Back to the future – Gerd Leonhard

An advance look at futurist thinking

BitDepth#648, published on October 07, 2008

Gerd Leonhard. Photograph by Friedel Ammann.
Gerd Leonhard. Photograph by Friedel Ammann.

Futurist thinking is always an iffy business. Attempting to figure out what happens next based on the indicators of today is a guessing game that’s easily overturned by completely unforeseen developments.

Thirty years ago, it wouldn’t have been out of line to have expected a cure for cancer by now, but a popular self-organising, self-sustaining communications network with no central management? Who expected that?

This is the world that Gerd Leonhard lives in, and he focuses his thinking to media and communications over the next five years. That really doesn’t make his job any easier. He’s picked the move volatile, challenging and fast moving aspect of modern technology development as his speciality.

He speaks tomorrow at the Hilton Trinidad along with Jeff Swystun, Global Communications Director, DDB and Jeroen Matser, Strategy Director, Tribal DDB on the rather sweeping subject, “What does the future hold.”

Leonhard agreed to an interview via Skype last Wednesday at his home office in Basel, Switzerland.

We had a brief movement of amusement when the connection came up, two people chatting thousands of miles and six hours apart on a free but functional voice connection delivered by free software.

“You know, British Telecom did not invent Skype, it takes an outsider to do that,” Leonhard said, laughing.

In some ways, this whole chat is pretty redundant, since his lectures are widely available on YouTube and he offers his book, “The End of Control” available for free download both as a PDF document and as a homebrewed reading of the work in MP3 format.

This is clearly a guy who eats his own dogfood when it comes to content distribution.

“I do a lot of work with film, music, publishing and they have always been of the view that the more control they have the more money they make,” said Leonhard. “But I try to tell them that the change is pretty much inevitable. Once you throw away your preconceptions, then you can begin. It’s not about copyright, it’s about getting paid for the use.”

“The idea of giving away things for free is very difficult for companies; it feels uncomfortable. Once you have gotten used to total control over your customers, it’s very hard to give that up. I try to give people a picture of what it might look like so that they can dip their feet in.”

Concurrent with the rethinking of content control is the development of distribution, which Leonhard sees as a system still in its infancy.

“It’s still a minority market. Only three percent of the world is on broadband, so the market has to be focused on mobile devices. 

It can’t be the only means of distribution yet because the numbers don’t support it. You’re talking to a percentage of a small percentage of potential consumers. I always tell content creators that they have to get ready for when the system works and the market arrives.”

Creating that online channel is the real challenge, because it means both building the infrastructure and providing cost effective mobile devices for the potential audience for all this content.

Leonhard believes that the best way to do this is for governments to subsidize a free wireless network that can be accessed by low cost mobile devices, but that open connections bring with it a new chaos as information now flows to the least connected, least enabled members of the community.

“There has to be a broader consensus on connectivity and pricing and making devices available,” said Leonhard. “The future belongs to the underprivileged of the world. When we enable people who are not wealthy to participate in the networks, then everything becomes better for everyone.”