Insights · August 4th, 2023
90% of progress in business comes from exploiting the mess. Yet 90% of the effort is devoted to pretending it away. Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy UK, teaches us that it’s time to embrace the mess.
This is a really interesting and important video for any business leader. It’s a bit of an attack on the way businesses operate today and how they’re stuck in a mode of stasis unless someone is willing to go have, and win, an argument vs. actually going out and solving a problem.
Argument winning is treated linearly. Problem solving is much messier.
Individual leaders in most established businesses today, no matter how senior, need to win an argument to make change happen – the bit around the ‘business case’. We must effectively pre-rationalise ideas, vs. have the opportunity to act on a hunch we can go figure out. Those people then feel the need to make the case on the data we have (often blunt averages), not necessarily the data they might need but don’t have or the courage to act on an anecdote.
‘It’s time to embrace the mess’ – Full Transcript
Note: Edited for brevity and AI-generated suggestions on grammar
I think there’s a really vital question, which is that about 90% of success in business actually, most success in science in pharmaceuticals is actually highly messy, nonlinear, non-directional. Most of the effort in business is devoted to pretending that’s not true. It’s, it’s basically devoted towards pretending upwards, that things make much more sense than they really do. And I think there’s a cost we pay when we do this, okay? There’s a huge cost we pay whenever we pretend things are neat, okay, which is an opportunity cost, as economists would call it, it’s effectively lost creative opportunities, which potential interesting ideas are destroyed whenever you design things to look neat from the top down.
And the most interesting ideas tend to emerge from the bottom up. Actually, you know, scientific progress is much more penicillin than it is sequential logical activities, all agreed in advance to reach some preordained goal. It’s much more Viagra, it’s much more penicillin. A huge amount of progress actually happens backwards. But unintentionally, I think through our love of neatness, we’re actually stopping that from happening. We’re demanding that everything you do make sense in advance.
And we’re designing a world for people who win arguments, not for people who solve problems. You know, I think that, you know, the political class are now designed to win top down arguments not to solve problems. In fact, they get into trouble when they solve a problem. I was found it strange that John Major was ridiculed for proposing a Cohn’s hotline. Okay, it was considered far beneath the dignity of a prime minister, who was supposed to be talking about interest rates or something. And yet it was at least it still exists. Bizarrely, it was at least a small solution to a problem.
And I think if we keep on elevating the argument winners over the problem solvers, that’s where our fundamental status, that’s why we get stuck.
Actually, to be honest, there’s very senior clients in the room. But is there anybody here who can actually in a work or institutional context make a decision on their own? I seriously asked you that question. In the old days, you could, okay. But now, it’s highly unlikely to make any decision without reference to HR or the Commissariat in finance, okay. Which means you’ve got to win an argument first, before you can do anything. And once you make a requirement of anything you do the need to win an argument in advance. A, it gives the finance department the right of veto over every single activity in the business. But also, it limits the solution space by maybe 95%. If you can’t do things that to some small degree, don’t quite make sense in advance.
Okay, you can’t really innovate. And so if you really want the sort of serious academic stuff about this, there’s an extraordinary book called seeing like a state by James C. Scott, who rather weirdly wrote, wrote a book, which is really an attack on the idea of the whole control economy, top down control, and yet he’s an anarchist, anthropologist by background, but it’s a very, very interesting book. There’s a bit more about 19th century 18th century German forestry than you may, fundamentally one, but he, he, unless you’re really into that, of course, there will be three people at the rubber who go, okay. But he made the point that in order to make forestry look neat, the German has adopted a top down solution, which was to impose Norwegian spruce, which was the fastest growing form of timber planted at equal intervals, everywhere throughout large German forests, because they thought that would maximize efficiency.
And by the way, for a few years, it worked very well because Norwegian spruce grows very, very quickly. And that’s one of the problems by the way, about efficiency Seeking Ideas. They tend to work in the short term, because the actual hidden costs and the problems and the you know, what you might call the, the dangers only become apparent over time. What subsequently happened was a thing called Vulcan stupid forest death, which is first of all, if you’re a parasite that prey that plays preys on Norwegian spruce, okay, a monoculture forest is like a complete fantasy second you destroyed all the effectively all the undergrowth, you destroyed all the ecosystems that used to survive in mixed use forestry, which effectively meant that the quality of the soil very, very rapidly degraded, it was a catastrophe, but it made sense from the top. All the people imposing those instructions were going this is really stupid. My patch of forest is too unsuited to these trees, or it’s full of rocks, so we can’t plant them in equal intervals, or the soil doesn’t support this frequency of planting. But they were ignored because the essential thing was it had to make sense from the top. You could call it seeing like a corporation or seeing like a holding company, if you wanted to be mischievous about this, but it’s the idea that all data, all stories, all facts have to be aligned to be legible by the people at the top. Okay. And there’s a massive hidden cost when you do this. I mean, the equivalent of this is look abusing this thing here is look abuses planned for Paris. I’m not making this up. Okay. So you demolish all the buildings in Paris, you separate regions into work, residential and retail, okay. And he conceived this idea looking at Paris from the air. Now, two things there one, if there’s anything wrong with Paris, it really isn’t the building’s
cooked breakfast will be a start. Okay.
And secondly, what the hell is the point of designing a city that looks like what you must do Brasilia right today? Okay, which is a city that makes absolutely perfect sense when viewed from the air. The problem you face there is that most people don’t live in the air. And so your efforts to make sense of an architectural conception, this, this comes down to the whole Robert Moses versus Jane Jacobs debate. And Chris Graves tells me there was actually an opera composed about the fight in New York between Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs. But this is the vital question, do you want to solve problems? Or do you want to win arguments, because to some degree, these are mutually exclusive, I would argue that the urge to win arguments and to come to a kind of QED forces you effectively to make assumptions that are highly dangerous, possibly erroneous, or just silly.
And actually, the fact that we’ve created a culture, probably with the expansion of higher education, which cherishes argument winning over problem solving, seems to be fundamental. And this is an interesting thing, which is that I’ve given you examples of bad top down thinking, this is really bottom up thinking what conan doyle called Thinking backward. Okay. And this is Sherlock Holmes, speaking, in solving a problem with this thought the grand thing is to be able to reason backward. It’s a very useful accompaniment commitment and a very easy one. But people don’t practice it much in the everyday affairs of life, it is more useful to reason forward. And so the other comes to me neglected, there are 50 Who can reason synthetically for one who can reason analytically, that we’ve created a society where the ability to reason forwards is praised, encouraged, even taught. The ability to reason backwards requires creativity, it requires an act of imagination, okay? So reasoning forwards is kind of this is true, and therefore, and whenever you look at most business slides, they’re based on some bit of data, and you go, this is true, and therefore we should do something else. Okay?
That’s just reasoning forwards, and people like it, because there’s no subjectivity involved, so you can’t get blamed for your conclusions. Okay. The alternative, the creative alternative is to ask the question, what would have to be true if, if we want more people to do this? Can we imagine a world which is designed to an environment, a context, a form of messaging doesn’t matter? What can we invent or imagine something where things will be different? And that is inherently creative. So we trade in this world where most of our world is Darwin, but we’re pretending it’s Newton, effectively. You know, most of the world is, you know, really, we need a theory about how things change. But what we’re trying to do, as Jeffrey Miller spotted in that tweet, is we’re trying to cram them into immutable consistent laws all the time.
And the creative opportunity cost that arises. I think, by the way, the creative community, the advertising community, have acquired a kind of Stockholm syndrome, where they’ve started to acquire the attributes of their abusers. Instead of saying, You’re full of shit, the data you’ve got is irrelevant. We go, Ooh, yes, data and accountability. They’re so important. We can do that, too. Okay. I think it’s fundamentally a mistake. Notice this total asymmetry in all business life. Complete, absolutely unvarying asymmetry. Creative people always have to present their ideas to rational people. By the way, I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong. Okay.
What’s really weird about it is it never happens the other way around. You’ve never got a bunch of people in the finance department who go, I think the answer is 3.75. But before I present this to the shareholders, I’m going to ask them wacky people, whether they’ve got some alternative ideas, never fucking happens, right? Never ever happens.
This is a quote, proving I think that actually the problem is older than we think. If you really want to go deep into the psychology of this there are various books by Ian McGilchrist, for example, the master and his emissary, this is bizarrely I didn’t know this until recently. My fourth cousin Woodrow Wilson, who said, was really a surprise when I discovered my third cousin was Miss Teen South Carolina. By the way, that was a bit more surprising, okay, we have not given the signs to be a place for our education. But we’ve made a perilous mistake and given it greater preponderance in method in every other branch of study. In other words, when we can’t do science, we pretend we can. And we impose scientific methods on problems, which are totally ill suited to that Hyack went on about this a lot, okay.
And there’s a big difference between if you want to win an argument, you just use the data you have, right? If you want to solve a problem, you ask, what actually do we need to know here to find out what’s going on? And maybe you have that data? Maybe you don’t.
But when I first became a creative director, and Ogilvy Mike Walsh, who ran over Europe at the time, gave me a copy of this fairly hokey book by a guy called I think Robert Updegraff, called obvious Adams. And it’s a kind of 1920s, American kind of foci business advice book. I was totally a bit peaked, you know, I thought, you know, can you give me a subscription to Harvard Business Review or something, rather than and then actually, two months later, I got around to actually reading the book. And it’s fantastic that nobody’s read it. That book, obvious Adams is about 2000 words or something, or 5000 words. It’s actually brilliant.
And, it’s about a guy who basically solves problems by looking at things and looking at them differently.
That occurs to me, okay, this is for those of you who don’t know, and apologies to the people in Ho Chi Minh City, for whom this is going to become a bit weird. This is what used to be the John Lewis store in Tunbridge Wells and the retail park in Tunbridge Wells, it closed down to the went bust. Now, if you look at the data you have, you’d say Okay, let’s look at the demography of Tunbridge Wells. Let’s look at the population size. Let’s look at the catchment area. We clearly can’t make a John Lewis store work in that kind of place. Okay. Now, may or may not be true, by the way, but you’re only looking at the data you have. If you actually go to Tunbridge Wells and look at John Lewis with the mind of a Darwin not a Newton, okay. Once you pick him up pretty quickly realize it is one, it has its own carpark so you have to make a specific journey to go there. You can’t go to PC World and then have a shifty round. John Lewis. Problem number one, problem number two, the signage that’s at the entrance of that car park is actually after the entrance to the carpark that’s not a great idea putting signage after the turn. Never a great idea. Thirdly, it’s only really convenient to turn into the carpark when you’re leaving the retail park. Okay, so people coming in won’t go there. It’s only people leaving. Fourthly, the signage on the entrance is put on the narrowest edge of the store, which makes the store look about a quarter of the size. It actually is. Okay. Right. But fifthly they’ve called it John Lewis at home for some reason. Okay. Why? Okay. Well, the reason is technically, okay. It doesn’t sell women’s clothes and cosmetics. So why not just go to John Lewis for blokes. Okay.
But seriously speaking, why not just call it John Lewis? Because I’ve spoken to people who live locally sorry, this is getting a bit specific, okay.
Locally, and about 60% of them assumed when they saw Home Sense since they thought home base, they assumed it was just a furniture store. And since only 5% of people are in the market for furniture at one time, okay. And maybe, you know, three of those 5% are desperate that their spouse doesn’t get the opportunity to look at any furniture. Okay. Generally, if people think you’re a furniture store, you’re not going to get great footfall.
So what I mean is that if you look for explanations from the top down using data you have, you’ll come to totally different conclusions than if you go bottom up and actually say, what is it we need to know?
Now, funnily enough, there’s actually a film about this. It’s called The Big Short, I think it’s one of the best films of the last 20 years. And it features very, very interesting people who actually go and find out the data. They need lots and lots of people in banks in New York or had aggregate data that tell them everything was fine. What you needed to do in this specific case, was go to Florida and speak to a stripper who had eight mortgages. I’m not suggesting that could be a policy for all problem solving. I suspect. I suspect people would take an issue with it WPP travel policy or some tedious document like that, but they went and asked the right people, they actually went on the ground and saw that what looked perfectly sensible and neat and comprehensible in New York was a total shit show on the ground.
They actually went and they didn’t ask the question, what data have we got? They asked the question, what data do we need? And that strikes me as just a fundamentally huge distinction. Now, interestingly, and thanks to my colleague, David Pfanner, for this,
the Royal Society of Arts manufacturers and commerce recently published a paper on design thinking.
And they said, fundamentally, I won’t go into the whole detail, but it shows both divergent and convergent thinking, in this particular graph, you don’t need to understand the whole graph. What’s significant about the graph is they call this the missing first diamond, which is a period I would say, of completely comfortable messiness at the beginning of every brief, whereas rather than trying to proceed down a linear process, we actually go, we ask the question, what is really going on here, in a completely open minded, experimental exploratory way? And I think, even creative businesses, which should know better, have failed to incorporate this first messy diamond in any process. Before we make any assumptions about what tool might be used to solve this problem. Let’s just ask various questions about what’s really going on.
I think, by the way, interestingly, Antonius, who I think is here today, is that right? And Tony has made the point that one of the reasons you have difficulty getting business as a behavioral science practice is because you operate on that missing first diamond. Put bluntly, no one has a budget for solving a problem they didn’t know they had. Okay, so the business of diagnostics is being completely under explored, I think, in the creative world.
The other thing is average is a horrible thing that we mostly do when we present information upwards in order to make it comprehensible, because the people at the top don’t really know what’s going on. Okay. For those of you who are at the top, we’ll kind of acknowledge that by saying that, you know, the more you get promoted, the less you really have a clue about what’s really happening. So in other words, you’re forced to live on a diet of averages and aggregations. And yet this scientist here talking to Roger L. Martin, makes the point that he’s a specialist in autism spectrum disorder, extremely successful Canadian, academic. He says, it’s the outliers that tell the story, never criticize something for being anecdotal. In fact, Jeff Bezos says, When I find a conflict between the data and the anecdotes, I normally find it’s the data that are wrong. Okay. anecdotes are important because they tend to be about outliers. And it’s the outliers that probably carry the greatest freight in solving a problem. They’re useless for winning an argument. But they’re really, really useful if you want to solve a problem.
And then again, the great problem is that, you know, we’ve created a world where most people, most of the time, are asked to perform rational actions. But actually, what we forget and what marketers we need to be more confident about is if you don’t actually win at the emotional level, all those 100,000 This is Kumar girl Hacia, who’s the head of Ford, North America, by the way?
They, you know, they learned that by the way, you know, it’s fundamentally true, you can get everything right. One of the strange things is that they find Volkswagen an enormous amount of money, considering there were amazingly few Volkswagen was in the United States.
And the reason that, by the way, is because they got the 100,000 rational decisions right. But the German engineers and Volkswagen refused to include cupholders in the car. Okay, now anybody who knows American car purchasing habits knows that the number of cupholders comes somewhere like number two or three in the decision tree, you know, well above cornering ability. Okay? So you can win 100,000 irrational decisions and lots of people get promoted for doing exactly just that. But if you don’t win the emotional decision at the bottom, okay, you don’t sell the car. Now, interestingly, this is a perfect case of bottom up thinking versus top down thinking in Ford, North America.
Now, what Ford North America wanted to do was to create a separate electric car division with completely new brands. And they create a new brand in the sports utility vehicle sector, that crossover utility vehicle sector, the subcompact, the pickup truck, okay. Or they create new electric brands, and then they keep all the existing brands in the old petrol division. Because that was neat. From the top. It was 18th century German forestry. It all made sense from a top down perspective. Okay. And then Roger Martin. I did ask him permission to tell this story. I don’t know if anybody reads his books. They are Canadian. He was the dean of the Rotman business school in Toronto, an absolutely brilliant guy. He had a massive argument with them, which he eventually won. But he said, looking at it from the perspective of the customer, not from the perspective of the managerial suite, you’ve got five real strengths here. If you want to sell an electric car, they are Mustang Bronco, Explorer, F150.
Go and make electric versions of those instead, don’t make new brands take your existing brands and electrify them. And this caused a bit of a road because they said, well, the F 150 customer surely doesn’t want an electric vehicle. Actually, if you design an F 150 for electrification, you don’t sell it on the basis of its environmental credentials, okay? You send it on the fact that if your power goes down in your house, because it’s been cut off by communists, you can run your house off your truck. Okay. Now, that’s not great if you belong to Greenpeace, but if you’re a bit of a doomsday prepper, that’s music, right?
But what they’ve done is they’ve must buy the Mustang myself, okay. It’s absolutely fantastic. I asked people said, Why did you do that? And I said, Well, don’t buy an electric car. I’m cool. But I want a bit of Detroit in it somewhere. Okay, you know, I want a bit of a feeling that it’s, you know, metal, that it hasn’t just been software, okay. But the point I’m making here is that this was an extraordinary case of thinking of the problem for the customer upwards, not thinking of it from sensemaking downwards. And every time you do sensemaking downwards, the customer gets left out, the customer gets aggregated. This is probably a quote, yep, this is not written, the average is the enemy of the marketer.
What we do when we present information upwards, as we aggregate and average it, the act of aggregation destroys what’s really interesting about that data in the first place, which is the anomalies and the outliers. Okay, that was what that scientist in Canada was doing. He said, You know, I look at all these things on a scatter plot, I put a ring around all the things that are clustered together, and then I go and investigate the things that are far out.
And then the same way, once you average, okay, it only allows for one answer. So you’re massively limiting your creative solution space? And the answer is usually wrong and almost inevitably boring. If you think about it, okay. If through some weird AI genetic program, you could produce someone who is the average of all your friends, you probably wouldn’t like them very much, they’d be extremely dull. Okay. It’s a fundamental problem. And this is my fundamental question about what I call the creative opportunity cost. What if and I think there are, there are far more good ideas, we can post rationalize than our good ideas, we can pre rationalize. In other words, if you demand that someone wins an argument first. And remember, all big data comes from the same place the past. So big data in itself is skewed. But is it skewed towards what used to happen? And even measurement and accountability is heavily skewed towards what happens fast rather than what happens slowly. Okay? Even if you account for those biases, I think that the demand that something makes complete, logical, inconsistent sense, is actually a massive limitation on creative discovery. I think it’s too big and ask, it’s fine. In Newtonian physics, it’s absolutely fine in engineering, it’s fine in any field of science, where the laws can only be as they are, okay.
Right, you can’t change the rules of gravity. So therefore, making the assumption that gravity is going to be the same tomorrow as it was yesterday, is a pretty safe bet. You can’t do that with a market. You can’t do that with human psychology, human psychology, you can rewrite the rules yourself. Also, when you have an average, you assume there’s only one right idea, there’s only one good idea. What I discovered is actually quite often in marketing. The opposite of a good idea is another good idea. And I’ve got a story to tell you about this, but she’s slightly just tasteful, that I’ll tell it anyway, which I’m about to get on stage about four years ago. I’m wearing beige trousers. And as all speakers do, you go to the loo eight minutes before you go on stage. I don’t know why you just have to, okay?
And unfortunately, the washbasin went into spasm and deposited a huge amount of water on the front of my trousers. So I was thinking, What do I do? How do I do a runner? Okay, what do I do? And I tried the hand dryer, it was hopeless. Okay, I just had to stand there actually char grilling my genitals in order to have an effect for about half an hour. And I went outside in desperation. And then a miracle happened. It started to rain really heavily. And I went out into the street and just stood in the rain. Okay, for about 10 minutes before I went onstage Now admittedly, the people in the audience thought why has this bad fallen interest? Okay, but it was better than the alternative. So sometimes the solution is to dry the wet bit. And sometimes the solution is to wet everything else. The opposite of a good idea can be another good idea. And once you think backwards, you notice that all the time, but just when you think backwards, what you sacrifice is clarity, because there’s more than one right answer. What you gain is massive surface area exposure to possible upside creative opportunity. Okay. And
what I want to say is that every time you make a decision, there’s a chance to have a good idea. We tend to as ad agencies try and make creativity seem really scarce and rare and the
product really lengthy processes, so we can charge money for it, okay? In reality, okay, you have an opportunity to be creative every time you make a decision. And this was a lovely decision from someone at UNICEF, who was given a huge donation of crocs to give away to parts of Africa where people didn’t have shoes. And she said, Well, the logical thing is just to go and find out where people don’t have shoes and handout crops. Perfectly good idea, you never get fired for that. Okay? Much, much easier to be fired for being irrational and for being unimaginative. That’s a kind of weird distortion and employment, you know, if you make a rational decision, it doesn’t matter what the consequences are, you keep your job, if you make a weird decision. If it goes, well, people claim a credit elsewhere. And if it goes badly, you lose your job. Okay. So there are huge incentives within any institution not to be imaginative.
And I said, Well, of course, I had to make the obvious joke, which is, well, the other great thing about crops is they’re a fantastic contraceptive, because it’s impossible to have even mildly aroused in the presence of anybody wearing them. And she said, No, these are for children. I said, okay, sorry, I get the point. And, then, fantastically, I think, she went to schools in areas where people didn’t have many shoes. And she gave the shoes to the schools and said, when people turn up without shoes on day one of their first day at school, give them a pair of crops.
What they did is they went home and all the other kids said, Where did you get those crops from? I got them when we went to school. I’m going to school tomorrow. So you both achieve the main objective, which is showing the unshod. But you also got magic, you got alchemy, you got a bit of extra value out of it, because you created a habit, and the kind of incentive for people to attend school in their first week, which massively increases the likelihood they’ll continue to do so. It’s a free lunch. And this is my point. If you look at the world completely rationally, and you use Newtonian physics, there’s no free lunch. If you look at the world, psychologically, there are free lunches everywhere. When you think backwards, I’ve come to this point. Here’s another example of just doing something much better to restaurants sent to me in France. And then we’re going to put up a note here saying mobile phones are not allowed. But it’s got a Michelin star place, it’s a bit weird bossing customers around. And it tends to create reactance, where people immediately think of a reason why this doesn’t apply to them, you know, oh, it’s death. It’s important, my children can get hold of me or something like that.
Now, 99.9% of people would have put up that notice, this restaurant didn’t, they found a spot, where the notice was ostensibly targeted at people leaving the restaurant and was completely visible to everybody walking in. And what the notice said was that what they did is they created an implicit social norm, which is that Sure, no more sophisticated customers would not dream of, you know, making loud calls about the NASDAQ in the middle of a Michelin star meal. And it basically made people feel I better turn my phone off because that’s what everybody else is doing. And it will look a bit national to do it. It’s what I mean, that actually, for every logical solution, there’s a better solution. When you think backwards, two more minutes, okay. marketing and innovation are the same thing. Okay. James Watt wanted to sell steam engines to minors, they weren’t remotely interested in things like cylinder capacity. What James Watt did is he invented a marketing metric still in use today. He invented horsepower. Okay, because you could go to a mine owner who didn’t give a shit about the cubic capacity or the boiler temperature, but if you said buy a 25 horsepower engine, you can get rid of 25 Horses Kitching, math done. Problem solved. Okay, bottom up thinking this is top down thinking we need more capacity from west to east in London. So we spent 20 billion pounds building a tunnel perfectly valid, not necessarily wrong. I’m not suggesting those behaviors was wrong. But there’s also bottom up thinking where you take railway lines that have always existed. The overground, rebranded the overground and added to the London tube map now carries as many people as Crossrail, Doug does, but what they did effectively, by making it cognitively comprehensible, is they created 20 billion pounds worth of transport infrastructure using mostly ink. Okay, simply by changing the way people perceive it. They made it useful. And by making it usable, they made it valuable. That’s as much value creation as building a tunnel is and yet we don’t think of it that way. No one has ever said this is the greatest marketing case study of the last 20 years. Someone’s got to do that for solar panels. Find a way we’ve cracked the technology. No one’s cracked, how to sell them. Okay, no one wants to spend 25,000 pounds on an experiment that might go badly wrong. If someone can come up with a modular way you can install these maybe we’re off to the races. So what I mean is the future is already here. We just don’t know how to sell it yet. That’s my final thought.
When you think backwards, there are free lunches everywhere. When you think forwards you end up with one unambiguous solution which people in managerial positions love because it’s in arguable, unfortunately along with being in arguable it’s quite possibly really, really bad.
If you want to know more there is a course called Mad masters which I host and it helps you address the challenges of now. So I very much encourage that as a bit of a plug. I can also plug all the books written by my team, and end right there on time. Thank you very much.
About Nikolas Badminton
Nikolas Badminton is the Chief Futurist at futurist.com. He’s a world-renowned futurist speaker, consultant, author, media producer, and executive advisor that has spoken to, and worked with, over 300 of the world’s most impactful organizations and governments.
He helps shape the visions that shape impactful organizations, trillion-dollar companies, progressive governments, and 200+ billion dollar investment funds.
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