Origin Story Interview W/ Harald Neidhardt, Futur/io

Origin Story Interview W/ Harald Neidhardt, Futur/io

Brighter Future


Dec 14, 2022

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #SustainableInnovation #TechOptimism #ClimateAction #ESGChampions #ResilientFrontiers

Brighter Future

Co-founder and CEO of Futur/io, Harald Neidhardt, joins us today to take us through his journey of creating a community dedicated to building a better future for present and future generations by bringing together leaders in sustainable innovation, business leaders and impact-makers.

Thanks for joining us today, Harald. With so much to cover, could you quickly give a short introduction to yourself and the work that you do?

My name is Harald Neidhardt, and I'm the CEO and co-curator of The Futur/io Institute. We find leaders in sustainable innovation and help them to connect through a fellowship programme and build a community. In addition, we run executive programmes and provide online learning to help people under the ESG or SDG challenges. Our executive programmes run for two and a half days, three times a year. We curate the event with speakers and workshops. We provide a premium experience, allowing the opportunity to connect and exchange ideas that can help co-create the future.

A community of innovative, like-minded individuals working together, sharing ideas, and networking sounds fantastic. Could you tell us what has driven you to take this path?

What has always driven me was innovation. My personal path was always in digital innovation, from CD ROMs, online agencies, and software companies, and co-creating or co-founding multiple startups. I'm a serial entrepreneur, but my passion is in people, curating experiences, events and learning experiences. Now with Futur/io, we try to bring this kind of positive attitude or tech optimism into learning experiences. Tech people think mostly there's a challenge; let's solve it. Every 18 months, you have a new and faster chip, meaning you have a unique chance to build a new world.

There's so much innovation and force of power to come. Imagine if we only use this power for real challenges, like sustainability and not for five-minute faster pizza delivery. That's our whole mission. How do we bring people's talent, innovation, and passion into real-world challenges and not just convenience?

At what stage in your journey was the turning point where you went from solely digital to saying, “I want to be active in the climate space and communities”?

In 2010, when I started another company called MLOVE, it was a first in the mobile space. I was focusing on how technology in mobile phones can be used for the greater good.

In 2017, we founded The Futur/io Institute. I didn't want just to be an event company; I wanted to build learning practices and go deeper into sustainability. If you fall in love with a problem, you find the right technology. Still, in most technology conferences, AI is the focus. AI is the hammer, but show me the nails because I already have a hammer. What people sometimes don't consider is change can come from totally other places of other business models or human factors.

In 2017, when we founded the Futur/io, we thought about how we could build these desirable sustainable futures. We wanted to work with the ESG/SDGs and all the policy changes and explore how to bring this into the corporate world by searching for sustainability innovators or heads of sustainability and bringing them together while supporting them. To be a change-maker in big corporations, you need to get the board's support and tell them what's happening. These companies can have 10,000+ people. We believe everybody at their workplace or whatever role they play in a company must do something. So that's our idea, and our mission is to support and bring this kind of sustainability understanding, then attack it with innovation in this positive mindset.

It must be a challenge sometimes to get into the big corporations to get ideas across. It must be very satisfying when they come aboard and recognise the impact they can make as a company and as individuals. Which part of your work fulfils you the most and why?

What is most fulfilling is seeing the smile on people's faces and their eyes light up if they have made a personal connection, where they feel that they're not alone. So many times, good ideas are expressed but quickly get dismissed and not even discussed. But we can build bonds if we can relate to others in similar organisations with similar challenges. So, for example, cross-pollination – If you are in the food industry, you could talk to somebody from an airline because they have similar problems; You can then explore their ideas and approach to your shared issues.

How do you get people on board and interested in becoming a part of your community?

I think if we can come together, we will create bright moments. For example, working together with the UN Climate Change Secretariat. Ask questions like, how can we fight climate change and mitigate it? How do we adapt to rising water levels?

In 2019, we tackled the climate change issue by organising a week of moonshot thinking for building a new programme. Throughout the week, we explored and got ideas of where the world could be in 2030. Rather than focusing on the problems in 2015 and how to tackle them by 2030, we concentrated on looking ahead at the issues facing us in 2030 and how they may be prevented. This type of innovation was foreign to many people; this futuristic approach and innovation was something they thought 'tech geeks' were doing. Thankfully they took a chance to be courageous and look outside the box. There's now a programme called Resilient Frontiers at the UNFCCC, and on display at the COP in Glasgow or in Egypt.

Have you ever struggled to find like-minded people to share ideas with, or have there been others who didn't believe your ideas would be successful?

I think mostly, yes, you must be daring in many situations. I was always a pioneer, together with my different organisations' teams. For example, our digital agency was one of the first in Forbes 1993. I was named one of the ten "pioneers in the virtual worlds", and we don't even have this virtual world yet, because the metaverse comes in two or five years from now. We were always ahead, and we did a lot of firsts, and that was the sort of pioneering spirit like the 'go west' attitude.

I went to New York and opened an internet agency, an independent office for a large, Berlin-based internet agency called Pixel Park. It was the first office in the US. At that time, in 1998, there were already 5000 Internet companies in New York Manhattan. So, we were number 5001, from Germany, telling them that we understand everything, and they should buy the services through us. We tried to understand the market, and within half a year, we got the pitch to make a website and won. It was the first website of the eCommerce shop for the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art). Once you have broken into it and tried to work with a customer, then the market opens up. Most people said they didn't think this would work, and it hadn't been done before, yet that encouraged me to do it. So, there have been many instances where we were not the likely candidate to win these things. Still, we went in with ideas from the creative director and the passionate people around me. We would try to understand the client and develop surprising concepts. You can win with an outside view sometimes. I'd never felt discouraged in the room with the one 'crazy idea'. On the contrary, I felt more encouraged by it.

Where did you draw this knowledge from? Was it from the companies you started in the past?

I come from a small village south of Hamburg, where there were 800 people, and I was the first to move to a bigger city and then to New York. My family are entrepreneurs, but I was just fascinated by innovation. I'm passionately curious as Albert Einstein was, and it was driving me.

I made my first deliberate decision after my baccalaureate. What do I do now? What do I study? At the same time, Pixar won the first award for a computer animation film in Montreux and later an Oscar; I thought this was so cool. I wanted to be a film producer for computer-animated movies. Where do I go? I was always fascinated by computers and what you could do with them creatively, not necessarily in programming. So, I went to a film school, but they didn't have computers and suggested I go to a Computer Science University. So, I went there and was told they do assembler and C++ and soldering, but they didn't do anything with creation, and maybe I should go to check out graphic design. So, I did; they did figurines and pencils but nothing with computers.

Remember, this was in 1985, so there was no Wi-Fi technology. Everyone has their systems, and nobody learned from each other. I realised that any German film tutor would be teaching me material they'd learnt from an American professor at least three years ago in a book. By the time I had completed the course, I would be five years behind. Times have changed in today's society; you can access everything much more quickly. I decided I didn't want to wait five years until the professor may get something to tell me. So instead, I spent about seven years in the US and worked directly for an innovation company.

Most startups or projects don't always go as you would have hoped. With Futur/io, were there any times that you took a different path than originally planned?

Futur/io was initially planned because I had started another event company before. We wanted to do something different, go deeper and build this institute where learning can happen, but COVID happened. We had to scramble immediately and go completely online. Now, after COVID, we're trying to return to physical events, but currently, it's a hybrid model. It is still hard because, in sustainability, not many people travel. We have to find new ways to have this immersive experience.

There have been times when it has not gone according to plan, and there was something bigger, and you have to show resilience. I learned this in New York on 9/11 because I was there. I saw one of the towers fall in Manhattan, which was very hard to deal with. We had a startup that provided digital printing, and suddenly, within a week, we lost $250,000 in orders. It was 2001, and people said our advertising was over. It was such a devastating moment because not only was the economy around you gone, the business and my position had gone. Ten years were gone just like that. I felt really down and had to reinvent myself. So, I went into the ice cream business and fashion for two or three years. Then, finally, I went back into interactive.

When COVID hit, I felt okay; although this is a significant change, we must change immediately and see how we can reinvent ourselves. At the beginning of COVID, we didn't know what was happening. I told my team that we must at least be positive. We have to get through it, there's new hope, and we will still work together and collectively in the communities.

Positivity and hope through difficult times are definitely needed. Was there a point or several points in your life or your journey where you had 'Aha' moments that gave you something that equipped you with something for the future?

I think the most significant 'Aha' moments are when you have a theory and just go for it, and it works out. You can trust your gut. Nobody can tell you about the future. If you have an idea or concept, try to do it; if it works, that's the eureka moment. You are at least on the right path.

Many of the ideas we had in some of the companies I founded or co-founded were almost two years ahead of their time. Sometimes that works; sometimes, it isn't enough. So, you can put the pieces together; some people can see it, and some cannot.

What were the biggest sacrifices you feel that you made during this journey?

In hindsight, I could have done better and differently. I'm still learning, so it's not that I have the golden formula because there's always a different twist. The market is changing. I've never stayed in companies for more than seven years; that was my record. I usually try to build companies or products, and that's maybe three years. Then after a while, you evolve the company to the next stage.

Concentrating online today is hard, especially when Zoom meetings are usually longer than an hour. If you had an event before Zoom was available, it was two and a half days; you cannot expect people to be on Zoom for the same length of time. So, you have to find new ways and formats of delivery. Of course, there's always something you will struggle with; you will have sleepless nights and setbacks, whether financially or with people around you. Maybe you don't believe in that vision anymore, or you must find new people to harness their passion for creating a better team. It's very exciting to work with a team who also has ideas and energy.

One of my challenges before COVID was attending 50 conferences a year as a curator. I'm learning from other conferences and finding new speakers at different stages. I have a huge network of people; some are really good friends, but they're all around the world. I don't have many friends in my hometown because I spend a lot of time abroad.

I'm always testing myself and the people around me. After 9/11, nobody needed me for a job. My startup failed because of no orders getting out. I realised I could help somebody build a franchise in America from a European company, and be thrown into a new economy, a new industry. It was rewarding afterwards.

That must have been a hugely challenging time in your life. We are going through more very changing times, with COVID and the war in Ukraine. The climate crisis has been an issue that we haven't been able to solve for a long time. How do you see the future?

The first thing is that we always talk about the "futures". The future is a concept, right? Everybody has a different interpretation, and they are all valid. We only know when it's now; what is the best estimate? Or what is the best vision or utopia? Or the scary part where people say we're doomed, and maybe they are right, but hopefully not.

I think the future for me is that we're not in the era of change; we are in the change of eras. We are in this Anthropocene now, where everything is manmade. We will see if human nature will affect the earth's core. You see pictures of what we have done to the planet; some say it started maybe 12,000 years ago when we started agriculture, and others say it started maybe 100 years ago when we started the electric and the steam engines. We're similar now, especially with digital and climate change coming simultaneously. Our inventions, especially artificial intelligence, are suddenly smarter than us. We are creating something which might even fight us in a way or something we might not be able to control. We cannot take AI for granted.

I feel like we are going through a metamorphosis. We have been in a cocoon for the last two years due to COVID. We had a lot of time to think about what could be next, and although we have had a lot of pain these last two years, we recognise some of the things we did were wrong. 80% of people want to go back to being a caterpillar, and very few people want to have a chance to be a butterfly. I want to invent, reinvent myself, and reinvent my startup. People around me think now is the time to say, I quit. We know there's a great resignation in the US and worldwide.

The younger generations have a whole new view of the world. Many things have been the same for their lifetime, but they are much more sensitive towards climate change. I think there's a new anxiety and fear about the future. Now, I think we have to take this very seriously and ask how can we, as an active generation who did a lot of this harm, turn this around?

One part of the new programme of resilient frontiers at the UN Climate Change secretariat is, how do you solve climate change? You could look at AI and innovative ways of financing, but there's also indigenous wisdom. Let's listen to the tribes and the people in the forest. How can we help save the Amazon? How do we keep our planetary boundaries? How many Earths do we need to support our lifestyle? We have to rethink this. It's tough for most people because they may feel like they have achieved and deserve this; They have a phone, three cars, and can order a pizza in five minutes. Why should they have to give it up?

I want to make this my next experiment; how do you live in nature and a tiny house? And can you build a community around that? How does it work? How can you create communities and have them quickly grow? Buckminster Fuller, the architect, said, 'It's especially hard or useless to fight the old system. You have to create a new system and make it so attractive that people want to move to that department.' It's similar to what Steve Jobs had done when he created Macintosh. Before the Macintosh, there was another computer, and it was called Lisa. It was not successful, but it was okay. So, he created a new group, the Macintosh group. It was a whole secret building, and nobody knew what was happening there. But the best people were working there. So, people began to think, I want to work with the best people. What's going on? He created his own in-house competition; it was so attractive that the best people worked on these new solutions.

Innovation is at the edge, but you have to create these labs; you have to design experiments, so either it's a day or two for a conference, or it's maybe a village or a location, or you can go and visit. We have to explore and show examples of how these futures can work. We cannot wait for it. You and I create our future. I want my main mission to be for people to understand that everybody at every place where they work, where they live, or where they spend their time, that's where you're creating these futures. I think what all of us could consider is how can we make a difference? Be creative and understand. Maybe you could give up your third car, would that be such a big problem? I think that we have to get a new perspective. Take creativity, beauty, artists into consideration, be courageous, say "I want to be a butterfly". That's what drives me.

We all take things for granted and can make changes, no matter how big or small, to make an impact. The butterfly analogy is very powerful. Is there any advice that you would like to give to young entrepreneurs who are starting out?

I always think to trust your gut feeling more than anything you can read in a book. Also, be open to failure and take failure as learning, not as a dead end, but to say, let's take a step back. Then either try again or go a little to the left or right. You know, Edison's invention of the light bulb was "3144 or more" failures, a tremendous amount of failures. Still, it is your perseverance, believing in yourself, and trying and pushing. The other piece of advice is to know your tech boundary. I lost a lot of things during that time, where I put work first before my family or friends.

I think there are better things you can do so that you don't burn out. It's very rewarding if you have your work and your purpose come together. You can spend your passion and look forward to your day in all aspects, but also make sure that you have a lot of time for yourself and your own well-being, which is my learning curve, there's still something I can do better. So don't be shy to ask for help, mentors, or people who can be sounding boards and open up networks.

Whoever you meet will appear at certain places, and some will be new door openers. So I think that is the one thing, no matter what you do in life, the people you work with, or you can relate to or meet, networking helps you carry from one job to the other, giving recommendations or advice.

Some great advice there for any entrepreneurs starting out. If you could share one last message with the world, what would that be?

I think what drives me and what I would hope people recognise is that we are all part of the solution. We are not only consumers; we are citizens. We are self-organising organisms. We can organise, think about things, invent our future, and invent our world. There's so much beauty outside, and there are ways to overcome our challenges. So, get out of the cocoon; if you feel that you cannot move—well, you have to get out and try to make the next version of yourself, and hopefully, it's a butterfly.

Thank you, Harald, so much for talking with us today. Your drive and determination to build upon this community is apparent and hopefully will encourage more innovative, like-minded individuals to join you, working together for a better future. Thanks again for your time and for sharing your journey with us.

If you would like to find out more about Harald and Futur/io, you can find them at: www.futur.io

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