The most fundamental difference between ordinariness and the capacity to achieve, this is the least known thing called - power to receive.

SUBROTO BAGCHI

PUBLIC SERVANT – AUTHOR - ENTREPRENEUR

In Search of Tomorrow: The Idea of Futurity

In Search of Tomorrow: The Idea of Futurity

In Search of Tomorrow: The Idea of Futurity

12th Foundation Day Lecture at Indian Institute of Technology, Bhubaneswar by Subroto Bagchi, Chairman, Odisha Skill Development Authority

Feb 12, 2020

 

Director IIT, Dr Raja Kumar, teachers, members of staff, students, ladies and gentlemen.

I am deeply honored that you have asked me to deliver the 12th Foundation Day Lecture of this venerable institution. From the very beginning, thanks to Dr Rajakumar’s indulgence, there has been a very affectionate relationship between this IIT and me. When the announcement for the starting of the IIT here was made, as a son of the soil, I was greatly delighted.

The State government, on its part, has been most welcoming with a generous grant of nearly 936 acres of scenic land, to build this campus, next to the historic epicenter of India’s first mutiny against foreign rule. It is, to us, sacred space. 

All freedom resides in the mind. Freedom is essential to pursuit of knowledge. All creativity is an act of  freewill. The location of the IIT, at the current exalted place, is no random event. I pray and hope that free men and women would be born here who would be brave to seek, to question, to learn, to create and to more importantly, to give back with great generosity and abandon.

Over the years, I have been a regular visitor to this great institution. My wife Susmita and I have been fortunate to seed the Centre of Excellence for Augmented and Virtual Reality, in a four-way partnership with the IIT, the Government of Odisha and the Software Technology Park of India. We seeded it to create an incubation center in the domain of Augmented and Virtual Reality. We have very high hopes that this Centre of Excellence will show the path for many more such innovative platforms that would be nested within the IIT, to make it a landing ground of ideas and people from all over the world so that Bhubaneswar would become as well known in science-based entrepreneurship as it is in the world of history, architecture, art, literature, craft and culture.

Let me now shift to my chosen area of conversation with you this evening. The idea behind it was sitting  my mind for a long time. But for everything, there must be a trigger. It happened when Dr Raja Kumar asked that I deliver the 12th Foundation Lecture. After agreeing to him, I mulled over many themes but somehow the thought that I should discuss the notion of futurity came up to the fore with a will of its own. The term futurity is defined as the “quality of being in or of the future”. We all know, we live in the future. For centuries, we have obsessed over things that have not yet happened.

 

This obsession ranges from trying to find solutions to current ( as in cure for cancer) and sometimes future problems (threat of nuclear war by non-state entities, global warming and its unseen consequences) to crystal gazing for what the stars may foretell for us in own our personal lives.

Even in a scientific age in which we live, people do read horoscope columns in newspapers. We constantly think about future grades, careers, compensation, relationships, material savings, inheritance and many other things.

The same way, we also think of a collective future. We think of what may happen to us as groups and communities, societies and nations. Yet, very little conversation happens on how we could build greater ability to understand the future and even influence it so that we may be in position of better advantage, have a higher degree of control over it. Of course, we have a choice, of letting go, of being completely pacific about things that happen yet and there well may be an argument in favor of it. Yet, a majority of us, would not lead a life of complete detachment or a state of Nirvana.

Most people are here to build a career, become entrepreneurs, they would have aspirations and ambition and all of those things would justify discussing the idea of futurity. But in so doing, I do not intend to don the garb of a philosopher for I am not one. I want to look back and look around, to draw empirical lessons, validate some of those with what has worked for me to offer you a few cues. In time, I am sure, you would add to these and the body of our collective experience and wisdom, may even lend itself to scientific study. Today, I want to discuss how we can develop greater futurity.

Here, I want to share two interesting perspectives: one is about how the word future has been used over time and secondly, how the idea of future emanates from and impacts our neural activity in the brain.

When you look at how often the term itself has been used, which is a good indicator of its usage, hence, popularity, you would find, from the 1800s through the 1900s, its usage was flat. Between 1900 and 1950, the usage graph started rising sharply and between 1950 and now, relative to the former period, the usage of the word has doubled. Simply told, as a race, we are becoming more concerned about the future, we are becoming more future oriented, we are discussing our future more than ever before. I believe, this trend will only rise in the days ahead.

The second perspective is about how the human brain thinks. What do we think about when we think anything at all?  Our thoughts originate in the brain as electrical impulses. We are told, an average person runs through 60 to 70,000 thoughts in the brain every day. Most of these thoughts are about things past. Some are about the here and the now and relatively a smaller number of thoughts are about the future. To understand this, all we need to do is to periodically freeze the mind for a second and ask ourselves, what was that thought, the one that just ran through my mind, about? To engage with the future, we need to think of it more. That is the starting point of futurity.

I believe, futurity has to do with access to information. Less we have access to information, lesser would be the propensity to think about things in the future. We, the urban educated class of people, take information access as a given. That isn’t the case for a vast majority of people. Today, access to information is almost equated with Internet access. Yet, I would argue, access to Internet alone does not make us informed. There are many other factors at play, one of which is the quality and quantity of school education. To understand the idea of access to information, we can take a current example of the corona virus.

The knowledge about its outbreak, possible causality, likelihood of me being affected and the consequent futurity it would all cause, begins with my access to information about it.

Speaking about access to information, I made a point about the quality and the quantity of school education. One of the most important effect of the quality of education we receive, is the awakening of curiosity. It is a response system that is latent in many of us. When we activate it, practice it, it becomes second nature and we can use it as a tool to unlock things. Curiosity needs kindling and nurturing early in life. People who are not curious, are unlikely to engage with things that haven’t yet happened, far less the impact of their interconnectedness.

Futurity has a strong linkage to two things I have experienced as a child: it has to do with the presence of strong role models in the vicinity and the setting of ambition. Role models, when they are present, are a powerful influence in our lives. We do not fully realize how deep is their contribution. Here I must tell you, when we think of role models, we tend to think of people who are larger than life. But often, there are people who were there, in an imperceptible but strong way, who have made a difference to our way of thinking and life-choices we made. There are many reasons why the presence of role models in our lives has a linkage to the idea of futurity. We tend to emulate the way our role models think or do things; this has to do with the mirror-neurons in our brain that learn by mimicking.

The presence of role models makes us want to be like them and this wanting is essentially not rooted in the here and the now. We wish we become like this aunt, uncle, parent, sibling, teacher, friend, in the future as we grow up someday. This in itself is a practice of futurity.

The other thing that strongly impacts futurity, is ambition. By its very nature, ambition is always about the future. Ambitious people engage with possibilities, they think about what could happen and are therefore more likely to think about their role and influence, as well as gaps vis-à-vis their ambition. Ambition, like curiosity, is often latent and given the right impetus, we can raise the ambition level in people. We can make ambition-setting a process, not just for big things, but small, everyday things in life. I think, ambition is a tool. And knowledge of and practice of this tool, is best initiated when someone is very young. It is in the phase of life when the runway is both wide and long. If someone has practiced ambitioning, early on, over runways that are wide and long, that individual can take off and land even as the runway shrinks, as it happens to all of us when we grow older.

Talking of early life experiences, I have come to believe that playfulness is an important ingredient of futurity. Playfulness has many sub texts – it is about joy, exploration, imagination, spontaneity, creativity and innovation. As children, we are playful – not just at play, but in every other thing we do. But most of us lose the playfulness as we become adults.

A particularly fascinating part of this playfulness is the ability to look at an object but converting it into something very different in one’s mind. As a child growing up in places where there were neither toys nor playgrounds, I often found myself improvising things. Like building a jeep with abandoned bricks and a dam with rainwater. The jeep was nothing but a bunch of bricks lying near our house that I often put together and spend hours, sitting inside it, imagining I am driving it. The dam was seasonal. Whenever it rained in the mountain districts of Odisha where we grew up, we would build imaginary dams across the  gushing rivulets of rainwater that lasted until it found lower ground and the rain stopped.

We made mud dams and through it, pushed the hollow stems of papaya plants to let the water flow out in gushes, imagining the sluice gates of the Hirakud dam. Only later in life, did I learn that this ability to see one thing and converting it into something else, is called transmogrification. Many of us drop it as we progress into adulthood. Those who preserve it become genius. When a Steve Jobs saw an MP3 player, in his mind, he is seeing the iPod and when he saw the iPod, he imagined it as the iPhone. All engineering breakthroughs happen in the mind before they happen on the drawing board.

The other important requirement for futurity is empathy. It may sound unusual but empathetic people are able to see the predicament of others and they are more likely to respond to the predicament with solutions. There is increasingly greater discourse on the idea of empathy among doctors, scientists, and researchers who are working in areas like ageing, pain alleviation, rehabilitation, palliative care and for that matter, anything that concerns quality of life.

Alongside empathy, futurity askes for collaboration as a strategic competence. If we contemplate the idea of finding solutions to any significant problem, very quickly, it becomes evident that it requires experts in more than one area to work together. In some sense, it is like a hospital dealing with someone needing surgery. You need the pathologist, the internal medicine specialist, the surgeon, the therapist, the nurse, the counsellor, the dietician and depending on the complexity, half a dozen other experts to work closely together for the individual to recover. The same is true in case of research, both scientific and social. It makes sense because there is no one future, there are many futures. Hence, we need different people who must bring in their capacity to unlock the future as a collective, a montage. Collaboration is indeed a key criterion for future success for all of us. Greater the complexity we must deal with, higher the unknown and lesser the time on hand, higher is the need to collaborate.

Futurity is about the power of vision. From my experience of working with great leaders across sectors, I have come to deduce a common key capability they all possess: it’s the power of vision and the ability to carry their people with them, in creating a vision community and to implement that vision. Visioning is not just a matter of seeing something in the mind’s eye, conjuring the image of something grand and aspirational. Vision that leads to large scale, transformative change, asks for deep knowledge of the visioning process itself. There is more science and rigor to it than we traditionally thought.  This element of leadership has other subtexts as well. Take for example, optimism, ability to build a network, resilience, openness to contrarian views and most importantly, seeing things as they really are, even if they may be inconvenient.

There are many other things that come to my mind as I contemplate the idea of futurity but in the interest of time today, I would like to confine myself to just three other things.

One has to do with diversity. People who do not actively enjoy diversity, do not see diversity as a positive thing, would more likely build a lopsided view of the future. They would be futurity challenged. Seeing an incomplete or inaccurate view of the future can be sub-optimal and even downright dangerous. Some of us have a benign, even idealistic view of diversity. Increasingly, people are seeing a strong correlation between diversity and significant economic value creation.

Economist Richard Florida argues that there is a strong relationship between the economic vibrancy of a city and the sheer number of its Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual and Transgender population. But sexual diversity is jus a metaphor. The future doesn’t arrive everywhere at the same time. It arrives in places where respect for the outlier, and not tolerance, is the highest.

The mastering of futurity requires us to engage holistically with all our brain faculties. Though the lateralization of the brain has been sometimes overdone and has come under criticism, yet seeing certain kinds of brain functions as distinct, is helpful. We need to engage with our logical capabilities traditionally held as left-brain, as much as we need to see the big picture and the inter-connectedness of things associated with the right-brain. The future isn’t just one thing or the other. It is a complex amalgam of reason and passion, the scientific, the sociological and the spiritual. Engaging with the future calls for not just knowledge but wisdom, not just the capacity to gather data and evidence but the capability to do sense-making.

Finally, the idea of futurity requires the willingness to experiment with oneself. People who engage with it and see it coming are not bystanders. Those who step out of their sphere, sometimes risk their personal sense of security, sometimes their identity itself, are the ones who can leap through the chasm to be in tune with tomorrow.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen, today, IIT Bhubaneswar is crossing over from childhood into the teens. Next year, this institution would be a teenager. This crossing-over is hugely significant. It would mean the institution would leave behind its childhood and start its own journey into adulthood. This would be a journey to seek identity. IIT Bhubaneswar would have to create a special place for itself among the other IITs, while retaining its intellectual heritage. It must take us all to someplace new, different and unexplored. Towards that journey, in me and Susmita, you have a friend who would be always around to give their small might so that you bring the future to our State.

Thank you all, I wish you the very best.

 

 

 

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The Professional Companion
Go Kiss the World: Life Lessons For The Young Professional

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The Times Of India - August 27, 2020

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Outlook India - November 12, 2018

A Bridge called Hope

India Today - December 06, 2014

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