Leslie Shannon is Head of Ecosystem and Trends Scouting at Nokia. At the Finnish communications and IT company, there are essentially two kinds of scouting that take place: scouting related to mobile networks and how they’re used, and everything else. “The network-related stuff is what I used to do,” says Shannon. But in 2017, she took on her current role, looking at “everything beyond the network,” or the broader technology ecosystem, she explains. Shannon, who is based in San Francisco, works as part of a four-person scouting team. We spoke to her as part of our research for Innovation Leader’s report, ”Best Practices: Scouting Trends and Emerging Tech.”

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Leslie Shannon, Nokia's Head of Ecosystem and Trends Scouting.

Leslie Shannon, Nokia’s Head of Ecosystem and Trends Scouting.

I report up to Kathrin Buvac, our Chief Strategy Officer… In May of this year, she came up to me… and said, “What you’re doing is really interesting. But I have an entire company full of people who are looking at network-related things. I want you to look at things that have nothing to do with networks whatsoever.”

So what I’m doing now is very much out there, looking at what’s happening in terms of virtual reality, artificial reality, augmented reality. And finding things that are real—not just “we could do this someday.” Both from large companies and small companies, and stuff we’re doing within Nokia. And this is going to sound kind of silly, but one of the things that are extremely useful is to look at popular science fiction.

Tune In to the Things That Have Become Iconic

We look at the last 50 years — from “Star Trek” forward — what are the things that have become iconic?

If I say “Big Brother,” you instantly know what I’m talking about. If I say “Minority Report” to you, you immediately have this image of Tom Cruise moving screens around. You might not remember anything else about that movie, or maybe you never even saw it. The reason that I focus on these things is that these things have resonated and have become iconic in society, and I believe [they] are most indicative of where we’re going to go.

Let me tell you why… I’ve been with Nokia for 17 years, and before I was here in California, I was in Finland for 11 years. Back in the early 2000s, when Nokia phones were all the rage, there was a kind of conflict in the company. All over the world, Nokia phones were really dominant, but in the United States, Nokia phones were not so dominant. And the reason was that the head of Nokia mobile phones at that time refused to make a flip phone. Nokia made some experimental flip phones here and there, but they really never went all in on a flip phone. They stayed with the [single piece] bar format. The belief…at that time was that the hinge in the flip phone was a point of potential failure. Why introduce complexity into something that would just make it work less well and cause customer dissatisfaction? So they refused.

The problem was, people in America had grown up watching “Star Trek.” And they had grown up watching Captain Kirk flip open his communicator and speak into it. Americans were primed for the flip phone. And…Motorola [came in] with the Razr and all the other flip phones that dominated that early 2000 mobile phone space. North America was the only market in the world where the flip phone model was the standard. … So these science fiction things, and these things that become iconic, are the things that society is predisposed to accept.

When I’m looking at innovation, I’m looking for things that match the stories we’ve already started telling each other.

I believe there’s a massive future for virtual reality and augmented reality. But the social image that we have for virtual reality is not wearing goggles on your head. It’s the holodeck [a virtual reality room also from the “Star Trek” universe] where things emerge around you. I think virtual reality will actually crack it when they get to that scenario.

They had a thing on the Enterprise called the Holodeck, with preset programs where you could play out different scenarios. It became recreation for people on the ship. The key thing is that people weren’t wearing visors.

Then [we have] this idea of having visible screens projected in front of you — hologrammed screens that you then manipulate with your hands and with gestures. It’s this sort of a hologrammed-voice-gesture interface has been modeled for us many times in many different movies and TV shows. That is something that I think when it gets built, it will get accepted quite quickly because we’ve seen it. We understand it. It’s a flash of recognition, not a flash of, “oh, that’s weird” when we do see it.

I also look very carefully at science fiction for the things to look out for. I mentioned Big Brother earlier. It’s important to pick up on the dystopian futures, so that we see them way ahead of time and avoid them. Elon Musk is doing a good job at pointing out that we don’t want killer robots. “Terminator” comes to mind. In “Ready Player One,” [a dystopian novel by Ernest Cline], the real-world goes to hell. In “Wall-E,” everyone is fat and lazy. These dystopian images are just as important, so that when we see a trend moving toward that, we can avoid it.

How do I organize the results of my scouting? I go out and find examples of things that are real. A small company that’s doing X. Here’s an example inside Nokia of doing Y. Here’s a phone company over there that’s doing Z. They need to be real things. It’s extremely important that these are companies doing real things—they’re not somebody imagining that this could be possible. I collect these things all the time. I have this massive list. I make a slide for each thing that I find. So, I have this massive PowerPoint repository.

The beauty of it is that if I go into a Nokia audience or our phone company audience, if I were just to stand there and say, “I believe in five years, you’ll be able to manipulate your computer screens out in the air like Robert Downey Jr. in “Iron Man,”’ people would think I’m crazy. But if go in and say, this small company is doing this with gesture control. And this company is doing this with holograms, and that company over there is doing this with voice interaction. And I lay out the building blocks. Then it’s only a matter of time before somebody builds exactly that castle out of those building blocks. This stuff is out there but it takes a lot of time to uncover.

Connecting the Dots

One of the future scenarios that I paint is the idea of Soccer Mom Glasses. I try to base these in the real world as possible, and my kids play a lot of soccer. [These glasses would] cross Facebook’s Oculus VR headset with IBM analytics. IBM just did a thing with Wimbledon, where they used analytics to determine how to build the highlights reel for some of the minor courts. They used analytics such as the roar of the crowd, how many people posted on social media immediately after a shot, the facial expression of the players, all of these qualitative kind of things, to figure out what were the best shots to be put together for the highlights reel.

So when I’m watching my kids play soccer, what if my glasses could be constantly recording the game? When my kid is the one who kicks the ball across the goal, it recognizes that that happens, and it immediately saves and uploads the last minute of play to the cloud.

[When you are talking about building and deploying new mobile communications infrastructures,] these are gigantic bets and they need to be made early. So, if we can help [Nokia and our customers] imagine the different things that are possible with the different kinds of network types, then that feeds into their strategic decision-making. In fact, a lot of the stuff I’m seeing now — a lot of the augmented reality sorts of things — a lot of that is actually going to require 5G networks.

And so you have some phone companies that are saying, “Do we have to do 5G just because it’s the next thing? What could people possibly use it for? 4G seems really good.” And once I go out and say, “Hey, look out at all the cool things coming with augmented reality…” I don’t even have to talk about the network. Then, they can say, “Oh, and then a network strong enough to support everything you’re talking about has really got to be 5G.” So, it’s showing rather then telling to help them with strategic decision-making.

‘I’m Up a Flagpole with Binoculars…’

The mental image I have is, I’m up a flagpole with binoculars looking just over the horizon, because our product guys necessarily need to be viewing…the stuff that’s possible six months from now, not five years from now. I’m the one who’s looking out quite far to create these narratives. [I’m here] to help people like our acquisition team; there are lot of small companies that have really good stories and really good tech. What are the directions that we want to move in as a company? I’m certainly not making that decision, but I’m pulling together information and helping people imagine what the future can possibly be, so they can more easily prioritize things.

The stakes are very high. Companies have a limited amount that they can commit to the future. …We really want to be the ones creating the future instead of sitting back and letting the future happen to us.

The real problem is that there’s almost too much incredibly cool stuff happening. I’m usually limited to an hour or hour and a half in any speaking engagement. I’ve only been doing this since May, and I could stand up and talk for about five hours. Our world is about to change unbelievably, and now that I’ve seen the data, I’ve swallowed the Kool-Aid, and I’m completely convinced it’s all going to be different in a short time.