As part of a short blog series, we're interviewing each of our Advisors here at Qwasar. Meet Roger Spitz, President of Techistential and founding Chairman of Disruptive Futures Institute, who is a new board advisor here at Qwasar. Roger has deep roots in disruption, futures and foresight, innovative education and deep technology. We sat down with him to get to know him and to talk about 'the future'.
Tell us about your background.
I started out with a conventional investment bankers’ Wall Street career leading the Mergers & Acquisitions (M&A) activities for one of the global banks. I spent 20 years advising on M&A, IPOs, and venture capital fundraising transactions for mostly technology deals globally. This career brought me to thinking about the speed of change and disruption, and realizing that technology is so ubiquitous, connected, combinatorial and with AI sometimes irreversible. It's something that affects every industry, company, sector, often in unexpected ways. This brought me down the rabbit hole around an interest in disruption, non-linear transformational change. That journey brought me to where I am now.
For the past few years I spent more time with academic organizations and think tanks looking at complexity and systems thinking like Santa Fe Institute, as well as Foresight and Futures like Institute for the Future in Palo Alto and University of Houston. Also, exponential technologies and innovation with time spent at Singularity University and Sanford’s d.school for design thinking. That brought me to professionalizing futures and foresight which I currently focus on and considered that it was an ideal umbrella for my core new found interests. I just felt that in M&A the scope around a specific transaction and time horizons (i.e. the next quarters or years at best) were more limited than what is really driving disruption and transformative change. M&A is strategic, important and it's forward looking, but it's not looking more holistically. The futures and foresight field which I have been more and more immersed in over the past few years allowed me to reconnect with what I thought was broader, longer, deeper, wider professionally as well as developing these as my own organizations.
I am based in San Francisco, California.
Tell us about some of the organizations you are involved with.
I work with a broad and diverse set of clients, partners and ecosystems globally day to day, that is one of the most interesting aspects. A sample of organizations where I have accepted formal advisory positions include:
- Vektor Partners - A Palo Alto/London/Berlin venture capital fund specialized in investing in deep tech disruptions of the mobility and automotive industries. I am one of the advisory board members. One of the reasons that it's particularly interesting for me is that they have a strong foot in Europe, which is critical for energy transition, sustainability, renewable energy, lower carbon emissions, etc. Many of the breakthrough technologies for climate change will come from Europe. I personally believe that every company needs to be an energy company and that sustainability is basically the new digital. For me, this is a very important area of disruption but also a very large area for new opportunities in sustainability and innovation.
- UC Berkeley SkyDeck - I am on the advisory council and selection committee. This is one of the top 5 research university venture capital funds. I am a startup advisor for deep tech innovations.
- CITRIS Foundry - Innovation Incubator in which I have dedicated time as a startup mentor for the deep tech innovation hub and incubator.
- Nasdaq Entrepreneurial Center - Advisor & Mentor for Nasdaq's Accelerator in San Francisco.
Tell us about your recent work with the Disruptive Futures Institute.
I founded Disruptive Futures Institute because I felt that over the past few years that the world is a little bit lost in terms of the speed of change and ramifications of change. And I felt that we were on an exponential rate of change, not just technology, many things, but technology was a key driver, and that the institutions from education to governments, leadership of companies were just not adapting to a non-linear, non-predictable world. They continued to behave as if the world were stable, linear, and predictable.
I really felt that disruption in the broadest possible sense was something that warranted dedicated attention, if not for us for the next generations. I set up Disruptive Futures Institute as a dedicated think tank on these critically important topics. It is meant to be global, democratic, not just looking at corporates, but thinking about the 6-7 billion people on the planet who are just unfortunately not given the right education, even in the US. It is not just skills, but the mindset as well to understand what is happening and what do these transformational changes mean to you.
As the only global education platform that teaches you to thrive on disruption, we pioneer practical educational insights integrating Foresight & Futures, Complexity & Systems Thinking, Antifragility, Innovation & Design Thinking, Philosophy & Zen Buddhism together with Exponential Technologies.
In an age where disruption has become a steady state, we help you understand, anticipate and navigate disruption, as well as drive and thrive on it. The objective is to help be better equipped to experiment with more agency, imagination, curiosity and creativity without being blindsided.
The Disruptive Futures Institute educates through research, courses, executive seminars and keynote speaking.
Tell us about your mentorship with the CITRIS Foundry and Berkeley.
There are a number of things happening here. I wanted to be able to give back to causes that matter to me. These organizations are a practical and convenient way of doing it.
UC Berkeley is one of the most entrepreneurial ecosystems in the world and this played well with themes which matter to me, namely education, disruption, innovation, entrepreneurship. Some of the startups include: AI/Machine Learning, Blockchain/FinTech, Robotics, and 3D Printing. I felt that a good way of playing my part and being exposed to the deep tech innovation ecosystems was to mentor. I am also one of the advisors at SkyDeck, a well-known UC Berkeley accelerator. This is really a two way street, because I am staying very much in the entrepreneurial mindset, seeing concrete ideas, a lot of which touch upon breakthrough technologies, which for me is a very valuable part of my time. I also advise the SkyDeck venture capital fund and help identify companies to accelerate.
The CITRIS Foundry is an innovation incubator where I also mentor and dedicate some time for the organization's innovative deep technology hub.
Why did you found Techistential?
This is a bit of a funny one, because I am probably one of the only investment bankers who moved into becoming a professional futures and foresight practitioner. I think it has to do with the following: when I went through my exploration thinking about disruption and the future more, I felt that for all of the wonderful parts of my previous life in investment banking, there were significant limits. Mainly that banking itself or the transactions we would advise on were still quite narrow in terms of scope because they were specific to transactions and corporate market time frames, often the next few quarters. However strategic it was, it was playing to a formulaic strategic playbook and its assumptions. When I looked at the needs of humanity, society, and the world, I began to understand how quickly and fundamentally any industry, any company, any sector can be completely changed, be radically transformed, and reshaped, sometimes overnight. And the mismatch between societal and generational changes, climate challenges and the short-term, narrow corporate strategies.
In light of all that, I wanted to transition to something that reflected what was really going on in the world, that didn't have narrow boundaries and often flawed assumptions, and that still served the need for strategy but with broader, deeper, longer perspectives for companies, organizations and society - so I founded Techistential.
I thoroughly enjoy what I do and have a passion for something that is my own, where we are building and driving fundamental change. When working for a large organization, it's not your baby.
I wanted to tie in the different aspects and topics that interest me. Looking at the future, looking at disruption, and looking at broader scope were things that are more fundamental than just transactions. All the facets of change, including climate, sustainability, education, and finding where I could provide thought leadership, speaking engagements, and teaching opportunities at organizations. I'm even currently also writing a book!
Techistential was a good umbrella to do all that. I am able to pursue the things I enjoy and which I think are impactful, meaning I take on work and opportunities where I can help develop impactful projects concretely for companies. All of it is tuned into the future, and trying to help people, organizations, and companies understand transformational change, to anticipate and prepare for it. I don't mean looking at digital transformation or operational or technical changes over the next few years, but rather more fundamental radical change over longer time frames.
Techistential was founded in 2015 as a research and educational platform on innovation and disruption. It originally focused on examining how exponential technologies will redefine the future and the existential questions that arise from this. Today, Techistential advises organizations, companies, entrepreneurs from around the world in the areas of Foresight Strategy, Technology Foresight and Artificial Intelligence, and reinventing Board, Governance & Investor Practices.
Did you ever imagine Techistential would reach the heights it would today?
I didn’t, I mean to be honest, I didn’t realize anyone would be able to even pronounce it! Even just making it sustainable, was a very positive surprise for me. It's a relatively new venture and deep down it was what I wanted to focus on.
The name is derived from the words Technology + Existential because I felt that not just technology, but the drivers of change and the existential questions that arise from technology were crucial to focus on. I did have a deep conviction that the areas we were focusing on were so fundamental to pretty much every single person, organization, and the world that somehow I was hoping that it would kinda resonate, maybe more gradually over time.
I think that what accelerated our visibility worldwide was the pandemic, because what sadly happened was that many more people in the world suddenly experienced first hand the extent to which the world is not stable, predictable, nor linear. Because our focus is precisely on helping understand the ramifications of disruption and preparing for that, 2020 was a crazy year and quite simply the number of organizations interested in these topics (executive education, talking engagements, keynotes, advising, specific projects, board positions, etc.) grew very suddenly. It became very relevant to be focusing on these areas, and gave us immediate global prominence.
Explain the idea of future-proofing a business.
Interestingly, I might use future-proofing from time to time inadvertently. But I am actually not crazy about the term because 'future proofing' implies that you are trying to protect yourself from the future, but in fact I think the future is something that you can embrace and just understand the features which are unpredictability, among other things. So I see it more as being future-savvy and being able to navigate and drive transformative change and disruption, being comfortable exploring the future however surprising it may end up being.
I am very positive about the fact that the future is not stable and not predictable. I believe that if you take existentialist philosophy and you think about the fact that:
- you have agency
- you have choice
- things are contingent
- existence precedes the essence
then you are defining yourself and you are emerging in a world which is not predetermined. Future-proofing is not so much that you can predict everything (or anything!), that you have a stable world, and that you are all good to go; it's more that you understand the nature of agency, change and non-predictability.
A Framework for Preparing for Change
In an article I wrote in the Journal of Futures Studies called “The Future of Strategic Decision-Making”, I outline a framework which I call “AAA”: antifragile, anticipatory, and agility. It looks at the three different dimensions to prepare for change.
- Anticipatory: Learn to qualify weak signals and interpret the next-order impacts of change, connecting the shifting dots with action-triggers. Beware of relying on statistical risk modeling that assumes a stable and predictable world. Understand the ramifications of exponential change, as the world is not a linear evolution from the past. Embrace “visioning”: map out plausible futures, with the agency to realize our preferred future option. Both short- and long-term strategic decision-making are needed simultaneously today, prioritizing innovation as well as trial-and-error.
- Antifragile: Build on the right foundations. Based on Nassim Taleb’s definition, antifragile systems benefit from disorder and shocks. They create optionality through innovation, embrace adventure and risk, develop fluid and evolving strategies, and decentralize their decision making. (This is in contrast to a “fragile” organization, which is optimized and hyper-efficient for the current world, and therefore rigid and brittle when shocks arise.)
- Agility: You must develop agility by understanding better the entire system, given the unpredictability and inter-dependencies of moving parts where the whole is more than the sum of the parts. Developing emergent behaviors (amplified or dampened to move one in the right direction), experimenting and tinkering to fail fast and allow instructive patterns to emerge.
What is Technology Foresight and why is it so important?
We look at emerging exponential and combinatorial technologies and the next order implications of digital synergies converging with Artificial Intelligence. Our objective is to try to anticipate unintended consequences and understand what inflection points might make a given development irreversible.
What happens when exponential technologies converge with AI, to transform every sector, industry, society and the nature of work itself? Understanding Digital synergies between AI & Deep Learning, Big Data, Augmented & Virtual Reality, 3D Printing, Robotics, Industry 4.0, IoT, Nanomanufacturing, 5G, Biology... and over the horizon, Quantum Computing.
I also spend time on educating how AI needs to benefit society, trying to reconcile shareholder objectives at the corporate level with creating long-term sustainable value beyond the bottom line.
What is the future of education?
Good question. This is really the core, one of the most important areas of everything we have discussed. In addition to Techistential, which is more advisory, I was very keen on developing our think tank Disruptive Futures Institute.
The most important thing about the 21st century is really education. Education in the 21st century needs to look forward, to address what Stephen Hawking qualified as the Century of Complexity. In complexity, as we discussed a moment ago, there are a lot of unknown unknowns, things are not straightforward, and you can't just rely only on specialists. We have to think about the competencies to approach complex challenges and the concern I have with a lot of the education is that it has a number of features which are outdated, one is that it's mainly looking at the past, which is important, but it shouldn’t be done to the exclusion of thinking about the future.
The second thing about education today is that it relies on knowledge driven learning and the assumption that what is taught now will continue to be relevant going forward. That's simply not the case in the 21st century. Children that are entering primary school will leave to jobs which don’t even exist or professions which are fundamentally changing: will their educational experience have shifted enough to prepare them for a different world?
You need to teach people to be imaginative, curious, resourceful, and to experiment and fail, because these are skills that will endure in a complex and changing world. When I think about education, there are 3 major layer components that are important:
- Foundational core skills - History, literacy, science, numeracy, etc. The fact that it's a complex world and that there are not always right answers doesn’t mean that we should dismiss all the foundational core skills and science. This is probably the layer that is dealt with okay in the current systems, to a degree. It's easier, it's more straightforward, it's the area of specialists, knowledge, etc.
- Competencies or Skills - Not really that well addressed (other than a few countries such as Israel or Finland that are more forward-thinking) are competencies or what someone is actually capable of doing. What are the competencies that students need or that anyone needs to approach complex challenges? What should someone be capable of doing in order to thrive in today's world? It's critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, communication, collaboration: the very core of what we call 21st-century skills.
- Character Qualities - How do you approach changing environments? How do you handle change? How do you approach constant change and things you don’t know, that are not familiar, that you can’t just teach, that's not just knowledge? You need curiosity, you need initiative, persistence, grit, adaptability, leadership, social and cultural awareness, the diversity to have different perspectives, to come up with different views, to help the emergence, because it's not just the cookie cutter playbook.
When I think about education, it’s really moving from knowledge-based education systems which in a way reward students for repeating the right answers to known problems, to reframing education around inadequacies. How do you measure failure? Should you be measuring failure instead of success? Should you be encouraging people to have the imagination, challenge conviction/convention, instill comfort with ambiguity, comfort with uncertainty, comfort with complexity, and making sure that you are replacing the tick the box, formulaic, repeating rote learning stuff with experimentation, where failure is accepted. That’s how you learn. And that is the crux of it. The world is changing at such a rate, short-term linear thinking is one of the biggest threats to civilization.
What ultimately swayed you to join Qwasar’s advisory board?
It’s really all of the above. I am trying to spend my time on topics which really matter to me and matter to the world and which can be impactful. And so, a big part of Qwasar is education, learning, unlearning, relearning, in the broadest possible sense. If you think about a lot of what we talked about with disruption, with the failure of the educational systems, and I am talking broadly about education, education is really your entire life. You continue to learn, relearn, unlearn. If you think about all those aspects of education, Qwasar is really at the forefront of that, because it's taking a very holistic view, very forward thinking, it's the opposite of relying on the stable, predictable, and knowledge-driven, and really immerses you in a complex system where there are no right answers and where you gotta kinda figure it out, be curious, and iterate, and experiment. And so it really has all the ingredients there.
In addition to that, I think it’s very forward looking because it's looking at how education is evolving, how the skills are evolving, and it's not trying to tick a box in terms of just teaching today’s specific skills. So it's not in a fashion of coding is hard so let's code, let's teach people how to code, this is the best code, it's broader than that. They understand that you are moving into a low/no-code environment, and that at some point what you need to do is figure out the skills, figure out what the digital world is, and figure out what is required. And that training is not assuming a specific language or specific methodology or making any assumptions. It’s very forward looking in that regard.
In addition to that, I think it's very smart with the technologies and the founders, from Kwame to Jennifer to Gaeten, they all have a very interesting DNA around change and transformative technology, and innovation outright. I think also it seems very democratic both in terms of the team and the founders, but also in terms of the core and what they are seeking to achieve.
It plays to pretty much every single aspect of the values I have and things which I feel the world is missing.
Do you think training tech talent is something that needs to be focused on, or is important for the future?
Absolutely. Digital, it's funny that the term is still used, because for me every company needs to be a technology company and any technology is digital by definition. It’s almost a little bit like a tautology, and when I see people talk about how to become digital, or digital savvy, it’s like teaching someone how to eat or how to read or how to breathe.
We are in a digital world, increasingly by the day, but every facet of any company is technology-driven, and any technology is digital. So, there's no way, whether it's tech talent or any talent, that you can't have some immersion or understanding of technology. That doesn’t mean that you need to know how to build every aspect or how to code, but the understanding of what digital represents, what it allows you to do, what are potential unintended consequences of it, and the ability to understand the virtues of some of the new business models, platforms, the networks.
Whether you like it or not, to be honest the pervasiveness of technology in talent is not even a question of choice. Two interesting quotes that I particularly like are the following:
One is by Alan Kay: “Technology is anything that wasn't around when you were born.” In other words, it's just so ubiquitous and pervasive that pretty much anything that’s created since you were born, whether it's you, or me, or anyone, it's probably technology anyway.
The second quote which I like is by Andy Grove, author of “Only the Paranoid Survive” and one of the founders of Intel, “Technology happens. It’s not good. It’s not bad. Is steel good or bad?” And really what he’s trying to say there is not that technology is the same as steel, but it's just that it's just so pervasive that you have to understand that it’s there. So if you’re thinking about an option of not being tuned in to what it entails, that option doesn’t exist, because it’s like ignoring oxygen or water.
Anything else you would like to add?
Again, I am a huge supporter for everything Qwasar does and the values and it ties in 300% to what I’m doing, which is why I am trying to help them the best I can.
The team at Qwasar would like to thank Roger for his time and the interview. We are honored to have him as a board advisor and in keeping with our approach to learning, he very often gives us peer reviews for our work, during which we learn an enormous amount. To keep up on all things future-related, be sure to follow Roger on: