Cathy Hackl is a leading tech futurist and globally recognized business leader who was included in the 2021 prestigious Thinkers50 Radar list of the 30 management thinkers most likely to shape the future of how organizations are managed and led. She leads the Futures Intelligence Group, a futures research & consulting firm that works with clients in tech, fashion, media, government, and defense implementing innovation strategies, strategic foresight, and emerging technologies.
You received your undergraduate degree in journalism and then received a master’s in communication and international studies. You’re now viewed as one of the leading tech futurists and an expert in spatial computing and virtual reality. How did your career evolve?
Yes, the way I would always explain it to people is, I arrived at virtual reality by accident, but it was very serendipitous after that. It was very clear to me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. This is how I explain it. Back in 2004, I was working in journalism. I was working at CNN, and part of my job there was to look at all the raw footage that was coming in from the war in Iraq.
I always joke that I was a Facebook moderator before there were Facebook moderators, because part of my job was to sit through really horrible things. When you have that type of role, you can turn your humanity switch off just a little bit or maybe dial it so that you can go home and you can actually have a life because it’s very traumatizing.
For me, it wasn’t until about six years ago that I went to an event, I put on a VR headset and I went into an experience called confinement by the guardian. They put you in a very small solitary confinement cell where prisoners spend 90% of their time, and within a couple of minutes, I just felt completely claustrophobic. I took the headset off and I said, “This is the future of storytelling, or training, or business, or I don’t know what it was, but this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.” It was a very, very intentional pivot, a very hard pivot into a new career. Fast forward, six years, I’ve worked with some of the top names in the industry like HTC Vive, Magic Leap, Amazon Web Services, and it’s been quite a ride after that.
Many of our listeners probably wouldn’t describe themselves as tech futurists, and virtual reality might not play a role in their day-to-day, but maybe it will in the future. What trends as business leaders do we need to be aware of in order to stay competitive in today’s ever changing business world?
I always say this, I think business leaders are going to need emotional intelligence to lead but they’re also going to need futurist intelligence to succeed. As a futurist, I described what I do every day as almost like– futurist in essence, we trade in uncertainty or we deal with uncertainty. A day trader would wake up and see four or five, six screens in front of them. They are looking at what the trades are doing, what the stocks are doing and stuff. What I do is I wake up every day and I scan the horizon, I scan the news. I scan not just tech because I do work in tech and that’s my main focus, but I look at political, I look environmental, I look at cultural, so many different things. I try to make an understanding of what are the emerging trends, what are the signals, and where things going to go, and how could that impact my clients?
I think that in some way the new leaders need to have some type of awareness of what I call futurist intelligence and be asking, what if? Right? If the pandemic has taught anything is that we need to make sure that we’re always asking, “What if X happened?”
I wanted to go there, and so I’m really happy it’s a nice lead-in. As a tech futurist, if you have that lens, what surprised you the most about the world’s reaction to COVID? When you think about the future of work, something that you’ve talked about and wrote about, what are we underestimating in terms of the importance it will play in our working lives?
I think there were two things that surprised me, is what everyone was saying this is a black swan event and as a futurist, I can tell you, this was not a black swan event, there was tons of people that were tracking the signals. They knew this was about to happen at any point, no one could really tell when, but you even had that Bill Gates, TEDx talk from a couple of years back. It wasn’t a true black swan event. It was funny when you started to hearing people say, this is a black swan event. I was like, “No, not really.” That was a little bit interesting to watch from my perspective. A true black swan event is something that you could just not plan, there’s no way. It’s something that just would be really, really difficult to happen and stuff. That was one of the things.
I would say the other thing is, when we started getting into the pandemic, I understood a few things. I knew that technology was going to be accelerated, like the adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality, were going to be accelerated. I didn’t realize how fast it would be accelerated. The timeline has been accelerated. Where we thought we were going to be in 2025, is slowly starting to happen this year. I think that that’s one of the things that surprised me is the acceleration and the level of acceleration when it comes to adoption of virtual reality and augmented reality. That definitely surprised me.
When you think about the metaverse, which is something that you’ve talked about, can you first start by defining and giving us a sense of what that is, and why does a lot of your work focus there? Where do you think that is going, and why do you think it has power or maybe more broadly staying power?
What we’re facing right now with the metaverse, and there’s many different terms to describe what what’s ahead of us, but it’s like the next version of the internet. Anyone listening here, if internet revolutionized your business, which I’m sure did, this is important. That’s why I do a lot of work with and around the metaverse and helping companies and CEOs understand what is a metaverse, how do they enter the metaverse? What is their strategy?
The metaverse in essence is really when the digital and the physical collide. It’s when the world becomes machine readable, searchable, clickable. It’s this convergence of, like I said, the virtual and the physical. It’s a sci-fi term, so if anyone hears that and they’re like, “It sounds sci-fi,” it was a sci-fi term that was I believe it was first coined by Neal Stevenson, a sci-fi writer, who I actually got the chance to work with at Magic Leap. He was our futurist there, and he’s the first one that used the term.
People tend to think of the metaverse and they think to go straight to ideas of like the Oasis in the movie Ready Player One and the books Ready Player One or they think more on the virtual reality side. To me, the metaverse is a lot broader and encompasses both the virtual world, but also virtual elements in our physical reality. It’s going to have a huge impact in the way we engage with our physical world.
That’s, I think the most important part there and why I think a lot of companies need to start thinking about it. I will share, Matthew, a big signal that I saw recently was during the Roblox IPO when the shares went live and seeing CNBC, for example, covering that and talking about the metaverse on CNBC multiple times, that to me was a really interesting signal.
One thing that I think we all hope to have is a beneficial and very healthy relationship with technology. You’re obviously embedded fully in this world. What suggestions do you have for people who want to get the benefits of technology; want to stay connected with people that they don’t live near, want to use it to benefit their career, but also want to have a healthy relationship with it and not have it feel like it takes over their life?
I think just like anyone I have breaks. I have times that I’m away from electronics. I do the same with my children’s time with electronics. There are breaks. I think that spending time doing something that is good for your mental health is very important as well, and just having that balance. Obviously I spend a lot more time on electronics, like virtual reality headsets, than the regular person does obviously but I do think that there needs to be a balance.
What I think is interesting, and where I think it’s going to get quite- I wouldn’t say complicated, where it’s going to get really interesting, I think is, when we move away from our phones and our computers– Right now, I’m doing this interview, for example, on my computer, which is a flat surface. For a lot of us, our phones are an extension of ourselves.
When we move away from those devices that are flat into glasses, and this is not a question of, oh is this going to happen? No, it’s a question when.
When we move into glasses and we move into wearables, data and information is going to be put in front of us. That’s where I think it’s going to be a really interesting balance. There’s going to need to be regulations in some ways, or at least standards to help make sure that the things that we’re seeing in front of our eyes are the right things and also at the end of the day, you’re also going to be able to take off the glasses or the contact lenses, but that’s for then in the future. I think that always making some type of a balance between your digital life and your physical life and try to spend some time on both of them.
You’ve touched on this a little bit, but I’m curious. When you look out on the horizon, what makes you the most optimistic that you see and where do you foresee things that give you a sense of pessimism, or things that we still need to work on to get the best without some of the worst parts of technology. Where are you the most optimistic and where do you have some sense of pessimism?
This is a really interesting question because for me, I don’t tend to be dystopian, which is like Terminator destroys the world or utopian where it’s all popcorn and unicorns. I’m in the middle in something called protopia. I’m a protopian, where I understand that technology will help us as humans become better, but there will also be challenges.
To answer your question I’m excited about the technology that’s upon us. There are things that keep me up at night, for example, obviously, in the United States, we’re going through a time where a lot of people are divided, even within families. There’s a lot of division along many different lines. I think that that is worrisome. Making sure that we have some type of standards and safeguards so that some of the things in the echo chambers and the situations that have happened with social media don’t happen in the same manner in these new spaces.
When I see my children engage with, for example, something like Roblox. To them, Roblox is not a video game to them. If you ask them, they say it’s a community. That is their social network. I always say gaming is in some ways the next social network. I kind of see how a company like Roblox is trying to push for civility. They’re really trying to push that. They’re doing a lot of things with content moderation, and while it’s not perfect, I think that there’s a lot there. I think that those types of companies that value civility, they value respecting the user and making sure that children are safe are going to be incredibly important.
I would say the other thing that keeps me up at night is brain-computer interface. Maybe this is another podcast, but it’s pretty much connecting our brains to technology. I’ve been able to try about four or five of the external brain-computer devices. Through using those devices, for example, I’m able to scroll my iPad just with my thoughts, or I’m able to turn on lights by thinking about it, or I’m able to play a game, or I put a code just by thinking of it, or seeing it on the screen.
One of the things that stuck with me is I love the technology. I love the ability for people that are differently able to be able to use these technologies to do jobs that they weren’t able to do before. I think it’s going to have a lot of amazing applications. In reality, one thing that really stuck with me, Matthew, after trying these devices is that my brain actually really, really likes using them, like really. Just thinking about it, I can feel the sensors lighting up of how excited I am. I’m like, I’m still sitting with that. Sometimes it keeps you up at night.
I’m trying to think about, is this a good thing or a bad thing?
I am a futurist, so those things do keep me up at night.
As we close out here before going to the final two questions that I ask all of our guests, I’d love to ask, you’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the most cutting-edge companies in the world. When you look at your time at those firms, and you think about some of the leaders there who were the most successful or most inspiring, what are some of the traits that you think future leaders should have from the lessons that you’ve learned from watching some of these leaders at truly mind-bending companies?
I would say a few of the things that I noticed of the people that I really admired, empathetic; very empathetic towards their workers. I also think the best leaders were more like coaches instead of trying to manage down or– I don’t know what the right terminology would be, but I think that the ones that act more like coaches and really try to help others be better and become better, I thought that was great.
It’s really interesting because when I think about the future of work, there’s this statistic that says that half of the children born today are going to live past 103. That’s a long time to live. I started to think about what does that mean?
It feels to me that the idea of career, the idea of profession is going to change and evolve. These children are going to have multiple jobs and multiple careers and they’re going to pivot and do many things. I think that adaptability and resilience are going to be critical for those that manage the younger generations and also younger workers.
Well, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation and that comment right there is a wonderful spot to shift to our final two rapid-fire questions that I get to ask all of our guests. The first one is this if you could describe your personal leadership style, but I only gave you one word, what would that word be?
Future. Easy as that. Future.
The final, rapid-fire question is this, what is the best piece of advice that you have ever received?
Oh my goodness. Someone said this to me in Spanish, so I’m not sure how to translate it in English, but it’s something like, “Tell God your plans and He’s going to laugh,” because you can have lots of plans made, but you don’t really know what’s going to happen in the future with many different things.
You can have a lot of plans. A lot of us had many plans for last year and it all changed. It’s a piece of advice in the sense that one should always be open to anything happening and any possibility.