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Memories of Watts Wacker

December 6, 2017

I heard recently that futurist Watts Wacker has died. He was a leading thinker from the 1980’s onwards, using a variety of styles and images to help people and organisations think about the future.

One of his books, The 500 Year Delta, published in 1997, (ISBN 978-0887308383) was much more approachable than the title suggested, as it explored 5, 50 and 500 year futures and provided tested strategies to help companies and individuals reset their course to accommodate the increasing chaos of everyday life as seen from the 1990’s. It became a world-wide bestseller.

Watts Wacker book

  • His later books included The Visionary’s Handbook (2000, ISBN 978-0066619873) , and What’s Your Story – Storytelling to Move Markets, Audiences, People and Brands (2012, ISBN 978-0132312011). His body of published work has lasted well, but it was as a speaker that he came into his own – he was brilliant at challenging an audience to think about the ways in which our assumptions about the world might not hold in the future.

Watts and I worked together at ICL in the 1990’s with the then CEO, Keith Todd, to formulate ICL’s strategy as part of the Information Society, and with European Commissioner for Industry Dr Martin Bangemann on how to implement his 1994 report on Europe and the global information society. The report represented the findings of a group of senior business people and community leaders, including the then-chairman of ICL, Sir Peter Bonfield, and formed the basis of much of the European Commission’s programme in strategic planning for the Information Society. It also influenced the subsequent G7 Global Information Society conference held in Brussels in 1995.

One of the steps ICL took was to host a seminar in July 1996 to examine:

  • issues of regulation in the light of new technological advances;
  • issues arising from the implementation of the information Society in Europe such as public awareness/education, skills training
  • the most appropriate regulatory/institutional environment to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation.

Participants in the seminar included Dr Bangemann, Keith Todd, ICL’s Chief Executive Officer, and twenty participants from the media and the Open University, public administration, telecoms and computing, and entrepreneurs, from 13 countries.

As part of the discussions, the group developed two visions for Europe; a leading and a trailing scenario. The leading scenario described a society with an improved quality of life. Contributing to that would be choice: opportunities for employment rather than jobs as such, opportunities for education, choices over lifestyle, health and medical care, and choice to use information technology or not – based on there being no barriers to access.

The group concluded that to achieve the leading scenario three elements had to be in place:

  • The capacity of Europe to improve the relationship between entrepreneurship, education and the financial system;
  • Education, helped by IT, needs to become a critical factor in growth in Europe. Overall, the whole attitude toward risk-taking and management had to change;
  • A new approach to regulation and deregulation in the light of technological developments. For example, while getting rid of monopolies is important, the completely deregulated model might not always be appropriate.

The Report from the Workshop was called the Hedsor Memorandum. The recommendations focused on areas for action which would use the infrastructure of communications, and which could be carried out over the next two years to take effect over the next decade. It focused on the need to shift attention to spreading awareness of the impact of the Information Society from large organizations and towards

  • individuals, so they would understand the potential to increase their skills,
  • small and medium-sized enterprises which will play a critical role in advancing the Information Society by extending their global reach through technology,
  • local governments as catalysts and providers of local networks with a bridge to global resources.

However we were concerned that the workshop participants might have a systematically different view of life from the next generation, who would be living in the Information Society. So we invited a group of seventeen young graduates from throughout ICL, from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities, and with differing knowledge, skills, attitudes and experience, to attend a “Future Scope” workshop to consider Europe in 2006: what should we want and expect from the Information Society? After an initial brainstorming session to collect views about Europe and the Information Society in 2006, three main themes were extracted for break out groups to consider in more detail; work – smarter not longer, education, leisure and the family.

At the end of the workshop the Futurescope Group made a number of recommendations which were included in the Memorandum, particularly relating to ways of engaging individuals who were not part of the formal power structure in decision making.

Watts and I then had the task of taking these messages to audiences inside and outside ICL – he was more successful than me! – he will be missed by all those who knew him either in person or through his books.

There is a fuller discussion in Scenario Planning (ISBN 978-1-909300-54-5).

Whilst a stimulating thinker and presenter such as this will always be much missed, the futurist community continues to challenge current paradigms and to help people and organisations face the future by making #robustdecisions.

Written by Gill Ringland, SAMI Fellow Emeritus.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily of SAMI Consulting.

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