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October 13, 2022

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Futurist health & safety: Leadership in start-up land – SHP speaks to Karl Simons OBE

SHP recently met with one of the health and safety community’s most prominent and vocal professionals, Karl Simons OBE. After a varied and successful career in large corporate organisations, working across all continents and in multiple sectors, Karl is now Chief Futurist at FYLD – the AI company that has scaled at an impressive rate over the past 18 months and is already deployed in over 70 organisations internationally…

Let’s start with your very non-traditional title, Karl. What does it mean to be a Chief Futurist?

Karl Simons OBE

It represents an interesting evolution of my journey. Upon joining FYLD, to begin taking the AI Risk & Productivity solution to market, my original title was Chief Customer Officer. This was relevant as I held responsibility for the account management and sales teams, working to build the foundations of a strong and progressive customer base. We’re now just 18 months on and there are already over 70 organisations around the world using the FYLD solution.

I’m fortunate to be part of an executive C-suite team that is very forward thinking and allows me the flexibility to explore the ‘art of the possible’. I’m constantly searching for what’s next that will make a difference in preventing harm to people. This is in my DNA and so the title of ‘Futurist’ makes perfect sense for my goals and ambitions at FYLD.

Having the ability to look beyond traditional norms and keep challenge the status quo is something that comes naturally to me and I really enjoy. It’s something I’ve always accepted as part of my make up, and I’m grateful to implement this way of thinking at FYLD.

What is it that motivates you to continue challenging the status quo?
The key is engaging with my network and listening to what people have to say. Humans love to talk, about both the good and the challenging things happening in their lives.

Around 15 years ago, I began tackling mental health in a very serious and determined way as I believe it was a core issue facing workforces around the country. This was a result of listening to the frustrations people were feeling about their workplaces, and found the same issues were common across many industry sectors.

I recall saying to industry leaders even back then that to eliminate harm, we cannot differentiate between mental health and physical injury. The two are intrinsically linked.

Almost all physical injuries come from unsafe acts or conditions and many of these are a biproduct of slips and lapses in concentration, or errors in judgment. Humans aren’t machines and so we can at times fail. This is why I love the invention of Artificial Intelligence, as we are now using machines to aid our human flaws. Of course, I still believe we need to speak up when we see something is not right and I have a great deal of respect for anyone that has the courage to speak up, but the smart use of machines can enable this to happen more easily.

What’s life like at a tech start-up company?
Fast, fast, fast…I’ve had many major corporate companies tell me the pace we operate at is remarkable. What they often don’t realise is that they can operate at the same fast pace too, but often there is a perception from managers that they can’t due to their large size. Regrettably I continue to find this can delay decision makers taking rapid action for fear of getting something wrong.

If I look back to my time leading Thames Water, we moved fast, took risks and at times got it wrong. However I saw so many teams across the company who were incredibly dynamic as they felt empowered when making decisions on health and safety. In just five years, the entire company made staggering leaps forward. We opened up conversations that cultivated an enjoyable place to work and an environment that people could speak up without fear of reprisal. This led to massive reductions in injuries and illness (78% and 82% respectively).

So, do you think all health and safety practitioners would benefit from experiencing life at a start-up?
Not necessarily – it depends upon how you’re wired. You must be able to accept the balance of risk and reward – start-ups come with risk because most have investors, so they are managing a cash runway. So, growing the customer base is crucial as the company lives by investment funding rounds until it becomes a profitable business. It’s definitely not like Dragons Den!

However, the rewards can be excellent working at a start-up, with a real sense of purpose and commitment coming from the workforce. The highs are higher, and the lows can be lower – but it’s worth it for the sense of achievement and feeling that you’re contributing to the overall greater good.

What has been your most memorable moment working at a start-up so far?
There are several that come to mind. Firstly, I feel blessed to work with and learn from our very talented FYLD team. I’m always listening to their ideas on how to improve. Although I work closely with the Customer facing team, it’s the designers, analysts, and coding engineers I love watching as they are so impressive, their modern-day magicians.

Next is influencing. Being part of educating the early adopters of AI tech in safety and health is an amazing experience. I’m equally happy being in the trenches with the fieldworkers listening to their challenges and showing how FYLD’s solution can help them, as I am in the board room explaining our evolutionary steps to senior investors.

Finally, I can think of a handful of health and safety leaders who are really thinking differently and leading the next evolution in digitalisation of safety and health in business. These are the people I am always calling and tapping into to discuss the future with!

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