The first couple of months of 2020 were busy for Perttu Pölönen. Dozens of speaking events saw him zig-zagging around Finland, and his first book, Tulevaisuuden lukujärjestys (Curriculum for the future), was published and proved so popular it is already in its fourth edition.
And then COVID-19 happened. His calendar quickly emptied.
Rather than rest on his laurels pondering what could have been, Pölönen pressed forward with his intention to expand his audience. He has laid out plans to start producing videos and podcasts on the themes of his book, which aptly include bringing together the skills required to persevere in an unprecedented future – curiosity, creativity, compassion and open-mindedness among them. An English-language version is on the cards, so too is a global roll-out.
Such fleet-footed pivoting comes natural for the 25-year-old. His career path so far includes the titles of inventor, composer, keynote speaker, futurist, visionary and author. His book details this career manoeuvring, from successfully launching the MusiClock mobile app in 2015 to being named among the 35 Innovators Under 35 in Europe by MIT Tech Review and studying exponential technologies at Singularity University, a think tank located at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.
From here, Pölönen co-founded 360ED, a company developing augmented reality applications for the education sector in Myanmar.
His most recent focus, that of a public speaker, has been about sharing the various insights and learnings he has gleaned from his rapidly accumulating experience. And now the world is gripped by COVID-19. The future of encounters, human aspects counterbalancing technological advancements, disruption, the changes exponential growth is bringing – how does this all look through the current lens of the pandemic?
First things first: your book has been a huge success in Finland. Where did you get the idea for it?
There is so much hype around technologies and how they affect the future of mankind. There is nothing wrong with this and I find this kind of reasoning interesting as well, but what I find even more essential is to think about the elements that do not change. I like to encourage people to think about things that will be the same 30 years from now. It is seemingly difficult, as it needs a completely different kind of reflection, but finding these kinds of constant aspects in life is extremely valuable especially now, when uncertainty is gaining ground.
While I was in Silicon Valley and the better I got into that world of tech, the more it started to scare me. Societies are constantly undergoing changes as a result of exponential technological developments. I began to think that societies should develop in a more humane way to counterweight the technological advancements. We have seen that it has not necessary been the case and that technologies may enslave or have adverse repercussions, even if the intentions were good. I realised that we need to attend to basic and fundamental matters, and thus I felt the urge to do my bit on behalf of the general good.
On this basis, I started to evaluate the role of human beings in the future. The questions I was pondering, such as what is left for us after major technological breakthroughs, what kind of skills are required and what is our everyday going to be like, gave me an idea to further a humane approach to the future, and so I began to write. I choose a book as my medium because I felt the necessity to bring forth my thoughts in a form that is easy to decipher even for people who do not have a direct relation to the future and technology-related themes. Therefore, all the tech jargon was left behind as well, but being an easy-to-read publication doesn’t mean it’s less profound.
There is a tip that sounds almost prophetic in the coronavirus age: ‘Don’t waste a good crisis – there you have a great opportunity to learn something.’ What are you trying to say here?
The core message I am getting at with the phrase, through humour, is that even though every crisis is different, they can sensitise our growth as persons. In other words, when something critical has happened, it has happened for a reason – something has caused it and, thus, there is a great opportunity to learn from our mistakes. In relation to this current crisis, the lesson is to evaluate whether we want to go back were we came from and simply try to recreate everything. Alternatively, we could go back to basics, shuffle the cards properly, reshape it all and come out as better persons at the end of all this.
You write that while the world is global, it is developing exponentially and unpredictably. This has become crystal clear in these times. But where is this exponential growth eventually leading us?
Advanced technologies are already everywhere and keep evolving exponentially, but, for humans, it has been difficult to get a solid grasp of the scale of the growth. Societies before the internet evolved steadily and locally for tens of thousands of years, and then the era of internet, not developing locally or linearly, has revolutionised our way of life and our understanding of time and place in just a couple of decades. The COVID-19 outbreak has, at the least, shown how connected the world is, how global matters are evolving in leaps and bounds and what exponential growth really feels like. We should evaluate our learnings and experiences of this crisis to better understand the changes exponential technologies are causing. This way we can try to prepare ourselves for the future rather than trying to derive future from the past, which is impossible by definition.
Where does exponential growth lead us? It is very difficult to think very far into a future that is unprecedented, where the evolution of technologies only accelerates and unexpected twists such as a pandemic can rapidly change the direction of development. Even if we were good at predicting breakthroughs in technology, it is hardly possible to predict changes in human behaviour. Yet this is exactly what we should focus on. Living in the midst of all this technology requires us all to consider what makes our lives meaningful and what qualities in people will be emphasised. I am optimistic that people are giving more thought to the humane skills that I consider to be vital for mankind.
Another topic you emphasise in your writing is disruption. You underline that it is not just a buzzword detached from reality but its recent popularity reflects a more positive connotation than previously. What does disruption mean to you and how does it relate to the current global crisis?
Disruption emphasises the idea that previously gained success does not guarantee prosperity in the future. In my view, this explains some of the major trends in the changing world well. In the big picture, I am fascinated by the fact that disruption creates more than it destroys, and I find it interesting that disruption can interpolate relative strengths. A big shock, like this pandemic, creates new rules for the economy, it provides novel opportunities, means and winners. For instance, already established companies shouldn’t be worried that much about competitors in their field, as they should be more concerned about individuals or small groups of coders and programmers working enthusiastically in their basements. Those are people capable of fabricating entirely new solutions and innovations that can shake the very foundations of the business mind frame.
One would say that times change and we with time, but humans tend to change only when coerced. For instance, most people don’t act and alter their behaviour when facing climate change to the needed extent, because the effects aren’t tangible in their everyday lives – as opposed to this pandemic, where the imperative to react was immediate. I like to think that one learning from this pandemic disruption is that we are becoming less stubborn and thus are able to change our behaviour proactively before future outbreaks wholly hit the fan.
Your career path so far is quite unique. How has growing up in Finland affected it?
I have ended up from one opportunity and place to another in a natural yet unusual way. While I am a classically trained composer, my MusiClock invention brought me to the business world, to Silicon Valley, and the learnings from there led me to Myanmar. After that, I have been sharing the knowledge I have been privileged to learn myself by doing presentations all over and through the book as well. When looking back at this journey so far, I realise how outstanding my start in life has been just because I was born in Finland. What I am saying is that it is pretty awesome how I have been given the opportunities and plenty of time to try and do the things I have done, because the basics are secured and functioning in Finland.
Another way Finland has affected me is nature – Finnish nature is invincible. I was born and raised in the countryside, and my parents still live in my childhood home. When I visit them, the freshness, space and timelessness nature gets me every time. Nature also thrills with its simplicity. I am fascinated about the simplicity in the way that art responds to time and society. In our time, everything around us seems to be hectic, and, in response to this, my music is seemingly simple. I like doing things properly. If something is done, it should be clear in the sense that situations where there are five cross-linked things on top of one another should be avoided. This is the overtone in my music as well.
You have been taking part in various initiatives all around the world, from Silicon Valley to Myanmar. What has been your most exciting experience so far?
There are many incredible educational experiences that I am happy I have been part of. I see the several months-long think tank programme at Singularity University as a certain turning point in my life, and I feel indebted to that institution. In the programme, there were some eighty participants from every continent and from different fields of expertise. While I was the youngest of them all, the lot was a great source of inspiration for me. It was a very educational programme where we went through technologies and global challenges. Admittedly, many views there were quite biased, but it just made it a conveniently provocative environment, which helped me to develop my critical thinking tremendously. As a whole, I am grateful how awakening an experience it was and how much it has helped me to widen my view of the world.
Our project in Myanmar [360ED], which I started together with Hla Hla Win, who hails from Myanmar and whom I got to know in Silicon Valley, has been another indelible eye-opener. It showcases how technology can really produce good, constructive changes and developments in fields that have long been facing the same static problems. In Myanmar, and many other developing countries as well, the textbooks and other education materials tend to be worn out and often severely outdated. To tackle this issue, we started to digitalise learning materials and established an augmented reality platform where these materials are easily accessible, customisable and updatable as needed. What has made this possible is that almost everyone in Myanmar now has access to the internet and to knowledge with their smartphones, which was a virtually non-existent device just a decade ago. This project made me realise that no technology is good or bad per se, but it is a matter of how the technology is utilised.
Finally, you already have many feathers in your cap professionally, but what was your dream profession as a child?
In my childhood, I dreamt of becoming so many things, from an astronaut to a lumberjack. And in my youth, I kept trying many new things and ended up having different kind of phases. First, I was a really avid athlete. I even won the Finnish under-15 championship in triple jump, and it was supposed to become my profession at one time. When I was in secondary school, I went through kind of a hippie phase, where I had dreadlocks and I wore a poncho-looking Nepalese long cloak. At the age of 13, I had already discovered composing and pursued that path more seriously alongside all other activities, and eventually music won me over. It is entertaining to take a trip down memory lane thinking about all these phases from time to time.
One thing is that I have never been working for anyone else than for myself. I founded my first company to develop MusiClock at the age of 18, and I have been my own person ever since.