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Dr Patrick Dixon: Futurist Keynote Speaker - Dr Patrick Dixon: Futurist Keynote Speaker

'That's just so last century'

- Feature about Dr Patrick Dixon Published: 08 June 2001 Times Higher Educational Supplement

Patrick Dixon lives in a bubble in 2010 and sees tomorrow as history. Actually, when you get there, it is not really a bubble. It is a sickly green, distinctly normal-looking attic at the top of his house in Ealing, but he likes to call it his "cyberbubble" and has ways of making it look that way to the outside world. A flick of a switch and the webcam that continually broadcasts images of Dixon's working environment on the internet replaces the wall behind us with a scene from a camera in his garden. "There," he says, satisfied. "Now we are in the garden."

He wanders off to fetch a cup of tea and the image on the computer screen suddenly looks like something thought up by René Magritte: Dixon is opening an invisible door in the shrubbery and walking down the staircase beyond. Not everything is as you might expect in this cyber world.

Dixon, Chairman of Global Change Ltd, has been styled "Europe's leading futurist". He is a darling of the international business conference circuit, a star turn. Businessmen empty their wallets for a hyperactive verbal assault.

His slogan, emblazoned on his website and repeated at least three times during our interview, is: "Take hold of the future or the future will take hold of you." Punctuated by his favourite phrase: "Oh, that kind of thinking is so last century." And that future, concocted in "this multidimensional cyberbubble, this time capsule if you like, that enables me to travel into the future and try various things out", is "coming towards you at the speed of light and will run you over if you don't do something about it".

A slightly built, dapper man with a firm handshake and a deliberate way of maintaining eye contact, he wields "the future" like a broadsword. For ivory-tower academics working outside practical scientific research, he has an uncompromising prediction. "There is a whole stream of intellectual life that will become marginalised and totally irrelevant over the next decade. It is the stream that spends most of its time with other academics and with those who want to learn from academics," he says. "It is a stream that, with ever greater competition for higher education funds, will find it difficult to connect with an audience outside and therefore by definition will be marginalised because there will be louder voices. In today's world and especially in tomorrow's, if you cannot capture the emotion and imagination of your audience, the idea is worth nothing."

On the other hand, he says: "There will be some people who the academics despise for their shallow thinking who will become the new gurus of the age, who will transform the thinking not only of businesses but of governments and entire societies because they have this extraordinary combination of sharp thinking and communication skills."

Dixon has written a clutch of blockbusters on subjects ranging from the death of parliamentary democracy to the genetic revolution. He is too modest to identify himself with the gurus of the age, but says: "Many of them will be packagers rather than thinkers, and I think I am a packager and a thinker. I am not a pure researcher. I listen and then regurgitate. I am a communicator."

Although Dixon constantly shifts ideas, his fascination with the future is not just empty rhetoric. It has been a lifetime's obsession. Aged ten, he published his first manifesto, on the future of British Rail, predicting trains running on magnetic track, high-speed services competing with planes and a much reduced rail network connecting the big commercial centres. "All this has happened, of course," he notes.

After studying medical sciences at King's College, Cambridge, he arrived as a trainee doctor at Charing Cross Hospital, London, and by the end of his first day had been assigned to run an artificial intelligence research programme trying to get computers to diagnose illness. Within a few years, while continuing his medical career, he had set up a company selling record-keeping software to the National Health Service. By 1987 he was writing his first book, The Truth about Aids, which grabbed national headlines with its criticism of the government's attempts to play down the threat of the disease.

Nine books followed and, as the subjects branched far beyond normal medical concerns, "Patrick Dixon, futurist" was born. "I began to get invitations to talk about what I'd written, but as the books got more diverse, people started saying, 'I guess you can come and do the future in general'," he says.

His conversation shifts with a boyish energy from unsettling ruminations on the possibility of monkeys, which share 97 per cent of their genes with humans, getting human rights and being convicted for murder, to excited exploration of the potential for digital communication to transform working lives. "Imagine you have trading teams in Hong Kong and London. Can we put the two together? Yes we can," he announces. "We can put up a powerful projector washing an entire wall in the office of the team leader in London and put up there a permanent video conference showing the manager's opposite number in his glass box in Hong Kong. They are sharing what looks like a huge desk and they are both life size and they can converse. Are they not really in the same space? How often would you really need to travel if you were sharing that degree of intimacy?"

After an hour or so of wide-eyed prognostication, the temptation to squeeze Dixon into a narrow box - defining him as a career enthusiast and proselytiser for technological change, for example - is strong. But he is not the sort to be confined by stereotype. After a second trip through the shrubbery door, this time to deal with the man seeing to his outdoor swimming pool, Dixon returns with the announcement: "You are trying to package up a nice neat story but in fact you are talking to an eclectic person, someone who has tramped his way through a whole range of different spheres of life, whether it is the boards or senior teams of the largest companies - Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, ABN Amro, HSBC - or holding the hand of many a dying person."

He is a devout Christian and spent much of his medical career in hospice work caring for the terminally ill. His book on Aids was a plea for unconditional care and the greater involvement of the Christian church in fighting the disease. He helped create the international charity Aids Care Education and Training, of which he became chief executive. A large slice of his income goes into the charity's work. "That has taken me into many mud huts and slums. My wife and I have just come back from a fact-finding trip in Mumbai, Calcutta, Delhi and Bangkok looking at HIV-related programmes and also women's and children's issues, income-generation projects and slum projects. I have a clear view of the inequalities in the world."

And far from dismissing the video images of the May Day anti-globalisation "riots" playing on one of the cyberbubble's television screens, this adviser to multinationals pauses before reflecting that such discontent is key to understanding our future. He predicts growing protest at forces of globalisation and technological change as people feel they are increasingly out of control.

His mood is darker now: "There is an intellectual and philosophical vacuum. The socialist ideals have gone, the capitalist dream is dead. Both of them have been debunked by the harsh realities of the 20th century. What we are left with is a big question mark about ourselves and our future."

As we leave the cyberbubble through the shrubbery door, Europe's leading futurist says: "All the time we ponder to reflect, science accelerates even further into our uncertainty. At the moment we are dithering. There is moral uncertainty and the future will not stop for moral uncertainty. That kind of thinking is so last century."

This feature appeared in the Times Higher Educational Supplement 8 June 2002

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