In Conversation with David Shah

20th anniversary
type - in conversation
In Conversation
The Future Laboratory co-founders meet their one-time boss, Viewpoint publisher David Shah, and discuss the future of business travel, the value of insight in the age of Zoom and the future of futurists themselves…

Read an excerpt of the conversation below, or scroll down to watch the full Zoom video.

David Shah:      It’s a mess. Everyone asks me if I miss the travelling because I travel 300 days a year. And I have to say I don’t miss the day trips at all. But what I miss are the long-haul flights. I miss that kind of ‘fly to China’, ‘fly to India’ kind of story.

Martin Raymond:      But that’s where I think you were doing a lot of your work. I remember your diaries and your notes. You remember, you would have really meticulous notes, probably done during those long-haul flights where you had the chance to think without being disturbed and were able to work and focus…

David:      …only without being disturbed and a lot of champagne flying around – high-flying inspired, you know. Chris was saying how few flights he has taken and how he is actually feeling better for not having all of that hassle.

Martin:      Chris was saying how few flights he has taken and how he is actually feeling better for not having all of that hassle.

David:      You know, I’m a typical idiot because I sort of got hooked by KLM’s loyalty club; I got to the highest level at Platinum Elite Life in 1994. I kind of felt guilty about supporting KLM (but) I don’t miss day trips, which are a lot of hassle, and Zoom, as you know, has changed a hell of a lot for everybody. So the airline business will never be the same again. Never.

Martin:      Well, this is my question, because, with the whole issue of flight shame, we should be feeling guilty about that, given that one of our big themes throughout our time together was sustainability and the environment. And so, now that you have Zoom, do you think consciously, you will not go back to travelling or will you go back when it’s relatively easy and okay to do so?

Published by:

27 November 2020

Author: The Future Laboratory

Image: David Shah


David:      I have absolutely no doubt. I love travelling and it’s part of my life, and I sort of get the shakes, you know, if I don’t get to Schiphol regularly. But I’ve got to say, I will not go back to travelling in the original way. There’s absolutely no point. It’s a stress level. It’s a conscience level. I thought, KLM was very clever with that campaign last year when it said: ‘Are you sure you really need to take this flight?’ It was reverse marketing, you know, very clever. So, I will just do the long-haul trips because the way we’re talking, we’ve got so used to it. You’ve done webinars, I’ve done countless webinars on this, talked to people from Russia to China on this. So there’s no way. And, of course, there’s the cost. Because every boss is going to say: ‘Do you really need to fly? €600 to London City from Amsterdam and back in one day? It’s ridiculous.’

Martin:      I was chatting to different people who are presenting or delivering workshops and one of the things that came up is how clients now dispute fees.

David:      Does anyone pay fees any more?

Martin:      How do you judge the wisdom delivered by Zoom versus wisdom in person? Is it the same and has the client the right to quantify one as more important than the other when one is simply about presence, not about the content that’s being delivered?

David:      I think that’s a very good point. First of all, we were in a mess before the pandemic because people didn’t have a value for information any more. And we’re in the information business. I used to get $10,000 to fly to San Francisco and give one speech for three hours or two hours, no discussion. Then it went up €3,000, then the bigger the company, the more the argument, and in the end – thanks to the Chinese – information became zero-quantity for them.

They don’t understand the value of it and I was surprised that so many people expected me to give free webinars because they had the concept: ‘Oh my god, the pandemic, everyone’s going to forget you; you don’t have any visibility, you have to be visible, you have to talk about your products, you have to be seen. You have to shout, you have to be intelligent, you have to disagree with Li Edelkort’, and all the rest of it. And I ended up doing a lot of things for free and I got a little bit annoyed, and I kept saying to myself, ‘no more freebies’, and I’m still doing it. Are you paying me for this?

Chris Sanderson:      David, earlier you mentioned human behaviour, and of course what brought us together in the first place was this absolutely insatiable interest in what makes people tick, because you had created Viewpoint magazine which had the tagline ‘Think and act with the mind of the consumer’. We continue to use this shamelessly as a way of introducing some of our thinking because Viewpoint was the launchpad into a journey into the future, but with human behaviour always at its essence, because it was this idea of trying to understand what was going on in the mind of the consumer and in the mind of society, and how it was changing.

So, the question we wanted to ask is, having done this for so many years and across different ways of thinking about lifestyle and the way that people are changing – you said earlier that the leopard just doesn’t change it spots – do you think there have been fundamental changes in the way that people behave or think? I mean, human character might not change, but do you think the way that we think has changed, or certainly our consumer behaviour and our consumption patterns?

David:      I think, first of all, that it’s a polarised world and I always talk about it in terms of newspapers. You know, there are The Guardian readers and La Repubblica readers who are very conscious about moving onto a more responsible platform, whether it is sustainability, climate change or consumption – whatever it is. But I always say, we get side-tracked by this because when I go to give speeches, my favourite question is: ‘Who likes Kim Kardashian? And because they all read The Guardian, nobody puts up their hand. And I can’t understand it because 95% of the world love Kim Kardashian and only 5% love Emma Watson, even though we all love Emma Watson, so we talk to each other all the time and that’s our big problem.

That’s the problem about marketing today. Everybody says: ‘When I’m running a department store, I have to follow the consumer; the consumer is the boss now’. We’ve been saying that for 30–40 years, that you can’t design without understanding your customer. But I still feel we have a kind of hierarchical view. We are like the eagles on top of the mountain, looking down, and we shouldn’t be; we should actually be on the ground floor – with 360-degree vision – and be holistic about the whole thing, responding immediately on an understanding completely, rather than from our perspective. But it’s definitely getting better.

I am amused and stunned because when we started there were few futurists around, but now, I don’t know, there are some 60,000 futurists in the market, so I don’t know where we’re going…

Martin:      There’s an industry and a federation, and I think that’s what’s interesting. But I often wonder if futurists suffer from the same problem, that they look to other futurists rather than looking to the customer.

Watch the full Zoom conversation between Martin Raymond and Chris Sanderson co-founders, The Future Laboratory and David Shah, publisher, Viewpoint.