August 2020 | 



Wharton@Work recently sat down with Mauro Guillén, professor of management and author of the new book 2030: How Today's Biggest Trends Will Collide and Reshape the Future of Everything. Guillén talked about the need for leaders to embrace lateral thinking, what surprised him most about his research, and how COVID is impacting the assumptions at the core of his book.

Wharton@Work: Can you tell us about your approach to the trends you explore in 2030? Most people are aware of them, but haven’t thought them through as you have. The connections you make in each chapter, such as how bankers should be aware that Airbnb is going after their customers and how the focus on millennial consumers is overblown, are really startling.

Mauro Guillén: The trends are not isolated; they feed into each other. But you can’t make connections with linear thinking. When you take each trend on its own, it points to predictable, incremental changes. But if you apply lateral thinking, as I suggest, you reframe questions and attack problems sideways. You can make safe assumptions, rather than predictions, about what lies ahead. If you’re looking for a breakthrough, you have to abandon assumptions and ignore the rules. You also need to use peripheral vision, which is a concept developed by my Wharton colleagues George Day and Paul Schoemaker. Don’t stay focused only on what’s right in front of you. You will be much more effective in spotting opportunities and threats if you sense, interpret, and act on the weak signals coming from the periphery. Thus, you can’t grasp technological trends without considering the demographic trends that will support technology adoption. And you can’t examine the rise of emerging markets without taking into account demographics and technology.

W@W: Taken together, the changes you describe in the book can seem overwhelming — a lot is going to change in the next decade. Are you optimistic or pessimistic about 2030?

MG: There are epochal transformations ahead. I want to give readers a road map to navigate them and help them grasp the implications of so many moving parts. I suggest what to do and what not to do under these new and unfamiliar circumstances. Ultimately, the book offers a message of hope and optimism about the future even as we manage the anxieties of the present. The basic point is this: every finale signifies the dawn of a new reality replete with opportunities. You can prosper from them by daring to dig beneath the surface, anticipating the trends, engaging rather than disconnecting, and learning how to make more effective decisions. The principles and approaches I share in the book are intended to help readers do all of those things.

W@W: We know you have been researching and teaching about the trends in your book for about seven years. What has that process been like?

MG: The book was actually developed and tested in the Wharton classroom. I learned which trends and examples resonated the most with business leaders in the and many others. I was able to test ideas and share business opportunities that they could make a move on before it was too late. The most common reaction I got in the classroom was, “I was aware of everything you told me about China, about women getting ahead, about cryptocurrencies. But I never put them together and explored the connections.” For the book, I chose the content that program participants related to the most, and then provided more context and greater detail.

W@W: What was the most surprising connection you discovered?

MG: One of the biggest for me was about women. Women are, on average, more risk averse, and that affects everything from their investment decisions to how they are handling the pandemic. Two-thirds of the adults hospitalized with the virus are men. There are more women in the highest-risk groups, but they aren’t getting sick because they follow directions and take care of themselves.

I was surprised to calculate the impact of women getting ahead in terms of education and careers. I did not realize how much of an impact this will have in the next few years in terms of changes in consumer markets, savings, and investing. Even before the pandemic, banks, financial advisors, and wealth management companies were scrambling to cater to the needs of women. By 2030, women will own more than half of the world’s wealth, and that is changing quite a few things in the financial part of the economy.

W@W: So financial services has seized on the trend regarding women and the growing amount of wealth they own. What surprised you in terms of a missed opportunity? Is there something out there that companies could take advantage of right now?

MG: What is really surprising is how many opportunities are available, but firms are not making the connections. Here’s one: Most people believe that the largest business opportunities lie in the service sector and can be pursued through technological platforms or apps. But let’s think laterally about Africa’s population growth. According to the World Bank, African agriculture will become a trillion-dollar sector by 2030. It is a veritable goldmine in the making, one that might well transform the entire global economy.

W@W: Like other authors whose books are being published this year, you had to go back to your manuscript to acknowledge and confront COVID-19. How has the pandemic affected the trends and connections that you identify?

MG: The trends, with one exception, have been accelerated, and the need for firms to pay attention, think laterally, and make connections is even greater. Consider the declining fertility rate discussed in Chapter 1 of the book. There are three reasons why a pandemic will accelerate that trend. First, people usually postpone major decisions (like having a baby) when faced with uncertainty. Second, having a baby is a financial commitment, and unemployment will force many to reconsider whether the timing is right. We saw this during the Great Depression in the 1930s and in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Third, life-altering events like war, natural disasters, and pandemics disrupt our daily routines and priorities, and this includes our fertility decisions. Companies would be wise to pay attention to the implications of growing (Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia) and shrinking (America, Europe) markets, the aging of populations, and discretionary spending and saving.