As foresight becomes a more important tool for corporations to guide decision making through uncertain times we thought it useful to spend some time with Nikolas Badminton – a world-renowned keynote speaker, consultant, and media producer now based in Toronto Canada and resident at StartWell.
In this discussion with our CEO Qasim Virjee, Nik breaks down what it means to be a Futurist, relates personal experiences from working through the pandemic and much more.
The session was recorded live from our event venue on King Street West in downtown Toronto – the same space which played host to Nik’s 2019 edition of Dark Futures, a series he explains towards the end of this episode.Podcast Transcript
Qasim Virjee 0:15
Welcome back to another episode of a new normal. This time around, I’m sat down in person with Nick badminton here at start well, in our event space and studio, Nick, it’s a pleasure having you on the
Nikolas Badminton 0:28
show. Always good to be here, Kasim.
Qasim Virjee 0:30
So Nick, I’d like you to introduce yourself, so I don’t fumble anything. Yeah, keep it nice and clean or as dirty as you’d like. Who is Nick badminton?
Nikolas Badminton 0:39
Okay, who am I? My name is Nicholas badminton, I grew up in the UK, and I moved to Canada about 12 years ago, about a year ago, I moved to Toronto. I’m a futurist, I help companies and governments see out 510 20 years into the future, trying to imagine, you know, how the world is going to change and asking the big questions around. What if we think differently about the world? What if we use curiosity? What if we engage people in new ways to create incredible futures, so that we can shape a vision of where we’re headed, so that we can make better choices today strategically, and we can plan against risks? And we can think about, really, you know, the shape of the world and where that’s gonna go?
Qasim Virjee 1:21
So how did you get into this line of work this kind of perspective, this modality, of behavior? In a commercial context? How did you become a futurist? And make that your job?
Nikolas Badminton 1:33
Yeah, it’s kind of an interesting story. So I mean, at the age of 10, I started programming computers. And that was my very first sort of, like, delve into a future, you know, and these were big, blocky computers with screens that are about yay big, right. And I would sit there in my dad’s office and use them and I started to get turned on about that in the future. And my father would, would buy me books on the future. Anyway, I go through school, not very good at school, went back to college, very good at computers, obviously. And then from there, Applied Psychology, computing, artificial intelligence, linguistics, cognitive psychology, thinking about web design, you know, got onto the internet really early sort of 9293 as part of an internet club, as a lot of people back there did cool. Yeah, yeah, you know, and, and then sort of spent 25 years working, hacking my way through technology projects. I’m a certified technical architect. I don’t like to tell people that too much. I don’t want to sit in server rooms too much anymore. And you know, building out huge data driven analytic based systems targeting systems behavioral targeting, for marketing. And this is pre Cambridge Analytica, and definitely less nefarious, right. So I went from there and ended up working in advertising in Canada and from there, got together with some friends started organizing some conferences on human computer interaction, the future of computing, the future of technology and society, worked with people like Amber case, and Cara Sakano, produce future camp, and then from now as a conference and the product, design thinking sessions, and it sort of grew out of there, and someone called me a futurist about eight years ago. And from there, you know, through being a journalist and writing and doing videos and being asked to speak, I’ve done about 300 keynotes in the last five years, I’m saying to a lot of Canadian and US agencies, I’ve traveled the world, I’ve spoken to hundreds of 1000s of people, I do television and radio, and I’m constantly imagining what the future could be, by speaking to people like yourself, like other experts, being out in the community being in place, like start well, and working with companies to really think about, you know, where we are headed and asking that big question of what if, and I just practice foresight, every single day I soak up information, I think about how the world is likely to be and I work with clients to put it in their context and to work with their teams so they can shift their mindsets from what is to what if.
Qasim Virjee 4:09
So, let’s talk about this. Because it’s something I’m unclear about, I kind of have the basic concepts about this, but every time I’m explained it by someone in the field, it’s always different. So trends versus futurism. Yeah. Is it a difference? Or is the unique aspect of Futurism looking forward about ignoring the past? Or is it about ignoring trends leading up to a point? How do you decipher the difference between I guess, historical context? Yeah. And the context of now to look to the future.
Nikolas Badminton 4:44
I mean, this is this is a tableau this is this is this is something that we lay out in front of us are looking at historical context is incredibly important. And by historical context, I’m talking about going back 1000s of years and thinking about how humanity has progressed to today, okay is looking at today and looking at the near past on the trends that have showed us, you know, likely directions. And then it’s looking at what’s happening today. And realizing that, you know, the next, you know, couple of years two to three years is likely going to change in certain aspects of during the pandemic, we’re seeing everything around biomedical technology, online connection, the future of work, and, you know, transportation, vacationer, tourism, all of these things are being questioned. But really, we’re trying to imagine two years by looking at what’s happening today, a little bit of historical context. But beyond that, sort of 510 20 years, we start to look for weak signals, the things that are showing us that there’s the beginning of change happening. And that might be political change, it might be human behavioral change, it might be technological change, it might be population movements, it might be the way that certain trends are moving in terms of, you know, wildlife or, or, you know, urban growth. And we take them and we can extrapolate out 510 20 years into the future. And it becomes incredibly creative at that point. And it’s created because we truly don’t know what the future is. And in fact, we have to be plural about what the future can be. Because your future is different to mine. And everyone that’s watching this video, their futures are different to both of our futures. Everyone can define their own futures, that plurality, inclusion, understanding that, you know, we’re not building a future for people like your people like me, we’re building it for everyone, it are really important context to consider. So the work of future isms, a lot of creativity, a lot of inclusion, a lot of pluralism, plus, also really trying to tell fantastical stories about what the future can be. And you might look at a utopian future, you might look at a dystopian future, I’ve just written a chapter called start start with dystopia for a book that’s coming out next year on blueprint in the UK. And it’s really your book, or I’ve written a chapter. And there’s a bunch of different futures that have written a chapter within that book. So so really, I’ve sort of tried to imagine the worst case scenario, and you work back to try and work out what we need to do today to stop it, you can, you can start to think about your perfect future. And then you can try and work out what we need to put into place today to start making those actions. So companies are starting to realize that this is incredibly valuable. companies that employ foresight are generally more profitable, the employees are happier, and they’ve got more direction than companies that are stuck in the past. One example, fossil fuel companies stuck in the past, it’s always going to be this way. And it’s always been this way. So keep pouring money in, people are still going to drive cars, people are still going to fly, people are still going to ship containers around the world, using diesel using jet fuel using whatever, yeah. But that’s not how the world world progresses. We’re locked into that industrial complex, we’re breaking that industrial complex, and we’re saying, what does the future look like? What does humanitarian efforts in the future look like? How do we put humans and society and equity at the center of everything, divide the wealth, make countries more accessible, and collaborative, how we can change the very structure of banal politics that are less progressive, and amplify the politics that are maybe slightly more libertarian, and and that serve that the humanitarian good in the world so that no one is left behind. Right? And everyone is considered. So we kind of activists as futurists, and I’ve said this sounds I said this a lot. So we’re activist we stand on stage. And there’s a lot of people that don’t agree with what we say, and there’s some that do. But when we sit down with, you know, the boards of directors, the CEO is the chair, chair, people of companies. And we say, imagine a future, it’s well worked out, it’s researched, we’ve considered historical context, we’ve considered their company. But we’ve also considered that everything that they are today isn’t necessarily everything they’re going to be in the future.
Qasim Virjee 9:12
So you’ve said a couple things that are interesting, or used nomenclature that I found interesting. We, and that’s the first one that I’d like to explore a little bit. Tell me about the community of futurism? Is there a community? Is it something that has, let’s say, you know, faculties at universities around the world dedicated to teaching practice and methodologies for or is this something that’s a kind of a practice that’s emerging with thought leaders in isolation, working their own paths? So
Nikolas Badminton 9:49
it’s a bit it’s a bit of everything? I mean, there’s one thing that that’s true about the future is that every single person in the world thinks about the future. Yeah, whether they’re looking Tomorrow next week next year thinks about it or worries about it either either is scared about it is optimistic about it has got a positive outlook. Everyone thinks about the future. So everyone in the world can be a futurist. Now that’s not necessarily a strong answer to your question. Yeah. The people that choose it as a discipline, short can come from any work, any walk of life, but they start to put the work in to understand what they’re seeing around them, what we call signals of change, how they’re likely to change in their own personal context. And when they apply it to other people’s contexts. That’s the beginning of a practice of foresight, of course, then you can really apply there’s a lot of really good educational establishments that do train people like in Houston, Ceylon bogged down in, down in South Africa, going back to university, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I’ve got a friend doing a PhD in foresight, Stellenbosch, and actually, it’s coming out on my podcast list this next week. And then we’ve got people like OCAD here, and there’s lots more universities that are going to start having foresight programs pop up. So you can actually go and you can learn the methods. And you know, and it’s like strategic principles, foresight principles, how you apply them to business, how he you can use speculative fiction and art in new ways. It’s a very exciting discipline. And, and, you know, it’s about, you know, thinking outside the box, and really breaking the chains of normal thinking about what what we’ve been told to expect, right, and to really challenge that. So. So I think that that is fantastic. And there are people that come out of that, the with qualifications that then practice foresight, there’s actually a huge global community, and I’m plugged into a lot of people there. But there’s also the people that have been strategist for number VSO, I practice strategy for 20 plus years, I come from a background where I was already working with a lot of roadmapping, and futures, three to five years, typically with it with my clients for for over 20 years. And when it came to the point of looking even further, it seemed like a natural extension to me. And now I apply a lot of foresight techniques, and the techniques that I’ve used before which were, which were the precursors to a lot of foresight techniques that you use today, and very popular. And I apply them and I look out a little further, but then I wrap it in storytelling, and I speak on stage a lot. And that storytelling, that performance is incredibly important. I try and be cinematic I use video, there’s a lot of people speculating about the future. There’s a lot of technology today that, that, you know, you have a lot of ore and wonder about because you know, robots doing parkour or, or sensors and data and what that can do what we can do with augmented reality, gamification, you know, the kind of twisted world of social media, whatever, you can take all of these perspectives, and you can weave it into a story. And sometimes it may not be everyone’s particular cup of tea. Sure. But that’s because everyone’s got different futures, right? So the discipline of Futurism is exploding right now, I think you’re going to see every company, every advertising agency, media company, you’re going to have their own sort of resident futurists,
Qasim Virjee 13:13
I think the growing uncertainty in the world and in the world’s economy based on let’s call it economic principles that people have taken for granted. You know, the, the questioning of those fundamentals, and you mentioned the petroleum industry. And, you know, it’s economics changing so drastically up and down in the last few months. Yeah, no doubt will drive a lot of that want for perception that people don’t have from simply going by the business assuming status quo for the last couple of decades. So I’d like to bring up the topic of this current context, which is the pandemic and its economic responses. And talk a little bit more personally about your practice. So you mentioned a big part of what you do is getting up on stage. How has that been impacted in the last couple months of not being able to speak live to audiences in person? Yeah. What kind of engagements as a as a consultant and as a speaker? Are you looking at doing and are you more finding yourself connecting with audiences online?
Nikolas Badminton 14:19
So I returned from doing the last keynote that I did, and it was in Ottawa, and that was at the beginning of March. And within two weeks, all of my speaking that was planned for the year already was gone. Until 2021. That’s fine. We’ll get around to it. A lot of those clients committed. I work with them is great. The following week, after wondering what’s going on, I started working with some existing clients on consultancy on foresight, being able to look out the next 18 to 24 months, rather than three 510 20 years. so that they could start to get the benefit of applying foresight in their businesses. Some of these clients were global. Some of these clients were just in Canada or just in the US. And what I’m doing now is pure consultancy. And it’s my old world. So I’ve got a practice around consultancy. It’s still research based, I still write presentations and reports. But the presentation of them is different. The content flow is it’s a lot more dense, there’s a lot more reference points. It’s a it’s something that you read Sure, rather than listen to. So it’s just changed. So my business is suddenly gone from speaking 80% of my time, consulting 10% of my time in terms of media, to probably 25% media to consultancy for 65% of the time, and I’m still doing some some remote keynotes and some remote workshops. That particularly tough though it’s a very different format. But you’re getting huge engagement. I moderated a panel with Anheuser Busch and Canopy Growth adopted from the University of Toronto, two weeks ago. And we had like 700
Qasim Virjee 16:08
Plus, there many people, I joined for a bit. Yeah, actually saw some
Nikolas Badminton 16:11
talking about wellness. You know, it as I said at the beginning, you know, here we are, in a pandemic, talking about wellness with a company that sells beer, a company that sells cannabis and a doctor, you know, like all bets are off. Right? Right. So you can have fun with it. It’s very draining to work online, you still have to do the research behind it. So you know, that’s what’s happening with me right now. I just had a phone call today. Can you fly to x location? I won’t say where? Yeah. Because we want you to run a workshop in person with 50 people at this conference, in this particular province in Canada. And I said in September, I don’t think I’m going to be doing that. I said maybe October, November, once we see the lay of the land that’s only three months away or so right? So we got to see the lay of the land, we got to let this blow itself out in a way, you have to see the government really work out, you know, better controls, and really getting more proactive ways to keep people like you and I safe, especially when we’ve got families. Right?
Qasim Virjee 17:18
Well, it’s interesting, because you you mentioned the having to kind of collapse the timeframe on your practice, from long windows of 10 to 15 years out, that’s coming back down to a few months. I’m sure the demand is what’s happening tomorrow, what’s happening next week, because no one knows. And everyone’s trying to figure it out together in their own way. So that’s an example of this kind of scramble to find answers. But yeah, and unrealistic time frames are on safe timeframes, perhaps.
Nikolas Badminton 17:46
And I’m never really 100% correct about future like, no one is like, I can’t predict the future. In fact, at the beginning of my practice, I used to talk about predictions. And sometimes I still do, because they’re sort of, you know, they provoke of conversation and argument and, and critique and, and being creative, and it’s really good. So that’s a tool to use the word prediction, sure, in a futurist context. Now, what I do is talk about levels of certainty, and maybes, and likelihoods. And, you know, most recently, what’s been happening down in the States, and the very important protests that are happening down there, you know, this, you could see this as a powder keg that was being stoked over the last two to three months. If you actually looked under the cover of how how, you know, certain libertarian websites were being funded gun, you know, the amount of guns that have been sold in the US the amount of pressure that people were under to be locked, locked down for so long. The existing inequality within the United States and and other places like Canada as well, you know, this, you can see these things, when you really get into a foresight practice, and you constantly soak up information, you get this element of natural foresight, I think, and that natural foresight is, when you start to look at certain scenarios is, you know, what, what are some of the things that are going to be impactful in the pandemic world? Right? You know, this isn’t this isn’t. It’s a big pause, you know, let’s take some time out, let’s rebrand. Let’s rebuild a website. Let’s think about the future of work. No, no, no. It’s about poverty, inequality. It’s about racism, and it’s about organized crime, unrest, bad politics, poor unpreparedness. The failure of the industrial complex is a very serious thing. You know, I don’t have clients right now that want to talk about incredible futures with artificial intelligence and robots and drones. I want people that Want to talk about likelihood of these potential catastrophic events on top of what’s already a catastrophic event of the pandemic COVID-19. And how that’s going to accelerate, right and blow up into bigger, you know, fraca and problems and how that’s going to affect the safety of their employees, and also their business as a whole.
Qasim Virjee 20:20
Sure. Change, massive change, and evolutionary steps in aspects of society.
Nikolas Badminton 20:27
Yeah, chain, this is what I say, change is inevitable. It’s incredibly inconvenient. And you either change or change happens to you. And that’s a really important thing to consider. At any point in time, you have to be willing to stop what you’re doing, and to change direction, or to realize that suddenly, you know, four fifths of your business is gone for the rest of the year, and that you have to work out your way forward, or, you know, you’ve got someone that’s going out of business, but what are those good people do next? Or how to governments respond in certain ways? How do we make, you know, transparency, a mantra when it comes to data? That’s one of the biggest failings of of this pandemic? I think it’s transparency. And mostly because people can’t work out what’s going to happen next, with any level of certainty, but they’re also not putting it in, in a context more than his the cumulative number of cases globally, is the cumulative number of deaths. cumulative totals are kind of historical and not useful for today.
Qasim Virjee 21:34
Well, I think this is yeah, there. There’s something in that about the want to articulate truths through data in mass media. Yeah. And how politicians globally. And you know, politicians are used loosely, it’s not just government officials. Sure. It could be anyone representing institutions, who has, I guess, a mandate in presenting certain types of information to the public. I’ve definitely seen that there’s this like race towards data, no matter how scientific that data is. And it’s totally shifted the public opinion and the debate around what is actually happening and is confused things further. So for sure, transparency under all of this, about motives, about the nature of the data about the nuances of how it was collected, and all of this stuff is definitely lacking in this whole experience of the pandemic.
Nikolas Badminton 22:31
When you don’t know the truth of today, you can’t even begin to think about what’s going to happen tomorrow. We saw this at the beginning of the pandemic. Let’s go out and buy toilet roll. Let’s overbuy food. Less panic. Because do you know what the advice of washing your hands and staying at home seemed ineffectual? Buying enough toilet roll for four months? Buying enough food for six months people
Qasim Virjee 22:58
wanted to react to I think own their destiny through a sense of Yeah, control. It’s all
Nikolas Badminton 23:05
about control. Right? How do you control your own life? A virus is out there ripping through a population we’ve got no control. Okay. Inconvenient control is wearing a face Mark mask washing your hands staying at home, which we all did. Right. And certainly to begin with. Yeah. But what else can we do to control in America, let’s go and buy some guns. Because you know what, I bought all this food and all this toilet paper and people are gonna come take them got to protect our toilet, we got to protect to live. But this is it. But this is what happens in the human nature is to control. I mean, very basically. And, you know, early civilization control was having a roof over your head, and a fire fire pit in your place, and food in your belly. That was that was your complete world in universe of control. And now, we’ve got complicated jobs and transportation, we own vehicles, we’ve got family members all over the world. And you have this virus ripping through society and are happy Sudan tree life of consumerism is threatened. So what do we do? More consumerism?
Qasim Virjee 24:26
It’s a crazy world.
Nikolas Badminton 24:27
It’s an interesting world. Right?
Qasim Virjee 24:28
Is it is it’s a fascinating world. And I think futurism is this angle on social science that’s so pertinent to this, like massively technological society these days. So I think it’s brilliant to have you on campus and to be able to engage you in these dialogues. Yeah, and we should definitely do more sessions like this. And for any of our listeners, and our viewing audience who enjoyed this talk, you’ll want to look back through start wells website, and Nick’s YouTube To see some of his talks, but also a series called Dark futures. Yeah, for anyone, I guess who catches that content? Just maybe in a nutshell, explain why those videos exist why we had that wonderful event here. And yeah, what was dark futures. And I think that could be a good end note, if there’s anything else you want to add
Nikolas Badminton 25:19
futures. So, six years ago, myself and three friends were on a patio in Vancouver, it was the summer. And we’re having beers and three or four of my friends, we’re sort of we’re into the curiosity of the world. Winter, the strange things that happen. So one of my friends was talking about sharks, off the coast of Thailand, chewing the internet cables and causing disruption. You also see that and it’s like, oh, yeah, like, you know, you’ve got Greenland trawling up like Iceland’s internet cables, and cutting off the entire country. And then someone else had something else. And someone else starts talking about, you know, how data betrays us, the width of our shoulders can determine whether we’re trustworthy or not, whether we’re liars or not whether we can cheat on partners. Yeah, great. My back. Exactly. Anyway, so I said, You know what, I want to do an event where you three people come and speak with me. And they’re all really, really close friends of mine. And they’re like short, sighted, dark futures. The first event was supported by Microsoft, which is amazing, and 50 people in a room. Those videos exist on dark futures on YouTube. And we went from there. And it was held in Vancouver for four years in a row. And the next year, it sold out with no promotion, the following year, sold out with no promotion in 24 hours. And it’s generally a 24 hour ticket. So right timeline, I’m not an all quite a rockstar minutes level yet, but we’re getting there. But last year was really interesting. I took it to San Francisco, Vancouver and hosted for the first time, second time here in Toronto, and I worked with a great friend of mine driller Bray, the previous year in 2018, to do dark futures here. In 2019, at start, well, dark futures, some people call it the black mirror of TED Talks. It’s people that talk about the hidden systems in the world. 15 minutes, no q&a, earth shattering belief shattering insights that can, you know, make feel people make people feel incredibly uncomfortable. And that’s what that futures is, it’s just that that that relief from the optimistic, optimistic and positive futures that I build for clients. So once a year, I you know, I take that those those happy, optimistic close off, and I put on the dark shroud, and lead people into the world of the dark futures.
Qasim Virjee 27:48
Wonderful. Well, it was a pleasure to host that event. And I’ve been rewatching some of those videos and there, there’s always so much insight in those talks to be inspired by and for future stuff, or for any, I guess, where would you recommend people who may be listening or watching to stay in touch with you?
Nikolas Badminton 28:09
Yeah. So Nicholas badminton.com. If you type type my name into
Qasim Virjee 28:12
the it’ll be on the screen. If you’re watching.
Nikolas Badminton 28:16
Nicholas mountain.com, Nicholas futurist on Twitter, you can find me on LinkedIn, you can find me on YouTube, if you look up my name. I’ve got hundreds of videos, I really got into video in a big way a couple of years ago, everything from blogs, and keynotes, radio interviews, TV interviews, I’ve been doing a lot I’ve been busy. And especially during this time of the pandemic. And, you know, it’s a fun and exciting world. And right now, I’m finding those moments of, you know, booking a new client or having a new conversation to be as exciting as they were five or six years ago, to be honest, I was getting pretty tired of traveling and speaking, I still love speaking to clients. But now everything stopped. It’s a brave new future. And we can step forward. And the work that I’m going to do with clients going forward is it’s going to be so much more important. Because I’m helping them work out. You know, where’s Canada going to be by 2030? Where’s the world going to be? How do we how do we start to deal with climate change and the resilient future that we have to create? Because the world’s not going to get cooler? How do we look to new frontiers of energy? How do we look to new ways of, of transportation, urban living? How do we bridge that gap between the ultra wealthy and the people that are on poverty lines, right? And now that now this foresight work is more essential than ever before. Anyone that really wants to step up and start thinking about applying for site in their business, they can reach out and I can point them towards resources. I can work with people’s companies. And I’m going to be doing it here at start well, so that’s it. Right.
Qasim Virjee 30:00
Absolutely. Well, it was a pleasure catching up with you. I look forward to engaging our community with you more and some of the tools that you’ve developed for your practice. I’d love to introduce to our member companies as well. Yeah, many months. We’ll do it. Excellent. Thanks for joining
Nikolas Badminton 30:17
me. Thanks very much.