Approaching the Future: Benjamin J Butler


I interviewed Benjamin J Butler about the state of the world, and how to approach the future. The full video is below.

From the financial World to the Future

I was born in the UK, educated in London. I had a career in finance that took me to New York and the Far East. Then I guess over time, I started to look at the world more and more holistically. I would always be working at the intersection of multiple disciplines within finance. Then, when I left finance, I ended up investing in Silicon Valley, sitting on the boards of some startups and entrepreneurial endeavors. I set up an institute at a design school with the help of a friend, focused on collective intelligence. Then one day, I woke up and decided I was going to put all my experiences together and help people navigate the future, which for me is a certain element of forecasting trends, scenario analysis, and also psychologically preparing people for uncertainty.

Be comfortable with not knowing!

You need the right psychological approach to understand the future. There’s a little bit of a paradox. I think that one has to be comfortable with not knowing! I’ve just been climbing here in South Korea. Actually, the whole area is littered with Zen temples, and the core philosophy of Zen is actually maintaining a “don’t know” mind, a mind of not knowing. It’s through holding that mind of not knowing that quite often insight arises. What that means in everyday parlance is that we’re always obsessed with intellectual understanding, always obsessed with facts and figures.

Sometimes we have to tap into our greater intelligence. What I mean by that is not some sort of voodoo stuff, New Age… There’s different ways of knowing. There’s the intellectual thinking way of knowing, and there’s sensing, there’s intuition, there’s various ways of understanding. Great scientists, philosophers, futurists, even investors know this. I think that’s an important sense to cultivate. Even geopolitical strategists are talking about it nowadays. A guy that works for Henry Kissinger is a geopolitical strategist that just put out a book called The Seventh Sense…

I also think you need a lot of experience in forecasting. It not… then obviously you can hire people like me, but you can also spend time doing scenario analysis. I think that’s also very useful. Sit down with a group of your top employees around a table and kick back. Try and get out of that really intellectual place, and just bounce scenarios back and forth in a very relaxed environment. Write them down and discuss them and see what would happen to your business if these scenarios happened.

Predicting Brexit and Trump

Last year, we spent a lot of time forecasting what was going to happen with the British referendum in the EU and the US presidential election. We happened to get both right. You don’t have to be a futurist to be sort of future-proofing your business to a certain extent. Just because the newspapers tell you that it’s impossible for Trump to win, really, one should have sat down and thought, “Okay. If he wins, will this have a major impact on my business, and do I need to prepare for that? If he does win, what is he saying?” If you looked at the stock market the night of the election, first of all, the stock market fell rather precipitously. Then investors caught themself, because many investors hadn’t been looking at what Trump had been saying on the economic front. They were just listening to all these scandals and noise.

Investors are paid to get things right, but unfortunately, during the summer, when Trump announced his economic plans, it was eclipsed by the latest Trump scandals, Twitter, whatever it was. The night of the election, investors were like, “Oh, what did Trump say on the economic front?” This is a massive oversimplification, but this is my sense. They realized, actually, that he had some very sensible pro-growth policies, and so the market actually went up. That’s my take. If you’re a business owner, you should have been thinking about what Trump would mean to your business.

What about 2017?

In 2016, there were a number of major events on the calendar, like the British referendum and the US presidential election. There was presumably a binary result, yes or no, in terms of Brexit and in terms of Trump, ultimately Clinton versus Trump.

For 2017, we have some things on the calendar. We have major elections in Europe. We have France, obviously, Netherlands, and Germany. In 12 months time, I think we will probably have had a few more shocks to the European Union, and we might be more seriously talking about the disintegration of the EU, breaking down into some possibly smaller groups.

In the United States, probably in 12 months time, the economy would have started to turn south. I think Trump has introduced some useful ideas into the policy debate. I know my progressive friends in California are absolutely horrified by Trump’s policies on diversity, his lack of political correctness, his policies towards the environment, immigration. They’re horrified, but if one just focuses on the economics, he’s got some sensible pro-growth policies like deregulation. I think the US and many countries are blighted by government interfering too much in our lives and too much in business.

Social discords

I think Trump had inherited an economy in its eighth year, almost, in the business cycle, and economies don’t just keep going up and up and up. I think it’s going to be a struggle for him to avoid an economic recession in his first term. The problem is, along with economic problems, I would guess that the social issues would have intensified. You just have to look at the last week. He introduces an immigration policy, which is supported by, according to Rasmussen polls, supported by two-thirds, but again, many people on, I guess on the coastal areas of America, New York and California, are absolutely horrified that he’s halting immigration from what, seven countries? Within 24 hours, they’ve mobilized large groups of people at airports, etc., etc. I’m guessing that some of his other policies will result in a lot more social discord.

When we were writing about social discord in the United States two or three years ago, I think people thought we were a little bit nuts, because it was kind of still blue sky. It didn’t look like there were many clouds there unless you were looking at the data that we were looking at. I was worried … Well, I wasn’t worried. Obviously it would be great for our predictions to have been wrong on this case, but I was thinking am I going to get this completely wrong?

Income disparity and civil war!

Looking at the data, the income disparities, listening to the dialogs between what people were talking about in California versus what they call the red states, looking at the echo chambers in social media and seeing how divided people were. Just looking at a lot of different factors and obviously analyzing what was going on in Washington DC, we were very concerned about social discord. We were very early on saying that, looking at history, looking at other countries’ histories, it wouldn’t be a surprise to have some form of civil war or constitutional crisis. Now, if you look at the bloggers, the word civil war and social discord is all over the place. I would guess it would intensify in the next 12 months.

And in 10 years?

I’m much more positive on a 10-year view. Look at the human journey. I guess it’s a good point to mix the two: The planetary journey and the human journey are maybe not too dissimilar. In life, we go through challenges, suffering, and we learn from that suffering, hopefully, and we grow. At the moment, there’s a lot of imbalances in the planet, a lot of stresses, but our species needs to evolve to the next level. Our society is still based on the industrial revolution mindset, and we need institutions that can deal with the new world that we’ve entered probably in the last 10, 15 years.

December 2015, we did a 10 year forecast. We said by 2025 we’d easily be coming out of a challenging period. Hopefully earlier, but we should be in quite positive times by then.

The advice to my daughter: be a holistic thinker

Maybe the first advice to my 2 years old daughter would be: “don’t listen to me”.Not so much don’t listen to me, but really think for yourself and trust your own intuition. Hopefully she won’t lose her intuition. At the moment, she’s two years old. Children, as you know, have a very strong intuition. Then they come across what’s called the education system, and we try and drill ideas into their heads. Then when you get to my age, you spend a lot of the time trying to get rid of the ideas that were put into our heads when we were younger. I’ve obviously made a career at that for a few years as a futurist.

I would also say that study is obviously important, but again, it’s not all about intellectual study. I think one should have fun through the education process. I think that doing things beyond the intellectual again, whether it’s music, dance, all this, I think is really important. I think sciences are really important, but again, some futurists suggest that this new age of robots and with robots mechanization that actually the creative and the humanities become very important again. There was a phase where … Different countries go through different cycles, but if you look back at Russia in the USSR days, they were all hell-bent on being scientists. If you look back at the US and the UK particularly, 80s, 90s, everyone was hell-bent on being investment bankers. We go through these cycles.

I think it’s a very important time to be a holistic thinker. I used to look back at Leonardo da Vinci and think, “Oh, my God. How did this man become an expert in so many separate disciplines? How do you have enough time?” What I realized later in life was that because he touched on so many so called disciplines, he was able to be so good in so many of them, because they are all interconnected. That’s what I’ve gained, I guess, in my career, I had a call yesterday with the author of the book The Neo-Generalist, Kenneth Mikkelsen. He was very much in agreement with these ideas.


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