07.11.2016Personal Tech

Making good things scale, globally

By: Jason Moriber
Dhaka, Bangladesh; Kabul, Afghanistan; Abu Dhabi Airport

The vision for this series is to surface and share the experiences, trends and insights of thought-leaders, trail blazers, and subject experts who either live at the cutting edge of technology and/or seek to make the world a better place. We can each learn from these experiences and potentially take the first steps towards making the innovations that matter to us.

During my interview with Tech-Founder Lisa Morales-Hellebo (you can read our conversation here), she asked me pointedly, “Do you know Gary?” I didn’t, but anyone referred to by their first name, like Beyoncé or Bono, must be someone with juice. “You must talk to Gary,” Lisa reinforced. So I did.

Who is Gary Whitehill?

If you’re familiar with Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, Gary fits into all three categories of Connector, Maven and Salesperson. He is a passionate, people-first, convener and leader with an aim to make the world a better place. No small interest, or small opportunity. Gary launched Entrepreneur Week, sits on the advisory boards of many organizations, and is a mentor to start-ups on their path to acceleration. Here’s a quote from his LinkedIn page…

“Since 2011, Gary has journeyed through more than 60 countries, immersing himself in turmoil and transition. Where others see forces of power and control being eroded globally, Gary has discovered how humanity can be enriched through inclusivity, cooperation and participation. Through his future-by-design model, Gary maps how culture, process, and knowledge - the DNA of society - can leverage the emerging energy of 7.4B people to create a better future.”

I wasn’t able to meet with Gary in person because Gary is always traveling the world. I was able to catch Gary on the phone the day before he began a three-month trek. If you email Gary his auto-reply states, “Right now I am globe-trotting and getting inspired by people from around the world, as I share my belief country by country and continent by continent, that HUMANS DESERVE BETTER.”

The Mobile Future is taking place in Africa

I set my phone on speaker, set up my digital recorder and called Gary. When he answered, the infectious explosiveness of his enthusiasm was immediate. The phone smiled, my ears smiled. I understood why Lisa recommended I speak with him.

“So,” I asked, “What is the future of mobile? And is there only one future?”

“It’s certainly something that I agree with,” Gary started. “The interesting point about the future of mobile is the difference between U.S. telecom and other places around the world. For instance, Africa is already living the future of what mobile could be. In Africa, healthcare is done by phone and phone services are helping to build communities around Africa – whether it’s North Africa, West Africa, Ghana, East Africa. The U.S. can sort of stay in its bubble for a little bit longer, but the brand is going to need to grow in all of the mobile carriers. So what we’re going to see in the U.S. is an evolution of communities around causes instead of just geographic location because of how we’re moving toward purpose-based businesses with values that millennials have. They’re always looking for a positive change or cause.

The other interesting part about mobile is the way it’s being built out, and the people that own the mobile pipes also have some type of television capacity. The next generation is not looking for capacity in access to content just by geography; they’re looking for it by cause. So what the next generation wants to do is be a part of the global world and something different. I think what we’re also going to see is both the blurring of mobile and TV, and I think what that eventually becomes is what we’re now calling virtual reality. It’s an industry that’s barely starting to see into the consciousness of people around the world. It will probably be mainstream in roughly the next 4-6 years.”

In Gary’s response above there is enough fuel to power a whole set of new start-ups; healthcare by phone, geography-based community apps, television on your phone, cause at the core of a global virtual reality. Virtual Reality as a topic has been gaining a lot of conversation space, especially in the media. I asked him to expand on the topic.

Meaning is at the heart of the future & VR is a potential way forward

“More and more people are looking to do meaningful things. That’s why we’re starting to see crowd sourcing and funding, and all these things are starting to catch on. A perfect example of what virtual reality could do is helping executives and corporations have an immersive understanding about their products and services in a foreign market. They can help journalists build immersive experiences for their audiences around different types of discovery initiatives. What we’re looking at is a world that is not going to be based on geography. For example, if I’m in the USA, Africa, Asia or the Middle East I will now be able to be in each of those places, possibly simultaneously, by putting a headset on that’s powered by a mobile device as we start to see with Oculus Rift and other companies that are rising up.”

‘Immersive experiences.’ This was a concept I also discussed in my conversation with education software company, Flat Earth, CEO Jade Roth referred to as the pinnacle of learning (that conversation will publish in a few weeks from now). I asked Gary about immersion, and the notion of an internet without devices. He felt the world was just growing into device usage, and that an internet without devices might be cutting edge, but probably not a global phenomenon.

“If you look at what mobile companies have done on the hardware side, they’ve made the mobile phone an entertainment center. Right now half the world is on the internet and has access to smartphones, but there’s a whole other half of the world - that’s roughly 3-4 billion people - who still don’t have access to the internet or a smartphone. And over the course of the next decade, about 60 percent of those people are going to be coming online. This is going to dramatically change what mobile and hardware even means, how people access the internet and VR and the type of experiences they’re looking for.“

“So in an ideal state, do you think VR is the answer?” I asked him. I heard him take a deep breath, a pause. He had some trepidation on being conclusive on this topic. At first I wasn’t sure why, then it became clear.

“It really depends, in my opinion, on whom or what is in control of the main infrastructure of VR. The interesting thing about information technology is it’s neither good nor bad. It accelerates… so if you put VR in the hands of people who have positive, well-meaning intentions – profit with purpose for instance – versus someone who is literally trying to create revenue for the sake of revenue, those create two completely different types of infrastructure and ultimately customer experiences.”

“Is the future a world built around purpose?” I asked, but didn’t expect the answer Gary provided.

“Where things are moving is to put purpose at the center. So what’s your purpose, what’s your cause and what’s your belief? That becomes the center of the experience for all of us, from the inside out. Once again, it’s going to change the value of geographic location. Geographic location now becomes a utility or commodity, or in some cases doesn’t matter. And so that’s going to allow us as a species to focus more on that intrinsic motivation and that intrinsic purpose that Daniel Pink talked about in his book “Drive.” There’s really only three things in my experience that human beings care about having. What you see is people being happy, healthy and having the ability to take care of their families. If these mediums continue to become more immersive, but also less geographically centric, we’re going to see more and more purpose driven tribalism.”

The idea of geography becoming a utility blew my mind. “Can you dive deeper into ‘geography becoming utility?’ Can you explain it a little bit more?” I asked.

“Sure,” Gary started, “as we’re starting to see in general within the next decade, roughly 70 percent of humanity will be living within cities. Some of the biggest cities in the world now are going to be consumed by even larger cities. What this means is that mayors and governors within nations will become more and more powerful.

“Ultimately, instead of people worrying so much about whether they can access a culture by flying on a plane, they will be able to access a culture more meaningfully over time. Can I be there personally? Can I teleport? No. But can I have experiences that are immersive? Can I live in a completely virtual environment that allows me to walk around and feel that it’s real? Yes. So less and less of actually hopping on a plane is going to matter, and this isn’t even taking into account the things we’re starting to see with Hyperloop and some of the space orbital travel that will exponentially speed up the time differential.”

There it was again, “Immersive Experience.” I asked, “Is VR the promise of mobile? Is this the ideal? The ability to wear equipment that makes me feel as if I’m immersive?”

The future will be immersive

“The ultimate goal of mobile is mobile. Being able to experience what I want to experience when I want to experience it and how I want to experience it. So whether it’s a concert with Madonna in London or I’m attending the funeral of Prince in Minnesota. These are all things that can be done without actually having to be there. The thing about the human brain and the thing about neurobiology is that the human brain doesn’t know the difference between something happening and us just writing something down. So when you write something down, your brain believes that it’s reality and that it already happened. And the same thing is true with VR. So because it’s such a new concept, we don’t realize that when we have these immersive experiences, we in our intellect and irrational mind think about it just as an experience, but our brain – when VR is done correctly – literally will not know the difference between it being reality and something manufactured on a device.”

“That’s fascinating.” I said, leaning back in my chair, thinking about that point of how VR affects your brain. The Matrix came to mind, then education, then travel. I wondered the impact. That was a data-point I need to do more research on.

I brought the conversation back to a purpose-driven future. “You’re very confident that purpose driven will be the way. So you’re deriving this from your experiences with emerging generations. How long do you think until that notion really overtakes the multiplicity of now?”

“The millennial generation is already starting to take a broom and sweep out the multiplicity of that. Within the next decade we’re going to see that mainstream. There’s a great book called “The Fourth Turning” by William Strauss and Neil Howe that talks about how every 20 to 25 years there is a new generation, and altogether there are four-generation archetypes. And so every 20 years we see a new refreshing of mission, vision, value and purpose – the way meaning is felt. And right now the millennials, which are known as the hero generation in the book, feel value by changing something. That is very different from “boomers” and “X-ers.” They feel value by following rules or instruction. So if millennials start to turn 35, 40 or 45, which is roughly the next 15 years, you’re going to see a complete sweep out of all of those types of values that are outside of the mission, vision and value that are purpose and higher value driven.

“I would, however, caution the fact that as we talk about VR, it’ll be here in the next 3-5 years. So once again, there’s a huge acceleration of not only intent, but there is a massive condensing of time that will happen because you can be immersed in any experience at any time. As long as there’s enough content out there and there’s enough content for each of the type of experiences that we want, literally and instantaneously I can go from a concert in London to surfing the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, and my brain wouldn’t even know that I actually wasn’t there.”

I began to wonder is this what the science-fiction futurists predicted about “time travel,” just with a different outcome. It isn’t that I will be able to jump ahead to a future era, or go into the past, but that I can expand and condense time by the experiences I choose to have. At the same time, I was struck by Gary’s prediction that the old-ways would be swept out in the next fifteen years, and I was reminded of ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky’s quote about skating to where the puck is going to be, not where it is. If we know the change is imminent, then the question is what are we going to do about it, now?

Read more conversations from this series:

Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @designinginnovation