February 07, 2023

Puruesh Chaudhary on research processes, information ecosystems, trusting societies, and contextual memes (Ep50)

“The more connected and participative you’re going to become in your foresight practices, the more useful the effort is, the more meaning it would give. How they recognize change, how you recognize change, and what gaps are there, to understand those, whether it’s an information gap or a knowledge gap, you need to be among those people to create that comprehension.”

– Puruesh Chaudhary

Tim O'Reilly

About Puruesh Chaudhary

Puruesh is Founder and President of the NGO AGAHI, co-founder of Media Development Trust, and Senior Research Fellow at Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad. The global recognition for her work as a futures researcher and strategic narrative professional includes being named as Global Shaper by World Economic Forum, acting as advisor to the World Futures Society, and being on the planning committee of the Millennium Project.

What you will learn

  • How to focus your research effectively (04:55)
  • How to use data from the past and present to form insights for the future ? (06:33)
  • How can we be more discerning about the credibility of the media that they choose to consume? (12:38)
  • What does a typical futurists information day look like (17:11) 
  • How do memes change us, shape our minds? (21:35)
  • Aside from data, how can social engagement lead to foresight? (26:08)
  • Why it is crucial to understand our and each other’s perspectives (28:04)


Ross Dawson: Puruesh, it is a delight to have you on the show.

Puruesh Chaudhary: Ross, thank you so much.

Ross: You are amongst other things extremely well-regarded futurist globally, you work on geopolitical and other very complex topics, and you have a very deep background in journalism and setting standards for journalism. I’d love to just hear your background, what is your relationship with information throughout your life?

Puruesh: I feel the relationship started during the days when my father preferred that I read newspaper headlines. The one reason that he wanted me to do this, and my siblings also at the same time, was to ensure that we don’t lose out on Urdu as a language. In most cases, while reading those headlines, even though to just do it for my father’s sake, I realized that I understood very little from reading those headlines. That’s what my starting point was. But also at the same time, my mother is an ardent reader of all the novels that she must have, so we used to go to the libraries. My connection with reading books, and reading literature was quite ingrained right from the beginning.

How I transformed during my time working as a communications person in different corporate entities was that that translated into reading a lot of research work. From that point, it is then that I actually moved into media, working as a reporter, working in the editorial side, it helped me understand how critical information is, and how important it is to convey the message that people would want to be informed by. That gave me the sense of understanding the work that is important in terms of forming public opinion. But also the energy and the valor required to ensure what you’re taking to the public is something which is of the highest quality in terms of its credibility, in terms of its trustworthiness, and in the process, we in the editorial space are held accountable for what we actually put out there. In a nutshell, that’s what the relationship has been like.

Ross: Another perfect description, as well as a futurist media leader, is, a researcher.

Puruesh: Yes.

Ross: You have this intention for research. That’s worth digging into in terms of what is it that informs how you go about your research.

Puruesh: I recently found out that I’m an entrepreneur because I’ve been working for myself for the last 12 years, and you realize, okay, you’ve never labeled yourself as such, but to make sense to the world, you need a certain vocabulary to put out there. There is this driving curiosity, which becomes your motivation to figure out things, things that do not make sense to you. That’s where the element of research comes in.

When you cannot make sense of something, then what is the question? That question leads you to all sets of possibilities, whether be it consulting scholars, looking, reading out certain research journals, or whether bringing in your sense into how you put together your ideas. Curiosity leads to looking at what the question is, the question helps you figure out what the potential idea could look like. I feel that’s where the research dimension for me comes in.

Ross: When I tried to describe what it is to be a futurist, people say, oh, where’s your data? I say, well, the data is all about the past. That’s one of the interesting things about the futurist role, is you can research and you can find out a lot about the present and the past, but then you have to cast that into some insights which are useful about the future. How do you research to be able to gain insights into the future? If that’s not the bigger question.

Puruesh: I am imagining what is the process that I go through to look at… I do a lot of anticipation and imagination exercises, as an individual also, so I want to visualize the space that I feel needs to be created. To do that, a lot of that has to come through your gut intuition. A lot of times we futurists do not want to rely on certain instincts but those are important too. Whether meditation takes you there, whether being spiritual takes you there, it could be religious, it could be any of those aspects that make you rise above the physical plateau and take you at a meta-level.

To do that, to arrive at that, you have to be fully conscious of who you are, what you’ve become, and where you’ve been coming from. Once you grasp the true essence of your own identity, it helps you place a little better in terms of the future you want to craft. For that craft to become effective, you need to have those ideas backed by certain research elements, then that research elements, if they’re about the past data, it’s about the data you want to create in the future.

Essentially, you’re not even relying on past data, what you’re basically relying on is the vision that you have in the mind. That vision, how do you bring it into reality? What language, and what visuals are required for it, that’s what essentially futurists like ourselves basically do. It’s a very elaborate description. But I feel like that’s what we plug into in terms of the larger discourse, as to where the foresight community is. It may seem practical and vague at this point but wait till things start becoming a regular part of the discourse.

Ross: In this case, you’re describing what is often described as normative scenarios, ones where it is what it is you want to happen as opposed to what it is you think could happen, those are different tangents but imagining that, so you have a scenario which you can envisage, which you think is supported by your intuition as to what is possible, as well as desirable.
So how do you then marry that with the research you have today and being able to either point to the directions or to see whether that future is possible or plausible, or, how you would bring that to pass?

Puruesh: I’ll give you one recent example of the research work that I’m currently involved in, in terms of really understanding the dynamics of trust in Pakistani society and what does that mean in an information ecosystem? The hypothesis was and is that the more you suppress human expression, the more spaces for elements of disinformation or mal-information or misinformation practices can actually take place. Expressions can be in different forms and formats. It could also be what another would believe to be slightly misinformed, let’s just put in, but an expression in itself is a way of… individuals dealing with their own context and their own realities.

Now, putting this hypothesis to the test, what are the counter strategies? Although I don’t appreciate the word in itself fully, what are the kinds of strategies for disinformation? To respond to this whole question of what trust looks like in Pakistan came about, you have to understand what those dynamics and underlying factors are to really build. What am I hoping and what I’m envisioning as a desired outcome, is that we need to be able to create an environment where there are more trusting societies as compared to people with a low level of trust, high level of security, safeguarding more of their personal selves.

Then how do you become a society where you trust your institution, the people, and the community you’re with? What are the missing links in the process? How does that research plugin, that’s the desired space that I want to take the research in, but as far as what the present condition looks like is that we live in an era, that a lot of people call a post-truth era. As that takes form in the current circumstances, what does that mean? Are the institutions misleading the public, are the politicians spreading… or other source of disinformation? Are there factors within your society that really want to defame individuals or groups of people by really creating elements of mal-information? When you deal with that, when you grapple with that, you need to have certain answers. I feel that to one degree, this research could give you a glimmer of what that answer could look like potentially.

Ross: In a minute, I want to dig into your information habits and daily practices. But before we get to that, you’ve been involved in creating this media credibility index. That’s pretty relevant today, as probably much or more than ever, there’s a variety in credibility in the media that we access. Some are more obvious than others, and sometimes very established media are not as credible as we might like them to be. Try to pull this into something useful for individuals, how can individuals be thinking about the credibility of the media that they choose to consume?

Puruesh: A lot of that has to do with your biases. What you believe as an individual is credible, basically boils down to what set of values you share with that media entity or media personnel. Although it’s a very transactional relationship in terms of the information we consume, for the individuals to determine what is credible is essentially coming from his/her personal biases. Those biases could be based on certain value sets that they associate with that particular entity.

Yes, credibility is very specific to the needs of that individual. But how can we structure that in a meaningful way where we can make that distinction within the cognition that what you feel is what is credible but is not really credible? These are the parameters that make anything or anyone credible enough.

When they slowly make that distinction, it becomes part of their mental model too. It’s not replacing, it’s making space in the existing mental model for them to really question what is that they think is credible. That element of doubt, that element of curiosity, what if the other person that I’m not watching or I’m not reading has an alternate view, which could be perhaps a much more logical fact-based view, to create that space requires a lot of effort on developing those frameworks.

The media credibility index is that framework that offers an understanding of what is really happening, what is being discussed, who are the players that are discussing those issues, and in terms of how many people are watching those players at the same time. It’s a real mishmash of different indicators put together to make sense of the media environment in the country also.

That is something that I feel at an individual level, it’s very personal, and to make space in that personal mind, the language plays a very important part. I cannot be talking to you in Urdu and expecting you to make space for me in your mental model. You do not understand the language, presumably…

Ross: I don’t.

Puruesh: But had you understood it, perhaps you had paid attention. Attention plays a critical…how do you create that distraction in a language that can be acceptable and palatable to that individual? So not expecting you’re going to hammer the information in but just create enough room so that the attention is paid.

Ross: I’d like to switch to your thing, your work. You do a lot of work on a very macro level in terms of futures at a national and international level, very complex topics, and you work on specific research projects, and no doubt have a whole wealth of interests. What does your day in information look like? If there is a typical day, what information sources do you use? Or what times of day do you use those? How do you pull those together to be able to gather your insights?

Puruesh: I don’t need insight every day. Insights are very subjected to what I want to do in life and who I want to become. Insights are codependent on the platforms that I’m developing. I’m not going to be consuming everything. The bulk of my information is basically infotainment, memes that make me smile, memes that make me think, it’s extraordinary how humans actually can plug in certain information in a format which is practically less than a second, it’s a GIF, and it makes all the difference, and it’s able to trigger that emotion. A lot of the entertainment is content that I’m able to share with my family and friends. That’s what an average day looks like.

Days where I’m engrossed with the researchers that I work with, with the partners that I provide services to, or with the clients, that day particularly boils down to what the ideas are. Much of the time, those ideas are really supplemented, the sort of insight that I would draw in from are leading practitioners in that subject matter.

If it’s a foresight, I would be consulting the leading practitioners in that area, based on the sort of framework that I’m using, the methodology, and the technique. For instance, I would look at the evolution of how foresight methods and techniques are evolved: Who are the new constituents? What are the new constituencies that are contributing to the research work that is required to develop new techniques and methods? A lot of journals focusing on foresight futures, journals that are focused on strategic communications or communication just in general, theory and practices. Those are the elements that I’ll be really looking at, training techniques, how do you engage the public? Different market segments? So really just looking at three or four broad areas that are essentially my core strength, and how do I really be on top of these things?

A day in life would be just memes, entertainment, and content. Professionally, it will basically be research and new books that would interest those sorts of work areas that I’m looking into. But yes, essentially, that would be it. A lot of movies, otherwise. When I feel like I’m brain-dead, I would watch something on repeat, so that I don’t have to think.

A particular area that would interest me in terms of really complementing how I do my work is neuroscience; that really captures my interest. I would really like to learn about how different diseases of the mind are being dealt with, whether it be mental health or whether it be a purely physical form of dementia, Alzheimer’s, ADHD of the mind, all these elements would really interest me because that means that I live in a space where information is abundant, and attention, if it’s a resource and if I get like 10-15 minutes, how do I capture it?

Ross: I’m interested in the memes piece. There are more memes than people on the planet, and always flowing around. I think it’s, yes, some lovely ways of thinking about this whole as a living entity, all of these. Meme was created by Richard Dawkins as this analogy of the gene, so yes, these propagate, some successfully, some others not, a meme can be inspiring, it can be painful, it can educate, it can take many forms, it can make us laugh, of course, which is a lot of what they are, but in laughter, there’s always a nugget of some truth.

Puruesh: I feel memes are very context-dependent. What I may find funny, perhaps you wouldn’t, and vice versa. The context is shaped by our own personal experiences. One particular meme in at least South Asia would probably resonate more with South Asian than compared to people living in the Western end. You have that distinction where memes can be very context-dependent. And, with that, the smart part that I find quite interesting is how uniquely dots connect for certain people. There’s this one meme where a dog has been stuck in a herd of sheep, and that’s a meme for suffocation, if you look at it, it has a very deep meaning to it, and yet it’s just an image. It has a whole language attached to it.

Ross: It evokes things. That leads to my question, which is, how do memes change us? How do they shape our minds? Let’s say there’s somebody that says, alright, I’m only going to read serious things, and another person that gets involved in a world of memes, and they follow their curiosity, and so on, how does spending time with these kinds of memes shape your mind or your outlook or your perspectives or the way you think about the world? Do you have any reflections on that?

Puruesh: From a personal point of view, I feel it relaxes you a little. It creates empathy within yourself. That empathy comes from the fact that you have somehow raised the level of understanding within yourself for the people that you interact with. You’re able to …

Ross: Weave human truths in there?

Puruesh: Yes. I feel that you develop a far more meaningful human connection through it also. Because the one who shares it, and the one who reshares it, it shows that there is some level of association happening there. There is some shared experience that is there. Those shared experiences help you understand, oh, there’s someone else who thinks just like I think, or who feels just the way I feel. That creates a whole space in your mind to allow a different perspective. Otherwise, if you’re stuck in hard research work, I would have very little empathy if I’m going through sets of data from different variables, forecasting those data sets. There is very little human connection in that whole process.

Ross: So then memes are a tool for social cohesion?

Puruesh: I feel that it could be both, it could be for social cohesion, and social unrest, depending on what the political agenda is. It can go both ways.

Ross: Cohesion within subsets perhaps?

Puruesh: Yes. Absolutely.

Ross: Do you ever create memes?

Puruesh: I don’t. I’m a consumer. I consume.

Ross: Calling back to as a leading futurist, what are some of the insights you would share with people around good practices to be able to have the breadth of understanding, to be able to gain insights into a rapidly changing world?

Puruesh: I think to understand charge is very important, and not just to talk about it. You talk about things because you see things, you hear about them, but to truly understand them, you have to be amongst people; you have to be amongst people who are participating in that process to connect the dots, whether they understand that this is not only changing them but changing other people around them.

The more you understand that foresight is a very human-dependent phenomenon. The more you integrate them into your practice, the less you make that effort, the more frustrating your scenarios are going to become, and the more frustrating your outlook is going to be.

My outlook on the whole phenomenon is the more connected and participative you’re going to become in your foresight practices, that’s what I’ve done in Pakistan, the more useful the effort is, the more meaning it would give. How they recognize change, how you recognize change, and what gaps are there, to understand those, whether it’s an information gap or a knowledge gap, you need to be among those people to create that comprehension.

Ross: So it’s foresight through social engagement rather than studying the data.

Puruesh: Oh. Absolutely. Data just gives you a linear view of one thing, what makes it complex is the human factor. That’s what gives you a much more nuanced outlook.

Ross: So then a lot of your work is founded on your social interactions, just the conversation and the ideas. As you say, how people are changing, I think that’s one of the most things, people need to perceive change but they also need to experience change, and their changing in the changing world.

Puruesh: Yes. But you see, a lot of people do not really have that. We’re lucky in the sense that we’ve acquired that level of understanding and education through our experience and exposure to help us do that. But not many people have the ability to do that.

An engineer who’s been taught engineering his whole life and that’s the only… for them to really look at things that are changing, it’s really difficult, it’s really hard for them to do that. You cannot blame them. They just don’t have those frameworks, those techniques, that capability that would make that distinction for them. For them, a broken lamp is, I’m going to fix this lamp. For us, a broken lamp would be something completely different. It’s the context. Would we need this lamp in the next week or not? If we don’t need it, do we still need the light? Our question becomes bigger and our context is very different.

Ross: To round out, any words or any recommendations, tips, ideas, or things to share with the audience that can help them in a world awash with information?

Puruesh: Learn to understand your own true feelings and understand why you’re motivated to act in a certain manner and whether is that good for the community that you’re living in.

Ross: That’s fantastic. It’s like, know yourself. You need to know yourself in order to know what information is relevant to you at the starting point but I love what you’re saying about knowing your community as well. Because we all live in communities of whatever kind, and that’s what makes the information relevant or not relevant to us.

Puruesh: Sure.

Ross: Fantastic, it’s been such a pleasure talking to you, Puruesh, thanks much for your insights and your time.

Puruesh: Thank you, Ross.

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