As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Rohit Talwar.
Rohit Talwar is a global futurist, strategic adviser, and the CEO of Fast Future. Through his speaking, research, consultancy, and publishing he advises leaders in global businesses and governments around the world on how to anticipate and respond to disruptive change. Rohit has spent much of the last 18 months advising on how organizations can respond to the COVID-19 disruption, prepare for a range of possible future scenarios, and develop greater resilience and anticipatory capabilities.
Rohit has co-written and edited seven leadership focused books on the emerging future and how to navigate it. His latest book Aftershocks and Opportunities 2 — Navigating the Next Horizon draws on contributions from thought leaders around the world to explore the emerging possibilities and risks and the resulting critical actions required to navigate our way out of the current health crisis and past the economic disruption.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
As a seven year old I was enthralled by the first Moon landing and the science fantasy technology that made it happen. That led to a fascination with the new and the next that has never left me — whether in my choice of studies, my first career move into artificial intelligence research, or launching a full time career as a futurist. My first job title at Fast Future back in the 1990’s was 21st Century Tour Guide — and that’s been a role I’ve loved ever since.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I joined an AI research group at BT pretty much straight out of university in 1985, almost my first task was to specify and drive the procurement of our new computing hardware platform. We were going to use it to support some heavy duty work in a specialist programming language called Prolog. I got obsessed with what, at the time, was a relatively new form of computing architecture known as parallel processing. After much persistence, I managed to convince my immediate bosses that this was exactly what we needed. Then, because they didn’t really understand it, I ended up doing the pitches to management several layers further up the tree. They all had to approve this purchase as it was wildly more expensive that what most people were using at that time to do similar work. The exciting thing for me was the idea of having 12 powerful processors running in parallel so you could split a computing task up to run as multiple concurrent actions that would complete in a fraction of the time. It was all I could talk about — but may not have made for the most exciting nights out for my friends 😊
The hardware salesperson assured me that the system would run Prolog and the software vendor assured me that their software would run on this hardware. So, we became the proud owners of the very first Sequent Balance 8000 computer in the UK. Only when it was delivered did we discover that that while Prolog ran on this machine, it didn’t make use of the parallel processing capabilities and only used one of the processors. My colleague and I working on the project never told our bosses, and they never knew there was an issue. To this day I don’t think they know that we’d effectively bought the world’s fastest car to drive to and from the corner store.
The big lessons for me were — take every opportunity that will grow your learning, trust people’s words but verify the subtext of their promises, and own up to your mistakes — even it has taken 35 years to do it!!!
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Jonathan Livingstone Seagull — a novella by Richard Back — an inspirational book about defying convention, learning how to push beyond your limits, fail, and come back even stronger to discover parts of you and the world around you that were previously unattainable.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Our goal was to inform, inspire, and mobilize our audiences and clients to embrace the future, be prepared for a range of possible scenarios, and have the courage to tackle grand challenges for themselves and humanity. Sounds a bit pompous now — but we were coming from a place of passion.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Listen to the other person first until you’ve really heard their perspective, however much of a rush you are in to get your point across. The more people can see that you listen and care what they have to say, the more you’ll be heard, and the faster things will get done.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
At the family level, each of my children were having to stay in secure bubbles with their housemates and so I didn’t get to see much of them in person for a long time. Video calls and constant message kept us connected. At the professional level, 100% of our speaking engagements around the world were cancelled. We focused on developing our online delivery capabilities so we could deliver at virtual client events, and created our own series of externally sponsored webinars. We also undertook studies on the impact of the pandemic on aviation and the future of the crypto economy. Finally, we wrote two multi-contributor books about the world beyond the pandemic. The first Aftershocks and Opportunities — Scenarios for a Post Pandemic Future came out in June 2020, with the follow up Aftershocks and Opportunities 2 — Navigating the Next Horizon launching in September 2021.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
The core of our business was centered around delivering live speeches, seminars, workshops, and round tables with leaders around the world. Everything moved online and we had to follow our clients on that journey and adapt everything accordingly. Key was finding new ways of creating the energetic connection I loved to establish with the client and their audience before, during, and after my contribution at live events. It’s hard to do that in the same way when you can’t see your audience in a virtual event, or if I am beaming in virtually to a live event somewhere across the planet. We’ve tried to do this using a variety of different approaches depending on the nature of the event and the audience.
One of the most powerful ways of creating that energetic connection is to invite participants to a small group virtual discussion a few weeks before the event so that I can hear their thoughts and tune into their needs and perspectives. I then follow up with an optional drop in call a few weeks after the event so participants can discuss ideas and questions arising from the talk and tell me how they are acting on the insights gained.
Doing the multi-contributor books helped members of the futurist community stay connected and support each other. I also stayed connected to other professional communities for mutual support, learning, and sharing. We also expanded the amount of time we spent talking every day within the team to make sure we are always aligned and aware of what each other is doing and prioritizing. We also stepped up our investment in training and multi-skilling — for example, our business manager has been learning how to do foresight research and is using those skills on topics as diverse as the crypto economy and climate change.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
We have a large immediate family and are very close (and noisy). Pre-pandemic we used to meet regularly in different combinations. During the lockdowns we switched to regular video calls and even had members of the extended family from India join us. Our family WhatsApp thread became a focal point for sharing, unburdening, humor, and updates on how everyone was coping — from the oldest family member to the youngest child born during lockdown. With friends, some I spoke with every day, our WhatsApp groups were abuzz particularly in the early days. We dined, watched movies, and danced ‘together apart’. Once restrictions lifted, we started meeting up for walks across a range of parks and took the time to slow down, listen, immerse ourselves in nature, and simply be together.
Obviously, we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
In my world, we have seen a massive spike in demand from organisations wanting to explore the future and develop future focused leaders. In terms of speaking, while some live events will come back, a lot will stay virtual and one of the big opportunities is to find ever more interesting ways of making virtual events engaging, informative, and impactful.
The pandemic gave some people time to learn about the crypto economy and we’ve seen a massive growth to over 300 million worldwide users, and a rising market valuation. There’s also been a rise in the number of businesses starting to add cryptos to their balance sheet and looking at other ways of taking advantage of the opportunity. Individuals have learned how they can earn 10–100%+ interest on their savings in the crypto world and achieve massive capital gains. I think the crypto space has seen three years’ worth of anticipated growth in around 12 months.
The disruption of the pandemic and the accelerating pace of workplace automation will continue to drive sharp increases in the numbers of unemployed. The opportunity here is for a massive investment in reskilling ourselves to take on new roles in the emerging businesses and sectors of the future — expanding both our task specific skills and the broader capabilities that make us more flexible and valuable. These might range from team working, collaboration, and conflict resolution through to problem solving, foresight, and design thinking. The pandemic could be the biggest catalyst for societal reskilling of the last 50 years. In every sector there is also a window for new thinking, new ways of working, new offerings, new business models, and new ways of charging for what we sell.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
I think this will differ across society and we may be too early to assess how long term some of the impacts might be. While some expect greater social cohesion, my experience to date is that we may actually be a little too cautious still for full 2019 style engagement. I believe that, in some quarters, understanding and empathy have grown across a range of across societal issues such as mental health, social exclusion, institutional bias, racism, and harassment in all its forms. Our outlook towards working from home has definitely changed. However, the long term impacts on organizational culture and cohesiveness may take longer to show through. I would not be surprised to see a gradual migration back to more people working from workplaces.
The handling of the pandemic by different governments around the world has led to a massive increase in trust for those that were seen to handle it well, while those who were clumsy and ill prepared have seen their personal political currency devalued. Behaviorally, after an initial spending splurge when restrictions were lifted, I sense that many people are being more cautious and in a ‘wait and see’ holding pattern for the next 6–18 months while we see how the pandemic evolves and what happens to global and local economies. As with every downturn, we’ve also seen a massive boost to innovation and entrepreneurial activity. The results of this are already starting to show through.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
I think the key now is to accept that nothing will stay the same for long and that what works this month might be dead in the water by December. Hence, we need to be scanning constantly for shifts on the horizon, identifying emerging risks and opportunities, and passionately curious about new ideas. This allows us to organize our ways of working so that we are comfortable being in a permanent mode of idea generation, experimentation, testing, refinement, and early retirement of options that don’t work.
For our business, the primary focus now is on being a prime source of executive insight, education, and inspiration on how to create a sustainable future for all. With that in mind, we are redefining our speaking proposition, and creating new in-company and public training programmes on how to do foresight and on the business impact of the crypto economy. We also have another book scheduled for January, a website revamp in the offering, a new webinar series underway, another under development, and some wilder ideas at the early stages of germination. That should keep us busy for a few months.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Start with your passion and intuition — what is it that most fires you up and feels most aligned in your body. Then be clear on what the goal is — don’t just go for the action rush. Mentally (and physically if you want) step to the end of the journey and internalize what a good outcome would look and feel like. Then step back to the present and pare all your ideas and possible actions down to a vital few that you are going to experiment with first. Keep a close eye on the experiments, keep refining in the light of what you learn, and be prepared to say stop quickly when something really isn’t taking shape, Celebrate the learning from success and failure.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s a simple but powerful phrase and I can’t remember who first said it to me. “Give yourself permission to…”. A very good reminder that it is we who are in total control. We decide whether we will let ourselves be guided and held back by limiting beliefs or be propelled by our intuition, our passion, and our willingness to let go and think the unthinkable, try the impossible, and venture into the unknown.
How can our readers further follow your work?
I am always happy to engage with people, ideas, and possibilities and you can find me and our books at www.fastfuture.com including my latest book Aftershocks and Opportunities 2: Navigating the Next Horizon, and via several social platforms: