Noah Raford: strategic planning

Noah Raford gave a presentation in Budapest in 2015 with the invitation of PAGEO. Hereby we are publishing the text of his speech.

Maps are the cornerstones of our society and the symbols of how we see ourselves and our place in the world, because they help us plan and achieve our goals.


A technology adviser; the expert of an automated work organisation process known as crowdsourcing; a start-up guru; a senior adviser on innovation and strategy holding several positions within the government of the United Arab Emirates; co-founder and chief executive officer of, registered in London and Dubai; and co-author of the book Warlords,Inc.: Black Markets, Broken States and the Rise of the Warlord Entrepreneur. Raford’s name is also associated with the “Drones for Good” Award, introduced in the United Arab Emirates, urging the utilisation of drones in the development of support and public service systems, as well as the establishment of the International Council of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics and the Museum of the Future.

He obtained his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, his master’s degree at Bartlett School of Architecture and a multidisciplinary university diploma at Brown University. He has worked as director of the North American Region of Space Syntax Limited, an advisory company; as a scientific collaborator of the London School of Economics; as an assistant professor at the University College of London; and as a member of staff at the International Future Forum. He is also a partially retired techno-DJ, who occasionally runs the Nerd House podcast broadcast and writes a blog about 21st-century strategies and design.

Today, I would like to talk about what I call Future Without Maps. How do maps relate to design and strategy and to the future of our changing world? Maps are the cornerstones of our society. They are symbols of how we see ourselves and our place in the world, because they help us plan and achieve our goals. Maps have a special power. The heliocentric map shows the Earth revolving around the Sun and not on the other way round. These days, it seems a simple fact, and therefore it is easy to forget that the acceptance of this theory cost thousands of lives and took hundreds of years. Maps are not only symbols of who we are and the world we live in, but are also powerful tools.

We make a route for our selected target. Or we prepare a road map to achieve our target. If an individual embarks on a new business, we prepare a business map. Companies prepare technological world maps to outline the plan of their investments. Countries, nations and banks form strategies to achieve their goals. The English word “map” means a noun referring to a map or a diagram, and also a process for how we achieve our goals.

It is no exaggeration to say that maps and a road map are fundamental aspects of almost all strategic plans.

“What can we do without a map? This will be the fundamental issue of the 21st century.”

We are taught to first analyse the world around us and then to make a map – either literally or in an abstract sense – then define where we are and where we would like to be in the future. We need to define our goals and plans, and once we have come up with an idea, we should invent different routes and tools to achieve it. What is the simplest route? How to assess the options? Once we have found a strategic opportunity, we should use our resources for implementation. The right order is: analysis, planning and implementation.


The most important question is: What to do without a map? This will be the fundamental question for the 21st century, because I think that the age of maps and map-based planning is over. What can we do if we do not have exact maps, and when the world around us changes so fast that we are unable to capture the changes on the map? What can we do when the information read from the map creates uncertainty, even if otherwise we would find our way on the map?


Dubai has the busiest airport in the world. Each year more than 70 million people use it. The shopping centre of the airport is the busiest tourist attraction in the world. This site is visited by more people than the total population of France. This is because Dubai is at the intersection of the developing East, Africa and the Western world.

The largest IPO of the world, Alibaba, comes from China. Alibaba alone provides all the services that are provided by Western companies.

Consequently, this single company does everything that is otherwise performed by PayPal, Amazon, Google, JCPenney, Dropbox, GROUPON, WhatsApp, e-Bay, Orbitz, Kaplan, Twitter, Spotify, Hulu and ING.

It is one company.

If, therefore, it is difficult to create a map and it is impossible to create an exact map, how can we make an effective plan? And what can we expect if we are unable to make an effective plan?

I do not think that anybody need be convinced of the fact that the world is changing. The most important aspects of our lives go through dynamic, unprecedented structural changes. The changes affect politics, government, economy, technology, climate, demography and society, even our own family and social interests. There is pressure on all important aspects of our life to obtain new experience in some new way. Interestingly, the greatest pressure and changes are driven from inside. Are you a banker? How does climate change affect the banking system? Are you engaged in technology? How are your main products affected by the political sets of values of your customers? Consequently, the change is not only dramatic, but so complex that it is almost impossible to track the process.


Naturally, history goes back to technology. As if in a sci-fi, we come across technology breakthroughs each week. As an example, in the past driverless cars existed only in our fantasy, but by now they have run more than a million hours. The latest Tesla model also has a driverless function. Within the next few years, cars will be fully automated, transforming urban traffic and transportation. In my opinion, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Automated mechanisms, robots and software intelligence will transform the majority of the economy. Apart from a few employees, the Amazon warehouse is fully controlled by robots.

According to a study published recently by the University of Oxford, 50 per cent of the jobs in the United States may be automated within the next ten years. A number of jobs – such as lawyers, retail salesmen, tax advisers and financial advisers – are likely to be replaced at a rate of 85-90%. This is not even close to what we have already achieved in biology and synthetic biology. Earlier this month, Chinese gene researchers announced that they had successfully modified human embryos. This was the first occasion published, and I can say without any exaggeration that the same process has been under development in China for three-four years.

This problem raises issues in the education system, labour market training and the allocation of internal funds within society. I have two small children, and when they ask me what they should be studying at school, I find it very difficult to respond, because I do not know where the world or the labour market will be in ten or fifteen years’ time when my children will get there.

Unfortunately, this year we have surpassed the dramatic 400 million ppm in environmental protection. This is the level of CO2 in the composition of the atmosphere when global warming has reached a point, due to the primary greenhouse gas effect, which scientists consider change almost irreversible. We already experience frequent tropical storms and floods, as well as droughts and increasing consequential losses. The coexistence of these factors will drive food prices up, which will then lead to social tensions, as seen in the Arab countries.

Many argue that we live in a period of a dramatic change, but I believe that it is not the period of change, but the change of the periods. We will need new principles and new approaches. If that is the case and our traditional planning models and maps are becoming less effective, what can we use as the basis of our strategies in an effective planning model?


Having spent the last decade and the last fifteen years in this field, I have tried to approach this issue from scientific aspects. The theory of Frank Knight, a Nobel Prize-winning economist, about uncertainty is known to all of us.

The first type of uncertainty means that there are certain conditions, and the distribution of probability and risks can be measured reliably. This is the world where we all exist and operate and upon which national and financial policies are based. It is a kind of gambling, where the distribution of probability in the mathematical system connects with the macro and micro economy.

What we need to face is what Frank Knight referred to as the second type of uncertainty. This is the situation when the distribution of probability of an expected event cannot be defined. Perhaps it is because it is too new or we do not have any historical experience to define probability, or the rules have changed so fundamentally that the dynamism of the system has become absolutely chaotic.

There is no fundamental mathematical probability. The situation is the same when we do not have adequate information. In such cases, we must find new strategies with which we can work effectively even without plans. There are five principles that can help us plan effectively in a world without maps.

No. 1: Start with what you have. Traditionally we think that resources must be accumulated before taking action. As we live in an imperfect world, we will never achieve exactly what we want. Consequently, instead of waiting for resources before acting, let us take a look at what we have and try to imagine the opportunity for which it provides a framework. This is known as an effect approach, compared to the cause approach. When scientists study an issue, they think of what it could be. We, designers and entrepreneurs, ask what it could lead to. So, instead of trying to define the final situation before asking the question itself, we should follow designers and entrepreneurs and ask the following question: Here is everything I have, what can I achieve with it? This is a much more effective method at the level of basic structural uncertainty.

No. 2: Find partners who share ideas with you, and combine your resources in order to create opportunities!

No. 3: Once you have those, get into it! Do not prepare studies or a strategy! I am delivering a presentation now, but only because I have to. There should be no more studies, only experiments!

No. 4: Complete small tasks that give feedback about the world! Check whether your model reflects exactly how things change in the world! The best way to do it is to experiment. You will have a picture about how the world is changing around you only after receiving feedback and once you have extracted as much as possible from it.

No. 5: Once you have noticed the change in your environment and you have taken an opportunity that is based on thousands of tests and experiments, take that opportunity as quickly as you can. Find a weakness, find a gap! Once you have reached that, involve your partners and concentrate all your resources on that gap. This process helps to recognise strategic gaps and break through them before anybody else would be able to respond. This is the only method with which you can find new areas that you were not even aware of before and could not have conquered without concentrating your resources or your friends, colleagues and allies.


When you are faster and more experienced, you will be able to respond more effectively not only to the changing world, but you can also create the change you would like to see in the world.


Let me share with you a few examples from my own personal experience that will show you how I have reached these principles and how they function in real life. I was asked to create an exhibition of emerging technology and its impact on the economy and the government. I was not sure that people would be interested in it at all. I wanted to make it effective. As I did not know how to achieve that, experiments began. Not only was an exhibition created, but seven various objects were taken to the site, presenting, among other things, 3D printing, extended and virtual reality, telepresence robots and drones which people could test.

It became obvious on the very first day that people were interested in the drones. An administrative officer with modern thinking approached me and asked, “Look, what can we use this for? You have employees here, the exhibition team, some of whom work in film. Why don’t you produce a video, presenting how to make drones serve the public?” I am not exaggerating. After that, the video was completed in four hours. On the video, an imaginary public employee shows how your driver’s licence or personal ID card could be renewed through

your mobile phone, Then, it would be printed in a local centre and sent to your home with a drone. The video was uploaded to YouTube in the night and was viewed more than two million times the subsequent day. This concept was so popular with the people that it was shared across the world and was also extensively covered by the press. It was received much more positively than the Amazon announcement of their drone-based home delivery service. It was only an idea, though. However, with that test, we created interest in drones. We wanted to launch an international competition and announced a one-million-dollar contest the same afternoon called the Drones for Good Award. This is an award which was created to encourage innovation and creative applications with which people’s lives could be improved at several levels with the help of drones. It was a huge success. More than 800 entries were received from 57 different countries. Twelve different companies were established in the process, one of which was founded one day after the Dubai meeting. Next year’s contest, the Robotics for Good Award, was announced the very same week.

Let us analyse what happened. If I had started by saying that I was negotiating with the government, asking for one million dollars to establish an award with which people’s lives could be approved with drones, the answer would have been “You are crazy.”

That would have been the answer even if I had been certain of success. Instead, we based the process on what already existed, conducted various experiments to see how people responded to them, identified the potential responses and turned an area into a creative opportunity, which we did not even know existed. As I mentioned earlier, this state exhibition was called the Museum of the Future. The first was dedicated to the drones and turned out to be very interesting, but reached very few people.

However, it became a reference point and proof of the need for such events. The following year, we raised more funds and had a greater plan following a smart city environment where people could walk in and test things like cars driving themselves, teachers with artificial intelligence, personalised supply of drugs, playful education and health.

This generated a lot of public support. It was opened by the Prime Minister himself in front of 5,000 CEOs and ministers, and administrative officers came to take part in it from all regions of the world. After that, Dubai decided to invest in a permanent Museum of the Future. The building is already being constructed and will be opened at the end of 2017 with the objective of becoming the centre of development without maps. It will be characterised by prototype development, finding opportunities, tests, processing of the responses of the market and the world, and flexible spending on positive responses.

“If you wish to live effectively in this world, you must fully transform your previous way of thinking.”

This will be a special building with an interesting feature: certain parts of the building will be made with 3D printing by the company that was attracted to Dubai during one of the first discussions in a coffee house. It is an interesting story of how these principles can create an unexpected powerful result without plans.

At the beginning we would have been unable to define these as objectives, and we would not have known how to reach them. We had no budget or licences, and therefore the most my team and I could do was to project and anticipate the legal and licensing issues. Let us look at this for a moment. This could be the method whereby we learned to plan our strategies, as it exists in BA and MA training. You start with what you would like to achieve, select the best way to reach it, and then find tools for how to do it.


I believe that the way we currently live in the world is less and less effective, and if you still wish to live effectively in this world, you must fully transform your previous way of thinking. Start with the tools that are accessible! Let us take a look at the modes that provide an opportunity for work and the strategic opportunities available to us and only then start thinking of where we could get to as a result. This is a flexible approach to strategy that fundamentally assumes a world without maps. Well, this is a very interesting part of the story. With an hour of imagination, we can make a substantial change in the world, and we have a certain level of understanding of where it can lead.

There are only a few institutions that accept this space, full of ideas. Central banks could be such, a few prime ministers and huge companies like Apple. Still, most of them do not live in the same space, and I would dispute whether truly effective ideas are created in their space. I would like to finish with a final thought. Unpredictable control is the key to efficiency in this dynamically changing world. This does not only mean that we are not aware of the rules; the rules also change from one month to the next.

The only thing you can do is to find partners who share your ideas and use your resources on the positive feedback of experiments, then start again.

Again and again…


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