Mentor Speak: Tom LaForge

June 1, 2012 8:35 pm

Tom LaForge PhotoTom LaForge, our newest Mix & Stir mentor, brings a unique and seasoned perspective on cultural and consumer trends. He shares his insights on what’s really shaping the world of 2020:

Tom, your job as Global Director of Human & Cultural Insights for Coca-Cola seems like a daunting role. The world is a big place and change is happening at break-neck speed. How do you decide where to focus and what to track?

There’s a team of us working on this, but you’re right, it’s still a daunting task so we focus on insights we believe are most relevant to predicting the world of 2020. It goes something like this: we start with macroforces – large long-term global changes that are easy to predict because they are already happening and there is no stopping them. For example, we can confidentially predict that the world is becoming more interconnected; its population is becoming wealthier; physical tasks will continue to be offloaded to machines and transactional processing to computers; and civil society will increase in power relative to governments and corporations. We know, with a very high degree of certainty that these macroforces will continue to shape the future environment.

This matters because when environments change, people change their behaviors, attitudes and even their values. This is where it gets interesting. When large groups of people change in the same way we call these “people trends.” A few notable “people trends” we currently see happening are the rising value of design, the increasing influence of women, calls for social and environmental justice and an increasing focus on happiness and wellbeing. “People trends” are powerful. They drive business trends, NGO trends, and consumer trends. When we see a product, an idea or a new usage pattern that is the result of people changing their behaviors, attitudes or values due to an immutable macroforce, then we have a high degree of confidence that it’s not simply a “fad” – it’s very likely to be a part of the world of 2020.

If you were a twenty-something entrepreneur with a thirst for being at the leading edge of cultural change, where would you travel and what would you seek?

We can start by asking “Are some cultures more influential than others?” and “Since all cultures are exposed to all others, doesn’t it make sense that they would share similarities we could call a global culture?” A good place to find the answers to these questions is with Richard Florida’s work. He’s ranked cities based on their global cultural influence. The strongest ones are easy to intuit: New York, London, Tokyo, etc. But to develop a deeper list, Florida deduced the qualities that make for a culturally influential city – things like a multiplicity of ethnicities, lifestyles and income levels. Places with this type of diversity thrive, particularly when accompanied by an attitude of openness to new ideas and, importantly, a city structure that causes people with different talents, worldviews, and ideas to randomly come across each other. The Bay Area is a great example with its sea port, three international airports, multiple world class universities, a thriving gay or otherwise bohemian/alternative community, and several different ethnicities. All this brings educated, talented, open-minded people from around the world crashing together in unexpected ways.

Ironically, despite the heightened importance of a global sensibility, we don’t need to travel far to study its leading edge. For the first time in history we have a sizable cultural subgroup dispersed across the entire planet. We do not really have a good name for this subgroup yet but we can easily describe them. Think of the “I’m a Mac, and I’m a PC” ad campaign. The Mac Guy is a perfect archetype for this global subgroup. These people tend to be educated, to be highly digital, and to exhibit the qualities Dan Pink mentioned in his book A Whole New Mind – things like design savvy, playfulness, storytelling ability, empathy, a penchant for meaningfulness, and the ability to comfortably see the patterns in complex sets of disparate data. No travel is needed to study this subgroup because they are very likely in your own backyard. And if you are indeed a twenty-something entrepreneur with a thirst for being at the leading edge of cultural change then you are very likely one of these people.

You grew up in Palo Alto when Silicon Valley was in its infancy. What’s surprised you the most about the development of consumer technology?

Consider how amazing it is that today we so unthinkingly and naturally link these two worlds together – “consumer” and “technology.” Technology used to be what astronauts, scientists and business people had. Even once it started to cross over, for a long time, consumer technology was just reapplied, stripped down, professional stuff. Your “home” computer was essentially an underpowered version of your work computer.

What surprised me most about the development of true consumer technology is that we first thought it was all about devices. But with every version of DOS, every version of ZORK and other videogames, every “Remain in Light” cassette or other song, it quickly became apparent that the media was where the action was. Devices understandably distracted us. After all, they were sexy, new-to-the-world objects of desire at a time when status symbols were highly coveted, but media provided a rich, multiplicity of immersive consumer experiences and we began to realize that Mark Weiser was right – devices serve best as quiet, invisible servants. In the end, experiences are all that matter.

Footnote: my dad was attending Stanford in the early 1960s seeking a degree in architecture. A company called International Business Machines needed people to help create some new stuff called “source code” for something called a “computer.” They tested a lot of Stanford students for logical thinking and advanced numeracy. My dad scored well enough to be recruited pre-degree into one of the earliest cohorts of computer programmers. Although my job title might not suggest it, I am very proud to be a second-generation nerd.