Foreseeing the future is like innovation: a new application for an existing invention.
It’s that time of the year again. The trend augurs are releasing their predictions for the coming year. Except for the analyst firm Gartner, that is, which already shared its “Top 10 Strategic Technologies for 2011” in October this year – we shall see if the first-mover advantage will make them more accurate. The best forecast might still be the agenda for Davos, simply because many of the participants have the power to actually make the future happen.
Michael Schrage does not, but he is a keen observer. His “Top Six Innovation Ideas of 2011” set the theme for the whole bunch: since radical events of the ‘black swan’ kind are understandably hard to predict, professional future gazers usually focus on highlighting existing trends and their continued yet amplified impact in the new year. Another typical feature of trend lists is the excessive use of neologisms, preferably in the form of the noun-ification (oops) of nouns which untreated would sound all too common. Schrage, for example, coins the term “contestification” (“contests”? – nah!). Apart from that though, his list is interesting and sound: he cites touch screen user experiences (“having the right touch to get the right touch will become a desirable communications competence”); “WWWabs” (“not-quite-ready-for-prime-time alpha and beta versions of apps to explore and test”) as valuable playgrounds for companies as they shift from “R&D” to what Schrage calls “E&S – Experiment & Scale;” the rise of promotional platforms (“advertising will take a backseat to promotional offers as retailers and brand managers alike collectively decide that branding a promotion matters just as much as promoting a brand”); the “gameification” (here, he did it again!) of business (“the companies that succeed in gameifying their products, services, and brands will enjoy a certain Zynga in their step”); and the renaissance of lobbyism (“a charismatically innovative lobbyist may have a bigger impact on marketplace success in 2011 than the country’s most savvy technologist or marketer”).
TechCrunch’s Erich Schonefeld seems to have looked into the same crystal ball as Schrage. He, too, argues that 2011 might be the year when “touch becomes central to the computing experience.” And in his tete-a-tete with writer and blogger Andrew Keen he addresses head on the warnings of pessimists like VC investor Fred Wilson who contend that irrational exuberance will inevitably lead to another crash: “Will 2011 Be 1999 All Over Again?”
Even further back to the future goes Alvin Toffler, the grandfather of futurology, who is not content with foresights for just the next year; he predicts “40 for the Next 40” – trends that will shape our world from now to 2050. It has been 40 years since he popularized terms such as “knowledge age,” “power shift,” “digital revolution,” or “information overload” in his landmark book Future Shock, all of which are now part of the mainstream lexicon. That alone should make you curious, but the outlook released this week by Toffler Associates is a bit of a letdown. Toffler still has an apparent knack for condensing disparate phenomena into succinct assertions, but none of his predictions are really surprising (just some examples: the growing geo-political power of ‘philanthro-capitalists’ who eclipse national and multi-national organizations in influence on many global issues; a growing number of women in leadership positions; religious groups pushing to get into governments around the world; the continued rise of “open, collaborative innovation paradigms;” mass production that is increasingly replaced with on-demand, custom manufacturing of products and services, etc.).
But maybe that’s not the point. If “the future is already here, just unevenly distributed,” as William Gibson famously stated, then the futurologist’s task might indeed just be to collate various dispersed pieces and even out the distribution by elevating the predictable to the status of meta. Foreseeing the future is like innovation: a new application for an existing invention. There’s nothing wrong with that.
The most interesting example for this approach is one of the more provocative predictions in Toffler Associates’ report. Coining the term “obsoledge” (yep, another neologism, but more inventive than Schrage’s), the group refers to knowledge’s increasingly extremely limited shelf life and stresses that every chunk of knowledge will eventually become obsolete. Applied to Toffler’s own foresights, this means of course that everything we now purport to know about the future may not be necessarily wrong, but it may not matter anymore when the future arrives. In light of accelerated technology cycles, as well as economic and political shifts that will be as sudden as they are drastic, it might become more difficult for us to catch up with the future. In this sense, perhaps the next true “Future Shock” will be that in 40 years from now none of Toffler’s predictions will have become part of our cultural fabric, and we may not even recall any of them. In the best and worst possible cases, the future will finally be what it has always been – fully beyond our imagination.
[photo: Per Forsberg]
By Tim Leberecht