Getting to know Ari Popper //
SciFutures Sense Group is excited to announce its Asia Pacific partnership with SciFutures, a leading foresight and innovation agency. The association offers forward-thinking Australian (APAC) brands a unique and transformative way to experience their own future and take advantage of the powerful emerging opportunities that will occur over the next 10 years. As part of the partnership, Elysia sat down with the CEO and Founder of SciFutures, Ari Popper, and ask him some questions about how SciFutures came to be, the latest emerging tech and what the future of experience might look like.
Elysia: So we’re here because Sense is partnering with SciFutures, which is really exciting. And as part of that, we really want to be able to get to know who Ari Popper is and the brains behind the business, so we put together some questions that we thought we would ask you in order to get to know you. So the first question...
When did your fascination with the future begin?
Ari Popper: I’ve always been interested in possibilities, I remember when I was a little kid I used to read the Guinness Book of Records and I was a proper little geek and it always amazed me at the potential of what human beings can achieve, and that people can just do these ridiculous things and it always gave me the sense that anything is possible and you know like most people who are into the future was like this little sci-fi nerd so always reading science fiction early, young, comics, sci-fi and I was always fascinated with this idea that we could be anything we wanted, you know nothing was impossible and I always believed that deep in my heart and I still do I think, even in our darkest times when the world seems totally shit, I still believe that deep down, deep, deep, deep inside. So yeah, I think from a very young age.
Elysia: I mean I think the future is always a beaming light ahead of everybody. And exactly what you said about, there are so many possibilities just by expanding your mind to what can be ahead rather than what is only in front of you.
Ari Popper: That’s 100% right and you know we’ve seen that with our work as well. We’ve undertaken really difficult projects that seem frankly impossible but you can do amazing things, you just need to believe and that’s where the storytelling comes in.
Elysia: Yeah absolutely, and pushing those boundaries is obviously, that’s where the world sees the most significant changes right? So I guess through people like yourself and through Sense and Anthony and Mark pushing those boundaries on what is actually achievable and the way that story gets told, that’s where significant world change happens. It’s a really beautiful thing.
Ari Popper: Exactly.
So do you want to tell us a little bit about your professional background and how you came to start SciFutures?
Ari Popper: Sure yeah, I started my career really as a copywriter. It wasn’t a very happy job but it was interesting and I learned a lot. And then I shifted to market research. I actually went to university in Australia and studied at Sydney Uni and then I did a social science degree up in Queensland in Psychology. So I knew how to do research so I went into market research and it was a great career. I worked my way up to the president of a small company that I grew the US division. They hired me to start to the US division so I really loved that whole ‘growing a business from scratch’, and it was almost like growing a business with training wheels because it wasn’t my business - it was a division of another business, but I was still responsible for it but you know, the worst that could happen was I would lose my job. And it didn’t, it did really well and then I thought, Oh I wonder if I could do this for myself but I didn’t want to do market research anymore. I was kind of tired of it. I needed a new challenge but I had no idea what to do, absolutely no idea. So I took a bit of time, just thinking about it. And then what I did was write science fiction as a hobby so I went to UCLA and did a course there and it was during the classes that I had the idea that sci-fi could be a consultants tool and agency. And then that kind of gave birth to the idea and then I just started it and here we are, 7 years later.
Elysia: It reminds me of, I can’t remember the name of the professor (retrospect info: Randy Pausch) who was an Imagineer. He gave that famous last lecture on YouTube. And the similar thing he was an Imagineer and imagines the future. But he was more integrated with gaming and trying to reinvent gaming. But you’ve had an incredible background in terms of understanding human psychology, behaviours and how that is all interwoven with business as well.
Ari Popper: Yeah, that was useful but also being involved in client service my entire career working with big companies. I think that was my most important skill, and really trying to push. I was always a bit of a maverick working with traditional companies in a traditional way, I was always trying to push and trying to do things differently - it’s just my nature. I was never happy with the status quo, I just can’t be. So I think that in combination was good. So that’s how I got into it.
Elysia: Well I guess that leads nicely into the next question
How does the process typically work with a client, when you’re working with them and trying to understand their needs and how they can take that leap forward?
Ari Popper: So the first thing is usually, you know, try and understand what the client is trying to achieve and what are their objectives, you really have to be crystal clear on that. And the best engagements are when clients are looking for meaningful transformations so they’re not just looking for “Oh, tell us about our future” and then not do the hard work. So if the client is trying to create new and innovative ways of thinking about the future, and to build and to change culture those are the best projects, those are the ones that we look for. And clients can say they want it but when it comes down to do it they may not be able to. Or, they can say they want it and when it comes down to do it they may not want to because it’s too scary. But occasionally you get these brave clients who really believe in it and don’t care if they want to do it no matter what happens, those are the projects that we love. So when we get those projects and there’s a good fit both in terms of their budget and their vision, in terms of what we think is the right thing to do we will engage. And occasionally we get clients where we just know it’s not going to happen and it usually just peters out. They’re not as frequent as you think. This isn’t a factory where you are doing 40-50 projects a year. It’s more 3-4 really deep projects and you work with these clients for a long time, you know 2-3 years - not all of them but the good ones. So first of all the way it works is we agree on an objective, we will usually do some research and get to understand their industry, what they think and know about the future, some interviews. And then we will go into a workshop. It’s usually a 2-day science fiction prototyping workshop and we’ve developed this really powerful technique to help them imagine and envision where they want to be: they imagine themselves out of business, disrupted, we bring in these amazing speakers each with incredible knowledge either in technology or in cultures changing. Then we will do these ideation exercises and that typically becomes raw material for their strategic vision. We will then take that information and we will brief our writers that we have grown every day about 280 writers around the world, science fiction writers, we’re happy to say quite a few of them are Hugo Award Winners so they’re well-known, award-winning, published writers and we will brief them based on the science facts and emerging technologies, and it’s always grounded in what’s emerging - it’s not completely hypothetical fantasy stories or crazy sci-fi that’s useless. And then we will get their responses back and we will usually get about 40 different responses which are amazing data source when you think about it. And then we will analyze that for trans insights, themes opportunity areas. Then we will do a really killer for the client and then we will workshop that again. And then at that point, we will think about hi-fidelity storytelling so now that we know what the narrative vision is then we’ve got a great strategic document to back it up, how do we actually bring that to life that the organisation can actually absorb it, socialise it, and be moved to act. Then we have this whole suite of storytelling tools, everything from live action film, visual effects, enomatics, we’ve done VR, graphic novels, story books, novels, short stories, interactive websites. Anthony and I are very excited about doing these experiential builds. These ‘future of’ builds. So we’ve done a few of those as well and those are my favourite because obviously, they are really splashy and impressive when you do them right but they’re also fun - that you can literally step into the future as if you were in a time machine and then experience what its like to be in the world in 5 or 10 years time. So that’s a typical project with any one client from the beginning. There’s actually one phase that comes after that text guarding and prototyping and trying to build some of these sci-fi inspired inventions and we do quite a lot of that so we go to conferences all the time and we spoke about that already. But I will tell you that it is the range of work that we do for clients.
Elysia: It’s so exciting and I mean I guess as you said at the beginning that you really need them to be super open to embracing the change, should the change be significant for them to be able to embrace all these new technologies.
Ari Popper: Yeah you do. I always like to say that this is a contact sport.
Elysia: That’s a good way of putting it.
Ari Popper: Yeah, it’s not something you lob over the fence and then 3 months later your answer comes and “TADA - It’s all done!.” It just doesn’t work that way, it’s dirty, it’s hard, you screw up but it can only be that way unless people are feeling threatened or they’re getting out of their comfort zone then you’re really not doing your work and it’s just status quo. So you’ve got to help clients get there and that can be bruising at times.
We know you have done a TED talk, which is amazing and have spoken to NATO on the future of warfare, can you tell us a bit about those experiences?
Ari Popper: Yeah I mean I do a lot of public speaking I really enjoy it and it’s fun. The NATO work was a really amazing project. Again, we had a wonderful client and they had a nice budget and we were able to do some really good work for them. Something about the work we do means we can apply it to any industry or vertical so we’ve done B2B, B2C, government, military. NATO was cool because they actually had a lot of amazing research on the future of warfare. So the science and technology, and we brought in a science fiction futurist who specialises in military sci-fi, a really well-known guy who was brilliant on the project. This project we did a couple of workshops where we first kicked off in California. There were about 7 people from NATO who were all kind of commanders in their own right, representing different countries, we just got a sense of where they were at in that workshop and then we developed a short story anthology that was illustrated, it was edited by this military sci-fi writer, his name is August Cole, he’s really good, amazing guy and has written some really amazing books. And then we went to Belgium to Mons, which is the headquarters for NATO and we did quite a large workshop with them to discuss the story of what we had learned, a facilitated discussion around what the implications are and how NATO could adjust and adapt based upon what we had learned through the writing. It was a phenomenal project, really successful on both sides. The client was thrilled, he’s still talking about it in conferences. He did one presentation a few months ago actually in May and I think the highlight for that project for me as I got invited to speak at the Chiefs of Transformation Conference which is just NATO and just commanders in Virginia and everyone was in Military dress and I was in jeans and a t-shirt which was kind of strange walking around. But it was great, I was on a panel with a general from the US military and a general from the British military and we had this amazing conversation about science fiction and storytelling and what we learned. It was a pretty phenomenal project.
Elysia: Did you ever think you would be sitting on a panel with that level of the military?
Ari Popper: No. I would never have thought that I swear to you. It was great. And science fiction writers in particular really love military sci-fi. We all like to blow up things in space. So they were pretty happy with that as well.
Elysia: That’s fantastic.
Can you give a couple of examples of some of the work you’ve done with SciFutures your most proud of and what clients you’ve worked with?
Ari Popper: I need to think about that because it’s kind of like trying to choose your most beautiful child and the one you love the most.
Elysia: And you can’t answer that, at least not publicly.
Ari Popper: I do love them all. If they work with us, I love them.
Elysia: Is there a good success story that maybe you can share?
Ari Popper: I’m very happy with our existing client right now, it’s a large tobacco company and they obviously have a history of harming their customers, to say the least. But what they’re trying to do is really change their business completely. We’d never work with them if they were continuing to do what they’ve been doing. But we thought it would be unethical not to help them change. So without going into specifics, we’ve really opened up using storytelling, some really powerful avenues for them to go into that doesn’t harm people. That goes from a do-bad company to a do-good company and it’s working, it’s amazing. We did this amazing story vision of the future for them, almost like a day in the life shot in person we blew up to be fully immersive and stand in it and have screens all around you. So it’s almost like you’re in that person's life. And we created a lot of content for them but that’s the one thing that I'm hearing from my client that’s saying, or where we are saying that it’s creating the most transformation and it's the most useful tool they have. So I'm super proud of that and it’s still unfolding but I know from some of the work that they’re doing the prototyping and the conversations that we’re setting up for them that they’re definitely moving the needle. I get a lot of joy out of that. Two reasons why I am really happy with this one: the first one, in particular, it’s really because the storytelling is doing the hard work for them which is always what I’ve known to be the case. Clients generally don't, it’s hard to believe in it until you actually do it and then when you do it kind of makes sense but just saying it and trying to tell people “trust me this works”, you know it’s not enough but if they eventually do trust us then it does work and it’s amazing. So you know I’m proud of the storytelling doing the heavy lifting but also because of the nature of the company that it is and the fact that they are starting to push the envelope, it’s super inspiring for me.
Elysia: Obviously, it comes back to what we were talking about in the beginning, implementing changes that create a significant cultural change and allowing or you helping them become leaders of change in their industries and showing that those changes are possible. So I guess the fact of the matter is it is significant.
Ari Popper: It is and the thing is you need a brave client and we have brave clients there. We’ve done the work that’s really transformational and you just can’t have a client that’s not brave or isn’t willing to rock the boat, or even lose their job frankly. I know that sounds radical and when we've done the most radical work it’s when we’ve had those brave clients but they haven’t lost their jobs they’ve been promoted or they’ve been given more responsibility but it’s definitely a contact sport, two teams are playing, we’re in it together that kind of thing.
Elysia: So we’ve briefly touched on this that you’re excited to collaborate with Sense on upcoming projects because you can really experience these concepts in real form and I know everyone at Sense is really excited about the partnership with SciFutures.
What attracted you to Sense and how do you see both parties benefiting from the partnership when designing and measuring brand experiences?
Ari Popper: Yeah I think first and foremost it’s just the great relationship I have with Anthony and Mark and I think what you guys are doing is super impressive, I think your clients are amazing, and you keep going from strength to strength. It’s a really good sign. I think the future is experiential, no question about it. We see that in our work continuously, every client now is really wanting to know about the future of experience, of experiential, and all the emerging technologies that are popping up give us so much opportunity in an experiential space to really do amazing things and if you look at science fiction you can see some of the clues of what's coming and where we are going to be with experiential. So, it makes perfect sense to partner with Sense. Great agency that has amazing clients that are trying to push the envelope. I think both parties bring tremendous equities to the relationship. We bring obviously our understanding of the future, our connections, our networks. I know to some extent but you guys bring the ability to execute and bring a desire to keep pushing and learning. Your amazing clients, so I think it’s a really exciting mash-up of two similar-minded organisations. But I think the most important thing is our clients are going to benefit. That’s ultimately what business is about and I think that 1 + 1 = 3. We are going to provide more for our clients, they are going to get certainly from our point of view your know-how and your client base and frankly your part of the world is incredibly additive to us and I think Anthony sees it the same way in respect to what we bring so I’m super excited as well.
Elysia: Well we’re very excited!
Ari Popper: Good!
Thinking about disruptive tech and the future, what is most fascinating to you? Whats blowing your mind at the moment?
Ari Popper: Yeah I’m kind of into them all.
Elysia: It’s a hard question! How long is a piece of string?
Ari Popper: Yeah, exactly. It’s another 5-hour interview just on that topic. I think the most promise and potential are going to be with AI and Augmented Reality. Those two. Just for now. AI is already becoming so disruptive is so many ways, particularly around automation but also computer vision and machine learning in particular. It’s starting to unfold really interesting use cases around how a machine can assist us in our day-to-day living with very mundane tasks, with shopping and driving and very basic things that we do every single day. I think AI is going to play a massive role. Kevin Kelly, the founder of Wide Magazine said it’s going to be like electricity: it’s going to be cheap, ubiquitous and everywhere and free. You know, cheap and ubiquitous. Turn it on and it will be there for us. So that is an area that everyone is trying to get their heads around, we’re still in the very early stages of understanding AI, it has a lot of upsides but it has a lot of ethical issues that are starting to become more prevalent but there’s a lot of work to be done there. So AI is big.
The other one is Augmented Reality I think just because of the resources that have been put into it. You know from companies like Magic Leap, Microsoft, Intel, Apple, so these are companies that are investing heavily in it and it’s going to be, my prediction is it’s going to be a normal interface, and as comfortable and useful to us as talking on the phone is to us today. I don’t think we’re that far away because of things like 5G, digital compute speeds, data transfer speeds, and latency factors are all going to be reduced. It starts to become viable. Digital assets creation, so creating 3D models, all of that is becoming streamlined and optimized as well. AI is helping there as well. So I think, you know, this kind of idea about a base reality, and then a mixed reality, is evolving and will be here pretty soon. When is it going to be prevalent and ubiquitous? I don’t really know but within 10 years for sure. What does it mean? Again, it just means we won’t have to look at our damn phones all the time. That paradigm is so freaking annoying, everyone is always looking down, always on their phone and it will move from the phone to some sort of wearable, probably glasses initially, and then definitely contact lenses. And then it will just be like nothing like there’s a digital overlay and there isn’t a digital overlay, it will just be normal and accepted. It’s going to be incredibly useful, it’s going to be fun and interesting. There’s going to be a gazillion misuse cases but it’s also going to be another destructing, another potential to technology that removes us from real and meaningful social connections that we need to make with each other, that’s a problem and we will have to address that. I think it’s a massive problem right now, particularly with social media. We’re spending a lot of time with our clients really trying to help address that. You know, what does it mean when people are socially disconnecting and is it going to get worse and can we get better, how are we going to make it better? So again, every time you’re dealing with disruptive techs you gotta think about ethics as well.
Elysia: Do you deal with the ethics side of things when you are, or when you are going through these processes with your clients, is that part of your service where you can kind of strategise around what the ethics are if they were to go down these avenues of integrating tech like AR into their business?
Ari Popper: You know, to be really honest with you I wish we did spend a lot more time on it and went deep into it for our clients, you know it's never, we never get called up by a large company to say “what’s the ethics on this technology?” but they should. We try very hard to make sure it’s integrated into our work, we make sure that the future that we create are net positive that have an ultimate benefit to both them and their customers, so we try but it’s not good enough. We really need to do more, our clients need to more. I think there are great organisations that are really trying to address is and get on board and behind it and put resources behind it. I don’t think it’s enough by any means. You know humanity is changing, there are massive, I would say, land mines ahead that if we’re not careful are going to go off and cause a lot of damage. It’s just reality, we need to deal with it but it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t advance, that we shouldn’t progress, that we shouldn’t be optimistic but we definite;y need to go in with eyes wide open. Science fiction can do that really, really well. It really can help us rehearse the future so we can see those landmines and go “ok that might not be such a good idea and here’s why.” But I wish we did more, I'm vegan, I'm an ethical vegan, I believe very strongly in creating a better planet for all sentient beings. So it is very close to me as an issue and kind of my subversive goal is to try and inject a bit more ethical futures into these companies. Sometimes we succeed, sometimes we don't. Again, it’s another 5-hour interview.
Elysia: There’s a bittersweetness in what you do because this whole beautiful thing about being able to rehearse a future, I guess you can envision what reality might be good or bad and I guess that’s a tough thing to deal with in your position, to be able to have that foresight.
Ari Popper: Yeah, it’s a responsibility and I think all sci-fi writers feel that as well. The good ones, they feel that. There’s a lot of negative sci-fi because that's what sells and the primal part of our brains that “doom and gloom” fear, that sells. There are some great sci-fi writers who understand they have a responsibility and they are really trying to shape these positive visions as well. But you’re right, it definitely is bittersweet and it’s been like that since the dawn of time. You can use a sword to cut up bread or you can use it to stab someone.
Elysia: So this is a bit of a different one, but
As companies become more flexible with staff time and place of work, how will they manage to maintain a strong culture?
Ari Popper: That’s a curveball.
Elysia: I mean if you want to consider obviously virtual workplaces and exactly what you were saying about, we are starting to lose the social connection because of things like tech, what’s your opinion of what a workplace is going to be if we are living in these virtual realities and work is changing along with it?
Ari Popper: VR might be really good for keeping the bond and the connection, the social connection. Obviously, there’s nothing today that replaces being in person or someone sitting next to them. It’s not just seeing them in their full self, there’s definitely something about being with a person and in their presence and obviously, video doesn’t replicate that today but it’s going to get closer and closer. It might not ever get there but it’s going to get pretty close. I know Zuckerberg's crew is working really hard on VR and that could help but right now it would be hell to spend 6 hours in Virtual Reality. You know, you would come out of there and lose your mind I reckon. It’s just too much, even in half an hour there is a lot. But again, clearly as the technologies get better I think AR might help, or mixed reality where you have telepresence or this idea of holographic presence, would definitely help and I think it would be good. On the whole, giving people the ability to work everywhere and anywhere at any time creates tremendous flexibility in people’s lives, it gives them a lot of freedom. The idea of being chained to an office desk 9-5 is archaic, it’s silly. Obviously, there are some jobs where you need to do that but if technology can free you up from that without disconnecting you or making you feel isolated, then I think that’s a fabulous challenge and that one I think we can solve. That one I don’t think is going to be as difficult. I saw a few days ago, maybe a week or two ago they've developed a holographic conference solution that is going around LinkedIn that looked pretty good to me, so it’s literally like Star Wars where a Leia beams up out of R2D2, except now everyone’s in the conference room and they’re all kind of beaming in. Again, I don’t know exactly what that feels like until you actually do it but does it feel like someone is actually there or like on a Skype video but not exactly the same, we will see. But I definitely think these immersive techs will help maintain a strong culture, it’s not just technology that keeps a strong culture, it’s leadership and all those other good things.
Elysia: As you said with 5G now, those ideas can be supported in a way that actually works not just, the good old days of trying to do a skype conference and it not working and everyone getting frustrated, abandoning ship.
Ari Popper: Did you ever watch The Office?
Elysia: The American or UK?
Ari Popper: Sorry not The Office, Silicone Valley?
Elysia: No, I haven’t watched it.
Ari Popper: There’s a scene where the tech inventor, invents this like telepresence hologram thing. So he turns it on for the first time and it’s going really great and then it starts bugging, like what Skype does. And it’s like: New tech, same problem. And it was so funny and I was laughing my head off.
Elysia: So not long from the end,
Thinking about events and experiential, how do you see the industry evolving over the next 5 to 10 years? What technology will brands have to adopt or think about to stay ahead of the race?
Ari Popper: That’s a hard one because we just don’t know what the pace of adoption is going to be like. Though, I think we’ve covered the two very big ones, or 2-3 very big ones for experiential: AI, VR and AR. Those are obviously huge. The one thing I haven’t covered that i’m pretty excited about is mind-machine interface. So essentially controlling events experiences, digital, objects, robots, anything really just using your mind alone, your thoughts. Enertech is really coming online as well. Actually, in London, I saw a few days ago, this amazing presentation by a company that has been on our radar for a few years while they were in stealth mode but they have come out now, they've invented a way to translate your thoughts essentially into a remote control or like a mouse. But, it’s misleading because a mouse is limited in what it can do whereas your thoughts have a lot more degrees of freedom, in terms of what you can do to control digital objects. I would love to do something like that with you guys using that technology to create some sort of experience where people are at the event start to control things with their thinking alone. That would be really cool. It can be done, it’s not science fiction. It literally can be done today it’s just not, it’s so new it’s hot off the presses that in a couple of years it will be super fun and exciting for the first few. And then when a couple of more people do it then it becomes kind of passe, like whatever. But the first few are going to be absolutely mind-blowing.
Elysia: Finally we have to ask,
Can you name your 2 or 3 favourite sci-fi films?
Ari Popper: That’s another hard one. Star Wars, the original. You know the from the ’70s. I like them all. And I have to choose them because they are the ones that got me into this madness in the first place I think. I love The Matrix, the first one as well. I thought that was an absolutely revolutionary and prolific in some ways. I just absolutely loved that film, it blew my mind. I don’t think I have had a movie experience like that since. And then maybe some more recent ones, I really loved Arrival - that was a really great film. There’s a film called Moon, which I really liked. I pretty much like them all but there was a movie called Sunshine that almost was the best movie I ever saw so it was basically the most incredible film right up until the last 10 minutes. And then it turned into a horrible, horrible film. It still stays up there.
Elysia: Well you will have to, next time a movie gives you that wow moment like the Matrix, you’ll definitely have to share it with us.
Ari Popper: Yeah, I’m waiting for it.
Elysia: It’s kind of hard these days to get people on the edge of their seats with that storyline.
Ari Popper: Yeah, I guess that’s why it’s so special when it happens isn’t it when you have that really truly powerful cinematic experience where you’re like “Holy Crap".