Sit down with Marty Anderson, the Lewis Family Distinguished Senior Lecturer in Social Innovation, and he’ll leave your head spinning. He talks fast, and he covers a lot of ground, his mind pivoting from one seemingly brilliant, provocative, and wild thought to another. Teaching, traveling, and the future’s uncertainty are all frequent topics, as is a healthy sprinkling of glorious non sequiturs that leave you struggling to catch up to his train of thought.
Anderson may tell you about the day he was sitting in Boston and wondering how long a motorcycle trek to Seattle might take. The next day, he decided to find out. It took six and a half days.
Or he may tell you about how he organized a group to map thousands of miles of rivers, including the Rio Grande and the Colorado, using drones. His aim was to track water use and see which municipalities control this precious resource.
Or he may tell you about his interest in waste management and how he was invited to visit a Panamanian landfill, or about how he’s terrified of driving on India’s chaotic roads, or about his work with farmers, car companies, and health-care systems, or about the time he attempted to drive a motorcycle to the Arctic but found himself low on gas and face to face with a big moose blocking his path. “This is a sign,” Anderson thought, looking at the moose. “I’m turning around.”
The stories and ideas flow from him, and before you have the chance to ask a question or two— Why did you go to the Arctic? And what’s this about a moose?— he has moved on to something else. Anderson calls this torrent of reflections “ADD with a purpose” and says the stream is most intense after his morning coffee. He keeps white boards all over his house so he can write ideas as they pour out of him. “Things pop. I write them down and take a picture of it with my iPhone,” he says. “It’s my brain on the wall.”
Anderson’s curiosity fuels this fervor. “When you get down to the core of it,” he says, “I have a constant need to see and learn new things.” The world is an interconnected place, and Anderson is interested in the dense networks that bind together people, companies, and communities, and how all these connections are shaping business and our lives, both now and in years to come. “I follow people. I follow networks,” says Anderson, who before coming to Babson in 1996 worked for about 20 years as a consultant helping to turn around ailing companies. “I’m always trying to connect the dots. That’s how my brain works.”
When he examines networks in his consulting and research, Anderson gets out of the corporate office and into the field, examining every aspect of a company’s network, from suppliers to stores to customers. At Philips, for instance, he took executives to stores and showed them how difficult the company’s heavy highdefinition TVs were to handle. How could consumers be expected to buy them if they couldn’t take them home? “When you get locked up in your office, you don’t see this stuff,” Anderson says.
To go where the action is, Anderson has traveled to more than 40 countries, and he often works pro bono just so he can explore and learn about a particular industry. His travels have led him to interesting places. After the fall of communism, he found himself in Poland, touring an auto plant and dealing with managers who had no experience with capitalism or negotiating with the West. They ultimately brought in a local Catholic priest to talk to Anderson because, with the government having collapsed, the church was the only community leadership that was left. Lately, Anderson has examined how laparoscopic surgery is carried out in remote areas of Mongolia. He shot videos showing the technical and cultural challenges in performing the procedures, from the setup of equipment (insufficient electricity to run medical devices can be an issue) to the convincing of skeptical patients that the surgery is beneficial. He hopes the videos are used to educate future Mongolian doctors, as well as clinicians in developed nations who may want to bring such procedures to other far-flung areas.
Wherever he travels, Anderson tries to interact with people. He walks the streets, finds locals to show him around, visits homes and factories, and hangs out in gas stations. On the road, he uses motorcycles, so he’s not cut off from his surroundings. In rooms full of people, he watches their body language and eyes, tries to assess their relationships to each other, and listens. “You learn a lot,” he says. “I love what I’m doing. It’s all about the experience.”
Anderson isn’t afraid to go off the grid in search of that experience. In recent years, he has traveled to remote places on the “edge of electricity,” as Anderson describes them, seeking ventures enabled by the Internet’s ubiquity. He has found currency-exchange houses in the Chilean desert and a campsite equipped with Wi-Fi in the Yukon. “You’re in the middle of nowhere, and all of a sudden, a signal lights up,” he says.
Technology’s reach is extraordinary. Look at mobile phones, Anderson says. Some 7 billion people now are connected. What will this tremendous network of people mean for commerce, media, education, culture, and multitudes of other matters? In the classroom, Anderson examines the ramifications of this interconnectivity. The syllabus of his Extended Enterprise Management course reads, “You are participating in, and will soon lead, one of the largest global transformations in the history of the human species.” That’s a heady statement. Anderson receives emails from former students all the time about how they had a revelation about his class months, even years, after the fact.
How society will be transformed remains uncertain, but Anderson is optimistic. He has faith in people and the networks around them to unravel the problems we face. “In my travels I find that most people are good. If they are well-informed, they will figure it out,” he says. “With so many interconnected, we are figuring out problems quicker than ever.”