Friday, December 16, 2016

Interview with Paul Higgins, veterinarian and futurist

Dr Paul Higgins, veterinarian and futurist.

What will the veterinary profession look like in five, ten, twenty or fifty years time? How will technological advances like cloning and cultured meat impact the role of vets? What about disruptive business models? Will our patients turn up in driverless cars for a consult?

Recently we had the opportunity to attend a workshop lead by veterinarian and futurist Paul Higgins. It was a fascinating, productive, confronting discussion about veterinary practice and education in the future. 

Paul patiently answered our questions about his unique career and how he meets the challenges of modern existence while thinking about those challenges around the corner. He’s not a mystic or psychic and doesn’t pretend to be – as he said, the purpose of looking at the future is really to shake up the present.

What is your day job?

That is a little complicated – bounces between futurist consultant 80%, veterinarian 10% and pig farmer 10%.

Where did you start out when you graduated?

I worked in mixed practice in Narre Warren but shortly after I started the owners sold off the non-horse part and I moved into dairy practice in Gippsland and then Northern Vitoria.

Why did you become a futurist?

Drift and opportunity. I was gradually drifting from veterinary work with pig farms to more business and strategic issues. Did the Williamson Leadership Program in 1997 and as part of the communications from that program learnt that a new Masters Program was starting at Swinburne in Strategic Foresight. Made one of those life changing decision in 10 seconds and spent 6 weeks justifying a decision which was already made.

Why do people engage your services?

A variety of reasons. Some want to get better at dealing with uncertainty, some want a different approach to strategic planning, some want to really stretch the horizons of their thinking. For my conference keynotes it is commonly provoking the audience to think differently.

What are the limitations of this role?

General consultant’s frustrations – stuff not happening as you think it should, people resistant to change.

What are the future “megatrends” that might impact our profession?

I hate the term megatrends, but would include artificial intelligence (with big data as a subset) , robotics, urban densification, population growth, climate change, move to mobile, move to a frictionless world (Amazon Dash buttons, etc), distributed computing, convergence of nanotechnology, biotech and digital technologies, internet of things. The other important thing is uncertainty – the complexity of a connected world brings greater levels of uncertainty – look at economic and political uncertainty for instance.

How do consultants like you keep ahead of developments?
Lots of structured and unstructured scanning – I use twitter lists as a source where I have cultivated a group of people who send me stuff, plus curated newsletters, also military intelligence developments, maker movements, hackers. 
I am sometimes paralysed by info overload eg spending days not achieving anything and deleting a tonne of emails. These are universal issues but are there practical tips you have for dealing?

Standard tips: only do email at certain times, have standing meetings, turning off phone for specific periods. I use a Pomodoro app on my iPad for timed bursts of stuff. Out of office email that says Ï am away and when I get back I will delete all the emails so email me again if it was important. BUT overall I am poor at it as well.

Have you thought about leaving a time capsule containing our predictions so we can dig it up in 2031 and laugh at how wildly wrong we were? Or , maybe marvel at how eerily right we are?

If people ask me to do a project for what their industry or sector looks like in 15 years my first response is usually I will only guarantee the that it will be wrong – that does not mean it is not worth doing, just that in a faster moving world the further out you get the less likely it is you can know what will happen

Any advice for vets and students?

Not sure I would be so arrogant but perhaps keeping an eye on technology because I believe that we are on the verge of massive changes in artificial intelligence, virtual reality, robotics, and biotechnology. So keep an eye on it but do not let the technology lead your thinking – always think about the customer/client and human behaviour first.

Thank you Paul for your time. If you want to find out more about Paul, check out his Emergent Futures profile here  or read his blog here

And now a quick word on our future. Someone tapped us on the shoulder on Tuesday and mentioned the year was about to end. WHAT??? We were still getting used to 2016.

It’s time for an annual "hibernate" and review. Our agenda this year was to promote the welfare of companion animals, reflective veterinary practice, continuing veterinary education and mental health and wellbeing in the profession. We think we’ve done a good job but would love your feedback. Drop us a line – anne [at]

We will be back in 2017, still on the same mission but tweaking our approach slightly.

In the mean-time the immediate future we will be tinkering away co-editing the Vet Cook Book (if you don’t know what this is about, read here and follow us on facebook), working on some animal welfare related projects and – with any luck – snorkelling. And vetting of course, because that doesn’t stop over the festive season.

Thank you for reading in 2016. Please don't forget to follow us on facebook.