Nick Davis spends a lot of time thinking about the future. Today, he’s here to talk to me about it. As the Faculty Chair for Corporate Innovation at Singularity University, Nick is a recognized thought leader in the innovation space. He identifies exponential trends that enable organizations to incorporate and build upon new and existing technology platforms–we are talking about things like AI, blockchain, and 5G.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done. In today’s world of exponential technology, when things are changing at lightning speed, and we only see technology as it reaches its final stages of evolution, how do companies wrangle all of this and keep up? In his new book, Future Ready, Nick shares with business leaders the same framework that Singularity University uses with their clients so that they can leap ahead and stay there.
Don’t miss out on this fascinating interview about what the future of technology means for businesses today and in the future.
Nikki Van Noy: Nick Davis, thank you so much for joining us today to talk about your new book, Future Ready.
Nick Davis: Well, thank you for having me, I’m so excited to have this conversation and look forward to hopefully some banter back and forth on a couple of the main concept sections.
Nikki Van Noy: Absolutely. I’m really excited to learn from you because you’re talking about technology like AI, blockchain, 5G, all of which I obviously am aware of but not very educated on. I’m super curious to hear your take on where everything is going, especially as it pertains to business.
Nick Davis: Yeah, it’s an interesting time for us, I think, as business professionals or just people in society in general, as we seem to have reached a point where the knowledge that these technologies exist in the world now is fairly ubiquitous but the impact of what it is going to have in our life, our business, our family, and society, in general, is still a little bit nebulous.
It’s really made an impact in some areas such as, Amazon and Alexa and delivering things to your home. At the same time, things like augmented and virtual reality being used for surgery in remote locations is something that people are talking about, but not sure when it will arrive.
I think one of the interesting things that we can definitely chat about a little bit is timing. How and when do we see a need to begin to get ready and when will it be available to the masses versus is it still a little bit more hype and not quite ready yet?
Nikki Van Noy: Perfect. I am so into this conversation and I think about this all the time. I’m 42 and so I’m not that young but I’m not that old either, and I feel like I’ve been dated so quickly. I mean, the world is such a different place, even looking back 12 years ago before everyone had a smartphone, we’re just living a totally different existence than we were not very long ago.
Nick Davis: It’s very true and a statement we use often when we’re teaching in our courses is that today is the slowest day you’re ever going to experience, for the rest of your life. It’s a weird thing to think about it that way.
Really the pace of acceleration is accelerating and as funny as that is to think about, we as humans have a hard time being able to really wrap our heads around that. We are linear creatures, we typically see the world one step at a time, one day at a time, at most, a few years at a time. As we start to begin to think more abstractly about the future and where things are going and the impact of these technologies, how fast they’ve been coming and will continue to come faster at us, it’s really hard to wrap your head around it.
This idea of exponential trends is really a mathematical formula and it is very fun to think about something growing so quickly, but the tricky part is, that we teach often in our programs, is that exponential curve that most part only happens substantially towards the end.
It can feel kind of boring and then all of a sudden, you have this fundamental shift like boom, iPhone, and it changes the way that we all communicate and live and act in this world in a very fundamental way.
The joke I’ll often make with our clients is, “Does anyone remember the Razr phone?”
Everyone’s like, “Oh my gosh, yes. The Razr phone was such a cool phone and we remember buying it and interacting with it.” And for me, I felt like, in my mind, “This has got to be the pinnacle. This is the coolest phone ever. How could they ever beat this?”
Then, obviously, along comes the iPhone, which just absolutely destroyed the entire market. I think we’re going to continue to feel and see those fundamental shifts happen more and more often because the convergence of these technologies is starting to accelerate. The power of AI is now obviously moving to new areas with machine learning and deep neural networks and adversarial networks, which is then empowering augmented virtual reality and sensors and autonomous vehicles. It’s a compounding effect that’s really going to start to creep into every part of our lives.
Nikki Van Noy: Man, it’s crazy to hear you talk about it like that. I feel like this could be a philosophical conversation that goes on for a couple of hours very easily, along with everything else.
Nick Davis: It often does.
Nikki Van Noy: I’m sure. Let’s back up a little bit here and give listeners an idea about your background and how you relate to all of these ideas.
Nick Davis: My background is kind of a three-part combo of the work that we do both at Singularity and a lot of the clients that I’ve worked with over the years before that.
Early on in my career, I spent some time at UCLA, at the Anderson School of Management, where I focused on executive education, leadership, and management. I ran some of the courses around director education, MNA, leadership and diversity, and so on. It’s kind of the human part of it, right?
If you think about the framework that we’re using in the book, there’s a lot that goes on around leadership and culture, and how do we, as individual leaders, think about enabling ourselves to the future? That was really my foundational training, executive coaching, and leadership that came from my years at UCLA.
From there, I moved into what you would call corporate innovation. I worked at Price Waterhouse for a few years where my focus became how do we think about, in this hundred year plus firm that’s focused on accounting and auditing, how do we think about this new paradigm of technologies? How do we make the firm more competitive, more innovative, and really think about doing business differently for our clients?
This idea of building new solutions, working with entrepreneurs, leveraging design thinking, and co-creation to find new solutions for really tough problems, that became the main core focus of my career, quite frankly.
So, with Singularity, I’m still the faculty chair of corporate innovation. It certainly is a deep passion of mine as product development and ideation, and bringing new products to market.
From there, I’ve gone back and forth, as most serial entrepreneurs do, between starting startups and having exits. I still do a lot of venture capital work. I’m a venture partner at Bold Capital in LA, which is exclusively focused on exponential technologies. And then teaching a lot, obviously. That really gives me, I think, a lens by which I see the world through a leadership focus, and this entrepreneurship innovation focus.
Then ultimately, at this point, I’m about to turn 40–big milestone this weekend for me. I’ve worked with about half of the Fortune 500 at this point. So, I’ve seen just about every way that they’re trying to think through solving this innovation conundrum. Both good and bad. That’s given us some really good behind the curtain insights on what works well and what doesn’t.
Hopefully, in the book, we can bring forward some of those examples and help these companies get future ready.
Preparing for the Future of Technology
Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. Let’s dive in there and talk about some of the more common things you see legacy companies doing to prepare for the future of technology that might make sense but are perhaps not going to serve them best moving forward?
Nick Davis: Yeah, everything for us is based around the main framework that we introduce early on in the book, and as I said, this is really a collaboration of hundreds, if not thousands, of different methodologies and frameworks that we’ve seen our clients get exposed to and then try and leverage with little success.
We’ve tried to bring a lot of that learning into this comprehensive framework. So, while it’s fairly high level, we certainly go deeper within each one of the chapters, and I think it gives us a pretty good way to at least start to think and wrap our head around the different areas that we need to be working on in order to get ourselves, again, future ready.
For those four areas, what we’re basically saying is that you need to have a future-focused strategy and that doesn’t mean your five-year corporate planning cycle. You need to understand what your vision is for that future that’s 10, 15, 20 years out. What are you hoping to be and create in this world? Then ultimately, understanding deeply the different potentials for alternative futures that could happen to get you there.
Specifically, one of the fun ones in the media right now is Tesla. Elon Musk–no one is going to argue that man doesn’t have a vision for what he thinks the future should be. He is pushing full-on into markets, being entirely disruptive, because he has a very clear vision of the future that he thinks we should be marching towards. Then, ultimately doing everything within his power with his companies to realize that future.
Not everyone can be Elon Musk, certainly, but we do think that there’s a really great lesson learned amongst the Jobs’ of the world or the Musk’s of the world or the Bezos of the world, who are saying, “We believe that the future is great. We believe the future can be better. We’re going to leverage these technologies to really start to create that for our companies, for our constituents, for our communities,” and so forth.
So, that’s a big piece of this, right? Let’s get clear in a narrative what we’re trying to create. From there, what we’re really going to say then is, okay, for innovation specifically, most companies at this point have gotten innovation process or methodology, they understand they need to be developing ideas. They know they need to be leveraging design thinking, they know that they’re running accelerators. There is a lot of hype recently of calling it innovation theater–it’s just being done to get press and not really being integrative into the overall strategy.
So, what we’re recommending is to focus on having a comprehensive innovation strategy that’s deeply tied into your corporate planning, your vision, and it’s really the engine that’s driving you towards that future and you have to get fast. One of the main things that we really focus on is helping our clients understand that you can successfully take a product to market, but if it takes you three years, you’re too late. Ten years ago, in the innovation space, we used to say that execution was the problem. We have to get things out to market, and it’s always getting stuck in bureaucracy or getting stuck in committee.
Anymore, even if you’re successful at getting it all the way through your innovation process, you’re ultimately hitting a place where if it’s not out within the six months or a year or much faster, the market has already left you behind. We think that’s just going to increase. There’s this need to leap ahead of your competition and getting faster and faster within your new product development.
We flip it there over to the culture and the leadership piece. We will go deep in having a culture of impact, diversity, and exploration. Giving your people a mission alignment where they feel that there’s impact focus. We live in the world today where technology allows us to both do the right thing for our business but also do the right thing for the world.
I mean, solar, for the first time, is cheaper than coal. We can be a power company where we say we’re going to make a lot of money and we’re also going to stop burning fossil fuels, and it doesn’t have to be one or the other.
Then finally, ultimately, it’s developing the leaders of tomorrow. You think of things like the future of work, the way that we are changing, the way that we are going to leverage robots and AI to augment the work that we are doing. We’re going to be leveraging our creativity, our problem-solving skills, but a lot of the automation, the repetitive tasks, those are going to go away.
We have to think about how to shift our mindset, unlearn the things that we knew before that got us here. And ultimately develop and attain these new skills of tomorrow that will keep us competitive.
Predicting the Future
Nikki Van Noy: There’s just so much here.
First of all, I’m stuck on this thing that you said earlier in the interview, which makes so much sense, but I had never thought of before–that in terms of exponential growth, we are actually seeing things when they’re at the end phase. For example, the iPhone, there was all this technology happening that people weren’t aware of or paying attention to necessarily, and then there’s this seismic shift in the way that we do things.
How can businesses make themselves more aware of that change that’s happening and where things are heading before we get to that point where it’s visible and action needs to be taken?
Nick Davis: I think that goes back to the strategy piece we were discussing. You have to get this really good sensing–we call it the radar in the book. You have to have an ability to feel what’s going on in and around you. Technologically speaking, business model speaking, industry shift, political, whatever it may be–starting to create this kind of storyboard in front of you that helps you understand the context of the possibilities of those changes.
Ultimately, as we say in the book, no one can predict the future perfectly with all certainty. What we have to be able to do is start to say, “We deeply believe, and we deeply understand where AI is going. There’s a lot of work that’s going on in that field. We have a pretty good line of sight about where that’s going to take us.”
For example, let’s say that you’re a big automotive company. We know that you’re going to have an impact on autonomous vehicles. Clearly AI is a converging technology that’s having a huge impact in that field. You combine that with cameras and LiDAR, sensors in IT. Obviously, you’ve got a lot of different technologies that are going into the vehicles to allow that trend to begin to happen.
At the same time, you’ve got disruptive work going on in, and different modes of transportation. Uber, Lyfts, or trains, or different things that are going on around augmented and virtual reality, which means you would never need to travel to begin with because you can just go to your meeting as an avatar.
You have to think through the implications of, “If this technology starts to come online now or faster than we think, what would that do to me as an individual, our company and organization, and society as a whole?” What we try to practice is toggle back and forth between those alternative futures. If this, then what?
Then you can really start to understand, let’s back up to today, “Do we think or are we seeing evidence in the startup world, the VC world, the labs and university research going on around the world? Are we seeing early points where this is starting to accelerate faster than we may have thought? Thus, do we need to start investing in it now or buy it or build it or grow it ourselves?”
Nikki Van Noy: What I would love to do is with all of these ideas, tether them down into a practical scenario. To put all of this in perspective for listeners, are there any companies out there that people might be familiar with who you feel have taken these concepts that you’re talking about that involve leadership strategy, innovation culture, and I’m thinking primarily about a legacy company here, that’s managed to tie all of these things together the way that you’re talking about and be ahead of the curve or aligned with where they need to be going?
Nick Davis: Yeah, for sure, we can get a couple of different examples for ones that are both leading into that work, as well as trying to reinvent themselves in a way that allows them to stay competitive in this market. The obvious answers are clear–your Tesla’s, your Amazon’s, ones that are already digital natives, if you will.
They grew up being digital first and AI bound. But they’re obviously killing the market. They are doing wonderful and that is because they were born of this way of thinking and they didn’t have to do it from the middle and shift like a legacy company would.
One that I think is really interesting, and retail is a fun one to look at, obviously because we all see it and feel it in real-time. Walmart, for example. Here is a company that’s been around for a long time, and we all have been exposed to the brand, Walmart is around the world. They are the biggest company that’s ever existed. I would call them a traditional, legacy company and in a time where they’ve had to see this formation and evolution of Amazon really start to impact them, they are at this fundamental shift they must undertake, where they are moving as fast as they can to ecommerce with some of the acquisitions they have made.
They’ve had to retool their innovation capability top to bottom. They have a very compelling group that can actually do amazing product development to reach their people in better ways. They had to rethink how they take their people from a ‘come to our giant store in your neighborhood’ to a ‘curbside delivery’ or eventually I believe, delivery, to be able to compete with Amazon.
You see this movement back and forth within all the things that they’re doing around, like I said, the new acquisitions, and their innovation work. You have teams in customer experience and technologies that are being integrated into the shopping experience. You can see and feel that going well as a customer of theirs and it is all because they are trying to, I guess, lean into and push this market into a new way where they are not waiting for Amazon to do it to them. They are trying to actually leap ahead of themselves and continue to gain market share.
And so, it is an interesting one to see someone like that who is very proactively trying to go after this and not sitting back and saying, “You know what? We are going to let it happen to us.”
Whereas you know on another one and I won’t name a brand here, but we had a client before that is also one of the big retailers in clothing. I met with their innovation leader about a year and a half ago and the conversation with him–we all know this brand and have shopped there for most of our lives–for him to get on the phone with me and say, “We literally think, our board just thinks this is another retail trend. They are not recommending we change anything. This is business as usual and just a slump.”
To be that unaware–that we have reached an entirely new paradigm in the world with these technologies is the scary part. We see clients who don’t really “get it” that AI and the new technologies that are coming in and the new ways of doing ecommerce, these are all technologies coming online at the same time and is so severely going to impact those that are playing that sit and wait game, that by the time they wake up and think, “Oh no, actually this is different than it has ever been before. We need to start learning.” Sadly, in most cases, it’s almost too late. It is extremely hard to catch up once you get to a certain point. You can let it all pass you by.
Sit and Wait?
Nikki Van Noy: It is surprising for me as an outsider to hear that there are big companies left that are playing a sit and wait game. I feel like we have seen industries collapse at this point. You know there are such concrete examples of why sit and wait does not work no matter how established you think you are.
Nick Davis: Yeah it is an interesting one. I mean if you think about this as a societal issue, I think we probably have boards usually made up of people who are, be it in five years, or already are in retirement. They are much more risk averse. They’ve already made their money, quite frankly, and they are in the position where they can afford for themselves personally to kind of play this, “You know I am good right now, let’s just see what happens.”
I think that does feed down into the strategies of a lot of these legacy companies. We have just started to see one topple after the other where I find it hard-pressed to go to conference with any big legacy company where they look me in the eye and say, “Oh we’re good. We don’t have to change.” I would hope that I wouldn’t see that but that is a very new occurrence.
I was with one of the large automotive manufacturers probably three years ago in London at a venture capital conference. I was in the lobby talking to their head of innovation and there was a Tesla sitting in the lobby and I said, “Are you worried about them?” And he kind of laughed at me like, “Oh, they’re not getting on our radar. We don’t even think of them as a competitor.” Well, how about now?
So, I think there still is a little bit of a naysayer skeptic in a lot of executives that are out there. And that is a really dangerous mindset to have these days.
Now to your point, I think very quickly everyone who was asleep is now waking up and now we are seeing this point where everyone is just rushing around saying, “Okay, we get it, a huge shift is going on. We don’t want disruption to happen to us, we’d like to lean into it, but how?” How do we do it? That is really the question, which is obviously why we center around that question so much in the book.
Nikki Van Noy: Yeah, I mean how is a huge question in this particular sector. The other thing that has struck me as you have been talking about this is it seems to me that one of the really exciting parts about where we’re at right now is there is so much room for creativity and untethering your vision of what’s possible and where business can actually go.
Nick Davis: It is so true and that idea of unlearning that we often talk about at both SU as well as with a lot of client work that we do in all the areas. It makes a lot of sense when you think about it. I have always done it this way. It is always worked. We hear all kinds of fun stories where people say that in meetings, “In 20 years it hasn’t been broken yet, let us keep doing it this way.”
That idea I think has been propagated a lot. These last couple of years that’s just not the right way to think. I think people understand intuitively that we need to do something different. But what do we unlearn? Do I unlearn my basic skills? I am an accountant–do I unlearn that? Do I unlearn some other aspect of my role as far as me being a leader? I really do think that it is a lot of the soft skills, where we have to rethink how we are coming at the problem.
To have the creativity to be able to say, “You know, I don’t have to come at this in the same way and replace this problem with a bunch of bodies that can go in to do this work. The AI can actually accomplish this five times faster and three times cheaper than if we were to put consultants on this.” Those examples of thinking creatively around leveraging the technologies in the right way is such a big deal.
Data, for instance, is such a huge question right now. Everybody’s got data people, everyone is getting data, everyone is building a platform to leverage data, data, data, data, data. Well if you don’t know what you’re asking it or what you’re trying to do with it, ultimately data can be just as much noise as anything else. And so, how we can creatively think about leveraging the vast power of machine learning now or predictive analytics in a way that makes sense for our business? It makes sense to ask smarter questions and we can actually move that forward in a more creative way very powerfully.
Not turning it on just because you want to look at your other CIO friends at a conference and say, “We’re doing data too, are you doing data? I am doing data.” To what end? And really how we are using it in the best way that we can to empower ourselves and our customers? That’s the critical piece of this.
Then what I see and worry about a lot is everyone doing, not just the innovation theater, but just the technology theater. “I’ve got AI, so I must be good.” Well, what kind and where and how? What do you mean by that?
Nikki Van Noy: I don’t even know if you can answer this but is there anything that you’re particularly excited about when it comes to business or that you feel like people are not focusing on to the extent that they could be?
Nick Davis: AI is certainly the biggest one that we get questions about the most. So, ultimately AI is a huge focus and I think the one that is going to have the most universal impact on lots of different stuff because it is basically the enabler. Every exponential technology that you talk about, for the most part, has got some AI component to it. It is going to be empowered.
The one that for me that I find the most interesting or scary maybe is a better word for it or exciting, I am not sure depending on what we do with it, is genomics. The power that we have seen from being able to map our genome, is now heading very quickly with CRISPR into editing our genome and what it can do for us, from disease eradication to human performance to lots of different things and we’ve got societal and ethical questions that are possible and we don’t think we should do it, but we can do it. When we layer on AI, and soon approaching quantum computing behind that, we are going to have absolute power over our genetic code and being able to manipulate it.
What’s scary about that is ultimately we’ve got different countries with different viewpoints on the ethics around changing a human genome for something that might be passed down hereditarily to children. And so, as a human, we worry a lot about if there will be people at arms when all of a sudden one country starts to make people taller, faster, smarter. And the rest of the countries have to be able to think about, do we want to do that to compete or do we not?
Or think about the disappearing middle class and what is going on in the future of work as we think about the wealthy getting wealthier and society having some serious questions around availability and access to these technologies, we will arrive at a day where if I have the means I can program another 50 IQ points into my children because we can do that now. But the question is, should we?
So, a lot of those questions I think are huge applications to our businesses–you can imagine if you are a big pharma company right now and you are developing drugs that have a 10-year development horizon and another 10 years for FDA approval. But right now, one breakthrough in genetics allows us to, in all perpetuity, cure that thing and we would never need a drug to be able to address it again.
It is a really big deal for health care in general and us as a species. It is going to have us come to a point where we have to have some serious conversations with ourselves around what is ethical and what is not.
Nikki Van Noy: Hearing you unravel that really makes me realize that, to some degree, we have to train ourselves to think in a new way because there are all these implications that shoot in so many different directions. It is difficult to get an entire picture of what something might mean.
Nick Davis: It is, yes. You know, we’ve got fun clients who have us do future projections and renderings on like a Jetson’s type future and what that would look like for us. And then I’ve had clients come to me and say, “You know, we want you to scare us. We really want you to show that if this doesn’t go the way we think it’s going to go or we hope it is going to go, what are the implications of that for us as a company and as a society?”
Sadly, it is everyone’s guess right now. We think we all have an intuitive part of us that’s hopeful that these technologies are going to allow us to do some amazing work to help a lot of people. I have spent a lot of my time, in the philanthropic part of my life, trying to address the issue of hunger and food insecurity. But if you think about that 30% of all food is left in the field and if we could recover that amount there wouldn’t be a hungry person. It’s amazing, right? Can technology allow us to solve for that problem so we can ensure that we are getting the food to its maximum productivity?
You know we are using new lab room B, for instance, to be able to give people protein at the right amount and the right time and not having to have such a vast amount of our resources and land dedicated to cows, for instance. There are things that we are going to see as fundamental shifts in even how we operate in the world that are going to be net positive, some amazing things that will help us solve issues like hunger or environmental issues that come from raising cattle. Great, perfect, right? Let us point our energy and our time towards that.
However, things like genetics, they are going to help cure millions of people of things that they would have otherwise not been able to–wonderful. It also has a risk, what will these technologies be used for that we don’t expect?
How do we think about that and plan for that in time to put things in place where they can’t be used for the opposite reasons? But we are all human as we say, at least for now. Who knows? We may get that bit programmed out. But I think it is probably coming with us with everything else.
Nikki Van Noy: I mean it occurs to me as you were talking through all of that though, that ethics and leadership are always important but it is important in a way now that it never has been before.
Nick Davis: It is. I get a lot of questions around regulations, such as, “We’re a highly regulated company. We can’t innovate in this way or we can’t innovate fast enough.” Got it. There are some things that we can do to speed things up so companies can innovate in a more effective way. But for autonomous vehicles, for instance, when you think about all the rules and regulations that go around transportation now and then all the cars all of a sudden within a snap of a finger are driving themselves.
You are doing work. You are sleeping in the car. I heard someone recently reference the fact that like, “Well, no one is getting a speeding ticket. No one is getting a DUI anymore, how are the courts going to get funded?”
I think all of a sudden you just slow down and from an economic standpoint, it is so interesting for us to think about and consider. We have to plan for them in the right amount of time otherwise what is a new technology that can really make this human condition better, actually ends up destroying an entire market and it could cause some serious implications to our economy.
Nikki Van Noy: So, Nick this is such a big topic and you’re talking about so much in this book. So, I know I am asking you to boil this down in kind of a difficult way, but what is your main hope for readers as they walk away from this book? What do you really want them to grasp?
Nick Davis: For me I really want a reader to understand that this future, while not perfectly predictable, is one that they can lean into and help create. And so, I think engagement is a huge question and a huge need for us as individuals, as leaders, as companies. If we start to say to the world, “We believe that this is going to be a wonderful, positive future and this is the world that we are going to help create.” That is what we need to be able to do.
Engage, really lean into it and build the things that we want to build that impact us all in a positive way. It is less scary that way. There is a model, there are frameworks for us to think about how to get ourselves future ready in an absolutely positive way, but to sit back and be passive and let’s see how it happens and it is too far away so I don’t have to worry about it yet mentality, is sad to say.
This future is here. It is coming much, much quicker than we think. Ultimately, we really want to be able to give our people the tools and frameworks to engage in the right way.
Nikki Van Noy: Excellent. The book is Future Ready: A Changemaker’s Guide to the Exponential Revolution. Nick, thank you so much for joining us today. Let’s end by giving listeners an idea where they can find you and reach out?
Nick Davis: Yes. So, the book will be available at all major places where you can obviously purchase a book, both digital, print, and online and the website is futurereadythebook.com.
Nikki Van Noy: Thank you so much, Nick.
Nick Davis: Yes ma’am. Great talking to you today.