An Interview with Futurist Thornton May

I thought it would be interesting to get a slightly different perspective on the questions that I posed to Futurist Gerd Leonhard in our recent interview. So I reached out to IT Futurist Thornton May. Thornton and I have interacted on a number of occasions at various events. His bio describes him as a futurist, educator and author. His extensive experience researching and consulting on the role and behaviors of C-level executives in creating value with information technology has won him an unquestioned place on the short list of serious thinkers on this topic. Thornton moderates the nationally recognized CIO Solutions Gallery program, intended for executives and senior leaders in the technology and operations communities.

With that background, I was excited to explore these broad topics with Thornton. His perspective follows.

Are we entering the most transformative period in History?

Frank: I am a big believer that the next 20 to 40 years will ultimately be viewed as the most transformative period in history. It will be ushered in by a convergence of forces and a new general purpose technology platform. The exponential progression of technology and innovation, the digital phenomenon, and the ability to rapidly combine building blocks (combinatorial) to create value will make this transformative period unlike any other. Do you agree? If so, why? 

Thornton: A parallel question – Did the people living in the Middle Ages KNOW they were living in the Middle Ages? The answer is “of course not.” In the Middle Ages, the concept of “progress” had not been invented yet. The defining essence of the Modern world is that positive change is possible. The real question is: do people living today – at the mid-point of the information economy – do they know that disruption, constant and ever-accelerating change – is the new normal? Probably not.

Transformation is accretive. From this day forward, every day will be more transformative than the one previous. Every day will be a new adventure. Every day we will go to school. Every day we will have to unlearn something, abandon a deeply held belief and learn something new. The critical competency of this new age will be the ability to daily create new competencies.

We need to get comfortable with a world characterized by new devices being on sale before we learn how to use the ones we just bought.

The Exponential versus linear discussion 

Frank: We’ve always focused on technology and Moore’s Law, but clearly we’re seeing the exponential rise of innovation, and those two things combined have really done a lot to create this speed and change dynamic that we see. However, most businesses move linearly, and I believe traditional companies are poorly structured for future viability. Speed, collaboration, responsiveness, resiliency, flexibility, and agility are not part of the DNA of most companies. Would you agree and if so, what kind of structural changes do you envision?

Thornton: When most people hear the word “structural” they think “shapes of things.” In the age of total transformation, the very structure of life – of our DNA – is changing. The machines that Turing envisioned are not just transforming business, are not just transforming society, technology is transforming us. As you read these words a variety of initiatives are underway to “hack the code of life” and push human lifespans past the current maximum of about 120 years. Exponential change – previously misinterpreted as something that only happens to things, will happen to us. Many are unaware that the declining cost of DNA sequencing has outstripped the doubling of computer chip price-performance every two years under Moore’s law. By 2050 no one under 80 will be dying from cancer (Source)

The driving design principles of the industrial age enterprise were control and certainty. Control is an illusion. Executives need to read W. Brian Arthur’s Complexity and the Economy: “the world is to a large extent organic and algorithmic.” Influence is the new high ground – can you create objectives that capture the imagination of a new generation of workers? The driving design principles of the transformative age we are in today are empowerment and opportunity exploitation. Structural change is mandatory – as is behavioral and economic change.

Regarding structural change one is reminded of the “First Rule of Holes” [i.e., when in one, STOP DIGGING!] Stated with more panache, John Leggate, formerly the CIO at BP cites a classic Roman aphorism, ““When riding a dead horse, dismount.” Executives in large enterprises today are riding a lot of dead horses.

Organizations are not structured to change. This is what needs to change. What does a business architecture designed for daily change really look like?  We know businesses of the future will look a lot different than the businesses of today. We know machine intelligence will play a much larger role in value creation. Frey & Osborne of the University of Oxford opine that up to 66% of the U.S. workforce has a medium to high risk of being displaced by technology in the next 10-20 years. It is only by algorithmically handling all the routine processes that organizations and executives will be able to free up the creative space necessary to create differentiated offerings. The time previous spent “managing machines” will be re-purposed. Sensors will diagnose what’s wrong with the mechanicals of existence, report it to the manufacturer/servicer, and quickly dispatch a repairman with the necessary part.

Time will become the universal metric. People visit websites less often if they are more than 250 milliseconds slower than a close competitor, according to research from Google. More than a fifth of internet users will abandon an online video if it takes longer than five seconds to load. 

The Shifting Economic Paradigm 

Frank: I recently focused on the work of economist Jeremy Rifkin. Mr. Rifkin believes that the extreme productivity driven by capitalism will ultimately be its own undoing. As everything gets closer to near zero marginal cost to reproduce, he believes we move to a new economic paradigm which he calls the collaborative commons. In my recent interview with Gerd Leonhard, he talked about moving towards something called sustainable capitalism and a shift from hyper to collaborative consumption. What are your views on the topic?

Thornton: Rifkin is not the first “Big Thinker” to take on the concept of hyper-productivity. In 1928 John Maynard Keynes wrote “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren.” Looking 100 years out Keynes forecast a three-hour workweek and a society where no one needed to worry about making money. The pressing issue of the day he argued: For the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem—how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won.

Optimistic about the end of work, Keynes was not sanguine about how leisure time would be spent. He worried that society might suffer a sort of generalized “nervous breakdown.”  Keynes assumed that people work in order to earn enough to buy what they need. And so, he reasoned, as incomes rose, those needs could be fulfilled in ever fewer hours. Workers would knock off earlier and earlier, until eventually they’d be going home by lunchtime.

The economic discipline has been appropriately accused of suffering from a “sloppy description of human preferences”. There are regional differences. The average employed American now works roughly a hundred and forty hours more per year than the average Englishman and three hundred hours more than the average Frenchman. (Current French law mandates that workers get thirty paid vacation days per year, British law twenty-eight; the corresponding figure in the U.S. is zero.) Joseph Stiglitz , the Nobel Prize winning economist predicts that Europeans will further reduce their working hours and become even more skilled at taking time off, while Americans, having become such masterful consumers, will continue to work long hours and to buy more stuff. TVs, he notes, “can be put in every room and in both the front and the back of automobiles.”

The Focus on Disruptive Scenarios 

Frank: The intent when I first developed the disruptive scenario visual below was to show the acceleration and convergence of the digital platform, and the innovation accelerators that build on that platform. As that convergence happens, it spawns all these disruptive scenarios that collectively, even if they each play out 10%, are massively disruptive. The intent is to get leaders to start thinking about the impact of these scenarios, sooner rather than later, and to begin to understand opportunities, risks, and potential responses. The discussion therefore is one of scenario thinking, response generation through iterative cycles, and rapid experimentation. What are your thoughts on the visual and if I am missing anything in terms of disruption that you are seeing, or innovation accelerators that I am not seeing?


Thornton: With your fascinating visual I think you have captured the essence of the technology disruptions defining the transformative age we live in. As a next step I suggest fleshing out the behavioral and psychological disruptions linked to your technology disruptions. There is no more urgent task for global executives today than to think critically about the combinatorial impacts of technology disruptions on our individual, professional and collective lives.

The term scenario originating in the Baroque theatre – the Latin word scena, ‘scene’ and the later Italian word scenario, ‘sketch of the plot of a play’. The “scenario” was pinned to the back of stage sets as a prompt to performers.

A Customer-Centric World

In New Clues Beckman Center stand-up philosopher David Weinberger describes the next phase of capitalism. Personal is human, personalized is not. Humans trained to be robotic (customer service personnel who pretend to be your friend by using your first name) will give way to customer interfaces [some human, some algorithmic] that authentically focus on customer-care vs revenue maximization.

Eric Topol’s The Patient Will See You Now picks up on how patient-centric health care might evolve. A lot of the testing and monitoring that is done in hospitals will be done at home. We will continue the switch from inpatient surgery to outpatient, so many operations are done now as an outpatient. You can now do a stent as an outpatient in an hour. The next step is going not from inpatient to outpatient but inpatient to home. In Britain, a future-focused Labour Party advocates time-based health service. In their future world, one would prioritize and guarantee a General Practitioner appointment to everyone within 48 hours, and a maximum one week wait for a cancer test. 

Ecosystem thinking 

Frank: When you look at disruptive scenarios like the connected car, the smart Home, or Connected Healthcare, it is clear that we are shifting from a vertically oriented, value chain world, to a horizontal ecosystem world. I believe firm-centric thinking is a major obstacle for companies that must shift to an ecosystem thinking paradigm. Gerd Leonhard mentioned a shift from hyper competition to hyper collaboration – which sounds similar to the notion of ecosystem. What are your thoughts on this shift, and is Government and business ready for this?

Thornton: The paradox is that while “things are becoming connected” humans are not. Americans now eat more than half of their meals alone. When they convene at communal meals such as Thanksgiving many “thought to be connected” have trouble connecting conversationally with other humans. This bodes poorly for the kinds of knees-under-the-table collaboration that gives way to real breakthroughs. 

What happens when no one needs to work anymore? 

Frank: Jeremy Rifkin believes we are moving closer to a Zero Marginal Cost society. Andrew McAfee in his work on the “The Second Machine Age” believes we are heading towards a world where people will no longer need to work. If this comes to pass, what replaces work? How do people make a living? McAfee mentions a Government provided living wage. As a futurist, what do you think will happen?

Thornton: Utopians since the beginning of time have conjectured what a perfect society might look like. In Plato’s Republic we are given one suggestion. Thomas Jefferson, the biological embodiment of Enlightenment ideals dreamed of a day when all the world’s knowledge would be available to all the world’s citizens. The internet brings us close to that objective. And yet – people are more confused than ever.

Work may not set us free, but it lends meaning to our days, and without it we’d be lost. In the view of Edward Phelps, of Columbia University, a career provides “most, if not all, of the attainable self-realization in modern societies.” Richard Freeman, of Harvard, is more emphatic. “Hard work is the only way forward,” he writes. “There is so much to learn and produce and improve that we should not spend more than a dribble of time living as if we were in Eden”. (New Yorker Article).

I am an optimist and believe as did Lincoln that we will rediscover our “better angels” and focus our efforts on noble projects.


So there you have it. Two fascinating perspectives from two prominent and engaging futurists. I’d like to thank both Gerd and Thornton for participating, and am grateful that they helped kick off what I am calling the year of the disruptive scenario. I hope their insights help you as you grapple with the challenges that lie ahead.

5 thoughts on “An Interview with Futurist Thornton May

  1. Mr. Diana,

    Thank you for providing such a rich piece of insight. As a consumer, I hope that one of the features of the cultural acceleration you describe is a commoditization of quality.

    In addition to healthcare, at least two other areas of commerce are immutably bound to the local physical world, agriculture and the built environment. Ultimately, the basic human needs will always form the foundation of commerce from which value is derived.

    And yet, we still have to deal with leaky faucets, junk food, automobile maintenance, and in some places, social instability and lack of security. What sucks value out of the present, and, to some extent, the future, is essentially a level of commoditization of labor for manufactured goods and services that yield a parasitical value to the repair shops, e.g. plumbers, HVAC technicians, and IT consultants. The tradeoff for price vs. quality assumes a consumer who accepts a shorter product life-cycle. This is where innovation should step in to fix the market, one might think. As long as automation extends into competition for quality, the consumer and producer would theoretically both benefit in the long term. I can buy four nice smartphones for what it costs me to replace a short-lived defective air conditioning system. Or one phone and upgraded insulation to keep my house cooler using less electricity.

    So, some two-thirds of the US workforce might be displaced by technology? A bit premature if our society has not yet developed the 3-day workweek with all needs being met.

    I would posit that the ability of an industry to increase durability and reliability while right-sizing the manufacturing side, as fewer but better things are made, releases a financial benefit for investment as less value is lost to repairing or replacing overproduced junk.

    In turn, it might help to transition a segment of society to do the localized farming and construction for that future global generation of poets and rock-climbers, who find validation not through being the mostly-reliable cog, but through personal achievement and enlightened collective production. Is that the point?


    • Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Indeed, moving towards a world where we individually focus on personal achievement, passion, and those challenges that we most desire to focus on, would be a “positive” outcome of automation. If, as you said, we automate towards quality improvement, then we achieve multiple objectives.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’ll go ahead and express both my hopes and fears for the future.

    Ability to live remotely while participating in real life in urban centers is made possible by new transportation tech
    Work is a vocation not an obligation
    Humans re-learn what it is to connect with each other
    Violence was the product of scarcity, it fades into a memory

    Majority of people are displaced by intelligent systems, causing a small wealthy group to attempt to discard them
    Society transitions into the ‘human control matrix’ instead of the liberated society
    Not everyone is allowed to participate in the new society

    Liked by 1 person

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