Future Synthesist, foreseeing the future in our present, with Cecilia Tham

Cecilia MoSze Tham is Principal and Future Synthesist at Futurity Studio, and was previously Social Technologist at Alpha, Telefónica’s innovation arm briefed to build moonshots to address some of society’s biggest problems. She kindly accepted to tell us more about this intriguing role. You will find hereafter the video of our conversation, and below the transcript.

1) Hi Cecilia, it’s very nice to have you from Barcelona. In a recent podcast interview with Don’t Stop Us Now, you speak of your hectic life’s journey, from Macau to the US and Spain, and mention the roles of Social Technologist and Futurist, or Future Synthesist, “one that create new wholes from parts that have been taken from data, history, evidence, speculation and imagination”. Could you give some examples of what these roles cover? How does it differentiate from a prospectivist?

Cécilia: Lovely to be here. Thank you for inviting me. Well, first, I want to ask you, what is a prospectivist?

Nicolas: Prospectivist is someone who plans the future, like the planification that was going on in the sovietic countries. Someone who elaborates scenari for the future based on available data, predicting what might result from a combination of various factors: technical, scientific, economic and social.

Cécilia: So, OK, so for me, a future synthesis is a term that we kind of sort of coined because we didn’t find a term that would explain us well enough. But I did neuroscience a little bit a while back when I was studying. And I’m fascinated with how our brain works. And there’s something called the schema. And the schema is when you explain a certain things that you have learned. So, for example, you first learn the nose, the snout of a dog, the floppy ears, the tail, and then the schema is that these things brings together forms a dog. And this is how our brain learns. And especially when you learn something new and it attaches to the information that you have already had in your head.

So you can imagine that the more points of knowledge that you have in your head, the more things that you can build your schemas on, and more new things could come about. So all of these experiences and I mentioned Macau and Hong Kong and all these places, they add little points of information in my brain so that I could constitute new things. And this is where the creativity comes in those experiences where you have gathered this information and imagination. And then the creative part is when you cross things that are seemingly not related and that’s when you come up with something new.

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And when we do future exercise or synthesis, synthesizing futures, the first thing that we do is we do a deep research, deep tech research team analysis of that space so that we can gather as much information as possible. And then from then on, we do cross cross-fertilization of different industries, different ideas, different different aspects.

So an example is that right now we are working on something called a tastelessly so you can induce taste on your tongue just with electricity. And that had been done for years and years is actually nothing new. And so we built this thing that sits on your tongue so that you can induce taste fun. But what we wanted to do is introduced this aspect of music in it. Can you actually play taste music on your tongue and orchestrate these taste so like sweet, salty, sweet, sweet, salty, sweet, just as if you would play a note. Right. So what would that look like? What would qualify for taste sound like or tastes like. Right. And so when you start crossing these things that are unexpected, you create something new. And this is what we what we try to do as a future synthesis.

And I guess the difference is that a prospectivist looks at the best scenario into the future. Possibly. Yeah, I’m not I’m not very political in many sense of the way. So I only understand that from my perspective of the work, what we’re trying to do is round up different aspects. So from the design aspect to the engineering aspect, from the cultural aspect, all the way to the scientific aspect of the whole to understand it. Whereas prospective looks at maybe from a more of a one sided, more political aspect of understanding future now.

2) And regarding your work at the Futuristic Studio, are you going down to implementation, or focus the work on recommendations, designing scenarios and sustainable business models? What is a typical time frame for an assignment?

Cécilia: We we are very hands on, we built a lot of prototypes when I say a tongue sleeve, we actually built one. Let me show you: this is our prototype in space. And you can see all the device that we have on the table over there. We are very hands on because until you build and test, it’s very hard for you to have insights. And so in our work in Futurity Studio, we take the research with all of these points of new information that we have. We build a future context around it. And so what does that future look like, whether it is the economic paradigm, whether it is the political context, whether it is new technological capabilities, we built that world and then we design that particular item in that world and see if it is even possible.

And then even though we’re building the device or the prototype here now, and for this time frame, we can test it and understand it. So an example of this is that, when we talk about prototype, there are two different type of prototypes. One is the experimental prototype. The other one is the functional prototype.

And so we have been working on this project called Economic Tomato’s, which is using desalinization of tomatoes, and so that the plant structure as scaffolding for putting meat in it, culturing meats (“polygenomic plantable meals”). So imagine a tomato with meat cultured inside. Scientifically, it’s doable. It’s not scalable right now. It’s in its infancy. And so we don’t have a tomato plant with meat in it, but experimentally we can replicate that. So that’s what we did. And we invited some people over. So and we served them what we call tomato. And we told them that this is a real thing that we have produced in our lab. And we served it and we wanted to see their reaction. And some people thought that it was amazing. Other people thought that they would never eat such a thing because it isn’t an anomaly. So we do exercise like this to see a first hand experience of how people would approach these type of innovation.

3) Wow, very impressive, actually. You spoke about the future of food consumption at the end. There is a video of it at the Age of Autonomous Commerce in London. It’s a very nice talk with you and you use the words of Spotify your food, and you put forward different alternative scenarios. Is the food future one of your favorite topics, or do you have other project future projects that you have the most?

Cécilia: Well, I love food. We all do eat all the time. So we have currently enough for studio. We have four labs. We have the future of commerce, the future of food, the future of gender and equality, and the future of neurotic and interface. And so the reason why we segment this, while I absolutely love food, the reason why we have these four labs is that the food of two labs, the first two ones, they they drilled on the concept of responsible consumption. And so when we do these taste leaves, one of the reason why we’re doing this project is because right now, for example, in food, we eat beyond sustenance. We don’t just eat because we’re hungry. We eat because we’re bored because we broke up with our boyfriend, because it’s a social thing. It’s a tradition thing. It’s a culture thing. We eat for many different reasons. And one of the things that we’re exploring is: what happens when you start separating these needs? Do I really need that? I need to eat that ice cream if it’s simply for taste and not for nutrients. Right. So if you can separate that, what if I can induce taste, a sensation and the experience of it, without actually wasting calories and food and even your health credit. Right, then perhaps we can improve our own health and the environment, environmental health.

4) So in these different labs, I imagine a future synthesist does not work alone and is part of a team of, what we call in design thinking, T-shaped people. What kind of skills do you need to imagine these solution that are crossing technology, user behavior, impact and business opportunity?

Cécilia: I think you’re absolutely right. T-shaped remembers me of Astro Teller, who I think formally was the head of Google X, and he said in one of his articles, he said, the way they hired people is that they don’t want to hire just pure experts in his team because experts know a lot about something, but a lot about nothing at the same time. Right. So having this T-shaped, and having the ability to make connections, it’s absolutely crucial. And this is the part to synthesis with the other skills. And I don’t know if it’s a skill, more of a character, of personality. If you have that curiosity, you have to want to know what could possibly are the outcomes of these things. I think some of these softer skills are definitely not taught. So being able to make connections, being able to be curious about the project in the future and not being afraid to approach those things, I think those are amazing skills.

I don’t think that education will be absolutely reformed in the near future because our way of teaching people to have like a Ph.D. and extreme expertise isn’t going to find where the future is changing so fast.

5) I like the curiosity and when you mention that you were connecting the different experiences in your life to create something, it reminds me also of the famous words of Steve Job “connecting the dots, innovation is about connecting the dots. How did your job change, moving from outside the Telefónica city to the futurity studio?

I have been an entrepreneur for a very long time before joining Telefonica. In fact, Alfa Telefonica was a first, I would say, you know, big corporate job that I accepted. But the I think my path, my career path has never been linear. It was certainly not straightforward. As an entrepreneur, I think I learned certain skills, like being agile, thinking on your feet, being creative and so on, so forth. There are many, beneficial or advantages in thinking like an entrepreneur. And then in 2017, that was pretty pivotal point in my life when I went to Singularity University and had this opportunity to spend three months there in the NASA Research Center with 90 other participants to learn about how this tech could be applied to climate change. So from that point on, I knew I wanted to dedicate my time in working on this. And so Alpha had this position to ideate for, you know, social impact. And so I took the role as a social technologist, senior social technologist there.

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And I learned immensely because one of the things that I noticed is that while startups are great being, the corporates have the machinery to scale up very quickly. And so being able to apply some of these technologies at some of these thinkings as an entrepreneur, and understanding deep tech, and the social impact space, all of these things combined into a corporate environment. Corporate innovation department is going to amplify everything that I have learned.

Nicolas: Well, your work was understood by the rest of the corporation or you looked like people from another planet?

Cécilia: It’s definitely a struggle. Right. So we had our horizon fairly well envisioned within the organization of Alpha. And so we knew that we wanted to approach it outside of the telecom industry. That was like the first thing that we did, because then if we’re innovating in the telecom industry, then we’re just competing with the internal R&D. So that was clear. And but then everything else is up in the air. Right? How far is too far? How close is too close because outside of that realm is still. So we have this we kept calling this like the Goldilocks moment where, you know, it’s not too far, it’s not too close. It’s just, you know, and it’s not just how relevant it is to the industry or to Telefonica, but it’s also it’s the right timing. It’s it’s the right time to launch this. Right.

goldilocks_2

So we in Alpha, we explored energy. We explored education and food, commerce. There are various different topics that we explored, and we had a criteria list, a list of different faces to check, almost like a dance coming back and going back and forth to see how fitting it is. But it requires a very tight relationship with the mother-ship to be able to do that. And that is not an easy relationship to maintain.

Nicolas: With intrapreneurs, there are sometimes ideas out of the usual business: I always tell intrapreneurs they have to maintain a fruitful relationship with the corporations is they want to leverage further down the road the resources of the corporation to distribute and commercialize their products and services; that’s what we call diplomatic rebels. Innovators are rebels, they don’t accept the status quo, but they have to maintain the diplomatic relationship.

Cécilia: I love that term. If you have a great title and you’re like labeling people with this awesome, you know, titles, I love it. 

6) So you mentioned your entrepreneurship experience. And as a serial entrepreneur, you founded three companies:  Makers of Barcelona, FabCafe Barcelona, and the latest Allwomen.tech – respectively a co-working, a maker cafe and AI training school for women by women. Makers of Barcelona is not only a co-working space, but also a community of 500 members, local and international talents willing to collaborate and share resources and knowledge. Half of them actually act like an agency – MOB Agency -, and sell services: how did this pioneering organization arise? It’s quite innovative model.

The idea is that, you know, how do you reinvent what a company is, right? So all of these co-workers obviously aren’t our employees, but they’re all what are working in the same space. And we all have different talents that are sometimes very complementary. And so the idea is that a lot of times companies or other organizations require a flexible means of working with others. And so how do you very quickly build a team? How do you quickly, you know, be able to provide that kind of services to a company that could say: I need to build a website and so we can pull up like a designer, a copywriter, because we have we are creatively branded as a space. This is what we the community is based on. And so we can provide that for companies. And this is what the agency works for. And so we didn’t want to sell desks as a coworking. We didn’t want to we’re not a real estate. We’re not because space is limited, but talents it’s not. And so we really wanted to bet on that aspect of our community.

7) My last question will be about you: what are your next challenges, and what is the best we can wish you, this time for ‘your’ own future?

It’s really funny, this question, because, like I love futuring, I’m really bad at making my own future, like protecting my own future, but I’m working on a book with a co-writer, with my partner. And it’s going to be on the science, the art, science and business of filtering. And so hopefully giving a little bit, sharing our experiences of our processes, and stuff to the rest of the world so that this could be helpful for them. So that’s one. And we are very much working on how can we scale this up, scale this knowledge up so that other organizations could apply for themselves. So that’s my immediate future anyway.

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