Kjell Nordström Wants to Make You Comfortable About the Future

Author: Cristi Kempf       

Kjell A. Nordström ‘Communication seems to drive communication.’ Photo Credit Emma Svensson

Most of us have enough trouble keeping up with today’s digital onslaught, yet author and business guru Kjell A. Nordström, Ph.D., spends much of his time thinking about the future. Among the changes he believes the world will embrace by 2050 are continued digitalization and massive urbanization. 

Nordström, the opening plenary speaker at PCMA’s European Influencers Summit, Sept. 24 in Seville, Spain, talks often about his “Matrix” theory — the idea, based loosely on “The Matrix” film (minus the evil manipulation), that we live in a world composed of three dimensions: capitalism, digitalization, and urbanization. 

The key to getting everyone on board with this vision of the future, the Swedish economist says, is to present it in a way that puts them more at ease. “If you are going to invite people into a completely new world of ideas and technologies, at first at least, it cannot be too scary,” Nordström said. Most audiences, he said, find his ideas “inspirational,” although “a little bit frightening at the same time.” 

He gave Convene a preview of what the PCMA audience can expect to hear from him in September, and what we can all expect a bit further into the future.

Can you describe your urbanization theory?

Cities [will] gradually take over from countries, and become more influential. Many of us believe that 30 years from now, by 2050-ish, this will be a planet of 600 cities rather than the [approximately 190] countries, which it is today. You see the same phenomenon in North America that we see in Europe or Asia — that the cities grow and the countryside is falling back in terms of population, of course, but also economic activity. 

What do you see now that supports this thesis?

I’ve seen a number of interesting things recently. Firstly, a number of companies or firms that are defining themselves as multi-urban companies rather than multinational companies. They are not interested at all in covering a country or the market of a particular country. They’re interested in urban environments, so they are born in one urban environment, let’s say London, and then they go directly to another one, Barcelona, a third one, Vienna, a fourth one, Istanbul, but you never leave the urban environment. That’s basically where you operate. 

Number two, politically, we can be quite sure that these cities will be much more powerful. Some of them are already today. I was [recently] in Tokyo, and there are now 37.4 million people in one [metropolitan area]. Can you believe that? 

What cities might be in the early stages of what you expect to see by 2050? 

Number one is, of course, Singapore, which is a city and a state, and a haven for multi-urban and multinational companies. Another one is Dubai. If you look at American companies, for example, most of them are headquartered in Dubai, and they expand into the [Mideast] region from Dubai, because they have a smooth, well-functioning modern, urban environment where Microsoft or any other American company can feel at home. It’s like Houston, Texas, or something. 

For those who are uncomfortable with the pace of digitalization today, how do you get them to open their minds to such futuristic ideas? 

People are not really interested in being told what to do. Usually, we react quite negatively to that. It has to come from inside. So, I see my own role as the enabler, to enable people to think a thought, not to tell them — to make it a little bit more smooth to see the next three, four, five years, the implications of new technology, and to present it in a non-hostile way so people themselves can see and understand. Then they could be quite prone to change, interestingly enough. 

One idea that keeps bubbling up is that as we get more technologically advanced, people crave face-to-face communication. Are you seeing that?   

Yes. Communication seems to drive communication. In the same way as flying seems to drive more flying. Let me try to explain. We thought 10, 15 years ago that when we got the possibility to communicate for almost nothing with each other across the globe — you and I could talk to each other using FaceTime — we will of course not fly very much. But no, it seems to work the other way around. The more we communicate, the more we want to communicate and the more we want to see each other. At the end of the day, flying keeps on growing.

Are children growing up today with a digital-first mindset going to have this thirst for face-to-face communication?  

Not thirst in the sense that they will try to [first] solve everything they can using, let’s call it, machines. They will try using FaceTime or WhatsApp or what have you. However, they will also understand over the course of the years that once you start with more sophisticated material — it might be science or composing music or architecture — you reach a level where it is difficult to express [ideas] in words because you are not ready even with your own thoughts. So I actually need the conversation with you to formulate my own ideas, and then we usually feel this urge to meet the other person. Because then you can make a drawing on the napkin, you can explain the unexplainable when you see each other.

Learn more about Kjell Nordström at kjellnordstrom.eu.

European business event leaders will gather in Seville this September to support the business events industry throughout the region. Learn more about PCMA’s European Influencers Summit: pcma.org/european-influencers-summit.