Looking into the future, and helping companies to plan for it in an increasingly technology-powered world, does not make Tom Cheesewright (Mechatronic Engineering, 2000, Lonsdale) a crystal ball gazer.
He would never have predicted how useful his mechatronic engineering degree would prove to his current career.
Tom is an Applied Futurist and the founder of a company called 'Book of The Future', which helps companies assess themselves and their future in the light of technology and business trends - taking uncertainty into account - as well as supporting them in their response to these factors. This could mean investing in technologies or new ways of working or a host of other actions.
Often seen on TV and addressing conferences on the future all round the world, Cheesewright is essentially an ideas man, but he is very clear that his action-packed time at Lancaster - and his science degree - gave him the tools for being a professional ‘thinker outside the box’ for the 21st century.
He says: “The skills I learned at Lancaster were the bedrock of what I do now. Although I could not have predicted it then, I am very happy with the where my experiences there have taken me.”
Brought up in Wolverhampton, he started off targeting mechatronic engineering because of his avowed 'appetite for diet of geekery'. Lancaster was one of only three universities teaching it at the time. Cheesewright loved Lancaster ‘after 25 seconds’ on campus. He was so confident and tanned after three months working in a hotel kitchen that a final year asked him whether he was a mature student. At the end of the first term, he was elected college president, taking on an organisation in debt, which he and his team turned into a surplus, despite putting on a 12-hour music festival attracting 1000 people to be blasted by an 8 kilowatt sound system from Glastonbury.
The Lonsdale bar became the centre of his universe, alongside The Sugar House and The Carlton. He also joined the Students’ Union - casually at first, but it became an increasingly important part of his life. Showing considerable precocity, he was elected General Secretary - a sabbatical position that he calls ‘my first career’ - between his second and third year. “This was fantastically important experience,” he says. “It provided the perfect training wheels for the world of work.”
He ran his first successful marketing PR campaign - about the possibility that the Uni would build a science park over the sports pitches- learned about running a business, addressed 1500 at the NUS conference, learned about public speaking on his regular Radio Bailrigg show and also met his wife Monika Neall ( English Literature, 2001, Grizedale) who ran the Nightline service at the Students’ Union.
Academically, his third year was a ‘a big slog’ to catch up after being out of mainstream student life for twelve months. He found mathematical parts of the course difficult, but was excited by aspects relating to people and industry. Science, however, proved his passport into a working life he could never have imagined, when he took his first job in technology marketing with a company called Noiseworks in Maidenhead, which he said was ‘the making of me’. His understanding of science, technology and engineering and his ability speak about them in a user-friendly way, soon had him jetting all over the world, talking and writing about science.
From 2005 onwards he decided to branch out on his own, setting up a range of businesses, including 'The Lever', a digital agency, noted for its content-driven marketing which was bought out by an advertising agency. He also started a software company called CANDDi, giving companies insight into their online interactions and the ability to track and interact with real individuals.
He left it in 2012 to start 'The Book of the Future', based in Manchester. He says: “I had been writing and broadcasting about the future since 2006 and had considered myself to be a futurist for a while, but did not really know what it meant. Clients came out of the woodwork and I realised that there was a coherence to their questions.” This is where Tom's speaking, consulting and media work came together. Recent clients include BUNZL PLC, Daisy Group, The Institute of Chartered Accountants, Nikon, Sony Pictures and the University of Manchester. He is also a regular broadcaster on radio and TV as well as a speaker at conferences all over the world.
How does a futurist look at the future? Cheesewright is worried about the next 20 years because of what he sees as a fundamental lack of awareness of the radical changes necessary to cope with a future in which 20-40% of jobs will be automated, robot builders will work 20 times faster than a British builder and there will be a loss of graduate white-collar jobs.
However Cheesewright remains optimistic. He says: “I do not believe that the human race has got so far by being stupid. Human nature is essentially good and creative, and we find solutions.”