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When instinct meets innovation

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With his roots firmly locked in travel, tech and entrepreneurship, Gus Balbontin shares his business know-how following decades of work with companies both big and small. 

Housing author

Jack Woodford

Entrepreneur, founder and explorer Gus Balbontin has spent two decades helping businesses adjust strategies and services to better deal with changing markets. The innovator, born in Patagonia, has been living and loving life in Australia since his early 20’s.

Gus made his mark as executive director and chief technology officer of Lonely Planet, where he developed cutting-edge products and technologies for international companies, including Google X, Nokia, Apple, Amazon and many more.

Passionate about sharing his discoveries, Gus has now established himself as a sought-after business mentor and motivator. He has presented to both intimate audiences and large crowds across Australia, New Zealand, North America, Europe, South America and Asia. 

Now a keynote speaker at the HIA National Conference, Gus uncovers just a hint of his insights, inspiration and (excuse the travel metaphor) what moves the primal instinct in all of us.

You’ve had a varied career, working with large businesses to drive change. It hasn’t always been a smooth ride though. What are some of your breakthroughs and setbacks?

Great question! Just for context, I’d like to share that I didn’t actually finish university. I did one year then dropped out. I decided to find other pathways, and for me, it worked.

If you’re a young person finding your way, the key is finding your personal definition of success, and not just following the route most people walk.

As for failures, I think my biggest reflection is not realizing the power of momentum and inertia. When a business is around for a long time, they have a tendency to remain unchanged. If a major innovative shift takes place in the world or in their industry, they’re unable to adjust. The momentum carries fast and furious in the wrong direction. 

So my advice is simple: to avoid fading into irrelevance, change with the times and don’t build too much momentum in a single direction.

The other thing I’ve learnt is that speculating about the future is fun but very imprecise. We waste too much time guessing and not enough investing in the pieces we can control, like our adaptability to any future that may eventuate.

I call myself an ‘alternative futurist’. Remember, it’s more about preparing ourselves for the future rather than predicting it perfectly. 

What inspired you to become an innovator? 

My curiosity? I'm not sure. It’s funny – my wife diagnosed me with a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out). I can’t miss out on anything! Recently, I wondered what it would be like to be an astrophysicist, so I bought a telescope, and during COVID, I’ve read over a dozen books on astrophysics. 

It’s certainly taught me that there’s so little we know and so much to learn. That’s what makes life so exciting. 

Speaking of COVID-19, what are the impacts of the pandemic long-term? 

It could take the better part of a decade to realize what the true impact of the pandemic will be, but if you’ve integrated more variety and change into your life, you’ll come out the other end better off. If you think things will go back to the way they were, it could be a shock. It’s time to be open-minded and embrace novelty. 

Overall, it’s beneficial to prepare for anything, and change the way we work accordingly.

What are some of the upcoming changes that are likely to occur in the building industry?

In Australia, if you want to build a house, you have to go through a licensed builder. In 20 years’ time, that might not be the case. Giant 3D printers could build houses in an instant or we could all end up in the metaverse for all we know!

We might even get rid of certain aspects of houses we won’t need, such as garages. We build a special house for an asset that loses value every day, it's kind of crazy! I’d rather use the space for me, my car can just sit outside in the rain and deal with it! (laughs)

In the near future, we may not even need to own cars. While people who are passionate about vehicles will hold onto them, most people just want to get from A to B. I think there'll be a lot of change moving forward that revolves around the convenience of the customer. We’re beginning to see that more and more.

Despite current limitations, interest in travel is high. Why do you think people are keen to start travelling again? 

When you’re somewhere you’ve never been before, sights are different, sounds are different, people are different, food is different and the list goes on. When this occurs, a beautiful thing happens in your brain. Your amygdala switches on, which is the part of the brain primarily associated with emotional processes. When this is activated, we perceive time to go slower, and memories are developed more acutely. Even if you have only a weekend away, it can feel like a month has gone by. 

When I do a business talk, I often tell stories that draw from my own experience as a traveler. I talk about what I’ve discovered personally rather than just repeating research. I also reveal my battle scars and issues I’ve struggled with. This inspires many people to take on challenges too. 

You often say that we need to be careful with integrating our instinct into our work scenario. Can you explain this further?

We’ve spent two-and-a-half million years in a context that’s so different to today that our brains have evolved in a way that’s completely unequipped for what we're currently facing.

Our brains are wired to create routines. When we were hunter-gatherers, it was difficult to access energy, and therefore our brains had to evolve into very efficient machines. A lot of what we do is actually in the subconscious, such as walking and driving. However, modern times require us to be conscious, otherwise the future will surprise you and catch you out. Ultimately, we have to fight our instincts and go against our own comfort zones.

Nowadays, we’re evolved so that we’re not afraid of dangerous animals, places and plants. We’ve gotten rid of all those risks, but we’re still feeling risk averse. The only way to fight this is to be more open-minded, and introduce little bits of novelty into our lives regularly. Even if you think disruptors, such as cryptocurrencies, seem ridiculous, give them a go to see what you can learn. It’s often worthwhile to challenge yourself and introduce new change to your routine.

To learn more about the upcoming HIA National Conference on the Gold Coast in April and the HIA-CSR Australian Housing Awards, go to https://hia.com.au/awards-and-events/conference

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