The Future of Communications (Futurist Thomas Frey)

by Dave Michels

[Originally appeared on NoJitter on May 15, 2012. Related: See this UCStrategies Podcast where UC Experts discuss Frey’s observations]


The future is really hard to predict. Normally I rely on my Magic Eight Ball, but recently I had the chance to meet with with a professional Futurist.

Futurists don’t have crystal balls or visions; instead they analyze current trends to predict our journey and possible outcomes. Thomas Frey, the Executive Director and Senior Futurist at the DaVinci Institute, is well known for his views on the world to come. You may have heard him speak, as his roster of Fortune 500 clients includes IBM, AT&T, HP, Bell Canada, Qwest, and Lucent. Thomas has been featured in hundreds of articles, appearing in publications such as the New York Times, Huffington Post, US News and World Report, and The Futurist Magazine.

Along with its commitment to interpreting the implication of current trends, the DaVinci Institute provides shared co-working facilities. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards. He is also a past member of the Triple Nine Society (High I.Q. society over 99.9 percentile).

DM: Thomas, the rate of change in telecommunications and enterprise communications has never been so fast. Is this the new normal, or will it slow–or even continue to increase?

TF: There is always the possibility of a Black Swan, or something terrible happening like a giant solar flare, but barring anything catastrophic, the speed of telecommunication will continue to amp up. Consumers are demanding it. In 1975, the cost of issuing an airline ticket was $16. Today the cost for issuing that same ticket has plummeted to 10 cents.

Businesses have an obligation to ferret out every possible efficiency to stay competitive. At the same time, staying competitive is no small feat.

Every 60 seconds:

* 700,000 Google searches are conducted
* 168 million emails are sent
* 695,000 Facebook entries are posted
* 370,000 Skype calls are made
* 98,000 new Tweets are posted on Twitter
* 13,000 iPhone apps are downloaded
* 1,500 new blog entries are posted

For businesses to stay competitive and relevant at the same time requires an increased awareness of every new channel of communication and an understanding of the culture and etiquette for each of these emerging new communities.

As with other industries in the past, a few dominant players will emerge to command the lion’s share of attention. But we are still a long ways from completing the experimental phase we’re currently in.

DM: As a Futurist, you must have some strong opinions about your long term investments. Tell me why you have invested in a shared workspace environment?

TF: The people with which we surround ourselves have a huge impact on where we end up in life. We now have the ability to control our work environments and our social circles in far more precise ways than ever before. Our work environments can be of our own choosing. Our social circles can be both virtual and physical.

At the DaVinci Institute, we wanted to learn what works and what doesn’t first hand, and our coworking facility has provided us with a working laboratory to do exactly that.

The average person that turns 30 years old in the U.S. today has worked 11 different jobs. In just 10 years, the average person who turns 30 will have worked 200-300 different projects.

Business is becoming very fluid in how it operates, and the driving force behind this liquefaction is a digital network that connects buyers with sellers faster and more efficiently than ever in the past.

But as we move into this type of free-agent economy, not everyone will be good at lining up one project after another.

At the heart of the coming work revolution will be a new kind of business structure serving as an organizational magnet for work projects and the free-agent talent needed to complete the work. For this reason, I’m predicting that coworking facilities, such as “The Vault” that we operate, will evolve into something I call “business colonies.”

In the near future, large corporations will be setting up business colonies outside corporate headquarters to handle specific projects. Individuals will come together when they are needed, bringing skills and talent to bear on specific projects. These business colonies will be organized around a topical area such as social mapping, data mining, metallurgy, and so forth. A company will lob projects over the corporate walls to the business colonies; the projects will be completed and sent back to the corporation.

This is a way for large corporations to expand capability without adding to their headcount. It’s getting increasingly expensive to hire people full time, so companies are looking at project-based work where employees are temporary.

DM:The smartphone has significantly changed enterprise communications in terms of capabilities and attitudes. How do you see smartphones evolving over the next ten years?

TF: It recently occurred to me that I was pulling my iPhone out of my pocket several times an hour to check information. Over the past few months I’ve become very self-conscious about the addictive nature of information and the OCD-like mannerisms that follow, and this constant checking-in is only one of several habit-changers I’ve noticed that accompany smartphones.

Information is like a drug that we naturally crave. Whether it’s the rumor mills of the past where gossip flew from one person to the next or today’s smartphones, we all have an insatiable need-to-know.

While many feel we need to curb the excessive nature of this addiction, I tend to fall into the other camp, wanting to improve the flow of data to the point where it is far more pervasive, yet at the same time, seamless and invisible.

But that’s where it gets crazy, because as smartphones evolve, they become an integral part of who we are. They become the digital nerve center for our physical existence.

Science fiction writers have long warned us of the dangers of half-human, half-machine cyborgs. Yet, as we invite this piece of networked intelligence into our lives, we begin to see this integration of humans and machines in a whole new light. With the current path we’re on with smartphones becoming the entry point for a far greater mesh network, the world of “The Borg” on Star Trek doesn’t seem all that far away.

Contrary to what sci-fi movie directors would have us believe, we are all going down this path willingly. Our ability to interact with the information opens doors for us like never before. Over time, the sophistication of smartphone peripherals will evolve to things inconceivable by today’s standards. And yes, there will be some dangers of machines and devices getting out of hand.

At the moment though, we still have to overcome the momentum of all the negative energy that filmmakers of old have put into motion. As for me, I plan to be a happy cyborg.

DM:The current emerging tools of communications are social networks, mobile solutions, and video–as these continue to gain popularity, will email and traditional voice communications subside?

TF: Yes, both email and traditional voice communication will slow down as other forms of communication improve.

The super-connected nature of the Internet is giving us a far different “opportunity landscape” than ever before in history. Unlike the painstakingly slow 400-year period between DaVinci’s drawings of flying machines and the Wright Brothers’ first flight, development cycles in the digital era can now be measured in hours and minutes rather than decades or centuries.

Killer apps of the past, like online search, email, and ecommerce, now over a decade old, are becoming mature industries. More recent innovations like social networking, smartphones, and mobile apps are also becoming old news. Every major industry of the past provides the foundational underpinning for industries of the future. It is in this rubble of business-past, with generational lifespans shortening to less than a decade, we find our next era of global enterprises.

The trend is towards making the interface between information and our brains as seamless and invisible as possible. Voice communication, although it will never go away, is far too slow.

Over the next decade, we will transition from mobile technology, to wearable technology, to invisible technology. The technology will constantly improve, but over time we will find ways of performing the same function without being chained to a device.

DM: Mobility has allowed us to work anywhere and anytime. Some consider this an intrusion–and some consider it a tool to better balance priorities. How does this impact our society and personal lives over time?

TF: I have a granddaughter who was averaging 28,000 text messages a month and I’ve heard stories of kids averaging much more than that. 80% of teens now sleep with cell phones on or near their bed. As a result of this, hospitals are now reporting an increased incidence of teens coming to the ER because they’re exhausted from being “on call” all night.

We haven’t yet learned how to manage all of the technology that’s infiltrating our lives. And no one is really teaching us where to draw the line.

However, most of us feel the positives far outweigh the negatives and so we put up with it. Some of the positives we’re seeing are a radically improved opportunity landscape.

According to Business Insider, in 1999, there were 38 million broadband Internet users worldwide. Today, there are 1.2 billion people getting broadband Internet access on their phones. The number of smartphones sold now exceeds the number of PCs sold. That transition happened last year. Globally today there are 5.6 billion “dumbphone” users compared to 835 million “smartphone” users. In the U.S., we are already about halfway through the process of converting over to all smartphones. Still, 12% have no cellphone at all. Globally, the dumbphone conversion cycle is just getting started. Tablet sales will pass PC sales in 2-3 years.

Mobile apps are now a $10 billion marketplace growing over 100% per year. The number of available apps through Apple and Android now exceeds 1.2 million with over 34 billion downloads so far between the two of them.

Angry Birds alone has had over 600 million downloads. “Draw Something” was launched 6 weeks ago and already has over 20 million downloads and is generating over $100,000 per day. It’s now the number one app in 79 countries.

To reach the 1 million user milestone, it took AOL 9 years, Facebook, 9 months, “Draw Something”, 9 days.

Both the speed and pervasiveness of broadband connections continue to climb rapidly. When it comes to big opportunities in the years ahead, we are only scratching the surface. The greatest industries today will pale in comparison to what comes next.

DM: You said no one is teaching us how to manage the information, how do we solve this education issue?

TF: Throughout history, education has been formed around the concept of “place.” Build fancy buildings, attract world-renowned scholars, and you have a college or university. This model works well in a culture based on teaching. Over the coming years, with our hyper-connected world, we will quickly begin shifting to a learning model. And while “place” will still matter, it will matter differently.

After my TEDx talk in Istanbul in February, I was approached by Cori Namer, an executive from Google who discussed the reason why teacherless education is so important. “Our team at Google is looking for ways to educate the people of Africa, but very few teachers want to move to Africa,” he said.

The conversation was brief, but he framed the problem very succinctly. There simply aren’t enough teachers at the right time and place to satisfy our insatiable hunger and need for knowledge. We are severely limiting our learning potential if we need someone to teach us. Teachers become the problem in this equation, not the solution they were intended to be. Teaching requires experts. Teacherless education uses experts to create the material, but doesn’t require the expert to be present each time the material is presented.

With a wide array of promising tools and techniques that can be used, the possibilities are truly inspiring. The new frontier of a teacherless education system is at our doorstep, and all we are lacking is that yet-to-be named visionary who will take the reins.

DM: There has been considerable talk lately about the “post PC era” and if tablets can replace both desktops and physical phones. What’s your take on this?

TF: The distance between information and our brain is getting shorter.

Twenty years ago if you had access to a large information base, such as the Library of Congress, and someone asked you a series of questions, your task would have been to pore through the racks of books to come up with the answers. The time involved could have easily have been 10 hours per question.

Today, if we are faced with uncovering answers from a digital Library of Congress, using keyboards and computer screens, the time-to-answer process has been reduced to as little as 10 minutes. The next iteration of interface design will give us the power to find answers in as little as 10 seconds.

The ease and fluidity with which we conduct this information-to-brain interface will have a profound effect on everything from education to the way business is being conducted, to the way we function as a society.

As most good journalists and storytellers have learned, the basic components of every story deals with six elements–who, what, when, where, why, and how.

Four of these elements–who, what, when, and where–are factual. With a 10-second interface, it becomes far less important to commit factual information to memory because it is so easily accessible.

Many of today’s most scholarly people who have mastered the capacity to retain vast reservoirs of informational minutiae will find themselves oddly staring toe to toe with average people who have mastered the exact same ability, albeit indirectly with the use of technology.

Schools will no longer focus on the factual information but on the indirect aspects like relational elements, pattern analysis, value statements, opinions, and basic questions like “why” and “how.”

DM: Thank you Thomas, I find your observations and predictions fascinating.

Thomas Frey authors a weekly “Future Trend Report” newsletter and a weekly column at His recently published book is entitled, “Communicating With the Future.”