• Amy Webb CEO of the Future Today Institute and Professor of Strategic Foresight, NYU Stern School of Business, says we must be flexible in our outlook and plan for alternative future scenarios.
  • Synthetic biology will make a huge impact on our future, becoming second nature like the internet, she says.
  • This interview served as input for The Great Narrative, a new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret.

Scenario planning comes naturally to Amy Webb, CEO of the Future Today Institute and Professor of Strategic Foresight, NYU Stern School of Business, but not everyone. Collectively, she says, we're becoming more short-termist, partly because accelerating technological progress means we can't gage how the future will look.

Advancements in technology have the potential to solve big environmental and health problems, she says, if people deploy them properly, with the responsibility for a hopeful future on current generations as well as Generation Z.

The below interview with Amy Webb served as one of 50 inputs from global thought leaders for The Great Narrative, the new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that describes how we can create a more resilient, inclusive and sustainable future post-COVID-19.

Is there anything personal you could share about yourself that we won’t find on the web?

When I was in elementary school, I was on a foresight team – I didn’t know it at the time. It was called Future Problem Solvers of America, an activity designed to teach kids to write scenarios and to think very long-term about the future. At the time, I just thought it was a fun activity. It turns out that I knew how to do scenario planning before I learned how to ride a bicycle.

That’s a very interesting insight. Maybe scenario planning should be taught in school.

I absolutely think it should be taught in school, along with philosophy and logic and empathy. Science and mathematics are very important, but we still need to teach these other skills.

Prepare for alternative outcomes

Normally, the people we’ve interviewed are academics who have been researching one theme their entire life. You’re a foresight specialist. If you had to define your big idea, what would it be?

It’s about flexibility. Most people and organizations are very inflexible in how they think about the future. In fact, it’s difficult to imagine yourself in the future, and there are neurological reasons for that. Our brains are designed to deal with immediate problems, not future ones. That plus the pace of technology improvement is becoming so fast that we’re increasingly focused on the now. Collectively, we are learning to be “nowists,” not futurists.

Here’s the problem with a “nowist” mentality: when faced with uncertainty, we become inflexible. We revert to historical patterns, we stick to a predetermined plan, or we simply refuse to adopt a new mental model.

Take climate change: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis, said there will be devasting effects of climate change by 2100.

Obviously, we will feel the impact of climate change between now and the year 2100 –– we are witnessing the devastating effects today.

The problem with that is that the year 2100 sounds like the distant future, like science fiction; we can’t imagine ourselves at that time, so we do not change our mental models and fail to make substantiative changes.

It’s my observation that leaders in business and government can be quite inflexible. Rather than formulating a long-term vision for how business or society might transform in a positive way, they instead develop three-to-five-year strategies. This is important for financial, risk and growth management, but it also makes an organization vulnerable to outside forces.

I advise the CEOs of the world’s largest companies across industries and I also work with the senior leaders of different government agencies. It is a struggle to convince leaders to invest in the farther-future, especially when that requires making shorter-term sacrifices or deviating from an established plan. There are, of course, examples of leaders who are willing to bet big and take risks on transformation, but I can count that number on one hand.

Flexibility is key because there is no way to predict the future. I’m a quantitative futurist and I’ll be the first person to tell you that predictions are brittle. My academic background is in game theory and economics, so I have some sense of how to build models.

When we’re looking at the futures of complex, volatile issues –– artificial intelligence, workforce automation, global supply chains, geopolitics, the impacts of social media –– the math doesn’t work out.

The goal isn’t to predict; it is to be prepared for alternative outcomes. Leaders and their teams must rehearse plausible futures, which means being flexible on how to accomplish transformation.

The Great Narrative by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret
The Great Narrative by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret
Image: Forum Publishing

You said most CEOs have time horizons of three to five years. Do you think this is why private companies – family businesses – tend to outperform public, listed companies? Many studies would argue this.

Well, it depends on the family. But generally speaking, yes. That is why private companies and family companies led by future-forward executives often succeed in the wake of disruption. Many blue-chip companies, which historically set the industry pace, are working on ever-shorter time horizons.

I met with a leadership team not too long ago to discuss some big bets and they weren’t willing to think beyond the year 2025, which is just three years away. A company of that size, with its global scope and reach, moves more slowly than a disruptive, young company that’s hungry to bring its vision to the world.

Regardless of the industry, bigger companies need more expansive time horizons because operationalizing change takes a while to accomplish. Longer time horizons aren’t favoured by the market: shareholders have very short attention spans and ridiculous expectations for returns.

Look at what happened with Amazon: it spent $42.7 billion on [research and development (R&D)] and “content” in 2020, up 19% from the year before. That’s a staggering amount of investment, and it wasn’t exactly clear what the company’s R&D agenda was, let alone what content it was planning to license or develop.

Shareholders weren’t happy –– when an R&D budget is enormous, it means there won’t be a short-term return or way to monetize that investment. But there’s no question that without heavily investing in R&D, Amazon wouldn’t be the global juggernaut it is today. Future-forward companies with great leadership take in the learnings from all that R&D; it’s like reinvestment of capital and knowledge to build out other processes.

Stop chasing the flying car

As a foresight person, you explore alternative futures and scenarios. If I ask you how you view tomorrow’s world, what would your most likely scenario be, globally?

That’s tough. The work we do is based on quantitative and qualitative research and thus isn’t speculative. We’re also very pragmatic. We look across 11 huge macro forces of change and model plausible futures. So, I don’t think I can give just one view of tomorrow. But I can offer a different perspective.

When people talk about the future, they tend to reference things like [the animated sitcom] The Jetsons. That show was on TV in America for only one year, with 24 episodes running from 1962-1963, yet made an enormous impact in business and culture around the world. Today, people reference the Jetsons’ flying car, the robot butler and living in outer space as a shorthand for how little human society has innovated and evolved.

We are still chasing that flying car.

Even before the Jetsons, people were attempting to build flying cars. The first US patent was filed in the early 1900s, and nearly every decade since someone has invented a flying car. Why? What problem are we trying to solve?

We need to decouple the Jetsons –– the flying cars, the robots –– from our vision of the future. Instead, what if we imagine an alternate future world where sustainability was very easy? Where everyone had access to healthcare?

In that future world, instead of traditional medicines, your body was the pharmacy and you could change the genetic code in your body to create whatever you needed to be optimized. When we talk about the future, we need to update our mental models and be more sophisticated about what we are describing.

What do I think is probable? Synthetic biology will enormously impact business, government, and society, similar to how artificial intelligence (AI) has made an impact and the internet before it and telecommunications and satellites before that.

It’s dangerous for Baby Boomers to look at Gen Z and say they are hopeful. It allows Boomers a convenient excuse to procrastinate on making tough decisions and absolves them from accountability.

—Amy Webb CEO of the Future Today Institute and Professor of Strategic Foresight, NYU Stern School of Business

Synthetic biology is a relatively new area of science. It combines engineering, computers, biology and AI into one science. The idea is that our bodies are really just made of genetic code – in computers, we have ones and zeroes, while in our bodies, we have ACTG [the four types of bases of DNA: adenine, cytosine, thymine and guanine].

If you can reprogramme your code, then you can start to influence things like diabetes and infertility. In fact, that’s the messenger RNA vaccine – that’s synthetic biology. The technology is not new; it’s been around, but there was never a use case.

Being able to sequence our genome quickly and develop a vaccine is just the beginning. And synthetic biology isn’t just about our bodies. We can manipulate the genetic code of anything. Some scientists are trying to de-extinct animals, for example, to bring the woolly mammoth back to life – not for fun, but as an alternative way to manage climate change.

Having mammoths in the north, in Siberia, stomping down the permafrost like they used to would actually help to reduce some greenhouse gases. You can already eat chicken nuggets where the meat came from an animal that never had a heartbeat, that never clucked. And there are new types of materials. Imagine a pair of glasses that you could never scratch or a phone with a screen that could never break.

This is the future we’re heading into, and soon we’ll look at synthetic biology in the same way we look at AI. Nobody talks about the internet anymore because it just is. Nobody talks about telecommunications – if you’re in the industry, sure you do – but nobody looks at this mobile phone and says it’s magical that I can pick it up and talk to another person. It just is.

It’s basic technology. Soon, AI will be basic technology, and synthetic biology will be basic technology after that.

Tech gives us optionality. People give me hope.

—Amy Webb, CEO of the Future Today Institute and Professor of Strategic Foresight, NYU Stern School of Business

So, tech gives you hope?

No, I would definitely not say that. Tech gives us optionality. People give me hope.

Synthetic biology can also be used to create all kinds of problems just as AI can or just about any other technology.

What gives me hope is people who are willing to put in the hard work, not just to imagine a better future but to create it. Talking about cool futures doesn’t make them arrive; it’s the hard work that does and the hard work is about making difficult decisions and challenging current mental models. That’s hard, and usually, politics is working against you.

What gives me hope are the CEOs of companies and the world leaders who are willing to make some difficult and sometimes unpopular choices because they’re thinking about the future.

Gen Z is not your hope

And what concerns you the most?

Oh my – how much time do you have?

I’m very concerned about our current vicious attention cycle, which has morphed politics and influenced government leaders and how they govern. That has a trickle-down effect in communities, which then feeds vitriol back into social media, which then fuels attention metrics. It’s horrible. Because of that cycle, we’re in a situation where misinformation is spreading fast and unchecked.

There are people who do not believe there is a virus, that vaccines aren’t trustworthy –– there are still plenty of people who believe the world is flat.

I’m concerned we don’t seem to have a plan to mitigate this cycle, and I’m very concerned about geopolitics and how the world is being divided in new ways. I don’t think everyone is thinking about the long-term consequences. But, ultimately, I am hopeful that there are smart people who will get together and make the right choices.

Is it that good people are keeping you optimistic about tomorrow, or is it more specific than that? I ask this question because a recurrent theme emerging from the interviews is that people place hope in the young generation, saying that the older generations are incapable of changing the model. Do you subscribe to this view?

I think that’s a dangerous view, and it’s not a new idea. Throughout history, every living generation looks at the next one and either says, “These kids are terrible” or “These kids are going to save us”. So, all the people you’re talking to are saying the younger generation gives them hope and they’ll fix things.

But there is a dangerous implication. It means that your generation has given up responsibility and said, “Oh well, we’re not going to be the ones to fix it”. It’s dangerous to put so much weight on the younger people coming up behind us.

I do a lot of work internationally, and I hear the same thing from our clients – young people care about sustainability, the environment, being nicer to each other – I hear all of these things, but I don’t see data to support that. I think some young people care about the world and in making it a better place, but there are a lot of young people who don’t share that opinion, who don’t care so much about sustainability and the environment and don’t see things in the same way.

So, it’s dangerous for Baby Boomers to look at Gen Z and say they are hopeful. It allows Boomers a convenient excuse to procrastinate on making tough decisions and absolves them from accountability.

They’re also making assumptions about a young, diverse group of people –– that all of Gen Z shares the same idealistic vision of the world. That really bothers me.

I’d much rather hear people say that what gives hope is to see our peers share some of our concerns, and we’re going to reach a tipping point where we decide to make some serious changes. It may take some time but we’re going to get there.

In the meantime, it would give me hope to see people in every age group actively planning for our collective futures. Gen Z is great; my daughter is Gen Z, I think she’s terrific, but she’s not my sole hope for the future – she can’t be.

This interview served as input for The Great Narrative, the new book by Klaus Schwab and Thierry Malleret that encapsulates the Davos Vision, and explores how we can shape a constructive, common narrative for the future.

The book is on sale now on Amazon. You can order a Kindle or paperback copy in the Amazon.com, Amazon.fr, Amazon.de, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.ca, Amazon.com.au and any Amazon store around the world. It is the second instalment in The Great Reset series.