Meticulously, Gleefully, Frank Ogden Gathers Data on a Tomorrow Most People Would Rather Ignore

Times Staff Writer

Canadian Frank Ogden, possibly the world’s most up-to-date futurist, wants to also be its most outrageous. “More than 2,000 people have walked out on my speeches,” he proclaims happily. “I’ve had seven coffee cups and one chair thrown at me.”

The cause of his audience’s alarm? It’s Ogden’s message that North America’s industry and institutions are slumbering through a global revolution.

He tells business leaders that their management hierarchies are cumbersome, labor unions that they have lost their purpose, educators that their curriculum is outdated, and doctors and dentists that they are training too many people.


“It’s a whole new ballgame out there,” he proclaims. “Either you embrace the enormous technological and social changes happening to us all or you’ll be swamped by them.”

Ogden is not about to have this happen to him: Providing information about the future is his mission and vocation.

The peppery 69-year-old futurist, who has been a member of the World Future Society for 20 years and calls himself Dr. Tomorrow, gathers global trends and technologies from aboard a high-tech houseboat he describes as an “electronic floating cottage.”

Ogden packages the information for specific audiences and delivers it as a lecturer, consultant, syndicated newspaper columnist and radio and television commentator, and in an electronic clipping service for his company, 21st Century Media Communications.

Depending on audience interest, he discusses trends that include: automobiles with microwave ovens; grocery shopping carts with videos that blabber commercials; apple trees that look like flagpoles because they have no branches; oranges grown in a vat; robot sows that reduce piglets’ mortality rate; a cordless telephone that fits in a pocket and replaces cellular phones; and ceramic, earthquake-proof houses.

“Everything I say, I back up with a video clip, slides or the product itself,” he says. “When I give a speech, if anybody has seen 5% of what I show, I don’t charge.” (His minimum fee is now $3,000, whether it’s an hour lunch lecture or a four-hour executive briefing on the future.)


Ogden pulls his observations about the future, in part, from the air. The satellite dishes on the dock of Vancouver’s Coal Harbour mark the home of his bright blue fiberglass houseboat, which bobs like a dumpy peanut amid the neighboring yachts and schooners.

Inside, Ogden and his one-man staff ceaselessly track 200 television channels and 2,500 data bases for up-to-the-minute technological changes worldwide, with special emphasis on Japan, which he considers the most advanced country.

“I started monitoring news and public affairs 10 years ago, and I now have these two sophisticated satellite dishes and pick up channels from all around the world. Nothing goes on that I don’t know about,” he boasts.

Huge Video Archive

The TV signals are monitored with a “frame-grabber,” an electronic computer card that captures any single video frame desired; the data bases are scanned; the information is recorded, time-coded and computerized.

“We’ve got more than 1 billion video frames of Canadian news and over a quarter of a billion frames of Japanese news, recorded and retained on videotape,” he says.

His work is the continuation of an eclectic career. Born in Toronto where his parents--en route from England to the United States--stayed briefly, Ogden was educated through high school in Pennsylvania. He served six years in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a flight engineer, then spent time flying and selling planes and helicopters (he still holds the Canadian light-plane altitude record of 19,400 feet, which he set in 1951).


After he became a practicing futurist, one of his first clients was Edgar Kaiser of Kaiser Coal, who early on was interested in exploring global markets. His other longtime clients include the British Columbia Medical Assn., Canada’s Waste Management Ltd. and the British Columbia Utilities Commission.

“His talent is a different focus,” says Jim Bogyo, telecommunications director for the commission. “People like Frank can be helpful in showing how through communications and transportation we can bring about the orderly evolution and growth along the whole Pacific Rim.”

The Pacific Rim is only one specialty for Ogden, who in the next few months will address groups such as the B.C. Fruit Growers Assn., Digital Equipment Users in Vancouver, teachers in tiny St. Vital in Manitoba and the Spokane Education Assn.

He seems to operate nonstop.

“I’ve done five radio interviews just this morning (and) expect to give between 50 and 60 lectures this year, around the world,” he recently told some midday visitors as he sat in the high-tech end of the houseboat, an area packed with banks of television monitors, VCRs, short-wave receivers, computers and audio compact discs.

A Passion for the New

Information is Ogden’s passion. He jumps from one product to the next, as upbeat as a carnival pitchman.

“Have you seen this new MacIntosh II?” he demands, seating himself at the computer keyboard. “It’s got 16.8 million colors. It will be terrific for publishing.”


He whips a pair of scissors out of a box. “Look at this--it just came in. Ceramic scissors, they never need sharpening. Know how to test them? Cut a bullet-proof vest!”

Tucked in one corner of the cheerful houseboat is a Heathkit robot, which, upon introduction, drones: “My name is Nabu. I have a brain just like you do, but my brain is a computer.” Nabu is programmed for functions ranging from serving drinks to acting as a security guard.

(A favorite of Ogden’s many predictions is that robots will become increasingly human-like, and that by the turn of the century, men and women will be marrying humanoids. Long divorced and the father of two grown children, he recently married travel writer Carol Baker.)

A Brainy Business Card

One of the futurist’s many offbeat touches is his Dr. Tomorrow business card, which is a PET (positron emission tomographic) scan of his brain. The sophisticated scanner shows the inner workings of the human brain as the synapses fire, identifying neural activity. When Ogden was profiled recently by the scholarly magazine, BC Discovery, the magazine on its cover reproduced the scan, which resembles an abstract painting. “It’s very high-tech and colorful and seemed appropriate, as it’s a technology that we had just written about,” editor Leslie Ellis says.

Ogden, who prides himself on not having a college degree, was interviewed for the scientific journal, Ellis says, “because he knows more about what’s happening in the world than most people. . . .

“He likes to be different, to surprise people and get their attention,” Ellis adds. “He’s a bit of an odd bird, but a great character.”


Surprising people is Ogden’s style, though he concedes that a barrage of unexpected information can be a calculated risk, and that suggestions that China buy Australia for its population overload--the Australians could move to Canada--sound too outlandish to be taken seriously.

Shock Is Essential

“All ideas are serious when their time comes,” he says. “I speak to people and I shock them with the volume and speed of change. I have a six-hour briefing on the future, but not too many people can handle it. I tell them that technology makes the laws and breaks the laws and if you ignore it, quite likely you will be victimized.”

He thinks shock is essential.

“In the past, there was no future. Everybody did what their father and grandfathers had done. The idea of change, even 100 years ago, was a stranger.

“Today it is everywhere and it is accelerating. We have to be looking out the windshield, rather than in the rear-view mirror. So I upset people. Everybody knows there’s something going on out there, but they aren’t sure what it is.”

He has traveled widely and spent time in Haiti studying nonverbal communication. A collection of aboriginal tools and instruments from Australia on the wall opposite his video screens testifies to a global mind-set.

Life at the Top

“America has run the world for at least the past 50 years, and when you’re at the top that long, you forget what it’s like in the valley,” he says. “There are 5 billion people out there now who are willing to study harder, work harder for less money and be more industrious than we are. And we’re linked to them by technology. With telecommuting, you can have your bookkeeping done in Madras, India, for less than it costs here.”


That’s what he tells audiences in Canada, the United States, and, increasingly, in other parts of the world. One of his major targets is formal education, which he thinks is increasingly becoming a waste of time, with “too many departments just regurgitating history.”

When he was addressing University of Alberta professors, he relates, more than 100 of them walked out in disgust when he announced they were obsolete. “We are moving from an age of teaching to an age of learning, and when that occurs we won’t need teachers,” he told them.

Speaking to Mountain Bell executives in Denver, he suggested, “If schools were factories, they would have closed years ago because they aren’t producing a salable product.” He adds: “Personally, I believe you could put a kid through high school in four months.”

Obsolescence of Knowledge

His favorite message to college students ready to receive degrees is that “at least 80% of what you were taught in school will be proved wrong. Knowledge is doubling at the rate of 100% every 20 months. What you know now will be obsolete by Christmas.”

He looks to a future of electronic knowledge. “If you can flip a switch for electricity and turn a tap for water, why don’t you just press a button for knowledge? I think the day is coming when you can have any information you need delivered electronically, either to home or school.”

Even today, published texts are obsolete before they hit the bookstores, he says. “The new textbooks will be discs and optical discs.” To set the pace, he bypassed “Gutenberg” (print) form last fall to publish his book, “Lessons from the Future,” on computer disk (both Mac and IBM formats), becoming the first Canadian to be listed by Publix Inc. of Pompano Beach, Fla., an international electronic publishing firm.


“On a cold, wet Canadian winter night,” he likes to say, “there’s nothing like crawling into bed with your laptop and curling up with a good disk.”

A Few Visions

Other forecasts: “I am predicting no unions by the year 2001. In Canada last year, 62% of all new jobs were created in the communications area and had five or less employees. Now you don’t need to be a rocket trajectory scientist to figure out that in 10 years we won’t need any unions.

“I suggested to the United Steel Workers, who were worried because of the drop in membership, that they take their pension fund, buy robots, and lease them to the steel mills.”

And he tells business leaders that the old way of running companies, on a pyramidal management structure, no longer works. “You need more of a mobile, with lots of parts which are sensitive to change.”

A Consultant, Too

Ogden is much in demand as a consultant as well as lecturer.

“Frank is one of my favorite people,” says Peter Thomas, board chairman of Canada’s giant Century 21 real estate company. “He can grasp a concept that most sane people would reject, determine how it could plug into today’s world and then reach 20 years ahead.

“This sort of vision has been very helpful to me,” he says, recalling an Ogden lecture that included a video clip showing how a Japanese firm could build a house in 2 1/2 hours.


Although Ogden dismisses the academic practice of “regurgitating history,” he is not above looking over his shoulder for suitable lecture material. To illustrate a major Ogden theme--that technology produces surprises--he cites the example of the Pony Express, considered a communications miracle because it could “zap mail across America in five days.” It lasted for only 18 months because of the advent of transcontinental telegraph service.

“Today technology can replace whole new industries, so you have to stay flexible,” he tells students and adults. “To survive today, you have to be able to walk on quicksand and dance with electrons.”