Conversations with scenario thinker and networker extraordinaire Napier Collyns


Napier Collyns has long been an eminence grise of the world of foresight, not publicly visible but immensely influential in his ideas and connections, especially through his role as co-founder of Global Business Network and his seminal work as part of the original team at Shell in the 1970s that created modern scenario planning. In my book Living Networks I used him as my case study of the most extraordinary networker I know. He is the closest to a mentor that I have had in my long career as futurist and even before. A memoir of his life is currently being prepared by International Futures Forum.

In 2008 I recorded a video of a conversation with Napier on a diverse array of topics. Below is the video together with a full transcript. It provides deep insights into scenario thinking and how the history of scenario planning has shaped its role in business today, perspectives on the evolution of human networks and networking and assistance in the “gentle art of re-perceiving”.

Conversation: Napier Collyns and Ross Dawson from Ross Dawson on Vimeo.

Ross: Fantastic to catch up again, Napier, always a pleasure.

Napier: Different city each time.

Ross: Absolutely. You have been the most networked person I know, for a long time and we both have a lot of interest in networks and how people are connected and, pretty much, people are all now talking about social networks. So how do you think that networks between people and how people are connected is changing now that we have this big rise of social networks and all these online tools and different ways of connecting? I mean how different, how transformative are the online social networking tools, do you think?

Napier: Well I think the key to it is why, what you’re using it for. Just to start with how it began professionally, and in my case when I was in Shell creating this scenario, approached thinking about the future …

Ross: Yes.

Napier: I think the most distinctive thing we did that was different, other than the quality of the thinking, was the understanding that you needed to be associated with people outside your organization. If you only spoke to people inside, your ideas dried up. If you speak to people outside, you would expand in all directions.

I think we found this in very early days, what we needed was to find what we called the marginal people. We had an understanding of the situation today that was unlike anybody else’s, which then gave you clues as to the direction for the future. And I think, inadvertently to some extent, it turned out my role was finding remarkable people, or Pierre [Wack] found them, and cultivating them, looking after them. I don’t think, of course, I knew this at the time, it’s just something I did naturally and enjoyed doing. And the people that we found often found it much easier to relate to me than to relate to someone like Pierre who was [inaudible] …

And so for my last probably 17 years with Shell, after I first got into the scenario game, I just naturally continued this when I moved from London to the Hague and had access to everybody in Europe, and then from the Hague to New York with access to everybody in New York, and America. I suddenly found I knew an extraordinary number of people and details of what kind of people they were, what they were interested in, what their first names were, their children’s names were, and blah, blah, blah.

So when Peter Schwartz was going to leave Shell voluntarily, and I was 20 years older than him and I was going to leave involuntarily because it was natural that we would think, why don’t we put our resources together? And then we found people like Stewart Brand, Jay Ogilvy, Lawrence Wilkinson, and we decided to create GBN. Which was modeled, as far as I was concerned, precisely on the Pierre Wack formula, that you needed to know as many people outside who would build a market, who had a kind of instinct and understanding of today.

Because that’s what we can have, you can’t really know the future half as well as you think you can. But if you can understand today, you’ve got something to say about today, which nobody else is saying, that then helps people to understand the future, you can have incredibly creative relationships. GBN started, really, just as the five of us. We had one or two outside people in there, Kees van der Heijden, Arie de Geus, who’d written lots of books. And they associated with us in the beginning and yet we found a group of people who either Peter knew, Jay knew, I knew, Stewart knew. And we decided it would be fun to have them on board with us not as members of the firm as it were, but as the remarkable people we could touch base with outside.

And I drew up a list of about 400 people I thought would be appropriate and we all sat round, on the floor, I think, and I just brought up these names and if the five of us … if anybody said no, that was it, they didn’t get in. But if everybody agreed that it would be great to have him or her, then they were in. So out of the 400, we captured something like 60 people, most of them though were household names in their own fields. In those days, of course, most of them weren’t really known, but they happened to be friends of Peter, Jay, Stewart or mine and we’d kind of bet on them that they’d be around another 10, 15, 20 years, with something to say. And I think we got most of them right.

Ross: I think it’s really interesting in that part of the social network is influence to inform your thinking. So I remember when I was first thinking about ways in which information got out, ways in which I suppose people came up with good ideas, at the time I came across “Diffusion of Innovations,” Everett Rogers’ work.

And you know he talked a lot about the heterogeneous and homogeneous networks, where I guess a lot of the research now is being taken into a business context more recently, I think there’s a lot of evidence that the more diverse your networks, as in the more diverse in terms of their background, and the context and the thinking and the behaviors of the people you’ve come in touch with, not just the better the quality of your thinking but the more able you are to deal with the full range of the unexpected that may come at you.

So in a way, today, more and more, having the diverse networks of people who you connect with and touch out with and have good conversations with, is really fundamental to being able to be successful and do worthwhile things.

Napier: Yes. And the difference probably between me and you at the moment is that, and you are not unique, a lot of people are trying to theorize about what this is, or even writing books about what it is. And some of them are mathematicians, some of them are sociologists, anthropologists and you name it. I am more of a pragmatist or a guy who just does what seems to come naturally.

Ross: Yes, Yes.

Napier: And when we started doing these scenarios with Pierre, we never thought what we were doing theoretically. The only thing we thought about, the technical thing we did with scenarios was, are these trying to choose a future which you’d like, or are they trying to look at alternative futures and realize you better be ready for whatever happens? And the interesting thing today is that Shell, after 35 years, has suddenly decided to come up with the scenario, which is the one they would like to happen. And which they even think they’d like to happen for the world, be good for the world.

And I think that’s very significant. I think it could make a real difference about who you choose to talk to and who you want in your networks. You begin to cut people off from your network because they’re unorthodox in some way, you choose a path for the future that is different from the that one that you want to choose.

And at this meeting I just came to, we had this meeting on peak oil. And the four people in the program, the first person was the head of BP in Australia. And he said, “Well, there’s no shortage of oil. We’ve got plenty of oil.” That set the scene for the whole thing. Whereas if I’d been the first, I was supposed to be the first three, I probably wouldn’t have said it like that.

Ross: Yes.

Napier: We used to say in conclusion the way I would have said it, but it wouldn’t have been the way he said it.

Ross: So you’re saying that the idea of normative scenarios or trying to shape your futures can make you cut off different people who you would otherwise expose yourself to?

Napier: Well, I think there’s a profound difference between normative scenarios and Pierre called action scenarios. The action scenario is that you look into the future, and the better you are at it, the abler you are to see different futures which have real meaning in life and you can believe in and you can believe in them over time. Gradually over time scenarios come and go. You know you have a scenario that seems plausible on day one but by year five or something it’s no longer plausible. Another scenario has taken its place.

So in that sense you have an array of scenarios, and you can choose two or three of them. In the long run, scenarios don’t survive. Only in a sense one future survives. But in the normative game, which a lot of people now believe in, of course its one thing for a government to have a normative scenario, which is to try to impose a scenario on their people as it were, but it’s very different for a company like Shell to imagine it can create its own future.

Ross: Yes.

Napier: So what they’ve done this year, they initially started, they tried to show a scenario which would be acceptable to governments, so governments would be prepared to go for that scenario in the knowledge that the Shells, BPs, the Exxons, whoever would go along with it too. That’s the kind of concept I think. But it’s a dangerous concept because the chances of being successful are relatively small.

Ross: That’s right. As with predicting. If you predict you know you’re going to be wrong if you try to create a specific future you know you’re gonna be wrong. But I think it was different for an organization as opposed to an interest group so that’s where clearly there’s a lot of this kind of scenario thinking around environmental futures as well as economic futures, particularly in terms of wealth distribution where … and in terms of health, where people are saying I can see a scenario where a lot of other people can choose to be engaged in that rather than just the people from a particular organization. And if it’s sufficiently compelling then that can get … a way to get people on board.

Napier: But it gets … you’re in really dangerous waters soon as you start thinking like that. And I’m not using the word in any official sense, but you get very religious if you begin to think that environmentalism, sustainability, climate change or limited, as soon as you embrace the kind of belief that is going to influence ordinary behavior, you’re really getting into a branch of the world that has nothing to do with its scenario.

Ross: Yes.

Napier: And I don’t know quite where we’re headed. I mean, who would have thought in the 21st century we would still be putting up with a lot of belief systems, which were fine when they were created but they don’t really have any validity today. It’s very complicated what’s going on.

Ross: Well certainly one of the broader trends as some of the Global Business Network scenarios has brought out over the years is of fundamentalism, which comes in many forms, religious and political, and environmental and otherwise.

Napier: In some ways, the environmental thoughts of today are more rigid fundamentalisms than the so-called religious fundamentalisms. And, this meeting I was at, I sensed that potentially there was quite a difference of opinion between those … I think Australia seemed to be slightly more fundamentalist than I expected them to be, in the group I was talking to most of the time.

Ross: In terms of being … environmental … looking at the carbon emissions issues?

Napier: Yes, it seemed to me that they were less open to considering what was going on. They were more likely to have some preconceived notion, which was almost like a religious belief rather than a scientific belief. Maybe I could have a glass of water? It’s a little bit dry in here, the way things are going. So I am of the school, which simply doesn’t want to think in any kind of religious way.

Ross: So I think that’s a really interesting question for me, I suppose. I’ve been involved with scenarios in various forms for the last dozen years, you for many times that. And I’ve seen a little bit, I suppose, cycles in how willing people are to think in a scenario, you know, think using scenarios. See the different countries there’s different willingness to accept it. For example, I went to South Africa and found that because of the Mont Fleur scenarios which prefaced the transition of power, it is throughout the populace, people have some kind of understanding of what scenarios are. And other countries, Japan, for example, there’s far less willingness to think scenarically. So do you think that today people are more or less open to thinking in terms of scenarios than they were, or do you think that it’s cyclical in terms of things like the economic cycles?

Napier: That’s actually a very interesting question. And one that I think about. I don’t think we truthfully know the answer. All I know is that the sort of academic interests in scenarios has increased out of all recognition. And suddenly you’re getting PhD theses and so on written about it. And as you know I gave the PLF papers to Oxford University, and they’ve been far more the center of attention in the university than they were when GBN had them in the Hague.

And today, very interesting question. There are a lot of statistics showing that … people look at the different techniques that companies use, or consultants use to look in the future, or just determining strategy in a company. And you know, I would say that scenarios have been in the cycle now for about 30 years, I guess. The external … I guess Pierre Wack was published in ’85, it’s not even 25 years yet. I think by the end of the ’70s, in business school, army business schools, they knew perfectly well what was going on.

Ross: So one of the issues I think is very interesting, I believe that the pace of change is accelerating significantly, driven by technology. And one of the … And I actually think that a lot of people fail to recognize quite how fast things are happening at the moment. I’m continually boggled by what’s going on, which is only visible I suppose to a small group of people following these trends.

So on one level, this means … I always said that beyond the predictability is where scenarios become relevant. And that degree, that frame of predictability is becoming shorter and shorter as we’re getting, not just technological change and drivers, but also arguably … geopolitical maybe not is getting faster, but I think the degree of, the pace of unpredictability, or the degree of unpredictability is getting faster and faster. So that should make people more willing to think in scenarios. But one of the other sides of that is that people think they have less time. They think, “Ah, I don’t have the leisure to think through in a broad scope and a number of scenarios, because that’s a long exercise, even though that would be valuable.”

Napier: Well I have an answer to that, which is that it’s the rest of your life. As soon as you understand about scenarios, you’re on the treadmill for the rest of your life, because you can’t think in the old-fashioned way of being able to … If you had these facts, that meant that would be our future, it’s not like that.

Ross: So we’ve had some generational change, in that now many corporate leaders grew up in the ’60s, so they’ve had different attitudes from their forebears. Now getting younger people who are more engaged in that. Though still … you know, just … I haven’t seen a vastly greater willingness from large organizations to think in a scenario fashion.

There are some, absolutely, that do, some people, some organizations that recognize that this is a deeply valuable way to deal with uncertainty and change. But I don’t know if that group is growing bigger.

Napier: Well I think it’s obvious that people in government roles, or even in non-government NGO roles, I think you have a lot of beliefs, to use a strange word, that you believe that scenaric thinking is the right way to go. If you go to Europe, governments like the Dutch government, or the Belgian, or Swedish-

Ross: Singapore.

Napier: Singapore’s outside Europe. But there’s a lot more. And then of course certain countries that are associated with governments tend to do it too. But you know, I’m pretty certain that it’s here to stay, it’s not a fad. Which a lot of these management helps are fads, and they disappear as soon as they’ve come. And people who say to me they don’t have time, I say well that’s not the question. The question is, are you a scenaric thinker?

And once you are a scenaric thinker, I say if you are a scenaric thinker, you can’t think non-scenarically. And therefore you’ve got the rest of your life. So it’s not a question, do I have enough time in the next three days, or whatever. You have the rest of your life. And you just …

I mean in Shell, I think what happened was that most of the best managers, after we introduced scenario planning, themselves became natural scenarists. And that’s how they thought. But I think the difference is whether you think you can create a future on the basis of your scenario, or whether you think the future’s going to create itself, and you have to adapt to cope with it. I think to me it’s a significant question, which it is.

Ross: So on a, I suppose different tack, we’ve talked before a lot about this idea of networked business models as well as doing business as a network as opposed to a more traditional value chain, where you buy things and you do things with them and then sell them to people. And a related aspect to that is openness. As in more open business models, open innovation, which goes back to I suppose this idea of external networks and how you can best bring in ideas from outside.

And my sense is that there is … you know, said back in my book Living Networks and before then, that I see that there is a gradual, though slow, trend to openness. In thinking, in business models. And that that is really transforming how business is being done. I mean, do you agree with that? Do you think that there is this kind of trend that’s changing how businesses produce values?

Napier: I think the truth is that the potential is growing all the time, every day. But the actuality may not be. I find there’s more secrecy than ever before. And that I think there’s even more aggressive competition than ever before.

Ross: So where is the secrecy?

Napier: Well, people don’t want to share. They want to grab and listen and take what they can, but they don’t want to give back. Pierre Wack always said that if you want anything valuable, the only way to get it is to give something equally valuable. And if you don’t do that you’ll never get it. And he would say, I would say, that if you give something valuable and you do this in the correct way, you’ll get three times the value back.

Ross: And so you’re saying that you’re not seeing as much of that kind of attitude today?

Napier: I think it’s partly because when we started GBN, that was very much what we were. If I said it once, I’ve said it 1,000 times, the only reason in the world I got to join the GBN. Why have you got to give that? You give that, you join GBN, you meet all these people, the reward will be 20 times what you gave. That was my pitch.

And what happened to GBN too, it was bought by a very, from my point of view, secretive, combative consulting firm who only saw enemies, and you know, in everybody else, people were trying to do them down. And you know, my aim in life was the exact opposite, was to cherish people and spend and much time with them as possible and add to them. And feel that the more I gave to them the more I would get in return and everyone, we would all benefit.

I feel that very much in the world of government today. I think the way the United States is behaving regarding China, for example, is just ridiculous. It’s the most counter-productive way of behaving. And if you can express a kind of creative love for people, that you’ll get a much better response than if you get a kind of creative hate that you have. And that’s really what the Americans give to the Russians, give to China.

And really, the truth is the Chinese and the Russians have changed out of all recognition. And if America’s somewhat welcoming, I think it would be a much healthier world. It’s absurd what’s happening. Maybe aided and abetted by Mr Howard, I don’t know.

Ross: Well, maybe the rebirth of the Cold War.

Napier: Ridiculous. That you should even say that is absurd.

Ross: Well it’s … It’s interesting that one of the most recent, well actually not that recent, but set of scenarios from Global Business Network, one of the dimensions was America’s degree of dominance, I think it was.

Napier: American hegemony.

Ross: Which is a fundamental dimension, but just a fact that that is considered as one of the most fundamental dimensions to the future of the world, I suppose, reflects our current and recent history.

Napier: Even if China is the leading hegemon in the world, it’s still got less than a quarter the number of people in the world. And I think that’s the kind of thing one should remember. That we’re all in a minority, and we should behave as if we’re in a minority. And not behave as if we’re top dog. Which is what people in America and China seem to aspire to.

Ross: When I … stop tapping. When I lived in Japan, one of the things which I found, I suppose, most instructive, was being a minority for a while. It’s a learning experience to be a minority. Because we’re so often … well many people, anyway, who are in the majority for all of their lives, and that gives them a different perspective on life.

Napier: I think it isn’t quite whether you’re a minority or a majority. I’ve lived in Africa for most of 10 years, and I was never remotely in the majority in Africa, but you had a kind of deference paid by the local people that’s part of the imperial past. British mores, for example, a kind of imperial power before America. The social setup was almost deferential. Being in England, it was deferential. And then if you went to India or Africa, the assumption was that the local people would be deferential, and so we’re seeing-

Ross: Yes, yes.

Napier: And that was very, very bad.

Ross: I saw that as a difference in Japan, or even China, which is the Middle Kingdom. Where deference isn’t necessary paid to white-skinned people. There’s more a belief that they … their own roles. Which I suppose comes back to us, again, thinking of scenarios for the future. I mean actually I am very interested in the issues of the oil in all of that, and the role of oil in geopolitics. So do you think that oil is beginning, or will have, a smaller role in global geopolitics than it has in the past? Because it has really been very central for a long time now.

Napier: I think it’s a very interesting question, obviously. I always felt, being in the business of oil, more than the geopolitics, I always felt that if you’re rich enough you could always buy oil on the market, that was my common-sense attitude. And when I was in this meeting, started talking to a Chinese guy, and he felt the only problem there was the Americans, the British and so on had bought up so much oil already that the Chinese had to go to places like Darfur, or countries of Africa to catch up. And that was his attitude.

I think the Americans made an unbelievable mistake by trying to give the impression that they were a hegemon, rather than being just plain rich. Which meant that in the marketplace, they could afford to buy the oil, as a healthier thing, I thought. But as far as America’s concerned, I say I was in this meeting, Amory Lovins wrote this paper in Foreign Affairs in 1976 called The Road Not Taken. The road not taken was that by the end of the decade they could have cured the habit of being obsessed by oil and addicted to oil. It’s completely unnecessary to remain addicted.

But then, so it is about people who smoke, or drink, or sex or whatever it is. Addiction is hard to give up. But the Americans could’ve given it up. And after 1980 for five years they did give it up. And the price of oil rocketed up again after 1980. And for five years, America in a sense did give up its addiction. They made smaller cars, used smaller cars, they had heavier control on how much oil you could have in an engine to produce speed, and so on. There was a time. And then gradually everything went back to normal. Normal being the state where you just had the biggest possible car, very powerful car. And saving energy wasn’t regarded as important.

Ross: Yes, yes. Well that’s why I’ve always thought that it’s crazy to have such low taxes on oil in the US, and so much … Also I recognize the political realities of it. It seems like so much could be fixed by having higher oil taxes in the US. By whatever way they’re introduced. Now there’s the talk of this idea of putting a floor to oil prices by putting taxes in if they go below a certain level. Which is actually palatable, and conceivable, and could stimulate investment in other segments. But if you compare the tax on oil in the US compared to other countries around the world, that’s one of the things which has led to this massive oil dependence.

Napier: I think the problem is that if you produce oil, your inhabitants don’t expect to have to pay double for what’s their patrimony.

Ross: Well, there’s cigarette taxes.

Napier: And look at Venezuela, or Iraq, Iran and so on. They pay virtually no tax on the oil. And the price of gasoline is nothing. And I think America … I think that was one other thing that happens in America, being the major producer for many years, they fell into that trap. Some countries, like Norway, select their people for production. So they charge them full amount.

Ross: Right.

Napier: In that whole area is a big conundrum for oil-producing countries. I always say in America, someone said, “Well what should we do,” I said “Well just go to Naples and look around. You’ll find that cars are about 1/10 of the size of American cars. You’ll find most people are on putt-putt little motorbikes. And the rest are on bicycles, or on foot.” And if you look at the costs, it’s marginal, nothing. Yet Americans think somehow that a car should be the size of this table, when in Italy it’s just from here to there, you know.

Ross: Well there have been some historical accidents here. Originally, when the car industry took off, before there were dominant manufacturers like Ford, there were, I believe, electric cars than there were petrol-powered cars. And various accidents meant that it took a particular course, and that’s been accentuated over the last decades. I suppose the issue is now, there is through alternative energy forms and batteries and all these things, we’re looking to that shift.

Napier: I don’t think we’ve quite broken the back of batteries yet, I wish we had.

Ross: No, no, and that is pretty fundamental.

Napier: My personal belief is that within 50 years we will have broken the addiction and we’ll have a completely different transportation system, power system and so on.

Ross: So 50 years, did you say?

Napier: Yes. You know Shell’s done scenarios for the next 50 years, energy scenarios. I think we’ve probably got to look that far ahead. As I say it was significant at this meeting that the official company line is that we’re not really short of oil. I think on a day-to-day basis it’s probably true, but it’s different to know whether you have enough oil today or whether you’re going to have enough oil in 20, 30, 40 years time.

Ross: Or enough energy.

Napier: When in fact the demand has been growing in the way it has. And I think this whole area is still a very fertile area for scenaric thinking. And any government that doesn’t use scenarios I think is silly. There’s one country, I forget which one, just refuses to think like that. But you know, fair question to ask, is scenaric thinking here to stay? It better be, is my opinion.

Ross: Yes, yes. Well I think to a point it’s inevitable. In that, as I say, I definitely see that the pace of change is beyond what most people comprehend at the moment. And there’s a certain point that’s gonna become evident. I mean I often point out to people that now it’s 14 years since the web browser was invented, it didn’t even exist 14 years ago today. And people just now accept this as just fundamental to their lives.

And the same with mobile phones, and so on. We come to accept things very quickly, even though we resist change as it comes. And I think that there’s a certain point where we will increasingly just be boggled by that pace of change and we’ll be forced to think in ways of saying, “Well we cannot predict what’s happening, but we can get a grip on it through thinking in a structured way about what could happen.”

Napier: I think you could argue that things are much slower than the past. I think they’re a mixture. And that if you talk to someone like Peter Schwartz, who’s so impatient that any single, tiny development on any machine that he has he’ll patch and go at. But he’s got an addiction to bunk, lend his machine. And that store we just went to, the Apple Store. It’s a tiny, tiny, tiny store. And your typical Australian wasn’t in that store, probably never will be.

I think it’s a good question, actually. Even if you can predict the future, which parts of the future will be acted upon most quickly. That’s a very interesting question. And a lot of times, even if you can foresee the future, you do everything you can to prevent it happening.

Ross: Which does take us back, I think, to as well the technology of connection and the social networks. Where I suppose one of the … I’ve seen a certain divide I guess between some people who say okay, these are great tools to keep in touch with people, or get in touch with people I haven’t been in touch with, or ways to immerse my social in another’s people, and say I don’t wanna do that for any number of reasons, privacy, or it’s just not an appropriate way of interacting with people.

And on one level that does actually create a segment of people, those that are involved and not. But it also is I suppose a little about how these people are responding to change, and coming back to just how human connections. I think our latent humanity is being expressed in different ways, to being able to connect in different ways. But only some people are exploring that.

Napier: I think you’re bound to think, if you’ve lived through the well which was the original social networking opportunity, and you think back through GBN, you’re bound to think that millions of people that were being able to think thoughts which in the past they’ve never reached. Because the networking through the computer has enabled people to stay in touch. I think to some extent the telephone did that in a previous generation.

And I think there was a time in a previous generation to that that if you had a bright idea, nobody ever knew about it. You know, there was no way … Like the whole study of genetics was understood while Charles Darwin was alive, but nobody put two and four together, so Darwin never knew about genetics, which he could’ve done easily. And you could argue that in the present world, he almost certainly would’ve done, because the speed in which information is used on the internet. Somebody would’ve brought it to Darwin’s attention, and he would’ve had to.

Ross: Yes. I think that is one of the real fundamental drivers of what I think of as the acceleration, is the fact that ideas can be connected so much more quickly. And there was a great little example of this this week, where somebody had this idea for an I-hologram, which is on an iPhone, just being able to set up a design of it so that when you look down it looks like it’s three-dimensional, just through using anamorphic representation as the way in which you represent perspective.

And he did a little video of it which showed how this would work. And it looked like it was real, but he just actually pretended it was real and created a little video. But this was a seed. So now many, many people around the world have seen this, and he says, “Well I’m an ideas person, I’ve given people the idea, and now there’s thousands, or even 100,000 people who are thinking about how they could use this.” So actually the idea becomes a reality.

So the ideas become connected as never before, which comes back in that, you know I suppose that conversation around finding the remarkable people. In a way it’s finding the ideas. The ideas are far more accessible, the problem is there’s a surfeit of information and ideas that being connected to all those ideas is actually creating a … means that those, perhaps not the remarkable people, but the remarkable ideas are far more accessible, and people can have that heterogeneous environment can surround themselves with diverse ideas to be able to think better in a way that’s never been possible before.

Napier: I have a funny feeling we’ve talked about this before. Sounds much like a subject that I’ve heard you talk about before, and I usually tend to be agnostic about it. In the sense that … I think there’s a lot of problems. First problem is accessibility. I mean do you really access all this stuff? How does any brain know when and where to access something? There’s this stream of information all the time, how do you know which bits are the crucial bits to improve … You know, this guy Francis Crick, for example, did DNA-

Ross: DNA helix.

Napier: I saw it today, I walked past a bookshop, and they the slide for … Crick was going back. And somehow when you read about Crick, a lot of people think he was the greatest scientist of the 20th century. Why? Because he had this extraordinary facility of seeing problems and then finding solutions to problems. And almost any problem he was given … and he’d been a physicist originally, he went into biology, and became a crystallographer. It didn’t matter, the next 50 years, whatever you threw at him. And he ended up with Hodgkinsons and didn’t quite make any. And probably did another 50 years he’d have probably got consciousness too.

Somebody like Crick who wasn’t … he was at the absolute tail end of his life, possibly, using the computers for… learning. But until that he just reminded himself that the tapestry can be confined. I think that’s really the secret of his success, I think, meeting with very very clever people and then being able to think with them and think better than them, and it almost didn’t matter who he was with, he just formed an intellectual partnership.

Coming to your point, the intellectual partnership was one thing, that’s the raw brain power. But the data, like genetics and Darwin, who was responsible for that? How was it done? Now I bet you as much as you like that the seminal idea about that, that if only the right person got to know about them, and think about them, we could transfer the world. It doesn’t have anything. And I read science magazines, including Nature in America. And I get it electronically and every which way. But it’s no good because I’ve got no … all I’ve got is the information, I call it information chunking.

Whereas someone like Crick, if he got … or someone like Peter Schwartz, if he gets The Economist every week he almost essentially knows which story to settle on as being the crucial story. I don’t really think reading The Economist really. It’s like I read every week religiously, and usually there’s one, maybe half a story, the next week there’s another story.

But there’s no way that you can guarantee any amazing discovery. I mean even the DNA discovery. There’s thousands of chances took count in different places. It’s only when you look backwards you can see how it happened. You can’t see how it’s gonna happen.

Ross: Yes. I mean a lot of that is about the human cognition, and the marvel that is the ability of the human brain to synthesize information. And that’s the process which you describe as active synthesis. Being able to pick out what is valuable and connect that with other ideas to make something new out of that in terms of a new idea or concept. But one of the reasons that I am so deeply interested in the future of media is that …

You know it kind of is to the issues that you were just talking about, in that media, as something that supports human society, could be extraordinarily effective if it does indeed provide … enable people to find the right stimulus or connection or idea which is relevant to what they are doing, thus to accelerate or create more of those connections or insights or whatever it is that ultimately gives us the ability to live richer, happier lives.

And I think that media in a broader sense is what enables it. And that’s why social media, as the connections between people, is really part of the puzzle, as how we find or don’t find some of those connections. As in human connections, get introduced to people, or stimulus as in “that’s the right idea which helps me to understand the problem I’m working on at the time.” And I think that we are possibly on the verge of being in a place where that media landscape is such that it facilitates us having those stimulus and ideas and connections the things that enable us to create more and live better.

Napier: I feel … I mean I’m on lots of networked information flows on the computer. And I think, you know, mostly it’s reinforcing rather than finding something new. And I suspect, if there’s something new I wouldn’t notice it. It would just pass by.

Ross: That’s the human cognition part. That’s part of the human tendency, which scenario thinking pushes against. If you think scenarically you’re far more likely to take on different perspectives that you would otherwise, and that’s why I think a lot of people have problems where even if they get exposed to other information they don’t take it in. But if you’re thinking scenarically, then that does mean that you are sensitized to a far broader range of information. So that scenario thinking then becomes a real critical tool for sorting through the information that we get exposed to.

Napier: I think my experience in this practical scenaric work we did at Shell was that somebody along the line would have an insight. And then would share it with colleagues. And then the colleagues would get it. But you know everybody could’ve been exposed to the same original raw data, but nobody got it. Nobody had a narrative to explain this.

Ross: Yes.

Napier: That’s why some people are particularly good at doing this kind of thing, they always seem to … not that they spot the fact, but they spot the relationship of the fact to everything else.

Ross: Yes, right. Well it’s probably a good juncture to round out our conversation, it was fantastic. It was actually really interesting, and I look forward to looking at the video, listening to this again. Just because I think there’s a lot of strands that were woven together which are actually all related.

Napier: I feel we … And I said halfway through, we’ve talked about a lot of these things in the past, and we were breaking new territory at times today. But you can tell that I feel we’re still in the process of working all this out. I don’t think we’re anywhere near getting the right answer. That if we had the right answer, there’d only be half a dozen people who got it, the rest of us would still play catch-up. And by the time we’ve caught up, there’ll be another distance between us and what’s going on.

Ross: Yes.

Napier: But I’ve said to you before, I think we’re in a very amazing, creative part of life’s history. And as Reagan used to say, we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Ross: I absolutely think so, Yes.

Napier: I’m sure we’ve said that before, laughed at that. It’s very difficult for any of us, and we’re just a couple of individuals, you tend to be looking in one direction and seeing … and another direction same thing. But I know I could say to you, “well you missed that one,” and you could say to me, “you completely missed that.” You know, I just sort of instinctively know, I’m not sure what’s going on.

I’m hoping that … GBN does still do a lot of scenaric work, I’m hoping that there will be some breakthroughs. I’m conscious at the moment that most of the scenario stories, the good stories, were some time ago. We don’t have too many success stories of late. But I think that may be the way it is. I mean the Shell scenarios, we never told anybody about the Shell scenarios for the first 10 or 15 years, probably that was wise. And we only knew how successful they’d been with hindsight.

Ross: Well next time we catch up, wherever that is around the world, we can perhaps do another conversation and see where the next idea comes from.

Napier: Well that would be interesting. If you had half an hour in your life some time, if you would think the questions you asked and the answers I gave, what are the questions you would’ve asked, and what are the answers I might’ve given. I don’t think … you know you can barely scratch the surface-

Ross: Absolutely.

Napier: And most brains just don’t work fast enough, including mine doesn’t. You know if you talk to Peter Schwartz, a lot of things that we were saying, in a sense he’s already doing. He’s responding to a whole lot of things. But I’m sure that if he’s honest, there are thousands of things that he’s not responding to at all, or he doesn’t know how to. He doesn’t notice it.You know, this business of noticing things.

Ross: But I think that’s part of also for me is what I think of as living a rich life. A rich life is one where you’re not just exposed to lots of interesting people and situations and experiences and cultures and so on, but you notice them. And I think that’s what I aspire to, is living a rich life where I get exposed to lots of really rich experiences.

Napier: I think noticing them is almost the key couple of words. In Pierre Wack’s case, you know what he called the gentle art of re-perceiving, was essentially that. He was noticing things that nobody else noticed. And he would suddenly see a relationship which nobody else had got. Looking back, we did an astonishing job, that’s one reason I’ve collected all this data for us as an option. You know, sooner or later we will try and put it together and understand what happened, and therefore reproduce it. But you know, there are people who think scenarios are a waste of time in their opinion. Obviously I don’t agree with that.

But as Angela Wilkinson said, up at this place, she’s thinking of writing a book on the rise and fall of scenario planning in Shell. Because she feels they kind of lost the way. In fact the latest energy scenarios were based on a model, which would’ve been utter anathema to Pierre Wack, to imagine you could model successfully something like energy.