Michael Rogers: The Practical Futurist, Practically Speaking

What’s happening with meetings right now - the physical butting up against the virtual, and vice versa, and no one quite sure how the two spheres will co-exist?

Michael Rogers ConveneMichael Rogers has seen that sort of thing before. He got his start in old media – writing for Rolling Stone, co-founding Outside magazine, then moving to Newsweek, where he launched a technology column. Soon he had transitioned fully to digital media, serving as editor and general manager of Newsweek.com, followed by 10 years as vice president of The Washington Post’s new media division. Today he’s the “Practical Futurist,” presenting what his website describes as a “common-sense vision of change for business and individuals, blending technology, economics, demographics, culture, and human nature.” In advance of the PCMA Education Conference, where he’ll discuss “Imagining the Convention of 2020,” he recently spoke to Convene about a little bit of all that.

How is a practical futurist different from a more traditional futurist?

Probably the key difference is that I never set out to be a futurist. I have done a lot in journalism. I have been a media executive, I have done some technology development and earned some patents. So I come from a very practical background. I love thinking about the future, but I like to focus on what might really happen.

Where do you draw your ideas and inspiration from?

I probably spend two or three hours a day reading blogs, talking to people, reading various technical magazines. I find technical trade magazines tremendously useful. It is sort of a nonstop information- absorption process.

And the other piece that’s important – I often say that being a futurist is the last refuge of the generalist. The world is full of specialized people now. And one reason that I loved working for Newsweek for the years that I did was that Newsweek was a general-interest magazine. You could walk down the corridors and talk to someone about fine art and someone else about the younger generation and someone else about technology. And you need to pull all of those things together to be a reasonable futurist these days.

What will you be speaking to PCMA’s audience about?

I think there are three pieces of the puzzle when we look out at 2020 – and I like looking at 2020. For me as a practical futurist, eight years is an interesting period of time to look out. I think if you get much past 10 years, you are into science fiction. The key elements are threefold that I think can be useful to this industry. The first is a look at how technology will have changed: What will have happened in eight years? The second piece is social: How will the audience have changed by then? The third piece – in some ways one of the most crucial ones to start thinking about now – is the business model: How will the business model change in this shift of balance between the physical and the virtual?

Obviously, the shifting relationship between the physical and the virtual is something that the meetings industry is dealing with now.

I have to say, I am impressed with how forward-thinking the industry is and how much work is going on – really thinking through what is a virtual conference, how is it linked to the physical world, how do you use these new tools for the people who are in the physical place. So I think it is off to a good start. I think that to some extent we underestimate, though, the impact what I call the “virtualization” of America is going to have.

It is interesting to note that eight years ago, a 24-inch LCD TV cost somewhere between $3,000 and $4,000, and today it costs $150. So display devices are going to really become richer and more diverse – not just in terms of digital screens, which are going to get much bigger, much higher-resolution, and be much less expensive, but [also involving] a move towards wearable displays. Which sounds sort of science-fictionish, but I’ve come to really believe that by 2020 we will see at least some people in the audience using heads-up displays. Those are effectively eyeglasses that have clear glass in them so you can see the real world, but it also displays your computer screen down in the area where the old bifocal part is.

In terms of technology, we are going to see more and more what used to be called teleports and now probably are going to be called telepresence centers springing up around the country. They have already started, but a combination of factors I think are going to mean that we have more and more locations where really good telepresence can be conducted – very high-bandwidth, high-resolution video, localized audio, so the opportunity to do satellite conferences is really going to spread.

And then I think the nature of location-based services and group messaging will really change the whole way a physical conference is organized, because people will be self-organizing as well as following the traditional organizing.

On the social side we are really beginning to see the rise of a generation that has the ability to make and maintain meaningful virtual relationships, and some portions of that cohort prefer the virtual experience. We are going to have more and more audience members and customers who prefer the virtual experience. So that is really going to shift things.

The second social piece is that we can’t underestimate how much the cost of moving people around is going to rise over the rest of this decade. The United States is still the fastest-growing developed nation on earth – it is going to get crowded out there. Ultimately, no matter what we do about fuel costs, the cost of moving people is going to go up. And by 2020 there is going to be a much stronger green movement in the United States, probably triggered by climate change. And so as people and companies become more carbon-conscious, there will be less travel.

And the final piece is the business model. I have worked in the media industry for many years, and obviously I am not deeply familiar with the conference industry, although I have been a public speaker for 25 years. But it feels a little bit to me like the media industry was, say, 10 years ago in terms of its approach to the virtual world, which is lots of experimentation. Which is good. But [the meetings industry has] kind of a sense that the physical piece is still by far the most important piece and a lot of the strongest attention goes to the physical piece.

It certainly was that way in the magazine and newspaper world 10 or 15 years ago. What I don’t think any of us appreciated back then was how dependent we were going to end up being on digital revenues. And not enough was done 10 or 15 years ago to really focus on the business models in the digital world.

For more information: michaelrogers.com

Christopher Durso

Christopher Durso formerly was executive editor of Convene.