.”
A smart city, he believes, is one that works for the people; one that is as much about policy and urban-centric design as it is the implementation of tech.
While agreeing that tech solutions are good, he is a strong advocate of the need to bring humanity back into the centre when designing societies, communities and cities of the future. “Tech solutions are fine, but all of it has been built around profit and subscription turning people into users or subscribers of some sort. The overarching trend now is to bring humans into the centre of everything,” he says.
“We need to be designing communities with integrated places to live vs. living in boxes in the sky where we do not talk to each other. Centralised resources and inter-family support will be important.”
His dream city is one where cities are “pedestrianised and designed around humans, not cars. A place for meeting, social cohesion and more trust. We can make this happen with thoughtful design”.
Food for thought
Underscoring that the food-water-energy-waste nexus is important for the world, Nikolas is keen to explore future solutions in these areas. “We have to grow more food; we have to deal with water scarcity; we have to have more sustainable renewable energy; and we have to reduce waste. Obviously, behind all of these areas are machine learning, AI, the use of sensors…”
The author of Facing our Futures feels it is important for companies to occasionally step back and take a hard look at what they are doing – seeing how best they can do it and in a better, more sustainable way. This could result in, among other things, new business relationships and new product lines.
Future design should be about moving towards a more purpose-driven, people planet, says the expert underscoring the importance of challenging short-term thinking.
Another of Nikolas’ areas of interest is modern farming techniques with a focus on the future. With the UN making it clear that by 2050 the world would need to produce 60 per cent more food to feed the world’s growing population, I ask him what his thoughts are on this important area.
“I talk about growing food in cities for cities,” he says. “I speak a lot to agro producers in North America and Europe where there is a lot of vertical farming happening including hydroponics and aquaponics.”
According to him, the vertical farming movement in North America is growing at 25 per cent year on year with close to a billion dollars invested in 2021 alone.
In many countries in the Gulf region, where water is precious and scarce, growing food this way could be the answer to a potential food crisis in the future. Building community farms and such large facilities in cities is the need of the hour, he stresses.
To underscore this point he mentions the huge population shift ocurring from rural areas to cities in south-east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Nikolas, who is appearing in an upcoming series called The Secrets of Big Data on Discovery, believes the next surprising big development in science and technology in the near term – the next 25 years – is going to be the incredible growth and development of megacities in the areas.
Amazing solutions and innovations are set to spring from these incredible communities, he believes. “For example, Lagos, in Nigeria, is estimated to have 55 million people by 2050 and 88 million people by 2100. Imagine the systems and innovations needed to make a place that big work efficiently!”
Providing food for this growing population will also be a major issue that needs to be considered seriously. “Are we going to ship all of the food required from out of the city into the city to feed this population? Or can we grow food in the city? So, modern farming techniques are going to be very important.”
Like any tech, such farming methods, too, start small but get better over time. “I think vertical farming is going to be one of the biggest agricultural industries in the world by 2035,” he says.
The UAE, incidentally, appears to have already taken the lead. Construction of an 8,200sqm vertical farming research and development centre, the largest in the world, has begun in the capital. It will help advance sustainable agriculture in arid climates. The country aims to increase domestic food production by around 40 per cent in the next 10 years.
Biohacking for life
Nikolas is a passionate advocate and speaker on biohacking, a technique that, in very simple terms, involves making small, incremental diet or lifestyle changes that can result in improvements to health and well-being. Some of the more common biohacking techniques are meditation, intermittent fasting and breathwork.
“Biohacking has been an area that fascinates me,” he admits. “I have looked at how – through nutrition, group therapy, meditation, breathwork, and spiritual journeying – we can heal the multi-generational trauma we carry and unlock our potential. I would not have the business, loving partner and amazing son if I had not disrupted the trauma and anxiety I was carrying.”
He encourages those who are interested in learning more about it to study epigenetics – how our behaviours and environment can cause changes that can affect the way our genes work. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, unlike genetic changes, epigenetic changes are reversible and do not change our DNA sequence. However, they can change how our body reads a DNA sequence.
As we approach the end of the interview I ask him if machines will ever replace humans in the workplace.
“There are people who say that around 400m jobs are going to be replaced by AI,” he says. “So, collecting data, putting them on spreadsheets… I do hope that goes away providing an automated narrative on that data.
“Today, along with systems that allow automation – platforms, robotics, etc. – we are starting to see huge benefits in processing the vast swathes of data we collect in discovering new insights and ways of working.” Occupations that are reasonably low skill will likely be replaced, he believes. “For example quick service restaurant food preparation, driving trucks and taxis, and retail assistants. I think people will pay to get into a taxi with human driver. That will be a service rather than something that is just normal.”
That said, he is sure “the absolute automation of human jobs has been overestimated and we truly are in a world of Human and the Machine”.
So, what should people be thinking about? I ask.
His answer is quick: People need to think about what they are doing in society to make the world a better place tomorrow, he says. People need to think “if I do a number of things this year, what’s that going to do in terms of creating resilience”.
We also need to be thinking more deeply about sustainability from a community perspective. “I think we have forgotten that and become more myopic in life. We need to care about the next few generations.”
He mentions the Seventh Generation Principle – a belief based on an ancient philosophy that says the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future.
“When the indigenous people do something today, they think about how it will resonate with the next generation and the next... right up to seven generations.
“We need to have more of that.”
Tips to spot key trends and include in business
1. Find one good idea each and every day that will have impact over the next 30 years
2. Imagine changing every part of the work you do. What if you start with a clean slate, what is different?
3. Come up with one crazy idea of what a positive future can be
4. Think about how bad decisions could be made resulting in dystopian futures. Then look for the risks we must pay attention to today.
5. Drop one step in your processes per month and adjust – create efficiency and better communications between team members