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I always seem to be a few paces behind Geoff Colon, a communications designer at Microsoft and author of the new book, “Disruptive Marketing: What Growth Hackers, Data Punks, and Other Hybrid Thinkers Can Teach Us About Navigating the New Normal.” When I moved back to New York from Seattle we lived in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. A friend there who knew my interest in the future of technology said to me, “Oh, you know who you need to spend time with, my friend Geoff, but he just moved to New Jersey.” Then, as fate would have it, I would eventually move to New Jersey as well, living nearby to Geoff. I gave him a call. That conversation went something like this:
Jason: Geoff, guess what, I’m going to live near you.
Geoff: When are you moving here?
Jason: Next month!
Geoff: I’ll be gone by then. We’re moving to Seattle.
Jason: I’m not moving back to Seattle
Geoff: Who said you were?
Jason: I seem to live everywhere you have just lived
So, it was a great joy that I finally sat down with Geoff in person though I had to fly 3000 miles to do it. We met recently in his office in Bellevue, WA. After he gave me a brief tour of the Microsoft offices there, (Microsoft has a main campus in Redmond, but many other buildings and offices throughout the Seattle area. Bellevue is a few miles closer to Seattle and is a micro-cosmopolitan area with shops and restaurants) we huddled around a snug round table in order for Geoff to live stream our conversation on Facebook Live. He used a lo-fi audio-video set up of a mini-tripod, his smartphone (horizontal), and a fuzzy-covered microphone.
I didn’t know where to start. I had so many questions. I started very broadly...
(Note: This interview was recorded live as part of Geoff’s podcast series, Disruptive FM. Listen to our conversation.)
Jason: If you can look back at your three years here at Microsoft and key learnings, what would be the trajectory for you? What is going to happen next?
The future is mobile, not a device, but a way of life
Geoffrey: Yeah. You know, it’s interesting because when I got here in 2013 - and you hear this discussion all the time, I don’t think it’s going away any time soon - it’s all about mobile. How does mobile power people’s lives? How does it empower them? How do they get the most out of that medium? Mobile isn’t just a device anymore, now it’s 2016. If someone asked, “What is mobile?” I wouldn’t say, “Oh, it’s my iPhone.” I would say, “It’s my car, my computer, the technology that is in it. It is myself, because I have a wearable device that can track me via GPS to tell me how many steps I’ve taken.” I mean, we have really become, as human beings, mobile in that respect. And I think that’s going to power the new creations and communications in the business world - movement moving forward is this reinterpretation of what mobile really means. I think we’re going to think of it as less than a phone and almost a way of living.
I’ve given this talk quite a bit at these digital marketing conferences called Digital Summits, and they’re in about 15 different cities. I’m actually going to be in Portland, Oregon tomorrow, and it’s all about the nomadic society we live in - it’s part anthropology, part communications, part marketing strategy. I get a lot of people who come up to me after this talk and they say, “I love this talk.” Because you are putting human behavior front and center instead of a bunch of tactics saying, oh, do this, which will probably be old before you leave the room because we know how quickly technology changes. If I say to someone, here are the best ways to utilize search marketing or social media marketing, or whatever marketing it might be. It’s going to be antiquated in a few hours or a few months because, “Oh hey! This platform has changed.” People behave differently. That’s the main emphasis, what companies are putting more inspiration into… they use the term “customer –centric” or “customer-obsession.”
…you are putting human behavior front and center instead of a bunch of tactics saying, oh, do this, which will probably be old before you leave the room because we know how quickly technology changes.
Digital Nomadic Strategy
Probably what we have to get back into is what motivates people. Why do we do the things that we do? And not look at it from a business or personal perspective, because those worlds are converging. Because what you do for a living is what you might enjoy doing in your personal life. So we have to answer for a lot of these businesses “what motivates people?” So in this discussion on what I call the “digital nomadic strategy,” you had a society of people living as hunters and gatherers, then they moved into the agricultural era, and then you had people cross that into the industrial era. They moved into a city, they worked for that city. The company said, “You have no ability to add any value except what we tell you to.” Then you cross that chasm into the information era and it was big companies that still owned the means of productions because it was expensive. The first VCR was $15,000 and then you could get one for a hundred bucks. So the same thing for a lot of technology, the time-period of innovation and access is accelerating.
The Creative Age is a return to our agrarian past
Cloud computing is letting us cross another chasm that I like to call “the creative age.” The reason you call it the creative age is because it is almost going full circle to the agricultural age. In the agricultural age, you had to be entrepreneurial; you had to be creative if you wanted to survive. Because you have to eat, and also you’re growing all this food. You had to figure out how to sell this to others, how to barter, how to create systems of trade. The industrial era was like, just follow the rules and you’ll be fine. Now it’s becoming a world soon where people can work from anywhere and do a number of initiatives.
One of the things we should be cognizant of is we don’t want to leave certain sectors of society behind, we don’t want it to be a world where just the smartest people will be the ones who can make ends meet. And those are discussions that I think will come out over the next 20 years, in terms of how technology changes our entire economic system. But one thing is certain: we live in this whole new creative era. And technology powers that, cloud computing powers that, but the biggest engine that really powers that is creativity. Because that comes from our brain power, our cognitive power and that comes from critical thinking. It comes from the ability to look at the world and figure out what is missing and what we can provide the world. What does the world need? We live in a very purpose driven era now where I think a lot of people are saying, “What am I getting paid the most to do?” But what does the world need? Some of the ideas we’ve seen, especially the mobile apps, like some of these ridiculous ideas. Like, “Hey, this app will do this for you.” But I think that’s technology’s way of like, how do we learn from doing this? Then we can solve some of the bigger issues that we need to answer. Both in the business world and the world at large.
Jason: Creativity then, how elastic is it? How many people can be creative and how many people can join a creative economy before the value drops? Or does the new economy become hyper-local again versus something very macro?
New forms of transportation will reinvent cities into megalopolises
Geoffrey: I think it’s very local again. I think that’s why you’ll have a number of people trying to figure out “what city do I want to live in.” And when we say city, we don’t mean city in the traditional sense like New York City. In twenty years you’re really living in a megalopolis that includes Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and D.C. That’s all one huge area. It becomes hyperlocal. I’m living in Seattle, but Cascadia: Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and LA. If someone like Elon Musk can get the Hyperloop working between LA and San Francisco and you can travel in between those cities in the matter of an hour. Imagine what that can do for the economy.
Transportation is so important, and why people are working so hard on driverless cars is not, “Hey we have a driverless car that’s cool!” Think about taking a driverless car across the country. In the past you would fly - that is not the most efficient means of transportation right now. Flying itself is almost driverless. Pilots have computers do the work for them. But this opens up new forms of opportunity, and I think creativity isn’t just about, “Hey, I can draw, I do art for a living.” A lot of it is how do you take a lot of different concepts and make them work for you into new formations. Steve Jobs talked about that quite a bit, but that’s really why critical thinking and STEM education and technology - arts and math are so important. Because you have to take all these steps and mash them all together to fit them into something that is entirely new. For pop culture reference, how do you take different audio sources and mix them together and make an entirely new song?
STEM education and technology - arts and math are so important. Because you have to take all these steps and mash them all together to fit them into something that is entirely new
Jason: Transportation and this idea of distance. I was speaking with another futurist, Gary Whitehill about virtual reality. What’s interesting and where you were going with that was the idea of hyper localization of the region, so it’s a hyper local economy. I forgot the term he used exactly but it was about geography becoming a utility or a currency. Do you think driverless cars will be like the anti-virtual reality? If you think of them as trends, it’s a futurist question…
Going full-circle with innovation. Commodities become luxury, again.
Geoffrey: Yeah, you enter an era where you don’t necessarily have to get onto a plane or get onto a driverless car to be there because you do have augmented virtual reality to take you there. And it will be much more efficient and impactful for you than a business flight that takes you there. You’re obviously meeting with those people for a few days. If you can make that happen where you feel that you’re in the same room with someone, yeah that has a huge impact on whether or not you have the ability to travel or transport as we have now.
That also has a big effect many industries that have taken advantage of, or having built on, people. So obviously commercial airlines are built on people and we need those in the next 20-30 years. That might end up becoming a luxury again. It’s going back full circle as we’re talking here. When people started flying, it wasn’t cheap. It was a luxury, and that might go back full circle and there are other reasons why virtual reality and augmented reality help. There is a lot of waste when you fly great distances; you’re putting a lot of fuel into the atmosphere and we might have to think about “should we be doing that?” or if there are other ways we could connect better for the planet and the environment, and AR and VR might be the solution to that. We don’t think in those terms because we think, “Hey, this is a way to enable business or gaining or whatever it is we are trying to do, but you know there could be greater benefits to what I’m thinking about.”
We’re going back to the agricultural era.
Jason: We’ve covered AR, VR, we talked about driverless cars…what’s happening is…
Geoffrey: We’re going back to the agricultural era.
Jason: Why isn’t everyone aware of this, talking about it?
Geoffrey: I think it’s still very early. You and I are talking about this and there are not many people in the business world talking about this too much, and you get people who ask if it’s based on speculation. No, it’s not based on speculation; it’s based on where technology is going based on statistics and population data. But people can say, “Yeah, but you’re still coming up with something that you don’t know if it’s necessarily going to happen. Unless something is actually happening, people are going to say, “Whatever. It’s all speculative shamanism that a lot of these people are just discussing when it comes to business futurism.” But I think you have to pay attention to these trends, there’s a reason why things that bubble on the fringe; it’s like physics they’re leading to a boiling point. It’s funny because in the political world, nobody talks about that.
Geoffrey: Nobody talks about, “Hey we have to prepare for a future that everything is more automated. That your sense of purpose is how you find happiness, but hey you have to go out to hustle and make ends meet.” We don’t know what the economics is going to be like. I mean these things are hard to tell. Not many people were bringing them up. A lot of the discussion was like, “How do we get back to the industrial era? That we’re leaving in the rearview mirror because people are always trying to work towards new advancements in the world; and it’s not just big companies doing that, but also people in their garage and people in their bedroom. Now technology has changed so much due to code, you and I could go work on something and create it and make it go live in a matter of days, not months, not years. That’s the interesting world we live in now, which is the speed, the velocity of change.
Jason: Ok so let’s go there. So speed and velocity, what’s it going to require to keep up? How quickly do things become obsolete? If we made an app, and it’s out there in a few days?
Accelerating innovation cycles will lead to more humanistic thinking
Geoffrey: It could be gone in a matter of days, weeks. Alvin Toffler, rest in peace, he just recently passed away. He talked a lot about this. The literate in our society are those that have the ability to learn and unlearn and relearn now. So just having the ability to learn a skill like, “Hey I’m going to learn code.” Which I think is important. I took coding academy classes for Ruby on Rails and I think it helped me quite a bit in being able to talk to the developers and engineers at my job, I think everyone should do that and it gives them a better idea of how things are made. Those things move at a mile a minute now and those things could be… there was an article in Wired Magazine about the end of code. So that machine learning, could code things for us. This is interesting because it is fun to talk to engineers and be like, “Hey that’s a good position to be in now, but what about 20 years when there’s less needing of that because of machine learning?” Because nothing is not affected by the speed of change, it used to be like the lower end jobs of the world that would be affected, but I think it’s everyone now.
People have to know, we make the world we live in. Technology is a tool that we utilize, but again what is our human decision on what are we going to do when it comes to technology? What tools are we going to create?
Maybe that makes us focus on the bigger philosophical question of “why are we here?” And James Whittaker who is an esteemed colleague at Microsoft, he also worked at Google; he talks a lot about this. How do you become human again? Eventually you might get to a point where everything is automated. So it lets us live as we were meant to live. I know that sounds insane to some people. But if the technology is all around us and it’s immersive and it’s like hey we can work on the bigger problems or have more leisure time. Figure out ways to eradicate hunger or poverty. You’re being more human then. You’re not like, “Hey how do we make sure we get the most revenue per share?” People have to know, we make the world we live in. Technology is a tool that we utilize, but again what is our human decision on what are we going to do when it comes to technology? What tools are we going to create? We like to think there will always be good tools, but I’ve seen enough dystopian science fiction films where there are bad people in the world.
Jason: So someone’s reading this, or listening to this, what would be the three things you’d say, “Go do this now to be successful in this new world?”
Your network is a bigger currency than your bank account
Geoffrey: Ok so it’s interesting, people are going to think he’s only saying this because Microsoft bought LinkedIn, and he has a vested interest in it. But I’m saying this because it is the world that we are living in, your network is a bigger currency than your bank account. Continue to network with the proper people wherever they may be. And again networks come and go, it could be on Facebook it could be anywhere, they can be small networks where you are connected to 6 people, but if you’re having constant interaction with those six people, having that network is very important. Because we are living in a world where partnership is more important than ever, and I think I was joking with you when I said the old Microsoft was Steve Ballmer’s video saying “Developers, developers, developers.” The new one is Satya Nadella saying, “Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships.”
Nobody is going to be able to build their own things anymore. No person is going to be able to do their own things anymore. We don’t live on an island unto ourselves. It goes back to economic and political discussion which is what made people so upset about Brexit. “Hey we’re geographically an island why do we want to act that way again when the world forward is in partner with everyone. How do we create the society where if I give you this, what can you offer?” Everything is about the soft skills in life.
Soft skills will be more important than hard skills
When we talk about these hard skills in life like go learn to code or go learn a trade, my thinking is learn how to communicate with people more effectively, learn how to negotiate and meet in the middle. This is good for society as a whole or good for both partners as a whole or all teams as a whole rather than, “I need it all and that’s it.” It doesn’t come from trying things and a lot of it is failure and risk there. And there’s this whole culture of being afraid to fail. You don’t learn anything unless you’ve actually failed. I remember my parents saying this to me and I say this to the people I work with too, “Failing is good, if for the one reason that you know what not to do again the next time you face those similar situations.”
…Soft skills, really important. Network, really important. Being social or social by design, really important.
Life is like an algorithm, you’re going to be like I’ve seen this before I’m not going to do what I did before last time, and that is going to help you improve as a person. So soft skills, really important. Network, really important. Being social or social by design, really important. I mean think about how we communicate and how younger people communicate. The way they manipulate media is almost like how we learned how to write cursive back in elementary school. Instead of my kids learning to write cursive, they might learn how to chop up and edit a quick video together with different sources so they can prove the point they are trying to prove. There is no one right way to communicate anymore so that’s the adoption level, being open to new experiences. We’ve talked about that a lot, you and I, about this culture of curiosity is really lacking in a lot of business now. It’s almost like William Whythe’s the Organization Man from 1954, “Hey if you’re not doing the process or the rules, you’re not going to fit in here, get the hell out.” But now that’s what you want, you want people who aren’t following the process, and you want people who don’t follow the rules, there are no best practices. We’re trying to figure out…
Jason: A world with no best practices…
Geoffrey: …I mean it’s insane right now…and the crazy thing is people are going to ask for playbooks all the time at businesses, and I’m going to say that this playbook might be antiquated in a matter of weeks. “What do you mean it’s going to be eradicated in a couple weeks?” because there is no best practices because things are changing so quickly.
Jason: What are the guardrails if there’s no playbook?
Geoffrey: It’s almost like an era of what did people have in the agricultural era, folklore, mores. Things that aren’t concrete. Most of the story telling from that era, it’s not like “hey be this way,” it’s saying “it may be better to act this way.” We have to be a lot more flexible. I like to use the analogy of why is yoga so popular? Because yoga is a really good analogy for the world we live in. Flexibility.
We can learn a lot from this intersectional learning. How do you get these interesting sources together and actually apply that to your industry? I learn more from biology than I do from business books. And I think the same is true with people who are in medicine now. They’re asking me, “Hey we want you to talk at our summit.” And I’m like, “But you’re all doctors? What are you going to learn from someone like me?” And they’re like “Geoff, the way the medical world works now is it is all marketing. We try to market our ideas so they are accepted. There’s all these new ways of doing medicine.” And I didn’t think about that. Oh wow so the world’s a whole lot more holistic than we realized.
Jason: Everyone’s got to be a more holistic player.
Geoffrey: A complete player.
Jason: You can’t just do the one thing anymore you have to be like 80% doctor and then 2%, 2%, 2%. I have to have pieces of other things to be complete at what I’m doing.
Geoffrey: In my book I note that as being a generalist. You don’t want to … this is what a hybrid is, you’re being a little bit of everything versus being, “Hey I’m 100% this,” but you know nothing about the other side of what’s necessary, and that leaves you exposed.
Jason: Two questions, can you teach creativity? Can you teach intersectional learning?
Can this future way be taught and adopted?
Geoffrey: Yeah I think all of these things you can learn. I think some people by nature are more open to experience than others. But I think you can teach people to be more open and accepting. Because if that was the case; than I don’t think you could get people to bother questioning about our place in the world. We’re constantly saying, “Hey you should be open to this experience because it would help you grow as a person.” Carol Dweck talked about that in Mindset. Yeah that’s what you have now in the business world. You have people who are in a growth mindset, a fixed mindset, or both. And there’s a lot someone can learn by not being, “Hey I’m not going to have a fixed mindset, I’m going to have a growth mindset. And yes I can learn these things.”
Jason: Does it almost take psychology?
Geoffrey: Yes, the business world just obliterated all these fields that they don’t think is important. No the humanities and liberal arts, “oh that’s BS.” That’s more important in business than anything now. I think the liberal arts majors are laughing at a lot of people who are finance and marketing majors. For a long time for what existed in terms of communication technology. Yes it was easy to say, “Here’s the marketing mix, here’s where we are putting our money.” It’s so antiquated, that’s a fixed mindset of thinking about the business world. It’s funny; you and I kind of have to laugh at this because we wonder how some people have gotten so powerful in business. They just follow certain blueprints to get where they are. I don’t think that ladder should exist, or it should fall apart as you’re climbing it.
Jason: Could risk become the KPI of another organization? The more risk it takes? So if you’re teaching acceptance and open-mindedness as a way to intersectional learning is risk the KPI?
Geoffrey: Yeah it’s a huge one.
Jason: I think you just made a model here Geoff. Maybe it’s in the book?
Risk is what the modern organization needs to succeed
Geoffrey: It’s in the book. Risk is something corporations were created to prevent. Think about this for a second. The modern corporation isn’t set up for the world that we are actually in or moving into. That’s why you hear all about transformation and transition. These are all buzzwords at the end of the day if you as a company aren’t up for doing what it takes for transformation which is how much risk are you willing to take? If you look at it from an investment standpoint, it’s funny to always hear people, because I enjoy economics and like talking about monetary systems, but you hear people that will say, “We need to make more much profit for our company.” “Well how much risk are you willing to take?” and they’re like, “None!” So guess what I have the answer for you; you won’t be making any profit. People forget that because they take the conservative route it’s like now you have to realize everything comes with the give and take, the negotiation. Are you fine with what you have right now? Yes, than you don’t need to take on risks. You can sustain. Do you want to grow by leaps and bounds? Yes, than you need to risk. Startup culture is very interesting too.
Jason: Because risk is built in?
Geoffrey: Because the risk is just there. It’s like, “Hey we have nothing to lose because we don’t have any customers, no one knows about us. So we’ll do all we can on our own, we’ll take on all of the risk.” When you get to a point where you’re all built up, I’ll use them as an example, we’re Facebook. They don’t need to take any more risks, but they do! They maybe take even more risks because they are fearful of anybody else because they understand the DNA, there’s other people who are going to do this, so we need to keep taking on that risk as much as possible. I think it will be interesting to see who decides to say, “We’re going to be transformative,” and actually takes on more risks. And who simply says, “We’re going to be transformative.”
We are in a world now where in the past a company on a Fortune 100 list would be on that list for like 65 years. That’s now down to like 20 years; we might be in an era where you don’t even have…companies are so destabilized, they don’t even exist in the way we thought of them. Or it could be just two people, who say, “We have this company and everyone is brought in to help with everything else.” Works a lot like how you put a film production together. “Hey we’re going to hire a bunch of people and when the project is done they’re going to go do whatever else they do.” What that means is we really live in a “do-it-yourself” economy. And we have to ask the really tough questions that nobody is asking in politics or economics. What are the systems that help us in terms of healthcare, austerity, and benefits programs if that is the economy that we are going to be in as a result of technology? You got to have that foundation, otherwise there will be chaos and that doesn’t lead to a pretty happy place.
For the three days I was in Seattle, the sun was shining and the mountains that ring the horizon were visible, even the great Mt. Rainier was visible, a sheer-edged volcanic mound rising 14k feet. Its cranium haloed with mist-like clouds. When its sunny, there isn’t a more beautiful city than Seattle. The day after I spoke with Geoff, I wandered over to the South Lake Union neighborhood where Amazon is building new towers and offices. The streets were bustling.
For a brief second my brain rolled back to when I lived there, and for a quick moment I wondered which bus or train was I going to take back to Columbia City. In the future, as Geoff describes it, I might not have to worry about a bus or train, or even about being in Seattle to experience it. I could VR my Seattle experience, or possibly take a hyperloop or self-driving car across the states to visit with Pike Place market for a small cup of chowder and insightful conversations with futurists such as Geoff is. We’ll see, and it probably wont be as far in the future as we might expect.
Read more conversations from this series:
- The Valley isn't interested
- The "co" in "coworking" is for community
- This tech founder is way ahead of all of us
- Making good things scale, globally
- Tech that breaks the cycle of poverty
- Showing the way into a tech life
- The future of health will be mobile
- The future is wondrously human
- Leadership success in our diverse and accelerated era
- For learning to scale, time needs to be fluid
- Re-envisioning the food supply
- There’s more to your beautiful plate of food than you realize
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